The Recurring Villain: Defeat

As fun as the recurring villain can be, in its many flavors and utilities, defeat is sometimes a tough spot that makes writing a good recurring villain more difficult to write. It’s along the lines of death and exactly why defeat is a problem.

See sometimes defeat that doesn’t end the recurring part of the recurring villain isn’t a problem. After all, the way you defeat an Unpleasant Associate or The Rival is usually not an End-All defeat. You score higher on the test, you beat them in a combat that isn’t to the death, you get The Thing and they don’t. But. That’s a battle, not the war. And beating The Pursuit is usually just

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But sometimes defeat is more than that. As was addressed in death, sometimes defeat is kind of a big, sort of, you know, permanent thing.

And with a recurring villain, that can be hard.

But it can also be awesome.

There’s so much that’s permanent that isn’t death. There’s persistent rumors, or mental scarring, or Getting The Limited Resource of Plot, or death of a loved one rather than the rival themselves, or maiming…

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Both these two from FF VIII know a thing or two about maiming due to a rival with their matching scars.

And if you make that consistently important, then that’s a defeat worth talking about, a real defeat. It’s a defeat that lingers, a defeat that has permanent consequences.

Maybe coming up with a defeat that’s meaningful, that will have ripples if not waves throughout the whole story, isn’t the challenge for you. That’s great, but there’s more to consider than just what the defeat was. Maybe it’s writing the ripples and waves, or remembering/determining the character development for both characters – if both the recurring villain and the hero are constantly trying to destroy each other, if your MC becomes too focused on defeating the recurring, what does that do to him? How does that stretch and warp her, and her motivations? And of course, likewise, the recurring villain.

And then, of course, there’s the recurring villain’s defeat…of the hero. For things like The Rival, or The Unpleasant Associate, that’s feasible and should totally be done from time to time to knock MC down a peg. Maybe MC really is just better than Recurring, maybe Recurring doesn’t work as hard as MC (in which case you really need to show that). But…if you’re not careful, you’re going to get Mary Sue points for the MC always winning.

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See Hermione studied a ton, so academically, her performing incredibly well (or well in other matters where study and practice make a difference) is awesome and makes sense.

I think in the long run, The Pursuit is hardest to write a good defeat. For one thing, if they defeat the heroes, well, that’s getting dangerously into Game Over territory. And for their losing, well…Aside from the deal of The Pursuit failing, or the MCs finally killing The Pursuit, how can The Pursuit develop? If it’s some sort of soulless shadow monster thing, probably it’s going to be increasingly a good idea to discard it and pick up something else as the schtick of “oh no the scary thing showed up and is chasing us again oh phew we escaped” is going to get old fast. Discard may here mean, simply, get rid of it…OR turn it into something more. It’s more than a scary shadow thing. A scary shadow thing can be really hard to develop as a character since it’s barely a character, but if it’s more than that…

Also consider how it changes the entire story dynamic. With each defeat, is the arc of the story, the general progression, even the same thing? Or can one defeat change everything? Or a series of defeats? It seemed like the story was going to be one thing, one progression of events, A to B to C…but these defeats made it turn to A to B to Q to R.

Basically, impact and permanence make for good defeats. If the hero and villain both walk away basically unchanged, the defeat might as well have not even happened. The whole interaction that led to the defeat was probably pointless. Maybe that interaction can be changed to mean something. And maybe it needs to be axed.

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Hair

Hello Minions! I want to talk about hair. That’s because hair can merely be a fashion statement…or it can be symbolic.

This came up after I cut just about all my hair off, which is a big deal for me. I absolutely despise short hair. I mean, other people look great with short hair. And I guess I look okay because everyone always tells me I look super cute with short hair? But I don’t see it, and more importantly, I used to have Disney Princess hair so when I woke up, it was usually already perfect, maybe could use just a little bit of a brush. How does anyone think short hair is easier to manage when no matter how many times I brush it, it still pokes up stupid?

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Do you know how often I wake up as an anime character? How is this even a thing?

Even when I get the brush wet! And people are like, “well I have to use [product]” and I’m thinking that everyone who says that they have short hair because it’s “easier” is full of BS because all I ever do with my hair, even when it’s down to my hips, is brush it. The biggest reason I hate short hair, however, is that I can’t put it in a ponytail. Now it’s always in my face.

So why did I cut it all off? Turns out that you can sell your hair, if you’re willing to put up with total creepers who weren’t kidding when they asked you to fly out to Florida so they could “cut your hair in person” which is probably code for “traffic you” knowing your email address and then emailing you a month after you take down your hair listing. Or trust that the guy who’s best credential for not being an axe murderer is “I’m Mormon” is actually a nice guy who just wants to cut your hair and isn’t Sweeny Todd (turns out he was just a nice guy who wanted to cut my hair. Phew! But seriously, “I’m Mormon”? How is that credential for being a good, honest person? Ted Bundy was Mormon! And even if being a Latter-Day Saint somehow magically made it so you were def an honest person, anyone could still claim that.)

Long story short

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I wasn’t going to cut it this short but then it turns out if you give me $100 to cut it shorter than I want to, I will. And I needed that money for killing credit debt (accrued during prior unemployment.)

I still hate my short hair. It’s always in my face and I look like an anime character 50% of the time. But I also have like ten different hats and I’m free of credit debt. So when I look at my short hair, it’s not just a different hairstyle everyone likes but me. It’s a symbol of the fact that I am, in fact, an adult: I can do hard things, do things I hate, because it needs to be done.

Hair can symbolize a lot. In fact, in more than one culture, hair has some kind of (often spiritual) significance. Consider Native Americans, for example. There are plenty of cultures where hair was though to be an extension of thought. There have been many uses of symbolic hair in fiction, too – Children of Eldair includes elves who collect magic in their hair and use it to cast spells…and there’s the Biblical story of Samson, where his hair represented his covenants with God and thus granted him strength.

If hair itself symbolizes something, cutting it probably does as well. We mentioned Samson – I’ve also known violence against women abbreviated to hair cutting. The cutting of her hair, taking something from her forcefully, might represent something like a rape – an interesting take that avoids directly mentioning or describing that event of violence. It could be more minor, as well – in Order of the Stick, Haley’s rival cuts her hair up as a taunt (even if they later lampshade the event as not actually about character development at all when she magically regrows it, there was an opportunity there for it to mean something). There’s also plenty of examples of people cutting their hair in mourning. On a contrast, there’s more than one time where a girl’s hair is sheared in Miyazaki films, which I’m told is to represent the girl’s maturation. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie gives her hair willingly; in Castle in the Sky, the pigtails are shot off. So, you be the judge of its truth there. (Certainly the hair cutting in Princess Mononoke doesn’t represent maturation…or does it?)

This of course doesn’t even go into hair color – but color coding is usually a more visible and well-known, so I’ll spare you talking about it.

A hairstyle can, of course, just be that. But it can be so much more. There are so many ways to incorporate hair symbolically into your story. It’s always worth putting careful thought into every detail. It’s more work, but it’s always worth it.

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This Post is Eventually About Writing

Hello minions. I’m back and I’m sorry for the delay, but I hope you all enjoyed Tyler’s unit on conlangs.

As for me, well.

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I’ve found a doctor who actually listens carefully to my concerns – you wouldn’t think that’s so hard to find – and we’re starting the magical adventure of finding the right drug. My anxiety is getting totally out of hand, you see – I had a panic attack over how upset I was that I was so uncontrollably anxious that a friend texted me something ambivalent that I could stretch to sound like they didn’t want to be friends anymore. The whole thing was so utterly ridiculous.

So far, I’m on something that converts a portion of my anxiety (and probably depression) into exhaustion. The going rate is really high so I basically want to just sleep all day. Which is why I missed last week and this week is late. I also can’t sleep all day because I have a two-year old. Also it is only a portion of anxiety because I still get anxious over nothing.

Part of what’s bothering me about this whole anxiety business – aside from the fact that it totally sucks and is debilitating and I don’t even have any good coping mechanisms because unlike my other disorders, this came out of nowhere once I became an adult – is that it is, unsurprisingly, easily triggered by things relating to writing. One thing that scares me really badly is that my writing group will kick me out. It’s 100% just mental disorder anxiety; my writing group is made of friends and I’m actually not a bad writer, no matter what voices in my head tell me. And that’s bad enough on its own.

But I’m trying to get finished with my final draft and get querying and there’s no way I won’t be paralyzed by this anxiety crap. I mean, what if people don’t like my book!?

Well. Not everyone will. I find myself getting into a mindset where I think, “Yeah but…if it’s a good book, like, why wouldn’t they?” Not exactly consciously, but it’s somewhere in my head. If someone doesn’t like it, it must mean that the book wasn’t good enough, because if it was good enough, no one could resist it!

Although…I think that mindset, which isn’t true, is why people get so defensive about their fandoms. I mean, I’ve had more than a few Dr. Who fans get really, really upset with me because I don’t really like Dr. Who. Perhaps they feel I’m insulting the awesomeness by not enjoying it myself – like I’m saying it’s not awesome because otherwise, I’d like it.

And I appreciate this view. Because I have nothing against Dr. Who. I just have a harder time enjoying things that are sci-fi like or scary. I can see why other people would like it! I enjoy Dr. Who memes if I get them. But it’s just not really my thing.

It’s a good show. I just don’t enjoy it.

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And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that Dr. Who isn’t good enough for me. It’s just that I enjoy a different type of story. Which turns my mind to my bestie and I and our taste in books. We both like fantasy, but the types of fantasy, the styles of writing we like, are usually diametrically different. The only books that we’ve both enjoyed are McCaffery books. And it’s not about quality or anything, it’s just style. I liked The Hobbit, but the trilogy is a bit, er, stuffy for me. She adores LOTR. I love Brandon Sanderson and want to be him when I grow up. She didn’t enjoy him so much. It’s just different tastes and that’s okay. Like different talents mean we all have something to add, it just means that we all have something to take, too. And all that adding means we need lots of different takers.

So if some people don’t like your story, that’s okay. Not everyone will, and it doesn’t mean that your story is any less awesome. It’s just chocolate when they prefer strawberry.

Course, if your anxiety is a friggun mental disorder, that’s a different story – totally irrational, totally out of your control. If you’re dealing with that too, I’m so sorry – and good luck on your journey, whether it takes you to therapy, drugs, or something else entirely.

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As “Easy” as ABC

Writing systems can be just as hard to come up with as the language itself, so here are a few tips for doing it right.

The first question that you have to ask yourself is how many of the speakers of the language know how to write. Is writing reserved for nobility and monks holed up in monasteries devoting years to scribing sacred texts? Or are little children being taught to write in schools across the globe? Because the more people there are that write the language, the simpler it is going to become.

Let’s take a look at the English alphabet. Out of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, only six of them require more than one stroke of the pen: f, i, j, k, t, and x. Now, granted, in school that’s not how they teach it. I was taught to make a p by drawing a straight line and then a circle to the right of that line at the top. But that is not at all how I write a p when I’m writing something by hand. My p is one stroke comprised of a really thin oval that ends in a loop. It is much faster than drawing a line and a circle, and importantly it is just as recognizable as a p. And the faster people write the harder it is for really complicated symbols to remain legible. People are going to figure out what bits of the letters are not needed for recognition and cut those out.

Speaking of the English alphabet and simplification, did you know that there used to be more than 26 letters? There used to be another s, often called the long s. It’s the letter that looks a lot like an f (the only real difference is that the strike through the long s only extends to the left instead of both directions like for f) and gives us texts that look like they’re talking about ‘bleffings’ when they are talking about ‘blessings’.

truecopie_1585_aivThere was no difference in sound between a long s and an s (the rules for which to use depended entirely on where in a word the s appeared) and it was easy to mistake the long s for an f so eventually people stopped using the long s and we are left with just the s we know and love. German solved this problem by developing the eszett ß, which is a long s connected to a regular s. In practice, however, I usually have seen people write ß as just a B with a tail, because it’s easier to write.

The loss of the long s demonstrates the next important part of developing a writing system: writing will tend towards symbols that are easily distinguishable from one another. When we’re reading something, we don’t want to have to sit there and think “Is that an f or an s?” It impedes reading and if enough people are reading on a daily basis those sorts of possible confusions are not going to last long. I suspect this is why English cursive writing has been dying. While it is faster to write in cursive (due to the fact that you have to pick up your writing implement a lot less), the letters are much more similar to each other and thus harder to read. (And sure, the ability to type which means people just write less in general, too.)

Let’s take a moment to mention Tengwar, the alphabet used to write Quenya. Take a look at this alphabet and see if you notice anything.

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The characters are all super similar. If you look at the top chart of this graphic, every letter in the chart is just a rotation of or adds a line to one of the letters in the first column. You can go even further and say that all the letters in that first column are simple variations of the letter for r at the bottom of the column so that the whole top chart is essentially simple variations on one letter. This works because Quenya is the older Elven language, mostly only used by royalty and whatnot, so it isn’t that big of a deal that the writing system is so homogeneous. I mean, compare it to this old handwritten English Bible and it’s not so difficult to see a writing system like Tengwar surviving among the upper echelons.
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But Tengwar would not work for a writing system used for fast transactions between everyday people. It just wouldn’t survive. It would be diversified so that the letters were easily distinguishable at a glance. And while the new form would be recognizable as having evolved from the old, looking at the two side by side would be about as weird as looking at modern and old English side by side.

One last thing I want to consider when using an alphabet system is whether or not all sounds are represented. In traditional Hebrew writing, vowels are completely absent. Vowel points weren’t added until people started learning Hebrew as a second language. Native speakers just didn’t need the vowels to understand and read the words. If your language is more vowel heavy, perhaps you could only have symbols for the vowels and add small marks for the consonants.

There is a lot more you can do with the writing system for your language. You can choose whether to have one symbol for each sound or to use combinations of symbols for some sounds, like how English uses sh. You could decide to use a syllabic system instead of an alphabetic system, or use a system that assigns symbols to whole words like Chinese does. Or you could use a system that mixes and matches, like the use of kanji and hiragana in Japanese. Or maybe you have a language that isn’t written at all. Each of these choices can be shaped by the history that produced the language (like how Japanese kanji is essentially stolen from China) and can help you to make a language that feels real.

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Word Diversity

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about how to begin creating words for your language, let’s talk about some strategies for diversifying your lexicon.

One of the common pitfalls when constructing a language is just making it English (or whatever your native language is) with different words. In every language pair that I know, there are some words that just can’t translate directly from one language to the other. My favorite example of this is between Albanian and English. In Albanian there is an adjective (i mërzitur) which essentially encapsulates any negative emotion other than anger and fear… and jealosy. And probably some others that I just can’t think of right now. So okay it isn’t ALL negative emotions but it’s a lot. For example, if I was wanting to translate ‘annoyed’ I would use mërzitur, but I would also use mërzitur to translate bored. So if I wanted to translate the sentence “I’m not annoy; I’m just bored” I would end up saying that I’m not mërzitur, I’m just mërzitur. But the truth is that mërzitur is neither annoyed nor bored. Those are just the best English words to describe the emotion of mërzitur. While just having a one-to-one correspondence between English and your language might make coming up with words easier and might make it easier to learn, it breaks the illusion that this language could have evolved naturally in the world of your story.

There are lots of ways you can make your language distinct. Let’s look at words for different kinds of precipitation. English has many different words for different kinds of precipitation. There’s rain, there’s sleet, there’s snow, there’s hail, etc. Albanian has words for rain (shi), snow (borë), and hail (breshër), but it doesn’t have a word for sleet. They just say “borë me shi”, literally “snow with rain”. To try to make your language distinct you can take any granularity of idea and choose to make a word that represents that. Maybe your language could have ten different words for different types of rain but only one word for sleet, snow, hail and any other form of frozen rain. Take a word that has a very broad meaning in English and dissect the concept into several words. Or take several very specific words and combine them. You can decide whether to do this with a whole new word or with a compound word.

There’s another important reason, aside from authenticity, that you should avoid just directly translating on a one to one basis: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory states that the language we speak affects our cognitive functions, that it literally can change how we think. There’s actually a fair amount of evidence for this. There is a certain tribe (I think in Africa but I’m not certain) that does not have a word for ‘blue’ but does have a whole bunch of words for different shades of green. They did an experiment where they had several squares of green and one blue square and when asked to point out which square was different they weren’t able to do so, even though an English speaker easily could. Interestingly, when they had several green squares and one of them was just slightly off in hue, most English speakers couldn’t tell the difference, but people form this tribe could tell the difference as effortlessly as we can tell blue and green apart. In my own experience, I know that I am almost an entirely different person when I’m speaking Albanian than when I’m speaking English. The simple act of switching languages visibly changes how I act. In English I am very reserved and thoughtful. In Albanian I can be much louder and more boisterous. In English I will rarely talk over someone. In Albanian I’d do it in a heart beat. I am much more extroverted in Albanian than I am in English and some of that is probably due to the circumstances surrounding my learning of the two languages but some of it, and I would argue more of it, is also just due to the nature of the languages.

This is why taking the time to thoughtfully create a language is so important. Because culture affects language and language affects culture. Your language should be shaped by the world it is created for and that world needs to also be shaped by that language. That is how you get a great conlang that helps to build your world.
(Sorry it’s a day late – Tyler got this to me in time but I was trying to finish up Halloween costumes and forgot to post it.)
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Smith Some Words

Now that you have the sounds that your language can make and how they interact with each other, you can begin to come up with words.

How many words do you think you need in your conlang? Well, a 2013 (admittedly not super scientific) study revealed that adult native English speakers generally know somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 words. So get cracking!

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Hyah! Hyah!

Now, if that number seems daunting, there are a few rays of hope. First, the same study found that non-native speakers who lived in English speaking countries generally know about 10,000 English words. So 10,000 is probably enough for most day-to-day purposes. But that number is still pretty big. How can you come up with 10,000 words that sound consistent but also different enough to be clearly distinguishable? The answer is: you don’t.

That 20-30k figure is not counting distinct meanings, but distinct words. So “happy” and “happiness” were counted as two words, even though the only difference in meaning between the two is how they are used in a sentence (happiness being a noun form of the adjective happy). When you’re coming up with your language, you should take advantage of this. Create root words and then figure out how to modify them for use in different situations (i.e. parts of speech) and variants of meaning.

There are a few ways you can build words once you have the building blocks to do so. One of the most common is to use affixes. Two kinds of affixes that English speakers should be familiar with are prefixes and suffixes, but in case you haven’t heard the terms a prefix is something like “un” which we can stick on front of a root like “happy” to make the word “unhappy” while a suffix is the same thing only applied to the end of the word (“ness” in the previous paragraph). What English speakers tend to be less familiar with is infixes, which is an affix stuffed into the middle of a word. This is not common in English. In fact, I have only ever heard one infix in English as far as I can remember and its use as an infix is a rather recent addition. It can be seen in the word “fan-f-ing-tastic”. There’s actually even more kinds of affixes than just these three and I would highly recommend you take a look at the list Wikipedia has. It gives some good examples.

So come up with root words and affixes and you can start constructing all sorts of words and get well on the way to that 10 or 20 or 35k (or more) lexicon.
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Working Towards Words

So you’ve decided to set out on this wonderful adventure of creating your own language. In the last post I talked about how to select the sounds available in your language. Now we’re going to talk about building up towards words.

Another important consideration for picking sounds is how they interact with one another. There are certain sounds that are just easier to make after each other, so dialects tend to gravitate towards those combinations. Take a moment and say the word ‘tree’ a few times. Really pay attention to how you pronounce it. Did you notice it? In most American dialects of English, the ‘tr’ is not just pronounced as just a ‘t’ followed by an ‘r’; the ‘r’ changes the ‘t’ to a ‘ch’ so that most Americans pronounce the word ‘tree’ as ‘chree’. Consider also the “tt” in “butter”, especially how it’s pronounced as a curious “not a d, not a t” in some parts of the US. Given long enough and enough cultural importance, this sort of dialectical change can become the norm for the language. So try to think of ways sounds can interact in your language. Maybe your ‘a’ is always nasal after an ‘n’ or ‘m’. Maybe succeeding an ‘e’  sound with an ‘r’ sound causes the ‘e’ to become a schwa, as it does (in most instances) in German.

Another thing to consider is where sounds can be placed in syllables and words. In Japanese for instance syllables have a very regular structure. It is so regular in fact that two of the Japanese “alphabets” are made up of syllables rather than sounds. With the exception that vowels can stand alone and n can appear without a vowel (although it’s technically a different “n” than the other five that are paired with a vowel), Japenese syllables are always a consonant followed by a vowel.

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Note that some consonant sounds are possible but aren’t listed here (like “p” and “b”), some simply aren’t present at all, and that not all consonants have every possible combination with vowels (w and y).

A sample Japanese word would therefore be “wakarimasu” or “wakarimasen” (I understand/I don’t understand). In speech, the “u” at the end of “-masu” is likely to be whispered so it might sound just like “wakarimas” with a softer “s” due to the whispered “u”. However, it’s still there, and still follows the rule that all (but one) consonants are followed by a vowel. You can immediately know that “përshkruaj” is not a Japanese word since there are four consonant sounds in a row. (For anyone interested, përshkruaj is the Albanian word for “to describe”.) The same thing can be done with words. Looking back over the text suggests that in English it is much more common for a word to end with a consonant sound than a vowel sound, even though consonants are only roughly 60% of the sounds available in English (don’t let the alphabet fool you; we’re talking about sounds, not letters).

You can make these kinds of decisions about your language. Maybe words cannot end with vowels in your conlang. Maybe they have to end with a vowel. Maybe an “s” can only appear after an “f”. Be as creative as you like, remembering that the rules you make will affect how your language sounds. If all words end with a consonant, especially percussive consonants like b, p, and d, then your language will sound more choppy and hard. Conversely, languages that always end with vowels can seem more open and flowing.

With those things decided, we are finally ready to start making words.

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Do You Want to Build A Language?

Hello, Readers! This is Tyler again. As Rii is still focusing her alternate endeavors, I want to take this opportunity to do some more blog posts on conlanging.

In my posts last week, I mentioned that creating a good conlang is staggeringly difficult. So I want to give you some tips to aide you if you decide to undertake creating a language.

Where do you begin when inventing a language? I like to take a bottom up approach, starting with the sounds of the language and building up words and grammar from there. If you’ve studied any foreign language, you will probably have an idea that not every language has every sound possible for a human to make. For example, English does not have the German ue, whereas German does not have the English w. It’s not too hard to add sounds from languages other than your own, because they’re exciting and new and who doesn’t love that? But sometimes it can be almost torturous to exclude sounds that we are familiar with. How can you exclude something so basic as say an ‘m’? You can’t have the word ‘malevolent’ without an ‘m’, and is that really the kind of language we want to live in?

There is a good reason (beyond making it more natural) to kill your darlings and omit sounds from your language. Take Parseltongue from Harry Potter. It is supposed to be a language used to speak with snakes. If you listen to the examples we have in the movies you’ll notice that there are a lot of s’s and sh’s as well as a lot of vowels which are made without moving your jaw much. It is missing pretty much any sound that requires lips (like p and b). The overall effect is that it sounds like we would imagine a snake speaking because it has a very hiss-like quality to it. That effect is achieved largely through the choice of sounds available to the language. If you’re trying to write a stereotypical orcish language you might decide to use a lot of hard sounds like p, b, d, and g and have relatively few vowels. The IPA reference chart can be a very useful tool in your attempt to choose the sounds which can give your language the right feel.

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Although it does take a bit of time to learn what all the symbols mean.

Another thing to consider is what combinations of sound are allowed, and what sounds aren’t. Consider “brick”. I’m sure you know that “brick” is an English word, although “br” is not a sound combination in other languages. Likewise, “blick” which isn’t an English word, could be. It shouldn’t sound so weird to you that you couldn’t imagine it meaning something, regardless of whether or not it does now. “Bnick”, on the other hand, is not an English word, and doesn’t look or sound like it could be. “Bn” is not a valid English combination. So once you’ve chosen the sounds available to your language, choose some combinations that aren’t allowed.

You can begin to see why creating a good conlang is so hard. We’ve had to make a lot of choices so far, and we haven’t even started coming up with words yet!

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When Conlanging is the Best

In the last post I talked about conlang cons. Let me now tell you some of the benefits of conlanging.
First off, creating a conlang can be loads of fun. You can get really creative and do some really interesting things when creating a language. Is there some part of your native language that you hate? You can fix that problem in your conlang. Want to sneak in little inside jokes into the language? Go ahead. Make the name of your most hated high school teacher a swear word. Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge nerd, but conlanging is one of my favorite hobbies.

Not only can it be fun for you, but there are segments of the readership that will have loads of fun learning your language if it is well made and fleshed out. I knew someone who was fluent in Quenya and they would take their notes for class in the elven language. As I mentioned before, people have translated Hamlet into Klingon. Beyond just giving them ways to continue to love your story when they are done reading, you can also hide little gems in your story for the readers dedicated enough to learn the language. Maybe your villain reveals part of their plot in their native language because they know the heroes can’t speak their language and it gives them joy to mock them. Maybe a character’s name has symbolic meaning that is only clear if you understand the language. These little rewards for dedicated readers really helps the readers feel like you care about them, which helps build your following.
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Also stuff like this.

Okay, okay, we’ll more on to more practical reasons now.

Conlanging does wonders for worldbuilding. Have you ever watched a movie and thought “Wow, it sure is convenient that everyone here speaks the same language”? I know I have. Some books get around this by having universal translators but this seems like a bit of a cop out to me. I mean, showing that there are different languages on your world (and even more importantly in your galaxy if you’re doing sci-fi) makes it feel leaps and bounds more real. I might be off by one or two, but there are about a majillion languages on Earth. It always breaks my suspension of disbelief when a whole planet somehow just has one. It might be a small break, but it can separate a good story from a great story.

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Sometimes the translator is in fish-form. Although satires kind of get a free pass.

Another way conlanging’s benefit to worldbuilding can be astronomical is in making you really think about the history and cultures behind your story. English is a frankenstein’s monster of a language because of the history of England. The differences between Gheg and Tosk Albanian are mainly due to the fact that the Romans deported a large portion of the population to Tuscany for several centuries and when their descendants returned their Albanian had been influenced much more by Latin than those who remained behind. Have you ever thought about how “village” and “villain” look so similar? That is not by accident. Villain was originally a term for the bumpkins in the country. Since the people in the cities presumed them backwards and violent it had a negative connotation. And now that the original prejudice has at least diminished the two words are mostly disconnected in our societal consciousness, but villain has retained its negative meaning. Thinking about nuances like that forces you to examine your cultures and histories and ask why do they speak the way they do. Maybe they have no concept (and hence no word) for sarcasm, but ten different words for traitor because they’ve had a lot of political intrigue in their past. Maybe their geography means they have many different words for different types of rocks and sand, but very few words for water. You can learn a lot about a people from their language. And even if no one notices those linguistic quirks, you still benefit from critically examining the culture and history of your story.

So should you have a conlang in your story? That is, of course, up to you. Weigh the pros and cons and see if it’s worth the immense effort for your story.

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When Conlanging is the Worst

Hello, Readers! Tyler here again, and this time I want to talk a little bit about conlanging.

Conlang is short for constructed language. In other words, a conlang is any language intentionally constructed to convey meaning rather than “natural” languages that have evolved over time. English, Spanish, German, Albanian, Japanese, these are all natural languages. No one sat down and said “Well, Bob, I think we should invent English to communicate with one another.” English kind of just happened.

This is not the same thing as, say, Klingon. Klingon didn’t just come into being over time as people learned to associate certain combinations of  sounds to certain concepts. Klingon was constructed for the purpose of being an alien language in Star Trek.

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And it is so well developed that it is possible to translate entire books into it.

There are lots of conlangs out there, and while some of them were developed for “serious” “real world” use, like Esperanto and Lojban, I want to focus more on languages like Klingon, Sindarin, Quenya, Dothraki, and Atlantean which were created for works of fiction. Why did the authors decide to go through the trouble of making up a whole new language? And what things should you consider when deciding whether or not to add a conlang to your story?

 

Let’s start with the arguments against using a conlang. The first one, and I cannot stress this enough, is that creating a (quality) conlang is really, really hard. Sure, you can throw a bunch of made-up words together and just throw them onto the page and not think about it any more. I suppose that would probably be okay if the conlang is only supposed to show up once or twice and there isn’t much to “translate” into the conlang. But if it is going to be used as frequently as Klingon or Sindarin that probably won’t cut it. Because most of the benefits of a good conlang are a result of the hard work required to make it good. In some cases it might simply not be worth it. Sometimes it would just be better to mention that the character is speaking a different language and leave it at that.

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Because if you’re going to make the effort, you can’t go halfway. You will have readers who will put in the effort to learn your conlang. And if it doesn’t make sense, if it’s clear that you just threw some sounds together and slapped it on the page it will pull those readers out of the story. You will lose that reader’s trust and they will probably think twice before picking up any of your work again. And thanks to the internet, some of their frustration might lead others to not pick up your book.

But say that doesn’t bother you. Or maybe you take great effort and make the perfect, unassailable conlang. Either way there are still potential problems with adding a conlang to your story. I call this problem the Tolkien effect. When Rii and I were reading LotR together we ended up skipping large sections of the text. I can handle little pieces of a language that I don’t know but… when you have whole poems and songs that occur (seemingly) every other page I just lose interest. And when you have paragraph after paragraph of Gimli explaining that this mountain is called such and such by men, and such and such by elves, but the dwarves call it such and such and the mountain next to it is called such and such by men and such and such by elves but such and such by dwarves and the mountain next to that is called…. man it makes me cringe just remembering it. Sure, there are LotR fans who love it. But there’s a reason why the Kingdom of Loathing (which satires everything) makes mention of a “fantasy storybook that reads like the Bible” and the PC also skips all the songs. It’s rarely a good thing when you make your reader want to skip part of your book out of boredom. Finding that sweet spot between “why did you even bother to come up with this if you’re not going to use it” and “I GET IT, YOU INVENTED A COOL LANGUAGE” can be terribly difficult.

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“Alright, so you made a cool language, stop rubbing our noses in it.”

So, in summary, incorporating a conlang into your story well is dauntingly difficult. A lot of the time it only serves as a diversion at best and a major distraction at worst for your readers. But there must be benefits too, right? If it’s so difficult, why would so many authors and creators do it? Let’s discuss that tomorrow.

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