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  1. The Magnan
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    The Magnan New Member

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    Measuring distance and time in fantasy

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by The Magnan, Mar 6, 2012.

    I've been dwelling on how to measure distance and time in my fantasy story, and I am currently unsure of which way to go about this. i don't want to invent my own in case i make it too vague.

    I don't want to use Miles or hours because it feels too modern, I have considered using the league and bell, I've looked up each one and have an idea of how to use them. I guess I'm just nervous of using them in case I get it wrong, in that aspect it would be easier to use hour and mile, but would it ruin it in away.

    What are/would you do(ing)?

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  2. superpsycho
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    superpsycho Member

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    What would be universal across cultures. Being of any type would look for a common reference to measure things. most would start with body parts. They're handy to start and consistent, at least with a single individual. So many toes to a foot, so many feet to a knee. To improve accuracy they might establish a kings toe,common toe, maybe even a fairy's toe. If they had hoofs instead of feet? As for time what could they reference, certainly day/night. Maybe half day? quarter day? eighth day? centaday? Think about it a while.
  3. The Magnan
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    The Magnan New Member

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    I guess its a possiblity, thanks.
  4. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    You should also consider astronomical things that might be different. An alternate world might have a moon (or multiple moons) with completely different qualities than ours, or a sky that changes colors in a different way, or different types of precipitation, etc. Those things could also be used to measure time.
  5. Protar
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    Protar New Member

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    Leagues are the standard fantasy measure of distance, equivalent to roughly 3 miles.
  6. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    With all due respect, fantasy shouldn't be about following standards. Fantasy should be about creating your own.
  7. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese New Member

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    I'm agreeing with Mallory here. Fantasy should not have standards. In addition, a league is an actual (obsolete) unit of measurement.

    The simplest way to go about this, is to think about how distance and time are measured here on Earth. For instance, the system of hours (24), minutes (60), and seconds (60), were all conceived artificially, meaning that humans made them up for some reason. One theory goes that hours are split into 24 segments thanks to the ancient Egyptians way of counting in base 12 (we count in base 10).

    True theory or not, the point is still there: Humans determine the units of measurements for many different reasons, all based on their own culture (inches and feet were developed in relation to human body parts), which then get carried on to other cultures, tweaked, altered, etc. Even we still use the 24 hour system, and only recently have begun to use the Earth instead of our own culture to measure (the metric system).

    Who lives in your fantasy world? What is their culture? How many cultures are there? The units of measurement in your world will depend heavily on the people that inhabit it. And in reality, a fantasy world which is sufficiently different from our own would not use units of measurement that exist in our world due to the difference in cultural history.

    I recommend inventing your own system. Even if they don't make much sense, if you think about it, the entire Imperial System doesn't make sense either! Just make sure to relay to your readers that a certain unit of measurement is very long/short compared to others.

    Good luck!
  8. superpsycho
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    superpsycho Member

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    I would expect any civilization no matter how primitive can poke a stick in the ground and then divide it in to smaller increments. Though it might be fun to have a short sneeze, a snit represent seconds.
  9. Joey Batz
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    Joey Batz New Member

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    To be honest, I would just use miles, minutes, feet, seconds, inches, hours, etc. You really don't want to confuse your readers, and that sort of thing can really get in the way of enjoying reading your story. Imagine a fight scene where one fighter is knocked "three bells" away from the other. How far is that? Is he lying underneath his opponent's feet? Was he knocked clear across the forest? It kills the enjoyment if we have to keep calculating fantasy distance and fantasy time every other sentence. "I have a meeting with the king in three lamb's squans". What? Is that supposed to be a measure of time, or are you planning on choking out the king with an animal's small intestines?

    As far as your audience is concerned, your characters in your fantasy world are speaking English anyway (even if they're not, you ARE writing the book in English), so you might as well use the same measurements as well. Just don't refer to it as the American system of measurements or anything like that.
  10. Fullmetal Xeno
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    Fullmetal Xeno Crimson Angel Contributor

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    Just because they are speaking English in the book, doesn't mean they are in the actual universe itself. Think about it, anybody can write in English and say they are speaking another language but is translated into English for the reader to comprehend. Like a English for the reader but something else in the fictional reality.
  11. 221b Jordan
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    221b Jordan New Member

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    You can use whatever you like. It would be a little complicated to invent your own but JK Rowling evented a monetary system for those little wizard fellas, and toddlers seem to get it. If I was to guess, people of different planets discussing distances would probably settle on something like the decimal system, just because it's the easiest to understand and comes in 10s 100s 1000s etc.

    Like I said though, use whatever you feel most comfortable with. Numbers are universal after all. :)
  12. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese New Member

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    Numbers are universal, but the decimal system is not. And the system of Base ten (10, 100, 1000, etc.) is most certainly not. Most human cultures only count in base ten because we have ten fingers, and people just decided to make ten the maximum. It reality, some systems like base 12 and 16 are actually more efficient than base 10.

    This means that if creatures from a fantasy world were not humans, and did NOT have ten fingers, they would almost certainly not count in base 10. They would count in something they could relate to themselves, or their cultures. This would then also apply to their measurements.
  13. 221b Jordan
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    221b Jordan New Member

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    Of course, yes. That makes sense. I hold my 10 fingered hands up :)
  14. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese New Member

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    As an extra note: This does not mean that you should make your fantasy characters count in different number bases! This will just confuse everyone.

    But it does clarify that distance measurement, time measurement, and even the very basic number system depends almost entirely on the people that make them.
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Only if you count the stubby, contrary thumbs, which refuse to bend in the same direction as the true fingers.

    Oh wait, I forgot. You're a fribnoid. You have four articulated claws at the end of each or your four arms.
  16. superpsycho
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    superpsycho Member

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    If you make everything unique and there is a lot of reference to distances, time, etc. You can spend a lot of time in explanation which can slow things down. Or just cause the readers eye to glass over. One or two points to enhance the illusion of a fantasy land is all you really need beyond that it will likely just be a drag on the story.
  17. Daydream
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    Daydream New Member Contributor

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    Do you have to measure distance that way? Why not measure it using how many hours/days/weeks/months that they travel? I know George Martin does it like that. For example when he explained the time it took for Robert to get from King's Landing to Winterfall. He does it alot though. Personally I prefer this as it adds more depth to it, because that kind of measurement relies on the character too. Are the characters on this journey a family? a lone knight on a fast-paced horse or an entire army moving at a slow pace? Maybe they didnt use measurements back then? They could also measure distances through the stars, landmarks and weather.

    Theres so many ways to do it :D

    Anyway I've read a lot of fantasies which measure distances through time. Hope this helps!
  18. The Magnan
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    The Magnan New Member

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    Thanks everyone for the suggestions. I'll create my own, and if that fails I'll try and incorporate the league or bell, should be fun.
  19. Erato
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    Erato New Member

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    When I wrote my novel I avoided all references to time, the most specific being "when the first moon is at its peak" or "at the second sunrise," or saying something like "five market days" or "I'll be there shortly" and "not long afterward, she appeared." It was very clumsy and I don't suggest you do it, but I also don't suggest you say "league" unless you're in a quasi-medieval setting or "mile" unless you're in a futuristic one or for that matter make up a host of semi-pronounceable words to denote time, weight, distance and all the rest of it. My suggestion is to measure by body parts. The height of a man. The forearm of a man (IMO you can say "cubit" for that one). Two heads taller. Weight you can say something like "a brick" as a measure. As for time, I have no idea. Years, yes. Moons, yes. Days, yes. Moments and instants are vague.
  20. CheddarCheese
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    CheddarCheese New Member

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    Keep in mind that if you decide to make your own system, superpsycho's (above) post applies.

    You don't want to write entire paragraphs explaining what a certain measurement is in comparison to ours. That'll only bore the reader out completely. Rather, you should give the reader a sense of how big or small the measurement is.

    For example: The nearest city was nearly ten [unit of distance] away. He would never make it there on foot.

    This sentence doesn't actually say how long the distance is, but it does imply that it's quite a long way to go.
  21. Protar
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    Protar New Member

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    I never said it was, but not everything needs to be completely unique. Miles might sound a bit modern for a fantasy series but leagues is an easy to grasp measure of distance which has that medieval feel. Personally I'd advise against making up your own measurements unless the culture that uses them is truly very strange or unusual. I'd rather a fantasy author measured distances in miles or leagues than say Zanthums or some other made up unit. I can grasp what the former two actually mean so when I'm told there's a thousand leagues of desert between point A and B, I can think wow, that's a lot of desert these guys have got to cross. Tell me there's a thousand Zanthums of desert and I won't have a clue. When it comes to little things like this I'm more likely to sigh at the author for trying to be a special snowflake rather than praising their originality. There are more important things to be doing imo.
  22. Joey Batz
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    Joey Batz New Member

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    I know that, that's what I'm saying. There is no English in Middle Earth, but the reader/viewer sees/hears English anyway simply because there is no way for the author to translate the entire book into whatever language the author decides everybody in the Shire speaks. No one would be able to read it because it's too confusing. Certain concepts such as day and night, feet and arms, etc. are universal. How many fantasy universes have horses, a real life animal? So real world measurements can also be part of a fictional fantasy world. I've read plenty of fantasies where they talk about "miles", "kilometers", "hours", etc. It's less confusing that way.

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