Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Local Habitation and a Name

One of the unique problems (or joys, to some of us) of writing about invented worlds is the need to make up names for everything.  Authors who set their stories in the real world (even if it’s fantasy or SF) can simply scan through lists of forenames or surnames, or even the local phone book.  It isn’t quite that simple, of course (would Harry Potter be as popular if he’d been called Dudley Dursley?  I doubt it, though it’s hard to define why) but the basic building blocks are all there for the author to play with.

Fantasy requires new names for a huge range of components: not only people, but also countries, cities, villages, rivers, seas, forests and mountains.  And, just as with the real world, the choice of name for each is going to affect the reader’s response.

There are a number of approaches to this.  Many authors use RW names, and some are very successful with it, but I personally dislike this approach.  It tends to jerk me out of my suspension of disbelief if I come across something too familiar, especially if it has other associations.  George R. R. Martin, for instance, has a town called Ashford and a character called Jon Snow.  Both perfectly good names, unless you’re more used to them as a station on the Eurostar and a TV newsreader.  That makes it harder to take them seriously.

Using RW names for a fantasy world is very difficult to get right, since names have general associations, even if not specific ones.  A common mistake is to mix cultures.  If, for instance, your hero has a classical name like Demetrius, why would his brother have a Norse name like Thorvald?  There might be a specific reason, of course – parents from different cultures, deliberately using a foreign name etc. – but, without that, it’s going to feel wrong to a lot of readers.  And it can be ridiculous if you use names with too modern a flavour.  I could buy a sword-and-sorcery hero called Edmund or Richard, if the story was good enough, but not one called Wayne.

I find it far more convincing if the names are all invented, but that too has its pitfalls.  Inventing names doesn’t mean you have a completely free hand – they must be believable within the context of the story and the world, and readers must be able to relate to them. 

A common piece of advice is to keep invented names short and simple.  That has some merit, but it doesn’t always work.  In a one-off story, the best approach is to use shortish, familiar names for the main character and the people and places s/he knows best, growing more exotic in proportion to their strangeness to him/her.  The reader’s going to be a lot more tolerant with the far-off land of Kh’revt-zhorq if the main character’s having problems with the name too.

It’s not always that straightforward, though.  I use a world that stretches to seven continents and five thousand years, and I have stories that focus on many different bits of it.  The exotic in one story might be the familiar in another, and vice versa.  It would clearly be absurd if every name were short and simple.  This certainly isn’t true of our own world, where cities, for instance, can be anything from Lima to N’djamena to Antananarivo, and the current wicket-keeper of the Sri Lankan national cricket team is Hewasandatchige Asiri Prasanna Wishvanath Jayawardene.

It’s inevitable that, at some time, the “familiar” culture must have people and places with names that are less easy for the reader.  Perhaps the simplest strategy to make this less of a problem is to give characters shortened versions of their names.  I’ve done this, for instance, with my recurring characters, Karaghr and Failiu, who call each other Kari and Fai.  Although their full names occur frequently in the stories, readers who feel uncomfortable with them can think of the characters by their short names.

Ultimately, though, I try to make the names convincing by giving them linguistic integrity.  Now, this doesn’t have to mean inventing the languages themselves – even Tolkien would have problems with the number of languages I’m dealing with – but it does mean having a broad understanding of three factors for each language I use as a source for names.

One is the language’s structure, which will often dictate the form the name will take.  It’s not accidental, for example, that so many Roman names end in -us (although it’s a good deal more complex in reality) or that Chinese names tend to be composites of single-syllable elements.  Languages can be isolating (words don’t change according to function), agglutinative (words have prefixes or suffixes “glued on” to indicate function) or synthetic (words change their form to indicate function).  Very rarely, they can be polysynthetic, but that’s strictly for the fearless.

Secondly, it’s necessary to know what a language sounds like.  No-one familiar with European culture could possibly mistake Schultz for an Italian name or Verona for a German one.  German words tend to have a lot of consonants clustered together and to end with a consonant (or occasionally an -e) while Italian words tend to alternate consonant and vowel and to finish with a vowel.  German has a harsh, guttural sound, Italian a flowing, musical one.  That’s not “good” or “bad”, but each language has its own sound.

Thirdly, decide which sounds your language uses.  Different languages have very different requirements, ranging from some languages that use barely more than a dozen sounds to others that require alphabets far longer than ours.  (Come to that, English really needs a longer alphabet.)  Some extra sounds can’t really be represented without making the names look like a linguistic text, but many can.

One much-maligned example is the apostrophe.  The use of apostrophes in fantasy names is often dismissed as self-indulgent decoration – and, to be fair, that’s how many authors use it – but that’s unjust.  The most common meaning of an apostrophe (other than for grammatical use) is to indicate a glottal stop.  This is a sound that doesn’t happen to be used (officially) in any of the languages our alphabet was created for, but it’s as vital as A or B in a great many others.  It’s a kind of active pause or gulp, as when a Cockney pronounces bottle as bo’al.

This would be recognised by any fans of Stargate SG1, where the character Teal’c has a glottal stop in his name.  From time to time in the show, some character (usually an unsympathetic suit) will mispronounce his name as Tealc, and it sounds completely wrong.  The difference is that the glottal stop has been left out.

As an example of my method, I have a character in my novel, At An Uncertain Hour, called Drezhe-va.  Although a fairly major character, she’s fairly exotic – her country’s a bit of a mystery to the lands around, and it lies half a world from where the viewpoint character was born, so I didn’t feel the need to make her name “familiar”. 

My knowledge of her language stretches to half a dozen names, none of whose meanings I know.  This name, however, does reflect several things I do know about the language.

1) It’s an agglutinative language, which uses suffixes to indicate noun-classes.  Quite a few RW languages have these – they’re a little like gender in some European languages, but with a lot more variety and rationality.  In this case, the suffix -va indicates that the word belongs to the person class (as all personal names would).  There’s also a place class, indicated by -ne in the place-names.

2) Words are typically two or three syllables, plus the suffix.

3) There are few consonant clusters.  The only one in this name is dr- which is fairly straightforward.  The zh is simply the voiced version of sh and is pronounced like the s in treasure.

4) Words (excluding the suffix) tend to finish with a vowel.

The other names – Amlo-va, Ario-ne, MaƤni-ne and Enla-ne – reflect this structure, and hopefully give a genuine sense of cultural unity.  This is even more so with cultures and languages I’ve written about more than this one.

Everyone has their own way of creating fantasy names, and many of them work.  Perhaps the most important thing is to believe in the names yourself.  After all, if you can’t believe in them, how are the readers going to?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Messy Worlds Rule OK

A good deal of fantasy, though not all, has a phase not shared by realist fiction: the author must create the world the action takes place in.  There are almost as many approaches to this as there are fantasy authors – some plan meticulously in advance, not starting to write until they know everything about their world, whereas others wing it, only creating details as they come up, knowing little more than the reader.  Most – myself included – fall at some point between the two extremes.

All these approaches seem to produce both worlds that live and breathe and worlds that feel completely artificial, so it’s clearly not this aspect that determines success or failure.  I haven’t any formula to guarantee success in world-building – I’d bottle it if I did – but I’d like to make one suggestion for why worlds sometimes aren’t convincing – they’re not messy enough.

An example of a non-messy world is David Eddings’ Belgariad.  Let me say first – I thoroughly enjoyed The Belgariad.  It’s a thumping good tale – but Eddings clearly had a lot to learn about world-building when he wrote it.  He presents us with a dozen or so countries which have apparently been ordained by the gods at the beginning of history and have scarcely changed since.  OK, one country has disappeared and one has been created, but otherwise not a single border has ever appeared to change.

In addition, each country is inhabited by one race of people, every individual of which shares a specific characteristic: obsession with money, stupidity, shrewdness etc.  Everyone displays this characteristic – then you cross the border and everyone’s completely different.

Now, compare this with our world.  National borders change all the time, as a result of wars, treaties or mergers of countries.  The border between France and Germany (or whatever political unit has stood in Germany’s place) has been shifting for centuries, and changed at least three times during the 20th century.  (This confusion, incidentally, was originally caused by the Partition of Verdun, in 843, between Charlemagne’s grandsons).  In Britain, the border between England and Scotland has been very fluid, and even now the town of Berwick-on-Tweed isn’t entirely sure where it belongs.  There’s a story (probably apocryphal) that Berwick recently discovered it was still at war with Germany, since it hadn’t been specified in the peace treaty.

Besides shifting borders, nations themselves are being created and destroyed all the time.  Yugoslavia, for example, came into being after the First World War out of the ruins of two empires and dissolved in civil war into half a dozen sovereign states in the 1990s.  This kind of thing has been going on throughout history – for example, during the period when the tiny kingdoms that grew up from the remains of the Roman Empire coalesced into larger states like England, Spain and France.

Even more fundamental than all this political manoeuvring, however, is the fact that people don’t conveniently go and sit in pigeon-holes.  Most countries today are multicultural, but this isn’t anything new.  The traditional view of history, and particularly of prehistory, is of mass-movements of peoples, slaughtering or driving out the previous inhabitants and replacing them.  That certainly does happen, and has happened to a shocking extent in the past five hundred years, but genetic profiling now seems to suggest that it’s the exception rather than the rule.  In Britain, far from the Anglo-Saxons “replacing” the Celts, who earlier “replaced” various nameless peoples, it now seems that most people are actually descended from the hunter-gatherers who followed the retreating ice northward.

What does seem to happen is a steady influx of smaller numbers of people who intermarry with the locals and occasionally have an influence beyond their numbers, when their culture has something the host culture needs.  It’s probable, for instance, that there were quite a few Anglo-Saxons in Britain before the Roman occupation ended – along with people from all quarters of the Empire – but that, for various reasons, their culture became fashionable.  A large proportion of the populations of Wessex, Mercia and the other kingdoms would have been indigenous farmers who adopted the ways of the Anglo-Saxons – just as their ancestors had adopted the ways of the Romans, the Celts and many others.

There’s rarely much connection between nationality, race and language, even in a country like England that’s supposed to have a unified history.  Nations and empires that are thrown together for political or military reasons have even less unity.  Some real-world cases are obvious (Israel/Palestine, for instance) but most larger countries contain communities that speak different languages and consider themselves “different peoples.”

Culture is perhaps a more powerful unifier.  Classical Greece is often seen as racist in its attitude to “Greeks” and “Barbarians”, but their definitions weren’t really racial.  A “Greek” was defined as someone who spoke Greek, worshipped the Olympian gods and lived in a city-state.  They were actually just as mongrel as everyone else.

Culture is essentially how a group of people like to see themselves, and this is where national stereotypes have some limited reality.  German culture might like to see itself as efficient, for instance, and Italian as fun-loving, and individuals might strive for that ideal harder than in other countries, though there are always large numbers of exceptions.  And, of course, characteristics depend on who’s observing them.  Take Britain and America.  In Britain, we like to think of ourselves as tasteful and Americans as vulgar, whereas the view in America is that they’re forthright and we’re uptight.  Both and neither is true – it’s purely a matter of what’s seen as “normal”.  And, of course, there are plenty of vulgar Britons and uptight Americans.

It’s doubtful that a created world could actually be quite as messy as the real world without being too confusing to follow.  I’ve noticed in my own creations a tendency for cities and nations (especially cities) to last longer than might be considered normal, although not impossibly so (Damascus, for instance, has existed for about 5000 years).  Still, being aware of the points above can create a little of the organic ebb and flow of a real world, instead of one with thick lines drawn around every “country” or “race”.

Go for messiness.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My World and Welcome to It

Fantasy worlds come in about as many shapes and sizes as there are fantasy authors.  Some were created by magic.  Some are populated by strange beings from mythology or from the author’s imagination.  Some are flat (occasionally even carried on the back of a space-faring turtle), while Leiber’s Nehwon exists on the inside surface of a hollow sphere.  Some have seven moons, or two purple suns.  It all works.

It really depends what you want to do with your world.  Although I’m not immune to magic and wonder, I essentially want a world that’s an environment for my characters to inhabit, so I’ve chosen one that’s really pretty much like our own in most respects – a rocky planet with active plate tectonics, a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere and abundant water, approximately 93 million miles from a yellow star and with a large moon.  The same types of life have evolved, including homo sapiens. 

Beyond that, however, all the details are different.

My world has been growing, somewhat haphazardly, for several decades now.  It started off as a smallish region consisting of half a dozen countries, but now it consists of six continents, plus a number of major archipelagos – one is called the Thousand Isles (not much of an exaggeration) and could be regarded as an oceanic continent in its own right.

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a four-dimensional world.  Usually – though there are exceptions – a fantasy world is like a picture.  There’s a foreground representing the “present” (the time in which the main story is set) and a background representing the “past”, which is only ever seen as history or ancient tales.  The “future” is outside the frame and is never seen.

My approach to time is more like one of those virtual tours.  I can set a story at one period, looking back at tales from an age thousands of years earlier.  Then I can move around and set another story in those times, where events are foreshadowed that were previously seen as ancient history.  There’s no past, present and future, because every period a story can be set in is its own present.

Just as our world has two major zones of civilisation (the Old World and the New) mine has three.  Two separated continents and the Thousand Isles formed the oldest civilisations, but this area suffered a long period of stagnation or decline, allowing the rest of the world to catch up with it.  This is inhabited by a mixture of races – tawny skinned (somewhat like Native Americans) and a vaguely Polynesian type, with white-skinned peoples in the far north.

To the east lie two large continents, linked by an isthmus, which were still in their bronze age when the west had been using iron for a couple of millennia, but this is where much of the energy came from behind the later progress of civilisation.  The races here go from white in the north to black in the south, with the dynamo of civilisation centred in the south.  On the isthmus itself stands the ancient city of Errish, commanding a unique position that controls most practical routes between two continents and two oceans.  A fabulously wealthy city with very little space to expand, Errish grew by means of towering skyscrapers and a vast undercity that make it one of the wonders of the world.

To the east, two continents are linked by a bridge of large islands.  The islands and the nearer parts of both continents are inhabited by a yellow-skinned race, who have also spread across islands to the west coast of the first zone.  Nevertheless, the two areas only knew of one another by vague legends, passed on by indirect trade, until increased globalisation opened up the whole world.

Further into the more southerly of these continents – which stretches all the way down into antarctic regions – live strange, green-skinned humans.  Once ferocious raiders, they developed steam-based technology when the rest of the world was still using horse-drawn carts and sailing ships, but remained an aloof, isolated people, content to know they were superior.

All these peoples, of course, have their own languages.  Now, I’m not Tolkien and I haven’t actually created the languages, but I know the general nature of many, enough to create names that belong to those languages.  Why is one place called Assanara and another Dakh’el?  Because of the sounds the languages use and the ways they form their words.  (And, to clear up one widespread misunderstanding, the apostrophe is not “decoration” – it’s a standard way of representing the glottal stop, an important sound in many real-world languages which our alphabet doesn’t happen to include).

The stories I’ve written for this world cover more than five thousand years, from urban neolithic to computer age, by way of wars and trade and colonisation and inventions and idealism and betrayal and religion and rationalism and even steampunk.  One of the latest tells of the formation of the World Union, a kind of United Nations that’s somewhat more successful than ours (because it’s my world, and I say so). 

This is a world that contains politics, economics and warfare – the stuff of real history – but that isn’t all.  It also has gods and evil powers vying for control.  It has immortals building empires that last a thousand years or more.  It has strange beings – the winged Eahui and the ethereal Mountain-Wraiths, terrible ghouls and ice-worms, and the mysterious Subatmiks.  And it has plenty of magic, good and evil.  It’s just that most people live their lives without seeing any of this – but those aren’t the people I’m writing about.

And through this world, in its various phases and areas, wanders the Traveller, the immortal wanderer on his enchanted ship, who wants to see everything but can’t resist trying to help the threatened and oppressed.  He doesn’t appear in all the stories, but he’s a legend everywhere.  In the absence of a name for my world (how could it have a single name, when it contains so many languages?) I’ve taken to referring to it as the Travellerverse.  For now, at least.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Temple of Taak-Resh

The Temple of Taak-Resh
by Nyki Blatchley
Cover by Jesus Garcia Lopez
Published by Darwin's Evolutions

Karaghr and Failiu are a couple of homeless adolescents - or, as they prefer to think of themselves, outcast wandering sorcerers, together against the world. Arriving in the city of Hannor with no money, no prospects and only a smattering of the local language, they target the Temple of Taak-Resh, said to take in talented sorcerers.

The problem is that Kari and Fai have chosen the worst possible day to present themselves at the temple. Before they know what's happening, the two teenagers find themselves caught up in the affairs of Hannor, with nothing but their imperfect magical skills between them and disaster.


"Don't worry." The eagerness was back on Karaghr's face. "It'll be easy to sell our sorcery. Remember, they say everyone in Hannor employs sorcerers."

"Well...yes." Failiu had heard this, but how useful would it be? "That means there'll be plenty of them already. Maybe...I don't know...maybe they have some kind of guild, and they won't let outsiders in."

Failiu only had experience of one temple, which didn’t help much. Hannor felt like the far end of the world, so who knew what it might be like here?

"Ah." Karaghr's expression turned a shade smug. "I got talking to one of the sailors, and he said something called the Temple of Taak-Resh takes in promising sorcerers. You just go
and present yourself."

"Just like that? Was it the same sailor who offered to teach you to talk to dolphins?"

"No, not that one. It'll be all right, Fai. All we have to do is go to this temple and show them what we can do, and we'll have a hot meal and a bed by nightfall."

Knowing it seemed too easy, Failiu tried to suppress the surge of hope and be sensible. "That's assuming we're good enough. We didn't finish all the books before the priests found out."

"Of course we're good enough. We can do protection spells, finding spells, things like that. Probably even raise a demon or two. What can go wrong?"

"That's what you said at Mathelis."

"Well, that was different. Anyway, that wasn't long after we left Errish. We've practiced a lot since then."

Failiu nodded slowly. She still wasn't convinced they were good enough, even if they hadn't had any disasters lately, but it was certainly worth a try. This temple could only turn them away.