Worlds and Names: second Imaginary Worlds post (#SFWApro)

Lin Carter offering writing advice in Imaginary Worlds (cover by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights remain with current holder) has drawn a visceral reaction from some of the reviews I’ve seen online: a hack whose best known series, Thongor, was an uninspidred Conan knockoff, is telling other people how to write and about the importance of using language well? But just as Carter’s editorial skills were way better than his writing skills, his advice is, I think, useful.

Some of it is definitely useful, assuming you’re writing in a secondary world. Carter points out that worldbuilding requires an understanding of basic geography — rain forests and deserts do not normally sit side by side — and politics. There are lots of historical types of government (to say nothing of what might happen in fantasy), so it doesn’t have to be all kings and empires. And if it is a kingdom, it can be one with a powerful king, a king constrained by his parliament, locked in struggle with the church, etc.

Another useful piece is how tiny little details can really enhance the quality of the world-building and the story. Not just details you have to add, but stuff like the reference in one Lord Dunsany story to a city’s ivory gate carved out of a single tusk.

And the there’s the discussion of names. Names for things — rocks, gems, flowers that don’t exist in our world — for people and for places. Carter’s points include that a)a name should just sound right, subjective a standard though this is; b)if you’re using or adapting names from the real world, they shouldn’t be instantly recognizable, and they should have the right connotations. For example, if your god of evil is named Ahriman, I assume the setting is an analog to Persia rather than, say, medieval Kiev. If your character’s name is Brunhilde, that implies a Viking setting. Of course you can also have cosmopolitan settings in which different cultures mingle — even in ancient times the world wasn’t as monocultural as we think — but if the name comes with baggage, don’t ignore the baggage. If it’s the kind of name nobody knows, you have more flexibility. I should add that Carter’s reaction to John Jakes’ evil deity Yob-Haggoth — OMG, it’s so obviously Loecraftian! — really dates the book. These days everyone borrows from Lovecraft.

One of the things Carter faults Robert E. Howard for is that he sloppily borrows names that are instantly recognizable, such as Asgalun for the ancient city of Ascalon. Which as I’ve never heard of it leaves me wondering how recognizable it really is. Or why Carter assumes that his converting ancient Palymra (again, somewhere I haven’t heard of) to Palmyrium is better (Carter sees Howard as much more slapdash and less of a craftsman than I do). But that, like “what’s realistic?” is a judgment call. Even if I disagree where Carter draws the line, I certainly agree with the principle (having a city called Rome or a nation called Prussia that’s nothing like the real world ones would grate on my nerves).

And I’m in complete agreement with Carter that dropping modern terms into historical/secondary world settings (like “parsec” in an old west fantasy).

So despite Carter’s limits, the advice is worth reading (insert obvious caveat as to how experienced you are and what sort of book you’re writing). But he’s definitely a do-as-he-says, not as he does kind of adviser.


Filed under Reading, Writing

9 responses to “Worlds and Names: second Imaginary Worlds post (#SFWApro)

  1. And I’m in complete agreement with Carter that dropping modern terms into historical/secondary world settings

    The Witcher books do this, but it seems to work there better than it would otherwise because the magic-users are explicitly presented as having advanced knowledge of biology and physics, but the the elites don’t share that information with the people further down the social scale.

    It’s still a bit jarring to see terms like the “Nilfgaardian Secret Service.”

    • It works for me in some future settings too. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books are set in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic setting, so modern references surviving in the language isn’t unreasonable.

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