World-building and ConLangs

Everything I know about world-building and conlangs I am teaching myself, and that's no small task for someone who isn't a scientist but who writes speculative fiction. In the beginning, I was hoping for the One True Guide that would lead me on to the promised land of easy, accurate, and organized back-story creation, but I have since realized what all successful writers in the genre figured out long before I did.

There is no such thing. World-building and conlang construction are messy and time-consuming, and what you don't already know about the sciences you had better learn, because lots of scientists like to read speculative fiction, and they will tell you if you've published a piece of fiction with scientific mistakes in it. However, the knowledge you need to create an artificial universe or a constructed language is all readily available, and there are a number of superlative resources on the Internet and elsewhere that can help you to get started. You just have to be willing to put some earnest time and effort into the process.

What I'm offering here are a few things that are working for me along with a list of books and resources that can help you to begin your own projects. I should probably mention that I'm taking the long road to world and language creation; my training is in the arts, but I love science and like to read about it, so I'm giving myself a science education while I research the novels I'm currently writing. You don't have to do all this stuff to create a good back-story; but remember that the more thorough you are, the more accurate your story will be, and the easier it will be for you to write it. Having said that, here's the list:

Read Speculative Fiction

It all begins here. You must read in the genre extensively in order to understand how artificial worlds and languages are constructed and implemented. If you are a speculative fiction fan already and have a goodly number of novels under your geekish belt, do not skip this step. Read more books, subscribe to Locus, and keep up with the industry so you don't re-invent the creative wheel.

A Few of the Classic Speculative Fiction Worlds I Never Wanted To Leave:

Isaac Asimov:

  • The Foundation novels

Jack L. Chalker:

  • The Rings of the Master series

Frank Herbert:

  • The Dune novels

Ursula K. Le Guin:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • The Earthsea Cycle

J.R.R. Tolkien:

  • The Hobbit
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Silmarillion

A Few Newer Speculative Fiction Worlds I Never Wanted To Leave:

Jacqueline Carey:

  • Kushiel's Legacy

Garth Nix:

  • The Abhorsen Trilogy

Philip Pullman

  • His Dark Materials

Mary Doria Russell:

  • The Sparrow
  • Children of God


Decide What Kind Of World Or Language You Want To Create

This will require some brainstorming and some writing. Is your story a work of Fantasy or a work of Science Fiction? This will dictate the kind of world you create. Do all of your characters speak the same language, or is linguistic diversity present? This will determine whether or not you need to create languages for your story. Sketch out a rough plot and setting, and develop a few characters. Then, as Jacqueline Carey so eloquently says, "Break their hearts." What kinds of worlds and languages do these characters demand?


Visit Web Sites About World-Building And ConLang Construction

Here are my favorites:

Patricia Wrede: Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions - Hosted by SFWA, this site contains an "exhausting, but not exhaustive" list of questions to ask about the culture of your constructed world.

Mark Rosenfelder: The Language Construction Kit - This is the most comprehensive guide to the construction of artificial languages I have ever seen in print or on the Internet. However, it should be noted that many linguists do not believe non-human species would be hard-wired for language the way we are and would, therefore, never be able to learn our languages or teach us theirs. It's something to think about if you're building languages for aliens, or cats, for that matter.


Read Books About World-Building And ConLang Construction

I have four books about world-building on my shelf, and three of them are out of print. Beyond that, I found them all somewhat general for my tastes. I had far better luck reading popular science books about my fields of interest and plugging the knowledge I gained into the holes the aforementioned web sites created for me. Nevertheless, if you want the books (and I think they're a good addition to your library in any case), here they are:

You might also look at codices of worlds published by the writers who created and wrote in them. Here are a few good ones:


Read Popular Science Books

At this point in your researches, you'll probably begin to know where your gaps in knowledge lie. Start looking to fill those gaps with books by scientists that are written for non-scientists. For instance, The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker was incredibly helpful to me as I was trying to figure out how to deal with the question of language in my aliens. Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is taught me a great deal about evolutionary biology. And Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos gave me a good foundation in quantum physics and string theory. What do you need to know about to make your worlds and languages more realistic?


Interview Scientists

I interviewed several scientists and professors of science for PTTB, and I can tell you, there's nothing like hearing it from the horse's mouth. My two-hour interview with the Maine State Climatologist, Dr. Gregory Zielinski, destroyed and restructured the world model I had created, thank the Gods. And my interview with Drs. Wayne Cowart and Dana McDaniel utterly convinced me that the Klingon language would not be translatable into English, nor would any other alien language. Don't be afraid to ask for help from the professionals. The worst they can say is "no," and most of them will be enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with you, I guarantee it.


Know When To Quit

I'll have to get back to you on this one, because I'm not sure I know when to quit, so I doubt I can help you. However, I can tell you that it's getting harder and harder to compete in the Science Fiction community. More people know more stuff about more stuff, and they can tell good stories about it. That doesn't mean you should give up; I certainly won't. But you should be prepared to research hard, write well, and market like a Confidence Man on a Sunday morning. Good luck to you!