February 17, 2009

Language and Culture Fantasy Writing Workshop: YrQ and MyA

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Wolf Tinker @ 4:16 pm

I reproduced the questions in their entirety for reference – I hope that is OK.

Cue the cheesy grin 😀 At this point I find it necessary to tell you how I develop words, and I will give examples below.

1. Typos. I collect them and depending on how they sound (and sometimes how they appear) I make them into characters or places or things.

2. Words from other languages – I take translations of things from into languages and alter them (hence the name of my blog Altered) to suit my needs. For example, the word kifu is related to a swahili word for box. Why swahili? It is a language with which I have some familiarity AND there is a dictionary on the internet. Other invented words have come from Japanese, Arabic, Gaelic, Cherokee, and Navajo.

3. Combinations of words. When Pyraxis and I started working together, I took the means of recorded communication in her world and mine and put them together to make the central figure for the crossroads city. On Karn, history is recorded on tapestries. On Ua, history is recorded on stones added to a monolith in Rabu City. Hence, Tapolith, the setting for the beginning of the story. Tapolith is home to a library set in a monolith, wherein are recorded and kept the histories and artifacts of the many cultures that have applied to be recognized by the library guild (but that, my friend, is another story).

😛 Keep those in mind as you read on.

1. Premise
I think of premise as the basic set of assumptions that a reader needs to accept in order for a story to work. For any story (like mine, for example) that has aliens in it, the existence of some kind of alien language forms a critical part of the premise. The story itself may or may not depend on the nature of this language, but if the language sticks out as unrealistic or somehow physically or culturally impossible, that will make it difficult for readers to accept any kind of story placed in that context.

I am working backwards here. My story started out as a question and a challenge. The question was what would life be life if everyone was a djinn? The challenge was to create a social and political system for another friend to play with. I had never done this before. All my stories were set in democracies that mimicked the one in the US. Clearly if I was to create something different, then I would be creating a different culture. I decided to synthesize. This issue is quite important to me as I have become attached to Ua and want to know if its premise is at all believable. Do you buy the djinn and their culture?

2. Plot
This is “what happens” in the story. Language and culture influence the plot of a story if the story is specifically about language difficulty, or if language difficulty or cultural misunderstanding cause a distinct change in events at any point in the story. My own stories involve this stuff all the time.

There are some major cultural violations in our story – Ualin does not believe in the idea of darklessness, a central concept to Ua philosophy. More accurately, she does not believe that taking a life necessarily makes her darkless. This will be a big issue because if she refuses the healing ritual of the dark she could lose her right to be Raba. This is enforced by the only thing more powerful than a Raba – a council of Ua trained to defeat a Raba if the need arose. Other conflicts: A Raba is supposed to ask kifu duty of only a few sons, and let them out after 40 years (there is a good reason for 40 years). The Raba’s house, or masta (directly from swahili), is supposed to own one or two kifu, the purpose of which is to enhance the Raba’s power when an emergency arises. Under the guise of seeking to solve the water problem, masta Ua has collected no less than 12 kifu. The people are upset, but conflicted – Ualin’s house has given help to many a refugee, and it looks like she is the only one actively working on the problem instead of waiting around for the prophecy to come true. I say collected, because of the 12, only 7 remain in Ualin’s actual custody. We learn about those in the story, and we meet two of the inhabitants, on the run from Ualin because she has learned that they actually escaped from their boxes – a violation Ualin looks on with disfavor. More conflict comes in when Ualin leaves Ua to chase them – there is some consideration of what the people think of a Raba who goes off chasing kifu escapees when she should be on Ua trying to solve the problem of the drought, especially when already she has too many kifu.

3. Setting
In this case I’m not talking about the physical setting, but the cultural and linguistic setting. This is something that I believe is applicable to every story. Quite often it’s done well on gut feel alone, without any kind of analysis. Look for any way in which the people in your story are divided into types, and there you’ll find a great opportunity to explore language and culture. This doesn’t just mean how the different groups speak. It also means how they are described by others, and how they describe others; what expectations are held for them and how those expectations are explained; how their role and values are judged. So in this area everyone can dig in; one of the things that can help you to do that is character.

Sigh. Not just the three families. By mid-story, there are five cultures mingling: Karn and Ua, and to a lesser extent Beren and Saskha, and least but relatively significant, Qoroq. Fiona gets into trouble in Tapolith because she doesn’t know their ways (though we might cut that bit). She’s already gotten into trouble on Saskha because she didn’t know *their* ways. And she’s on trouble on Karn for *purposely* violating their ways. Qoroq is important because the fellow from there (Tarks, typo for talks) gets turned on his head with respect to culture. He is from a highly militarized culture (no relationship is good relationship) and the first thing that happens is he gets attracted to Fiona. Next he violates his oath to protect Sha from capture. The other characters don’t know it, but he is there to kill Sha if necessary to prevent his capture. But while they are running from Ualin, he becomes a father figure to Sha and trains him to hunt, developing an emotional connection that is a clear violation of his oath.

This area needs thought because M’Gy and Puma are from Ua and should be aghast at the killings that take place around them. They are not sufficiently outraged or traumatized, and they do nothing to stop the killings. Yet both are djinn, and they could do something. By contrast Ualin, when she arrives on Karn, has no conflict with this and she runs into a character whose merciless use of humans and other life forms should make her pleased to be its ally (that’s right, I said and meant *its*). Gotta fix that. P, you listening?

4. Character
A character is a wonderful tool for language and culture building in part because of point of view. If you want to learn about how some group of people regards the others around it, experiment with writing the answers to a set of questions from the point of view of one of the members of that group. Trying to take a point of view often makes it easier to explore the answers to language and culture questions, and value judgment questions. How does your character talk about people he or she respects? Hates? Every character has a personal history, and a personal culture (even aliens or fantasy characters without a known group from our world); these things influence character behavior and judgment in every circumstance.

Um. Guilty of lack of internal POV….

5. Dialogue
By dialogue I mean how your characters talk. Do you want them to speak in British dialect? Should they speak with an accent that is indicated by alternate spellings of known words? Do they use a lot of slang? If you consider that they are speaking a foreign (usually their own) language, do you want to have that reflected at all in the way their English dialogue is written? If they’re communicating on a channel that isn’t auditory, such as empathic or telepathic or pheremonal signals, what information are they conveying by that means and how do you want to express that in English?

Telepathy usually is indicated by parentheses. However, the vocal language is sung rather than spoken. Although this is not as evident in the first book, Ualin (Lin) is making changes based on her experience off-sphere. She sometimes talks without singing and she uses talking aloud to make conversations more confidential. However the rest of the people speak by singing and it makes sense to me that they would be more used to telepathic communication than singing. That means for characters who have not spent much time off Ua, even singing might be difficult or even grate on the nerves. This indeed would make for interesting interactions, as AzRa has not been off Ua very much, yet her house is responsible for providing musicians for the other houses. And I had not even considered that some of the music might should be telepathic in nature. What would that look like? I’m thinking…

6. Voice
This one means narrator voice – the language of the voice telling the story. Whether you’ve got a story told in first or third person, the narrator has an identity, and that identity is indicated by the words you use to tell the story. The narrator can be an epic storyteller, or one of the characters considering his or life retrospectively, or one of the characters experiencing the story in the moment; as a character (invisible or no), the narrator has his or her own culture that is reflected in language. This element can be tricky to step back from and work with, but if you ever really want to go whole hog with an alien point of view, for example, it can be invaluable.

This is something I’ve worked with in other things I’ve written as I’ve an issue with stories where all the characters sound like the author even if their internal dialogue is written differently. It’s the reason I am very picky about what I read. I lose my willing suspension of disbelief if everyone sounds the same. I may decide to develop this further as I have not worked much with what another world seems like to a djinn. This may be important (if we have room) to develop in our 4 year old djinn who emerges from his kifu on Beren Gan (Beren is the name of the world and Gan means world in that place).

Um, I probably didn’t mention it, but I have a BA in Writing and though it was long ago, I still have some bits of jargon sticking to me *brushes furiously at side of pants leg* so I hope you will forgive that.


Blog at