The system of writing in my work contains eight basic shapes that get a number of permutations each. One of my viewpoint characters is learning this system of writing for the first time, and I want to give the reader at least a good feel for what these glyphs look like. As prior to this, the character in question is wholly illiterate, I cannot make comparisons to other letters. At the same time, they are complicated enough that comparisons to basic geometric shapes will not do them justice.

I am discussing with my printer what it would cost to just add images in-line, but what strategies can I use to describe such abstract symbols in future?

  • 2
    Feels like the situation of 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. The perfect scenario to use an illustration.
    – SF.
    Mar 17, 2021 at 10:56

5 Answers 5


The perfect copy

Sometimes you get stuck trying to describe something perfectly, but if/when you ask readers what they see you realize you're not able to copy the image in your head verbatim into theirs. They will interpret what they read in their unique way (which, by the way, is what makes books so great to read... and so scary to write...)

The perfect copy is not an option (unless, as you mention, you add the glyphs in the text, but they are just a small part of all you might want to "copy" in your head: the characters (people!), the setting, the cultures and worlds, cities and villages, that exact facial expression, that movement of the hand, and not even a movie will be able to make a 100% perfect copy into the viewers' minds).

I'd put the notion of the perfect copy aside and go at it from "the side" so to speak.


Instead of giving the reader a detailed description of the glyphs (do they even need it? want it? how many readers did not skip past Tolkiens songs and poems in Sindari?) give them the language learner's perspective. Maybe he's having problems and starts hating at them, likening them to things he detests (latrines and executioner axes?)

Maybe he uses memory techniques, likening them to things in his everyday life. And/or maybe the teacher has a technique/tradition in looking at the characters. I recall that Japanese Kanji are sometimes described as depicting objects from everyday life (house roofs etc), but I can't seem to find a good link now, and also Kanji is way more complex than that, but maybe on a very beginner's level it could be used even for it.

Or have a look at Robert Jordan's description of sword fighting in the Wheel of Times series. (Although having done both fencing and kendo myself, his descriptions gives me the feeling they're great ways to get yourself sliced in two... you just can't do "techniques" like that in a real-time situation... but maybe it works better for characters... giving them imaginative names like "the perched raven", "the world-tree" etc)

Here's an example of revealing (a bit) of what a written language would look like, this example is from the perspective of an adept language user (so, no, she will not be thinking about all the details of the pictograms when seeing them):

One of them rubbed the end of a pencil against the side of his head. Then he moved it along one of the rounded words. At least, he did not scribble on the wall, but it was obvious the stupid grounders thought they were looking at a work of art. And it was not the first time either.

After all, when they make the movie the conlangers and font designers need to have something to do as well!

What not to put in your book

I understand you've created a whole writing system and you want to give that effort a deserved place in your work.

Writing a book is always about the reader. If you can make your system interesting to them, then, by all means, put it in there.

Unfortunately, the case is very often that you spend hours and years creating things like languages, planets, worlds, and backstories, and if you put all that in the text it becomes unbearable to the reader. Those pesky readers just don't appreciate all the blood sweat and tears that went into that multicultural primitive, off-the-normal-trading-lanes-planet.

Most of it will not go into the book... it will just be the hidden support beams of your worlds, cultures, and characters and only be noticed by extension in these parts of the text.

And your text will be better from it!

  • The writing system is critical to the story, though. I cannot do away with describing it so simply. I want the reader to be able to recognize individual glyphs and words as the character encounters them later.
    – Weckar E.
    Jan 31, 2021 at 3:24
  • Hmm. That sounds complicated and seems to me to have the potential for problems. I use conlang in my texts too, but I would never expect a reader to learn it. And I mostly use it for curses, name-calling, and so on, so the reader knows what's going on anyway. Can you find other works where this was done your way? The closest I can come up with is "The Name of the Rose" where Ecco uses footnotes for his Latin. Maybe that's a way to go? I think it's fair to assume your readers will be of average intelligence and language skills so learning a new language as a requirement seems risky...
    – Erk
    Jan 31, 2021 at 21:50
  • That's a fair analysis, I admit. Still, the question stands as "How do I", not "Should I". I appreciate your answer, but it is simply not the answer I seek to the question I asked. As for the intelligence level of my readers... The whole story is fairly cerebral. It is, at its core, about navigating politics. Not a single action scene in there.
    – Weckar E.
    Jan 31, 2021 at 23:17

I think there is a clever way to set this right without the tedium of price inserting glyphs even for this work of yours, however, you will need to adopt a different way of introducing the foreign language. Bear in mind that this manner I speak of requires your insight into how you, you as an individual, learned language, for the notion of learning a language in a “traditional” or “native” way cannot be dropped because ultimately this work of yours must be, to some extent, comprehensible to the public if you wish it to be digestible at all—in my opinion. Consider your introduction of the language as a meta descriptor for how humans learn in general, just like a teacher, then the depth in which you go into the language, despite its being rooted in your introduction of it as something able of being traditionally learned, is a personal descriptor of this language. The idea is to keep the language descriptions consistent in order to cement rules of it and it’s physical morphology.

In short, introduce the language in any way a teacher might introduce it, however, instead of ever noting the physical glyphs, write the descriptions out, and make sure your descriptions, whether interpreted by other characters or not, are consistent.

  • No, the physical glyphs and them being recognizable to the reader is vital to the story. Uniqueness, though not absoluteness, is essential.
    – Weckar E.
    Jan 31, 2021 at 3:23

In the book, are the letters based originally on something concrete (like @Erk's Kanji example)? If so, show your character doing the equivalent of "Ok that does look like a bird in flight" or "that doesn't look like a mushroom." If the individual letters have a meaning, there is room for discussion between teacher and student. Or maybe they were shapes that were just easy to carve, originally (like Ogham). Use how the letters developed to make a link for your reader. Don't give a big data dump. Maybe you can describe the steps the character takes to learn a letter - scratching out in the dirt repeatedly - up, left, down left, etc.


Let's consider a symbol we're all relatively familiar with: the Ampersand (&).

How would you go about explaining this "glyph" to a child or someone who had never used it before?

  1. Describe how you write it. This makes sense if the character is focused on writing the same symbol again and again.
  • "Straight line up diagonally from right to left, loop along the top from left to right, cross through the middle, loop the opposite way, cross through the starting line"
  1. Describe what your character thinks it looks like. Lots of options here
  • "It looked like a swan with its beak tucked down by its neck"
  • "A figure 8 with a fish tail"

The more time you take to describe the glyph, the more accurate the picture will be in your reader's head. This will be a balancing act, so that you don't detract from the story. Of course, there are some readers who will appreciate the histories and details (Silmarillion, anyone?), so it's important to recognize who your readers are.

Regardless of how you describe it initially, the more difficult question is how you're going to deliver it throughout the novel. You said in one of your comments that you want your readers familiar with the glyphs.

I want the reader to be able to recognize individual glyphs and words as the character encounters them later.

I'm currently guessing that you have some important plot point that you want to foreshadow with the glyphs and have the readers able to figure it out on their own. Something like a pentagram where each point on the star has a sacrifice, and the reader can potentially figure out what's going on before the main character. Unfortunately, if you don't have the glyphs omnipresent like in Artemis Fowl, you need to repeatedly describe the glyph (at least a little bit) or they will have forgotten what they look like.

If your character runs into a crime scene and an Ampersand is scrawled in blood on the wall, putting the entire description in again would draw away from the intensity you're trying to portray. Your character should be more familiar with the glyphs at this point than the reader, and they're not going to think "It's tucked swan!" - they're going to call it by name.

If you still want to portray the appearance of the glyph again later, I would suggest hinting at it, but still using the actual name.

The blood ran diagonally up the wall from right to left, the trail showing hints of the thin fingers used to draw it as it started looping across the top. "Ampersand," he breathed, fists clenched, as he took in the glyph.

You'll need to do this a few times before the readers are supposed to figure it out on their own. Enough that they recognize both "Ampersand" and the general shape they're looking for.

He walked straight down the road, headed northwest, following the tracks of blood. After ten minutes, they bent east, curving around a large grain silo, and started fading in the grass. He bent close to the ground, making sure he didn't miss a single footprint, a single speck of blood coming from his quarry. Sooner than he'd like, though, he didn't have a path to follow. He stood up, trying not to cuss, and started walking forward, hoping he would find a landmark that he recognized. After another minute, he picked up speed, seeing red glistening on the ground. Blood! It stretched as far as the eye could see down the middle of... the same road he'd just walked up. Dammit! He'd gone in a circle, and he'd lost the trail!

Ultimately, though, (at least in my opinion) you need to write the book so that it can be enjoyed by the people who don't recognize the glyph you've been trying to teach them is staring them in the face. If all they know it by is "Ampersand", and they have to follow the main character's epiphany when he figures out that he needs to complete the glyph to hunt down the bad guy, so be it.


When I learned Farsi, I remembered which shapes meant which letters by associating them with things that reminded me of the characters phoneme, what it sounded like, or what the character looked like.

Like the numeral for five looks like the outline of a fish, and the character that sounded like the start of my mother's name looked kind of like some fingers.

As your character struggles to learn the symbols, your character can do the something similar. If a glyph sounds part of his friend's name, and looks kind of squat and ovoid, like a pond, maybe he remembers fishing with his friend. That way you can describe the glyphs and equate them to the character's back story or the world building and it won't be any boring, dry info dump, it will be a terrific opportunity to build up the character by relating important events in their life as they are being educated.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.