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.
The following thoughts don’t apply to just fantasy books alone, but probably to all forms of literature. While ruminating about what to write for this post today, I had an odd thought, one that was inspired by an e-book I read recently. I’ve read about four or five such books using the kindle app on my smart phone. So far, I have enjoyed the experiences with the e-reader. I had misgivings at first, but they were soon put to rest. Now, however, I have developed something of a new misgiving, one based on my experience with the e-book, not just pre-use prejudice.
The books I’ve read on the e-reader have been either very short, or just of average length (probably no more than four hundred double-spaced pages). The last book I read seemed almost to be written in an “abbreviated” fashion. That is, the action moved very quickly, was described at the barest level of detail, and still amounted to a semi-decent read (not 5-star, but perhaps 3ish). I was wondering if the medium, namely the e-book, affects the whole nature of the book. I don’t just mean in terms of formatting and technical use. I mean, does a print book become a whole different book if it is transferred to an e-reader? Does the different medium affect the quality of the reading experience even though the exact same words are read?
With the print book, you have the book opened to your page, but you actually read two full pages before you have to turn a single page. The e-book (at least on the smart phone) only allows about half as much information to be displayed on a single page. It is broken up into easily manageable chunks that you flick through with a simple finger motion. Also, the pages can only be read one at a time; they appear sequentially; so, at any given time, you have about one-fourth the information in your field of vision that you would find in a print book. The result is that you are flicking through pages at a much accelerated rate compared to the print book. Does this affect your reading experience? Does it favor, say, action-packed books with a marked brevity of description, that spur you on e-page after e-page? Are long, elegant descriptions inhibited because they won’t fit in an easily manageable chunk?
I don’t know. But as a writer, I am very interested, particularly, because, at least for the moment, I am only writing e-books. The “abbreviated” e-book I mentioned above is what started this train of thought. The writing was such, that I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it in a print book. On the flip side, does a classic like “Lord of the Rings” make an effective transition to an e-book? That is something I intend to investigate… eventually (when I get caught up on all my reading).
What do you think?
I recently published a vampire/fantasy novel entitled “Drasmyr” (see publications, if interested). One of the characters in the novel, admittedly a minor one, is a female sorceress named Jacindra. A week or two ago, I stumbled across a blog where the writer was talking about her own character named Jacinda. They differ by a single letter. Is it just coincidence? Or are we, as fantasy writers, running out of original names?
What’s in a name? A few letters, a vowel or two? It is common practice for characters in fantasy literature to have unusual names; with few exceptions, they are not names one would find in the real world. Gralk, for example, is a perfectly good fantasy name… to me it conjures up images of a hideous orc, or troll character. Bob the Swordsman, though? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be caught dead writing a story about Bob the Swordsman and Joe the Wizard. They just don’t have that fantastical allure. Simean, though. That could work. Often I’ll take a common real world name (in this case, Simon) and alter it by a letter or two to create a new fantasy name. Then there is the technique of mashing letters together, sprinkling a few vowels here and there, and Whallah! A new name.
But there are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, plus an apostrophe and a dash. If you figure names range from four letters to twelve letters in length, that gives you an exceptionally large pool of combinations to work with, but it is finite. And some of them, just would not work: who’s going to use the name Xmlytekc? And if you look at the number of writers there are, that number is constantly growing. The indie book publishing site Smashwords serves the needs of some 20,000 plus writers. And there are plenty of others spread throughout the Internet. I don’t know how many of these are fantasy writers, let’s just say 1000. All those writers need names for their characters. Redundancy of names across writers is inevitable. And so we run into situations like Jacindra and Jacinda above. I wrote the rough draft of my vampire novel in 1995. I gave the head vampire the name of Lucian. I thought it was a cool name for a vampire character. But, lo and behold, a few years later the movie Underworld comes out. The head werewolf’s name is Lucian. Well, I’m not changing my head vampire’s name. So, too bad.
Perhaps, one would argue that this isn’t really important. Names are just names. It doesn’t matter who names which character what first. There is room for redundancy. But is that true? Do you expect anyone to give the name “Frodo” to a character in any other book than the Lord of the Rings? A really good book with a cool name or two, will stake a claim on that name for perpetuity. There will never again be another “Frodo” or “Aragorn.” Names are, in a way, a commodity, almost in a way analogous to land. With so many writers, there is a mad rush for cool character names. Who will get there first?
This post is kind of a continuation of my Censorship post last week. Let me clear up front, I don’t support legalized censorship of fantasy literature (or any literature, for that matter). What I do support is self-censorship. Keep that in mind as you read this post.
The genre of fantasy reaches out across many different mediums; there are fantasy posters, fantasy-based movies, and classic fantasy novels like “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. My primary interest in the genre, here, is literature, though: we’ll leave discussion of fantasy art and movies and other mediums for another day. And that is an important point to make. There are movies, for example, which require profanity to be used. My favorite example is “Aliens” (although that’s Sci-Fi) with Sigourney Weaver. The movie would be pretty pathetic if Ripley ran around and called all the evil, acid-for-blood aliens such things as “ninnies and panty-wastes.” The movie just would not have the same impact. But I don’t think the same can be said of literature. In my opinion, a book that used profanity to the extent that the movie “Aliens” did would simply become boring. If profanity is to be used at all, I think it should be used sparingly. If every other word in the book is “f” this, or “f” that, it cheapens the emotional impact of the word and renders it virtually impotent. Your masterpiece becomes a pile of trash.
There are situations in normal literature (as opposed to fantasy literature) where profanity might be well-suited for one’s purposes. It could serve you well in dialogue if it is used for character development. But keep in mind, the same rule applies, here: use it sparingly. Dialogue in a novel is not necessarily going to be a verbatim recitation of what it would be in real life. A single swear word in a paragraph may be sufficient to provide the tone of the language and convey the character’s “sailor-mouth.”
With all the above said, there is a distinction between normal literature and fantasy literature. Normal literature is generally geared toward adults. Fantasy literature is generally geared toward adolescents and young adults. There are exceptions, of course—and many adults (I am one of them) enjoy fantasy literature throughout their lifetimes—but the primary audience of fantasy literature is a younger one. And I think it should be written with that in mind. To that end, I think the story should be relatively free of the most abrasive forms of profanity. In my own work (the vampire novel, Drasmyr—see “Publications” on the side bar, if you are interested), the strongest language I use is limited to damn and hell, which, nowadays, barely constitute swear words. Of course, as it is a fantasy world, I also allowed myself to throw in a few of my own inventions, like “By the Scythe-Bearer’s Sickle,” and so on. I know, I know—adolescents are all-too-familiar with any and all swear words I might think of, so why bother “cleaning” my writing for them? Call it a gesture towards hope. The literature we consume does affect us. If they read books with trashy language, I think the young will learn to use the language all the more. If the language of the book is clean, perhaps the dialogue of the young in real life will reflect that… to a certain degree, anyway.
Finally, let us return to “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. Would it be the same book if Frodo and Sam kept saying, “Oh, *&#!, the ringwraiths are after us again!” It is a magnificent piece of literature that just about gave birth to the whole fantasy genre. And yet there is virtually no swearing at all throughout the book. There is a fairy-tale-ish feel to “The Lord of the Rings” that would be ruined by crass language. It is about wonder and magic, elves and dwarves, and other fancies of childhood imagination. I guess that is my largest point: a piece of fantasy literature is something of a fairy-tale writ large. As such, there is very little place, if any, for profanity or vulgarity of any sort. At least, that is my opinion on the subject. Yours, of course, may differ.