1. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    What do you prefer in fantasy descriptions?

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by architectus, Jul 29, 2009.

    When reading fantasy, do you prefer comparisons to real things, or for the author to try to describe a beast using core concepts? I will explain what I mean.

    Obviously, we can't tell a story without using basic language. Suppose the POV character in the fantasy is an elf that knows nothing about earth. I doubt anyone would mind if trees were called trees; although, the elf has no idea what a tree is, for that is a human construct. But if the elf compared something to Microsoft, I'm sure that would disrupt their reading.

    So how far do we take this? What do you prefer? We can call things trees, and compare things to trees, but what about comparing something to a lion, donkey, monkey, dog, etc?

    The beast was shaped like an elephant with scaly skin and clawed feet. The head was like that of a lizard.

    Or would you prefer the description not use the words elephant and lizard? Yet trees, bushes, grass, vegetation, etc is okay, even if the elf has no clue what those things are any more than he knows what an elephant is.

    What if living constructions were called houses, skyscrapers, or apartments (flats)?

    Would it bother you if a banana-like fruit were compared to a banana, even if bananas don't exist in that universe?

    My personal opinion is yes. I draw the line at specific things that another culture on another planet might not have developed, like Microsoft. But I see no problem with comparing things to anything that exists naturally on earth. Nor do I find a problem with using generic terms like skyscrapers or computers because it is conceivable to me that other cultures on other planets would develop similar things.

    What are your thoughts?
     
  2. OneMoreNameless
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    OneMoreNameless Contributing Member

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    If mundane thing X (be it an animal, a construction method or a brand of jet engine) doesn't exist in your world or wouldn't be explicitly known by the character (unless you're writing in 3rd person omniscient or objective), comparing it to fantasy thing Y is going to break the narrative.

    So using the term 'skyscraper' in your standard medieval fantasy is going to sound out of place unless you'd already defined the term to refer to eg. the Evil Wizard's tower. Similarly, describing a beast's trunk in relation to a certain style of dwarven tunnels would sound awkward if the narrative was currently following a forest dwelling elf.

    On the other hand, describing the same beast's trunk as like an elephant's would be fine, since even if you don't mention them explicitly, the exist of elephants and an elf's knowledge thereof can reasonably be taken for granted. And referring to something as a skyscraper would be fine if the narrator was taking the tone of a modern day grandfather telling a bedtime story to his children, since the whole narrative would implicitly be being told in present day.
     
  3. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    What if the fantasy world has modern technology?

    Would you prefer the writer writing in the elf's POV refer to a computer as a computer and a skyscraper as a skyscraper. Or for a computer, would you rather it have its own name, in which you can figure out what it is by how it is described and used?
     
  4. Primitive
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    Perosnally it wouldnt bother me on most fronts, but if the creature of your story or the ecology or landscape (buldings etc) could be shown to the reader rather then told (It looked like a mix of Elephant and Lizard) im sure i could make my own assumptions to real life examples (which most decent fantasy i read does)

    That said, when i write 9Fantasy) i use tree talk (though i make up names for my ecology)as trees (as description) are probably like the said and spokes of dialogue (hidden words).

    There is no reason for a writer to say, it looked mixed between Elephant and lizard when, what i could imagine would be a great time to show the reader your imagination.

    I agreee. Most these termanologies are to ingranined into us, tat most readers would probably skim over it (rathe than thing, hey that might be wrong). Like as i said before "he said, she spoke) etc.
     
  5. Agreen
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    Agreen Faceless Man Contributor

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    How would the character think of the object or creature in question? That's how I would describe it.
     
  6. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Agreen that could take a lot of page space, though. If a creature has a body like a lizard, why not say that rather than trying to describe it?

    For instance, describe what the body of a lizard looks like without comparing it to anything specific. More importantly, try to make the sentence as short as possible.

    The man-sized lizard had red skin and flame-colored spikes sprung from its back.

    Only inches from the ground, the beast crawled on four legs that were attached to a long body. Its tail whipped back and forth as it scuttled across the dirt. The elf-sized beast had red skin and flame-colored spikes sprung from it's back.

    As far as word econony goes, using the word lizard saves much space. So what is better to do?

    I think for an important creature, the second method is a good idea. But for a creature that plays a tiny role, method one.

    What is most important to me is what readers think, though. I would hate to draw them out of a story by using method one.
     
  7. OneMoreNameless
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    OneMoreNameless Contributing Member

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    If the fantasy world had modern technology, it would (probably, depending on the context) be reasonable to assume the elves knew the basics, and referring to skyscrapers wouldn't be a problem. If they were distant from it they could have their own nicknames (eg. skycleavers, to indicate hostility) but that's a separate concern.

    As for the lizard examples, I pretty much agree - For important creatures you'd want to describe them thoroughly for the sake of detail and building up a tone (eg. scary), but for minor things the generic references (where thematic) are preferable.
     
  8. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    In one of my stories, a man from a distant past is brought into a much more advanced society, and whenever he had to describe things, he was using references from nature and primitive technology, because that was all he knew of. It turned out to be much more fun to write that way.

    Consider the humour in describing things through the elfs eyes. He might be scared of these millions of little pointy green things that seem alive in the wind. Later, the reader realises it's plain grass.
     
  9. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I would remember to whom you are writing.

    Yes, your elf may have no idea the difference between XP or Vista, but to go so far as to say that an elf has no idea what a tree is because this is a human construct.... I think you've stretched the point a bit there.

    Even if your elf does not live amongst things that we as humans would think of as trees, if they grow from the ground and seem to have a their end goal a reaching for the sky, then trees they are. In Dave Wolverton's On My Way to Paradise, he describes living structures which grow and look much more like coral, but still he refers to them as coral trees. The reader must have a way to construct a picture in his/her mind of what the writer is describing even if the alien creatures in the story would never have seen the thing that humans call trees.

    In a book on writing science fiction I have by Ben Bova, he also makes mention of this concept. He talks about a description of creatures which have evolved within the atmosphere of a gas giant planet like Jupiter. One of the inteligent creatures of this planet spots one of the predatory creatures of this planet and calls out Shark! to his pals in warning. Mr. Bova points out that, of course, these creatures would not have the foggiest idea what a shark is, but the reader does. If the creature were to have called out Booki-chooki-looki, this may well be the word that the intelligent creature uses to refer to the frightening beast it has just spotted, but it means nothing to the reader; hence, no reaction on the part of the reader upon reading Booki-chooki-looki other than, "Wha?"
     
  10. crimsonrose
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    crimsonrose Senior Member

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    You could be more general about it. The REPTILIAN beast, instead of lizard, the FLORA and FOLIAGE, instead of trees and shrubs and flowers, and so on.
     
  11. Edward
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    Edward Active Member

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    If there's no bananas, I'd want a description of the fruit. Otherwise I'd just end up with a banana image anyway.

    If it's something like Eyes of the Dragon, where it's intended to be told by a modern person recounting it (I think...) then it's fine to compare things to modern things, though in generalization. Like if the narrator of Discworld was to say "a holiday similar to our Christmas", from an example I saw this morning in the Hogfather movie.
     

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