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High Fantasy - What's Too High?
Posted: Saturday, October 8, 2011 2:45 PM
I found some advice recently for Fantasy writers. It was a little absolute and condescending, but had some useful tips... and some things I just thought were bizarre.

For example, it suggested custom measurements. E.g. "Do not use Miles, feet, and such" or rather it said a piece with these would not be taken seriously.
That seems odd to me - what do you think? Do you make up measurements for distance etc?

Personally, I got the point that it's meant to be a whole other world where earth does not exist, and earth measurements would break that down a bit. But do they really?
Imagine reading a chapter where this happens:
A: "We need medicine! He's dying! Where's the nearest healer?!"
B: "[X] [Custom Measurement](s) away!"
A: "Oh no, we'll never get there in time!"

It just wouldn't click with me quite so well as "thirty miles away" would, as I know how far that is.

Perhaps I'm being hypocritical, as I use miles etc in my writing, but don't have a 365 day year, or 4 seasons.

Or, say, an Elf telling a Dwarf that it's 3:35PM would seem out of place for me, but telling him the village was ten miles away would seem just fine.
Is it relative to preference, or should high fantasy be 100% 'earth-free', I mean, my characters speak english[or appear to], why can't they be 6 ft. tall?

There other examples too of things that might be "too high", what do people think?

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Saturday, October 8, 2011 5:07 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

Its funny, I'm an advocate about making it as easy as possible for readers to understand without trying to make them feel stupid. I get exactly what you're saying. Why would you make up a custom measurement if it is only going to confuse the reader? Are you going to have a chart in the back of the book with all the measurements like in meters to inches conversion? I find a separate measurement system too difficult to deal with. Hardcore high fantasy readers might be really into it, but more mainstream readers will be turned off. Consider what your audience might be. If you want to seem different, maybe use a measurement system from ancient history. That way there will at least be a reference.

Now when it comes to seasons or days in a year, that is doable because days are measure by how many hours it takes for the planet to rotate, and years by the days it takes for the planet to circle its star. I know that sounds SF, but it applies to high fantasy as well if you're trying to apply a new time system. Something you have to be careful with is how will it affect the seasons, weather, environment, etc. Like, if you have three suns, is there ever any night?

Money is another doable one. Just figure out what the value system of certain materials to your people might be, and then go from there.

To be honest, I don't think people aren't going to take it seriously if you don't change every tiny detail to differentiate if from our Earth. If you have humans, then what's keeping you from using our measurements. If you want, blame if on Jung's collective consciousness theory and stick out your tongue. I like creative worlds, good characters, and a good story. If I have to work hard to get what's going on, then it is too "high." Remember, audience.

FYI: I hate the term High Fantasy. It is so snooty, and most books under the genre read more like reference materials for some dead civilization then a story.
Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2011 1:54 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 18

Most new writers who claim to write High Fantasy really don't. Not the ones I have beta read...

As to terms, use whatever you feel is right for the story because its subjective taste anyway. Some readers won't mind using terms they are familiar with and others will claim it makes the story sound too modern.

Me, I use a mix of familiar terms and terms that are exclusive to my worlds. The thing is, if you use terms no one understands, you have to make sure its meaning is obvious or show a short snippet about what it means...
Timothy Maguire
Posted: Sunday, October 9, 2011 10:10 PM
Joined: 8/13/2011
Posts: 272

In my last story, I did mess around with this sort of thing ( I divided the day into three seven-hour 'watches' and distances into 'cubits' and 'digits), but because of the plot I did have some advantages here thanks to plot (the main characters are from Earth, so at some point they went into the math for this.)

I did have a few tricks I used, mostly for my own sanity. I basically treated cubits as feet and I was always deliberately vague about time.

As for my basic take-away? Try to ensure that there's a kind of internal logic to the size. For example, I think an acre (or hectare) was originally 'the size of a field that can be plowed in one day', so try and have things logical like that, as it helps people keep them straight.

Another suggestion is that you make very sure you know exactly how large those numbers are so that you can keep it all relatively straight. Nothing'll destroy a reader's suspension of disbelief faster than some numbers that don't add up.
Yezall Strongheart
Posted: Monday, October 10, 2011 12:17 AM
Joined: 10/8/2011
Posts: 15

Interesting topic! I like to use comparisons. I think using hours or minutes is okay, so you might say someone is x hours away. I try to be vague about things like money systems, measurements, in my books they aren't a huge concern. Those details don't add to my story. If you over think things and give useless information it does nothing but slow the story down.
Posted: Monday, October 10, 2011 4:00 PM
You could also say that things like miles and feet were 'translations' - like most of the dialogue being in English when that language most definitely counts as 'not earth free'

I suppose it could be attributed to over thinking. But, there were a lot of odd things in that advice! Maybe I shouldn't trust the internet.
Other than measurements I believe it said something about not having advanced medical or technological understanding...
Posted: Monday, October 10, 2011 8:44 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

Well, I can't speak for if the use of miles, feet, etc is out of character for high fantasy (though honestly, I prefer writers who use leagues, days and less accurate forms of measurement; unless the character has a way to measure the time or distance that accurately, why use it in the book?)

I use spans for years -- a span is the passing of all four seasons. Days for standard days. Chimes tend to be used in cities -- clocks chime on the hour, but once again, most people in the world can't afford a _clock_. But they can hear the bells in the cities.

On the road, they tend to base time on the passage of the sun. These people don't carry wristwatches, so how can they tell what time it is in minutes? I know I can't. some people can but I'm definitely not one of them. Furlongs is another favorite of mine, since it is something that can be measured by farmers... Leagues were essentially how far an average person could walk in an hour (~ 3 miles).

Unless it is contemporary, I do prefer to read stories where the author spent the time to research old methods of measurement. It makes for a more realistic story -- and a more enjoyable story, but that is just my opinion.
Bill Gleason
Posted: Monday, October 10, 2011 11:18 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 18

I do think using historical measurements and references from Earth can be helpful in the same way that titles of rank and status, such as king, duke, captain and serf, can fairly easily slip past the reader's oops response.

But you have to be careful with them too. Even subtly adopting an existing frame of reference ties you to it, and can thereby limit you.

My general advice is to write your first draft without worrying about it; just use the measurements you're used to. Truly sticky points where you have to actually pick a "measurement" term come up pretty rarely really. You can deal with them in rewrite when you'll understand the storyworld better and more clearly see what's really going on anyway. Text-wise, developing a unique measurement system that isn't called for in the plot is wasted effort. Build what you need when you see you need it, and use those challenges as opportunities to add depth.

I should probably add the caveat that you should know your intended readership as well as you can and aim your prose accordingly. If you're writing for money, give them what they're paying for.
Carl Rayer
Posted: Friday, November 11, 2011 6:18 PM
Joined: 5/20/2011
Posts: 6

I think Tolkien, who constructed entire languages, and those who appreciate his work in terms of simply plausible world-creation, would regard the efforts he put in to such endeavours as worthwhile. As the point above says, it depends on whether it's needed by the plot or not.

For me, I have no particular problem with really any terms used - as long as they do not distract the reader from the story, and they communicate to the reader what they need to communicate. Who knows, or who cares, how far 20,000 leagues is - but we know it's a long distance, and it will take a long time to travel it. If the story is set in the future, and the aliens are 20 quantounits away, does that mean they're on another continent, or are they standing on the other side of the road? The 'other side of the world' is probably better than saying 7205 miles away (or 11595 kilometres) - when what it means is the invasion has started, and time is running out.

So it's really all about the context in which the term is used. If I have a field that's 20 cubits in length, does that mean I'm poor, and I must eat cabbage soup, or does it mean I have to take spare petrol if I drive across it, as otherwise I would never get back to enjoy my meals of peacock-tongues and asparagus? But I don't want to have to look up what a cubit means.

Names are also a technical term. I read a translation of War and Peace, where we were given names such as Andrei and Pierre. Another translation provided the names as Andrew and Peter. For me, the slightly more foreign versions were the better terms to use - better than the Russian - but better than their English equivalents, as they neither distracted from the story, nor the grandeur and the scope of the work.

L R Waterbury
Posted: Saturday, November 12, 2011 4:41 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

I couldn't agree more, Carl. It's all about contextualizing the reader. Yes, our characters exist in made-up worlds (or not made up in the case of historical fiction, but very foreign nonetheless), but our readers do not. They're in the here-and-now. Our there-and-whenevers have to make sense within the framework of understanding that exists in our here-and-now. Thus, made up words and measurements and whatever other things we choose to create for our there-and-whenevers need to be translated--and I don't necessarily mean that literally--into terms that our readers con not only comprehend but also relate to.

And now I'm going to go and enjoy my peacock tongues and asparagus. My recipe, however, calls for a light sprinkling xy-lthi'encx, just because I like my food spicy.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2011 6:37 PM
o It just wouldn't click with me quite so well as "thirty miles away" would,

Distance is subjective. Thirty miles to a man on horseback, walking, driving or flying is constant, but the travel time is variable. Why not make up the unit of measure? In the example you gave, the reader, who knows how serious the man's problem is, learns the most important point: it would take too long.

But why bother with measurements at all? Simply have the character say, “The nearest doctor is a half day's journey away.” Any measurement you'd give would have to be converted into time, in any case, to be meaningful. And since readers don't have the knowledge needed to do that, by giving distance in terms of duration you make it easy for that reader to understand.
Posted: Monday, November 21, 2011 9:12 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I agree with Jay.  It's what I do in my writing.  Whenever they mention a place they have to travel to I just mention how long a journey it is, be it two weeks or two months.  Then you kind of have an idea of how far away everything is from the other but you're not bogged down.

Frankly, I don't think it matters so long as you're consistent.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 2:27 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I do what Jay suggests. Why bother with measurements when you can tell them how long its going to take your characters to get there. Even if you were to use miles, the amount of time it takes someone on foot to get somewhere varies to that in a car, which most people are used to using now. "Earth" measurements can still cause confusion.

It think the real question to ask is how large do you want your audience to be. Having fake measurements can alienate those who aren't familiar with fantasy and may not like it for those reasons, yet one of the major complaints I receive on my work as a writer of fantasy is that its not detached enough from our world. While I have fantasy fans cringing, I receive praise from those who aren't fans of the genre (like my fantasy/SF hating, and I mean hating, writing professor). It just depends on what you want to achieve.
Posted: Friday, December 2, 2011 11:13 AM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35

Jay and Steph have it right, at least for me.  I only use specific measurements when it will have a direct influence on the story, otherwise I use subjective terms (a head taller, hand span, a half-day's journey, etc) and let the reader gauge for him or herself exactly what that is.  But no matter what you do, you must be consistent!  I have read books that jumped around with measurements, especially with distance, and it always puts me off.  An intelligent reader can judge for himself approximately how far a "two-day ride" is, and even a novice will get a feeling of distance from that.

And referring to the original topic . . . first, I hate the term "high fantasy."  It sounds elitist and generally will dissuade people from even looking at it.  Second, I do not categorize fantasy by the language it uses, but rather by the type and complexity of its story.  "Epic fantasy" works well for me in describing what many people call "high fantasy."  But grouping stories into a category that implies an elevated level of language will only keep readers away.
Posted: Saturday, December 3, 2011 11:26 AM
@ PureMagic: I thought 'High Fantasy' just meant an invented 'secondary' world, in which Earth doesn't exist (Like the world in A Song of Ice and Fire). Maybe I'm wrong to use the term, but that's what I meant by it, not any level of implied superiority to "Normal" fantasy.

 In regards to my original question - I love these responses. As obvious as it seems to me now, I really never thought of just ignoring measurement and simply mentioning how long a journey will take (I've decided to start that now). There were other issues about not referencing earth, but I think those can be solved in a similar way, hopefully without completely alienating anyone unfamiliar with fantasy.

Posted: Monday, December 5, 2011 1:25 PM
Joined: 12/1/2011
Posts: 35

I did not mean to imply that high fantasy is better, just to write that I think that the title implies some sort of hierarchy and to express my specific dislike is for the term.  That is why I like "epic" fantasy better, as it implies the sweeping scope and complexity that one would think of, or "traditional" fantasy to describe any story that adheres to the well-known archetypes of the genre.  The setting (outside of a modern- set story, such as the Word & Void series by Brooks) should not classify a book as much as its content. 

Using Brooks again, would you consider the entire Shannara series as not "high" fantasy because it does take place in the future of one version of this reality?  Tough to say, since the majority of the stories take place in a setting that, though loosely based on "our world," resembles little of what we know, so much so that it does feel like its own world. 

I'm curious to see what you think.  I know I am probably in the minority here, but that's okay with me.  I like being different.
Jason Komito
Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 4:48 PM
Joined: 1/9/2012
Posts: 2

Great topic.  Although this may seem obvious, I like to read as if I'm in the realm of the story and with high fantasy I just don't see miles.  I see something more along the lines of leagues- or simply how long it takes to get somewhere.  In my book, (just posted recently by the way...shameless plug) I have an invented currency (kendra), time is measured in moonsigns (equivalent to a month) and I make it clear that there are a certain number of moonsigns that make up a year (which I refer to as winters).  My favorite aspect of reading high fantasy is getting absorbed in the atmosphere and that starts for me with character creation and setting.

Trey Adams
Posted: Friday, January 13, 2012 6:44 AM
Joined: 12/22/2011
Posts: 6

Well I'm not a "high" fantasy writer but I do get into fantasy. I too am a believer that if I said something like, "I ran three miles just to get here!" That is a little weak, since most people of my stories live in an age where knowing exact measurements like that would to a little tough. So instead I use time to describe how far away the nearest town is. A good example is when the main characters are walking to fulfill a contract to eradicate a species of aggressive monsters near the town of Volhurst, my character Senkia is filling his apprentice, Zeph, in on all the details. "The cave we're heading for is about a half day from the city on foot. If we leave now we can make it there just after the sun rises and they are all back in the cave. Then we don't have to worry about being flanked." Now how far someone can walk in half a day is up to the reader to dream up, at least to me, seems a little more appropriate for the time period. When I'm describing the height of people I usually describe characters in relation to the word "Average" such as: "The man was taller than most, and the muscles in his arms and back were well defined, an indication of years spent working in the docks of the city. His friend stood beside him, nearly a head shorter but just as brawny." And when I have characters beside each other I can describe them as being "a head, half a head shorter" which most people can get a mental image of easily, as I did in the above example. Although if I'm describing height of castle walls, sometimes I use terms like "four men high" or "taller than a Redwood" but I do fall back on "Earthly measures" as well. I use meters though, since they are a little foreign to people and so they still get this feeling of originality from what I say, while still have an idea of the measurement I'm going for. And a good way to get your characters to tell time isn't with the traditional clock. I have my characters estimate how much longer the sun will be in the sky, like in another story my knight, Audre, is riding to a nearby town and doesn't know if she'll be able to make it before the sun sets. So, "Audre could see the sun was falling rapidly, she could tell she had less than two hours before only the moonlight guided her and Minuit down the dirt road. Last she had checked it was still high in the sky in the middle of the day, "Have we really already been traveling for 5 hours? She asked the horse." (Minuit is her warhorse if you were wondering where that name came from.) I hope this helps, and I didn't forget anything. Its almost 11 at night here and I've been up since 6 this morning, so I'm a little tired and thus, my mind isn't quite on par as usual. Also, please forgive any mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or spelling. I'm currently living in Russia and "force feeding" the language into my brain and so the two get jumbled in my head from time to time. Anyway, best of luck to you and if you have anymore questions, I'll answer anything I can.


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