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Fiction Novels: How Creating a Language Can Enhance a Story

I originally wrote this as a guest post for Blogging Authors. You can view it here:

https://bloggingauthors.blogspot.com/2020/01/fiction-novels-how-creating-language.html

How weird would it be if all aliens spoke English? Or witches and warlocks had no spells? We all know that creating believable characters is a critical component of successful storytelling. As authors, if our works are fantastical, we can’t always design our tales from developed belief systems: rituals, dress, language, etc. Constructing worlds from scratch isn’t easy, and I wanted a way to ensure cohesiveness even when my characters changed alliances. With the number of alien species being introduced in my first book, “Stellar Fusion,” creating new languages was an absolute must.

Language is one of those details you can’t borrow or steal like a hat. It can expose the characters’ pasts, secrets, and truths without major word-count-consuming action. It strengthens the authenticity of the culture and provides a level of intimacy when getting to know the characters’ that dress and ritual may not be able to do alone.

For example, avituvey is a word I created in my fictional language for the Xahu’ré people of planet Vioras in my Infinite Spark series. You can meet them in “Stellar Fusion.” Avituvey means freedom. Consider what might happen if a character, who primarily speaks English, says “for avituvey” when confronted about their loyalty while on Earth. What might that imply about their alliances?

The critical thing to understand is that language makes a connection between Character A and a culture. One word, not because of what that word is, but because of the language it’s spoken in, can change the entire direction of the plot.

When writing science fiction and fantasy, our characters are usually relatable in some way but must still be set apart to be captivating. I like using this language technique to show a hidden loyalty by having the character converse privately with others in the preferred language. But languages can be used in many ways.

It’s helpful to consider what sorts of phrases, quotes, or sayings might be important in the base culture of the language and why. How could they differ from what we say in our pivotal moments? Also, consider creating some colloquial terms for more regular use to cover everyday things and events.

The language you create can help set the mood or even the emotional presence of a character or culture. Think of the Sindarin, or Elven, language from “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is wispy and smooth as it rolls off of the tongue, reflecting the way the characters act and move in his books.

I know some people discourage creating new languages, saying that it overcomplicates the story. This can easily be the case if the creation of a language lacks direction and purpose. But I believe if you follow my tips below, a new language can bolster the cultural aspects and characters in your work.

Tips for Creating a Language in Your Book

  1. Keep it simple at first with just a word or a short phrase here and there. Ease your readers into the language then build upon it. Don’t start with a paragraph.
  2. If you accumulate a lot of words, provide an alphabetical list of translations to your readers, and make a dictionary of your own to use while writing.
  3. When possible, offer translations in text or a footer. Sometimes I use italics to show the definition of a phrase in English after it is said by a character in another language.

Example: “Dakan avituvey!” For freedom!

Or, if you like to show more than tell, then imply the meaning of the word or phrase with the actions and dialogue of characters.

  1. Make sure you can pronounce it, and ensure it sounds like something your characters would say. Don’t make a word with so many consonants or vowels that it looks like a hungry monster on the page. Readers will skip what they can’t comprehend. Make sure you know the limits of your created language.
  2. Be consistent with the arrangement of statements, questions, possessives, plurals, and conjunctions. How will you handle them? Keep a cheat sheet handy.
  3. Decide how you want your words to connect. In my Xahu’ré language, everything is constructed by association: sua=cruel, sua’o=cold, and Suanoa are the main antagonists. The root is “sua.”

Just put a little thought into the way your words will work together. Linguaphiles and logophiles can look deeper into morphology for sharper language creation.

  1. There must be a history of the culture’s existence to form the language. Words draw meaning from objects, events, and trends. Solidify your background information, and the language will come much easier. Word etymology is a good way to learn about where our words came from and might be helpful inspiration for this component.

I thoroughly enjoyed developing my Xahu’ré language. Since Stellar Fusion, I have created words in three new languages that I hope to build upon in future books. Besides enhancing culture and character in stories, new languages can be fun when chatting with friends and fans!

Thanks for reading! I wish you all the best on your creative journey!

-Elysia Lumen Strife-

1 reply »

  1. Thanks for this column. I’ve spent three days in a rough first draft for a fictional mystery novel. I will apply your recommendations about language to the characters in this novel . . . even though they all speak English. Giving each character his/her own manner of speech, use of words, slow speaker or rapid pace, where they are from in the nation, world. This was a bright light- bulb lesson for me. Thanks.

    Like

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