Monday, May 14, 2012

How Does Your World Measure Up?

World-building is a key component of writing fiction, particularly in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy. That means you have to have culture, history, and everything else that comes with a real world underlying your story.

Including ... measurement units?

Maybe not. Maybe your world is built enough off of ours that it makes sense to stick with the usual feet and inches, pounds and ounces. Or if your world is in a future where scientific reasonableness is king, so you're all metric.

But what if that won't work for your world?

My first novel was largely in an alternate dimension with some shared history, but mostly a huge divergence. And a very science-oriented society. In a particular situation, I needed to make a reference to a measurement of volts.

Volts were named for Alessandro Volta. A dude who didn't exist in that dimension.

First thought: Oh, crap.

Second thought: Okay, what made-up units would make sense in this word I've created?

I considered how the society was fairly practical and straightforward in other naming practices, and I thought about what voltage means. In the end, I came up with a fake unit that seemed to fit both needs.

Have you ever thought about how many units are named after a person? Fahrenheit and Celsius for temperature. Volts, amperes, coulombs, and ohms for various aspects of electricity and charge. Newtons for force, pascals for pressure.

If you don't need to worry about these things in your stories, you're a lucky one. For the rest of us, make sure you think about a natural way for units to evolve in your world.

Have you invented units/measurements for one or more of your stories? How did you go about it?


A. K. Fotinos-Hoyer said...

I've nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger award :)

Darci Cole said...

I'm writing a high-fantasy novel... everything is pretty similar to a kind of medieval/pre-industrual type of earth history, but it's set in a place that doesn't exist. I just use the same measurements (feet, inches, leagues, etc) and haven't had anyone question it so far. I hope no one does :-)

Rena said...

Yeah, I once went a little overboard when I realized that a world not based on ours wouldn't have anything similar. I had to come up with new names for months, units of measure, even things like east and west are strangely attached earthly concepts.

Though I have to admit, I do find it a little annoying when high fantasy in other worlds drones on and on about moons. Unless you're a gas giant, large moons are pretty uncommon in the cosmos. But that's just my 2 pennies

Brighton said...

I found that using metric units in my MS to be more complicated than I realized. Being an American I am used to using Imperial units, and though putting distances in kilometers and such was easy I found myself constantly slipping up and using Imperial units. The hard part was ways we use measurement derived words for other things, such as I found I had used the verb inched, and wondered if in a world where the measurement inch doesn't exist then maybe inched would be nonexistent too.

T.L. Bodine said...

This is one area where I'm very happy to be writing fantasy (and quite often urban-ish fantasy starring a "boring real world" character).

Hardest book for me to write as far as this goes was Nezumi's Children. It's kind of a feminist response to Watership Down, but with rats. Being a rat enthusiast, I felt I owed it to them to get it as realistic as possible within the constraints of the novel. I painstakingly came up with a language for them and I came up with completely new profanities for them to say.

But rats don't really use their eyes except to distinguish light from dark and make out a few basic shapes. They're practically blind and rely on whiskers. Do you know HOW hard it is to write anything without relying heavily on sight?

The book is written in omni so I get by with some physical descriptions, but you still have to be so careful about what they're doing all the time.

Miriam Forster said...

Wow, I'd never thought of this before! That's a great tip.

Also, I wanted to say congrats on being blitzed for the RAOK thing yesterday. :)