Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages

This past weekend I gave a presentation at InConJunction in Indianapolis, and one of the attendees requested that I make it available online later on. So let’s give it a go!

First of all:

What is a Conlang?

Conlang is short for “Constructed Language”, meaning any kind of artificially and intentionally created language. You’re probably familiar with them, considering that fiction is absolutely rife with them.

Continue reading “Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages”

On Gargoyles

We’ve been seeing a lot of gargoyles recently, haven’t we?

The beasts in I, Frankenstein, the heroes (mostly) in the 90s animated series, the living stone Constable Downspout from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. But this is actually a relatively new monster: an often-winged demonic-looking creature that is strongly associated  with rock and tends to perch high on rooftops like a sedimentary Batman.

I think it’s especially noteworthy that all three of these works take place in city centers, and if they’re not outright urban fantasy, they’re close enough to it to wave hello.

That might be part of the reason behind the rise of gargoyles-as-monsters in the modern day– for the first time in history, we have a whole lot of buildings very close to one another that are extremely tall, (thanks to the invention of the modern elevator that made taller buildings practical).

The modern take on monstrous gargoyles dates back to the 1930s, with movies like Maker of Gargoyles and The Horn of Vapula (both from 1932).

Before then, European gargoyles were architectural details, meant to act as decorative rain spouts to keep water from damaging the mortar and masonry of the building (statues that weren’t water spouts were known as grotesques). They were often a chance for stonemasons to get creative, and so they’d often look like animals, people (often ridiculously exaggerated to make fun of them) or inside jokes.

Paisley Abbey gargoyle 10
One of the gargoyles in Paisley Abbey is made to look like a xenomorph from Alien

One story about the “origin” of gargoyles is of the dragon La Gargouille that attacked the town of Rouen in 600 AD. It was defeated by a travelling priest, but when the creature’s head and neck didn’t burn to ash with the rest of the body, the locals nailed it to the church as a warning to other evil creatures. Other origin stories speak of Celts who harnessed the powers of animals they had hunted by hanging them on the outer walls of their towns to “attract luck and repel evil”.

Repelling evil is the common thread across much of the gargoyle folklore: all their grotesqueness is meant to frighten away evil, and protect the people inside (or, sometimes, to frighten the people inside into behaving themselves).

So what about writing gargoyles as monsters? Really, that’s up to you. You can draw from the stories that have been written in the last ninety years, or you can give your own spin on our old architectural guardians. But as you write, here’s some ideas to play with:

  • What do they look like? Are they animalistic, draconic, humanoid, demonic?
  • Are they natural creatures, or are they constructs brought to life by some kind of magic or technology?
  • What is their relationship to stone? Are they made of stone, do they turn into it, do they simply resemble it, do they eat it?
  • Are they protectors and guardians? Are they the remains of defeated enemies used as a warning to others?
  • Why do they stay on the tops of buildings– do they fly, are they fast climbers, are they trapped there against their will? Did they get put up there so they’d fall to their deaths if they suddenly woke up?
  • What do they eat? Pigeons? People? Rocks?
  • If you’re dealing with modern fantasy, how would they be affected by things like light pollution, noise pollution, smog, acid rain, and other issues that would be a lot more prevalent in the 21st century than in the 6th century?

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of room to play. So have at it, and have fun!

Character Creation: Face Blindness

Since I started doing author panels at conventions, I’ve gotten one question thrown at me a few times: “How do you come up with characters?”

And inevitably, my process is just a little bit different from the other authors at those panels, because mine plays a lot into my face blindness.

For those unaware, face blindness (or prosopagnosia) is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. If I see you at a convention and I introduce myself to you twice, that’s why: I remember having talked to you, but I can’t keep in my mind what you actually look like. Like a lot of people with the disorder, I tend to compensate with other details– if you’re wearing a particular costume, for example, or if you’ve got a visible tattoo.

man person clouds apple
Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

I once had a pair of coworkers who would often be on shifts with me together. They were both blonde, both in their early twenties, and both fairly petite and thin. In my first few weeks on the job, I could be looking at one and standing next to the other, and I would have absolutely no idea which one I was talking to unless I looked at the nametag; sometimes I would continue a conversation I’d started with one coworker but speak to the other one, not realizing that these were two different people. After several weeks of working there, I got to know them well enough that I learned to recognize them– and at that point, I realized that aside from their hair and body type, they really looked nothing alike. In the first few weeks, I also had a bad habit of giving sales pitches to my coworkers as they were walking back from the bathroom, because I couldn’t recognize that they were the same people that had been hanging out with me a few minutes before. It was only when they visibly recognized me that I was able to say “wait, they know me? Oh, that’s actually my manager”.

That tends to come across in my writing.

“Believe it or not, age/race/hair/eyes really didn’t make a person much easier to identify. I was more interested in details that made him stand out: a hyena-like walk that was somehow both a sulk and a swagger; a penchant for bad spray tans and expensive hair gel; a tendency to wear designer clothes and colognes, usually with no regard to whether they actually suited him.” — Urban Dragon Book 3: Dance with the Devil

When I create a character, I tend to start with the role they have in the story, and from there I default to the way I would remember them if I were to meet them: what impression would they leave behind?

With Arkay, even before she was a dragon I knew she was overly energetic, mischievous, and overprotective, that she liked to pick fights, and that she was physically so small that people always underestimated her (which she found hilarious). The over-protectiveness developed into a dragon’s territorial nature; the fact that she was an Asiatic dragon informed her ethnicity, etc.

With Rosario, the first things I knew were that she was homeless because she found Arkay under a bridge, and that she was incredibly brave and kind– because you kind of have to be, to nurse a forty-foot dragon back to health. Details like her sexuality, her body type, and her ethnicity are all informed by the research I did based around those two details. Her gender was actually the last thing I chose for her.

Raimo was meant to be an overly friendly viking; the Contessa is an anachronistic embodiment of Medici wealth, power, and style, where stilettos are both the shoes she wears and the weapon she prefers.

Details like race and gender are often among the last details I choose for my characters, unless they’re intrinsically tied to some detail in that character. With both Arkay and Raimo, I couldn’t picture either of them as anything but Japanese and Scandanavian, respectively, because that was already built into those foundational details of the character.

That’s not to say they’re not incredibly important– the race and gender do so very much to inform a person’s experiences as they move through life and is a defining part of who they are, and they can radically alter the kind of tropes that play out with those characters– but they’re not the first places my mind goes when I’m creating those characters.

But if you’re ever wondering why I describe my characters the way I do– or, rather, why I don’t describe my characters with the kind of details other authors might– that’s why.

A matter of scale

Originally, the Urban Dragon books were commissioned by Cliffhanger Press, and that meant I needed to write them according to a very particular set of instructions.

Among those instructions was a wordcount: each of the nine stories had to fall between 18,000 and 25,000 words, and so I got very good at marking exactly how long each act of each story was going to be. Even after I got the rights and I was able to tweak it without restriction, it was difficult to stretch out a 24,000 word story into anything much larger than that. Continue reading “A matter of scale”

On Questionnaires

This is meant to be tiny and unreadable so you get an idea of how long this list is. Please don’t strain your eyes.

I’ve been on the writing corner of the internet for a while now, and I’ve got a long, involved history with questionnaires.


Whether you’re crafting a single roleplaying OC or an entire world, you’ll find thousands of lists full of all sorts of questions.

Those lists can be super short and to the point (“What does your character want? What are they willing to do to get it?”) or they can be enormous and inane (“Does your character prefer smooth peanut butter or chunky? Does your character dream in color? If your character was an animal, what kind of tree would they climb?”)

For the past several days, I’ve been compiling a list of worldbuilding questions that I ambivalently look forward to applying to most of the countries in my upcoming world. I’m daunted because this is gonna be a ton of work, and I’ll have to repeat the process over and over and over again. At the same time, I’m excited because this kind of thing can create a much more intricate and interesting world.

I have a piece of advice for you, though, if you chose to use questionnaires:

Easily 90% of the answers to those questions– maybe even 99%– will not and should not ever actually make it into the story you tell.

The specific answers to each question don’t matter as much as what they tell you about the bigger picture. Nobody cares what three items your character would bring to a deserted island, they care about what it says about that character– whether they would go for something practical, or something suited to a hobby or interest, or so on. Nobody cares what a country’s tax code looks like, so much as they care about the way the people respond to that tax code, whether with squeezing their employees harder or tax evasion or what have you.

That’s where the story is. That’s what matters. The rest is just a tool to help you flesh out those details.

Character Creation: all in the family

family tree
When is a spoiler not a spoiler? When it’s illegible and lacks any context whatsoever.

In my first sketches of this current WIP, the protagonist was one of two children born to a single mother. The family began and ended there; these three were each other’s whole world, and nothing mattered but each other.

It’s a very American family structure, which isn’t a bad thing– but it didn’t fit to the world I was building.

I’m not the kind of person who can just make up a thousand characters off the top of my head. I can’t create a family without first fitting it into some kind of structure.

That’s where the family tree comes in. I used FamilyEcho, but you can find plenty of free software online.


Continue reading “Character Creation: all in the family”

“But what’s my motivation?”

It’s a go-to joke that’s so old that you rarely see an actor depicted who doesn’t spout the line, but it really is important. Every character needs a reason why they do things. Is the villainous henchman a true believer, or like in Iron Man 3, doe he only work with the villains for the paycheck? Is the hero in it for the abstract ideals of Truth and Justice(tm), because they want to save the person they love, or out of a desire for riches or glory?  Kurt Vonnegut famously said in his rules of writing that “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

But I think we can do better.

Good goals are specific and concrete.

Abstractions are vague and, frankly, boring. When you’re looking for “love”, are you fantasizing about a hardworking man who will live in the suburbs and work while you raise your two point five children, or are you aiming for a charming outlaw biker to be your leather-clad trophy husband? When you’re looking for “freedom”, are you hoping for the freedom to become a doctor in a society that doesn’t allow members of your class to pursue medicine? Are you looking for an escape from an arranged marriage you’re not ready for? Are you looking for freedom from a specific abusive person who controls your life? Are you looking for freedom from the laws of physics? (Good luck with that last one, hon.)


When you spell out the concrete goal, it’s automatically tailored to the character’s story. Already they’re that much more unique than they were before.

Having a specific stated goal also allows for nuance in the outcome.

Maybe you got that American Dream nuclear family you were looking for, but learned it wasn’t quite what you hoped. Maybe you didn’t get that biker babe you were hoping to score, but fell in love with the open road instead.

Having a specific goal also helps you lay out the plans to achieve it.

Writer, character, and reader alike can sit back and ask how they intend to attract charming outlaws if they’re never going to set foot in a biker bar, whereas something as abstract as “love” really has no real steps you can take to attain it.

And that’s the single most important thing about a character’s motivation:

It’s only your motivation if you’re actively working toward it. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a daydream.

The Importance of Place

Where does a story take place?

Sometimes, giving a story’s location is unavoidable. If a story takes place in outer space, on Mars, or in Wonderland, the laws of physics might affect the characters completely differently than they would on Earth.

But sometimes it’s not so simple. I’ve had conversations with multiple authors about the settings of their stories, only to find myself frustrated with some of the answers.

“It’s in a town,” some say. “A small town.”

When pressed for more information, they might elaborate: “oh, it could be anywhere, really.” Often they’re making a case for their story having universal appeal.

While some things– hope, grief, tragedy, teenage impulsiveness– really are universal, the intimate customs of a given place usually aren’t, and plunging on without giving the readers at least some inkling of what to expect can leave the reader playing catch-up as they try to figure out the context of the story they’re reading.

If a story takes place in 1990s small-town Georgia, walking in on two men making out might make the viewpoint character uncomfortable. In New York City in 2016, it might not even register to the viewpoint character unless they know one of the men personally. In 1980s  Iran, it might be a matter of life and death.

Even for smaller, less plot-important details. Two strangers pass on the road going through a snow-covered forest. One glances at the other and smiles at them. If they’re in rural Canada, that’s just an afternoon stroll. If they’re in rural Russia, the smiling stranger might be committing a faux pas.


If the reader assumes that the story takes place in his or her own home state, they’re going to be making assumptions based on the laws and cultural mores as they understand them. One of the easiest ways to avoid confusion is to simply tell the reader where this is.

Is it a rural southern American town? The streets of Cairo? The beaches of Malaysia? A friendly desert town in Southwestern America?

Have you ever gotten mixed signals about where a story takes place? Let us know in the comments!



Denied: How you handle a ‘no’


It’s such a simple word, but those two letters carry a lot of power.

It’s almost inherently rooted in conflict and contradiction, a refusal to go along with the flow, whatever that flow may be. It’s a line in the sand, and that line can be as shallow as ‘do you want a taco?’, or it can be integral to preserving your autonomy and sanity. And it can speak volumes about what you hold dear.


It’s such a simple word, but those two letters carry a lot of power.

  • No, I won’t give you my phone number.
  • No, I won’t follow in your footsteps.
  • No, I won’t let you murder people.

It’s almost inherently rooted in conflict and contradiction, a refusal to go along with the flow, whatever that flow may be. It’s a line in the sand, and that line can be as shallow as ‘do you want a taco?’, or it can be integral to preserving your autonomy and sanity.

That same word can completely change its meaning depending on where it’s coming from. From a person with little power in a given relationship, it becomes self-possession and a hold on autonomy. (No, I won’t let you treat me this way.) From an entity with power, it can become a force of oppression (No, you can’t get an education.)

But let’s take a step past that analysis. How do your characters handle hearing that word? How do the people you know? How do you?

  • Do they accept it?
  • Do they try going around the obstacle? (How many kids hear ‘no’ from one adult and immediately ask another one?)
  • Do they respond with an outburst of violence?
  • Do they make their rejection of that ‘no’ the premise of a presidential campaign?
This reference is so dated it comes with a year on the poster.  Source

Most people’s reaction to a ‘no’ will depend on the situation it’s presented in, but which situations matter can speak volumes about what they value. What is it that makes the difference?

  • If they perceive that they’re being denied injustly?
  • If they think they’re owed something they can’t have?
  • If they’re being denied by  a person who is an authority over them? Or somebody who they perceive to have authority over?
  • If there’s a particular set of rules they won’t break, like halaal, halakha, or the sanctity of a person’s bodily autonomy?

In Urban Dragon, Arkay is an authority unto herself, and any insistence that she can’t or shouldn’t do something is met as a challenge. Nothing is worth compromising her pride, not even at the risk of injury or death– unless she’s doing it for her best friend Rosario.

How do your characters deal with being denied? How do the people in your life? And what do you think that says about the things that matter most to them? Share it in the comments!