Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Game, TV, and Screenwriting Blog



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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Wagner's music is better than it sounds. - Mark Twain

A colleague recommended I look at Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I am finding it strangely difficult to read. Overall, there is a lot here that feels heavily inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons: what I've heard called "generic fantasy." I.e. a world patterned on Medieval Europe plus monsters and sorcery, longing for a lost golden age, with some sort of generic Big Bad behind all the shenanigans.

But what stops me dead are the names. I stopped reading after I ran across a character named Mordeth who was promising to help the heroes. What are the odds that someone named "more death" is really bad? And so he was.

This is the Cruella Deville school of character naming, where if you listen carefully, you can guess who's evil.

Then there are the names that are just misspelled versions of names from the mythologies of Europe and the MidEast. The Big Bad is called Shaitan (Arabic for Satan). There are magical objects called "sa'angreal," which is a variation on "sangreal," the Old French for the Holy Grail. There is a servant of the Big Bad called Sammael, which is one of Lucifer's names (Samael, "Venom of God") with another "m" stuck in there for kicks. There's another servant of the Big Bad called something based on Asmodeus.

This is the Draco Malfoy school, which requires knowing another language. (Draco Malfoy is Latin/French for Dragon BadFaith.)

(Full disclosure: we have a character in We Happy Few called Nick Lightbearer. Lightbearer is of course "Lucifer" in English. The Devil is also known as Old Nick. So he's "Devil Devil." But in my defense it's the stage name of a rock singer who's trying to be bad. His real name is Norbert Pickles)

Like a lot of writers, I spend way too much time thinking about their character's names. I find it difficult to write a character without a name; searching for the name kicks up ideas about the character. If Sally Boyle had been called "Edith Finch," for example, she could not have been the same woman. Arthur Hastings could not have had the last name of Shepherd. So Jordan poaching names with old power, without necessarily using them to mean the thing those names refer to, bugs me. (There are also "angreals" and "ter'angreals" -- Jordan loves random apostrophes as much as metal bands like umlauts.)

Tolkien put a lot of writers on a dangerous track with his names. Sauron sounds a lot like it means a big lizard. Morgoth sounds like "more Goth." But he got to some of those names via legit old languages. "Gandalf" is literally Old Norse for "Wand-Elf."

Other names are from the languages he invented, complete with vocabularies and grammars. Elvish is based on, and sounds a bit like, Finnish. Galadriel means something like "Radiant Crown Daughter" (in Sindarin, "galad"=radiance, "rĂ®" = crown, "iell" = daughter).

I like to say that "The audience doesn't know, but it knows." It knows when you get it wrong, or don't do your homework. A name built legitimately, by the processes that make names in real languages, sounds more convincing than a name made up by using scary sounds, or when you just poach words that you hope the audience sort of vaguely knows but doesn't really know.

But then, Tolkien was a linguist. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out of 14th C Middle English is still a classic. If he puts an apostrophe somewhere, you can bet it's an actual glottal stop (as in "Hawai'i").

None of this is to say that Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books are "objectively" bad. Who am I to judge? Obviously people love them, including my colleague. I am just trying to break down what bugs me about them, personally.

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Saturday, February 02, 2019

In dialog, characters don't have to respond literally.

Bob: "Do we need cauliflower?"
Alice: "We're busy tonight, aren't we?" (Alice is assuming that Bob is thinking of going to the supermarket tonight.)

Player direction lines generally need to be straightforward. But I like to leave logical jumps between lines intended as drama.

Likewise, people often fail to process what the other person said immediately, or respond only to the surface level, and then catch up a few lines later.

Bob: "Red or white?"
Alice: "I'll just have soda water."
Bob: "Red would go with the steak."
Alice: "I'll go get the plates."
Bob: "Wait. Really?"

... which might be an overhead conversation between minor characters or NPCs, which the player may get the hidden meaning of, or not. If it's important for the audience or player to get the meaning, then wait a few lines for the people who got it to feel smart, then:

Bob: "Oh my God!"
Alice: "I peed on the stick this morning while you were asleep."

Likewise, people often respond to what they think they heard, or were scared of hearing, or wanted to hear, rather than what was actually said.

Dramatic dialog with these "flaws" feels human. It does demand a bit more attention. But that's a feature, not a bug. If you can get the audience or player to work a bit to process what they're hearing, they pull themselves emotionally into the scene.

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