Language in SF & Fantasy – Part 2

Language Creation 1.01.

The creation of new languages for science fiction and fantasy works has a long and illustrious history, stretching back to 1895 and the language of the Eloi in H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine. More recent examples are legion. I first woke up to this several decades ago, when I discovered that Klingon had been developed into a language that could be learned and spoken, and that many people had, and did. Indeed with 21st century works bringing us such well known examples as Dothraki and High Valyrian from Game of Thrones, and the language spoken by the Na’vi in Avatar, not to mention countless others from the gaming world, building a fantasy language from the ground up has become so common that it now has its own job title: conlanger (“creator of a constructed language”). 

Doing it on a Shoestring

As an indie author, I don’t have access to the kind of resources those professionals use. But I wanted the Chronicles to have a credible element of language, as discussed in part 1 of this post. I set about developing a simple method to turn an existing language into the two I needed for the series. Without realising it at the time, I hit most of the tips that Amber Massey mentions in her “5 Tips for Creating Believable Fictional Languages” article.

Start with a Real Example

With apologies to any native speakers of Indonesian, I chose that language as one that was both unfamiliar to me, and available on Google Translate. I figured there was a pretty good chance it would not be all that well known among my readership either. This was yet another example of how much I rely on the Internet to craft my books. Having access to an instant translation of any word or phrase I wanted to include in my text has made this so much easier to achieve. In the days B.I. (Before Internet) I would’ve had to invest in an English-Indonesian dictionary (if one even exists!) and painstakingly assemble the translation of a phrase one word at a time.

Convert Language A to Language B

Having translated English to Indonesian, I didn’t want to stop there. It’s not a “new” language at that stage, is it? So the question was: how to munge the output from Translate into something that still looked like real words, but no longer quite so much like Indonesian.

Sometimes this would be as simple as switching the end of a word with its beginning, or reversing the order of the letters. Alternatively, where there is more than one translation for a word (as is quite common), I may use the end of one word with the beginning of another. A good example of this, since there’s a lot of magic in the Chronicles, is the word for spell. Indonesian words for incantation include mantera, and jampi. Taking the beginning of the latter and adding it to the ending of the former gave me the “Istanian” word for spell: jamtera.

Two Languages

As I mentioned in part 1, I intended the languages of the two realms in the Chronicles to diverge over the three hundred years before the story begins. To avoid labouring the language point, I assumed this divergence would not be so great as to render one language meaningless to speakers of the other. Indeed, during Jann’s journey north in Water Wizard, he discovers he can still understand the original “root” language spoken by the people who live beyond the mountain, which itself has diverged in a third direction during the intervening centuries. 

So it made sense for words with similar meanings to also be similar, in Istanian and Kertonian. One of the main examples of this occurs in the military of the two realms, where the equivalent rank of captain is known as “hodak” in Kertonia, and “tepak” in Istania (both words derived from the Indonesian offered by Translate – kapten and nakhoda).

Amusing coincidences 

Behind every Istanian word or phrase, there is a real Indonesian equivalent, and behind that an English starting point. When I was thinking of a name for the fruit that the forest workers snack on during their break, I started with the idea of a “bright red fruit.” Running that through Translate gave me the Indonesian terang buah merah. Applying my – by now standard – munging, adding the first syllable of the second and third words to the last syllable of the first, presented the first attempt at the Istanian:  bumerang.

At first, I was tempted to try a different munge. I mean, really? Boomerang? My second thought was: why not? There are countless real-life examples of words in one language appearing in another, with a totally different meaning. So I stuck with it, and you will find several characters sharing a bumerang in the Chronicles, and some of them even joke about what might happen if they throw one. 

Language in SF & Fantasy – Part 1

English, English, Everywhere

One of the most common criticisms of SF/Fantasy is the uniformity of language on alien worlds, especially when compared to Earth. Estimates of the number of languages currently spoken vary between 6-7,000 and in the course of human history over 30,000 languages have existed at one time or another. And yet a majority of authors don’t worry about it.

That kind of thing bugs me. Right from the beginning, I decided it was unrealistic to
a)      ignore the problem of language altogether and just have everyone speaking English with no explanation, or
b)       have some awful McGuffin like Hitch-Hikers’ Guide’s “babel-fish” or Star Trek’s Universal Translator, or
c)       have one all-encompassing language of “Berikatanyan” – kind of the logical equivalent of a language caller “Earther” or “Terran”

If not English, …?

So I had to think about what languages would be spoken and how the Earthers interacted with their speakers. Fortunately, at the time Gatekeeper opens, the original two crews have been on planet for approaching nine years. This is easily long enough to learn the local language (as anyone who has elected to live in a foreign country will know), and also have parts of Berikatanyan society learn English. There is precedent for fluency in the visitors’ language being treated as a mark of rank or privilege, in the same way speaking French was seen in early English high society.

Thus the principal characters in the two realms would all be thoroughly familiar with English; other members of both courts would be passable but perhaps not fluent; and those who came into regular contact with Earthers (like the forest clearance units) would have “holiday” command of English, broken and halting with limited vocabulary but capable of understanding and making themselves understood.

Conversely, Earth people living at either Court or Palace would learn the native tongue and those coming into regular contact with Berikatanyans (but not living with them) would have a more basic grasp of one or other (or both) languages.

…what have you got?

Which brings us to the languages. I’ll describe how I went about “inventing” them in Part 2 of this post, but thinking about how they might arise in the world I’d built for the Chronicles, it’s legitimate to assume that warring tribes that developed independently and – in a primitive feudal society – would not meet each other very frequently, would have divergent languages even if they descended from a common ancestor, with a common tongue. An Earth equivalent would be the so-called Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, …) or Teutonic language (English, German) that have similar features but are effectively totally different languages. Since I allude to “two- to three-hundred years” of bickering between Court and Palace in Gatekeeper, and settle on a more definite 300 years in Water Wizard, this is easily enough time for the languages to have diverged. 

Closer to home, the UK is well known for the diversity of its dialects, even over relatively short distances. In an area that includes where I live, stretching north and south by only 30 miles or so in each direction, you will find Liverpudlian (Scouse), Mancunian, Lancashire, Cheshire, Potteries (Stokie), and Birmingham (Brummie) to name but six. Not only do these regions vary in accent and pronunciation, but they also have many examples of dialect words that are not found outside their own small areas. So it’s entirely realistic that in an area the size of the peninsula where most of the Chronicles’ action takes place, and over a period of three hundred years, the language would develop into:
Kertonian:           (from Indonesian keraton – palace)
Used in the Black Queen’s realms (therefore known as Kertonia)
Istanian:               (from Indonesian istana – court)
Used in the Blood King’s realms (therefore known as Istania)

Too much of this is a distraction – similar to watching a film where an alien language is spoken and the subtitles are turned off (or not burned in) – so the Chronicles only has a few, short examples of each. A handful of local words are used more frequently, so they become familiar. On first appearance I include contextual explanations, and they can also be found in the handy Glossary. I hope it adds to the impression of a well-realised world. 

How Do You Plot?

Having established that I’m a Plotter, how do I go about it?

Hacking your way through the jungle of plotting methods can be a struggle. A search on “how to plot a novel” will throw up several options. OK, “several” may be an understatement. I did that search just now and had almost 650 MILLION hits. From famous approaches like Snowflake, Save The Cat (which likes to call itself “The World’s #1 Storytelling Method), and John Truby’s 22 Steps to more esoteric home-grown methods, there are almost as many choices as there are writers. Some are more suited to screenplays than novels, some are available as books, or videos, many are supported by software tools and useful collateral such as beat sheets, character fact sheets, and checklists. With so many to choose from, there will be a method out there for you. And if there isn’t one that’s a perfect fit for your writing style, you’re always free to pick the best bits out of several and munge them together into Your Very Own Method, which is what I did, over time…

My Very Own Method

I started off with Snowflake. I liked the way it forces you to start out with the idea of your whole novel, encapsulated in a single sentence, and then break that down into ever greater levels of detail, which the graphic above attempts to illustrate, cleverly ending up looking like a snowflake. It really helps, later in the process, to have these short, snappy descriptions of the book which can do double duty in blurbs and back covers. One of the longer versions (Step 9 if you still use it, or slightly earlier) can also provide the majority of what you need for a detailed synopsis, should you wish to go down the “agent submissions” route.

At slightly further than halfway through the traditional Snowflake process, I start to diverge. Once I have a 4-page story outline (step 6) and a series of characters (step 7), I set off to create two sets of scenes.

Plot Scenes

A series of bite-sized chunks of story, each of which moves the main plot forward. The size of each scene, whether that’s in terms of the number of words that will need to be written, the elapsed time, or how much of the plot is covered, is up to you. I favour small scenes, with anything up to eight per chapter. I know a lot of writers prefer a single scene per chapter. I tend to go for a scene size that I can write in one session, because it takes time to get all the information into my head and once it’s there I want to get it done in one sitting.

The most recent example – book #3 of my fantasy trilogy The Berikatanyan Chronicles – had 78 plot scenes at the end of this phase.

Character Scenes

That takes care of the main story, but each of the characters has their own story, or “character arc.” Although there are character types that don’t change during the course of a novel (static/flat, and stock characters are the most common examples) most of your main characters and certainly your hero/protagonist, will have something to learn, do, defeat, etc during the course of the story.

So for the character scenes I take these arcs and break them down in the same way I did for the plot. For Book #3 I had twelve characters I’d inherited from the first two books, one of whom is the main protagonist here, plus three new characters, giving me 109 character scenes in total, with the MP having most (15) all the way down to two minor characters with three each.


Those of you who are still awake may have thought “but doesn’t some of the character action also move the plot forward?” Take a bonus point! Yes, of course, it does. So having assembled that long list of scenes, my next task is to trawl through them looking for overlap, and noting that in plot scene A, character B must do C, folding those scenes into a single combined scene description covering everything it needs to. I started this trawl for book #3 with those 187 scenes, and finished up, after removing duplicates, with 158.


There is, obviously, a natural duration for each of these scenes. Some events, such as the disasters, may have a fixed point in time around which other events need to flex. Beyond that, my characters spend a fair bit of time travelling around. Unless something magic happens (which in a fantasy book isn’t beyond the realms of possible), travel time has to be accounted for. So having whittled down my list of scenes to its smallest number the next stage is to plug these into a timeline. I’m currently using Aeon Timeline for this, which is a great tool.

It’s only drawback, until recently, was the lack of integration with other tools, so having created all my scenes in Scrivener I recreate them manually in AT. Synchronising automatically between the two is now allegedly possible, but it’s a fairly new innovation and has caused problems for some writers, so I decided to avoid being sucked into yet another time sink and stuck with the manual method. For my next project I intend checking out Plottr, which (again, allegedly) gracefully combines the drafting and organising elements of Scrivener with the timelining abilities of AT.

With a fixed set of scenes laid out in a credible timeline, the final step is to divide them up into chapters. It’s no secret that books about which readers say “I couldn’t put it down” will end each chapter on some kind of cliffhanger, so there may be a bit of juggling the scene order, or the chapter divisions, to make it more difficult for the reader to stop reading at chapter end. Once that’s done, the plotting is finally finished and I’m ready to start the “real” writing. 

The Plot Thickens

It is sometimes said there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t.

OK that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but when it comes to writers most would agree that there really are two kinds: plotters, and pantsers.


Plotters like to know where they’re going. They might have an innate fear of taking a wrong turn – often referred to as “writing themselves into a corner” – but really this just translates into a worry about wasted writing time. Having to go back and undo something, change large chunks of text or, at worst, start over.

Plotters also like structure. In the same way their work has structure, so too – usually – does their writing process. Whether you use Snowflake, 3- or 4-act structures, Save The Cat, or go the whole hog (too many animal metaphors!) and walk John Truby’s 22 steps, there are many tools out there to help you plot. But before ever setting pen to paper (aka finger to keyboard) your average plotter needs to know the whole story. What happens, beginning to end, who it happens to, and how long it’s gonna take.


Pantsers (they “write by the seat of their pants”) are either bored by the notion of plotting, or do feel restricted by it (so you might say they come in two kinds *vbg*). They think the big picture, or they know how to start and are impatient to get going, so they just do. Take an arbitrary selection of characters, write about them, and see where their story takes them. They might think two or three scenes, or chapters, ahead, or they may just start writing whatever comes into their head. This is sometimes referred to as “discovery” writing, because you discover what the story is about as you’re writing it.

Which is perfectly fine, if that’s how you roll. For me, the immediate worry is that there would be another kind of discovery. Reaching the end of the story and “discovering” that there was a better way to write it. You had need of another character, or two. Or maybe there was a huge slump in the middle when not much happened, which you could have avoided if you’d thought about it in advance. Or while editing, you spot a plot hole. Something in the second half doesn’t work because of something in the first half. It might be a quick fix, or it might need weeks of rewriting, or – oh my God – it might derail the story entirely.


As you may have guessed, I’m a plotter. I’ll be honest, I don’t really enjoy the process of plotting. It’s hard work, ironing out all those wrinkles, laying out the beats, constructing the character arcs. But that has to be done anyway, in any good story, whether you do it up-front or on-the-fly. And although it feels like hard work at the time, I have to believe it’s not as hard as going back over the work and (re)doing it at the end. I like where a completed plot puts me – in control of the story. I don’t look on it as being “restricted”, in fact quite often I’ll find the characters taking themselves in unexpected directions (another common writing trope), but I am always safe in the knowledge that those new directions still travel towards a known point in the story and that the final “thing” will hang together in the way I intended.

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