As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we enter a time of traditions. The holidays are soon to be upon us, the stores are filling with decorations, people are starting to complain about the fact that Christmas shopping season “seems to start earlier every year”. For writers, this is the time of year when people new and old take an opportunity to challenge themselves by trying to write a novel in one month’s time. National Novel Writing Month is so ingrained into the culture that I do not personally know a single writer or writing enthusiast in my life who hasn’t taken a swing at the challenge at least once. And, while I myself tend to avoid rushing through word counts to meet these sorts of challenges, I’ve always had a tradition of my own.
Though I was hesitant at first, I’ve made a point in years prior to throw out some writing advice in November and editing advice in December. Though it’s often joked that everyone becomes a “guru” on the internet, it was never my intention to do this. Only after being nudged by friends did I even try to. Hopefully, over the years, I’ve said something useful to someone who was just taking their first steps into writing novels. If not, at least I hope it was entertaining to watch me try. Given the projects I need to get done before January, I’m not entirely sure how I’ll do this year. But, at the very least, there’s one lesson to be shared that I’ve been pondering lately.
Sometimes there are elements in the real world which are too ripe with material to pass up for a fiction writer. As many often say, the truth can be stranger than fiction. But sometimes there are things in the world we can’t exactly define as truth or fiction which can be even stranger. Urban legends and the fields of cryptozoology are full of stories like these – stories where it sounds like bullshit, but something about them makes it feel more tangible. Sure, these things are only really believed by people on the fringe, but they seem to be based on something and every once in a while a creature jumps from legend to reality when they’re confirmed. So, while such a thing still existing in the modern age seems pretty unlikely, there are always some true believers. Plenty of people will swear to the existence of Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Chupacabra and there are a lot of people who will believe in UFOs well into the future. Each of these is of questionable validity, but is trying to explain something people have actually seen, and speaks to something of the human experience.
And for regular visitors to the blog you’ll know I included an urban legend in the alternate history of my books just last Friday. The “men in black” have long been part of pop culture and have been at the heart of conspiracy theories and ufology for at least 70 years now. But for most people the term is inseparable from the charming franchise of movies based on the legend. For the people most familiar with that depiction and the basic idea of where the stories came from, it may be strange that I included them into a world centered more on creatures from folklore.
Creative professions are infamous for being full of people who are wrought with self-doubt. Though it’s easy to overlook it in others, I’ve rarely encountered someone who doesn’t have at least a little bit of doubt. Even the most famous of us will admit to having touches of imposter syndrome and a need to constantly reaffirm that they deserved to be where they are. We all know this on some level, so it’s not news to anyone. After all, if you’re here, it’s likely you followed a link about writers and you’ve felt it in yourself from time to time.
Frequently the advice that we get is about trying to simply be “okay” with the fact that voice exists and remember that the only way past it is to just keep going. The longer you keep doing what you’re doing, the more your chances of overcoming it will become. And that’s not terrible advice, you shouldn’t let it stop you even if it’s always there. But what I’ve long felt is that there’s something else that we really need to do with that voice to take ourselves to the next level… Continue reading Owning Your Doubts→
As a speculative fiction writer, I spend a lot of time looking into the roots of mythology and the ways that our genres have evolved over time. It’s easy to see a straight line that can be drawn from the stories of our ancestors to the stories we tell today – especially in fantasy where some of the same elements remain in circulation. And it’s certainly easy to see how some things we have today are derived from things that came from antiquity. Superheroes, though wrapped in contemporary trappings, are obviously comparable to the heroes of the ancient stories. In fact, frequently these heroes are so similar that you can slip those mythological characters into the mix and not have them seem out of place at all.
So it’s not too surprising that we often hear someone define comic books and fantasy stories as the “new mythology” that we create today. These statements, comparing the traits of the heroes of old to the stories of today, essentially say that today’s mostly secular culture has adopted superheroes to fill in the place that characters like Hercules had filled before. And this makes sense on many levels. It’s true that we make great productions about these heroes and that someday they’ll sit comfortably next to each other in the historical records of future generations. But one chief difference has always jumped out at me and makes it feel like the statement isn’t entirely accurate:
Years ago, when people were still feeling out the eBook market, I had what we would call a “rough year” and made a couple rash decisions. The first was that I was going to self-publish a book because I’d seen numbers suggesting that my chances with and without a publisher were roughly about the same. This was during that hazy time back when the economy was crashing and no one was confident about anything – advances were down, advertising was shaky at best, and Amazon was starting to eat enough of the market to kill Borders (ironically thanks to a deal they made with Borders). So, of course, I wanted me a piece of that action.
But self-publishing lead to my second rash decision: I was going to start trying to promote myself – something that anyone who knows me can tell you was probably the bigger mistake of the two. My personality, in real life, is fairly conflict driven and yet introverted. For those of you doing the math, yeah, that generally means I’m my own worst enemy. So the idea of trying to be my own hype man is a bit like having Moriarty give the elevator pitch on Sherlock. Sure, he’s well aware of Holmes’ strengths, but he’s also invested in ruining the guy.
Still, I went about making content on a fairly regular basis by starting this blog. It wasn’t a vanity project as some critics have suggested, but an attempt to look like I know what I’m doing. Perhaps, with enough effort, I can find my audience and make those efforts worthwhile. And, despite everything, there is a benefit to the fact I second guess every move I make: I am constantly using this blog to do a self critique.
As such, I occasionally go back through old posts, old work, and old concepts to find new ways to hate on my younger self. It’s beneficial, despite how I make it sound, to take stock of what mistakes I made in the past and then learn from it. I know I’m not perfect (something we should all keep in mind), and that I have to constantly improve to progress. So I’m willing to give myself an honest performance evaluation every once in a while. There’s just one thing I tend to regret about these evaluations: I end up re-reading or remembering comments I’ve gotten on the internet.
Speculative fiction, being that it is purely speculative, is an evolving set of genres. Science fiction and fantasy are generally meant to be fluid and will reflect the times they were made in quite often. And because of this a great many variations will appear within the genre for things that everyone happens to share. What are the differences between Orcs and Orks? How many kinds of vampires are there actually? How distantly related are Legolas and the Keebler Elves?
Sometimes these differences are pretty profound, other times they’re almost non-existent. But what I’ve found most often is that the differences are generally discouraged if a specific work has reached an iconic status. Vampires have had dozens, if not hundreds of variations over the years, but many of the traits which are accepted as “canon” were originated either within Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the movie adaptations to follow. This is strange, because it means the original source material, the folklore, is generally forgotten in favor of variations on a theme of Dracula. It’s because of this that I personally went out of my way to include several variations of vampire in my stories and bring back old bits of lore that are often forgotten – like the fact a vampire can’t cross certain materials without counting every grain in their path.
The funny thing is that, in my world of sci-fantasy reinterpretations of the mythological as biological creatures, I’ve had a few run-ins with people who felt that I had somehow been “wrong” to change the lore. As one person said to me very early on, “I prefer my version”. It’s not the only feedback you get, but it’s one that you realize is quietly prevalent. Though some books and movies get away with it because they’re popular, if something has flaws, it will be immediately criticized for getting the lore “wrong”. Hell, at one point even I took part in doing this before realizing the flaw in my thinking.
The fantasy genre, for all of its common tropes created in the modern day, draws its roots from mythology the world over. Though rarely depicting the stories as they were originally, these mythologies have formed the backbone of what we use today to craft our fictional worlds of magic and supernatural creatures. And, the thing about it is, when you look at what’s in the fantasy works of today and then look into the origins of the creatures in the past, the differences can be stark. Even figures known to the mainstream population are somewhat different than what they’d originally been.
The Leprechaun is one of the easiest changes to point out to people. Their clothing, general demeanor, and place in the lore have changed dramatically overtime. And with the Leprechaun we even see how fast it can happen as the creatures themselves didn’t show up in the folklore until relatively recently in cultural terms. The root stories, the ones that inspired the wee folk in the first place, are actually so different that you would barely recognize them at first glance. But the Leprechaun is far from being the only one. For instance, did you know the word”Dobby” is actually another term for “Brounies“?
And one of the things you’ll realize when you look at it close for a while is that there are pretty specific evolutionary paths for some of these mythical creatures. Especially in Europe, a single effect becomes more and more obvious as many creatures of the past were somewhat more innocent in appearance and gradually became more inhuman. Essentially the old trope of “good is pretty” and “evil is ugly” started to become more common over time. Though some creatures have always been evil and ugly, even downright terrifying (looking at you, Celtic and Germanic folklore), other creatures were a lot less dangerous looking at first glance. And, now, those creatures tend to look like something fairly different.
While writing languages for inhuman creatures, it’s important to remember just how different it would be. I covered part of this not long ago when I mentioned that fictional languages should sound somewhat like gibberish to us. After all, there are languages in the real world which sound like gibberish already, so it makes sense for it to be more true in a fictional one. But there are times when that should go even further – particularly with aliens.
Within speculative fiction we often hand-wave away the difficulties of communicating with aliens, hiding it behind universal translators. And, while this makes sense when all of the creatures involved are using the same methods of communication, we have to admit that it’s unlikely every creature we meet would “talk” to each other. When you really think about it, even on our own planet the way we communicate is somewhat unique. Throughout the animal kingdom we have creatures who communicate through chemicals, motions, colors and inaudible sounds. And, frankly, the creatures on our world have more in common with us by default of evolving on the same world.
In a time when every studio needs to have their own franchise of interwoven properties, Universal studios came to answer it with their “Dark Universe“. Starting with The Mummy (a decision they may be regretting given the reviews), the plan was to have Universal bring together all of its major “movie monster” properties in the same way that Marvel and DC had been doing over the last few years. Bringing together the likes of The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, and several other properties, the hope was to create something with the kind of cross promotional marketing power as an Avengers or Justice League.
But, while these properties are essentially chosen for their iconic status, they’re also chosen for being ostensibly within the same genre. They are, after all, old school horror icons which have been part of the cultural mindset for generations. Each of them, a movie monster that had been in film since the days before color, represent something with instant brand recognition. And for the longest time all of us have grouped them within our minds as being essentially a part of a single genre.
One of the big questions for building a world in speculative fiction is what languages these characters should be speaking. We’ve seen so many softer science fiction properties fall back on the universal translator concept, but that isn’t always the case elsewhere. Joss Whedon’s Firefly franchise made a point that everyone speaks two languages, English and Chinese, and that most of them usually cursed in the latter (to get around censorship). The film Arrival spent a great deal of time focusing on just how exactly you can understand an alien civilization with a wholly different way of thinking and writing. And for all the flak that Star Trek: Enterprise got, it was the first time in the franchise where no one could deny the communication officer’s job was damn near impossible at times.
But in the fantasy setting the question gets even more complicated. These are ostensibly creatures that have lived on the same world we have and they’ve been trading linguistics with us for as long as we’ve known they exist. Few languages in the real world are entirely isolated from each other, loan words exist in almost every corner of the world. And even if isolated, languages have evolved to such a degree within our own history that certain languages would be completely unintelligible within no more than a millennium. Because of this, it’s hard to know what exactly Elvish, Dwarvish, or Orcish are supposed to sound like. In fact, while a lot of these have versions, the best example of someone coming up with languages for these races was done by a linguist who did this kind of thing for fun and had an obsessive compulsive need to world build.
But, if you think about it, you don’t have to be a Tolkien to come up with a believable fake language. After all, it’s supposed to sound like gibberish…
Within human languages there are so many distinct dialects that it would be impossible for any one person without the assistance of one of those “universal translators” to be able to understand all people. Yes, there are always likely to be translators available for people who speak one of the more prevalent languages, and more people learn certain languages than others. But the idea that there is a so-called “human tongue” as you find in many speculative fiction works is a little silly at best. In fact, one thing to bake your noodle is that, since all of them are using universal translators, Captain Picard may have always been speaking French while the universal translators just made him sound particularly British.
And, in fact, even when you are all speaking the same language it is incredibly difficult for people to understand certain dialects. While most people from the major English speaking countries of the world would have an okay time understanding each other, it’s generally accepted that any American tourist traveling the UK is going to run into at least one dialect they have no damned way of understanding. In fact, if you’re really unlucky, some sources say there are at least five you’ll struggle with.
So when thinking about other creatures that may live on our world there are a few factors that would make them even more unintelligible in their own tongues. Should they be using a language similar to one of ours it’s very likely that they would be using a completely alien dialect born out of being isolated from humanity for potentially generations to outright millennia. They could even be using a dialect of a language long dead to the rest of the world, last spoken in a time when they were closer to us, or be using one that they created all of their own. While it would be unlikely that their language sprang entirely independent of humanity’s languages, just given proximity alone, even some minor deviations in the past resulted in Indo-European languages becoming completely distinct from each other. For anyone who doubts that related languages could sound absolutely different from each other, keep in mind that Icelandic is in the same language family as English.
So, in the end, while Tolkien certainly did it expertly, the real requirement for making a believable fictional language is that it follows some basic rules, starting with making sure it does sound somewhat like gibberish to us. The most common mistake I’ve seen with people who try to cook up such fictional languages is that they start with a basic language that we have and then think that they can’t make it sound too distinct from ours. The idea behind this approach is that if there’s something still partially recognizable then that would somehow make it feel real. In actuality, it should be nearly incomprehensible, constructed in such a way that we’d be able to pick up only a few loanwords at best (and not necessarily loanwords they took from us). In fact, outside of those few recognizable words, the only thing it should sound like is itself, maintaining internal consistency while only having a passing resemblance to regular languages.
The second biggest factor is that sense of continuity. Within the language there should be a set of sounds which you hear with some manner of frequency. There should be rules to when they show up, how often, and what they really represent. To put it in another way, is that particular grunt the Orcish equivalent to a vowel? If it is, then it should show up as frequently as a vowel would. Constructing an alphabet in and of itself is easier than a full language (alphabets lack syntax) but would quickly give you a series of sounds that can be strung together to create that distinctive feel. Maybe it’s not the way a natural language would evolve, but it would, at the very least, be its own thing.
The more difficult parts would be to construct a vocabulary and a syntax, both more involved but still well within the reach if you’re doing only limited dialogue with it. Vocabulary is generally a matter of taking some time to work out a few choice words. Rarely do people know more than a couple thousand and generally most conversations make use of only a couple hundred at any given time in casual conversation. And, as for syntax, a little study into our own cultures can show the various ways we’ve done it and give you an idea on how to do it yourself. It wouldn’t have to be a perfect thing, you’re still creating gibberish, but the difference between a good fictional language and a bad one is taking the time to establish those kind of ground rules. Is it perfect? Not all. But effort always shows.
Admittedly, it’s a weird thought to have, but I’ve noticed so many people who either half-ass it in an effort to avoid looking bizarre or convince themselves not to bother at all because they can’t match with the likes of Tolkien. Some resolve this by simply hiring a linguist, and those skilled few have made fantastic contributions to fictional worlds. Game of Thrones’ television adaptation, having only a few phrases from the original books to work with, hired a linguist to fill in these blanks. But it feels as though, for those of us who can’t afford to hire that kind of linguist, it’s not really such a crime to wing it with a little careful study and some effort to remain internally consistent. After all, given a few centuries…
The rest of our words won’t make much sense either.
(I write novels and dabble in screenplays, which haven’t had need for constructed languages yet. Meanwhile, I accidentally create a language through typos on twitter – though never as well as covfefe.)