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06:25 pm: Measurements and units rant
And heeere's the new rant!

This is a minor problem when writing a fantasy world, but more persistent than you might think. If you want to indicate a character’s height, do you uncritically adopt “feet,” “inches,” “meters”—which may well rub out the sense of this being a different world—or do you invent a measurement of your own—with the proviso that most people won’t understand it, and you’ll need to find a standard of comparison that makes sense? Does your world have a solar calendar? Why not a lunar one? Are the mathematics precise enough to tell the exact length of the year, anyway? And what happens if the length of the year is different from Earth’s?

For all these little problems, this rant has some answers.

1) Don’t be afraid to sacrifice some accuracy. Say that you’ve chosen the measure “fingerspans” to talk about small lengths, but you can’t find a way to correlate that precisely with inches. So your audience will know roughly how long this bolt of cloth is, but not that it’s five-and-three-quarters inches.

Does that matter?

Frankly, no. Precision has its place in fantasy, but only with objects and people characters know well, or those they’ve been trained to estimate with an expert eye, especially in the absence of instruments like tape measures that can give an exact number. I highly doubt your character walks down the streets thinking, “I just passed a man six feet and five and three-quarters inches tall…now there’s a woman who has hair precisely eighteen centimeters long…he can cover fifty-five and a half miles a day on a horse like that.” She is likely to know a friend’s height better, and a distance she’s traveled herself is easy enough to estimate. If she’s a dressmaker, she can probably guess how long a bolt of cloth is rapidly, and be close to correct. But if she’s someone picking up the cloth casually in the marketplace, then she can’t know just from one look. She’ll get someone to measure it for her if she really needs an exact length.

And if the precise measurement is not important to the story, why do you need it?

Use the measurements your characters would know and be comfortable with. Points 2, 3, and 4 offer some tricks to suggest the right measurement, but not for reducing it to an exact equivalent with Terran ones. I really don’t think that’s important.

2) Remember that distance and time can march together. I’ve developed a loathing for adopting miles as a measure of distance lately. However, “leagues” is really no better (especially since that term has different definitions). And saying that it’s five hundred eklas to the nearest town doesn’t help, not without further information. Is that several days’ travel? A month’s? Or just a day, because eklas are measured by how many steps someone takes in a set amount of time?

This is why you use time instead. “This horse could trot for sixteen tuvali, or two days.” That doesn’t reduce each individual tuval to seven-eighths of a mile or fourteen kilometers, but it starts suggesting that the tuvali are fairly large measurements. If the nearest town is a day and a half’s travel away on horseback, or twelve tuvali, that narrows it down still further; you can be fairly confident in correlating four tuvali to a half-day of travel. And there will probably be other clues as the story continues.

Alternatively, you can avoid specific measurements of distance altogether, or say that your world is so bucolic or so cosmopolitan (see point 3) that all sorts of different measurements are used and it’s a bitch trying to track them all and you won’t do it. To hell with it; everyone talks about two days of travel, a half-year of travel, or “as much time as it takes a strong man to get a good sweat going and swing his arms a bit.”

3) Show different measurements from difficult cultures, as a means of comparison. If one culture uses measurements your readers are familiar with, then you can compare it to the “alien” measurements of the other and show equivalencies that way. (I still wouldn’t recommend detailing exact lengths, times, and distances on every freaking page. The point of different measurements in the first place is to make your fantasy world a little more alien and interesting for your readers, not to penalize them if they don’t know quadratic equations and the precise conversion between Fahrenheit and Celsius).

Say that one culture uses years for a measurement of time. The other uses a measurement called cycles. (Why the difference? See point 5). If one culture is forever talking about “sixteen years” since an important event, and the other culture is forever talking about “sixteen cycles,” you can trust your reader to figure it out. (See point 6). Then you can switch back and forth depending on what character is talking, or leave the familiar measurement behind altogether and venture forth with the other one once it’s sufficiently established.

To return to distance, perhaps one group of people does use leagues to measure the road between cities, but the other uses a length called the strip, based on the number of strips from the skin of a donkey that were originally cut and laid to form the road. (You can have a lot of fun with this. See point 5 again). There’s no reason to pop up and helpfully remind the reader, every time someone thinks Ten strips to the resting place, that “ten strips” means “three leagues.” Believe me, your reader will get this. (Which is why I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of point 6 again).

What about weight? I still think, “Weighs as much as a sack full of stones,” is helpful and illustrative. But if you need precise measurements, then you can, say, conduct a market exchange, in which your hero going up to his friend’s hidden sanctuary is buying enough fresh vegetables to last him for a while in the wilderness. How much do the vegetables weigh? If three carrots, a pod of peas, and six rutabaga are five justai by the merchant’s scale but three pounds according to the measures the character learned and has to translate the justai into, then the reader can get a rough idea of what justai are, and other scenes will help to establish more exact parameters. Weight and length are more easily handled than distance, I think, precisely because they have an easy outlet in commercial scenes, while time can correlate with natural phenomena.

4) Don’t forget the human (or nonhuman) body. How long is that woman’s hair? To the middle of her back. How thin is that man’s neck? Just thin enough that the protagonist can encircle it with her hands. How long is this bolt of cloth? As long as the distance from my wrist to my shoulder, with a little left over to flow onto my shoulder. How far can that dragon fly without resting? From one end of the mountain range to the other.

You have an understandable, convenient, and reliable source of measurements available to you in your characters’ bodies, and a set that many people use every day. That goes double for things that your character needs to carry or otherwise handle.

No, there’s no reason to name every measurement in your lexicon after some part of the body. But “He was dangling next to a stone wall, three lengths of his body from the ground” is handy as all hell, especially for moments when the character is a bit busy right now, perhaps because he is dangling next to a stone wall, and doesn’t have the time sit around making calculations.

5) Give your measurements a cultural basis. To return to the case of cycles and years I mentioned above: why do these variations imply about the conception of time? “Cycles” implies a flowing circle of time, the same events repeating over and over again. “Years” probably conjures up a picture of linear time and a number of distinct seasons. Perhaps the people using cycles live near the equator, where seasons do not vary as sharply, while the people using years live in a temperate climate and rely on agriculture. That’s a very basic and simple explanation, but it can become more complicated once you have a basis for it.

Think, too, about events that one culture might consider important and another might not. Most fantasy cultures I’ve read about celebrate their New Year at Midwinter or Midsummer, but that’s by no means universal; the European New Year was once the spring equinox. And what happens in the aforementioned tropical climate, where the change of seasons often means an increase or decrease in the amount of rain, rather than a massive withering or growth? Perhaps the beginning of the new year there is the first day that a certain channel overflows with rainwater, or the day that the first hurricane comes blowing in from the sea. That’s not something a culture in a solidly temperate zone would have to think about. Or the new year might celebrate a holy day or a great cultural hero—something none of the other peoples around them relate to.

Keep in mind that people tell legends about the origin of their cultural artifacts even when those legends aren’t accurate. Thus the old tale that certain English measurements came from the body measurements of kings, which was insisted on long after they were standardized. Perhaps your built culture considers that all their careful measurements of length—thumbspan, fingerspan, span, multispan, and their kindred—as the relics of the massive, more advanced society that occupied the area before them, when in reality they carried them in during their migration from the north.

When you have a cosmopolitan world, knowing the different cultural bases for their measurements will also tell you something important about them, and contribute to your worldbuilding.

6) Trust your readers. They are not idiots. You can imply the “truth” of your measurements and slowly guide your readers towards them. This is why you don’t have to pop up on every page “helpfully” detailing exactly how many pounds are in fourteen stone or insisting on the strangeness of a lunar calendar with thirteen months, because there are actually thirteen full moons in a year. They can flip back and forth if they get confused. They can work out inferences. If you’re basing the measurement on some archaic measurement in the real world, they can go look it up if they get curious enough.

The worst embarrassment of all is having a glossary in the back of the book that contains all the exact conversion rates. Really? I suppose you can have it if you want, but if your world needs a glossary like that in order to seem whole, that tells me the writing itself is insufficient to create the sense of a new and wondrous place.

Current Mood: bouncy
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Date:August 10th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC)
Note that measurement units with the same name might not be quite the same. Current example: the Imperial gallon (and smaller units) and the US gallon.

And that one society might have several calendars.
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Date:August 10th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
True. As with the cycles/years example, many times the simple basis needs to be built on. I've seen fantasy series that adopt whatever the measurements of the author's society are and ones that explain everything. Both strike me as needing to get their feet under them first.
Date:August 10th, 2007 11:30 pm (UTC)
Another awesome rant on an issue I struggle with constantly. I'm more lax when I'm writing fanfiction when it comes to this: for one of my fandoms, which doesn't have set time measurements, I use the same units as this world, but in different amounts (the year in the fandom's world is not 52 weeks long, and a day is more than 24 hours, and a month tends to be 40 days or longer).
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Date:August 10th, 2007 11:44 pm (UTC)
One of the fantasy worlds I regularly read in (Brust's Draegara) has a thirty-hour day, but the months are seventeen days long, and the year is seventeen months long. Worked out, the calculation means the year is actually about the same length as Earth's. I would totally support that in other fantasy series, since even though the names of the units are the same, their meaning is completely different (and rooted in the Empire's culture, since there are seventeen Great Houses, or genetic lines).
Date:August 10th, 2007 11:38 pm (UTC)
Frenchpony on LJ here. As to #4. . . One day, I want to read a story (and I accept that, to do so, I may have to write it) where the standard unit of short-distance measurement is the Smoot. As in "we measured the Harvard Bridge last night, and we discovered that it measures precisely 364.4 Smoots plus an ear ("
Date:August 11th, 2007 12:18 am (UTC)
I find unknown units of time easier to pick up than unknown units of distance, so I'm currently trying a hybrid route--my characters use units of time native to their world, and I substitute in miles, feet, inches for their native units of distance. Try as I might, I just cannot get my eyes to slide over "thirty ekoi to the town." But "a couple feet away" goes right past without interrupting the story-flow.

And thank you, on #6. I love how Brust does these things, just lets them glide into the text without being remarked upon. It took me a while to stop and go, "Wait, how many meals was that in a day? And how many hours?"
Date:August 11th, 2007 12:20 am (UTC)
Forgot to add, on LJ I'm Spartezda. Am going now to create an account here.
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Date:August 13th, 2007 07:57 pm (UTC)
I think unfamiliar words for measurements can become familiar over time. After all, most fantasy authors don't hesitate to introduce unusual names for towns, foods, and characters.
Date:August 11th, 2007 12:44 am (UTC)
I know it doesn't always work, but I've always enjoyed the conceit that the story's being translated to English from some other language (Westron, for example, in Tolkien's writings), which tends to neatly circumvent these sorts of problems. (Of course, it's not very common that the writer puts as much thought into the invented language as Tolkien did.)

(Akedhi on LJ, by the way.)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
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Date:August 11th, 2007 12:52 am (UTC)
Virgin rant! :D

These are very good points, and my anal attention to detail leaves me struggling with precision and the desire to not just 'handwave stuff' away. Sometimes, it's okay to, right? :D

And even nowadays, a lot of people use time for distance. How far away is Fort Worth from here? I can tell you "four hours" a lot quicker than "200 miles" since I'd have to think to remember that. And the "200 miles" is imprecise, but close enough.
Date:August 11th, 2007 02:55 am (UTC)
Asking but not complaining, since this one was lovely...weren't you going to do a rant on urban fantasy next?
Date:August 11th, 2007 07:20 am (UTC)

Khajidu here

What if the culture I'm most focused on has the equivalent of the metric system ? Each measurement unit is 4, 16 or 64 times the next smaller one, and they are defined after the length of a meridian. Same for surface, volume (defined after length units), weight (defined after same volume of water) and time units (each unit is divided by a power of 4 to give a smaller one).
Still Khajidu here - (Anonymous)
Re: Khajidu here - (Anonymous)
Date:August 11th, 2007 08:45 am (UTC)
This is a very useful rant, since I'm in the middle of worldbuilding.

As far as measurement of time goes, I use years, but they're split into five seasons, rather than the usual four, and I don't use months as a unit; there are simply the five seasons to measure by, with each season being slightly shorter than ours, and the fifth season being only a few weeks.

It works out to having a year the same length as ours, but I don't get bogged down naming months, when seasons (since most of my people are farmers or living in agricultural communities) are much more important to them as people.

I've been considering using handspans (the length between the tip of the longest finger to the heel of the hand) and finger-widths for shorter lengths - such as how tall someone is, or the length of a plank - but I've been at a loss for how to measure longer distances. This rant has given me some things to think about. Thank you.
Date:August 11th, 2007 02:39 pm (UTC)
Great rant. I hate seeing "inches," unexplained, in a book with a created world. It's especially important in scifi, too, for time issues on other planets. I have a stupidly large excel file with all my conversions from earth-years to my created planet's years, although the most I'll ever do in text is say something like "their planet's cycle around the sun was a bit longer than Earth's." Heh.

Hmm; related to my "inches" complaint, it disturbs me when a fantasy world has fantastical beasts, and then also pigeons and dogs and other Earth-creatures. I understand it, of course--if you make up too much, you start to look like you're trying too hard--but it's just a little odd to see combinations of created and real creatures.

-ladytalon on lj (solely because anonymity feels shady)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Date:August 11th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
This is related to something I think about often in fantasy, which is establishing a sense of scale...that is, I see a lot of authors casually tossing around huge distances, vast spans of time (in which the culture never changes, natch) and superlatives of power, skill and evil with frustrating casualness. How, exactly, do you demonstrate that one magician is more powerful than another? What's the point of making your magic sword ten thousand years old--the entire span of human history on Earth--when two hundred years is more than enough time to get it good and lost? (Anne Bishop is particularly horrible about time in this way.) Why put all those miles/leagues/wheel/elkoi between Here and There if the characters aren't going to cross every one of them? Even George R. R. Martin falls victim to this, I think--I noticed an awful lot of fabulously tall guys running around Westeros, and the repetition diminishes the impact of all of them. It's not just a matter of being able to measure things, it's knowing what a range of normal is, so you know how to describe someone outside it.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Date:August 11th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
thank you so much for this :D this is something that drives me batty, especially the ones with glossaries.

(i am also wireandroses on livejournal, by the way - i don't plan to use this for much more than reading people's journals, but here it is anyway.)
Date:August 11th, 2007 06:30 pm (UTC)
The one thing I'd be a bit iffy about is using other English words where a perfect good one that largely disappears would suffice - specifically, the cycles/years thing. This is possibly because I don't interpret "year" to mean "linear", any more than any measurement you can make more than one of is necessarily linear (being able to compare one to two, kind of thing). "Cycles" reads to me (especially if it's the same length as a year) as "fantasy writer is trying too hard to be different." Given that a year is actually a measurement of a cycle (specifically, that of the seasons), it seems wrong and jarring, again, particularly if they mean the same thing.

If something different is being measured by the "cycle", while it's a bit of a stretch that it would wind up exactly the same length as a year, I'd be less eyebrow-raise-y at it, but still. If you're going to call it something different and odd (especially if you're still going to root it in English words rather than referring to it by a word in the actual culture's language), have it be for a reason, not just "I don't want to use years because everyone does/it doesn't make my world seem alien enough." This comes from having read, I suspect, too much fantasy as a teen wherein every. single. measurement. unit. in the "other world" needed it's own special name, from hours through to miles, and then finding out that actually, they're pretty much the same as the things we call "hours" and "miles". I found it irritating, and that it made the world feel very Constructed, instead of anything else.

I continue to toy with the idea of actually introducing the word "eria" into my stuff set in the elven Old World. It's their word for their general cycle of time, and that cycle of time is actually a different length from the human year. On the other hand, they use it for exactly the same purpose (regular chunk of time containing a certain repeating pattern of seasons), and I'm already throwing a tonne of non-English words at the reader because the meaning is actually functionally different, or connotationally different.
Date:August 11th, 2007 09:41 pm (UTC)

My Rant Part 1

Please forgive me for ranting a little, but I do have opinions of the matter.

1. Units of measurement

I don't find an inch to be upsetting provided that the species I'm reading about has thumbs, since an inch was originally a thumbs-width. On the same note I don't find feet upsetting as a measurement, nor do I find it odd that feet are divided into 12 inches.

Why is that? Well the reason is simple: wherever you look, in all pre-modern societies, you have very similar measurements. Certainly there are lots of regional variations, but pretty much everyone used parts of the human body to measure things.

So I don't feel suspicious when I see English style measurements, but I do feel suspicious if I should see a decimal system, or one that don't use body parts (or common things like seeds) as the measuring unit. Those existed in some places, but they were rare.

Now then, if you're going to use body parts as measuring tools, why invent new terms when there are perfectly good English ones around?

The same goes for length, weight, volume and area. Before you invent new measurements do a bit of research into real world measurements. Find out what measurements are reasonably universal, and if you find a bizarre measurement try to figure out why it was adopted.

If you have a measurement unit that relies on a decimal standard based on a completely arbitrary length or weight determined by some committee or sovereign... Consign it to the flames!

2. Numbers / Counting Systems

Numerical units, it's somewhat annoying when people make up new numbering systems without concern for how peasants and poorly educated people would count with them. Remember there's a reason that base 12, or semi-base 12, systems are common for every day use. For regular people it's much easier to calculate with twelves than with tens.

That may sound counter-intuitive to you, but 12 can easily be divided by 2, 3, 4 and 6. 10 can only be divided by 2 and 5. Likewise 144 (12x12) can be divided by 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 12. 120 (a Great Hundred) can be divided by 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12. While 100 can only be divided by 2, 4, 5 and 10.

By the way someone mentioned a base 2 system, it has one problem: 8 can be divided by 2 and 4; 16 by 2, 4 and 8; 64 by 2, 4 and 8. 128 by 2, 4, 6 and 16... No offence but it'd be difficult to use for regular people, it's actually less flexible than base 10.

Note that I said "for everyday use." Once you get into big units like thousands or tens of thousands base 10 or base 20 (Mayans) makes more sense.
Date:August 11th, 2007 09:42 pm (UTC)

My Rant Part 2

3. Telling the time

Why have two cultures that tell time in a different way, when you can have one culture with two different calendars? There were quite a few places in the real world that did just that, most often a secular and a religious year.

The Egyptians religious calendar had 365 days exactly, with no leap year, while the Astronomical calendar obviously accounted for leap years. They only coincided once every 1460 years, which is called a Sothic Cycle, this occurred only twice in Egyptian history.

The Etruscans, and later the Romans, had a normal year of 12 months, and a sacred year of 10 months. Some have theorized that this is why the last six months of the year have numerical names, and why they end with December (Dec, ten).

For that matter why no keep the calendar a secret? If the people have to ask the priests what time of the year it is, and when the feasts will be, and what days are taboo, then that gives more power to the priesthood. This indeed used to be the case in Early Republican Rome. Obviously this would give the priesthood great power.

Another idea is a group of people with no formal calendar, but who counts the year by numbering winters or summers; the four seasons; and finer graduations are done by noticing what plants are blossoming. See the Iliad for an example of the latter.

Then there are the Four Seasons, the actual seasons that is not the hotel chain. Why are there four seasons? Because our calendar comes from a temperate area where there are four distinct seasons. We see the same thing in pretty much all temperate areas.

If you want a different number of seasons you should first ask yourself: Why? Why would this culture have a different number of seasons?

The Egyptians for instance had three seasons Inundation, Sowing, and Harvest, which made perfect sense given that their life was linked to the cycle of the Nile. They also had 12 months of 30 days each, and the last five days didn't belong to any part of the year but were used for rituals.

Other nations may have only two seasons, the normal year and the rainy season. Once more very closely linked to the natural world they live in.

Neither two, nor three, nor four seasons were picked arbitrarily. People picked these numbers because they most of all coincided with the world as they saw it. Calendars that are made up from raw cloth rarely last long, because they often fail to reflect the way people actually live.

4. Don't be arbitrary

Let us imagine that you want to create a new unit, say the Rast that's oldish Norwegian for stopping and resting a bit. You could of course pick a random number, or you could ask yourself: What is the point of this unit?

In this case the Rast is how long you can keep on going before you ought to rest a little. Maybe even how far apart inns ought to be.

Perhaps there's an official measurement of say six miles, and various regional measurements depending on how rough the terrain is.

So here you have a unit that makes sense in context.

Let us instead take the Ptoings which is divided into 17 Fthangs, divided into 147 Rhyes. Why is it divided into these units?

Well probably because the writer figured that all these ancient measurements are just bizarre and arbitrary, so why not just make some stuff up?

That's the key here: Don't be arbitrary! Figure out what the basic units of measurement is, and how they relate to one another. There's going to be some kind of logic there, even if the end result seems weird to modern eyes.
Date:August 12th, 2007 11:28 am (UTC)
I honestly admit I usually don't bother to think this through so much. I generally use vague measurements anyway ("as high as her shoulder/chin/head", "twice his own size" etc) and don't see sense in making up new words for things that aren't all that interesting (in my opinion, only, of course). Moreover, we have metres where I live and I have already discarded those in favour of feet when writing fantasy, because they seem a far more ancient and more easily applicable measure to me. (I mean, everybody has feet, but a metre is pretty random and doesn't correlate with anything one has handy for comparisons.)

What I was missing in the rant, was the starting point of year counts. I once read a fantasy book that counted in BC and AD, even though there was no Jesus (or Jesus equivalent) in that world. It struck me as incredibly stupid, but I guess most people just don't question anymore where their counting comes from; it has simply lost most of its original sense over time.
I'm not sure whether you already did a rant on that, but I'd find it pretty helpful, seeing as it says a lot about a culture, too. (And because I could need some help with my world in that regard. ";-] At the moment they still count by years of the reign of kings, but I'm not sure that fits and I guess you could come up with more inspiring suggestions and inspirations. Yes, I'm an egoist like that.)
Date:August 12th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)


What about weight? I still think, “Weighs as much as a sack full of stones,” is helpful and illustrative.
This actually gives me an idea for one of my nations' standardised units of weight. It could really go "1 standard format stone", "2 standards", "5 standards", "10 standards", "1 standard sack filled with standard stones", etc.

(Priests of the earth goddess could easily fashion thousands identical rocks( with my magic system.)

I am friending you, btw.
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Date:August 15th, 2007 01:30 pm (UTC)
A lot of this gets me thinking about astronomers and our units. We use a lot of relative units with fancy names because they were easier to measure than the absolute units -- AND they make mental comparisons a lot quicker. The normal distance unit for planetary astronomers is the Earth-Sun distance (it even got called the Astronomical Unit). We mass things in Jupiter masses, Earth masses, and solar masses, and will give radii in terms of Jupiter, Earth or the Sun. We might not remember how massive Jupiter is, but an 8-Jupiter-mass planet is a pretty big planet, and a 0.1 Solar mass star is a pretty small star.

It's probably because most of us don't like dealing with millions or billions or 1030s and all that.
Date:September 17th, 2007 03:28 pm (UTC)

robling_t @ LJ

{is insufferably pleased with Self's characters for their having come up with a lunisolar calendar...} :)
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