If you write fantasy or science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself facing the problem of creating a foreign language. You’ve got a species of aliens or a distant culture and it just doesn’t make sense that they would speak the common tongue of your main characters. Furthermore, even assuming they do speak their language, the odds that the main characters would not encounter nor even pick up a few phrases here or there of the native tongue is pretty unusual. Heck, in many settings, the world is so cosmopolitan that so-called ‘foreign’ tongues are every bit as common as the one the characters speak themselves.
So, what to do?
Now, if you’re Tolkien (or a linguist), making up languages is probably doable. At the very least you are going to be pretty good at faking it. Tolkien, of course, made Elfish into a workable tongue before he even published The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, enthusiastic Star Trek fans actually went to the trouble to invent and fully explore the Klingon language, so much so that it has sold 250,000 dictionaries and is considered an artificial tongue of sufficient sophistication to warrant study from serious academics. Damn.
The sad thing is that not all of us are linguists. Sure, I dabble a bit in speech and language structure (I teach English, so it’s sort of inevitable), but I do not have the skills to make up a believable tongue. Few authors are, to be fair, and they get along just fine. Most just create a working vocabulary of cool-sounding non-words and lay it across a map somewhere. Perhaps they put the words in italics (to make them appear special) and pepper them through common speech to give the dialogue a sense of erudition. This is a tried and true method, and it does in fact work so long as nobody comes along and tries to break it down.
As something of a completest/perfectionist, this isn’t enough for me. I want there to be a rationale behind the words. Sure, I’m not above using the cool-sounding-language thing from time to time, but that doesn’t always cut it. I have, therefore, become something of a language thief. I steal phrases and vocabulary from other languages, but mess them up a bit. The internet is a great tool for this – stuff like BabelFish and Google Translate give you easy access to a wide variety of languages beyond one’s typical ken. I’ve filched a lot of French, Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch for Alandar, and the world of Nyxos is being heavily influenced by what cool words I can dig up from Ancient Greek. The words I pick are usually the confluence of ‘sounds cool’ and ‘actually means something’, which gives the language shenanigans a lot more validity in my mind.
But Wait, You Expect Me To Believe People Speak French in a Fantasy World?
This little language theft idea has run into this criticism before. In Alandar, I typically defend it by saying that various cultures in the West are intended to be funhouse mirror reflections of various historical European cultures, so why shouldn’t they speak a version of the real language? I’ll also point out that I am not the first person to have done this, either. Honestly, I’m less interested in the ’true’ language than in its stylized cousin. Akrallian is not really French; I don’t actually speak French in any competent capacity, so mostly I’m stealing phonics and accents and sounds. It is no more odd to me than every fantasy world ever being chock full of folks with English or Scottish accents, or the fact that everybody’s ancient dead language sounds suspiciously like a bizarro version of Latin. We all want to create an effect with our imaginary languages, right? Well, why not use the real world to enhance or even inform that effect? It can lead to a lot of interesting ideas and discoveries about your own world you may not have thought about before.
Of course, we’d all rather be Tolkien, but trust me: trying to invent your own language is very, very difficult and likely frustrating unless you possess the proper skill set. Trust me, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to do so. It hasn’t gone very well. I’d even go so far as to point out that Tolkien himself stole a fair amount of Elfish from various real languages, too – Finnish, I think, and some old Celtic and Saxon tongues. In the end, if the purpose of fantasy is to cast a twisted reflection of the real world, why shouldn’t we reflect that in the tongues our world speaks? Just make sure your theft is worth it, is all.
Purchased a map-making program the other day with some of my writing money. Lookee what I did with it:
This is as complete a map of Western Alandar as I’ve ever managed to make. It isn’t perfect and doesn’t include everything, but it does cover all the major landmarks. This post is a bit outside my usual schedule, but I wanted to see what this looked like on the internet. It isn’t at the top resolution, so some of the smaller cities might not be legible, but on average I’m pretty satisfied with it.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I can now make maps that can be transferred over the internet rather than all housed inside a single sketchbook that I am forced to protect like one of my children. Enjoy!
BTW: Most items are self-explanatory, but the red lines are the tracks for Spirit-Engines that have been laid since the ascendance of Keeper Polimeux II shortly after the end of the Illini Wars (so slightly over twenty years ago in the timeline). They are essentially trains that run not on steam power, but on the pressure created by the capture of dozens or even hundreds of ‘engine-fiends’ who are summoned from their home plane of existence and then agitated to the point where they push the pistons. They *hardly* ever have accidents.
Of course, when they do, it is pretty damned spectacular.
The journey is a sacred trope in the fantasy genre. It dates all the way back to the Odyssey, or perhaps even earlier – the hero’s journey as mirrored in their physical traverse across the hills and dales of their world. Where would fantasy and science fiction be without Frodo’s quest into Mordor, Taran’s quest for the Black Cauldron, Paul Muad’Dib’s journey into the deserts of Arrakis, and so on and so forth?
The hero’s journey, be it quest or ordeal, mirrors something essential in each of us. The metaphor for life here is implicit – hell, occasionally it’s explicit. With every step, we change. Not so many journeys end precisely where you expect them to. As Bilbo once said:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
When we’re young, especially, this journey seems large and imposing. As we grow older, it changes – our journeys still seem long, but less terrifying. Mystery overcomes majesty; we get lost within our own lives, searching for that magical trinket that got us out here in the first place. Maybe we find it, maybe we don’t. In the end it hardly matters.
I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to a novel I haven’t even published yet. It’s perhaps foolish of me, a waste of my time. Yet I cannot help it; Tyvian Reldamar’s story speaks to me on many levels. Alandar occupies such a defined shape in my mind, it is as though I have lived there. How could I not want Tyvian to wander its wagon-rutted roads and gleaming spirit engine tracks, pondering the possibility and necessity of his own redemption? So, I have spent the past 100 pages guiding him across the fractured counties of Eretheria, hatching his plans and keeping ahead of his responsibilities, his friends in tow. His journey is one that asks just how long can we skate through life before deciding to make a stand. Before deciding that something does matter to us and that something in this world is important enough to fight for.
That’s not all it is, though. No journey is so single-minded, just as no college road-trip is ever really about where you’re going. It’s about the friends you take with you, the stories you tell, the secrets you keep among yourselves, and the way you change your perspective on things. To watch Frodo get worn down by the weight of the One Ring is to also watch Sam rise up and grow strong. Conan’s quest for greatness is eclipsed by his longer, more difficult quest for wisdom and understanding. It does not come with the crown of Aquilonia, nor with the loss of that same crown. It comes in the small places, in the quiet moments. It is not in the achievement, but in the struggle.
This, too, can be said of my own journey. This novel I write, the stories I publish, the queries I send – this is the time of growth, of change. This is where it counts. All of us have such journeys, and we must make them. Step out that door; see where you are swept.
Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:
- Hogwarts (naturally)
- The Jedi Academy
- The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
- Brakebills (The Magicians)
- The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
- Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)
There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.
I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.
Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.
In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?
There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.
First of all, if you’ve got some time on your hands, listen to this interview with David Brin (and thanks to my friend, David, who drew my attention to it). There is more stuff to talk about in that interview that I could possibly stuff into a single blog post (or, at least, not if I wanted anybody to ever read it all), but I want to explore and correlate a couple things he talks about there which I find both fascinating and very true.
Speaking broadly, Brin differentiates between our ‘romantic’ selves and our ‘rational’ selves. The first is the thing that makes you cry at the end of Old Yeller and the second is the thing that makes you understand that the end of Old Yeller makes perfect sense and was the right thing to do. Brin associates our romantic selves with a lot of what has happened in human history, much of it bad, ranging from the Dark Ages to our love affair with Star Wars. The rational part of us he attributes to the proliferation and success of modern democracy, the creation of our current civilization, and the scientific Enlightenment.
Interestingly enough, I bet you find Dark Age barbarians and Star Wars much more fun than democratic reforms and scientific studies and that, right there, is exactly what Brin is getting at: our default state, the state we prefer, is the romantic one. It makes for better stories, higher adventure, and the glorious conservative myth of a golden age long past. There are a lot of different places I can dig in here, but let’s start with this one: This theory of the ’romantic self’ is the underpinning of a vast majority of fantasy literature and religious and cultural mythology.
Take kings or the idea of monarchy, for example. Every fantasy has ‘em, pretty much, and if they don’t, they often have wizards, demigods, noble houses, emperors, or ruling demi-human species as a fill-in. These kings are also often heroic figures or, if they aren’t, they are waiting to be deposed so the ‘true’ king can be installed. Aragorn needs to take command of the Armies of Men to defeat Sauron; Daenerys is rightfully the heir to the Iron Throne; Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn and would everyone please stop getting in his way and listen to him for once! History, likewise, is awash in kings, both heroic and villainous, and, indeed, the majority of history has been under the thumb of some kind of absolute ruler.
Our enchantment with them, however, supposes that there is such a thing as a ‘good king’ or that monarchy itself is a wise or workable system. This is our Romantic selves talking, not our rational ones. As Brin points out, it took the weakening of top-down authoritarian systems to bring about the technological and social advances that have created our current civilization. A top-down system discourages competition, while a more egalitarian system encourages the kind of competition and innovation needed to improve and advance, since the genesis of those things comes from dissent from popular opinion, something that doesn’t happen under the rule of a Robert Baretheon or even an Aragorn.
Fantasy, though, is primarily under the influence of this romantic notion that there is some single golden-child who is the right person to tell everyone what to do. Everyone from Star Wars’ Jedi Knights to the Mistborn of Sanderson to Harry Potter perpetuate the idea of ‘specialness as societal cure,’ even when mitigated by apparently liberal ideals that the heroes happen to support (because, after all, no good king would forbid free speech, obviously). Such stories and their appeal is, on some level, powered by a direct connection to that basic human romantic notion that there is a person out there who can tell you what to do and be right all the time, absolving you from your own troublesome duties of thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, and taking ownership of your failures and successes. If you don’t think that’s a thing, you need only read a history book – everyone has been doing that since forever.
Fantasy, then, is ultimately a conservative genre in its most literal sense – the conservation of old modes of order and old modes of doing things (based often off the fuzzy logic of metaphysical powers and spiritual manifestations) for the purpose of retaining what our romantic brains tells us is more fun and interesting. There is no law that says it must be so, however; I like to flatter myself that my own work in the fantasy genre breaks this mold, if only a little bit. After listening to David Brin, I may just up that from ’a little bit’ to ‘a lot’. Magic in Alandar is already egalitarian (you needn’t be born with power to use it – anybody with discipline and a good teacher can do it) and Tyvian Reldamar is already an iconoclast, but I can go further. I should go further.
Fantasy should join the best work of its speculative cousin, Science Fiction, and show us where we ought to go rather than making us miss where we’ve been.
A couple years ago, whilst I was still hashing out a novel set in Alandar, I decided to run an RPG set in the world. I adapted Wick’s Roll-and-Keep system, got a bunch of my friends to play, and so on (the focus of this post isn’t really on those particulars). Before the game began, I had my players vote on what kind of storyline wanted to deal with most in the campaign. The categories were ‘Exploration’, ‘Intrigue’, ‘Romance’, and ‘Military’ and each player had 100 points to distribute. When the dust settled, the party had voted overwhelmingly for Intrigue and Military while Romance came in third. Almost nobody wanted to explore.
Now, one of the things I knew was going to be essential if I was to run a campaign with a significant military element: I needed a way to adjudicate large battles that would both allow for the players to have control (more or less) over the actions of their army while simultaneously allowing for individual acts of heroism. Now, as it happens, the 7th Sea core rules (Roll and Keep system, Wick) had a system for running mass combat, but it didn’t work too well for me. Accordingly, I do what I almost always do with the games I run: I fiddled with it to no end.
The basic premise of the old 7th Sea system was that each player would pick their level of engagement in the battle (whether they were in the thick of things or way back in the reserves) and they would roll on a table that would determine if they had heroic opportunities or not. These opportunities were various things like ‘claim the enemy banner’ or ‘duel the enemy general’ or some such and they could add to your reputation, get you wounded, and help tip the battle this way and that. The battle itself was essentially decided by a dice off between generals. If you won three rolls in a row, you won the battle.
Now, I’m a fan of strategy games, military history, and military strategy in general, and this system left me a bit flat. The battles themselves were just window-dressing for heroic derring-do and little more. Now, this works great in a swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, where the nitty-gritty of strategy isn’t really part of the game. It wasn’t going to work in my Alandar campaign, where I had two and later three characters who were heavily involved in military campaigns. So, here’s what I changed:
Armies Are Characters
I made the armies themselves (or, more specifically, the divisions or regiments of those armies) into ‘characters,’ much like ships or vehicles. They had a set of characteristics to adjudicate their armaments, morale, mobility, discipline, and training. This changed the battle from something abstract to something more concrete and, since the system lent itself to duels, battles simply became duels between ‘characters’ comprised of tons of NPCs. I gave everybody sets of maneuvers they could use (advance, charge, flank, shoot, envelop, hold, withdraw, etc.), crafted specific advantages armies would have over each other, and established a rudimentary system for game balance. I will not claim it is perfect, but it worked well enough.
Battles Are Session-long Events
A major battle in a war is not a simple affair. Before the armies even take the field, there is weeks of skirmishing, supply lines to maintain, ground to scout out, enemy movements to spy on, and (in the case of Alandar) ritual magic to decide upon. I could get every player more-or-less involved with the planning and execution of these battles, even if they weren’t warriors, per se. The battles themselves would go on for a long time and, within them, there would be multiple different opportunities for individual heroism, periods of dialogue, and even skullduggery that could be committed against each other.
It’s All About Morale
In war, and particularly in pre-modern war, the plan isn’t really to kill all the enemy combatants, as that rarely is achievable or happens. The plan is to break the enemy army’s morale; if they no longer wish to fight, the war is over. Morale was sapped by casualties; the longer a battle went on, the more morale was sapped on both sides. There were occasions during the campaign when one side or the other would sound a retreat long before their forces broke, knowing that having a cohesive army was better than risking losing the whole thing on a gamble. Winning battles and engagements enhanced morale, but not by so much that you could willy-nilly charge your guys at that fortified position and expect to come out scott free (unless you were a particularly inspirational leader, that is). The PCs who were the generals of the armies in use had to be very careful keeping their army together, which in and of itself was a campaign element and recurring challenge.
The result of this system was, to my eyes, quite successful. My friends in the campaign still talk about the Charge of Atrisia against the 4th Kalsaari Heavy Legion, they still grin at the Sack of Tasis and shudder over the bloody fields of Calassa. Their characters became legendary figures in the history of the world and the war they fought in – The Illini Wars – I’ve made an integral part of Alandarian modern history. The Treaty they negotiated to end the war with the Kalsaaris was a two-session long arc in which there was more back-stabbing, political plotting, and nerve-wracking negotiations than at almost any other time in the campaign. I showed my players a map – a map they had bled and worked and even died over for the past 5-6 months of gaming – and told them to list their demands. I countered, we haggled, and in the end they negotiated a treaty they hated but that was the best they could do. They’d won against all odds, and I like to think I gave them the closest thing to being a Napoleon I could.
In the end, what I learned was that running a military campaign requires players who want to be in a military campaign, just like anything else. If you have players who want that kind of game and you work hard to give it to them, some pretty crazy stuff can happen.