I believe I've mentioned before on here how I struggle to come up with forms for letters.

I've tried to solve this by looking at other systems. Despite the diversity in our world, I've found it surprisingly hard to find a multitude of systems to draw from.

The problem is: writing systems have different factors that can influence their design. Syllabraries tend to have more complex characters than alphabets, because they don't have to write as many of them to spell out a word. And besides, they need a wider diversity of symbols anyway. Logographic systems are no different. Also the medium makes a huge difference. The aesthetic of one script may not be too practical to replicate using a medium it wasn't intended for.

I've found this all divides up writing systems into multiple different categories based on design. This means that if you stick with a certain medium and type of writing system, you won't have much to go off of. Like, if you look at alphabets, all that really seems to be out there is Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, and Korean. And if you look at cursive scripts, you only really have two options: English cursive, and Arabic, which is technically an abjad. And of course if you want a logographic system, the only living logographic system (aka, the only one to see use in a world where literacy was normal writing was part of every day life) is Chinese. Beyond that, all you have to look at are long extinct logographic systems that were all made to be carved into stone. Or cuneiform, which used some rather odd tools and medium to write. How many systems do you know of that were written in clay, and were always stamped rather than drawn?

I can't come up with forms that really look overly different from the few alphabets currently in use. Worse yet, most of them are closely related to each other! It seems like every symbol possible has already been used in a writing system somewhere.

The only thing that has really helped me is I've noticed that most lower-case Latin letters are built from a limited number of shapes: a circle, loop, short line, long line, long line with a loop, and a dot. Sadly, I can't really come up with any practical letter forms that don't use these shapes. They're pretty simple and basic.

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    You're missing a lot of natlang writing systems in your brief summary there, see this map. Many of them might be classified as 'cursive'. – curiousdannii Jun 23 '18 at 8:01
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    I'm not sure what you're really after here... if you limit yourself to 2D writing there really aren't any basic elements other than dots, lines, curved lines, and loops (rounded or polygonal). But there's an infinite variety of ways to combine them. – curiousdannii Jun 23 '18 at 8:02
  • Are you sure there are no other cursive scripts? Arabic may be the only script with only a cursive form, and Latin (plus its sibling Cyrillic) alone in having a large catalog of script typefaces, but I'd be amazed to learn that no other major script has a running form. – Anton Sherwood Oct 20 '18 at 17:56
  • By the way, here's a set of simple glyphs that I'm not using, big enough for a syllabary. bendwavy.org/wp/?p=1986 – Anton Sherwood Oct 20 '18 at 17:57

After all, there is a limited number of shapes that one can draw with reasonable effort. You can measure the effort for writing a character in a writing system by the number of strokes needed. For alphabets, there should be no more than 5 strokes, for a syllabary maybe 7 or 8.

But there are more shapes available than you may think: For a relatively recent (in terms of writing systems) invention, you can look at the Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics having a distinct look from other writing systems.

The different Indic writing systems are also a good source of inspiration: While sharing a common set of characters and common principles, the letter shapes are always different in the various Indic and Indic inspired (like Thai or Khmer) scripts.

And it is still possible to invent a new and distinct writing system from scratch: Tolkien's Tengwar shows clear external influences (from Indic scripts and from Francis Lodwick's Universal Alphabet) but is clearly distinguished from both sources of inspiration.

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The question basically provides the answer.

Consider the primary writing (and reading) conditions the conscript was hypothetically developed and employed in. This obviously includes the affordances and constraints of medium and tool, but contents (accounting data, prose, correspondence, legal announcements, religious scripture etc.), environment (e.g. humidity, lighting, movement) and, of course, physiology of the writers and readers also play important roles. This will not be constant over times and places, too, so you get natural iterations and bifurcations that may later remerge (like how the printed bicameral roman script is a combination of uppercase letters made mostly for stone carving and lowercase letters evolved from pen/quill writing).

This way you get the directions of writing pages, blocks, lines, words and characters. You get preferences for straight or curved, squared or circular, open or closed, flat or serifed, hanging or standing, leaning or upright, connected or separated, stacked or juxtaposed … strokes and shapes.

The frequency of use often determines the simplicity and distinctiveness of a glyph: the busiest ones tend to consist of the fewest basic shapes, often just a single one (like o). Naturally developing alphabetical letters (and digraphs) also have a tendency to somehow resemble the phonetic features of their corresponding sounds. This is true for roman lowercase letters for instance, though slightly different for other languages: while three bands (with ascender and descender) are available, vowels are restricted to the central band, sonorants are usually short as well, while fricatives and stops are longer (cf. sonority scale and length hierarchy of the syllable). Most orthographies avoid pairing big or complex characters, but often use a simple and a complex one (e.g. ck); or they employ complex ligation with utterly different compound glyphs. Word or syllable starts and ends may be marked stronger (or weaker), e.g. descending y and wider w as allographic variants of i and u at the end in English, which may also lead to canonically contextual, positional forms like roman long s or greek σ and a lot of letters in cursive arabic. That means the possible positions of a letter shape its glyph and the possible glyphs of a letter influence its adoption for certain positions.

In other words, the goal should not be to invent something distinctively new but to design something plausible.

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In order to construct a realistic and suitable writing system, these are some things you should consider before you think about how you want it to look:

  • Could your needs be served by a writing system in existence realistically? For example, if you're creating a Slavic language, you could easily use the Cyrillic or Latin scripts (cf. Russian, Czech); there's no need to design a new script.
  • What do geographically or lexically similar languages use as their primary scripts? Finnish uses the Latin script as a result of Swedish influence, even though Swedish is not related to Finnish linguistically.
  • How does the language intersect with the culture of the people speaking it? Although Serbian and Croatian are technically the same language, they typically use different writing systems because Serbians tend to be Orthodox (Cyrillic-associated) and Croatians tend to be Catholic (Latin-associated). Conversely, Cantonese uses the same script as Mandarin despite not being the same language due to geographical and political similarities.
  • When did your language and its script split off from its ancestors, and how were they written? Despite Greek not being a Semitic language, it had a close proximity to the Phoenicians and thus borrowed their alphabet. But if your language came more recently, perhaps you should base it upon a more recent alphabet such as Greek itself, or even the Latin script (as with Lisu).
  • How strict is your language phonologically, and what semantic effect does changing vowels or consonants have? Arabic uses an abjad in part because the consonants provide the actual base meaning, while vowels change various minutiae, while Japanese (in part) can use a syllabary because it's very restrictive with syllable structure. On the other hand, Georgian uses a full alphabet because it has so many consonant clusters, which can't really be expressed concisely in a syllabary or abugida.

Then you can consider how you want it to look. You can give something a more cursive or angular appearance while still basing it off of something relevant. This also gives it more of a unique flavor even if you're using an existing system. This is something you could do for a Phoenician-based system that doesn't look like Phoenician (crude, but you get the point):

Phoenician aleph; on the right is a symbol that looks like a reversed Latin thorn.

You should additionally think about the direction in which your script is supposed to be written - letter forms can change based on that. They tend to lean right in an LTR script and vice versa, and be either thin and tall or confined to a square for a vertical script (like traditional Mongolian/Uyghur and Chinese hànzì respectively). Also, vertical scripts don't often have completely open bottoms or tops of characters like LTR scripts might.

In a fantasy world, where you're relying less on historicity and looking more for inspiration, you kind of just need to look at different scripts applying the sort of aesthetic you want, then alter them and perhaps combine them together into a whole system. If you enjoy neat and somewhat simplistic scripts with varying letter heights, you could combine inspiration from Latin and Armenian. For loopy, natural-looking scripts, take a look at Georgian and Greek. There are tons of different writing systems across the world, and I guarantee you'll find inspiration somewhere if you look.

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My reply is going to look a lot sillier in comparison, but I suggest taking inspiration from the shapes of a large collection of items. I've seen conlangs use alphabets inspired by mushrooms and flowers, but you could try constellations, animals, fruits, street signs, soda brand logos, anything to get you inspired. Here's my silly attempt using emojis for example.

emoji-inspired alphabet

Once you've drawn say 50 symbols, you can start filtering out the ones that look too different or those which just wouldn't be natural to write using a pen, brush, quill or whatever your fictional society uses. Try writing words using these symbols and you'll see which ones are too tricky to write and need simplifying, and which ones are too close to tell apart.

enter image description here

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1. Erosion

I like the emoji suggestion above, but I have a similar suggestion, and that's to start with simple line pictures of the things represented. In other words, follow the same kind of evolution that produced today's "Roman" alphabet. It's been known to happen that way, independently, more than twice (proto-Canaanite, Linear A, and Mayan).

Take simple little line drawings and then erode them until you have just a few manageable strokes per letter (or syllable, or whatever).

2. Cloud, Stars, Light, and Shadow

Another source of inspiration is to watch the clouds for useful patterns, or connect the dots of particular stars, or look at interesting light patterns filtering through curtains at night (for example), or watch the interplay of light and shadow under trees (for another example). Sometimes you'll get a GREAT and unexpected source of inspiration.

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