Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Worldbuilding: Olympics ptooey, we’re all a bunch of wimps

 Last week’s Olympics left me thinking. We’re a bunch of wimps. I mean, not just those of us who sit at home watching ultra-fit twenty-something athletes shatter world records. All of us. Including the athletes.

Humanity has been getting punier for millenia. Footprints discovered in dried Australian mud and dated around 26,000 years ago make clear that one early Aborigine, at least, was able to out-bolt any Olympic runner today. In bare feet.

Not to mention the ancient Egyptian peasantry, who spent their off-season dragging blocks of stone around. Other societies were even more physical. New Zealand’s Maori didn’t have beasts of burden. Everything had to be done with human muscle. Bones have been found with wear marks indicating tremendous development.

Hongi Hika – from a portrait by Major-General Robley.

Early European settlers saw that, too. There are stories of Maori toa (warriors) running huge distances in the 1820s – out-stripping any marathon runner. They regularly hauled multi-ton waka (canoes) overland. Rollers helped, but it was still more physical than the equivalent task in Europe where oxen, horses and pulleys were available. In the later part of the ‘musket wars’ Maori were moving cannon the same way.

Fantastic feats of physical action. Yet, even that was puny from an evolutionary standpoint. Chimps are half our size and four times as strong. Modern humans, H. Sapiens, are even the weaklings of our own family tree – light, tall and puny by comparison with our ice age cousins of just a few dozen millenia ago. Neanderthals were short, rugged, and hugely muscled. Couldn’t sprint, but when it came to clobbering mammoths, they had the biceps for the job.

We survived. They didn’t. How? Nineteenth and early-mid twentieth century thinking pinned it on Neanderthal stupidity versus our intelligence; we were smart enough to survive, smart enough to invent machinery. The evolutionary market had spoken.

That’s still a trope today – but actually it looks as if Neanderthals were as smart as us, in their own way. Maybe smarter. They had sophisticated rituals, they buried their dead, they looked after their sick – this at huge cost to a subsistence hunter-gatherer economy in ice-age climes. But they did it anyway. The latest argument goes that stocky Neanderthal bodies were an advantage in the cold; but our smaller and thinner ancestors didn’t need to eat so much. Better survival chances when the ice age got really nasty – it wasn’t just Europe that was clobbered. Africa and the other human habitats were dessicated by it, which made food very short. The technologies that Victorian age, Tory voting club-attending gentlemen used as a definition of superior H. Sapiens intelligence came later.

There are lessons for writers. If you’ve got a historical setting, what are your characters physically capable of? Realistically. What would that do for appearance? Got magic? Why bother lifting a finger – are wizards couch potatoes? That’s a horrifying thought. Or maybe they use magic to also give themselves the physique of superman. Hmnmn… And where is wimp-inducing modern tech going to lead us?

Arthur C. Clarke put it this way. Should we be more frightened of aliens erupting from their spacecraft, all fangs, roar and tentacles. Or of helpless, weak creatures that lolled about surrounded with gadgets? Clarke was riffing on H. G. Wells’ Martians; and Terry Nation made the idea iconic with his Daleks.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: are you going to watch the Avatar sequels?

News broke this week that two sequels for Avatar will be filmed in New Zealand. Unsurprising. James Cameron’s moved here – he’s bought a farm in the Wairarapa.

I don’t know I’ll bother with the new Avatar films, though. I slept through the first movie. Twice. The main problem was the excruciating Vietnam war-meets-Pocahontas-meets-Dancing-With-Wolves  plotline.

But I wasn’t inspired by the settings. Technically they were fabulous – a triumph for New Zealand’s film industry. It took around 1500 artists and computer whizzes, working flat out for a couple of years, to do them. A friend-of-a-friend of mine had to upgrade the rendering servers – all 8000 of them. It was great to see Roger Dean’s floating worlds brought to life. The starship was cool, if unlikely. The other tech seemed realistic.

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

But the big problem was Pandora – an Earthlike world orbiting a gas giant at ‘goldilocks’ distance from Alpha Centauri A. We already know no gas giant exists there. Furthermore, gas giants are shrouded with radiation belts – and tidal heating effects mean any Earth-sized moon orbiting them will have very different conditions, even in the ‘goldilocks’ zone, from Earth. Always assuming that a moon that large – with the right blend of silicates, metals and so forth – can form around a gas giant. Disbelief wasn’t properly suspended.

Are there other Earths out there? The science is still coming in – mostly Kepler data. Not one planet so far, it seems, is like Earth. Not one has been confirmed capable of hosting ‘life as we don’t know it’, still less life as we do. Part of the reason is that we’re only detecting certain types of systems, because of our technology. The really cool observatories were cancelled. But the other reason is that world characteristics are an emergent product. Look at Jupiter’s moons – all products of the same planetary formation, in the same area, with identical laws of physics – yet wildly different from each other.

The other problem, for me, was Pandora’s flora and fauna. Wonderfully realised and drawn, but it was really Earth with a different skin. Same plant/animal divisions, herbivores, carnivores, and one intelligent species (bipedal in a system of hexapods!) that had mastered horse analogues. Just now we don’t even know whether complex ecosystems will always emerge. Life on Earth consisted of bacteria and slime for two billion years. And it’s only luck that tetrapods and pentadactylism dominated – look at the Edicarians. Weirder than Pandora. And as for intelligent life, who says there will be just one species?

I figure the one thing we can be sure of is that alien worlds won’t be like ours. Certainly not the way Hollywood imagines. John Haldane summed it up in an oft misquoted phrase – ‘the universe is not only queerer than we imagine. it’s queerer than we CAN imagine’.

In the practical sense, the Hollywood vision is framed by entertainment – anything too alien wouldn’t attract audiences. But writers still need to stretch people’s imaginations. And if movies won’t, there’s plenty of room in books.  I can think of a half dozen SF ideas right now from Lem’s intelligent ocean to Clarke’s cryo-life. The onus is on writers to take that further. What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: what now for ‘The Hobbit’?

Peter Jackson held the wrap-up party for The Hobbit the other week. Principal shooting’s finished for both movies, and the first will be released at the end of this year. I have to say that despite the buzz in Wellington about stars in our midst, I never saw any. Except Billy Connolly, who turned up briefly on the other side of a hotel foyer.

I didn’t rush over and say ‘Oooh, you’re Billy Connolly’. He knows that. And Kiwis don’t do that sort of thing anyway. Personally I can’t wait for the movies. And yet – and yet, somehow, I get the feeling these won’t be kids’ movies. I’m not the only one to wonder how Jackson managed to turn a 240-page childrens’ book into two epic movies which, if they are typical Jackson length, will probably top 180 minutes each. One of the ways, I suspect, has been to cover plot lines incidental to the book. In the original story, Gandalf left Bilbo and the dwarves at the entrance to Mirkwood and rode off south to deal with the Necromancer.

This was a plot device, irrelevant to the main story of itself – the purpose was to strip the dwarves of their protector and allow Bilbo to grow as a character. But there are mile-wide hints – including the fact that Sir Christopher Lee has reprised his role as Saruman – that this has been filmed. We’ll see. That, coupled with the clips released as teasers, makes me wonder – has Jackson made a dark version. An adult version. One that is of the same tone as The Lord of the Rings? And is that spoiling things?

The Hobbit itself was very skilfully crafted childrens book. Tolkien absolutely nailed the tone of the narrator, the plot, even the illustrations. And yet there is some evidence in his letters that he was not happy – it could have had a darker and more serious tone, more in line with the other stories he was writing about his mythos. He also – initially – saw it as a one-off, a dead end.

His publishers, Allen and Unwin, prodded him into writing a sequel. That eventually turned into The Lord of the Rings, a very different book. Later, Tolkien produced a back-story and supplementary material to go around the tale of The Hobbit, some of it published in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. In effect, he built a world around The Hobbit post-fact, integrating it better with the darker plot of The Lord of the Rings; the Necromancer was Sauron, the enemy of old. He also made amendments to later editions of The Hobbit – especially the Gollum riddle game – to better fit his later vision of The Ring.

So it would, I think, be quite possible to make The Hobbit as a darker film without moving far from Tolkien’s eventual writings, ideas and intentions.

What do you think?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

***Update – 16 July 2012: Jackson hints at Comic Con, San Diego, that The Hobbit might be turned into 3 movies, not 2. To me, that’s pushing it even given the above. Thoughts?***

Worldbuilding: Britain’s cannibal captain

My book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past is being published tomorrow by Penguin, and today I thought I’d share one of the stories. It had to be assembled from dissonant pieces of documentary evidence – an example of how non-fiction is also world-building. This story is a good one. Betrayal, deceit, murder, treachery. And more.

The funny thing is, it wasn’t perpetrated by a traditional convict. Though the man who did it should have been convicted – and would have been, if the British had been luckier.

His name  was John Stewart, captain of the brig Elizabeth which came to Australasian waters to trade in 1830.

This tale has been told before – but not the way I have in this book. You see, there is not one story – there are many. No two accounts match in detail, and the traditional histories inevitably give us one or another of the versions in an effort to find a ‘single’ or ‘final’ truth. Unfortunately it’s not possible to actually render things down so precisely; this tale has not one truth – it has many, and the more interesting part is matching the versions up against each other, revealing a good deal about how each witness saw events.

The general thrust is consistent, of course. The story began in the late 1820s when the Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha – composer of the Ka Mate haka used now by the All Blacks – began extending his loose empire from Kapiti island, off the southwestern corner if the North Island, into the South Island.  He promptly ran into trouble with Ngai Tahu, the main iwi (tribe) of the region – itself a loose conglomerate, at the time, of other iwi. In 1830 this culminated in Ngai Tahu capturing and eating a Ngati Toa negotiating party at Kaiapoi.

That demanded revenge. Te Rauparaha, or one of his associates, came up with the idea of hiring a British vessel to take a hidden raid directly to Ngāti Rakiamoa chief Tamaiharanui, also one of the pre-eminent chiefs of Ngai Tahu and – Te Rauparaha considered – responsible for the treachery. The problem was persuading a captain to do it. But Stewart, it seemed, was the man. His price was a cargo of processed flax.

In November 1830 Stewart and his crew took the Elizabeth to Akaroa, on the South Island’s east coast, enviegled Tamaiharanui and his family aboard – and sprang the trap. Then they joined raids ashore. And then they sailed back to Kapiti with their prisoners and a cargo of human flesh. Some of it was cooked in the Elizabeth’s galley and eaten aboard by the Maori – and one story suggests that Stewart ate some of it. But whether he did or not is immaterial. The fact was that while Te Rauparaha was behaving scrupulously according to Maori values, Stewart had broken British law. Actually, he had not only broken it, he had jumped on the pieces and thrown them overboard.

The problem was prosecuting him. New Zealand was outside British jurisdiction. But Sydney authorities had a good go – a story as interesting as Stewart’s, and one that went all the way up to the Colonial Office in London. The British absolutely were not going to let their citizens get away with this sort of thing.

Stewart did, though. After the case fell over, Sydney authorities could not hold him, but he was washed overboard while rounding the Horn on his way back to England a few months later. Or maybe he collapsed and – reeking of rum –  was tossed over the rail by his crew. A better fate for a British cannibal, perhaps, if he was one. Those versions again.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: what UFO – yeah, THAT UFO – teaches writers

Does anybody remember UFO? Gerry Anderson’s first live-action sci-fi series, made around 1970 and set in a modish ‘1980’. A romp of a tale with mysterious green-skinned aliens, a talking satellite named SID, spandex-clad moon women with purple wigs and a heroic alien-fighting commander named Ed Straker.

When I was 8, I used to get Commander Straker haircuts. Not because I asked, but because that’s what the local barber thought was ‘in’ for fair-haired kids.

It’s been released on DVD. I caught up with a few episodes recently and was pleasantly surprised. Barry Gray’s end credit theme, a haunting Ondes Martinot electronic realisation, is not to be missed..But three things particularly impressed me on re-view – with, I think, lessons for writers. One was the way Anderson looked to a world free of bigotry – but not in the ‘future perfect’ Roddenberry sense. Anderson gave it a twist. In his ‘1980’, everybody had truly equal opportunities. But the targets of old biases knew bigotry hadn’t truly gone.Today we have maybe reached that practical point in places. And just as Anderson imagined, the bias remains. Was Anderson prescient? No. But he understood a lot about the human condition. Lesson #1 for writers. Make it believeable by understanding the human condition.

The special effects by Derek Meddings were just fantastic. This was w-a-a-a-a-ay pre-CGI. They didn’t even chroma-key. It was all done with models, backdrops and meticulous attention to detail. And they stand up today. Largely, I think, because of that attention to detail, and the fact that the scenes were being filmed live, not composited from models on blue-screen. Lesson #2 for writers. Attention to detail works.

What impressed me most was the story telling. An object lesson for any writer. The scenario was hokey – Battle of Britain with moon women taking the place of Hugh Dowding’s WAAF’s, coupled with Earth scenes usually set somewhere in southern England near the secret base, despite the world-wide scale of the threat. That could have been awful. But it wasn’t. Anderson came up with stories that – by TV standards of 1970 – tackled edgy themes. Work-life balance; racism; sexism; family values; how people crumble under stress; and how people react when put in the hot seat.

These are universal human experiences that still speak to us today. And that’s what made the series so good. The audience didn’t worry about the contradictory Anderson motifs of extreme secrecy juxtaposed against colossal engineering achievements, the often stilted dialogue and the overstated stage acting styles of 1960s TV. (“Did anyone order a LARGE HAM?”)  Today that same human story aspect allows us to get over the excruciating set and costume designs – up-to-the-minute 60’s mod that’s dated faster than last week’s cheese sandwiches. Disbelief is well suspended in UFO, and it’s done through the human story. Lesson #3 for writers. Story counts – and it has to be about people.

Not bad lessons from a show that was mis-scheduled on Brit TV – mistaken for another Anderson kiddy model-and-explosion show – and canned after the first season.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: card characters for novelists

Ever been stuck sorting out characters for your story? Especially secondary characters that you can’t put too much time into but which still need that realistic edge. Today I thought I’d share an ideas trick that might work for you. A card game.

That’s right. A card game. Alice in Wonderland style, slightly. Here’s how. Make a set of (say) 20 blank pieces of card or paper. Not too large. Write down a coherent list of names, characteristics, actions and so forth, one per card. Ssort the cards into topics, one pile per topic. Shuffle – not really necessary, but we’re playing cards here. Lay them out, face up and find the character names. Set them out in a row. Then add a physical description and one or more action cards beneath each. Mix them around a bit.

Now have a look at what you’ve come up with.  Naturally a random fit like this will produce some pretty weird combinations. But it isn’t a ‘character generator’ The aim is to provoke – get you thinking.

Let’s say you have Roger the Shrubber, whose characteristic is ‘introverted and cautious’, but who gets an action ‘wild partying’. OK. Why? Can you think of a reason? Yes? Great. Write it down. No? OK, shuffle again. What now? Keep doing it. Add cards if ideas float in. See what comes up. Write down the new thoughts on a separate piece of paper if you need to.

This is a creation-provocation exercise – a start-point, not an end point. You won’t get final characters ouf of this, or even characters of any depth, particularly. But these may not be your main characters; these could be a secondary individual who needs some kind of feature to set them apart. Or maybe this exercise kicks up something brilliant that can turn into a major character. Certainly, with luck, the card-shuffle will get you thinking. It’s designed to create a framework – to provoke ideas, to be flexible along the way. Later, all that has to be fleshed out via donkey-work. But you have to start somewhere.

Do you have any character-creation systems you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012