Building theocracy in fiction

Ask a lot of Americans (and other Westerners in general) what the scariest form of government is, and you’ll probably get the same answer from most of them: Islamic fundamentalist. We’re constantly bombarded (no pun intended) with all kinds of news about ISIS, Iran, the Taliban, sharia law, and the like. Some of it is exaggerated, but not all. For many people, a legal system constructed around strict Islamic principles is indeed a frightening prospect. (Funnily enough, some of those same people wouldn’t mind a strict Christian code of laws, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Islamic government and law form a subset of the general notion of a theocracy: government by religion. Although we strongly associate it with the Middle East today, it has always been around, in many different guises through the ages. The Vatican is essentially a theocracy, for example. Many medieval European nations, where kings were considered to rule by divine will and church law was sacrosanct, could be said to have theocratic underpinnings. The Puritans who came to America did so because they wanted a utopia where everyone followed their interpretation of the Bible. And that’s just in the West.

Theocracy is also one of those forms of government that appears often in fiction. Especially fantasy, where there’s the very real possibility of gods walking the earth; here, the literal translation of the term, “rule by god”, can be entirely accurate. But theocracy can pop up in historical fiction, too, and even sci-fi. Religion is a fact of life, as long as we live in modernish human societies, and there’s always the possibility that someone decides to invert the American ideal of separation of church and state.

Now, by our standards, theocracy is quite obviously a bad thing. We see ISIS lopping off heads, we hear tales of women being stoned to death because they were raped, we listen to talking heads speaking of the evils of sharia law, and it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that, hey, this isn’t a good idea.

On the other side of the aisle, we then see members of a different faith arguing that the Ten Commandments should be posted in courthouses, that Muslims should be banned from entering our country just on account of their beliefs, and that it’s okay for children to be forced to recite an oath calling the US “one nation under God“. Those are theocratic trappings, as well, and they’re no more wholesome than requiring a woman to wear a burqa in public.

Of gods and men

But enough politics. Let’s talk about theocracy as an institution, and how you can use it in your fictional worlds.

The basic idea, obviously, is that the government is constructed in such a way as to give primacy to religion. That can come in many forms, however, ranging from token to suffocating.

First, a “lighter” theocracy exists in places like Elizabethan England or the modern United States. Orthodoxy is paramount. Heresy and apostasy are denounced, possibly outlawed, but only outright persecuted when they reach a critical mass. Laws show deference to religion, and government quite clearly favors the majority or plurality, but there is also a significant secular code that must be followed. These theocracies can almost be considered benign, especially if you’re one of those who follows the “favored” faith.

Second are the medieval-style theocracies. Here, it’s not that church officials run the country, or that scripture is considered the first and last word in justice. No, this “medium” theocracy has religion as subtle yet pervasive. One sect is explicitly established as primary, and its teachings are used as a basis for law, but it is open to interpretation, and there stand some (such as kings) above the law by divine fiat. Following a different religion will mark you as an outcast in this style of theocracy, but it’s not an automatic death sentence. There may even be enclaves for non-believers, much as Jews often had their ghettoes in medieval times (and much later).

Higher on the scale are the “hard” theocracies like Saudi Arabia, and these, when they appear in fiction, are almost always of the “evil empire” sort. This is where beliefs have the power of law…but only if they don’t simply replace it. Not only is scriptural text the basis for the law code, it is the law. Violating holy precepts is considered a crime, ranging from a petty misdemeanor all the way up to high treason. Worse, it’s usually the faction in charge who gets to decide how the holy books are interpreted. Heresy is effectively rebellion, etc.

Last is the “literal” theocracy I mentioned above. This one can’t possibly exist in our natural world, but it’s doable in fantasy fiction. Here, a divine (or presumed divine, or just divinely inspired) being actually rules a nation. His word is both law and holy writ, and there’s no way that can be good. Usually, this type is more a foil for the protagonists, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Ian C. Esselmont’s Stonewielder, or Brian McClellan’s An Autumn Republic. Another option is that it’s a kind of utopian facade, where it looks like the godhead is benevolent and peaceful, but there are deeper strains; this one is especially good for polytheistic theocracies, and you could make an argument that that’s the case in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

In the shadow of the gods

Depending on how heavy the theocratic leanings of a government, living can be essentially normal or worse than Communist Russia. It’s not that theocracy implies a police state or tyrannical overlord; that’s just the natural tendencies of mankind. There’s nothing stopping a theocracy from being something great, except that old maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what more absolute power is there than godhood? We see something similar with autocratic nations like North Korea, where the leader isn’t necessarily deified, but he’s the next best thing. Making government infallible (as a strong theocracy does) also makes it unimpeachable.

But a lot of it depends on the religion. Not merely what the holy texts say, but how they’re read. Moderate Muslims despise ISIS for cherry-picking verses, using them and only them to justify their ways. It’s no different from would-be Christian theocrats in America, quoting Leviticus as an argument to make homosexuality illegal while ignoring all the other awful stuff that book (and the rest of the Bible) contains. And it’s not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. Buddhist governments have done some pretty awful things. The Romans tolerated other religions until their followers got too uppity. Look through history, and you’ll see the same thing repeated everywhere.

That’s the bad, but is there good? Can there be good in theocracy? As a writer, I say yes. Maybe not in the way actual humans would do it, but I can construct a plausible chain of events that would lead to a relatively benign faith-based government. It would almost have to be a polytheistic faith, I think, one involving multiple “parties” of gods who often face off against one another. One probably without a lot of written scripture, maybe, or where that’s mostly limited to mythological tales. Something where “good” qualities are similar to our own. Imagine, for instance, a theocracy based on the Greek pantheon.

Getting to that point

But it’s those in-between events that I find more fascinating. How does a theocracy arise? How does it end?

Charisma, I believe, plays a factor in developing a theocracy. It doesn’t have to be individual, though that’s certainly an option, but charismatic religious leaders could convince the populace that theocratic rule is a good choice. Another possibility is a converted king, because converts are always the most zealous adherents of a faith. And then there’s the force option, as theocracy is proclaimed as a result of a revolution, but that again takes a certain amount of diplomacy to get the general population on board.

Ending a theocracy is a bit harder, particularly if it’s one of the harder varieties. Of course, a literal gods-among-us fantasy theocracy has an easy solution: kill the god. When you’re dealing with his subordinates, however, that doesn’t quite work; there’s always more to take their place. So, you need something stronger.

Outside influence can work, and that can take any form ranging from propaganda to direct interference to invasion. (“It’s not invasion, but liberation,” the outsiders would say in that case.) Popular revolt is another method that has been shown to work in the real world, but that implies two things. One, there really is support for overthrowing the priesthood—not always a given, especially on the eve of rebellion. Second, there’s a plan for replacing the theocracy itself, not just those at its head. It’s one thing to talk about turning, say, Iran into a democracy. Doing it (and not making the people there hate you for it) is another matter entirely.

The future of theocracy

Last, let’s talk about the idea of theocracy in science fiction. Now, that’s something that may not seem like it makes much sense. The future is supposed to be humanist, agnostic, or irreligious. Maybe all the people aren’t, but the setting itself typically considers religion to be, at best, a character quirk.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re dealing with a spacefaring humanity, then there’s the potential for having colonies (planets in other solar systems, local asteroids, O’Neill habitats, etc.) that are designed for one specific culture. For example, a generation ship designed and built for the Mormons figures in James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes (and the TV series The Expanse). One could just as easily imagine an orbital ring inhabited entirely by displaced Palestinians, or a literal Plymouth Rock in the asteroid belt, where next-century Puritans could build their new Eden. And once aliens get involved, then you have their religions to think about; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shows one way that could go.

These futuristic theocracies will have much in common with their modern or older ancestors. How much, of course, depends on many factors. First, how did they arise? “ISIS in Space” is going to be an entirely different sort of theocracy than some billionaire resurrecting the Levellers on a kilometer-long spin station as a social experiment. Second, how deep are the theocratic roots? Are we talking about a serious attempt at “a Biblical way of life”, or just “I want to live in a place where everybody goes to church on Sundays”? These factors, among others, will determine the character of a theocratic culture. That, in turn, will give you a good idea of where it stands on the utopia to tyranny axis.

In the real world, theocracies are justifiably frightening. For people who are tolerant or even nonbelievers, they show the worst that religious thought can offer. But in fictional settings, they can be a valuable asset. Whether ideal or idol, the mixing of church and state can bring about interesting social dynamics, conflicts, and character growth.

Let’s make a language, part 24c: The mind (Ardari)

As with Isian last week, I’m not going to bother with the rundown of Ardari vocabulary. Let’s focus on the cases where it doesn’t match up with the glosses in the list instead.

First up is tor- “to agree with”. You’ll notice the parenthetical down there; “to agree” is tory-, a derived intransitive. Thus “I agree with you” is torotya, while simple “I agree” is toryma, with the usual split-S concord trickery.

The Ardari word for “sad”, jysall, is a bit harsher than its English counterpart. To be jysall, you have to be really sad, like “in tears” level! Anything else is merely umil “unhappy”.

With tèch “nice”, it’s something of the opposite. “Nice”, for a speaker of Ardari, is good, wholesome, kind, thoughtful, and even pretty. It’s possibly more general than the English word is in formal contexts, but about the same as in colloquial speech. The man who picks up that bag you dropped is tèch, but so is the bag itself, if it was, say, a Christmas present.

In much the same vein, trodyn “wise” has a bit of an expanded meaning in Ardari. A good idea is trodyn, as are your elders. Anything that makes you laugh can be considered säv “funny”, but you have to be beyond hopping mad before you’re considered nyol “angry” instead of merely urkwis “un-calm”.

Regular derivations exist for pretty much all the words below. Adjectives can easily be turned into nouns: nyolymat “anger”, trodynymat “wisdom”, milyëmat “happiness”. (Note the slight change in that last one to prevent the awkward letter sequence -yy-.) Verbs work, too: salmönda “love”, bejëkön “thinker”, toròs “agreeable”, chòmnyn “action” (an irregular example).

Word list

  • angry: nyol
  • brave: noll
  • calm: kwis
  • funny: säv
  • happy: mil(y)
  • intelligent: sund
  • mind: broma
  • nice: tèch
  • sad: jysall
  • thankful: därynt
  • to act: chòma-
  • to agree: tory- (trans. “to agree with”: tor-)
  • to decide: bèlse-
  • to fear: nurh-
  • to feel: luch-
  • to hate: jad-
  • to know: trod-
  • to learn: prèll-
  • to love: salm-
  • to remember: ingri-
  • to teach: sydon-
  • to thank: där-
  • to think: bejë-
  • to want: majtas-
  • wise: trodyn

Next time

Remember, no posts for this series next month. We’ll be back in May to look at how Isian and Ardari talk business. Until then, have fun exploring the minds of your own conlangs.

Magic and tech: cities

In today’s world, over half the planet’s population lives in urban areas. In other words, cities. That’s a lot, and the number is only increasing as cities grow ever larger, ever more expansive. Even on the smaller end (my local “big” city, Chattanooga, has somewhere around a quarter of a million people, and it’s not exactly considered huge), the city is a marker of human habitation, human civilization, and human culture. It’s a product of its people, its time and place.

In the city

The oldest cities are really old. Seriously. The most ancient ones we’ve found date back about 10,000 years, places like Çatalhöyük. Ever since then, the history of the world has centered on the urban. These oldest cities might have housed a few hundred or thousand people, probably as a way of ensuring mutual protection and the sharing of goods. But some eventually grew into monsters, holding tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, primarily to ensure mutual protection and the sharing of goods.

Looked at a certain way, that’s really all a city is: a centralized place where people live together. The benefits are obvious. It’s harder to conquer a city’s multitudes. There’s always somebody around if you need help. Assuming it’s there, you don’t have to go very far to find what you’re looking for. In a rural area, you don’t have any of that.

Of course, clustering all those people together has its downsides. In pre-modern times, two of those were paramount. First, every person living in a city was one not working in the fields, which meant that somebody else had to do the work of growing the city-dweller’s food and shipping it to the urban market. Great for economics, but now you’re depending on a hinterland that you don’t necessarily have access to.

The second problem is one we still struggle with today, and that is sanitation. I’m not just talking about sewage (which wasn’t nearly as big a problem in some old cities as we typically imagine), but a more general idea of public health. Cities are dirty places, mostly because they have so many people. Infections are easier to spread. Waste has to go somewhere, as does trash. Industry, even the pre-industrial sort, produces pollution of the air and water. And water itself becomes a commodity; even though most older cities were built near rivers or lakes (for obvious reasons), it might not be the cleanest source, especially in an unusually dry season.

Through the ages

A city’s character has changed throughout history. While they’ve retained their original purpose of being a gathering place for humanity, the other purposes they serve fall into a few different categories, some of which are more important in certain eras.

First of all, a city is an economic center. It holds the markets, the fairs, the trading houses. Sure, a village can have a weekly market pretty easily, but it takes a city to provide the infrastructure necessary for permanent shops and vendors. This includes food sellers, of course, but also craftsmen and artisans in older days, factories and department stores today. You don’t see Wal-Mart sticking a new store out in the middle of nowhere (the nearest to me are each about 10 miles away, in cities of about 10,000), and that’s for the same reason why, say, a medieval village won’t have a general shop: it’s not profitable. (The Wild West trope of the dry goods store is a special case. They provided needed materials to settlers, miners, and railroad workers, which was profitable.)

Another purpose of a city is as an administrative center. It’s a seat of government, a home to whatever the culture’s notion of justice entails. In modern times, that means a police force, a city council or mayor, a courthouse, a fire department, and so on. Cultures with cities will begin to centralize around them, and these central cities may later grow into states, city-states, nations, and even empires. Larger cities also have a way of “projecting” themselves; all roads lead to Rome, and how many Americans can name all five of New York City’s boroughs, but can’t name that many counties in their home state? With national and imperial capitals, this projection is even greater, as seen in London, Washington, Beijing, etc. This ties into both the economic reason above, as capitals of administration are very often capitals of commerce, and the one we’re about to see.

Thirdly, cities become cultural centers. While projecting force and economic power outward, they do the same for their culture. This develops naturally from the greater audiences the city provides; it’s hard for an artist to find patronage when he lives out in the country. (That’s just as true in 2017 as it was in 1453, by the way.) And since cities provide stability that rural areas can’t, this creates more incentive for creative types to move downtown. This creates a snowball effect, often spurred on by government investment—grants in modern times, patronage in eras past—until the city begins to take on a cultural character all its own. Like begets like in this case, and in a larger nation with multiple big cities, a kind of specialization arises: movies are for Los Angeles, Memphis has the blues, Vegas is where you go to gamble.

Now with magic

So that’s cities in the real world: urban centers of commerce, government, art, defense, and so many other things. What about in a magical world?

In many cases, it depends on how magic works in the setting. Magic that can be “industrialized” is easy: it effectively becomes another public service (if it requires infrastructure such as artificial “ley lines”—I have written a series based on exactly this concept) or private industry (if it instead takes skilled craftsmanship, as with enchanters in fantasy RPGs). In both of these cases, magic can almost fade into the background, becoming a part of the city’s very fabric.

For the slightly rarer and much less powerful magic we’ve been talking about in this series, it’s a bit of a different story. Yes, there will be magical industries, crafts, and arts; we’ve seen them in earlier parts. As magic in our realm is predictable, almost scientific, it will be used by those who depend on that predictability and repeatability. That includes both the private and public sectors. And enterprising mages will certainly sell the goods they create. That may be in a free market, or their prices and supplies might be tightly controlled, creating a black market for magical items.

If magic can be harnessed for public works, then that implies that cities in our magical realm are, by default, cleaner than their real-world contemporaries. They won’t be dystopian disaster areas like Victorian London or modern Flint. They’ll have clean streets and healthier, longer-lived people than their predecessors. Again, the snowball starts rolling here, because those very qualities, along with the city’s other aspects, will function as advertising, drawing immigrants from the countryside. And the automation and advancement we’ve already said will come to food production lets them do it. Thus, it’s not nearly as hard as you think to get a magical city up to, say, half a million in population.

The main thrust of this series has been that magic can effectively replace technology in certain types of worldbuilding. That’s never more true than in the city. Technology has made cities possibly in every era. The first urban areas arose about the same time as farming, and there’s no denying a connection there. Iron Age advances created the conditions necessary for the first true metropolises, and industrialization, machinery, and electricity gave us our modern megacities. At each stage, magic can create a shortcut, allowing cities to grow as large as they could in the “next” technological leap forward.

Let’s make a language, part 24b: The mind (Isian)

There’s not too much to say about the collection of words this time around, and I’m not going to bother with the whole “here’s what they can do” deal again. You should have a pretty good idea of that by now. Instead, we’ll look at some of the connotations that are different in Isian.

First off, mac “mind” refers more to the abstract notion of a thinking organ, as opposed to sayban “brain”. The latter only talks about that physical bit inside your skull, while the former can’t refer to it at all. It’s a more defined distinction than in English, where the two terms can be almost interchangeable.

Second, itey “funny” indicates humor, but not most of the other senses of its English counterpart. An Isian joke would be itey, but not something oddly shaped. (That’s not to say you can’t use it in a metaphorical sense, but it’s not the dictionary definition.)

Similarly, erda “act” isn’t used for a movie star. It’s more of a general term, probably better translated as “to take action”. It can also function in the sense of “to make oneself become”, as in erda yali “cheer up” or erdacan halu “I’ve calmed down”.

The word cobet, translated below as “intelligent”, also means “sentient” or “sapient”, in a technical context. But almerat “wise” can mean both of those, too. In this sense, almerat is more “philosophical”, while cobet is more “scientific”.

Finally, essentially all of the terms in the list below have regular derivations. Isian speakers can talk about happiness by saying yaliros, and they can be unhappy (but not necessarily sad) with ayalin. Agreement is awconas, hatred uldinas, and so on. True wisdom, or almeratos, is something few speakers believe exists, but that doesn’t mean they don’t strive for it.

Word list

  • angry: hayka
  • brave: abor
  • calm: halu
  • funny: itey
  • happy: yali
  • intelligent: cobet
  • mind: mac
  • nice: nim
  • sad: nulsa
  • thankful: nichodo
  • to act: erda
  • to agree: awco
  • to decide: sade
  • to fear: poyo
  • to feel: ilsi
  • to hate: uldi
  • to know: altema
  • to learn: nate
  • to love: hame
  • to remember: noga
  • to teach: reshone
  • to thank: nicho
  • to think: tico
  • to want: doche
  • wise: almerat

Pandoc, LaTeX, and Memoir

A while back, I wrote about the “inner workings” of my writing. My stories are created using Markdown, which I run through a program called Pandoc to turn into EPUB format. (Then, to make Amazon happy, I send that through KindleGen, which spits out a MOBI file that can then go on the Kindle Store.) It works, and there’s a minimum of fuss. No fiddling with margins and page layout, no worrying about arcane or proprietary file formats, just a lot of text that already looks pretty much like a book.

Well, Amazon has a new thing for their KDP self-publishers: paperbacks. If you remember Createspace, it’s kinda like that, but integrated with the “main” Kindle Store. All you really have to do is upload a new format manuscript, and they’ll even give you an ISBN. (Note for non-US readers: my country seriously overcharges for ISBNs, so getting one for free is a big deal.) And the paper book shows up on Amazon as an option alongside the Kindle digital version. My brother already tried it with his book Angel’s Sin, and it seems to have worked.

So, of course, now I’m going to do the same with Before I Wake and the forthcoming Nocturne, as well as some of my future projects. To do this, however, I’ve had to delve deeper into the mechanics of my workflow.

The format issue

Amazon doesn’t like EPUBs. That’s well known. For digital books, they really, really want you to send them either a MOBI file, or something like HTML or a Word document. That’s most assuredly because of DRM. (It can’t be because they don’t know how to convert, since they give you a command-line tool to do so!) Be that as it may, I don’t really mind the last little step of running KindleGen to make an Amazon-friendly version; it’s easily automated, and I’ll still have the EPUB ready to go on Patreon or wherever.

With this new paperback option, however, there’s a problem: they don’t take MOBI, either! Nope, if you want to upload a manuscript for actual printing, your options are Word DOC/DOCX, plain HTML (possibly zipped with images and stylesheets), or “print-ready” PDF. That last is code for, “Do all the layout yourself, ’cause we ain’t touching it.”

Well, there’s the dilemma. Pandoc will happily output just about whatever format you like, but each of the options available has its downsides. Microsoft Word documents require (naturally) Microsoft Word, which isn’t really an option for a Linux user like myself. (The web app version of Office is also a nonstarter, for much the same reasons.) Zipped HTML is essentially an EPUB already, but then you have all the layout issues that come from shoving a “streaming” markup format like HTML into the “blocks” of a printed page. Fiddly bits like margins and headers and page numbers, and all with no usable previewer.

So what does that leave? Only one thing: PDF. And Pandoc can make a PDF, but not by itself. Fortunately, it knows someone who can help.

The type type

TeX (that’s really how it’s meant to be written in plain text) is the famous typesetting program originally developed by the equally famous Donald Knuth. I’ve used it many times before, on Linux and on Windows, and it works great for what it is: a “programmer’s” interface to text layout. Not a word processor, but a text processor.

TeX has been extended a few times over the past 40 or so years, and it has accrued an entire ecosystem of add-ons, bells and whistles, and documentation. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can get a seriously beautiful document. By default, it comes out in PostScript format, which is relatively arcane and not really useful to anyone. But far more common these days is its PDF option. Its print-ready PDF option.

I don’t mind writing a bit of code. I’d rather do that than play around in a word processor GUI, clicking at buttons and tweaking margins. Give me the linear word any day of the week. So I decided I’d try to use TeX (actually, the much simpler wrapper LaTeX, and be absolutely sure you capitalize that one right!) with Pandoc to make a printable PDF of one of my books.

Writing my memoir

The full story is going to play out over the next few weeks. I’ve been searching for new material for the “Code” posts here, and now I’ve found it: a deep look into what it takes for me, a very non-artistic writer experienced with programming in multiple languages and environments, to create something that looks like a book.

In the first of multiple upcoming posts, I’ll look at memoir, a wonderful LaTeX extension (“class”, as they’re called) used for creating books that truly look like they were designed by professionals. It’s not exactly plug-and-play, and I’ll gladly admit that I had to do a lot of work to beat it into shape, but I only had to do it once. Now, every book I write can use the same foundation, the same basic template.

After that, I’ll go back to Pandoc and show you the work I did to convince it to do what I wanted. I’ve never written a horror story before, but this might be the closest to it, from a programmer’s perspective. It was a coding nightmare, one I’m not sure I’m out of yet, but the end result is everything I need in a book, as you’ll see.

Let’s make a language, part 24a: The mind (Intro)

Humans are not alone in having emotions, desires, and mental capacities. We are, however, alone on this planet in having the higher cognition functions commonly described as sapience. (Now, there’s nothing saying alien species can’t have the same, but that’s a different post.) And we’re also alone in possessing the full capabilities of language. In this part of the series, we’ll look at how those two uniquely human attributes combine to produce the linguistic expression of our minds, and how a language can encode those attributes.

The center of thought

Cogito ergo sum, goes the saying, and it may be one of the most profound in existence. I think, therefore I am. It’s pure humanity distilled into three words of Latin, five of English. We are thinking beings. We can think about thinking. And we can speak about thinking.

Thought, then, is going to play a part in any language’s vocabulary. We have the English verb think to start, obviously, but that’s far from the end of the story. Not only can we think, but we can know. We can understand or comprehend. We can deduce, perceive, and reason. All these are related to thought and cognition, but in different ways. Knowing something is true, for example, is different from knowing (i.e., recognizing) a person’s face; some languages split this distinction into two verbs. Understanding and comprehending are likewise slightly different, but then there are languages out there that combine the two into a single term.

Without veering too far into philosophy, it’s still easy to see the potential for a lot of vocabulary variation. How a culture’s speech divides the linguistic space of thought tells a lot about how they think. It’s not quite the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (language determines thought patterns), but you might think of it as a weaker form.

Of course, talking about the mind’s function is a lot easier for us than for, say, the ancient Greeks. But most of our technical terminology comes from classical sources, formed following the usual agglutinative patterns of English scientific vocabulary. A conlang might look to its own “classical” cousin for inspiration, or it might borrow from a more advanced neighbor, or its speakers could instead choose to coin their own terms. That’s up to you.

The seat of emotion

Although the ancients may have considered the heart the source of human emotion, we now know it comes from the brain. So emotions therefore fall under the category of mental terms, too.

Emotion is easy for us to recognize, for reasons that should be fairly obvious—society probably couldn’t function if we didn’t know how to read the unspoken signals of our fellow man. So it’s not surprising that many languages have a native stock of emotion words. We can say we’re happy or sad, for instance. We can talk about feeling love or envy towards another. But every language runs out eventually; there aren’t any native English words for ennui, acedia, or Schadenfreude, among many others.

Humans all feel roughly the same variety of emotions, too (ignoring psychopaths and the like), so there’s going to be a good cross-linguistic alignment of emotion terms. One language may have three different kinds of “happy”, but you can bet none of them are going to indicate anger. (For non-human conlangs, this is another chance to get creative. Short-circuiting basic assumptions regarding emotion will very easily give a culture an alien feel.)


There’s a lot to the mind. Philosophers wouldn’t have spent the last few thousand years talking about it otherwise. It’s the center of our humanity, the source of thought, reason, logic, and emotion. What we do with it is up to us, but how we talk about it is a matter of language. There’s not too much room for variation here, except in the margins. As long as we’re thinking, we’ll have a verb to say that’s what we’re doing. As long as we can feel happiness, there will be a word for it.

Strictly speaking, the next part of this series, Part 25, is supposed to be about business. However, I’ve got other plans for the month of April, including some Patreon and Amazon releases, so I’m putting off the next installment of “Let’s Make a Language” until May. I’ve been going at it for about two years now, and I think I deserve a break.

On child characters

One of the more interesting challenges of writing in a “limited” style (i.e., not omniscient third-person) is getting into the minds of your characters. I don’t mind. In fact, I like it. I feel like it lets me try out new ways of thinking, of seeing the world. And nowhere is this more true than when I’m writing children.

This isn’t a purely theoretical exercise, either. My short story “Either Side of Night” is entirely written from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy caught up in events largely beyond his comprehension. A novel I’m writing features multiple POVs, and all of them are children when the story starts.

Of course, I’m not the only one. Plenty of authors write narrative through a child’s eyes, and some of the greatest fictional characters are young. Look, for instance, at Harry Potter, or half the cast of A Song of Ice and Fire. (Going strictly by the American standard of “under 18”, the kids narrating A Game of Thrones outnumber the adults!) I’m sure you can find plenty of others, and not just restricted to the young adult and teen fiction sections.

Eyes of a Child

Why, you may ask, should you bother writing from a child’s perspective? Well, disregarding the obvious answer of “it’s what the story needs”, I can think of a few reasons.

First, children can be more ignorant of the inner workings of the setting. To them, especially to the younger ones, everything in the world is mysterious or unknown. That’s exactly how a reader starts out, too. Your readers don’t know who the political factions are, or what the different schools of magic teach, or which of the gods is really an ascended human from a bygone era. By writing from a child POV, you can introduce a reader to the more complex parts naturally; they follow the same path as the character.

This works even better if you’re doing something training-based, like a magic school (Harry Potter), an apprenticeship travelogue (the first parts of Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man), or something of that nature. As the child advances in knowledge, so does the reader, and there’s no sense in them complaining about disbelief. Sure, it can be a slow reveal, but if that’s what you want, then it might be just what you need.

Second, children are innocent. This can be used by a writer in a couple of ways. It’s great for setting up good-versus-evil plot points, for example, because most kids won’t be able to discern the subtle shades of gray. And destroying innocence can be a powerful dramatic tool, as any fan of Arya Stark knows all too well. But children as characters can also keep things “light”. In escapist fantasy (as opposed to the gritty and grimdark types that are all too common these days), the child can be a kind of touchstone.

Finally, the third reason ties into both of the last two. Since children are less concerned with “adult” matters, as well as simply knowing less about them in general, that’s that much you don’t have to write about when they’re the center of attention. Kids aren’t going to be cynical and jaded. They won’t care about romantic and sexual relationships. They don’t have major responsibilities. Even the language you use for their narration can be simplified, especially if the child POV is only one of many.

Raising a child

The limitations, of course, are evident. Children don’t normally have the same opportunity for adventure. Their lack of responsibility is countered by a lack of ability, whether natural (kids aren’t as strong as adults) or social (kids can’t vote, drive, etc.), and this can hinder a story.

One easy way to circumvent some of those restrictions is to make the child “attached” to an adult in some way. Obviously, one possibility is traveling with their parents. Babysitters, master craftsmen, robot nannies, and royal servants all work just as well. No matter how you do it, since the adult and child are together, they’ll experience most of the same things. And then you have a quick and dirty way to increase dramatic tension by separating them.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who are alone. Typically, these tend to be older, usually teenagers. That’s because they’re close enough to adulthood to interact with “grownups” on a more even footing, but they still haven’t lost all of their childlike nature. Runaways, orphans, and incoming students all fit this mold, and their stories will likely involve lots of social conflict, issues of acceptance, and such.

Speaking of conflict, the kinds children can be involved in are often entirely different from those of their elders…at least to start. There’s nothing stopping an adolescent from being the Chosen One; that’s basically Harry Potter. But you can’t jump right into the deep end there. Let kids be kids for a while, so that when they can’t, it’ll pack that much more of a punch. And always be aware of both the limits of youth, and its capacity for exceeding them.


Writing children can be tiring, and it may seem unrewarding. But it can also be loads of fun. Even if you’re creating something entirely serious, a well-placed child’s point of view can add a bit of levity, a dash of lighthearted escapism, or just a change of pace. Or it can be a heartbreaking look into a shattered world full of broken dreams. Your choice.

We connect with children on a biological level. It’s innate to empathize. That’s why their stories can be so powerful, so emotionally moving. Whether you’re writing light or dark, it’s something to think about.

Virisai pronunciation guide

On my Patreon page, I’ve been posting drafts of a series of long novellas (or short novels, whichever you prefer) called Chronicles of the Otherworld. I won’t reiterate the entire plot of the story here, as that’s what the Patreon is for. Suffice to say, it’s a kind of alternate-universe thing, except without the alternate universes.

On the “otherworld” are a number of invented cultures loosely based on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but with about 10,000 years of parallel development—including 500 years free from European colonization—and some genetic engineering by a mysterious precursor race. All this has caused their languages to be different from any on Earth. In other words, I built a story around a conlang. It’s okay; Tolkien did pretty much the same thing.

This post describes the pronunciation and orthography of the main conlang of the Chronicles of the Otherworld series, called Virisai. Story-internally, it is spoken by approximately one million people in and around the pre-industrial nation of Vistaan, where most of the Otherworld series takes place. Externally, I started making it in 2013, which doesn’t really feel like four years ago. My goal with Virisai was to make a natural-looking language that wasn’t too hard to grasp (the protagonists only have about two and a half months) while having no real connection to Earthly tongues. Ten thousand years, after all, is enough to give us the linguistic variety of Europe, the Middle East, and most of India…or of the indigenous languages of the Americas. In future posts, if there is interest, I’ll delve more deeply into the language. It’s one of my most developed conlangs, second only to Suvile, which I worked on from 2003–2010, and it remains in development, as I’m currently working on future entries in the series.

Finally, a word before we begin: the meat of this post is written from the point of view of someone treating Virisai as an actual language. If you prefer to think of it as the writing of a character in the story, that’s fine. From this point forward, though, I won’t be referring to any “external” qualities of the language, only what a speaker would understand.

The sounds of the language

Virisai has a fairly simple phonology. In total, there are 31 sounds: 21 distinct consonants, 5 vowels that show distinction between short and long. All of these sounds are simple, in that there are no phonemic distinctions of consonant length, palatalization, tone, or other complex phonetic properties. Speaking Virisai is not difficult for most people, unlike some of its neighboring tongues. The orthography, however, can be a bit difficult to understand.

While there are some dialectal differences, mostly between east and west, these do not rise to the level of unintelligibility. For the most part, this guide will describe the “standard” dialect of the east, with western differences noted as they arise.


As there are fewer vowels, it seems prudent to begin with them. As stated above, Virisai has five main vowels, with each coming in a short and long variety. Long vowels sound approximately like double-length versions of their short counterparts, but many also give the short vowels a more lax pronunciation.

  • A: The vowel a (as in aloc “mill”) is most often pronounced like the Spanish or Italian a. At the end of a word, it may instead sound like German er as in oder. Western dialects use a pronunciation like a in English cat at the beginning of a word.

  • E: The vowel e (as in esau “lake”) is commonly pronounced like the e in English bet. In stressed positions, it can also sound like the more tense French é of été. Colloquially, an unstressed e can also be pronounced as a schwa, as in English taken.

  • I: The short vowel i (as in imec “gift”) should be pronounced as in Spanish, but it very often becomes lax, as in English bit. This relaxation is common among lower-class Virisai speakers in the west.

  • O: Short o (as in oca “but”) usually sounds like the o in French sot, but that of English not is sometimes heard instead, especially in unstressed syllables.

  • U: The short u (as in uro “round”) is pronounced as in Spanish, but the oo sound of English foot is also acceptable.

  • AA: The long vowel aa (as in baad “dog”) is a longer version of a. It can be approximated by the British English pronunciation of bath, or simply by stretching out the pronunciation of a.

  • EI: The vowel ei (as in eib “fish”) sounds like a longer variant of stressed e. The English diphthong ay of say is a close, if strictly incorrect, approximation.

  • IE: Long ie (as in mies “top”) sounds like English ee as in feet.

  • OO: Long oo (as in sool “glass”) is pronounced like a longer o. As with ei above, the English diphthong ow of glow is close, although not exactly the same.

  • OU: The vowel ou (as in crous “to write”) sounds like English oo in boot.

  • AI or AY: Both of these two spellings (ai as in ain “corn”; ay as in ayc “duck”) represent the sound of i in English like.

  • OI or OY: These two spellings (oi as in boi “nut”; oy as in proy “mad”) are pronounced as in English boy.

  • AU: The diphthong au (as in aus “cat”) sounds like ou in English out or au in English caught. The two sounds are in free variation; the preference is largely personal. The sound can also be spelled aw, if needed to prevent ambiguity.

  • EU: The diphthong eu (as in keud “deer”) has no exact English equivalent, but it can be approximated by the sound of you. When detailing western Virisai, this sound is often spelled ew.

In addition, some western dialects have a set of four front rounded vowels, two long and two short. These arise regularly from combinations of the consonant y (see below) and the vowels u, ou, o, and oo. They are presented here for completeness.

  • Y: This sound (as in lys “flower”) is a short vowel pronounced like French u or German ü.

  • UE: The vowel ue (as in bueder, a type of grain) is the long form of y, pronounced like German ü.

  • OE: The short vowel oe (as in goer “now”) is pronounced like French eu in peu.

  • EU: The long vowel eu (as in Beus, a month name) is pronounced like German ö, a longer form of oe above.


Despite there being more of them, the consonants are much more regular in the correspondence between their written and spoken forms. Only in a few instances are there great differences. Here, we will leave those for last.

First, these are the Virisai consonants most similar to their English equivalents:

  • B: The sound b (as in boun “big”) is pronounced as in English bee.

  • D: The consonant d (as in den “from”) is pronounced the same as in English dog.

  • G: The consonant g (as in gos “cold”) has the same pronunciation as in English good.

  • H: The letter h (as in heid “this”) has the same pronunciation as in English hat under most circumstances. When followed by b, d, or g, however, it instead has no sound, and causes the following consonant to be pronounced as p, t, or k, respectively.

  • J: The letter j (as in jon “give”) sounds like that of English jest.

  • K: The letter k (as in kit “dice”) has the same sound as in English sky. There should be no puff of air following it, unlike in English key. This letter is only used before e, i, ei, and ie.

  • L: The consonant l (as in los “last”) sounds like the “clear” l of English let. It doesn’t normally have the “dark” sound of American English feel, though few native speakers can tell the difference.

  • M: The sound m (as in maame “mother”) sounds the same as in English mom.

  • N: The sound n (as in nin “sky”) has the same sound as English night.

  • NY: The sound written ny (as in nyaal “south”) is pronounced as the ni in English onion, or like the Spanish ñ.

  • P: The consonant p (as in pic “horn”) has the same pronunciation as in English spit. Unlike in English, there should be no audible “puff” after the sound. (In technical terms, it is unaspirated.)

  • R: The letter written r (as in rad “say”) has a pronunciation similar to English r in red, not that of the Spanish, French, or German r.

  • T: The consonant t (as in tec “temple”) sounds like that of English stay. Like Virisai p, it is also unaspirated.

  • V: The letter v (as in veis “go”) has a sound like that of Spanish b or v, not the English v. It can be approximated by pronouncing English v without the teeth.

  • W: The letter w (as in wan “river”) sounds like English w. It is distinct from v, but the difference can be hard for some to hear. V, however, is more forceful.

  • Y: The consonant y (as in yet “do”; not the same as the dialectal vowel sound y above) sounds exactly like English y in yet.

The rest of the consonant sounds are written in ways that may change depending on the position of the word, the following sounds, or other factors.

  • C: The letter c can represent a hard k (as in caar “name”) when written before anything other than e, i, ie, or ei. Before those letters (as in cil “small”), it is instead pronounced like the ch in English chat.

  • CI: The digraph ci (as in ciar “bottom”) is the standard writing for the ch sound of English char, used whenever a plain c would be pronounced as k.

  • F: The letter f (as in faus “rain”) has the same pronunciation as v above. It is written with a different letter in Virisai, reflecting a distinction of sound that is now lost.

  • NN: A doubled nn is not actually used in Virisai, but the author has used it to transcribe the word Ninne (feminine form of Nina, a racial term) so as to avoid confusion with the English word nine.

  • S: The letter s changes its pronunciation depending on its environment. At the start of a word (as in si “day”), it is pronounced like the s in English see. The same is true at the end of a word (as in pries “only”), when followed by a vowel other than i, e, ie, or ei (as in masa “yes”), or followed by a consonant (as in ostir “shoulder”). When preceding one of the four vowels mentioned (as in tiesie “short”), it is instead pronounced like the sh in English show.

  • SH: At the beginning of a word, or when preceding a consonant, the digraph sh (as in shei “daytime”) is pronounced as in English show.

  • SI: The digraph si (as in sias “blue”) is an alternate spelling of sh, used much more commonly when ambiguity would not arise.

  • SS: The doubled ss (as in susse “smooth”) is pronounced like the s in English set. It is used before e, i, ie, and ei, except at the beginning of a word.

  • Z: Like s above, the letter z changes pronunciation depending on where it occurs. Except directly before one of the four front vowels above (as in zaad “west”), it is pronounced like English z in zoo. Before front vowels (as in feizen “trade”), it sounds like the z in English azure.

  • ZH: As with sh, the digraph zh (as in zhaan “safe”) is written at the beginning of a word to indicate the z sound of English azure.

  • ZI: As with si, the digraph zi (as in ziule “fort”) is an alternate spelling of zh.

  • ZZ: Like ss, the doubled zz (as in dezzic “late”) is only used before front vowels. It is pronounced like the z in English zoo.

Consonant sequences

The grammar of Virisai causes a few cases where consonants can form sequences that look like clusters, but are pronounced as if single consonants. In each of the following, the first member of the sequence is actually silent: dt, bp, gc, zs, td, pb, cg, sz, szi, zsi, dci, tj.


Under normal circumstances, Virisai stresses the syllable before the last—the penultimate. However, a long vowel or a diphthong in the final syllable will receive stress instead. Inflection affixes are almost never stressed, but they can cause a stress shift in a word’s stem: singular soulos (stress on the first syllable), plural soulossin (stress on the second).

Closing words

The preceding should be enough to pronounce any of the utterances encountered in Chronicles of the Otherworld. Understanding them, of course, is a matter for future posts. As the series progresses, I’ll write further entries describing the Virisai language, so those willing to learn can follow the story at a deeper level.