Sunday, March 21, 2010

What's in a Name?

A friend lent me a series of books a few weeks ago. I got sidetracked with other things and other books (namely HP) and only started reading the first book last night. Ironically, it's not that disimilar from the plot of my NaNo 2010 novel.

The really interesting part - and useful I hope - is the names in the book. I've been thinking a lot about what to call the four countries, and getting more and more stumped while trying to come up with original and pleasant sounding names. There's nothing I hate more than to dig into a really good book and not be able to pronounce the place name (or character name) or to have it be a very awkward word. Country names should flow off the tongue. Yes, many of the country names in the real world don't, but I am certain they sound wonderful in their native language. But since this story will be written in English, they need to sound good in English...without ending in things like 'shire' or 'ton'.

In the book I'm reading there are two countries (so far). The main story takes place in Ixia. This is a short word, and has no meaning in the context of the book, but it flows well. It's obvious to pronounce and the 'a' ending gives it a nice sound. It flows off the tongue easily. The second country name is Sitia, which is a country only ever mentioned in passing. It is a country that is continuously represented as a place of peace and freedom where people flee to escape the horror and punishment in Ixia. Now, 'Sitia' reminds me of Sicily, a place I see as an escape; lovely and warm and a good place to live. Whether this connotations was intentional by the author, doesn't matter. The point is 'Sitia' evokes a nice image, the country is supposed to be. 'Ixia' could go both ways. In the book, it was once a Kingdom with a bad monarchy, which was then liberated by a military leader who now acts as governor. It is routinely mentioned that he has made things better. 'Ixia' could evoke good images, but with the 'x' in there, it also sounds a bit more militaristic.

The character names are also well thought. The main character is Yelena. This is a nice sounding name, but the foreign aspect of it lends more layers to the character. And she does have layers. As the book starts she is in prison for murder awaiting her execution. But a quirk of fate she is saved and employed by the military governor, but her sins are not forgiven, marely delayed. We know, therefore, she is a murderer, though no undefuteable proof is given. Other characters also have this dual aspect to them, and their names are suitably foreign but easy to pronounce. Valek, for instance, another main character, is the commander's assistant and is referenced as having played a large part in the military coup, but is kind enough for a man in his position. The minor characters are also well named. Dilana, the seamstress is sweet and generous, as her name evokes. The maid, Margg is a b***h. The cook, Rand seems sweet, but many don't trust him. A name like 'Rand' could go either way. He could be a brigand or just a sweet boy.

I'm going to continue reading the book (and the others in the series), because so far I think the names are really helping. They are giving me ideas of how to create place and character names that work well with English, but also sound foreign. It's a good mix.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

T-8 Months and Counting

It's difficult to think about November when it's only March. I have so many other things to think about that are going to happen much sooner, that wasting time on something nearly eight months away is more than my brain can tolerate. But since eight months isn't that long, and November will be here before I know it, it's time to get started.

I'm starting with a new world. NaNo 2009 was set in this world, or near enough, but I want to start from scratch in 2010. The hardest thing, I find, about creating a new world is naming things. Original names aren't easy to come up with, but you need multiple names and place names and they need to sound like they go together - if not in a whole language - than at least in a partial idea of one. I'm horrible at naming things. I always end up creating something that is part a character in a favourite book and part a very butchered version of English. This year, I want to do better.

Here's what I have to start with. Comments are appreciated.

I want a conflict between nations, because the plot I need envisions two countries with very different ideologies that spur two of the main characters into doing what they do. Alright, so to start off with I need two countries. They need to be different. I think I'll make one a kingdom, ingrained in tradition and outdated views of the ruling class and one a republic, with freedom and democracy at the core. But that's not very interesting. Let's through in another couple of countries. Another republic, very similar to country #2 and maybe a fourth country that is part democracy, part monarchy. I'll work out those details of how that works later.

Now, there's the issue of geography. Ilove maps. I have no doubt I will draw a map for NaNo 2010, because it's just easier to write a story when you have the geographical layout of the journey your characters are taking already there in front of you. It ensures you aren't going to screw up. I think Country #1 and Country #2 should have a pretty definite border. Maybe a mountain range with very few passes. Hense the reason Country #1 (hereafter called The Kingdom) is so seperate and backwards. Alright, so let's make country #2 inland. The Kingdom is on the coast. And country #3 is also coastal, just south of the Kingdom. Country four can be mostly mountains to the north east, maybe. Quite cut off as well, but still with a definitive trading route with Country #2, since they have lots of farming land. See, we've got a world already. I'll name them later and it will be less confusing.

I already have my main character. She's fifteen, headstrong, very independent, and very sheltered from the realities of the world. Her father works for Country #2's government. He's a scientist. They live well. She knows a lot about science, but has no interest in it. She has an older brother who left home when he was fifteen, and has been gone for years. The brother and father had a falling out, after the mother died! Unexpectantly. Father was devistated, turned away from the kids, brother couldn't stand it anymore, so left. Still writes his sister the occasional letter. She longs to go off and find him and have all the adventures she dreams he has. So, her father is rarely around, she's pretty much been left to fend for herself. Learned a lot of things on her own, but never been in a position to use them practically. She doesn't have many 'friends'. Doesn't go to school. Her mother, like all rich, home schooled her, but since she died, the girl has been getting most of her education from books and the occasional lessons her father has time for. She doesn't really have an understanding of the world at large though.

Alright, we have a background. See, that's the easy part. We want the girl to be a heroin, though maybe unintentioned. She loves her father (as daughters do) despite the fact he's never around. She feels like she needs to do something important to impress him and make up for her disinterest in science. She doesn't understand politics or country relations. Out of the streets she hears something. Maybe misinterprets it? She thinks her father is in danger. How? Don't know, I'll work on that. She would want to help; to save her father. But she's a fifteen year old girl without friends. Solution: find her brother. She has a letter from a few months before that says he was in The Kingdom. She decides to travel there and find him and get him to return with her to Country #2 and help their father out of trouble. Her brother is now (19? 20?) and well connected - she thinks.

See, now we have a harrowing journey in unfamiliar countryside, of a young girl on her own to find her lost brother. That's drama, that is.

Let's make it Autumn, just to add to the mix. The mountain passes are starting to close in as winter approaches. She doesn't have a clue. So, she sets out in the Autumn (this is another world, so months will not be important so much as season - 4 season, 3 months long each). She knows what direction to head in, but that's about it. Has some money she took from her father's study. She has a few adventures on her own, enough that she realises her trip was a stupid idea and that she's in way over her head. Just as she's thinking about turning back, and bemoaning that she's failed her father, she happens upon a young boy. Maybe he's ten or eleven, but he's been on his own a while and managed to figure out how to survive. He thinks she's funny because she doesn't know anything. He annoys her. But he's young, and even though he can look after himself better than she can, she just can't bring herself to leave him on his own. He's travelling himself, trying to find a good place to stay. He's intregued when she says she's going to cross the mountains into The Kingdom. He doesn't know anything about it, but it's new and it sounds like a good place. She doesn't want to turn back now and make it look like she's retreating to his face. She soldiers on, and the boy follows. They have more adventures, manage to cross a pass just as a storm is setting in; barely make it to the other side. More adventures as they make for the capital city where the girl thinks her brother is.

See, it's just flowing off the keyboard! The plot, of course, is always the easy part. Anyone can write a plot. It's writing the dialogue and fleshing out the description where most people (myself included) lose it.

Let's make that the first half of the story. The second half is her and the boy's adventures in the capital city, until she finds her brother, who knows more than she thought and explains it to her. A whole underground movement to overthrow the monarchy. Her brother's in the middle of it. Country #2 knows all about it and their father's been in on it from the beginning. Brother wants her to go home, as The Kingdom might soon be a war zone, but she's come this far, wants to help. Falls in with the local kids gang of thieves, who prove very useful as the rebellion errupts. Thinks her brother is dead at one point. Weeks pass, finally monarchy is overthrown and the rebels leader put up as governor. Things calm down. Finds her brother again. He wants to stay and help out, but he wants her to go back home. Puts her on a ship to the port nearest her home city. She's surprised when her father meets her at the docks to take her home. Explains a lot to her, but is very proud of her bravery (admonishes her stupidity). Apologises for being so distant. Promises they will be a family again, her brother will come back. They go home; her father takes a bigger interest in her life, desides she should go to school, have friends. The end of the story is when the brother returns and the girl starts her schooling, deciding she wants to get into politics (?).

Done and done.

I wonder how many times I'll change it in the coming months? Working title will be The Kingdom.

Friday, March 5, 2010


I watched an interesting segment on the morning news. For one, it was Good Morning America, which I normally avoid for obvious reasons, but happened to catch this while channel flipping.

The segment was about the made up language of Avatar. I find this incredibly interesting for many reasons. It's not the first movie universe to create it's own language or the first literary one either. Today, it's quite popular for fans to 'learn a new fantasy language'. I've done it myself with Tolkien's languages before (I have a basic ability to understand both Quenya and Sindarin, which is know for fanfiction writing). What I find interesting is how quickly this Avatar language developed. It's only been around, as a language with grammar and vocab, for about three months, and the news station managed to find half a dozen people who could sit down and have a conversation.

Cleary, made up languages are popular. But why? Is it the ability to say to the geek sitting next to you 'Well I speek such-and-such, don't you?'. Is it really just bragging rights, or is it something more? I think it is.

The greatest books of the past 1000 years have been those that have created a complete universe. By this I mean books written by the likes of Tolkien and Lewis and even Rowling; not your run of the mill fantasy series. People love these books for a lot of reasons. Some of the simple ones are because it's a good story and they're well written. Some of the more complex reasons are because these books are entire worlds so unlike our own. People read fantasy to get lost in it; to have a break from the real world. The more complete that fantasy world is, the more they can get into it. I've done it myself on more than one occasion. It's the only reason I re-read LOTR every single year.

But what makes a fantasy world complete? Is it the fact that it's set on it's own planet? Is it a whole range of people that fulfill all the appropriate roles and leave no gaps? Is it a world where you can write your own gap-fillers? Is it a universe with it's own politics, religion, language, social customes? I think it's closest to that last sentence. The best fantasy worlds are the ones that are entirely complete. We fall into them because everything is there for us for the believing and we only have to enjoy.

Which brings me back to language. It's part of our world. It's part of what makes us who we are. It's just as important to most people as their political views and their religion. So, to have a fantasy language makes a fantasy world complete. It allows the reader to immerse themselves completely in that world and then bring that world back into our own, for a little while. You see this at fan conventions where people go around dressed in character, speaking in language. I've done it myself. (Yes, I have). Language allows for that extra little step, which explains why it's so popular.

And it's becoming more and more common. Tolkien was not the first to create languages; though he's definitely the most well known, having more than four languages that contain vocab lists and grammar in his books (though some are more developed than others). But is it becoming easier? How do you create a language from scratch? I tried one; I gave up. It's so hard to be original these days. So my congratulations to the people who spent the time and effort to create Na'vi, specially as it already contains 1000 words after only 3 months.