Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Undiscovered Countries.

This blog is dedicated to all of those budding/frustrated cartographers out there.

Fantasy needs a stage, a place for the wonder to happen and somewhere that its characters can be, in the most arty sense of the word. Despite the occasional jaunt into demon infested alternate dimensions or visits into the nether regions of existence, fantasy tends to take place in/on/around worlds. Some are like our own perhaps now or in the past. Others are totally different from anything you or I would recognise.
However, I have some issues with a couple of things that seem to crop up with alarming regularity.

SO! Grab your compass, some stout walking boots and a coat (it looks like rain), we're going to delve into adventuring! 
Or you can go and watch Castaway and skip over the bit where Wilson "dies", as per.
Worlds? What can go wrong with Worlds? Surely they are just big balls of dirt orbiting a sun?
HA! Shows what you know! For years, Pratchett has been creating stories set on a giant disk which travels through space on the back of a giant turtle. So there goes your "Ball of Dirt" theory.

The genre is called Fantasy. Not "History but with Magic/k and Dragons" or "Elves and Dwarves: Area specific evolution in action." There seems to be a lack of truly bonkers ideas at the moment. Where are the night-time worlds with no sun that are kept warm and illuminated by rivers of lava? Or the worlds which are orbited by a flock of tiny suns? Where are the worlds with sporadic gravity and migratory grass?

Gudguff looked around and sighed, the Murdergrass had moved beyond their precarious position.

"Is...Safe?" Ran asked from his perch atop a boulder.

Gudguff looked around again and counted to thirty under his breath. 

"Yes, we should be alright now. Just...try to walk softly." He glared at the gimpish cretin on the other boulder and tried to will the message home. Normally he could have implanted the suggestion with the force of a nail being hammered into a plank. However, Ran was more or less immune to his own thoughts, someone else's didn't stand a chance. 

Gudguff slithered painfully down his boulder and, closing his eyes tightly, ever so gently placed his pointy shoes onto the scoured earth. He waited for a few moments before letting out a sigh, taking care to point his face toward the sky just in case. 

There was often no telling what might attract the Murdergrass. Some people claimed that it moved to the will of some dark and savage plant god. Others said it was the result of a battle between a Sorcerer and a Demon. Most people didn't really care where it came from, they just started running when they saw the stuff apporaching. 

He twisted his head to eyeball Ran for a long moment. Already knowing he would regret it, Gudguff nodded.
Ran blinked, his eyes taking it in turns to complete the task before he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. With his tongue between his teeth, Ran slowly uncoiled his legs. Gudguf winced again and stared in horror as the Savior of The World stuck his legs out at a right angle to his body and lent forwards. 
Time seemed to slow as Gudguff watched his protege slid off of the boulder and toward the dirt. The Wizard's body performed a series of involuntary spasms as he stared in horror at Ran.
"No! No! No! Don't just drop off the rock, you tit! The grass will come back!"
Ran ignored the wizard's near hysterical scream and gave himself a little push before raising his hands above his head.
"Weeeee!" His voice was deep enough that Gudguff could feel he vibrations through the floor.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" The Wizard screamed in horror as Ran's massive feet thumped into the dirt with a resounding crash.
Gudguff turned, put his head down and ran as quickly as he could.He didn't give his Prophesied Hero a warning, the Murdergrass could catch and devour Ran for all the Wizard cared. 

Well, that was creepy. So, you're saying that there should be more murderous vegetation?
No, not necessarily. SF writers have no problem with populating their worlds with migrating trees and creatures that have more in common with balloons that animals. Why is it then that so little of that ingenuity makes its way to Fantasy?
A world has as much to do with the plot as the characters, more so in fact as without a world the characters would be explosively decompressed quite quickly.

So the world is important then?
Yes! A lot of writers go into huge levels of detail. They agonize over every moment of their world's history. creating timelines and back stories which become part of the universe and integral to the understanding of the plot. It is essential for writers to do this as without it they would be unable to move freely around their world and their characters would become stilted cut-outs going through the motions.

Unfortunately because they have spent so much time on creating their unvierse they feel the need to share every last detail with us, the reader. Shoehorning information into the general plot by any means available and even writing characters whose sole purpose is to expose this lengthy history.

Mogmush paused at the edge of a vast tract of torn and exposed earth. Great gouges and gashes scarred the naked soil. Not a single blade of grass was to be seen and Mogmush realised that he could not hear any animals or see any on the plain.

"What the shitting hell happened here?" Mogmush uncorked the wineskin and took a long pull.

"Well, this should be the start of the great grasslands. About seven hundred years ago king Argolass commanded that all the trees be cut down and used to build his armada, the forest never recovered. Since then the locals have adapted their economy to a migratory herding base." Blee Dingobvious The Expounder, paused for breath and Mogmush eyeballed him.

If I punch him in the mouth would he try to tell me who invented the punch?Mogmush wondered.

"Indeed, the horsemen of the grasslands are a force to be feared, lethal with a compound, re-curve, horsebow at ranges of up to five hundred yards." Blee took another breath and Mogmush jumped into the momentary pause.

"Alright! Fair enough. But you haven't told me what the hell happened. It looks like giant locusts have eaten everything!" He paused as he took another swig and eyed the sky warily. "It wasn't locusts was it?"

"Oh, no." Changing tack without blinking, Blee blathered blithely. "These are the marks of Murdergrass. A violent species of grass that travels in huge Lawns and devours everything in its path. I saw this once before, as a child, shortly before I began a series of unimportant but ultimately fact-filled quests which helped me become the man I am."

"Riiight...Do you hear that?" Mogmush slurred. "Shh! Listen!" He rammed a filthy finger in the general direction of Blee's mouth whilst holding the other hand to his ear. Any sound was blocked by the wineskin dangling from his fist.

In the momentary pause a faint rustle reached them. It sounded like a breeze rushing through a forest or a weirdo doing something in the bushes.

"What is that?" Blee, for once without an answer to his own question, pointed to a dot on the horizon that was growing rapidly larger.

"I don't know...but it's mine!" Mogmush tried to sound less drunk than he was and ended his sentence by pulling his broadsword Cabbage half out of its scabbard, before choking himself on the baldric and falling to the floor coughing. 
Blee's first aid was interrupted by a rising scream.

'K. So now I've written some stuff about my world, how do I come up with a name for it?
Simply? Don't.
I know it goes against the grain and is the opposite of every author out there but I would genuinely leave the world unnamed.

Because once you give something a name you give it a shape and a loose identity in the minds of your readers that is utterly beyond your control.
Once it has that shape it is no longer infinite. You can't parachute in a new and exciting thing just because you feel like it because it might not fit with the name or what the name implies.

Also, trying to come up with fantasy names is a headache at the best of times. Characters, Nations, your World? Utter nightmare.
It's a difficult thing to do! In our universe it happened by accident.  Have you ever wondered why the generally accepted name for our world is the same as a nice word for dirt?

By the point that a World gains it's own name, the place must be pretty well mapped.
Serious minded, pipe smoking men in cardigans with pencils and Theodolites will have been all over the place. Scribbling down distances and heights and muttering about pugnacious rock formations.
Once that has happened and there are no spaces on the map, empty but for the legend "Here Be Dragons" a lot of the sense of adventure is missing.
Once it is known that Dragons inhabit a three hundred mile stretch of the Friebum Mountains then no one will go there. At great public expense a new road will be constructed around the troublesome Dragons and adventurers start having to deal with the threat posed by multiple wagon pile-ups, franchised Inns with inedible food and brainlessly grinning staff and trying to unfold a map whilst travelling and trying to keep one eye on that sign approaching.
All of which is a little too close to reality for my liking.
So, stuff the world naming. Let you characters wander off into the blank spaces on the map and let them have some proper adventures.

But what if I really want to name my world?
If you absolutely have to...
What follows is a list of things to avoid like the plague when coming up with names for worlds, nations, characters and pets/children.

  • Trying to make it exciting: All too often writers try to make their invented names sound exciting onomatopoeic. There is no need, if you look at real history there were far more notable actions attributed to names like John, Paul, Ringo, Joan and Susan than there ever were to names like Vlad or Exoterrocitrix.
  • Make it complex: This is a link to the above. Far too many writers think that because it's fantasy they have leave to create names that are utterly unpronounceable and never take the time to say their invented names aloud or ask someone else to puzzle them out. For example. 
  1. Valathalatrix. 
  2. Morbedniaritus
  3. Velocidaronella
  4. Trantularmustoleph
  5. Mark
  • Not bothering and just using real names. No one was ever intimidated by the Dark Lord Neil, scourge of accounting.
  • Not saying their names out loud: I know I've already said this one but it really bugs me to have to stop in the middle of a half decent plot to try and figure out how to pronounce the name of the lead protagonist, after a while I just stop and start paraphrasing the names, for example:
  1. Valthalatrix - Valium tricks
  2. Morbedniaritus - Morbid Arboretums
  3. Velocidaronella - SpeedyD
  4. Trantularmustoleph - Transplanted Muscle Left
  5. Mark - System of denoting interest/place or grading.
So you're saying to keep it simple?
In a nutshell. Simple names are easy to remember.
  • Vlad
  • Ghandi
  • Adolf
  • John
You don't always have to use short names, but if you are going to invent a longer name then it needs to have a music to it that makes it stick in your readers mind like the theme to The Poddington Peas. Examples are as follows:

  • Napoleon 
  • Ghengis
  • Aristotle
  • Vladimir
  • Ozymandias
So you're saying keep it simple unless it's a good name that can be pronounced quite quickly...
Yes...more or less.
The thing is, in a lot of Fantasy names have power. The same can be said in our universe. A dull and uninspiring name is as bad as an exciting and unpronounceable name. 
Often though, a simple descriptive word, used in the right context and given the right weight of dread/longing by a character can be an elegant solution.

Gudguff pumped his arms and ran a little faster. He had tucked the trailing ends of his robes into his belt after his first tumble to the earth and now his knobbled knees were seeing their first glimpse of sunlight in almost fifty years.

He could hear Ran gurgling with delight as he ran along behind. The Wizard didn't bother too look over his shoulder. He could smell the rotting meat and fear that Murdergrass always reeked of. It wasn't far behind them. 

As the world jolted in his vision Gudguff realised he could see something in the distance that was growing closer. Taking a risk he slowed for a few strides to get a better look.

"Yes!" He gasped. "Ran, come on! We're almost safe!"
 He made the mistake of looking over his shoulder to tell Ran the good news and nearly stumbled.
Behind the lumbering cretin was a wall of Murdergrass. It was by far the biggest Lawn that Gudguff had ever seen. Easily half a mile across it rustled forward with the deceptive speed of a glacier. The lush pink fronds swayed against the breeze as their roots hungrily quested through the shattered earth for morsels even as they gained ground on the Wizard and his Hero/gimp.

Gudguff put his head down and ran for all he was worth. He heard the sound of voices in the near distance and grinned as he ran. Raising his head for a moment Gudguff bellowed at the two men standing on the edge of the stone plateau.

"Fucking ruuuuuuun!" 

By the time he finished bellowing he was a hundred feet past them and halfway up the sloping stone rise. His legs gave out and Gudguff tumbled to a halt.
Breathing hard, he looked up into the stained silk loincloth of gigantic barbarian who would give Ran a run for his money when it came to redundant musculature. 

"Who'ru?" Gudguff realised the man was trollied and sighed in defeat, looking for the other man he had seen on the edge of the stone.

"Where's your mate?" 
Mogmush pointed back toward the encroaching sea of grass.
"Oh shit."
Gudguff watched in horror as Ran pounded up to them and stopped. The three men then stood and watched as the figure of Blee appeared to try to explain something to the Murdergrass.

Gudguff couldn't help but watch in morbid horror as the root system burst out of the earth. Blee took it in his stride and moved his arms gently as he explained the relevance of thousand year old crop rotation methods to a carnivorous hive-plant. He didn't so much dissapear as evaporate.

"I think I might be quite ill now." Gudguff wheezed before vomiting copiously. 

"Nah, don't be. Little Goblin Bollock deserved it." Mogmush groused as he took another swig and handed the skin to Ran.