On neologisms

If you’re a writer of fiction that isn’t set wholly in Earth’s past or present, you’ve more than likely come across a situation requiring a word that simply does not exist. Science fiction has alien or future human technology; fantasy has magic and elves and the like. Sure, English has about a million words (depending on who’s counting) available for you to use, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

We’ve got a few ways we can fill this void. Which one is best depends on a lot of factors. For fantasy and aliens, you might need to come up with a fictional word from a fictional language. (If you do, well, maybe you should look at the Friday posts around here.) Established authors do this all the time, and not only to write epic conlang poetry. Tolkien casually dropped Elvish words like lembas into dialogue. Larry Niven’s Ringworld is constructed around a skeleton of scrith, an alien material stronger than anything humans could dream of making. And those are but two examples among many.

Technically, however, those are loanwords, linguistic borrowings that aren’t necessarily from any real language. For stories revolving around the interactions of disparate cultures, that might be exactly what you need. More human-focused writings, however, might want something else. This is especially true for, e.g., near-future sci-fi, where everything is mostly as it is today, apart from a few oddities. For these, we need to delve into the world of neologisms.

The making of a word

If you look at a dictionary of the English language, it’s obvious that no one sat down and came up with all of those hundreds of thousands of words in isolation. No, there are rules for most of them. Building blocks. Our language has a wide array of prefixes and suffixes, mostly borrowed from Latin and Greek in ages past, that allow us to create new terms with predictable meanings. (Linguists call this agglutination.) For example, we’ve got prefixes like un-, ex-, or over-, and then suffixes such as -ation, -ism, and -ness; Wikipedia, among others, has a whole list you can use.

Many of the new entries in the language—the more “technical” ones, at least—are fashioned by this process of agglutination: Internet, transgender, exoplanet, etc. All you have to do is snap the right pieces together to get the desired meaning, and there you go. In futuristic science fiction revolving around technological advancement, this may be all you really need.

Another option is even simpler: just use an existing word, but in a new context. We’re seeing that one a lot today, with terms like cast or stream or even tweet being reinterpreted to fit our modern world. Here, though, you have to be careful, because even if your characters understand the new meaning you’ve given these words, your readers might not. If you’re going this route, then, be sure to work in an explanation somewhere.

Compounding is another good option. Unlike agglutination, this sticks whole words together into a single, cohesive unit: swordmage, dragonborn. This process, in my opinion, is more suited to fantasy and such; it sounds less “scientific” to my ears. Your mileage may vary, however.

A kind of “opposite” of compounding and agglutination can be made by abbreviation. Different fields use this for jargon nowadays; in sci-fi, especially of the military or paramilitary varieties, this can make the narrator seem to “fit in” better. Shortened words like tac for tactical, vac for vacuum, and mag for magazine are mainly what I’m talking about here. They work best in dialogue, but putting them in narration is fine, as long as you make sure the reader is on board.

Last is the option of pure coinage—making a word from scratch. Unless you really know what you’re doing (or you’re not opposed to some serious linguistic construction), you might want to steer clear of this one. Here, you’re making a word that doesn’t actually exist, in whole or in part, and that’s a lot harder than you might think. When it’s not intended to be an “alien” word, whatever that may mean for your story, it’s actually quite difficult to come up with something that doesn’t sound corny and forced. For this one, I can’t really give much advice beyond “Play it by ear.”

In conclusion

However you choose to do it, adding new words (or new meanings for old words) really can help set the “otherness” of a world. An unfamiliar or nonexistent term is a sure sign that we’re not dealing with the ordinary anymore, whether it’s in there because you’re talking about aliens, elves, assault weapons, or the mysteries of the universe. (On a personal note, my forthcoming novel Nocturne uses neologisms to describe its magic; they’re all compounds.) Now, if you want to make a whole language, then check the “conlang” section of the site. And if you’re simply looking for technobabble that would make a Trekkie proud, well, that’s a different post. Maybe I’ll write it soon.

On ancient times

The medieval era gets a lot of screen time, and for good reason. Medieval Europe has a kind of romantic appeal, with its knights and chivalry and castles, its lack of guns and bombs and cars and planes. It’s our collective nostalgic getaway. Fantasy, of course, revels in the Middle Ages; the “default” fantasy setting is England circa 1200, at the height of the era. But any kind of fiction can take us to medieval times. We have our Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, yes, but also our Vikings and The Last Kingdom, our Braveheart and Excalibur.

But what about earlier times? What about the days before the castles and cathedrals were built, before knights wrote their code of chivalry? What about the ancient era?

Defining the ancient

First, let’s define what we mean by “ancient”. We can consider the Middle Ages to end in 1453, with the fall of Constantinople; the refugees fleeing into Europe from that city sparked the Renaissance. The beginning of the era, however, is harder to characterize. That’s mostly because of the Dark Ages, those centuries where nothing much happened. (Except when it did.) Records are fairly scanty in the period before Charlemagne—before about 800—but I think we can all agree that the Roman Empire really was ancient. Thus, the year of its fall in the west, 476 AD, marks a good boundary between the ancient and the medieval.

So we’ll say ancient times ended in 476. When did they begin? That’s a difficult question that gets to the heart of anthropology. Suffice to say, the ancient era began with human civilization. Even if you’d prefer to subdivide (Bronze Age, Classical Era, etc.), its all ancient.

That leaves us with a grand sweep of history, possibly as much as ten thousand years! In our modern, fast-paced world, that seems like an eternity. Indeed, it is a long time, no matter how you look at it, and things changed remarkably from the beginning of the era to the end. Fifth-century Rome was nothing like Homer’s Athens, and neither really resembled Sargon’s Babylon from the eighth century BC, or Middle Kingdom Thebes a millennium before that, or the Stone Age settlement of Çatalhöyük. (Jericho has been occupied almost continuously since the beginning of the ancient era, and you can bet it went through a number of different looks through the ages.)

Writing an ancient-times work requires you to know the period. For the big names—Rome, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia—that’s relatively easy. These cultures all left a large body of written knowledge, in addition to easily excavated structures. We know a lot about how they lived, so a writer has more than enough to work with. Lesser-known peoples, such as the Etruscans, Harappans, or Picts, are much harder. Quite a few are only attested in a few sites, and those may be impossible to fully grasp. (On the other hand, that means no one can complain that you screwed up your history!)

The ancient world

Whichever part of Antiquity you choose as your setting, you’ll have to get to know the world. The hardest part is seeing what little you have to work with. Technology, for instance, is such an important part of our times that it’s hard enough to imagine the medieval world, with its lack of…well, everything we take for granted. And ancient times were even worse in that regard. At the earliest, we’re talking about days when the wheel was the height of invention. The reason the Iron Age is called the Iron Age is because it’s defined by the working of iron. For ancient smiths, that was awfully hard as it was; steel was literally impossible.

But the ancients (especially the Romans) made great advances in their own right. Rome, of course, invented concrete, while the Egyptians built the pyramids and the Greeks had all their grand wonders. China built a Great Wall that, like the Maginot Line, never really lived up to its promise. These cultures of old also developed early sciences (the Greeks were pretty good at geometry, as you probably know) and quite a few other things. Our modern legal system also owes a lot to the Roman one, filtered through the Middle Ages though it was.

One part of life rises above everything else in the ancient world: religion. Every ancient culture placed a heavy focus on matters of religion. In fact, it’s often hard to untangle religion from other fields, because it permeated life. Science, government, art, and literature were all tools used for religion’s purposes. And it’s not hard to see why. When the world is so much bigger than you, than anything you know, and when it’s so wild and untamed compared to ours, where can you find any form of safety? Religion was so important that most archaeological sites are practically assumed to be religious in nature until proven otherwise.

Besides the sacred, many other forces worked to shape the ancient world. Remember that we’re dealing with a time before modern industry, but also before the developments of the Middle Ages. People had to look to their basic needs first: food, water, shelter. Survival. Only once they were certain they could survive could they work to thrive. Most people didn’t make it that far, however. Subsistence farming was a way of life. So was hunting and gathering, a practice preserved in only a very few spots today. Only a select few rose above that. True, there were more “middle-class” people in the great cities, particularly towards the end of the era, but urban life was for the 1%.

Travel was hard. Communities were small. People could go their whole lives—much shorter than our own, on average—without leaving their homeland. But that was probably for the best, as danger lurked everywhere. Disease, predators (on two legs or four), war, famine—all these can be subsumed under the one word that best describes the foreign: uncertainty.

The city on the hill

Rome was the big exception to this. Romans made a habit of being worldly, urbane, sophisticated. Their empire, as horrible as we’d consider it today, was the apex of ancient civilization. It removed the uncertainties of life in the era, replacing them with the rule of law, with connections and bureaucracy and, well, government. Earlier cultures built roads to connect towns, but Rome took that to an extreme. Aqueducts existed long before the Appian was built, but we associate these creations with the Romans because they perfected the art through repeated practice.

A story set in Imperial (or even Republican) Rome will still have most of the same aspects as something from earlier Antiquity, but it can also show a different way of life, one which has much more in common with our own. That’s probably why it has some of the best representation in fiction, including:

  • The HBO series Rome (naturally)
  • Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, required reading for high-school English classes
  • Spartacus, whether in its original movie form or the stylized TV series from a few years ago
  • Ben-Hur, recently remade as a box-office flop
  • Passion of the Christ, because the birth of Christianity came in a corner of the Roman Empire

By contrast, other ancient cultures show up less often in modern media. The Greeks get endless retellings of Alexander, the Iliad, and the wars against the Persians (e.g., 300). Ancient Egypt gets fanciful flicks like Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Scorpion King. Mesopotamia is almost totally limited to Biblical stories such as Noah. (In books, things are a little better, if only because you don’t have to spend money on costumes and set design.)

It’s entirely possible to write a story about the ancient world. It’ll take research and thought, as well as the capability to imagine a time so alien to anything we know. It’s been done before, though, and there are good stories to tell. Not just the Caesars and the Constantines, or Jesus or the Jews. Antiquity comprises an entire world far larger than our own, a world in the process of being formed.

On marriage in fiction

For about as long as humans have had any sort of community, we’ve had the concept of marriage. What it means has changed greatly throughout the ages, but the basic idea of people bonding for the rest of their lives has endured. It’s so ingrained in our collective mind that it almost has to be inherited from our ancestors, a “civilized” response to some innate need. But it’s also one of the more ritualized parts of our society, and that has also endured throughout history.

In fiction, however, marriage serves a different purpose. It’s often an event, a set piece, an excuse to move the story along. It can be a time for great upheaval (e.g., the Red Wedding of Game of Thrones), and that’s fine, because the real thing is, too. Just in a different way, hopefully.

For exotic or alien cultures, however, the process of marriage itself can lead to an interesting story arc. From romance and courting to the arranged marriages popularly shown in medieval fantasy, the possibilities for drama are easy to see. Yet the worldbuilding aspects are just as important for marriage in unfamiliar or nonexistent locales. Marriage, like so many other things, is inherently tied to a culture. By making a fictitious culture’s marital wrappings different, unusual, you make that culture unique.

Popping the question

We’re all pretty familiar with the “common” Western marriage. Two people (a man and a woman historically, but it can be just about any two adults nowadays) who love each other decide to get married, for whatever reason. This may follow a lengthy period of dating and engagement, or it can be a spur-of-the-moment thing. One way or another, though, they take the plunge.

There’s some bureaucratic paperwork to fill out, since we live in a society where these things are regulated. Then, the bulk of the work is in planning the wedding. That ceremony can be religious or secular, and it can range from a simple, perfunctory proclamation by a justice of the peace all the way to a lavish church ceremony with hundreds in attendance.

However it works, the core of the wedding is, effectively, a contract. In theory, it’s a binding oath on both participants, a formalization of what biologists call pair bonding. Once this contract is confirmed—the “I do” part—the two are, for all intents and purposes, married.

But it doesn’t end there. Many cultures have ritualized the hours that come after the initial bonding. Most of the scenes we see of dramatic weddings, such as throwing rice, have some significance that has been lost to time. But all of it meant something at some point. The reception, the honeymoon, the “first night”—everything had a meaning, even if it doesn’t anymore.

Answering the questions

Marriage, as we understand it, is built on assumptions. In non-Western or non-modern cultures, some of those assumptions are invalid. So, by changing some of them, we can create a distinct “flavor” for the concept of marriage and its concrete aspects. You merely need to know which assumptions you can work with.

Who gets married?

Until very, very recently, most of the US defined marriage as between exactly one man and exactly one women. The fallout of dissolving that definition is still playing out as we speak, but it doesn’t matter much for our purposes. That’s because, for the vast majority of human history, the formal pair bonding that is marriage has been between men and women. It’s the little details that have changed.

Monogamy is our “default” for marriage: a person can have a single spouse. It’s codified into law in most places, and it’s a cornerstone of the Christian tradition. But that’s an assumption that doesn’t have to hold. A few societies in the past have embraced multiple spouses; this is traditionally called polygamy, though the more general term polyamory is appropriate when you’re talking about something other than “one man, multiple wives”. Polygamous sects exist today, but they’re in the minority, and the practice is usually highly stigmatized, if not outright illegal.

In a polygamous society, marriage might be less of a spectacle, simply because it’s more common. For the “lesser” side (the one where there can be many spouses), it may not hold the same glamour that it does for us monogamists. A hierarchy would develop on the “many” side—usually the wives—where some would have more prestige than the others. And, of course, this sort of culture readily accepts the less-savory aspects of marriage.

Besides “how many”, the other assumption we can challenge is “who”. Same-sex marriage gets all the limelight today; it’s as simple as changing “man and woman” to “adults”. But there can be other restrictions on who can marry. If, as gay-marriage opponents profess, the whole purpose is procreation, then are seniors allowed to marry? What about impotent men and infertile women? If sex is the reason for marriage, then are people with STDs condemned to the single life forever? (This last one is not an academic question, especially in Renaissance times.)

And then there are the related questions of age and, well, relation. Our modern age of consent of 18 is a bit on the high side, historically speaking, but most jurisdictions don’t use it as the minimum for marriage. However, “minimum” is just that. Not everyone will get married the minute they come of age, whatever that age really is. Historians can point to data showing that “commoners” in centuries past tended to get married in their early to mid twenties, just like today. To counter that, we have stories of children wedding, but those cases were not the norm, and they were arranged specifically for political or financial reasons, as we’ll see below.

Blood relation (consanguinity, to use the technical term) is another factor. Everyone’s related in some way, if you go back far enough, but it’s only the really close ones that bother people. Broadly speaking, the size of the community will help determine which degrees of relation are acceptable, but other reasoning, such as the need to keep a “pure” bloodline, also come into play. Marriage between first cousins is acceptable in some places, taboo in others, while closer relatives are generally forbidden everywhere. In older days, the bar could be set higher, banning second or even third cousins. This naturally presented a problem among the medieval and later nobility, who became so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to find someone who fit the consanguinity criteria.

Why are they getting married?

Today, we expect people to marry for love or companionship. Historically, that wasn’t always the case. Marriage is intimately associated with inheritance, so when inheritances grow to be very large, it stands to reason that some would want to influence them. Arranged marriages are a common feature of many cultures in many times. Typically, it’s the parents who make those decisions, and the children are expected to follow along out of filial duty. (When they don’t, there’s sure to be drama.)

Other arrangements can also work. In smaller societies, it could be a tribal or village elder who does the matchmaking, or possibly a cabal of the older members of the community. Religious leaders work, too, if the society leans that way. In a fantasy setting, it could even be fate, magic, or the gods.

A looser sort of arranged marriage can happen in clannish cultures. This ties in a bit with consanguinity, in that the arrangement is “no one in our clan”, and clans are arranged along family lines. Depending on the specifics, this can be a little more open than a fully-arranged pairing, in that the matchmakers only operate at a “higher” level. In other words, you’ll marry someone from that clan, but you can pick who it is.

And then there are the forced marriages. Our modern sensibilities associate this with repressive societies, with slavery and barbarism. But then there seems to be a growing subculture devoted to fantasizing about non-consensual relationships, so there you go. In my opinion, it’s hard to disconnect the idea of a forced marriage from rape and plunder, but it’s also closely tied to polygamous cultures. That makes sense, if you think about it. Why force yourself to be forever stuck with someone who likely hates you?

How does it work?

How these people—whoever they are and however they got together—actually get married is the big question. Wedding ceremonies may be the second oldest and second most important of any human festivity. (Funerals are almost certainly first.) I’ll admit that I haven’t studied every culture in the world, but I’ve never heard of one that didn’t do something special for marriage.

Designing a fictional wedding is a massive undertaking. (I do know this one from experience.) The best guides here are the necessities of the story and a few sociological factors that appear to be mostly universal. The ceremony is supposed to be the symbolic joining of two (or more) people in matrimony. Even if marriage isn’t religious in nature—and it probably is, given what history shows us—symbolism will be rampant.

We talk of “tying the knot”, and that’s basically a symbol for the pair bond of marriage. We throw rice as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. The bridal veil, the white dress? Symbols of purity and chastity. Throwing the bouquet is symbolic as a passing of the torch of womanhood. The groom carrying his bride across the threshold symbolizes the support he’s expected to provide as the head of the new family, as well as the threshold itself directly referencing the “new life” the couple has begun.

For worldbuilding purposes, that’s what you’re looking for. You probably won’t want to copy the Western features directly, as they evolved from our peculiar set of circumstances. But the things they symbolize are the things our ancestors considered most important in a marital union. Figure out what your invented culture values most, then find ways to represent those values in the wedding itself.

And finally, since you’re writing a story, remember not to write yourself into a corner. You might need a reason for the prospective spouses to back out at the last minute: “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.” And then there’s the question of what happens after the wedding. But that, as they say, is another story.

Creating a sport

Humans have probably played games for about as long as they’ve been human. Some of these are mental (chess, etc.), while others are mostly physical in nature. These physical games, when they become somewhat organized and competitive (two other universals in humanity), can be called sports.

This post, then, looks at what it takes to create the rudiments of a fictional sport. I’ll admit, very few stories will need such fine detail. The specifics of a sport likely won’t feature in any work of fiction, though there are examples of sports being a focus. The video game Final Fantasy X has its Blitzball, for example; it’s both a mini-game and a major part of the culture of Spira, the game’s fictional world. Similarly, the Harry Potter book/movie series has its game of Quidditch, which forms a backdrop for certain events of its story. (And that fictitious sport later received its own video game, Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup.)

Again, let’s spell out what the post considers a sport. It has to be mainly physical, first of all. Go and chess are both classic games with long histories and intricate strategies, but they are tests of the mind, not the body, so they don’t meet our definition.

Second, sports are competitive. They pit one person or group against one or more others of relatively equal strength. The opposing forces don’t have to be present at the same time—baseball is effectively 9 against 1—but each side must have an equal opportunity to claim victory.

Third, sports have goals. This can be a literal goal, as in soccer or basketball, or a figurative one, like the highest or lowest score. Goals also imply an ending condition, such as time, score, or distance. Otherwise, you don’t have a sport.

Finally, the key factor in turning a game that meets all of the above criteria into a sport is some form of organization. This can be nothing more than a common set of rules, or it can be organized leagues with sponsorship and broadcast rights and billion-dollar contracts. Pickup games of street basketball and gym-class dodgeball fail this test, but they are simplified versions of “true” sports, so they get a pass.

Historical sports

In modern times, we’re familiar with quite a few sports. America has the familiar triumvirate of football, baseball, and basketball, all very popular. Hockey, soccer and rugby are three other big ones around the world, and the Olympics this summer will showcase dozens more. And that’s not counting track and field events, racing (whether on foot or using a vehicle), golf, cricket, and all those others we tend to overlook.

Each of these “modern” sports has a history, but all those histories, whether long (soccer dates back centuries) or short (BMX racing, now an Olympic sport, started in the 1970s) boil down to same thing. Someone, somewhere, started playing a game. More people then began playing. With more players, rules evolved. As the game grew in popularity, it became more fixed in its form, and thus a sport was born.

But sports don’t remain fixed forever. Different rule sets can emerge, and those can give rise to new sports. Rugby split off from soccer when players decided they wanted to pick up the ball and run with it. (Later on, Americans decided they liked a turn-based version better: football.) Cricket never caught on much in the US, but rounders, a simplified version played in English schoolyards, did; after a lot of tweaking, it developed into baseball. The list of “derivative” sports goes on: street hockey, beach soccer and volleyball, Australian rules football…

Nor do sports ever truly die. The Mesoamerican civilizations (Aztec, Maya, Olmec, etc.) have become famous in recent years for the archaeological evidence for their ball game, which dates back as far as 1600 BC. Despite all that has happened since then, a descendant of the Aztec game, now known as ulama, is still played in parts of Mexico. Over in the Old World, the Greek fighting sport pankration, a staple of the classical Olympics that was dropped when they were modernized, has been modified, organized, and subsumed into mixed martial arts.

Birth of a sport

Every culture has its sports. Sometimes, they’re inextricably linked. Few play cricket outside of Britain and its former colonies. Racing on an oval, as in NASCAR, is quintessentially American. Others gain more widespread appeal. Soccer—whatever you want to call it—is a worldwide game. Baseball bas become popular throughout the Americas and Asia. And so on.

Most sports will come about because of a culture. They’ll be part of it, at the start. Sometimes, they’re related to warfare, possibly as training (running, javelin throwing) or as a war “proxy” (the Mesoamerican ball games, maybe). Alternatively, they can be childhood games that “grew up”.

Which sports a culture plays can depend on its outlook on life, its technological advancement, and plenty of other factors. Technology’s role, of course, is easy to understand. After all, you can’t race automobiles until they’re invented. In the same vein, European games before the 1500s didn’t use rubber balls, because they didn’t have them; they tended to use wrapped animal bladders or things like that.

The level of organization is also dependent on these factors. Video replays obviously require video, but that’s an easy one. Precise timing is also necessary for many sports, but it took a long time to master. And from a cultural perspective, it’s not hard to imagine that a more egalitarian society might focus on loosely defined individual competitions rather than team games, while a martial civilization may see rigorously regulated team sports as a perfect metaphor for squad-level battles.

Taking steps

So let’s think about what it takes to make a sport. Looking back at the introduction, we see that we need an organized, competitive, and physical endeavor with well-defined goals. That’s a pretty good start. Let’s break it down in a different way, though, by asking some basic questions.

  1. Who’s playing? Options include one-on-one, like martial arts; one against the “field”, like racing and golf; or team-against-team, as in baseball or football. Anything other than a contest between opposing individuals also requires a total count of players. For “serious” team sports, you can also work out rules for substitutions and things like that.

  2. Where are they playing? Indoors or outdoors is the natural first approximation. But you’ll also want to know the size and shape of the playing area. This is usually the same for every event, but not always. Baseball fields have a bit of variation in the size of the outfield, and the racetrack at Daytona is almost five times as long as the one in Bristol.

  3. What do they need to play? In other words, what equipment does the sport require? Balls are very common, though their composition (rubber, bladder, wood, etc.) can vary. Sticks show up in quite a few sports: baseball, hockey, and cricket are just three. Nets, posts, racquets—the possibilities are virtually endless. That’s not even counting vehicles or, as in polo, animals.

  4. What are they trying to do? “Get the ball in the goal” is one possible objective. “Reach a certain point before X” is another. Those two, in fact, cover most sports Americans recognize as such. Add in “Don’t let the ball touch the ground”, and you’re pretty much set. You can also substitute “puck” or whatever for “ball”, if your sport uses one of those instead. Note that this is the main objective, not the entirety of the rules.

  5. What is and is not allowed? These are the finer rules of the game. They’re the bulk of the gameplay, but a fictitious story is allowed to gloss over them when they’re not pivotal to the action. You have to be consistent, though, but from a storytelling perspective. A sport’s rules don’t necessarily have to make sense. Football’s “catch rule”, the definition of “charging” in basketball, and the whole sport of cricket are evidence of this.

  6. Who wins, and how? This is the victory condition. Some games are time-based, where they end after a certain period has elapsed. Others, such as baseball or tennis, finish after a set number of turns or scores. Sports where score is kept will generally be won by the side with the most scores; golf, though, is a counterexample. Races, of course, go to the one who finishes first, and a few sports (gymnastics and figure skating, for instance, but also boxing) are scored by judges.

There are quite a few other details you can add, like what happens after an event, whether there is enough organization for leagues and championships, etc. The level of detail is important here, though: don’t get lost in impertinent trivia. It’s fun, but you probably don’t need it for the story.

In those stories where it’s warranted, on the other hand, an invented sport can add flavor to a culture. It’s a good illustration that we’re looking at a different set of people. This is what they think is fun. Sure, many cultures will have similarities in their sports. Soccer could plausibly be created just about anywhere, at almost any time. Many of the martial events at the original Olympics came about from soldierly pursuits, and everybody has soldiers. But it’s the differences that we notice the most.

With fantasy, there’s also the potential for new sports that are beyond our capability. Anything involving magic fits this bill; our two fantastic examples above are both physically impossible for ordinary humans. But fantasy worlds might be more amenable to bizarre sports. The same is true in futuristic science fiction. We can’t play games in zero-G today, but that doesn’t mean people on 24th century starships can’t. As with everything in worldbuilding, the only limits are in your mind.

Building the pantheon

In fantasy worlds, unlike our modern, Western one, monotheism seems to be quite uncommon. Maybe it’s a way to show the “otherness” of the story, or a method of inserting larger-than-life characters into the world in a way that they can interact with the protagonist. Perhaps the intent is to illustrate a “war of ideas” in a metaphorical way. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other reasons, but they all end with the same result: a pantheon.

Now, there are two different concepts at work here. First is the “traditional” polytheism, like the Greeks, Romans, Norse, and Egyptians. In all of these cases—and others from around the world—you have a multitude of gods. They all have their own niches (Aphrodite, goddess of love, for example) and they have a body of lore surrounding them. This is the idea we’ll be exploring in this post. The other is pantheism, which you’d expect to be related to the word pantheon. It’s not; “pantheism” isn’t the belief in multiple gods, but the belief that (roughly speaking) God is everywhere and everything. From a worldbuilding perspective, that doesn’t offer too much, so we’ll stick with polytheism. We can live with the minor etymological confusion.

The pantheon

As usual, the best way to start creating something is to look at similar things that already exist. Most early cultures in history were polytheistic, and a few have left a large amount of mythology. That’s the key to polytheism: the myth. With dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of gods, stories are the way to keep them straight. Stories bring them to life, bring them into the world. They show why these gods should be worshipped…or even how.

Polytheistic gods, unlike the solitary God of monotheistic religions, are, in a very real way, superhuman. They wouldn’t be gods if they didn’t have some sort of supernatural power or ability attributed to them, although heroic humans can be, and often were, deified. (Castor, Imhotep, and Guan Yu are all examples here.) But gods of a pantheon are unlike a single God in another way: they can be flawed. Zeus is well-known as lecherous, while Hera was the personification of jealousy, and Loki would, today, be a troll in the Internet sense. A far cry from the perfect divinity of the Judeo-Christian God.

This humanization of the divine means that gods can be characters in a literary sense. They can have conflict, both with each other and with outside forces. They can walk the mortal world, interact with living people in more than just visions. But they’re still gods. They can just as easily be unseen, nothing more than the intended recipients of prayers and pleas and sacrifices. They can work behind the scenes as easily as on the stage. And if they’re never visible, then you get to pose the interesting question: did they ever truly exist?

Creating the creators

Of course, no matter how you use the pantheon, you’re going to need one. This doesn’t have to be too elaborate. A list of names will suffice, maybe with a note as to the purpose of each one. If you want to go deeper, though, you can.

One question you don’t have to answer is “how many?” The trick with polytheism is that there doesn’t have to be a set number of deities. You can have two, or twenty, or twelve hundred, and it won’t matter much. If you have a small, set number, it’ll be easier to enumerate them all, but you can always leave room for expansion.

In a way, creating a pantheon is dividing up the universe, decomposing it into its fundamental parts. The exact criteria will depend on the culture—a typical medieval fantasy people won’t have a god of computers, for instance—but a few things are near-universal. Remember that the more gods you have, the less each one has to do. With a vast array of deities, you can get into some pretty fine distinctions.

Creator gods are probably everywhere. Naturally, monotheistic faiths only have (exactly) one of these, but polytheism gives you more authorial options. Creators can be distant, aloof of their creation. Alternatively, they might prefer to be up close and personal with their masterpiece. Maybe there are multiple creators, each given a different element; one god created the land, another the sea, for example.

The creation of the world can be extremely interesting in its own right. Perhaps there was a great battle among the gods. Or the world could have been created by more primordial beings, with the gods as their children. Or maybe the world is a song given physical form by the highest of gods, while the others merely inhabit and protect it.

Local gods exist in many pantheons. These are typically small-time guys, possibly deified humans. Ancient, half-legendary rulers or wise men are good candidates. But it’s also possible that the local god is a “spirit” of a place, like the Roman genius loci. Another possibility is a more powerful god who is intimately connected with a city, such as Athena. Any way you look at it, local gods will have the center of their worship in a particular area. Their greatest shrines or temples will be there, and outsiders may not even consider them true gods.

Elemental deities make up another common type. These are your gods of fire and water and weather and the like. In larger pantheons, especially early on, these will form the bulk of the roll of divinity, if only because older cultures, lacking modern technology, had less control over the natural world. Everything that man couldn’t control, almost by definition, the gods could, so one of them would be given an elemental role. Plenty of overlap is possible here; creators can be elemental. Local gods can, too, especially if a type of weather is strongly associated with a certain place, like snow on the highest mountaintop.

Patron deities come to the fore as a polytheistic civilization develops. Eventually, they will begin to outnumber the elemental gods, Patrons can be of a craft (Vulcan and smithing), an act (Ares and war), or just about anything else. Like some theological Rule 34, if people can do something, there will be a patron for it. (We see this even in monotheism, with the Catholic patron saints.) This is a place where the fine divisions of a vast pantheon come into the spotlight. Why have a single god of agriculture, when you can have one for grain, another for fruit, and half a dozen for different kinds of trees? Patrons can be creators, too; art and fertility work well for these. (Why? Because these are both acts of creation.) Local gods, by contrast, are often patrons of those things the local place is known for.

Antagonistic gods sometimes exist. These don’t necessarily have to be evil—look at Loki—but they can be: Titans, frost giants, etc., feature in many myths. Nor is the god of death necessarily an antagonist. Still, the idea of a god or set of gods opposing the primary pantheon appears very often. Myths are stories, and stories need conflict. Someone with godly power can only be truly rivaled by another such being, and a dedicated foil is quite handy. Any of the gods can fill this role, as can any other being with power approaching godlike. (In many forms of Christianity, Satan has practically become an antagonistic god. This, combined with the elevation of saints, the hierarchy of angels, and so on, might even provide a glimpse of monotheism in the process of becoming polytheistic.)

Family matters

Once you have a sizable pool of deities, they can be related. Greece shows a nice portrait of the extreme end of this: the Olympian gods are one big, unhappy, inbred family, a very model for the European aristocracy of later centuries.

In a pantheon, gods can marry. (Whether they remain faithful, however, is another story. Or a lot of them, in the case of Zeus.) They can have children, and these will likely be gods in their own right. Some of the deities might be brothers and sisters. They may become lovers. They could even be all of these at once, since gods don’t necessarily have to play by mortal rules.

This fooling around can also extend to the inhabitants of the world. Every culture with polytheistic leanings has a story about a god (almost always a man) having relations with a mortal (nearly always a woman). Sometimes this is simply for love. Other times, it’s out of lust. In a few cases, it’s neither. The many lovers Zeus took are well-known; there are so many of them, we still haven’t run out of names for Jupiter’s moons. But everywhere you look in polytheism, gods and men are coming together.

And these unions, in mythology, often lead to children. A child with one divine parent might also become a god. Usually, there’s a tale as to why they are or aren’t fully divine. They could also be relegated to a separate rank of demigods, immortal beings with less power than the highest deities, but far more than any normal human. These might then go on to develop their own myths, like Heracles. (And don’t think this is limited to polytheism. A divine child is sort of the central figure of one of the world’s major monotheistic religions.)

The more gods a pantheon has, the more opportunity for relation. And the stories become endless. Not only that, but they can also echo the world itself. Children may follow in their parents’ footsteps, taking on similar roles, as with Aphrodite and Eros. Or they could become a blend of their two parents; the son of a sky god and a sea goddess might be the patron of the trade winds…or bringer of hurricanes. A forsaken child may become an antagonist. A city might choose to worship a demigod believed to be the offspring of a god and a local priestess or seer. The only limit is the imagination.

The story begins

Any way you slice it, polytheism has a reason for its popularity in fantasy. In real life, pantheons came about naturally, through centuries of cultural evolution. Fantasy creations didn’t. But they’re fun to think about, and they add a dimension to a world and its peoples. From a storytelling point of view, there’s not that much to be said of an omnipotent deity. But a hundred lesser beings, human in their flaws and faults, breathe a kind of life into a story’s religious backdrop.

That doesn’t mean you should go wild with the idea, though. Unless you’re writing a “mythic” story, where mortal and divine regularly intermingle, multiple gods should probably be just like one—out of the way. But they will leave their mark, everywhere from the calendar (Saturday) to place names (Athens) to any other facet of life. Any kind of religion shapes a culture. In the worlds you create, how they do it is up to you.

Magic and tech: information technology

In our modern era, we are well and truly blessed when it comes to information. We have the Internet, of course, with its wealth of knowledge. In only a few seconds, any of us can call up even the most obscure facts. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but it’s more than people from just a hundred years ago could dream of. To someone from the Renaissance or earlier, it really would be magic.

Information

Since the written record is often all we have of older cultures, it’s fairly easy to trace the development of information technology. The Internet is only a few decades old, as we know. Telephones, television, and telegraphs (notice a theme there?) preceded that. Radio transmission goes back only a hundred years or so; before its invention, your choices for communication were mostly limited to the written word.

Writing dates back millennia. It’s the oldest and most stable method of storing information that we have. From clay tablets and inscriptions, we can follow its trail through the ages. Papyrus and parchment have been replaced by paper, which is now giving way to LEDs and flash memory, but the idea remains the same. Although the form modern writing takes would astound anyone from earlier times, its function would be familiar in an instant.

In those older days, what options do you have for information and communication? If you’re literate—not everyone was—you can write, obviously, but there’s only so much that gets you. The Chinese invented a printing press about a thousand years ago, but they didn’t really find it useful; if you look at the Chinese script, you’ll probably see why. The Western, alphabetic, world loved it when they got it four centuries later. Copying by hand was your only option for most things before that. (Seals and stamps had limited use, and block printing didn’t show up in Europe until a couple of generations before Gutenberg.)

The form of a written text also changed through history. That’s mostly because of the conditions. Scrolls work better for some materials, but the codex (books like ours) is more compact, and it’s a more natural fit for paper. And letters can be written on anything handy, even bits of other works!

Add the magic

So, in the era we’re covering, the printing press hasn’t been invented. Woodblocks are a new innovation just now trickling in. Most work is done on parchment, some on paper, and it’s done almost exclusively by hand. Scribing and copying are important professions, and their services are always in high demand. And, thanks to the relative lack of supply, the written word is expensive. Can our magical society improve on this state of affairs? If so, how?

A general copying spell (like D&D’s Amanuensis) is too much to ask for, but that hasn’t stopped some mages from trying. But our magic kingdom does have a few information innovations that have become commonplace. One isn’t connected to writing at all, but to speaking: a spell that increases the volume and clarity of a speaker’s voice. In other words, it’s a PA system. In real life, before the invention of electrical amplification, you had to use natural means, mostly in the form of architecture; amphitheaters aren’t built that way just for looks. In this magical land, though, a good acoustic setting is no longer so vital. Anyone can make his voice heard, anywhere, no matter how large the crowd.

Long-distance communication also isn’t as big a problem. Historically, conversing with someone in another city was hard, involving a back-and-forth series of letters. With the upgraded travel abilities of this society, mail delivery gets a boost, too, but that’s not the only option. Through use of a hand-sized glass ball (essentially the same as a crystal ball or Tolkien’s palantír), direct communication can be achieved. It’s highly limited, however. For one, there’s the expense of creating and imbuing the spheres. Then, it’s only a one-to-one system, as speech is transmitted in something like telepathy. No conference calls or broadcasts, unfortunately.

But even this is a huge step up from couriers. Every town of more than a few hundred people has at least one dedicated connection, usually staffed by junior or washed-up mages. For a small fee, short messages can be sent over the spheres to loved ones, acquaintances, or tradesmen in nearby cities. Longer distances can be covered by a relay system, and the biggest cities are set up as centralized “hubs”, with dozens of connections to their neighbors and the most important places.

The overall effect is a society where people are more likely to be aware of what’s outside their locale. Like the telegraph systems of the 1800s (which directly influenced this idea), communication in this world has become more “real-time”. Unlike telegraphs, the magic spheres are wireless, so they can also be taken aboard ships and to foreign lands. No more waiting two years to hear from sailors at sea, not when they can give you daily updates. True, they may only be a few words in length, but Twitter only gives you 140 characters, and people love it.

More magic

So that’s communication improved by magic. What about the storage of information? We can’t do too much better than printed books without some serious technological improvement, and I’ve already said that these guys don’t even have printing. Can we do better than hand-copied manuscripts?

By using the same endurance spells as before, scribes can work longer and faster, increasing their output. Memory-aiding spells, which have near-infinite uses, can give a true photographic memory that would mean fewer books are necessary; high wizards are their own libraries. (That also cuts down on spell thievery and protects the secrets of the arcane from outsiders.)

A path recently explored involves an enchanted plate of glass. That’s already a hard sell, due to the higher cost of plate glass—magic helps this somewhat, as we’ll see later on—and the further expense of the enchantment. But this particular spell “freezes” an image in the glass for a time. The mage holds the pane between himself and the scene he wishes to capture, and he invokes the spell. Almost instantly, the image is frozen. It’s not permanent (it lasts a few years at most) but it does record in clear color. The downside is that one piece of this glass can only “hold” a single picture. The first use of this particular advance in magic has been in art, strangely enough, capturing images that painters can then use as models.

The wizards do have a few other minor aids to information technology. Invisible ink is known in our world, but they have a variant that really is invisible to anyone other than another mage. Short-distance voice transmission spells are easy enough that they’re mostly used by young adepts for pranks. Writing materials are not limited to parchment and paper; “burning” pens allow one to write on wood, metal, or just about anything else. But the more traditional materials are also easier to make, thanks to spells that speed the fabrication processes. And when printing does come, magical propulsion will quickly make it as fast as Industrial-era presses.

What do you know?

In the end, the magical society doesn’t have much that can top handwriting…yet. That doesn’t mean they’re stuck with medieval-era information tech, though. The magic-based telegraph and photograph are some 500 years ahead of their natural counterparts, and they both help to create a populace more aware of its surroundings, of its setting. On top of that, scribes can work harder and faster (and with better eyesight!) than their Earthly kin, meaning that they make more books. More books means more opportunity to read, which encourages a higher literacy rate. The final result: a well-read, well-informed people.

It’s far from modern, granted. It’s not even that close to Victorian, except for our magical answer to the telegraph. But the larger amount of information available is going to have a ripple effect, as we’ll see in coming posts. Everything from espionage to economics changes when people know what’s going on.

Race in writing

Race is a hot topic in our generation. Racism, equality, diversity, affirmative action…you can’t get away from it. Even the very month we’re in has long been declared Black History Month. Scientifically, we are told that race doesn’t really matter. Socially, we’re told it shouldn’t matter. And yet human nature, our predisposition towards clannish, us-against-them xenophobia, keeps race constantly in the news. Whether it’s a white cop shooting a black teenager or the Academy Awards being called out as “too white”, racial tension is a fact of life as much in 2016 as in 1966.

But that’s the real world. In fiction, race has historically been somewhat neglected. In most cases, there’s a very good reason for that: it’s not important to the story. Many genres of fiction achieved the Holy Grail of colorblindness years ago, when such a thing was all but inconceivable to the rest of the world. Indeed, for a great many works, it doesn’t matter what color a character’s skin is. If you’re pointing it out, then, like Chekhov’s gun, it’s probably important. A story where racial tension plays a direct role in character development is going to be very dependent on character race. A lot of others simply won’t.

That’s not to say that it should be entirely ignored. After all, real-world humans have race, and they identify more with people of their own race. And, of course, a mass-media work needs to be very careful these days. One need only look at Exodus: Gods and Kings and the accusations of “whitewashing” it received. Also, when moving stories from the page to the screen, a lack of racial characterization in the book can lead to some…interesting choices by the studio. (I’ll gladly admit that I was surprised to see who was cast as Shadow in American Gods.)

Does it matter?

When you’re planning out a story—if you’re the type to plan that far ahead—you should probably already have an idea what role race will play in the grand scheme of things. Something set in the American South in the 60s (1960s or 1860s, either one works) will require more attention to detail. Feudal Japan, not so much.

Futuristic science fiction deserves special mention here. It’s common for this type of story, when it involves a team of characters, to have a certain ratio of men to women, of white to non-white, as if the author had a checklist of political correctness. But why? Surely, for an important mission like first contact or the first manned Mars mission, the job would go to the most qualified, whoever they were. That assumes rational decision-making, though, and that’s something in short supply today. There’s not much reason to assume that will get any better in the coming decades.

For other genres and settings, race should play second fiddle to story concerns. Yes, it can make for an interesting subplot if handled well, but it’s too easy to make a minor detail too important. Ask yourself, “If I changed this character’s race, what effect would that have on the rest of the story.” If you can’t think of anything, then it might not be quite as pertinent as you first thought.

When it does matter

Very often, though, the answer to that question will be a resounding “yes”. And that’s where you need to delve into the bottomless pit of psychology and sociology and the other social sciences. Lucky you.

If you’re fortunate enough to be working with a specific period and location in history, then most of the work is already done for you. Just look at what race relations were like in that time and place. You’ve always got a little bit of leeway, too. People are not all alike. You can be a pre-Civil War southerner against slavery, or a 1940s German sympathetic to the Jews.

Writing for the future is a lot tougher. A common assumption, especially for stories set more than a century or so ahead of our time, is the end of racism. In the future, they argue, nobody will care what color your skin is. The Expanse series works this in a great way, in my opinion. The whole solar system is full of a mishmash of Earth cultures, but nobody says a word about it. It’s not white against black, it’s Earth against Mars.

You can also go the other way and say that race will become more of a factor. The current political climate actually points this way on topics like immigration. But other factors can lead to a “re-segregation”. Nationalist tendencies, waves of refugees, backlashes against “cultural appropriation”, and simple close-mindedness could all do the trick. Even social media can play a role. While it’s true that there aren’t many paths back to the old days of separate water fountains, we’re not too far from strictly separated racial ghettoes already.

The worldbuilding process should be your guide here. What made the world—more specifically, the story’s setting—the way it is?

When it’s different

All that above, of course, presumes you’re dealing with human race. Alien races are completely different, and I hope to one day write a series on them. For now, just know that the differences between humans and aliens utterly dwarf any difference between human races. Aliens might not perceive a distinction between white and black; conversely, an alien appearance can hide a number of racial distinctions. For fantasy, substitute “elves” or whatever for “aliens”, because the principle is exactly the same.

In fact, this whole post I’ve been using “race” as a broad term that encompasses more than just traditional notions of skin pigmentation. In the context of this post, any social subgroup that is largely self-contained can be considered a race, as can a larger element that shows the behavior of a race. Jews and Muslims can be treated as races, as can fantasy-world dark elves. As long as the potential for discrimination based on a group’s appearance exists, then the race card is on the board.

As always, think about what you’re creating. Where does race fit into the story? Try to make it a natural fit, don’t shove it in there. And this is one of those cases where a lot of popular fiction can’t really help you. White authors tend to write white characters by default, because it’s easiest to write what you know. (A counterexample is Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, where half the main characters are black, and you’d never know it except from the occasional hint dropped in narration.)

It’s also all too easy to go to the other extreme, to fill a story with a racial rainbow and put that particular difference front and center when it doesn’t help the story. Honestly, that’s just as bad as saying, “Everybody’s white, deal with it.” If it doesn’t matter, don’t even bring it up. If it does matter, make it matter. Make me care about the struggle of the minority when I’m reading that kind of story, but don’t put it in my face when I’m trying to enjoy a sword-and-sorcery romp where everybody is against the Dark Lord.

In the end, the best advice I can give is twofold. First, learn about your setting. How does it affect racial relations? Second, think about your characters. Put yourself in their shoes. How do they see members of other races, or their own? How are they affected by the society they live in? It’s hard, but writing always is, and this is a case where the payoff is a lot harder to see. But keep at it, because it really is worth it.

More on calendars

When this post goes up, it will be the start of 2016. A new year. Time to throw out those old calendars and set up the new ones. (Well, probably not. Most people just use the calendars on their computers or phones these days.) But before you toss that record of the old year, take a look at it, because it’s actually quite interesting.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about holidays. This time around, I’m going to look at the whole calendar. Not just our own, mind you, but others throughout history and the modern world. Some of them have features that might be useful to a writer looking to make his fantasy world distinctive.

Into the west

Let’s start with our familiar western calendar. It’s the simplest, but only because we’re familiar with it; if we grew up using, say, the Islamic calendar, then we would be used to that. Now, you already know the basics, if you’re above the age of 4. The year is divided into twelve months, beginning in January and ending in December. Months have fixed numbers of days, but they aren’t the same: we’ve got four of them with 30 days, seven with 31, and then February, which can have 29 in leap years (like this one), but normally has 28.

Months can then be divided into weeks of 7 days each (though only February divides exactly). Days, of course, are 24 hours long, not counting Daylight Saving Time, and hours are subdivided into 60 minutes, which are, in turn, subdivided into 60 seconds. Going back to the other end, years are counted from the putative birth of Christ, with the only real nod to religious diversity being the “modern” names for either side of the dividing line: Christian Era (CE) and Before Christian Era (BCE) versus the traditional Anno Domini (AD) and Before Christ (BC). We can also group the years into decades, centuries, and millennia, but these are more a notational convenience than a function of the calendar.

So that’s what the Western calendar is. But why is it like that? Why are the months uneven? Why does the year start in January? Do we really need leap years?

Let’s start with the first question there. Our calendar is the result of a long chain of cause and effect reaching far back into history, but its current form was largely determined by the Romans. They were the ones that gave us our twelve months, with essentially today’s names. As usual, though, it’s not that simple.

First off, the Roman (Julian, technically; Julius Caesar’s reign saw more than its share of calendar reforms) New Year was in March, so January and February were at the end of the calendar. February 29, the leap day, would have been the last day on the list. The year starting in March basically lasted until the Gregorian reform: sometime since 1582, depending on where you live. (In America, the one time a non-specialist would encounter the Julian-to-Gregorian switchover is in genealogy. Some dates in the 18th century—when Britain and the colonies that would become the US switched—are recorded as OS or NS. These stand for Old Style and New Style, meaning what we now call the Julian and Gregorian calendars, respectively.)

Incidentally, moving the year’s starting date messed up the naming. September comes from the Latin word for “seven”, which you wouldn’t expect from the ninth month. But a few hundred years ago, it would have been linguistically accurate. The same goes for October (eight), November (nine), and December (ten).

Just about the one thing the Romans didn’t give us for our calendar is the AD/BC split. That one came a few centuries later. Before then, years were reckoned from the time of a well-known event or the coronation of a noble figure such as a king or emperor.

Written in the stars

Let’s turn to the scientific aspect of the calendar for now, since that’s where we can get more insight. We’ll get back to the history shortly, I promise.

The year, scientifically speaking, is the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun once, while the day is how long it takes our planet to rotate on its axis. These are the only “natural” units of time measurement; weeks and months and hours are all human invention. Both the year and the day can be found by observation: the day is roughly the time between one noon and the next, and the stars (including the Sun) will return to the same position in the night sky after a year. (Technically, this isn’t entirely accurate, but the inaccuracies are far below the calendar’s resolution.)

Clever readers will note that we’ve already run into a big problem: the year is not made of a whole number of days. It’s not 365 days long, nor is it 366. In fact, it’s something like 365.2422 days. So, if our calendar only had 365, we would effectively lose a day about every four years. But if we made every fourth year a day longer, that makes up for the discrepancy. Hence, leap years.

The Julian calendar had one every four years, no matter what. By the time of the Gregorian reform, the difference between 365.2422 and 365.25 had added up, and they had to skip a few days to get things back on track. (How many days depends on when the reform took place.) To stop that from happening again, they also changed the rules to make only certain century years leap years. And that’s why 2000 was special: the next leap year ending in 00 won’t be until 2400.

The sun and the moon

There’s another way to count the days, and it can even work at night. The Western calendar is a solar calendar; it’s based around the sun. But our months are remnants of a connection to a lunar calendar. It’s right there in the name, too.

Other calendars are exclusively lunar in nature. The Islamic calendar is one example. Months start and end based on the phase of the moon, and in many Muslim countries that is a literal statement, even today. But the lunar period isn’t a whole number of days, either, so Islamic months can have either 29 or 30 days. Due to religious circumstances, the Islamic calendar has exactly twelve months, meaning that it will always be short of the solar year. The current year for Muslims is 1437, and the calendar’s epoch (basically, its starting date) was in 622. Simple arithmetic shows that 1394 solar years have passed since then, a difference of 43.

This doesn’t fit with the seasons, but it’s not really meant to. An alternative is to try to combine the lunar and solar cycles into a single calendar. In the West, we have only the remnants of that, in our months, but some other cultures use what’s called a lunisolar calendar. The most familiar example would be the Jewish religious calendar. Here, we still have twelve months, and they’re still based on the cycle of the moon. Normally. But this is a solar calendar, too, and the seasons are important. So, to keep them roughly where they should be, the Jewish calendar adds extra months. It’s like our leap days, but 30 at a time. Seven of these every 19 years keeps things fairly even, plus or minus a month.

From scratch

I’m not going to try to explain the Mayan calendar. It confuses me, so I don’t even know where to begin. Instead, I’ll move on to some thoughts on making a fantasy (or even sci-fi) calendar.

First things first, you need to know the relationship between the year and the day. That’s the key. If you’re working with Earth (or a reasonable facsimile), you already know this, and you can move on. Otherwise, you’re deep in worldbuilding territory, and you’ll probably have to work things out yourself. In that case, remember that it’s going to be pretty rare to have a year with an integral number of days. In fact, it’s almost impossible, and it’s surely temporary. Just about every calendar, with the possible exception of one for an interstellar empire, will have leap days of some sort. They might be scattered throughout the years, or they may come in bunches, but they will be there.

The year and the day mark the cornerstones of the calendar, no matter what kind you have. In between, however, things are wide open. Obviously, lunar-based calendars require at least one moon, and that moon needs to be in an orbit that fits. Phobos, the inner moon of Mars, would be completely useless for a lunar calendar, for example: its orbital period is about 7-1/2 hours. Multiple moons give us the possibility of measuring by conjunctions, but that can get into some heavy math that might be too much for a fantasy world. That’s not to say it’s not worth trying, just that it may not be worth the effort in the end.

Even without a big moon in a nice, useful orbit, cultures would likely develop divisions of time between the day and year. Seasons are appropriate for this, and I’ve got just such a post for that. Weeks are more of an invention of civilization. Our seven-day week dates back to Babylonian times, but many cultures have a shorter period of days than the month. Cyclical religious observances are one excuse for a week, but more mundane concerns, like markets, can also come into play. (A story I’m currently writing has a culture with a week of six days, while the French Revolution tried to institute a ten-day week. About the only place they succeeded was in D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting.)

Now, when the year starts is a question that depends heavily on not just your world but your culture. The Romans liked it in spring, and that has a lot going for it in an agrarian society. The Gregorians moved it to January (to have it closer to Christmas or something like that), but that put it in wintertime. There are arguments for just about any day of the year to be New Year’s, but it’s probably—though not always—going to be at the start of the month, and the date will likely have some cultural, religious, or economic significance.

We can go “below” the day, too, but we begin to run into limitations of technology. Hours are fairly easy, and many early cultures settled on numbers like 12, 24, or 60 of them in a day. Why? For the same reason that there are twelve inches in a foot and twelve (troy) ounces in a pound: it’s easier to divide into halves, fourths, and thirds. (Decimal numbers are great for working on paper, but horrible for eyeballing.) Of course, another planet with a different rotation period will have different hours. On Mars, the obvious “hour” would be about a minute and a half longer than ours.

Measuring minutes and seconds is…harder. It’s likely beyond the reach of many early civilizations, and they likely wouldn’t see the need for it, anyway. We have 60 minutes in an hour or seconds in a minute because, again, 60 is easier to work with until pen and paper are widespread calculating devices. If hours had only been subdivided after the French invented the metric system, we’d probably have 100 of them. (Put the metric system in ancient times, and we would all be using Swatch’s silly Internet Time today, I guess. Anybody remember that thing?)

Last but not least, we come to the reckoning of years. For the West, we count from a monk’s imperfect calculation of the birth of Christ. Muslims go by the rather more specific date of Muhammad’s move to Medina, while Jews start their calendar with the traditional date of the Biblical creation of the world. Other options exist, though. One common one in history is dating by years since a ruler’s rise to the throne; when a new ruler is crowned, a new era begins. Another is a cycle of years called indictions. In this system, the last year of one cycle is followed by the first of a new cycle. We might say that this is the seventh year of the 2010s, for example, or the sixth year of this decade. In a way, the Mesoamerican calendars function something like this. (I’ve actually seen this in fantasy before, too. Scott Lynch, in The Lies of Locke Lamora, has a kind of indiction system. Each year is named after one of the setting’s twelve gods, in a specific order. When the last one is reached, the whole thing loops back to the start.)

Happy New Year

However the calendar works, it gives an otherworldly feel to any fiction. To give you one example, my aforementioned story is set on a different planet. (Well, the first part is mostly set on Earth, but that’s neither here nor there.) That planet has a different day length (24 hours, 23 minutes, approximately) and year length (about 374.16 local days) than our own, meaning that I had to do some work.

What I came up with was a calendar of twelve months, each 30 days long, which doesn’t really have any relation to the orbital period of the planet’s moon; it’s more a matter of convenience. Each month is made of five weeks of six days. The extra days are scattered around the calendar, a few at the end of each season. There are more of them at the end of spring, and fewer at the end of fall, and this has a scientific basis: the eccentricity of the planet’s orbit. Days in this fictional world are 24 hours long, but their hours are slightly longer than our own. Hours can be divided into minutes, and further into seconds, but this is more a math trick than something practical.

You can do things differently, and you probably should. What you make should be tailored for your fictional world, for your story. The key is suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t really make much sense for a world with no connection to Earth at all to be calling their months October and their days Saturday. (I didn’t talk much about the names of the days. They’re pretty obvious, though: planets or gods, not that there’s much difference in older times.) Now, you can say that it’s an author translation of unfamiliar terms, and that’s fine, but taking a little bit of time to work things out can pay off in making your world feel more real.

Holidays: reality and fantasy

Today, for me, marks the winter solstice. (Officially, it happens just before 5AM tomorrow morning, going by UTC time. I’m in the US Eastern Time Zone, which is 5 hours behind that, so it’s a few minutes before midnight locally.) As the days grow shorter and the year runs out, thoughts naturally turn towards the holidays, of which there are so many right now. Christmas, of course, is only a few days away. Hanukkah isn’t too far behind us. New Year’s Day is on the horizon, bringing 2015 to a close. And that’s not counting the not-so-holy holidays this time of year, like Pearl Harbor Day (and the birthday of one of my uncles) back on the 7th or Boxing Day (and the birthday of a different uncle) on the 26th.

Indeed, in our modern, Western calendar, every month is chock full of holidays. (Except August, much to my brother’s delight; it’s totally bare, so his birthday is all by itself.) But that’s one culture, in one time, and nothing says that everybody has the same holidays. It’s common knowledge that Jews and Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, for example, while Thanksgiving is an American tradition with no counterpart across the Atlantic. Many countries celebrate Independence Day, but only the USA has it on the Fourth of July.

And what about fictional cultures? What holidays do they have? Tolkien’s hobbits were good English folk, and they essentially used our calendar and our holidays, just with the Christianity filed off. That’s good enough for a lot of stories, but we might want to go deeper. To do that, we need to understand the origins of holidays.

For every season

For a “traditional” pre-industrial society, whether agrarian or hunter-gatherer, life is sustained directly by the earth itself. Food comes from nature, and it is the single most important facet of life. And food follows the seasons, whether the growing seasons of plants or the mating or hibernating or migrating seasons of animals. Life, living, is governed by the calendar. That’s where most of our traditional holidays come from. As it turns out, they might have different names, but almost every culture has a similar set.

Imagine an analog clock face. Now, imagine that this represents the year. Summer, the season with the highest temperatures, can go at the top, with the solstice at the 12 o’clock position. Winter, conversely, will be the low point: 6 o’clock. The spring and autumn equinoxes then fit in at 9 and 3, respectively. And time passes like this in its eternal cycles. Simple, right? Each of those four points I identified are important markers in the year that are recognized by most cultures. (Tropical cultures are a bit of an exception, since they don’t have the most obvious distinction of the seasons, the changing length of the night. But they can still tell the seasons by patterns in rainfall, winds, and the natural behavior of plants and animals.)

For a lot of places in the temperate zones, the spring (vernal) equinox marks the point in the year when temperatures are warm enough to make planting viable. In the same way, the autumnal equinox is a good sign that cold weather is moving in soon, and it’s time to start thinking about harvests and preparing for winter. Since temperate locales tend to show a big difference between hot and cold seasons, this is a very important part of the calendar. Freezing weather kills many plants, including most of those a pre-industrial society depends on for food. Planting too early and harvesting too late are both very real dangers that can, at the worst, lead to widespread famine. (Look up the Year Without a Summer for a fairly recent example of this.)

In a similar vein, the solstices are milestones in the calendar. Among older cultures, the winter solstice has been historically more important, whether as a time to look forward to the spring ahead or to celebrate the passing year. Summer, in temperate regions, is a relative time of plenty already, so it gets less attention. Besides, no one who lives a pastoral life looks forward to the lean times of winter.

So, for many cultures that haven’t reached the Industrial Age (where advances in technology allow food yields to increase faster than the population), these four times are some of the most likely suspects for holidays. And we can add to them four more: the midpoints between each pair. On our imaginary clock, those are at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30; on the calendar, they’re around the beginning of February, May, August, and November. Indeed, some calendars—the Celtic calendar is one example—use those to determine the seasons, while our familiar equinoxes and solstices become their midpoints.

Altogether, then, we have eight days that make obvious sense for agrarian holidays. On our calendar, roughly, they are: February 1, March 20, May 1, June 21, August 1, September 23, November 1, and December 21. And true enough, the Western world has seasons for just about all of them:

  • Early February: Groundhog Day is a modern spectacle that hearkens back to actual folk wisdom regarding the coming of spring. The Christian feast day of Candlemas probably replaced many of those “pagan” traditions. And America’s bloodsport of choice has its biggest day around this time, too: the Super Bowl.

  • Late March: Essentially everybody celebrates the first of spring. (If you’re a Celt, then that was in the last section, as Imbolc. Otherwise, it’s probably right here.) Most of the European rituals were subsumed into Easter, but the pagan origins are still evident. Look elsewhere in the world, though, and you’ll find planting holidays and end-of-winter feasts aplenty.

  • Early May: By the middle of spring, lots of flowers are blooming, and that’s the basic idea around these holidays. Nowadays, May Day celebrates workers in industrialized countries, but the floral connection still exists. The US has never really been a big May Day place, so Mother’s Day pops up here. It’s not a traditional festival-type holiday, though, so we’ll get to it later. The Celts, by the way, started counting summer here, calling it Beltane.

  • Late June: Again, we don’t really have a lot going on this time of year, but that wasn’t always the case. Midsummer was celebrated by plenty of cultures, and it’s a very big thing in northern Europe to this day. Christianity appropriated it as St. John’s Day, but find somebody in America who knows that. Of course, we have the nearby Fourth of July, so it’s understandable. Anyway, midsummer holidays tend to celebrate the long days, maybe even with bonfires that try to further drive back the night.

  • Early August: By August, summer is starting to run out, and fall is approaching. The earliest harvests start around this time, and the traditional Anglo-Saxon calendar marks August 1 as a “first harvest” festival for wheat crops, called Lammas (Lughnasa by the Celts). The timing doesn’t work everywhere, nor does it work for every crop, so not everybody has a harvest holiday around here, although they’ll have one somewhere.

  • Late September: Traditional harvest festivals tend to fall around the first of autumn. In other words, right here. The Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the equinox, and its light can be seen as a blessing to those working the fields, giving them a little extra to see by. Harvest, of course, is a time of hard work, but also of feasting. Before modern food storage techniques, people had to eat what they could, lest it go to waste.

  • Early November: Celts have Samhain, Christians have All Saints’ Day, and children have Halloween. These are all connected, as the Church took over the pagan festival, then the people took over the holy feast. Some other cultures have something here, but this one isn’t that big a time to celebrate, as it means that winter is coming. Maybe if you’re a Stark…

  • Late December: In modern times, we’d see it as ending the year with a bang. For a lot of people (not just Christians, for that matter), Christmas is the holiday. But it has its pagan origins, too: traditional Yule and Roman Saturnalia. All of them have the same general idea, though. A feast to get through the long winter nights, a time to look forward to spring, a day to reflect on the year that was and the year that soon will be, all of that fits this time of year. So does gift-giving, that most popular of Christmas traditions. What better time to give to those in need, if not the shortest day of the year?

Getting religion

So that’s it for the agrarian calendar. Add religion to the mix, and things get hairy. For Christianity, it’s mostly simple, as the Church subsumed the pagan holidays into its own, sometimes only by changing their names. They did add some of their own, like Ash Wednesday or the feast of the Assumption, that don’t match up to the seasons. Judaism and Islam, which keep their own calendars, have their own holidays, like Hanukkah and Ramadan, and the same would be true even for fictional religions.

Here, it’s hard to give guidelines. Religious observances that aren’t anniversaries of known events can fall anywhere in the year. They can even be movable, and not in obvious ways: calculations of the date of Easter drove centuries of Christian astronomy. And those that are annual commemorations don’t necessarily need any connection to the actual date the event happened. After all, there isn’t even Biblical evidence that Jesus was born in December. (That he was crucified in spring is pretty solidly confirmed, however.)

My best advice is to think about the religion. What days are most important? Those will likely be the ones most celebrated. Then look at the rest of the calendar. People like feasts, but they don’t want too many too soon. That gets expensive. So the next most celebrated holidays will likely be those far from other holidays. It’s not an exact science—it doesn’t explain the American August drought—but it’s a good start.

Also, if your story involves a polytheistic religion, think about the different gods and their functions. Gods of agriculture and nature are going to be more tied to the seasons. Death and winter are often linked, for obvious reasons, so a death god might have a holiday in or near winter. Spring is seen as a time of love, fire goes with summer, and I’m sure you can find other relations.

Inventions

As states become more centralized, especially once industrialization comes about, the nature of holidays begins to change. Sure, the usual suspects are still there: harvest feasts, planting festivals, summer bonfires and winter gifts. But these are increasingly accompanied by a new set of holidays, and we should spend some time on them.

Many of our “secondary” holidays originally had a religious significance, largely stemming from the Catholic saints’ days. Valentine’s Day is one of these, though it also falls on the day of a Roman feast (Lupercalia) that had many of the same romantic connotations. Saint Patrick’s Day is another, but it’s also a “nationalist” holiday, with its strong Irish connection. For these, as for Christmas and Halloween, it’s a case of the secular overtaking the religious. Likewise, Thanksgiving originally had some religious overtones, but these are all but forgotten.

Other holidays are directly nationalist, and these obviously depend on the country. But they all have in common the idea of commemorating a person or group. In the US, for example, we have holidays to honor Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King Jr., veterans (originally of World War I, but later expanded to all of them), mothers, fathers, workers, and presidents. The specifics will differ, but a fictitious country would likely have its own set of honored people. This would depend on history, societal norms, technological advancement, and the circumstances around the formation of that country, all of which are good topics for future posts.

Elsewhere

On other planets, the seasons still work the same way. A terrestrial planet with a year like Earth’s will have a natural calendar like Earth’s. The names and dates will be changed, but the broad outline will remain the same.

We don’t even know what kind of life can arise on less-familiar worlds, but it stands to reason that they’d have similar ideas about the calendar. Of course, around a red M star, a habitable world’s year only lasts a few weeks, so things will likely break down at this extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, habitable planets around F stars might have years 3 or more times that of ours, meaning longer, more extreme seasons. More holidays would appear in a longer calendar like this, if only to break up the monotony.

Now, a society spanning multiple worlds has a conundrum. Most of the holidays, at first, would be those of the homeworld. But colonies would soon become like nations on Earth, each developing their own set of observances (for the same reasons, no less). Almost all of these would be purely local, but some would rise in prominence, as St. Patrick’s Day has done here.

Conclusion

However you do it, holidays add flavor to a world. They’re an important part of life. They have been for thousands of years, and they will be as long as we continue to observe them.

Most of a culture’s holidays are going to come from its roots, and each will have a story. Some are religious, others entirely dependent on the whims of the seasons. A few started out as movements for political or social change, or to honor the leaders of such. And today, every day of the year has been claimed in the name of some organization. (My own birthday of October 16, for instance, is Boss’s Day, which would be great if I had employees. It’s also World Food Day and World Anesthesia Day, because of historical anniversaries.)

As I said before, most stories won’t need this level of detail. But it can find a place in worldbuilding, and it’s always good to have the answers to the kinds of questions you never thought to ask. So, consider this a gift. And whichever holiday you happen to be celebrating over the next week or so, I hope you enjoy it.

On rogues and rebels

A popular trope in fiction is that of the rebel. Rebels, in their various disguises as rogues, thieves, pretenders, vigilantes, and terrorists, live outside the normal bounds of society in some way, and that apparently speaks to some primal instinct in us all. We may not empathise with them, and we rarely support them, but we enjoy them. Sometimes, the rebels are the good guys (Star Wars, V for Vendetta), sometimes they’re bad (every hostage movie ever), but they’re almost always interesting.

But what makes a “good” rogue, character-wise? I can’t claim to know the answer, but I do know what makes a rebel “real”: motivation. Few people turn to the “dark side” on a whim. There’s a reason why someone in real life becomes a rebel. What that specific reason is, however, depends on many factors.

Today’s terrorist groups are founded on ideological grounds, and the same is true throughout history. Religion is the one we’re most familiar with, as it’s so easy to spur people to violence over differences in faith. Peaceful religious rebels exist, too, but we so rarely hear of them in the news. Still, they’re out there, and they were formed on the same basis as ISIS and the IRA. Many of the first English colonies in the Americas, for example, were intended as religious endeavors; the Pilgrims, to name one, intended to create a utopia ordered around their ideals, far away from the influence of the outside world.

Religion isn’t the only motivator for rebellion. Politics can work, as well. That’s what got us the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and a thousand others throughout time. (Obviously, once the rebels take power, they’re no longer rebels, but everyone has to start somewhere.) Political rebellion can happen in just about any form of government, too, and it’s not always an attempt at overthrowing the whole system. In medieval monarchies, succession laws created a breeding ground for pretenders, some of whom gathered followers and pressed their claims.

Other factors can come into play. Economic inequality got us the Occupy movement a few years ago, but it’s also a good explanation as to why some turn to crime. Society itself can also turn people into rebels—minorities of any kind are especially susceptible—but it’s more likely to “amplify” other effects. How, you might ask? Put simply, people become marginalized (for whatever reason), which leads them into rebelling. Once they begin to rebel against authority, social pressures polarize the reactions of others, causing a “with us or against us” dichotomy. From here, there are a couple of paths, but the outcome is the same either way: the “rebels” tend to become more extreme, more hardened against negative opinion.

Individual rebels

The lone rebel is popular in all forms of fiction. He can appear on either side of a fight, as good or evil or (increasingly) as an anti-hero. For the individual rebel, think of Batman, a vigilante who works in the shadows, following his own moral compass. But also think of the Joker, because he’s no less distant from society.

Individual rebels in fiction tend to be outcasts, if for no other reason than the simple fact that it’s the easiest way to motivate a rebellious character. The orphan turned to a life of crime (or of fighting it), the woman in a man’s world, the racial minority—not just black in a sea of white, but also an elf among humans or the single Earthling in a universe full of aliens—whatever the cause, this character is alone. He has few or no connections to the society around him, so he has no reason to follow its norms, no reason to try to conform.

Loners like this are good protagonists in many stories, and some of my favorite lead characters are of this sort. I’d say that’s true for a lot of people, if the popularity of lone-star action heroes is any indication.

Organizations

It’s usually social factors that create individual rebellion. By contrast, organized rebellion tends to be caused by “the system”. The Rebel Alliance is fighting the Empire. Freedom fighters want to create their own nation where they can live in peace. The faithful are sent by God to wrest control from the heretics running the kingdom. (The savvy reader will note that each of these examples makes the rebels look like the good guys. That’s by design. But you could just as easily invert expectations. After all, the scenarios equally describe the Confederate States of America, the Chechens, and al-Qaeda, respectively.)

Organizations range from the small (a band of anarchists, for example), to the large (national rebellions). At each stage, they can fight for good or bad. The common trait that all of them share, though, is that they all have a “mission”. Why do they fight society? Answer that, and you can better characterize the group. (And that goes just as well for real life, a fact that many people forget.)

Smaller groups tend to be localized. The Thieves’ Guild, a common trope in fantasy, is one example, but any kind of organized crime fits. Assassination plots work, too, as do “heists”. On the side of the good guys, there aren’t a lot of familiar options, unfortunately. Small paramilitary organizations might work, but a band of adventurers (or, in science fiction, the crew of a ship) doesn’t quite fit, unless there’s a very specific reason why they’ve been shunned by society. Of course, it’s possible to make criminal groups sympathetic; look at Robin Hood.

A larger organization, one spanning more than a single locality, is more likely to exist in modern or futuristic settings, as communication over greater distances becomes more practical. Today, we tend to equate “organized rebel group” with “terrorists”, but that’s largely a function of media manipulation. It might be less likely, but it’s no less possible to have a large group of rebels fighting for good. (Again, the Rebels of Star Wars serve as illustration.)

While the lone rebel as a protagonist is a staple of fiction, rebellious groups tend to be the bad guys or, at best, a backdrop. This makes intuitive sense, as it’s awfully difficult to characterize a group from the inside without focusing your attention on a handful of its members. Sure, the good guys might belong to a rebellion, and they might even believe in its cause, but it’s harder to work that into a story, in my opinion.