Sunday, 30 July 2017

3 ways to build a fantasy world: language and characterisation

In Soul Mates, my lead male protagnist, Kian Darksoul comes from another realm (Tir na nOg), though he has lived in the mortal world for decades. Developing a character forged in another world, but familiar with the contemporary presents some unique challenges. How do I capture Kian's otherness without making the book clunky? How do I capture his otherness?

1) His cultural touch-stones are different: when revising, I've needed to edit out contemporary references. It's not that Kian doesn't know what a neon light is - he does. He's lived here for years, after all. But when he sees another character glowing, a neon light is not his cultural touch-stone. He thinks of fire swamps or dragons or some such. References to his own world shape his dialogue and his interior monologue. It means when I'm in Kian's point of view, I'm responding in a way that's true to him.



2) His view of religion is different: Kian had grown up in a world where gods are dangerous, possibly indifferent and relatively accessible. The High King of his world had an affair with a goddess. He doesn't think by being good, he'll go to a better place. He thinks of life as a giant chess-board, with gods pitted against men. He doesn't imagine he will be granted a miracle. In fact, he's pretty sure he won't be. Prayer and miracles are not relevant in the world in which he grew up. That affects his moral choices.

3) His language is different:  I haven't gone to town on language. I have a phobia of heavily-accented dialogue, steeming from a dislike of caricature though I love it when authors do this well (Alan Garner, for example). But Kian's language is coloured by swear words and epithets which are unfamiliar to the other protagonist Bree - he swears by different gods, for example ("Danu's arse") and when he is in a more formal mode, he speaks with greater old-world formality. Characters who have never stepped beyond that world (like his ex-wife Fand) speak with that level of formality all the time. When Bree, who has grown up in the Mortal Realm, wants to impress or assimilate, she adopts it too.

It's light touch, but I've been wondering more and more about language and wishing that I had put more time into thinking about this aspect of Kian, even if it doesn't show up in the story, because language captures the world we live in.

For example, in ancient Egypt, the Nile flowed from South to North, and it was easy for ancient Egyptians to use the current to travel south. Going North to South was tough - it meant rowing against the current - until some enterprising Eyptian noticed the wind blew from North to South. Their landscape shaped their language. In hieroglyphics, a picture of a boat with its sails down signifies travelling North, and a picture of a boat with sails up signifies South.

Studies of the Sami languages of Norway, Sweden and Finland have found that they have 180-300 snow and ice related words, covering types of snow, tracks in snow, conditions and use of snow - as you might expect in a very cold country. When describing madness, the French talk about spiders in the attic, whereas the British talk about bats in the belfry (more recently: batshit crazy) - both reflect the idea that madness shows something moving blindly in the darkness "up above" ie in the brain. How would a people who believe madness to belong in the belly - or to be a sign of divine possession - describe it?

So when you're building your world - or a character from another world (or time) - think about the environment they or their people might experience. Is it volcanic? Hot? Cold?  Do he or she dream of dusty desert storms or lush, wet bogland. Is it dark? Does light move on the same frequency? When people flush, do they turn blue or green or pink?

What culture clashes might he or experience, when meeting someone from a different place? How might it affect his or her relationship?

Once you get into that type of deep backstory you can build a much richer sense of that world. For me, that will become more important in the second book in the Dark Souls series, which will take Vinitta Dhillon and her demon companion into the underworld.

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