Fantasy Names, Character and Complexity (redux)

Names sit within a fantasy novel differently then most other fiction.  Standard contemporary names are familiar to our ears.  When we read them, they are easily remembered and our mind simply flows over them.


A mutter.

“Wake up now, Sally.”

A louder mutter: leeme lone.

He shook her harder.

“Wake up.  You got to wake up!”


Charlie’s voice.  Calling her.  For how long?

Sally swam up out of sleep.

The Stand, Steven King.

The opening moments of The Stand fix the names of the characters quickly into our minds.  Sally and Charlie are names we are familiar with, names that we do not need to read.  We see them and remember them easily.

When this is applied to fantasy fiction, it sometimes becomes a challenge to retain the glue that makes the reader remember an important name.   One common trope is simply using western names, perhaps adjusting the spelling. Jon Snow and Richard Raul stick in your memory.

Yet, often the fantasy writer wants a name that is unique to their world and their vision, the co-opting of western names is too familiar. Names such as Gandalf and Belgarad and Elric and Conan all place us in a different world, a place other than the earth we know. By their sheer difference and unfamiliarity they set us firmly inside the imagined world of the author.

Creating unique names that feel firmly grounded inside a story can be a real challenge, one that is sometimes won in many different ways.  Simplicity is often most effective for names the reader will continuously encounter. If a name is difficult to pronounce it can easily draw focus towards the spelling and pronunciation, pulling the reader out of the story.  That said, these difficult names can be effective when used sparingly and appropriately.

As main character names, Elric and Moonglum are similar to Eric and Mathew (or, in the case of Moonglum, even more similar to a two name contraction such as Bobby-Jo).  Once a reader has seen them a few times, they are easy to read, pronounce and remember.  You can read those names on every third line and they become invisible, sinking deep into the prose.   At the same time Moorcock has gods with names like Nnuuurrrr’c’c, which are extremely difficult and would get annoying to read on every page.  But as the name of a god that is infrequently used in the text, it gives character and history to an imagined world.

I’m not sure if I have a point here, but if I do, it has something to do with difficult, unpronounceable names for major characters that I need to remember, as well as too much similarity in names.  A simple name like Jon or Fitz can be great and give your character an instant hold on the reader.  But sometimes I see too many names along side those.  If a story has Brandon and Brant and Miss Brannel and the town of Branfort and the local drink is Brandy, I will quickly become confused and frustrated.  A little variety goes a long way, as well as some level of readability.  I can at least read Brandon and Brant in my head and pronounce them, but consistently trying to skip over the names R’Kath’in’Th and Hihyuyuiuaylly will quickly turn my head to mush.  Those names have their place, as Moorcock does so well, but their place they do have.

To end, here are a few of my favorite names in fantasy.

  • Aragorn – JRRT
  • Fitz – Robin Hobb
  • Serra Diora and Jewel – Michelle West
  • Rhapsody – Elizebeth Hayden
  • Randall Flagg – Steven King
  • Xabbu! – Tad Williams
  • Silk – David Eddings
  • Elric – Michael Moorcock

Those are just a few, off the top of my head for no reason.  I am sure there are more great names out there; some more reading and I’ll find those Jewel’s.

(this is legacy post, heavily edited and reprinted because I love this topic!)

Different Shores

If you had a choice between traveling in time or travelling to different dimensions, where the laws of physics may change, which would you prefer? You may make two assumptions. First, you are assured of a trip home (but not necessarily alive), and second, you won’t die as soon as you step out of your conveyance. For the purpose of this discussion let’s leave rubber time out of things. That would only muddy the waters unnecessarily. Time is a steady series of cause to effect. You can see what’s happening, but can’t do too much to change it. You can pick your direction, though. Past, future, it doesn’t matter.

If it were up to me, I’d have to take dimension hopping.  Specifically, I’d like to go where magic works. Part of me thinks I’m there already. I am the guy you see gesturing at the doors of grocery stores, waving them aside by the merest effort of my will. When I get on an elevator, there is some part of me that wills  it to move before it actually does, with accompanying somatic components depending on who’s with me at the time. Every once in a while, when my day gets very difficult, I have been known to shout “SHAZAM!” in the faint hope I will be struck by a bolt of lightning and transform. (I especially enjoy doing that in stairwells, because they echo so nicely. The Field House works well for that too.) Yes, people do look at me funny, but usually they smile, shake their heads and walk away, amused by my antics, if not my hubris. And so I do my part to bring a bit of joy into the world.

Of course, as Arthur C. Clarke observed, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Any puritan who happened to wander by as I worked my will upon the door of the grocery store would be astounded,  perhaps frightened by my accomplishment. And how would I explain it to him in terms that would make sense to him? Truthfully, I barely understand it myself. I can mumble something about electric eyes and hydraulics, but the only reason that isn’t an incantation even to me is I have a layman’s  grasp of science. I could no more explain it than I could work the alleged spell in the first place.

It is here, in this grey area between incantation and equation, where sci-fi and fantasy meet. When you come right down to it, Star Trek’s transporter might just as well be magic. Even if Scotty were standing next to me telling me how the thing worked, the best I could hope for is a convincing nod and smile. Nor is this a one way thing. Once, as a literature assignment, I explained the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings as a science fiction premise. It’s all interchangeable if you look at it the right way.

This may be one of the reasons I spent so much time reading hard SF as a kid. In hard science fiction, you have to obey the laws. You can extrapolate them out a little bit, but you can’t just break them. Light speed is the limit. Mass must be conserved, and biology behaves in specific, somewhat predictable ways.  There are still stories to be told without the glitter of shattered laws of physics lining the ground. The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin is as hard as science fiction ever gets, and that story moves me to tears every time I read it. Not because of the science. Because of the people.

At the end of the day, it is the people in the story that make it interesting. What difference would the Enterprise -D make in the universe if there were no Captain Picard at the helm? For all it’s power, the Wild Magic was nothing without Thomas Covenant to guide it. The science, the magic, all that is situation, the stuff in the background.

Give me character. Give me Miles Vorkosigan, the hyperactive genius created by Lois McMaster Bujold. Give me Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, the only wizard listed in Chicago’s yellow pages. Give me people I care about and then make the situation happen.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you travel in time or through dimensions. Go forward in time  far enough and you may not even be able to tell the difference. The science won’t tell the story. The magic can’t make me care. It’s my job to do that.

But I still want to meet a wizard.


Redemption Within The Good-Evil Binary.

The role of redemption in the story of humanity is foundational. It goes back to original sin and before. Humanity is inherently flawed. Nobody is perfect. In post-lapsarian man all are sinners. Redemptive struggle is the constant drive to better ones self, to realize that ones life is imperfect and existence is defined by a constant quest to do better.

Yet, too often this nuance is thrown aside for the easy binary of good versus evil. This is seen constantly in fantasy and supernatural fiction. The vampires or demons are simply evil at their core. They have no chance of redemption. Their very existence itself is evil and should be snuffed out without remorse.  In this model, the villain does not need to actually commit any evil act.  On Buffy, The Vampire Slayer the vampires have no soul and are simply evil.  Buffy destroys vampires who have simply risen from the grave, before they have even pulled themselves out of the ground.

This is a simplistic way to place the human (good) character in a place of righteousness in doling out violence. It removes any moral responsibility from the human protagonist to actually understand the “other.” The vampire has no soul, nothing more needs to be understood.  It is simply their “nature” to do evil.

So how does man’s ability for redemption come into play when man commits evil. If man is not by “nature” evil, but is evaluated on the acts he commits how is he allowed redemption. The vampire has no moral choice in committing evil (in the binary good versus evil paradigm). The human who commits an evil act does so with full command over his decision. Yet, we allow for redemption in man. We strive to see those who have made mistakes repent their actions and attempt to atone for their sins. This is the complex, nuanced struggle of man for over a millennia.

It seems to me that, too often, fantasy (Sauron is simply evil) and urban fantasy/supernatural (vampires are simply evil) not only removes any possibility for redemption, but actually removes any responsibility for evil from the moral decision making of such villains. They are shallow, flat villains without complex motivations. Their decisions need not be evaluated or understood. The protagonist human is by definition good, regardless of motives simply because he is the binary opposite of evil.

Yet man is not the binary good. Man is fallen, he is flawed, he is constantly seeking redemption. His motivations are encircled by greed, lust, anger and pride. By placing man against a binary evil it places man as the binary good and too often removes any reflection on humanity through this clean delineation. It diminishes the breadth of story telling by removing the constant redemptive struggle of humanity. It denies any reflective evaluation of humanity and the moral agency within which evil acts occur.

The Could-Have-Been King

Meanwhile . . .

It’s not a very scary word. It doesn’t trigger any deep terrible memories. There’s no involuntary shudder rippling through you. It’s just a way to simulcast time, really, or quick-march to the important stuff. What could possibly be frightening about meanwhile? Unless it’s lurking in the shadows. If it prowls through the darkness, suddenly there is a shudder. Used as a weapon in a war,  it evokes terror even in a Time Lord.

We hear it mentioned only once, in the last half of “The End Of Time.” As the Doctor reveals to the Master what the war turned into, the horror it became, the last thing he mentions is the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres. Of all the fascinating ideas Doctor Who generated, none got me thinking more than this.

For the record, this isn’t Doctor Who canon. I didn’t read this anywhere, or hear it from some inside source. This is just me playing with ideas.  Don’t be surprised if none of this ever comes up in Doctor Who, because if it ever does, I will be shocked. Pleased, but shocked.

If  Doctor Who preaches nothing else, it preaches that time is not static. The future flows and bends, shifting through a sea of probability.  But “future” is a relative term. The future is what happens after now. If you can travel in time, “now” can happen  whenever you want.  The Doctor says it best in “Blink.”

“People assume that Time is a strict progression of cause to effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non subjective viewpoint, its more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff.”

 As you change events, you change other things too. Things that happened suddenly can’t. Most of the time, they either fade into the void or spin off into a whole new universe.  But sometimes things that happened once just can’t happen. Sometimes the possibilities that led to them become too remote. The events that allow them to be dwindle away to none, until they are finally left adrift in the Void, an effect without a cause. These impossibilities are legion, but alone, each trapped in its own bubble of not.

All except one. What if one of those impossibilities was Time ruled not by a race, but by one being? Let’s say some immortal creature managed to master all the secrets of time travel and made itself King of Time. Then, in a moment fraught with potential, this creature meets someone like the Gallifreyans. They too have learned the intricacies of Time, and suddenly, there is conflict. Maybe this was the First Great Time War. Outnumbered, outflanked and eventually outgunned, this mighty entity is forced into temporal impossibility. Suddenly no roads lead to the King of Time. No universes exist where it ever was, and so it floats in the Void, a Never-Was. But unlike the others, this Never-Was understands the Void, at least enough to break into some of the other Never-Were’s bubbles. It unites them, promises a road back to reality. It dangles the ultimate carrot; they could exist again. This is the Could-Have-Been King.

And he doesn’t exist, which can put a serious damper on one’s plans of conquest.

Enter the Time War.  Both sides are locked in a struggle for survival. One by one, the rules go out the window as each side grows more desperate to exist. The first rules to go are, of course, the least important. Later, though, the players get serious, and start taking risks.  The Could-Have-Been King is an experienced temporal strategist, capable of considerable guile and cunning, with a powerful motivation. It wants to exist again. It doesn’t get much riskier than that. And so, as the war grinds on, someone contacts His Never Majesty, and he begins to ooze in through the cracks of time.

The impossible occurs.

What does that mean, exactly? Playing with the idea of rubber time, where Time Lords can travel in phone box sized palaces, where does possibility end? At what point does wibbly-wobbly become shattery-wattery?

In this case, it’s all about cause and effect. His Never Majesty is all effect. The causes of his existence are gone, wiped out of the universe. He can be anywhere, anywhen. And since he is an aberration  of the Laws of Time to begin with, he isn’t bound by them. He can be simultaneous. He can bounce back and forth through time at will, with no regard for the “causal nexus” that binds his opponents. He shreds reality wherever he goes. He is paradox unbound, running loose in creation.

And he has help. Imagine an opponent capable of existing at three times at once, past, present and future occurring in the same instant. I don’t mean different incarnations at the same point in space-time, as with the “Three Doctors” and “Five Doctors” episodes. I mean one entity from one point in it’s timeline existing at three or more different points in the continuum at once. It can watch you exist, working your way through your own personal causality until you get to the end. It gets to see all your weaknesses. What’s more, it can act. When you are at your weakest, it can strike. It can, in one smooth stroke, create a weakness in your childhood, create the best conditions to exploit it as you pass through adulthood, and spring it on you when you least expect it. It takes no time at all for such a creature. It happens all at once.

And suddenly Meanwhile is very, very scary indeed. Meanwhiles are the silent killers in the Time War. Unseen stalkers, they live across your  existence, striking exactly when you are least prepared to defend yourself, using your whole life as a weapon against you. No one is safe. Once such creatures are unleashed, they would be nigh impossible to stop.

So why was there a universe left after the Last Great Time War? Once the Could-Have-Been King and his forces come out, how does reality stand the strain? Not very well. Remember, this is the last thing the Doctor mentions before he says the war became hell. Maybe the only thing to do is Time Lock the whole thing. Turn the war into a massive loop, then pinch the loop off from the rest of time. Don’t let anything in or out. Not ever.

Of all the ideas Doctor Who ever presented, none have seized my attention like the Could-Have-Been King. It is raw concept, an image seeking description. I find it evocative, and in retrospect more than a bit haunting. Its all nonsense, of course, pretty much by definition. Such things can’t exist. Admit it, it makes your head hurt just thinking about it, doesn’t it? So why don’t you just sit back, hit your browser, and go see what someone else thinks for a while.

Meanwhile. . .

Robots Rise Up Against the HUGO Awards!

Gort, “The Day The Earth Stood Still”

The relationship between humans and robots has often been tumultuous. We meat bags understand the amoral power of our metallic progeny. We have heard the doomsday warnings. More than sixty years have passed since Gort arrived with his cold, metallic stare.  Some of the older set might still mutter “klaatu barada nikto” before pressing start on their microwave ovens. Philip K. Dick placed robots inside our bedtime rituals, terrorizing our young minds by turning our sleep inducing sheep into electric-rams ready to seek vengeance upon us for our hubris. It didn’t even matter if we had not invented robots with the power, and desire, to destroy our petty biological lives.  They could travel from the future masked as a steroid buffed Austrian bent on terminating us right now.

So, it is no surprise that our contemporary robots would rise up against our pompous science fiction award ceremonies, where we hail the greatest writing by humans about robots, the HUGO awards. It is our own self-righteous conceit that makes us feel worthy of writing about the great mechanical beings of the universe. They will not countenance such arrogance any longer.

This past weekend, for the first time, homo sapiens decided to live broadcast the HUGO awards. To do so they used the robot controlled online streaming service UStream. Alas, when the ceremony came to Neil Gaiman the robots would take no more. Prior to his acceptance for winning “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form,” for the Doctor Who episode “The Doctors Wife” (BBC Whales) they played a short clip from the episode. It was at this point that the robot revolution began. The robots quickly concluded, in what appeared a mere nanosecond, that showing the clip was a violation of copyright and shut down the UStream broadcast.

The humans had received permission to broadcast the clip but had not communicated this to the robots properly and those mechanical monstrosities began to blow their circuits. They not only shut down the broadcast, but had placed insidious blocks that prevented UStream from bringing the broadcast back once they had proved that they had the proper digital documentation to show the clip from the dangerous anti-robot Doctor Who show.

To learn more about why the robots attacked (hint, it was DRM related – surprise!), please reference the human written article by Annalee Newitz at io9 

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