Worldwasting: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi

Recently, as the DVD releases became available, I re-watched Thor:  Ragnarok (Thor 3) and Star Wars:  The Last Jedi (Star Wars VIII, “TLJ”).  I enjoyed both movies very much.  But each takes a direction that leads to some reflections on the fine art of worldbuilding.

Making the World

World in geometric pattern (worldbuilding)F&SF writers talk a lot about “worldbuilding”:  constructing a whole background for your story, an imaginary world.  Other kinds of fiction also do some of this. A romance or a Western or a mainstream novel may take place in a fictional town, let the characters eat at an imaginary restaurant, have a marketing maven write slogans for a nonexistent product.  But fantasy and science fiction require the author to invent much more and take less for granted.

Worldbuilding is a fascinating exercise that can become an engrossing end in itself.  We can spend hours on developing languages or family trees or maps.  Tolkien (of course!) famously referred to this process as “sub-creation,” analogous to the creative power of God.  (On Wikipedia, “sub-creation” redirects right back to the main page on worldbuilding.)  There’s even a Worldbuilding Magazine and a Reddit subsite for “sharing your worlds and discussing the many aspects of creating new universes.”

But the primary purpose of worldbuilding in fiction is to provide a background for the story—one with enough depth and verisimilitude to aid the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The fictional world is most of all a resource for the story.

. . . And Unmaking It

But a resource can also become a constraint.  Every decision you make for a world limits what you can do later.  If I’ve placed a mountain range here, I can’t put a flat desert in the same place.  If my main character’s father is a heroic pilot, he can’t also be the threatening villain.  (Er, or maybe he can—with enough feverish “retconning” to patch the gap.)

The more the world accretes additional detail over a series of books or movies, the more it may become a confining “Procrustean bed” to which later stories must be fitted.  The problem reaches its height in comic book series, where the same characters’ adventures may run for decades, at the hands of many different writers and artists.  The characters’ backstories and the background details eventually are almost bound to become a “continuity snarl,” with so many contradictory elements that no one can figure out what’s going on any more.  The authors or producers can be driven to “reboot” their world—start over from scratch—as a desperate way to clear up the mess.Colorful spiral

Even if things doesn’t reach this pass, however, a writer may want to get rid of some pre-existing elements.  Maybe they’ve just gotten boring:  who wants to see the same character angst and relationship issues recur over four hundred episodes?  Maybe an old bit of worldbuilding or character history would get in the way of an appealing new development.  Maybe the writer just wants to emphasize how big and menacing a new threat is by having it destroy something that seemed like a fixture of the universe—or simply shock the reader by defying those status quo expectations.

Alongside the draw of building out an ever more fine-grained world, then, there’s a corresponding temptation to tear things up and make radical changes.  In search of greater drama, let’s go all the way!

Such dramatic reversals can be productive.  Sometimes the status quo has become boring and needs to be upended.  But it’s a dangerous enterprise.  The built world is our resource.  The reader’s or viewer’s attachment to characters, enjoyment of well-established locales, and appreciation for long-running history provides a good deal of the continuing interest for the audience.  We risk throwing that away, piece by piece, if we throw away large chunks of the world-background unwisely.

Bags of seed cornThere’s a problem known as spending your capital, or “eating your seed corn.”  If you have to use up the resources necessary for the next step or the next generation – consuming the seed you need to plant for next year’s harvest – the needs of the moment may imperil the chances for longer-range development.  The worldbuilding “resource” represents the capital the writer has on hand to engage readers and develop the story.  It has to be invested wisely.

We’re finally ready to look at the two movies I mentioned—and, unavoidably, to warn—

Here Be Spoilers!

Thor:  Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok movie posterFirst, a qualification.  Both of these movies are middle pieces:  we don’t know how the stories end.  (Ragnarok’s “sequel” is Avengers:  Infinity War—and we’ll find out how that develops later this week.  For TLJ, we’ll have to wait for December 2019.)  So we can’t yet fully evaluate what the authors are doing.  But both spend their worldbuilding capital rather freely.

Ragnarok’s villain is Hela, queen of the underworld.  She’s powerful.  How powerful is she?  The first thing she does upon entering Asgard is to kill Fandral and Volstagg, two of the beloved “Warriors Three” that comic-book readers have been following since 1965 and movie viewers since the original Thor.  (The third warrior, Hogun, meets his end a few scenes later.)

Hela wipes them out without breathing hard.  Does that prove her sufficiently badass?  Sure.  Is it a fitting end for such long-standing heroes?  It seems rather abrupt—not even time for memorable last words.

More important, the summary termination deprives the series of those three characters for later stories.  That’s a loss.  If any young ladies were swooning over the dashing Fandral, they will swoon no more.  We won’t see Thor’s three battle buddies at the climactic engagement of the Infinity War.  Of course, given the enormous number of major characters Marvel already has to accommodate somehow in Infinity War, maybe reducing the count by three is seen as an advantage.  But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lost some potential energy.

Hela crushes Thor's hammerThor’s iconic hammer Mjolnir is featured prominently in the opening scenes of Ragnarok—so it can be caught and shattered by Hela when Thor first meets her.  While Thor (as Odin dryly points out) is not defined by his hammer, it’s his characteristic weapon, and we’ve been shown many times that no one else can even lift it.  Again, Hela’s casual treatment of Mjolnir is startling enough to establish her threat level.  But it’s hard to picture Thor going through the remaining battles of the Cineverse arc without his trusty hammer.

By the end of the movie, Asgard itself is destroyed, and the surviving Asgardians are setting out to find a new home.  While the moment is certainly moving, the universe is a little poorer for the absence of the classic afterworld so brilliantly realized in Thor’s scene design.

Most strikingly, Ragnarok essentially drops the romantic element that’s played a significant part in the story so far.  It appears Thor has simply broken up with Jane Foster (or vice versa)—an ignoble offstage end to what we were to regard as a serious love affair.

Sif (comics)Now, those of us who remember the original comics might be content enough to have Jane replaced by Sif, who, after all, was Thor’s wife in the mythology—and whose interest in Thor was specifically established in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.  But Sif is also absent, and we don’t even hear an explanation.  It’s possible these two characters were cleared away to make room for a potential romance with the new character Valkyrie (Brunnhilde).  But we don’t really see any sparks fly or bonds form for Thor and Brunnhilde in Ragnarok.

The MCU has backstory to burn, and it’s still quite possible that these will turn out to be resources well spent to build dramatic potential for the overall Avengers plot arc.  One hopes so; a world is a terrible thing to waste.

The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie posterThe Force Awakens knocked out one of the pillars of the Star Wars universe by “expending” Han Solo.  That was surprising, but not alarming.  These original-trilogy characters have lived full lives (if not entirely satisfactory ones).  We expect them to give way to the new generation of main characters.  It wasn’t startling to see another New Hope stalwart bite the dust in Episode VIII.  But TLJ goes considerably further than that.

It seems pretty clear that Luke has shuffled off this mortal coil at the end of TLJ:  he’s preformed the Jedi-master trick of evaporating out of his clothing, like Obi-wan and Yoda before him.  We can expect to see him again as a Force ghost, but not to do anything except offer sage advice.  (On the other hand, the ghostly Yoda seems to have called down lightning to burn up the old tree—a more direct intervention than we’ve seen a departed Jedi accomplish before.)

In addition, we won’t see Leia in Episode IX; the character is still alive at the end of TLJ, but is sadly now subject to what TV Tropes has called “Actor Existence Failure.”  That eliminates all three central characters from the first Star Wars picture.

We have the new characters to carry us forward.  But in several ways TLJ weakens their potential plot energy as well.  The most important issue, of course, is Rey and her parentage.

Rey cries out to departing spaceshipRey’s origin probably excited more speculation than any other topic between Episodes VII and VIII.  The solution presented in TLJ is brilliant, in its way:  Rey’s parents are nobodies, uncaring drifters who sold her to a junk dealer for drinking money.  Director Rian Johnson’s solution succeeded in surprising us, since it avoided all the plausible speculations fans had offered over the preceding two years.  More important, this revelation strikes at the heart of Rey’s stubborn, anchoring belief that her parents would return for her someday.  It would be a major character issue to see how she deals with the blow—if we get a chance to see it; she was in the middle of a major battle at the time and there was very limited opportunity to see how she was taking the news.

We should pause to consider whether Kylo Ren was telling Rey the truth, or presenting a lie designed to play on what he’d just called her weakness.  She says she recognizes the truth of his statement at some level herself (reminiscent of Luke’s reaction to Vader in Episode V).  But in her state of confusion, that may not be decisive.

On the other hand, there are a few things that don’t fit well with Kylo’s claim.  In the Force Awakens (“TFA”) flashback scene, we saw young Rey crying out to a departing spaceship.  Would these poor, anonymous drifters have been likely to own a spaceship?  And it’s always been a bit mysterious how the young Rey, if she was essentially a slave to Unkar Plutt without any family connections, was somehow allowed to buy herself free (presumably) and attain even the subsistence life of a scavenger in which we first see her.  It could turn out that the real truth is yet to be revealed.

But I consider that a long shot at best.  Like “I am your father,” the “nobodies” option is simply too good a narrative move to throw away.  It subverts the “Chosen One” theme that’s been running in Star Wars since the beginning, bringing us closer to a more Lord of the Rings-like “democratic” trope.  That shift in attitude is consistent with several moves in TLJ, including the introduction of Rose, the change in presentation of the Force, and especially the wonderful scene at the very end.

If we do accept Kylo’s description of Rey’s parents, it dissipates a lot of potential interest.  There are no hidden connections to be discovered; the mystery is no mystery, but an anticlimax.  There are no further plot developments to follow on Rey’s parentage.  That highly-charged element of TFA simply seems to have been abandoned—dare I say wasted?

Rose kisses FinnAs with Ragnarok, romance also seems to be relegated to a minor role.  TFA gave us a fascinating relationship between Rey and Finn that seemed to be developing toward a romance.  But they’re separated for most of TLJ, and meanwhile another well-wrought character, Rose Tico, is lined up with Finn.  After Rose tells Finn she loves him, we get a final scene in which Rey rather ruefully turns away from seeing Finn tenderly tucking in the near-death Rose (although Finn himself hasn’t made any declaration yet).

If Rey doesn’t fall in love with Finn, who else is there?  There’s no sign of any mutual interest with Poe, and if she were going to converge with Kylo (as I’ve occasionally feared), the place for that would have been during their mutual battle on Snoke’s flagship—and no romantic move was made.  Like Luke, Rey may be meant for a single life.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se—but declining the potential for romance is, again, letting a degree of character interest fade away.

Finally, there’s the Force itself.  That’s always been a tricky concept, right back to A New Hope—something worthy of more specific discussion one of these days.  But whatever tricks TFA added to the repertoire, TLJ seems to take away.

Does the Force have purposes?  Does it act on its own?  There are things in the original trilogy (IV-VI) that suggest it might.  And in Episode I, we were told that that Force apparently engendered little Anakin Skywalker without even requiring a father.

The title of the series’ revival in Episode VII, The Force Awakens, suggested that Something Big was happening, with its source in the Force itself.  But two movies later, I still have no idea what “an awakening in the Force” is supposed to mean.

J.J. Abrams built up the potential for some kind of revelation in TFA.  But in TLJ, Johnson seems to dissipate that anticipation entirely.  Yoda’s new instruction appears to be that the Force doesn’t act on its own, we simply use it as we will.  Frankly, in a way I like that approach better:  the notion of the Force moving us around like puppets for its own purposes was a bit creepy.  However, our expectation of some revelation about an “awakening” seems to have been scuttled.  Again, it’s not that the new plot development is bad; it’s that the worldbuilding set up by previous episodes seems to be ignored or undone by the most recent film.

Conclusion

Good worldbuilding and plot development are like winding up a spring:  you’re infusing energy into the system that can later be released to power the narrative.  These two recent stories seem to have the opposite effect:  they’re blowing off steam, releasing pressure, without fully utilizing that energy to enhance our interest.

Since we have yet to see how either story line comes out, it’s also possible that my comments could be entirely mistaken:  the apparent untwisting of plot potential may be twisting up new possibilities that aren’t visible yet.  We’ll have to wait and see; that’s the fun of it.

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A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.

Consistency

We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.