Elements of Fantasy #3 – Language

Welcome to another episode of Elements of Fantasy! Last time, we talked about The Quest and looked at why the hero’s journey is so prevalent in fantasy fiction. In this episode, we’ll be exploring Language…

Google ‘fictional languages’ and you’ll turn up hundreds of references to the fantasy genre, as well as equal amounts of references to Klingons. Fantasy is a genre that has become intrinsically linked with language, whether we’re talking about complex, working languages such as quenya and sindarin, or piecemeal, ‘flavour’ languages like Valyrian or Thalassian.

dwarven runes

The tradition of inventing languages for use in fantasy fiction can be traced back to our old friend J.R.R. Tolkien (like so many things). The practice may even pre-date Tolkien, but he is regarded as the first to have constructed a fully-functioning language with its own writing system. Quenya and sindarin are elvish languages that feature in Tolkien’s works and they are taught today as fully-realised languages.

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The Bestiary #1: Orcs

Welcome to a brand new series imaginatively entitled ‘The Bestiary’. In said series, we’re going to be looking at fantasy races and creatures and documenting them as if we’re some sort of fantasy David Attenborough. Why are halflings so short? Do dragons ever get burnt tongues? How many ogres does it take to change a light bulb? I’ll offer you my theories and thoughts alongside a great big slice of hard scientific evidence and fact.

Ok, maybe not scientific fact. More like fantatific fact. Or is that just facts about orange-flavour fizzy drinks? Hmm…

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Ukrug gar bethk u skog!

That means ‘Good day, my fine fellow. How is the weather?’ in Orcish. Or does it? In fact, I just made that up. Here’s a ‘proper’ orc phrase from Mr. Tolkien:

Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!

Which (roughly) means: ‘Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!’

Aren’t orcs just a bunch of lovely individuals?

No? OK, fair enough. But they are a race with a long and varied history, complete with their own language and intricate tribal customs. That depends on what particular type of orc you’re talking about, of course. If we’re talking Warcraft, then you’ll find orc shamans, orc cities and even orc diplomacy. If you’re talking Warhammer, then you’ll be lucky if you can get so much as a ‘WAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!’ out of your average orc as it picks its nose and eats mud soup from a human skull.

Orcs are curious creatures, then. Humanoid, but not human. Sometimes they’re depicted as an ancestor or offshoot of the human race; other times they’re sentient globs of green space phlegm and others they are corrupt versions of elves. This makes determining just what the heck they are supposed to be a little tricky. Personally, I always consider them a distant ancestor of humankind, kind of like Neanderthals or something. Just don’t ask me to explain the green skin and tusks (maybe they cross-bred with diseased mammoths at some point, who knows?).

Orc Warrior

Now, again, depending on which universe you’re talking about, orcs use a variety of different weapons and ride a variety of different creatures into battle. Tolkien probably did it best by showing us the relationship between the wargs and orcs of Middle-earth and then it was only another short leap of imagination for us to believe that the orcs then rode those same wargs as humans rode horses. In other works of fiction, orcs ride all manner of beasts, from gigantic wolves and wild boars to plain old horses and sometimes even more exotic creatures.

Just check out a game series like the Elder Scrolls (or any traditional fantasy RPG) and you’re sure to find an orc blacksmith or two. Orcs love fighting and they love weapons, so why do orc-crafted weapons always look so damn crude and ugly? If they just took a little more time and effort… well, you get the idea.

Hmm, hold on one second…

  1. Enjoys fighting
  2. Loves pointy/bashy weaponry
  3. Often unintelligible

Remind you of anyone else? Yep, you guessed it… dwarves.

And that segues nicely into our introduction for the next instalment of ‘The Bestiary’!

The mountain slopes are alive with the sound of feasting, of drinking… and of war! Secreted safely away in their subterranean strongholds, the dwarves have many foes but fear none. They may be short, but they’re ferocious fighters. And whatever you do don’t tug a dwarf’s beard! And never, under any circumstances, stroll into town and proclaim: ‘Yo! Where the women at?’

Some things are better left uncovered.

Got anything to say about orcs? How about an interesting fact? Oh, do share!

What is a Fantasy Cliche?

So, have you ever really considered this question? If I asked you to give me an example and explain why it’s a cliche, could you?

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the word:

A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

Archetype is another word you often see cropping up in fantasy-related discussions:

An archetype is a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures. Archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. In this sense, “mother figure” may be considered an archetype, and may be identified in various characters with otherwise distinct (non-generic) personalities.


Here’s a list of classic fantasy cliches and archetypes:

  • The quest story
  • Stupid barbarians/old wizards
  • An object that holds the power to destroy great evil
  • Evil without a reason
  • Orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc.
  • The chosen one/orphan
  • Prophecies
  • Lack of strong females
  • Drawn out fights
  • Characters who never get injured in battle
  • Unpronounceable names
  • Invented language systems

So, if we think logically, if we invert those cliches, we should get some pretty original stuff, right?

  • Smart barbarians/young wizards
  • Evil with a reason
  • No fantasy species, only humans
  • Lots of strong females
  • Short, bloody fights
  • Protagonist frequently injured
  • Realistic names

Yeah… the problem is, a lot of those have been done to death too. Sometimes badly, sometimes well.


How do we be original?

The trick is, taking a cliche or archetype and tweaking it very slightly. It’s a really nice psychological ruse. Just have a think about all your favourite stories/games/movies – do you know how they tweaked a stereotype or overused idea? Here’s a few ways in which a small change can have a big effect:

  • A young boy is destined to defeat a great evil, but he doesn’t discover this until he has grown older. Now a middle-aged wizard, he must fulfill is true purpose.
  • A stupid barbarian and a clever thief – a classic team, right? Not this time. The barbarian is a master thief in disguise and uses his deception to confidence trick others.
  • Elves, orcs and dwarves dominate the surface world. Humanity dwindles. But now it has a chance. Empowered by a powerful wizard, humans acquire potent new abilities and take the fight to their sadistic oppressors.

Even just taking a story like Star Wars and swapping out Luke Skywalker for an advanced servant droid who is destined to defeat the Empire, the whole dynamic of the story changes. How will he interact with C-3PO and R2-D2? Will he fight for more rights for droids in the galaxy? Will he see humans as his slavers? We could even have followed Darth Vader as an antihero and it would have made the story entirely different.

What’s the lesson?

You don’t always have to come up with a completely original idea – in fact, I believe there are no truly original ideas and there never were. Nature already beat humanity to all the greatest stories, long before we existed. The key is how to make something feel original by putting your own twist on it and creating intriguing characters.

Imagination and What To Do When It Runs Away


I thought I would write about imagination today. It’s not a subject I’ve touched on before, but it is a crucial part of writing. The reason I chose to blog about this today is because I was sent a link to an eBook (link at the end of the post) called Everflame, which I thought was exceptionally imaginative.

Now, sometimes I feel as if my own writing loses its sense of imagination as I progress with it. I have all these fantastic ideas in the planning stage of my story, but they get lost along the way and I end up with something far more grounded and ‘human’ that I’d planned. Usually, this really annoys me. I do want strange fantasy creatures and stunning magical battles, but some part of me says: ‘No, we’re sticking to humans, gritty realism and a realistic plot.’

The only trouble with this, however, is that if I’m not careful, I end up writing something that’s not really fantasy, but modern-day people with weird names, wearing weird clothes and living in a carbon copy of Earth. As a fantasy writer and reader, it’s not fun writing this sort of story. I soon get tired with the banality of it all and long for at least some element of fantasy to rear its head. That’s when things start to fall apart. That’s when I stick in a dragon. You know the trouble with doing this? It scuttles any sense of plot that you had and it causes the story to plunge to the murky depths of your mind, never to return.

With my current project, however, I’m pleased to say I’ve made a change. I started out with the plot and the setting. Then I began to incorporate some original, not over-the-top, fantasy species (not races – Africans and Europeans are races, elves and dwarves are not… well, they could be, if you explain it as an evolutionary change). Next, I make sure that these species truly fit into the world. If not, they’re gone. What I mean by this is having dragons in your world but no history to make them believable or a suitable environment to sustain them. Only once all the above was done, did I start to write. Now, I have an interesting, truly fantasy world with a halfway decent plot to match.

Next time your imagination ‘runs away’ (i.e. abandons you mid-story), stop and take a look at your project as a whole. Figure out what’s missing and try to weave it into the world so it doesn’t feel out of place. Don’t stick in a dragon for the sake of it and certainly don’t try to make your story something that it’s not.

Until next time, adieu.

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