Designing a fictional language: part 1

Hello all!

I’ve been thinking lately about scifi and fantasy, and worldbuilding, and how one of the earliest things a writer (or this writer, anyway) does when designing a character is to come up with a name for that character.

Are you a worldbuilding nerd? Do you have characters and places to name? Would you like the names you choose to feel like they really belong together, like they all come from a particular place with a particular culture and feel to it? And would you like to lay the foundation for making up a whole fictional language for them while you’re doing it?

Lucky you, because I have a doctorate in linguistics, and I can tell you how.

What we need to do is to come up with a set of rules to describe how your culture’s language sounds (or, since we’re writing fiction here, how it looks on the page). To do this you’ll need to decide what its people’s vocal tracts are like, which will tell you what sounds they can make. Next you’ll decide which of those sounds they actually use. Then you’ll design the structure of their language’s syllables. At this point, you will know enough to go ahead and begin constructing names…or, if you want extra credit, you can go on to make up some phonological transformations first. That would be Tolkien-level stuff though, and do you want to be doing Tolkien-level stuff?

Yeah, I thought you probably did.

So without further ado, here is installment 1 in designing your scifi/fantasy language, with the specific goal of creating names.

 

Vocal Tracts

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Vocal tracts are what birds and mammals use to make noises. They include everything that can be manipulated to make sounds using air that flows from the outside into the animal’s lungs and back out again.

Different kinds of animals can have different vocal tracts. Birds, for example, have a vocal tract that consists basically of a trachea, a syrinx, an oral cavity, an upper esophagus, and a beak. Mammals on the other hand have a laryngeal cavity or glottis, a pharynx, an oral cavity, and a nasal cavity. Humans specifically can also manipulate their tongue and lips to change the sounds their oral cavities make.

Are your characters humanoids? Are they actually humans? Are they not humanoid at all? That will affect their vocal tracts, which will affect what sounds they can make.

Before you get too excited, let me take you aside for a moment and have a serious talk about that. If your creatures aren’t even humanoids, they’ll still have to communicate to your readers somehow, using symbols for sounds that your readers understand. Your hero might be a gelatinous blob incapable of any noise but low-frequency humming, and that’s all very well, but you’ll have a hell of a time conveying it on the page.

You’ll encounter similar questions if your characters are birds, or if they have a syrinx like a bird…or even if they are mammalian but non-humanoid, like horses. Jonathan Swift did a bang-up job giving names to his intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, in Gulliver’s Travels, by the way. Just looking at “houyhnhnm” you see that it’s a sound a horse could make.

But it will be easiest and most straightforward to say that your characters are humanoid, or at least that they articulate like humans. Just saying.

 

Phonology

If your characters are humanoid then they can make consonant sounds at a few basic points of articulation. They have flexible tongues and lips that can touch those places of articulation in different ways, too.

The basic kinds of consonants that humans make, broken down by what parts of the vocal tract are making them, are:

Glottal sounds, made with the glottis. That’s down near your vocal cords, the farthest down in your throat that you can manipulate sound, and the most familiar English glottal sound is H.

Pharyngeal sounds, made with the pharynx. English doesn’t have these! If you’d like to make a pharyngeal sound yourself, try making an H, but make it hiss. Our glottal H is by necessity pronounced without much turbulence of air, but the pharynx can be tightened, and a hissing H will do that. Some people make this sound when they’ve just taken a bite of really spicy food.

Uvular sounds, made against your uvula, that fleshy blob at the back of your mouth. A few English dialects from specific parts of the British Isles use a uvular sound at the end of the word “loch.” Standard American English doesn’t use uvular sounds.

Velar sounds, created by putting the back of the tongue against the soft palate, which is the soft part at the back of your mouth. Familiar English sounds here include K and G.

Palatal sounds, made with the middle part of the tongue against the hard palate, which is a fancy way of saying the top of your mouth. The English Y sound happens here.

Retroflex sounds, made with the tip of the tongue rolled backward to touch the hard palate. The usual English R is pronounced here, and some dialects pronounce L here too.

Postalveolar sounds are made with the tip of the tongue behind the alveolar ridge, which is the downward slope as you move from your hard palate toward your teeth. Many English speakers pronounce L here, as well as N.

Alveolar sounds are the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge. D, T, S, and Sh are here.

Dental sounds are created with the tip of the tongue against the back of the teeth. Think Th.

Labiodental sounds are created with the lips and teeth together. F, V.

Finally, bilabial sounds are made with the two lips together. Thing B, P, and M.

In addition to places of articulation, consonants have a manner of articulation. This describes how the sound is made, versus where it’s made.

Plosives are made by completely closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation, building up air pressure behind it, then releasing the pressure. Plosives include B, P, D, T, G, and K. They can be made with the vocal cords humming (in which case they’re called voiced) or still (unvoiced).

Nasals are made by closing the vocal tract at the point of articulation and letting air flow out the nose instead of out the mouth. English nasals include M, N, and Ng.

Trills are exactly how they sound: air is rapidly passed over the point of articulation, allowing brief puffs of sound to escape.

Taps or flaps are sort of like light plosives. The vocal tract is closed lightly so air escapes with relatively little force.

Fricatives are formed by narrowing the vocal tract just enough so that the escaping air becomes turbulent; think of rapids in a river. English fricatives include F, V, Th, S, Sh, Z and Zh.

Lateral fricatives (and lateral approximants too) are the same, but the air flow is diverted around either side of the tongue.

Lastly, approximants are sounds in which the vocal tract narrows at the point of articulation, but even less so than with fricatives. They are almost vowels, and in many cases serve the same purpose as vowels (like in the next lesson, when we’ll talk about what’s at the heart of a syllable). In English these include R, Y, and L, which is a lateral approximant.

If you, like me, prefer your information in chart form, then jump over here to see a chart of all the sounds that are made in known natural languages, then here to see the sounds in English specifically. Keep those tabs open, by the way. We’re going to be referring to them.

But what about the vowels, you say? Vowels are wild, that’s what. They don’t depend on hard points of articulation—they’re squishy-wishy slippy-slidey timey-wimey…uh…you get the idea. Suffice it to say they can happen anywhere inside the oral cavity. They can be tense or lax, which means you either tense or relax your vocal tract while you pronounce them, and they can be rounded, which means you make a circle with your lips when you pronounce them, like in the sound “oo”. In addition to this, a vowel can be a monophthong, meaning it is pronounced at just one place in the mouth, or it can be a diphthong, meaning it slides from one place to another, or it can be—wait for it—a triphthong, meaning it moves between three places. All English dialects have several diphthongs: the vowels in face, choice, goat, price, and mouth are all diphthongs. The Wikipedia article on English phonology claims that Received Pronunciation (which is a prescribed “proper” English accent, now falling out of favor but still common on BBC broadcasting) includes triphthongs, but it hasn’t given us any examples of them in use (phooey.)

Go back to the chart I sent you to earlier. This chart is fantastic because if you turn the sound up on your device, it will pronounce the sounds for you. You’ll notice besides the runs of consonants that English has there are series of consonants pronounced as a pop or click, while sucking air in instead of blowing it out, with an extra puff of air…there are lots of fun possibilities.

You’ll also notice that the letters English uses to represent familiar sounds aren’t always the same as the symbols used on this chart. An American R, for example, is ɻ on this chart. Our th- is represented as either θ (unvoiced) or ð (voiced). This system of symbols is called IPA, which stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. These symbols are used because people make more sounds than any alphabet has letters to represent them with. If you really want to keep your head straight as we move forward with constructing your culture’s names, get familiar with those symbols. You can do it. I’ve taught them to a gazillion undergraduate students. You can learn them too.

Spend some time with the IPA chart. Learn about all the wonderful noises humans can make. Try to make them yourself. Get excited about it. Take time with this step, because the next step is to use this chart to construct your language’s phonological inventory.

What’s that?

You’ll notice that English doesn’t use all the possible sounds. No language does. All languages use only a subset of all the noises the human vocal tract can produce. So the first thing you need to do to figure out how your language sounds is…you guessed it. Decide what your language’s subset is, and make a list.

Pick some or a lot of consonants—somewhere between ten and thirty.

Pick some or a lot of vowels—somewhere between three and twelve, say. Also decide if your language has diphthongs and triphthongs, and what they are.

Make your list using IPA symbols, if you can hack it. If you really hate all those little symbols and would rather use the familiar alphabet to write your sounds down, that’s fine too (this is all just fun and games anyway, right?)

You might want to look at the phonological inventories of languages other than English while you’re doing this. Look up Arabic’s. And Mandarin’s. Look up Navajo and Hawaiian. Just google “X phonology” where X is whatever language you’re interested in, and charts will be easy to find.

If you look at enough languages, you’ll notice that languages tend to have “trends” in their phonological inventories. Hawaiian doesn’t have any voiced stops, for example. Arabic has lots of sounds in the velar, uvular, and pharyngeal positions, a part of the vocal tract that English practically ignores. Navajo differentiates unaspirated, aspirated, and ejective stops. Mandarin differentiates tones—sounds spoken using rising, falling, and flat tones of voice. Isn’t that amazing?

So. As you are picking out your language’s phonological inventory, keep in mind that languages tend to have trends in their consonants. You can add consonants that have tones, that are clicks, that are aspirated…whatever makes you happy. Just keep in mind that at the end, you’ll have to figure out how to write it in the standard alphabet for your readers (because you might be willing to learn IPA for your craft, but your readers won’t be.)

At this point, if you are still writing characters who aren’t human, you can impose some broad logic about their phonological inventories based on what you decide about their vocal tracts. Are they cat-people with cleft upper lips, who can’t pronounce bilabial sounds? Do they have teeth like ours that allow dental sounds? Flexible tongues like ours? Do they have an extra point of articulation?

Enjoy yourself, and settle your choices. In the next article we’re going to build syllables.

 

Working Along

Each article in this series will end with a Working Along section, where I’ll make up a naming system at the same time you do, so you can see how I work.

For the sake of simplicity, my characters are human. Say they live on a colonized planet, a couple thousand years after colonization, when the parent cultures have been forgotten.

Below is an inventory of sounds I chose. When choosing yours, I recommend that you start with a word or handful of words that “sound” like your culture, for whatever reason, and use the sounds in those words as the seeds of your phonological inventory. If you already have a character name that you’re attached to then use those.

I started out by thinking of lovely mellifluous words without a lot of hard sounds, like “Wampanoag” and “Momoa.” I picked out the sounds used in them. Then, because I like them, I expanded the series of nasals, added some more velar/uvular/glottal sounds because I guess this language likes that part of the vocal tract, and finally added a trill because they’re fun.

Then I filled out my vowel inventory with mostly mid and back vowels, because that’s where so many of the consonants are happening. I finished off with four diphthongs.

phonology

 

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Return?

I lost my words this summer.

I don’t know why, just that I lost the desire to write things down. Stories. Blog entries. Lists. Daydreams. My imagination stopped working.

Maybe I haven’t been feeding it enough books and music, or maybe I’ve been feeding it the wrong ones. Maybe having my daughter home for the summer, with all her still-only-six-years-old demands and no reliable respite from them, sent my creative mind into hibernation. Maybe I worked so hard in the garden that there was no energy left, or maybe–maybe–my life has finally become full enough that I don’t need to live other ones on the side.

Or maybe the long wait for approval is grinding me down. I’ve had all my books out of sales for a long time, which means no one is reading them or reviewing them or saying anything to me about them. And I thrive on outside attention, yes I do.

Anyway. I was here this summer. I summered hard. We walked in parks, we swam in the pool, I put in a flower border and a shade garden and a vegetable patch, we picked blackberries and I made jam and canned plums and got a lot of sunshine and sweated my ass off.

And now school’s back in session and it’s time to slow down. I’m back to writing. Back to trying to love some other characters. And I’m afraid, so very afraid, I won’t.

But I’m trying.

June 12, 2017

I have a personality trait where I believe that I can set something up for the rest of my life. I have figured out eating plans for the rest of my life, exercise plans for the rest of my life, wardrobe plans, reading plans, knitting and gardening and writing plans. I approach each new hobby holistically, by which I mean I research what materials one would need if one were going to keep at it for the rest of one’s life, and settle on those as the minimum basic set. Thus I have a fairly good setup for binding books by hand, for example, and for marbling paper, for small-scale loom weaving, for scrapbooking, for writing letters by hand–all things I’ve lost interest in. I am constantly trying to find the correct combination of luggage that will solve my How To Pack For Travel problem forever. And when I was young–oh so young and foolish–I thought I could settle on a kind of shoes for the rest of my life. Jewelry for the rest of my life (pearl stud earrings, btw). I felt that having these questions answered would leave me free to move on to bigger and better things.


The Nootka rose–native to this area. It covers whole empty lots.

It’s all foolishness, of course. Our society is too materially rich and I am too flighty a person to settle on practically anything for the rest of my life.


Salmonberry flowers around February. Ripe berries are orangey yellow.

Of course, some things are different. My kid is my kid for life, for example, and I sincerely hope that my husband is also my husband for life. Back in my high-earning days I bought some nice furniture that is probably my furniture for life, and that’s fine. I have romantic ideas about being allowed to make my current home into my home for life. The longest I’ve lived at any one address was seven years. I’d like to find out what it’s like to live in one place for multiple decades. Given my history of moving around, though. . .well, we’ll see. My husband lived at our former house for fifteen years, and in that area for thirty. That was a long time. Maybe he’ll anchor me.


A silent story: a tuft of bunny fur and an eagle’s feather

Life being what it is, though, not only circumstances but I as a person change. Now that I’m out of my tumultuous twenties and more than halfway through my thirties, I can, funnily enough, observe certain things be pared away from my life. I am less likely to pick up a new hobby and its paraphernalia. I am less likely to spend time forming a coherent scheme for my wardrobe. Paradoxically, I am also more likely to stick with a garment for multiple years once I buy it. That’s wisdom. As for the hobbies–well. Let me say that as one ages, one comes to term with limitations. When you’re young, you feel that anything you don’t get done, doesn’t get done because you’re lazy. Later on you realize that there are simply only so many hours in the day, and that you only have so much Voom. You can focus on maybe one major and one minor interest at a time while keeping up with practical obligations, and the rest has to slide. So you approach hobbies with more suspicion.


I can only wish that this was my garden for life

Does that mean I’m actually finding my Patterns For Life? I don’t know.


What IS this stuff? The leaves are fantastic.

To connect this to writing: I find that some of the most appealing books are ones that seem to present a Unified Scheme For The Rest Of The Character’s Life. Happily Ever Afters in romances, for example. Mary’s gardening in The Secret Garden. Insanity in The Yellow Wallpaper. We want to watch a character approach an unchanging state in life; something that can always be depended upon. Of course real life just isn’t like that–but oh. It’s so soothing.


The root ball of a fallen tree. There are lots of these–and much bigger–in the PNW

Sock books and garden books

I’ve got gardening fever bad, this week. Too many old episodes of Gardener’s World, too many trips to the garden center, too many tantalizing green shoots coming out of the ground, giving me foolhardy ideas about starting my solanaceae seeds…which I did, by the way, and probably killed them all in the doing. Le sigh.

Some books are like socks and some books are like gardens. In the writing, I mean. Sock books you cast on and dutifully knit one stitch after another–maybe needing to rip back completely once or twice–until you come to the end, and then you have the sock/book. This feels like a blessed occurrence and if you’re a knitter it means you’re skillful, but if you’re a writer it probably means you don’t know what you’re doing.

That was a snarky thing to say. I won’t apologize.

Other books are like gardens. You know basically what you want. You lay plans. You order seeds and haul the supplies home; you have the tools hanging in the garage already.

And then you put it together, and it all goes to pot. Some things grow, some things don’t. Some things seem to be coming along nicely, then die. A lot of things have to be dug up and replanted due to circumstances your plans didn’t, well, plan for. There are freak storms that decimate swathes of the garden/book, blights, weeds, droughts, heat waves, frosts. A nursery sold you the wrong variety of bulbs and you don’t find out until they flower a year later. You sow your zinnia seeds in the wind and they’re all blown away…and you’re filled with a million restless questions like “what IS this ‘grit’ I keep hearing about? Is it vermiculite or is it fish gravel? Or maybe they just don’t make it in America…maybe you have to be English to get it”, and “I’m technically in zone 8 but I don’t think it’s the zone 8 anyone means when they say a plant is hardy in zone 8”.

So you move things. Replace them. Pull weeds. Learn to mulch and to set up irrigation systems. You–yes–lower your expectations about the exotic flourishes and settle for big swathes of monarda because dammit, it grows. You never have a moment’s peace in your garden. Even in a lawn chair at dusk, with a Strega and soda in hand, all you can think about are the changes that should be made.

And every spring you spend unreasonable amounts of money on plants you know won’t work. But they’re so charming in your mind.

There is no endpoint to the book/garden. It can, if you let it, be a perpetually evolving beast. Maybe a publisher buys it and you have to, half triumphantly, half regretfully, let it go. Your baby. Your project. You sweated blood for it, and now it belongs to someone else. So you start a new book/garden, regretful for the loss of the old one and no longer perfectly charmed by the idea of starting fresh…but armed with everything you learned in the last one, and still infected with springtime optimism.

And I guess that’s all right.

Pruning

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And somehow, I’m back there. Back to my historical novel that had been shelved for four months. And I know how to fix it and I’ve even found a way to fix it that doesn’t make me want to throw up. Am I writing new material? Yes. Am I taking a lot of material out? Also yes. Am I hurting my story? No.

Spring is around the corner, here. The weather report doesn’t look like it (overcast, high 43, low 34, chance of rain day…after day…after day…after day) but it must be, because the willows are budding and I’m on loratadine. For me, having spring come feels like being let out of a cage. For my husband, it feels like standing in front of a cage, waiting for a very large monster to be let out. Our acreage was neglected in the years before we acquired it. Some of the tangle we’re keeping–blackberries give fruit, hardhack is beautiful and native, and some of the willows mind their own business. Other things like crack willows and Scotch broom have to go, and better sooner than later.

So, afternoon after afternoon, if business isn’t too oppressive he’s out there with his chainsaw, cutting things down. The burn pile is ten feet tall, and doesn’t count the quarter-acre of felled broom waiting to be added.

This is pruning the bad stuff. The stuff that obviously shouldn’t be there.

In a historical novel, that stuff includes (1) the buds of storylines that never came to fruition, so why bother keeping them, and (2) scenes written to show off your research.

Yes, I had those. Lots of them. Especially at the beginning. GodDAMmit I was so sure I didn’t, but after four months lying fallow, there they are, peeking out of the book’s soil like green monsters. Cut ’em down. Cut ’em all down.

Then there’s the selective pruning for the health of what’s left. We’ve been watching episodes of Gardener’s World in the evenings, and as Monty Don says: for the health of a plant and the whole garden, it’s better to prune too much than too little. Don’t be afraid to cut back hard, as long as you know that what you’re cutting won’t kill the plant.

When I began to rework this novel, I was cutting things that killed the plant. The character-establishing scenes, the narrator’s voice, the budding romance between the leads. It made me feel sick. It just didn’t seem right, but didn’t Monty Don say to cut, cut, cut…?

Wrong kind of cutting, I decided. Rather, I am now carefully pruning those scenes. Can I remove a paragraph or two where my research is showing? Yes. Idle chatter that didn’t really develop the characters that much? Yes. Can I take the whole second half of this scene and move it later on in the book, where the total removal of a noxious-weed scene has left a bare patch? Most definitely yes. Let it grow there, where there’s space for it. Much better.

The burn pile is 15,000 words and counting. I think the book is better for it. Fingers crossed.

No fun at all

Dabbling in new genres, in both knitting and writing, surely makes one grow as an artist, but you’re always taking a risk that the result will be UGH WHY DID I DO THAT.

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I wrote a historical novel, for example. And not only did I spend a ton of time researching and not only did I feel constrained and flattened by “reality” while writing it, but in the end it turned out that it was entirely wrong from top to bottom. It had a historical setting but didn’t center around one particular historical event or figure, so it was NOT in fact a historical novel at all, but rather an uncategorizable chimera that no one wanted, not even me. And to top it off, when you’re writing a historical setting, there’s the real people angle to deal with. Real groups. Real ancestors. Watch what you say, keep an eye to documented sources, get sensitivity readers–and prepare to be excoriated anyway.

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Siiiighh. I will rewrite that book. It will be a thing. Just not any time soon.

But I digress: socks. I knit a pair out of 100% synthetic sock yarn, and lo, do I regret it. No fun to knit with, impossible to tension so the colorwork looks like crap, and they’re no fun to wear. I am getting rid of this garbage and going back to wool.

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A sense of place

Oooohhhhh kay. The US election is over. We’ve had a couple days to adjust. I am one of those who voted for the losing side, and who blithely assumed that side would win. The result blindsided me. I was in deep, deep denial when I went to bed on Tuesday. Wednesday was A Bad Day. I cried every time I went online and began to read about it. My daughter’s school had a Veteran’s Day program, and we all said the Pledge of Allegiance, and I meant to say it–because I mean the parts about it that are under my control–but my words died on the last line. My body literally, involuntarily didn’t push them out.

This surprises me. I didn’t know I cared that much. There are times you’re consciously aware of your emotional state, and times you aren’t … and knowing that those times you aren’t in control exist is, I think, a valuable thing for a writer.

Everyone has their own particular fears. Most of us could list one or two of them if we were asked. But there have been times in my life when I was caught off guard by fears, and completely unable to understand why I fell apart when confronted by them. You learn a lot about yourself when you stumble upon these fears. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said, we are like tea bags. You don’t know how strong you are until someone throws you in hot water.

There are also, I’ve found, subconscious attachments to places. Places you’ve lived. Places you’ve visited. Even places you’ve only heard about.

Whether ancestral connection to certain pieces of ground “matters” is a contentious and highly political subject, and I won’t go there, only share some of my own observations.

First, when I was a teenager, my mother (from southern Indiana) commented that while she liked to hang out in the woods in northern Indiana, it wasn’t the same. Her own familiar ones were her favorite. This idea stuck with me, and it’s haunted me in the past fifteen months of living very much away from my familiar Eastern Deciduous forest. Everything out here’s different. Birds. Trees. Insects. Looking at old pictures of the woods around our old place puts a lump in my throat. Even though our new woods is about a thousand times wilder and more mysterious. Even though it, too, conjures up a lot of delicious feelings.

Second, I’m of largely Northern European extraction. 40% Germanic and 30% British Isles. I grew up on British literature, so it’s no surprise that going to England was an amazing experience for me. It felt like being in a fairy tale.

Going to the Germanic parts of Europe, though? Bizarre, and a thousand times more poignant. Sitting in bars and hotels in Munich and Zurich, I felt profoundly at home. I belonged there. Those were my people. And I hated it.

Flying over the Netherlands when making a connection at the Amsterdam airport? Seeing the green, green, oh-so-emerald-green fields and the dykes and mist? That turned some kind of primitive crank in the very deepest parts of my soul. I almost wept, just looking out the airplane window. And friends, I have never entertained a romantic notion about wanting to visit the Netherlands, not for a New York minute. The feeling just came. Something about the green–the damp–the brume–the humane order of the whole landscape.

I’m not working toward a conclusion here. I’m only sharing some emotional truths, in hopes that you’ll find them useful in your writing, or in your experience of literature.

One last thought: there are places that feel like home the minute you set foot on them. The Brambles feels that way to me. It’s a foreign land, but it’s my foreign land. But there are also places you don’t choose, but that work their way into your heart all the same. Our previous house feels that way to me, now that we’ve left it. I didn’t want to live there, but it was economically expedient. We did a renovation and made it ours. We had a baby there. We lived there for 5.5 years (and that’s the second-longest I’ve ever lived at the same address in my life). That house was thrust upon me, more than anything, and making the Right Choice to stop my then-fiance from selling it, and telling him that I’d just move in, felt like a moment of heroic good sense. My heart sank when I told him. But it was the right thing to do …

And now I miss it. I genuinely came to love that house. We lived there. We lived well there. And I’ll love it, always.

Fürchte dich nicht

That’s German for “don’t be afraid,” as sung by the inimitable Mary Margaret O’Hara right here.

It’s also, in my opinion, one of the most valuable pieces of advice for writers. And I mean in regards to what you’re doing to your characters; the way you describe it; the stakes you introduce.

Don’t be afraid to go ape. Be disgusting. Be heartrending. Be repellant. Be difficult. In short: be original.

I do some beta reading from time to time, to see what other budding writers are coming up with and to coax them into beta reading for me. More than once, in these readings, I have thought something fabulously interesting had just happened … and turned out to be wrong.

Frexample: a man is trudging through the snow and comes across an unconscious girl, her wrists and ankles all bloody.

I think: ye Gods! She’s had her hands and feet cut off!

I keep reading: no, she’s just been tied up and had her wrists and ankles scratched by the rope.

Drat.

Or again: a young woman is coerced into being adopted by a pair of rich muckety-mucks. I mistakenly think the muckety-mucks are her True Love’s parents, which will create a problem for their budding romance.

I re-read: no, I got my names mixed up. She’s being adopted by different muckety-mucks and her romance is still full speed ahead.

Drat.

Here’s one more: a Water Elemental who hasn’t learned to control her powers is on the run. Under cover of night she slips into a village and sits by … the village well. It’s a large well. There’s a lot of water in it. It must sit on a big aquifer. -AND THEN- the evil emperor’s soldiers show up to drag her away!

I think: I cannot WAIT to see what sort of water monster she inadvertently summons from that well!

I keep reading: nope. She runs away.

Double drat.

Now listen: all these authors had other places their stories needed to go. The woman in the snow needed her hands. The young woman’s romance wasn’t her only fish to fry, not by a long shot, and the romance is the touch of human relief in the story. The Water Elemental’s story couldn’t afford for her to attract attention at that point (so the well was removed from the scene). All the outcomes I imagined are only things I wanted to see, and it’s no skin off the writers’ noses that they had other visions for their stories.

But you understand that all those awful, incredible, dramatic things would have made damn good reading? That’s because they would have Upped Stakes, and Upping Stakes is what you have to do. You have to stop being afraid of being TOO exciting, TOO problematic. You have to suck it up, buttercup, and make the bad thing happen, and deal with the fallout. That’s how great stories are written. I’ve written five books at this point, and I can promise you, pinky promise you, that the best ones are the ones that, when I realized what had to happen, made me say “oh, no. OH no,” and make a special trip to the liquor store.

Whereas some of the least interesting stories I’ve read are the ones where the author said, “but I don’t want to hurt my characters” or “I really don’t want to go there.” WHY NOT?!?!?!?! Why are we here?

My daughter is five years old. Just at the age when picture books are losing their charm, but finding a chapter book to hold her attention is a dicey proposition. I tried lots of old favorites–I won’t go through the list–but which book has finally enchanted her?

The Witches by Roald Dahl.

It’s a children’s book, of course. But it opens with an exhortation to children to BE CAREFUL, because the world is full of REAL WITCHES who will SQUELCH CHILDREN. This isn’t made up! This is real!

It goes on to describe bizarre disappearances, open sores on scalps, the smell of dog’s droppings, and missing thumbs. As I read, I wondered if I wasn’t setting myself up for a long night of comforting a distressed child.

But I wasn’t. She was rapt the whole time, and when I put the book down, she squealed for more. I told her we could read more tomorrow–so she’d better go to sleep to make tomorrow come faster.

And she did.

Up stakes, people. Help a parent get her kid to sleep. And strengthen your story in the process.

A writer’s act of faith

I’m closing in on finishing my fifth novel … by which I mean, closing in on the point where I say I’ve done all that I can do and send it to betas. This is by no means the end of working on this book, you understand. There will be revisions based on beta feedback, then revisions based on my agent’s feedback, and–should she choose to put it on submission–revisions based on editors’ feedback. Never mind what happens if someone buys it.

But all that is looking very far ahead. Right now I am finishing up the just-me, in-a-vacuum version of it, and I have learned a lot.

This book’s beginning is an amalgamation of two other beginnings that didn’t work out. One was 8K words, the other 25K. I took the heroine from the 25K one and mashed her with another heroine from another 20K failed start, and put her with a new hero. This start got to 18K words before I gave up.

Then I took the hero and heroine and inserted them into the situation from that 8K start, which segued into an unwritten idea I had pitched to a few other writers two years ago. Aha. Now we are getting somewhere.

The story moved from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Canadian fur trade. The characters’ route changed from a northerly one to an easterly one. I spent weeks researching city layouts, manners, military situations, domestic artifacts, fashion, slang, and reading travelogue after travelogue. History is a hell of a lot of work.

But after 30K words in third person, it wasn’t working. So I stopped, and rewrote it in first.

Then it had legs.

I knew, by this point, the rough shape of the book. I knew who would marry whom, who would die, who would love and procreate, and whose hearts would break. I knew the final scene of the book, which is huge. And I wrote all that down, with some interstitial stuff to hold it together. The results was an 85K word story that I hated. I put it in Time Out.

After a month of recovery, I set to a heavy rewrite of what I had. It took months. Whole scenes were thrown out. Whole new scenes were written. I despaired. I didn’t like it. I skipped nights of work because I just Couldn’t. But dammit, I rewrote that thing to the end, and I put it in Time Out again. It was 104K words this time.

And then something happened. I couldn’t leave it alone. It was put away less than a week before I got it out again and began to read that second draft … and found that I liked it.

I had a book I liked. O, frabjous day.

I am rewriting that book now. It’s much less of a slog than the previous rewrite–it’s going to take me maybe a month all told, and the length of the thing isn’t changing. But I finally have emotionally compelling characters to deal with. I have some themes that are played out through some action and dialogue. I am still throwing out sections of scenes. I am still writing some new stuff. But I like it. No, maybe I love it. Parts of it. Maybe … just maybe … even though I didn’t breathe this book onto the page fully formed (the way I thought I had breathed my first novel), it will have been Worth It.

Maybe my magic isn’t gone.

Maybe I’m just older and wiser. Maybe I’ve learned which spells work and which don’t. Maybe I’ve learned to tighten my writing and ass-kick the story into motion. Maybe I’m self-conscious now because I’m writing to please others … no, that is definitely the case, and it’s unfortunate, but there it is.

But I’m going to have a book I like. And I had to work for it. And for the longest time, I didn’t like it. Sometimes I hated it. I wanted to throw it out the window and re-read my old stuff, the good stuff, back from when I knew what I was doing.

Turns out I still do, just differently.

And that, my friends, is the supreme act of faith that is writing (and rewriting) a novel.

Super smart characters

So you, as the author, are the puppet master pulling your characters’ strings. You know exactly what they’re going to do and say, even if they don’t understand why.

But what happens when your characters are smarter than you? How are you supposed to write that?

It isn’t something I’ve done myself–I’m still wading into the waters, here–but I’ve observed lots of other writers doing it. Here’s my breakdown of the approaches I’ve observed.

1. Baffle ’em with bullshit

The old trick: if you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance … . If your book is science fiction, make up technolingo that your readers have no choice but to believe. If your book is literary, make up a highly abstract and illogical-seeming train of thought that your readers have to accept. After all, impressions are individual, and your ultra-intelligent character obviously just understands things the reader doesn’t, right?

Sherlock Holmes is the premier example of this. Sherlock’s approach boils down to this simple maxim: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s bullshit. A person can never anticipate all the possibilities. No, not even Sherlock.

Drawbacks of this approach are that most people, especially clever ones, have bullshit meters. So bullshit if you must, but bullshit well.

2. Pet knowledge

In this approach the writer gloms onto one piece of abstract knowledge, an incident from Herodotus, say, and turns it into a fetishistic fashion show of the character’s erudition. Did you read a Latin inscription on an old headstone and look up what it meant? Go for it. Did you hear a weird anecdote about the African clawed frog at a dinner party? There you go. Did you–pardon me, Mr. Ondaatje–read the first page of Herodotus? You’re off to the races. Your readers might look up your piece of knowledge retroactively, and realize it wasn’t so abstract after all, but most of them will be impressed in the moment, and forgive you. You have created the needed impression. You have done your job.

3. Trust me, I’m the author

In this approach your intelligent character is always right because you, the author, manipulate the story to make the character right. This is how detective stories work: the detective deduces the identity of the murderer because the author makes that person the murderer. In the very best detective stories it’s possible to eliminate everyone else … if one is Sherlock Holmes … but the murder is often committed with the help of a deus ex machina that the reader, who isn’t entitled to use deus ex machinas when speculating about the murderer, didn’t dare imagine.

I’m reading Dune right now, and Frank Herbert does the same thing with the mentats and bene gesserit. They have miraculous deductive capabilities–because he makes them be right. The reader doesn’t mind this because it’s necessary for the story and the story is so damn good, but it’s a trick all the same.

So there you go: three ways to make an ultra-intelligent character work. Have you noticed others? Do share.