Tag Archives: Tad Williams

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part III)

This post, once again, continues the discussion I’ve started on world building in fantasy literature.

 

The last technique I want to mention concerns how one deals with those things that normally have some kind of numeric designation; particularly those things which require some type of numeric manipulation. Here, again, simplicity is the key. The item that most readily comes to mind is the calendar. Here on Earth, our calendar (in the West, at least) consists of three hundred and sixty five (and a quarter) days. There are twelve months of varying lengths (either 28, 30, or 31 days apiece). And each of the fifty-two weeks consists of seven days. To be sure, one’s fantasy world could use a similar calendar with fifty-two weeks of seven days length, and twelve months of unpredictable length. But I would advise against it. Instead, use easily computable number groups; it makes for far less headaches.

 

For example, a calendar year of 365 days is not easily divisible into seven day weeks. As a result, on our calendar, the day of the week a particular date falls on changes every year. This need not be the case. In fact, you may find that such a thing causes you difficulties as you write. The solution is to use more easily manageable numbers. There is no reason why a year must be 365 days, or that it should consist of 12 months, or 52 weeks. Yet, ours does, and each of those different slices of time are all inter-related. In a fantasy world, the world builder has the option of simplifying, thus making the inter-relationships of those temporal slices easier to grasp. One of the simplest things to do, is to use a year of 360 days that consists of twelve 30-day months (that was my choice for Athron). From there, you must simply decide on the length of the week. If you want your numbers easily manageable, then you really have only a few options: five 6-day weeks (again, my choice), six 5-day weeks, three 10-day weeks (Tad Williams’ choice in Shadowmarch), or two 15-day weeks (but that last is really a stretch). Tad Williams also had five festival days that fell outside of weeks and months to get the total of the year up to 365 like ours. On the other hand, I simply deleted the five days. 360 is a nice round number that works fine for me.

 

A final word of advice, dealing with shorter numbers is usually better than longer numbers. It’s easier to keep five different days of a week straight than it is to keep ten. Likewise, if you aren’t going to use a mnemonic device that helps sort through your various months, I’d suggest using a number lower than twelve. Once upon a time, I used a year of thirteen 28-day months which gives you a 364 day year. However, in such an instance both you and the reader will have to keep track of 13 different months, none of which will align properly with our own.

Note: Due to a family emergency, I’m going to be heading out of town for a few days and I’m not sure when I’ll be back to post again.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part II)

This post continues my discussion on world building for fantasy literature. Previously, I discussed the authors Tad Williams and Brandon Sanderson and some (in my view) mistakes these authors made in certain works of theirs. As I said, when one develops a fantasy world, one wants to make it as realistic as possible without sacrificing readability. J.R.R. Tolkien could have written all his dialogue in The Lord of the Rings in Elvish, but he didn’t, because he realized that that would have made the work virtually unintelligible to the average reader. The key is to strike the right balance between those characteristics unique to the fantasy world and those characteristics common to our own.

 

One technique I’ve stumbled upon (largely from reading Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams) is to use mnemonic devices in your writing, particularly for characteristics that might be confusing and difficult to remember for your Earth-readers. For example, in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams references the months of Novander and Decander, among others. That struck me as a clever way to accomplish two things at once: 1) provide a list of names for the months of the year that are unique to one’s world, and 2) at the same time, make the list easily understood and recognizable by the majority of readers in The West. Obviously, Novander and Decander are parallels to our own November and December. The reader will get that right away and won’t have to refer back to the index, thereby ejecting herself from the story, in order to sort it out. I liked the technique so much, I borrowed it for some of my own work (I use Novenya, and Decendra in The Children of Lubrochius).

 

Now, another mnemonic device can be used for characters with multiple names. In my own work, I have a character (only one, so far) that is referenced by three different names. My solution to the explosion of confusing names that so bedeviled Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series is to make the names similar to each other: different enough so as to be distinct, but sounding alike enough that the reader will easily remember them. Specifically, there is one character who is referred to by the following three names: Korina, Zarina, and Sarina. One must be careful with this technique, though; it works best with only a very small number of characters. If one has something like a complete pantheon of deities and gives multiple names (all of which sound similar) to each one, it may come across as sounding forced and unnatural. In such a case, one would have to come up with some other technique.

 

In my next post, I will discuss how to effectively manage units of time and other elements of a story with a numeric designation.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part I)

If you are going to embark on a career writing fantasy literature, at some point or another you are going to have to familiarize yourself with the concept of world building. World building is the art of constructing an alternate world or universe in which the action of your story takes place. One of the most important things you can do in that regard is read: You can learn a lot from reading other writers’ works. You can figure out what works and what doesn’t work. One important lesson I have learned from reading others work is “all things in moderation.” This applies particularly to world-building activities in fantasy literature. A part of that is the notion of limits that I discussed in an earlier post. In that post I mentioned the important point that unless a reader loves your work so much (as we all hope they do) that they reread the book a dozen times, they will not be nearly as conversant in all the characteristics and relationships in the world as the author is. Because of this, what is clear to the author may not be clear to the reader on a first read. And that can be dangerous.

 

Two examples of well-respected authors who have fallen into this trap are Brandon Sanderson and Tad Williams. Specifically, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings involves extensive world building. In my opinion, it involves too much. I read the book quite some time ago and reviewed it here. I can deal with multiple moons, different weather patterns from our own, and even different days of the week than ours, but what I find excessive is a whole slew of alien critters that aren’t essential to the story but are added to simply give the world an alien feel. Likewise, inventing entirely new types of material for clothing and what have you. I only read the book once, and although it was an excellent book, I don’t intend to read it again. As for Tad Williams, his Shadowmarch series was a semi-decent series, not exceptional and certainly not as good as his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. However, the Shadowmarch series suffered one serious failing. He gave approximately three different names to each of his world’s deities. That was confusing as all heck. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I think there were at least eight significant deities, maybe more. That’s twenty-four names that the reader has to keep track of as they cross reference themselves many times. Like I said: very confusing.

 

The lesson from this is that creativity is a good thing, but there’s a point where it can be detrimental. Just because something makes logical sense, doesn’t mean you should incorporate it into your writing. In the next post, I’ll give you a way to manage such an abundance of creativity, inspired by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and some of my own experience.

Fantasy Literature: Creativity Run Amuck: When The Details of Your World Bewilder

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I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings.” It’s an interesting book; so far, I don’t think I like it quite as well as I like his Mistborn series, but it’s still interesting. There is one thing, I’ve noticed, though that I would describe as a weakness. I won’t review the whole book here (partly because I’m not finished yet), but I do wish to address this particular defect. Basically, I think Brandon Sanderson is suffering from too much creativity. Seriously. I really do.

He’s invented a whole new world, which is not unusual for a fantasy author. But the problem is he’s populated it with so many things specific to that world, the reader cannot keep track. I’m sure when he plotted the details out beforehand, it made perfect sense… and I’m sure it’s all internally consistent. But I can’t keep track of it all. And I’m a reasonably intelligent person. It’s not just as simple a thing as throwing a few extra moons orbiting his world. No, it’s deeper than that. To be honest, I don’t know how many moons he has. I know there are at least two, but more probably three or four. He refers to them by name, which is not uncommon, but not frequently enough for the reader to really get a feel for them. But that’s just moons. Everybody has multiple moons on their worlds now. He goes further, though. Our standard earth week is replaced by a different one—again, in itself, this is a small detail. There is an abundance of plants and animals unique to his world. Again, no problem there. He even went so far as to develop specific plant materials for clothing that are unique to his world.

Looking at it from a world designer’s viewpoint, it all makes sense. It’s just that it’s a bit overwhelming. I can’t keep all the details straight, and to a certain extent, that is detracting from my enjoyment of the book. I remember when I read “The Lord of the Rings,” and there was a reference to “October 3rd” in the first book. Of course, it makes absolutely no sense that a completely alien world would use the same month and date as we would now (of course, Middle Earth was supposed to be an Earth of an earlier epoch—but I digress), but at least that made it easier to follow. Fantasy tales taking place on alternate worlds shouldn’t share some of the things we take for granted on this world. But how far should you take that point? Should we write like this:

It was the erp of Echma, in the sel erp-thann-quiat. “Asglick morlack” Vitr said. “Gunth gwit creyl.”

 

What does that mean? I dare you to figure it out. It’s all perfectly logical. “Erp” is a numerical value, because you know an alternate world wouldn’t use the same names for numbers as we do. “Echma” is the name of the month, or month equivalent. “Sel” means year, though I can assure you, it does not consist of 365 days, each lasting 24 hours. “Erp-thann-quiat” is the numerical value of the year in question. “Asglick morlack. Gunth gwit creyl” could just as easily be “Good morning. It’s been a while.” as anything else. The important point is that they are not speaking English. Like I said, it all makes sense, but it doesn’t make for entertaining reading.

Good fantasy writers will know how to strike a balance between realistic variety in the description of their worlds, and keeping the work as a whole readable. Another example of  creativity gone too far happened in Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series. In that series, he made the mistake of giving multiple names to each of his deities. The justification was, of course, that different cultures would use different names for the same deity—kind of like how the Greeks and Romans named their respective pantheons in our world. This makes perfect sense from a logical point of view, but it makes reading the book a little more difficult. There were four books in the series, and I think I only had one or two of the deities figured out by the time I finished, and that’s not a good sign.

Of course, Brandon Sanderson and Tad Williams are both excellent writers; but even the best of us make mistakes. But I think this mistake is serious enough to be worth pointing out.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for today.