Nine Worlds: Tricking the Reader


Autolycus. Locke Lamora. The Magicians of The Prestige. Wade Wilson. Unreliable narrators are everywhere in genre fiction and the one question we always ask is why? What’s the appeal of listening to stories narrated by liars? What’s the difference between authorial mischief and shaggy dog stories? Why do we love the twist in the tale?

Genevieve Cogman, Jason Arnopp, Mark de Jager, James Smythe, Emma Trevayne, Catriona Ward

Back in December 2015 I did a very long, not very detailed blog on different angles of narration. The final panel that I attended at Nine Worlds was on a single aspect of this – the unreliable narrator. (That’s not entirely true. The actual final panel I attended was another world-building session but, as I didn’t learn anything new there and spent the whole time just building a world of my own, I won’t bother regaling you with that one.)

Types of Unreliability

The unreliable narrator isn’t confined to a single approach. There’s lots of ways your narrator can be unreliable, including:

  1. Changeable structure, such as time-travel, e.g. Everyone in Hal Duncan’s Vellum
  2. Amnesiac, e.g. Mary Jared in Jessica Richards’ Snake Ropes
  3. Naïve, e.g. David Dunn in Unbreakable
  4. Misled, e.g. Father Emilio Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow
  5. Blinkered, e.g. Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
  6. Delusional, e.g. The narrator in Fight Club
  7. In denial, e.g. Dr. Malcolm Crowe in Sixth Sense
  8. Speaking with an agenda, e.g. Pi in The Life of Pi
  9. Lying, e.g. Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects

The way in which your narrator is unreliable throws light on both their character and their reaction to challenges. This ties strongly into voice – the words you choose and the way in which you style them should reveal a lot about your narrator’s personality.

When the narrator isn’t deliberately misleading, their unreliability can be highlighted by other characters’ reactions to them. To use my own work as an example for a moment, in my book Spiritus the narrator is wholly unreliable in the way she frames the character of her brother because she loves him too much to see his many flaws or question his actions. Those flaws are only brought to light by a third character, who challenges the narrator’s bias. The narrator doesn’t accept it but the reader is thus made aware of her unreliability on the subject.

A quick note on changeable structure: this is where none of the characters themselves are unreliable in any way, but the order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. The reader is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator, but by the writer.

Reasons for Misleading

Unreliable narrators don’t have to be unlikeable. In fact, if you want your reader to keep reading, they probably shouldn’t be. A lot of it can come down to who your narrator is lying to, and why. Are they lying to the reader in particular, or to their compatriots (and therefore the reader is misled as a side effect)? Are they lying for the good of others, or for selfish reasons? If the latter, does this impact their heroic status (see previous blog on heroism)? Are they not, in fact, lying but only telling the truth as they know it (which covers all of the list above down to ‘delusional’)?


That brings us on to the question of subjectivity. All narratives are, to some extent, subjective and therefore unreliable. History itself is massively unreliable, the facts recounted by people with a heavy bias. Different country’s accounts of the same event vary wildly, depending on which side of the events they were. A lot of fun can therefore be had with opposing POVs, which narrate different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example of this is the film Hero, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.

The Big Reveal

There needs to be some kind of twist or reveal at the end, if you’re using an unreliable narrator. As one of the panellists said, “why pick that technique if you’re not going to capitalise on its power?” This can either be big or gradual, giving emotional and/or intellectual closure. But you must play fair with the reader – none of this ‘it was all a dream’ crap. That’s not satisfying and carries a strong risk of alienating your audience. Lewis Carroll only gets away with it because he was writing for a very different era.

The twist has to feel organic, rather than a deus ex machina. Something crowbarred in is also deeply unsatisfying, and this is where some detective stories walk a very thin line. Those that have a big reveal which include information not previously shown to the audience throughout the story are, frankly, cheating their readers. This is unreliability through omission and, whilst it’s a valid technique, I don’t like it.

The important thing to note is that this reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t necessarily need a moment of realisation at all. In Spiritus, the actions of the narrator’s brother trigger the downfall of an empire. The narrator never realises this, partly because she’s blinded by bias and partly because (SPOILERS!) she dies before it happens. The reader, however, had their eyes opened earlier in the book and can therefore see it coming. More officially, Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the reader but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.


Best reveal I know. If you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, go watch it. Go now.

To Lie or Not to Lie?

There are two main risks with using unreliable narrators. The first is that readers’ attention spans are shrinking and they might not stick around long enough for the reveal to make all the pieces fall into place. Unreliable narrators often mean apparent inconsistencies throughout the main story, which are only resolved at the end.

The second is a question of loyalty and trust. Readers will very quickly build up emotional bonds with the narrator (or at least, they should if you’re doing your job as a writer well). This means that they may not accept the narrator has been misleading them. That sense of loyalty might lead them to reject the reveal entirely. This largely depends, I think, on how organic the reveal is.

There’s a very simple workaround to both these risks. Have the narrator (or other characters) say early on that they are a liar, a la Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Then dupe the reader anyway.


Aaand that’s all, folks, from the Nine Worlds Convention 2016. Next week we are back to our regularly scheduled programme of notes from the Creative Writing MA.

Nine Worlds: Non-Binary Gender in Myth & Fiction


Two academic talks: ‘Crossing Fantasy’s Borders: the Fluidity of Gender and Genre’ by Taylor Driggers, and ‘The Age of Athena: Gender Non-Binary’ by Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart

This session was another one of two halves. The first presentation looked at the concept of gender roles in fantasy, using Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness as an example text, and the second looked at examples of non-binary gender in mythology, history and literature.

I’ll be honest, I was at a slight disadvantage for the first paper as it’s been many years since I read Left Hand, and I couldn’t remember it in enough detail to really contribute much. It has inspired me to go back and read it again, though. If it’s not a book you know, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gender & Society

I’m actually going to start with some fairly fundamental terms that could easily get mixed up in this discussion:

  • Sex – biological status. The physical equipment you possess.
  • Gender – attributes and behaviours culturally defined as male or female.
  • Identity – someone’s unique sense of self.

Binary genders are a cultural construct, not a natural one. Nature doesn’t dictate that girls like pink and boys like blue – in fact, pink was considered to be a boy’s colour until the Victorians changed things up. Not only is it a cultural construct – it’s a modern cultural construct. There are tons of examples of a far more fluid approach to gender in ancient mythology.

Athena is the prime example. She was the goddess of strategic war, and also a goddess of weaving. She disguised herself as male whenever she pretended to be mortal (even to her favourite, Odysseus), but is a mother figure in her divine form and never denies her sex. She is balanced. Nor is that balance restricted to female figures in the Greek pantheon. Dionysos is her male counterpart, often dressing in women’s clothes when he masquerades as mortal, yet never denying his sex. He is a god of fertility and a god of frenzy. It’s not just okay when you’re divine, either. Herakles – the ultimate mythological Jock – spent a long time dressed as a woman and taking on a female gender.

Even relatively modern history has examples of figures with gender-fluid roles.

But this distinction is something we seem to have lost sight of. Binary gender and identity has become so default that anyone who doesn’t conform is considered to be Other.

Otherness in SF&F

This assumption becomes an active handicap when considering texts like Left Hand of Darkness:

“Binary identities can only engage with this text as an outsider.” – Taylor Driggers

Through the eyes of her protagonist, Le Guin presents this fundamentally blinkered view of gender when confronted with a species that can change sex and therefore has no concept of gender. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is another superb example of the dangers of assuming binary gender is default. Go read it – it’s an astonishing book.

“Western thought and language are all organised around binary hierarchical concepts which mostly have gender connotations with the masculine as dominant.” – Helene Cixous

The Sun and the Moon, Light and Dark, Culture and Nature, there were a ton more examples given. I’m not sure if I agree with all of them but the fundamental point still stands. These are things which don’t inherently have a gender, yet we attribute one to them and – with that attribution – assign them differing values.

SF&F is transgressive and disruptive. It subverts and pushes at understood norms and boundaries. It is, as Lisa Tuttle said in a different panel, the ‘literature of ideas’. The idea that Left Hand explores is that Otherness is neither inherently bad nor something to be avoided. It is, in fact, essential for survival and growth, for the evolution of society. SF&F lets us respect Otherness as a reality, and as an equally valid approach to living.

Next week: tricking the reader through unreliable narrators.

Nine Worlds: Heroism & Morality in Genre Fiction


Genre units around a simple, classic concept – the journey of the hero/ine. But what does it take to be a solidly good hero, or a dark and dangerous anti-hero, and how has it changed in fiction over time?

Chris Wooding, Lisa Tuttle, Peter Newman, Anne Lyle, Jen Williams

Moral quandaries can arise from the most unexpected places and some of the very best speculative fiction is driven by them. How do you do right or wrong when the world around you has shifted the goalposts? Hero or villain?

Lisa Tuttle, Al Robertson, Matt Blakstad, Stark Holborn, Jen Williams, Mark de Jager

This blog post is a combination of two panel sessions, because both of them essentially devolved into a discussion about relative morality. There’s also a whole bunch of my own ideas mixed in because it’s a huge subject that I’ve given a reasonable amount of thought to, and the panel sessions weren’t long enough to do more than scrape the surface. Hopefully I’ve written it all well enough that you can’t see the joins!

Defining A Hero

The panel on heroism opened by asking whether the nature of a hero was dependent on the readership. Does your hero have to change for different audiences? This is actually something I’ve covered before – Vogler gives several examples of the different interpretations of the heroic figure from different cultures. One man’s hero is another man’s idiot. Of course your hero has to be appropriate for your audience.


“Someone who gets other people killed.”

Okay, so next question: what is the role of a hero? That’s way more interesting. It’s important to note that the hero is not necessarily the same thing as the protagonist – something else I’ve covered in the past. The hero is the figure that gets stuff done. They are the agent of change, the restorer of order, the person who takes a stand against something.

Applying the label of ‘hero’ is a risky business, though, both in fiction and more seriously in real life. The word has connotations and expectations attached. If or when the character then fails to live up to those expectations, society has a tendency to tear them down with extreme prejudice. When our heroes fail our perceived ideal, we feel a personal sense of betrayal.

The style of the heroic figure has changed with the times, both as speculative fiction became more sophisticated and in response to social pressures in the real world. Shiny white heroes gave way to flawed heroes, who in turn made room for antiheroes. There is a couple of things they all have in common, though: anyone can become a hero, and they all have some kind of moral code. Or do they?

The Morality of Heroes & Villains

If the nature of a hero changes, that means the definition – the code, if you like – of heroism is a malleable thing. Flawed heroes and antiheroes are not always nice, moral people. Does this stop them being heroes? Does the making of immoral choices degrade them from heroic status into vigilantes? It’s a question that Marvel’s actually had a couple of cracks at recently, with both Avengers: Civil War and Deadpool:

Okay, so your character can be a hero without being moral 24/7. That brings us to a rather delicate question, which is the negotiation of where moral and legal lines are. Many of our popular superheroes cause massive property damage and multiple counts of murder, yet we continue to accord them heroic status. What laws can our heroes break in a story whilst remaining sympathetic characters? Even more awkwardly, who is it okay to murder? At what point do they devolve into antiheroes, or even villains?

Remember that the best villains believe they are the heroes – think Loki from Marvel, or Ozymandias from Watchmen. The difference is that they don’t have the sympathy of the audience, because the story is being told in such a way as to present them in an unsympathetic light. It’s important to give villains that depth, almost the benefit of the doubt, both when creating the character and when reading history. In all our ‘true’ accounts of historical events, the role of the victor, or the aggressor, or the morally justified, is defined purely by who is narrating and for which audience.

Heroism, then, is fundamentally tied to presentation: by whom, for whom, and in what light. Different cultures and time periods have different moral and legal approaches. It doesn’t make any of them intrinsically wrong. And this brings us back to the notion of flawed heroes, particularly the ones who are also the narrators or protagonists and therefore let the reader further into the details of their lives. Because no one’s perfect. Perfect characters are boring. But if we see everything – all the doubts, rage, instincts for violence – can they remain a hero in our eyes? Or does heroic status depend on only seeing the outward presentation?


Shout out to DC for this one. I can’t let Marvel have all the airtime!

Must heroism have a cost? Or is easy morality, victory without sacrifice, equally heroic? The panel didn’t really answer that one and I’m not certain myself. In real life, possibly. On the page, well… a character without a struggle isn’t much of a story.

Writing A Convincing Hero

“Speculative fiction helps us understand there are other ways we can construct humanity and society.” – Lisa Tuttle

As mentioned above, morality is relative to the society or person experiencing it. The panel said that the key to writing an interesting and complex villain is to attribute them with a series of choices that you personally disagree with, and then make them understandable. I completely agree with this, but I think you can take it further. Do the same for the hero. Why should they be a representation of your own morals? If they’re from a non-Western culture that isn’t even logical. Writing alien morals, not all of which you agree with, and then convincing your readers to buy into that morality, is an awful lot of fun.

There’s a follow up to that, which is the question of learned behaviour versus personal responsibility. If a social structure is evil (in the eyes of outsiders), and conditions or forces people within it to do evil things, that does make those people evil themselves? I think David Hume had quite a lot to say on the subject, but I’ll leave you to do your own philosophical studies if you want to follow down that rabbit hole.

Put your characters in difficult or painful situations, forcing them to make morally difficult choices. It makes it easier for the reader to sympathise with them when they make the hard call, thus retaining their heroic status despite their actions. How deep can you take the hero, using this technique? How deep can you take the reader? This is something I personally find fascinating. In speculative fiction – particularly high fantasy – the so-called heroes regularly do things that the reader would find abhorrent in real life. So how did we reach the stage where such behaviour is accepted without question in fiction? Can we push the boundaries of what we make our readers accept? Should we?

“In dark worlds, look for light in the smaller actions… That changes the contrast, makes everything else highlight how bad it is, but there’s a seed of hope. Find the humanity in people. Even heroes have other things in their lives. It’s not all about the terrible, immediate situation,” – Lisa Tuttle

That quote is probably the best piece of advice I took away from both panels. Remember to make your heroes more than just the situation they find themselves in. Anyone can be a hero. That means even heroes are people.

Next week: non-binary gender in literature

Nine Worlds: How to Think About Historical Fiction


Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.

Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University

I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.


The Macrotext of Historical Fiction

The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.

History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.

There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.

Remembering History


Definitely more fiction than history

Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.

We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.

Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.

Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.

Retelling History

You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads.   ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.

Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.

Nine Worlds: Feedback Loops & Transmedia Storytelling


Two academic talks: “The Afterlife of the Dalek Emperor – Spinoff material, canon and intertextuality in Doctor Who” by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens, and “Roleplaying games: transmedia studies and producer/consumer relationships” by Allen Stroud.

Okay, so this blog post won’t actually be about that, exactly. Whilst I am a Doctor Who fan, it’s in a fairly casual way. I don’t know the original series or the wider verse, and Moore and Stevens clearly care way more about this stuff than I do. So mostly this blog post will be about Allen Stroud’s paper, with the occasional Moore/Stevens comment thrown in where relevant.

Consumption & Creation

At its simplest, transmedia storytelling is the use of multiple media channels to tell a story, be they books, TV, film, radio, audiobooks, comics, graffiti, semaphore or smoke signals from distant mountain tops. Different media requires the story to be told in different ways (it’s hard to get the complexities of internal dialogue into smoke signals, for example) so the nature of the story alters depending on the channel in use. 

The consumer’s (the term ‘reader’ isn’t always applicable here for obvious reasons) experience of the story is still usually linear. You mostly consume a story via different formats consecutively, rather than trying to take in multiple channels at once. But transmedia storytelling means that the narrative itself isn’t necessarily linear. It’s fragmented, with lots of different perspectives and potentially lots of different starting points:

multi linear transmedia

Reproduced by kind permission of Allen Stroud

  • Multi-linear transmedia narrative means that the entry point can be anywhere and the story should still work.
  • Fragmented narrative means that the consumer must collect all the pieces of the story in order for it to make sense.
  • Layered narrative means each piece of chapter will stand alone as a single story but the more the consumer experiences, the more information they have around the story and therefore the greater their understanding.

The consumer therefore starts to make choices (knowingly or not) about what content or chapter is consumed in what order via which medium. With layered narratives, they have to put in ‘more than non-trivial effort’ in order to engage with the story, such as codes, seeking out more chapters on other channels, and so on. This is called ergodic literature.

This is also the point at which the consumer can start to contribute, which can lead to issues of content ownership (and this is where my notes from Moore/Stevens become relevant). Does fan-made content contribute to the creation of a wider story universe, and a dialogue between consumer and creator? Or does it represent a risk to IP rights? In the Doctor Who universe, the writers apparently need to keep a strict provenance of ideas and steer very clear of incorporating known fan ideas in order to avoid IP challenges. This obviously impacts their options on where they can take the story (as described in TV Topes’ article on Ascended Fanon, which gives multiple examples of this actually happening).

Working in Expanded ‘Verses

When you have multiple people contributing to the same story you end up with an expanded universe, or intertextuality – dialogues between different media within a single wider setting. This in turn leads to an external body of knowledge, or referential code, which builds up the distinctive features of that setting and allows consumers to fill in assumptions without always explaining them.

Take Bram Stoker’s Dracula as an example origin text. Modern vampire stories have to acknowledge stakes, garlic and so on because consumers already have that body of knowledge around the expected setting.

In a way, this gives power back to the consumer – the popular definition of the setting becomes more powerful and important than the reality or the origin text. At the very least, the expectation has to be acknowledged before it can be subverted.


Legally, expanded ‘verses can be problematic. In a collaborative franchise project who actually owns the IP? Do individual writers own individual plotlines and characters? If so, how do you ensure continuity? In the Doctor Who ‘verse, where this used to be the case, the wider story ended up with unresolvable contradictions. So should the franchise own everything? Is that fair on the individuals who are actually creating the story?

Macro to Mega

There’s a couple of handful terms for thinking about this stuff, and framing it:

  • Mythopoeia is “the weave within the story narrative primarily designed to project depth.” So, hinting at a wider universe which this singular story doesn’t have time to go into. Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of this.
  • Megatext is “a shared subconscious catalogue of familiar themes in a genre.” We’re back to Bram Stoker and garlic, stakes, etc. with this. Where the theme of the setting is something widely known by the audience and written in by multiple non-collaborative authors who collectively build up a knowledge base.
  • Macrotext is “the guide for a specific fictional world, the frame work through which a large project of multiple outputs can be devised.” The worlds of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Any specified universe which ends up being used collaboratively and which therefore requires some consistent record.

Stroud made the point that macrotexts can be ‘mutable’. There will always be corners of the universe that haven’t previously been detailed and which can therefore be added to. This in effect keeps such fictional worlds alive and evolving. The trick is to avoid contradiction with established facts, as that’s how you break a devoted reader’s immersion. Which is where databases like Wookieepedia come in.

Next week: transformative works and the colonisation of historical space, which has more stuff on macro text and shared universe creation.

Nine Worlds: Barriers to Women in SFF Publishing


Science fiction, fantasy and horror writing seem to still be very much a boys club. Men are consistently reviewed more often in genre-related publications while also dominating ‘best of’ and ‘most anticipated’ lists. Is this because there are fewer women writers? Are publishers publishing fewer women? What about the marketing? We know there are brilliant female genre writers out there, so why aren’t more people reading their books, talking about their work, and including them in lists of favourite writers?

Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond, Lucy Hounsom, Gillian Redfearn, Lydia Gittens, Alasdair Stuart

downloadRegular readers of this blog have already met Charlotte Bond, one of the hosts of podcast Breaking the Glass Slipper, thanks to her recent guest post. Well, I was lucky enough to get into a very select audience of a live recording of BtGS‘s tenth episode at Nine Worlds. True to the general theme of equality, both of the Con and the podcast, this episode looked at why there is an imbalance of gender in published SFF authors and how this might be addressed.

I’m not going to write up the session for the simple reason that you can listen to it yourself by clicking here. And if you listen really carefully, at 1:09:00 you can even hear me ask a question!

Next week: telling stories in an expanded setting.

Nine Worlds: Foreign Languages in Genre Fiction


A discussion of how and why real – not invented – languages are used in science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction, on page and screen. How accurately are they used and does verisimilitude matter? What assumptions do authors make about their audiences’ linguistic competence and identity?

Katrin Thier, Catherine Sangster, Simon Trafford

I loved this panel. I’ll state that now, for the record, because I took a lot of notes and might be about to go off on an enthusiastic rant. Much of what was said falls firmly into the ‘oh my god, that’s so obvious now you’re explained it’ category, but it mostly wasn’t stuff I’d thought of before.

Languages, like so many things in culture (colour is another prime example), are almost always used in literature to call up particular associations. They can alienate the reader or evoke particular emotions. They can demonstrate a difference in culture, social strata or education. In one period of British history, for example, the poor spoke English and the rich spoke French.

How to Use Language in Fiction

If you use a real language and you get it wrong, there are people who will notice. As with any poorly researched detail, this is how you lose or even antagonise readers. Google Translate won’t cut it. Find someone who can actually speak the language, or make it obvious that it isn’t correct (like the Latin in Harry Potter). Bear in mind that a lot of languages have sounds, letters and grammatical structures that English doesn’t. It’s very easy to get it wrong. That said, there’s a general assumption of monolingualism in modern audiences, meaning you need to use fairly basic markers to identify a foreign language. This will inevitably impact the accuracy.


Gallifreyan doesn’t even use the same method of writing

Don’t have foreign characters sprinkle bits of their own language into common speech. This isn’t realistic. If they’re going to drop back into their mother tongue, make it a whole sentence. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the reader can’t understand what they’re saying – the characters don’t have to understand each other either! You can always have one character ask for a translation, or an explanation of pronunciation if it’s important. Alternatively, you can have written translation devices so the listening character doesn’t understand the conversation in real-time but can review a report later. Biological translators, such as the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, are also a neat way around it.

If you’re using multiple languages and want the reader to be able to understand them all, one easy way of doing so is to use different fonts to denote different languages. Bear in mind, though, that not all editors and publishers like this. It also creates a variable look which might throw the reader out of immersion so think hard before you take this route.

Creating a Language

There’s a difference between a constructed language (such as Sindarin), and a fake language (such as Dovahzul) which mashes exotic sounds together without an underlying structure. If you’re going to use the language in any way extensively, a constructed language is a better bet.

What language tree would your created language come from? What associations does that bring about the culture which uses it? Remember that it needs to tie in and impact your fantasy culture (see the mention of German and Japanese two weeks ago). Also remember that insults and idioms tend to be culturally specific. In the past, I’ve looked up insults native to the particular culture I’m using as a base and translated them, which has given me some nicely unusual turns of phrase as well as that slightly exotic association.


You can go much further back than this. Language trees are awesome maps of history.

Also, remember that, when you’re creating genre fiction, you’re not creating in a vacuum. The influences on you are also familiar to your audience. If you co-opt Klingon, there’s a good chance they’ll notice.

There’s no agreed models for how to transcribe non-standard varieties of English (such as Scottish). As a writer, you need to achieve a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Personally, I don’t like reading literal pronunciations on the page – I think the reader has to work too hard to understand what’s going on and what the accent is, which throws them out of immersion. If you can make it clear with use of vocabulary and idiom, that’s much smoother.

Examples & Associations

Welsh was used in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper to evoke mystery and ancient magic. There’s a psychological association with something alien but not foreign, which is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Mandarin was used in Firefly to signpost a new / future developed culture and history. It showed natural bilingualism as a common thing, even for uneducated characters. It was also a handy way of getting around the real life censors! The problem, however, is that it called up connotations that weren’t then fulfilled – read Frustrations of an American Asian Whedonite to see some of the traps of using a real world language without following through on the implications.


For an English-Mandarin culture, there’s an odd lack of Asian people in the Verse

Latin is the archetypal dead language, even though it’s not that dead! (Still actively used in science and medicine, for example.) There are a number of entrenched attitudes towards it, which always condition how we feel about the thing it’s being used for. Firstly, it’s indivisible from Western culture, easily recognisable and doesn’t need to be explained. By using Latin, you are making a very strong statement about the background culture. It is a status language which carries ideas of antiquity (both classical and renaissance), education (law, medicine, science), and religion.

In Harry Potter, ‘low’ spells such as cleaning have a Germanic base; ‘high’ spells have a Latin base. There are strong status implications, and possibly also gender ones. Interestingly, the two spells which use a Greek base are both healing spells. There’s apparently a fascinating essay called Ancient Tongues in the Wizarding World by M.G. DuPree which is well worth a read, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find an online link.

This led me onto a really interesting conversation with Simon Trafford after the panel. What about using other dead (deader) languages? I don’t speak Latin but I have used the one language I do know – Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) – in my writing. How does that work? We decided that the more esoteric the language, the more work you have to do to explain where it comes from and set up the associations you want the reader to make. You do, however, have much greater freedom in defining those associations. Latin is instantly recognisable but you’re locked into working with the reader’s understood connotations.

Next week: women in SFF publishing.