Friday, September 12, 2008
Made in Lunacy
What do Stephen King’s horror novels and the Gossip Girl books have in common?
For me, it’s the brand names. Characters in King novels are always striking Diamond Blue-Tip matches to light up their Pall Malls, while Gossipgirlland is populated by Manolo Blahnik shoes and La Perla undies. This is such a good way to root the world in something readers can grasp or identify with or sigh over, using nothing more than a few words, that it’s no surprise so many other authors do the same thing.
Which made me wonder, is it possible to use brand names in fantasy? In urban or contemporary fantasy, certainly, but what about the kind I write, fantasies set in a medieval world? Is it possible to give readers that kind of instant recognition?
1. Geographical brands.
Example : Valyrian steel, Myrish lace (A Song of Ice and Fire). These are the easiest, so they’re most frequently used, but it also means they can be overused. If too many mundane nouns get something fantastic added to them, it becomes predictable and trite, especially if there’s nothing else to distinguish plain old tea from Tarkalean tea.
A good way to make this work is to do what Martin does : show what sets the fantastic version of the product apart from the regular. You never forget what Valyrian steel is, and Martin only needs one or two descriptions of this per book to show just why it’s so valued and admired. Then the one-word description works perfectly as a brand.
If a land or culture or craftsperson has been well enough characterized, then the qualities of that land, culture or craftsperson can be carried over to whatever they produce. Japanese paintings and poetry, for instance, are distinctive – vivid but delicate, simple and uncluttered. Not surprising that some of the best-known traditional Japanese weapons, like the katana and shuriken, follow the same strong and graceful design.
Likewise, in Before the Storm, anything made in Lunacy will be odd, unexpected and bizarre. The story itself is set in Dagre, which is practical, solid and down-to-earth. Dagre exports weaponry, and you know that weaponry will be chunky-looking and powerful. But Lunacy exports moonspun madness. Establish these patterns, and readers will soon be able to expect differences in both style and substance from the different names.
3. Created brands
These can be anything you devise. We’re used to swords having names, but what about breeds of horse, architectural styles or fashions? In Dagre, fashions and even colors (A Quarter Past Midnight, which is a fancy name for navy blue) have such names, though only women are expected to take an interest in these.
So maybe the chief cook of Castle Loftmark has a name for his specialty. Or the painter who did the portrait of the lord’s wife does them in a recognizable style so that people know at a glance who painted them. “Ah, a Bregona. I can tell by the dragonfly in the corner.”
Foreign and untranslated words work as brand names, especially if there’s no easy English equivalent. Bat’leth, for instance, sounds better than “curvy Klingon sword held with both hands and used to block, slash and stab”. Finally, brand names can be amusing asides and in-jokes as well. The weapons in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were guns with names like “Longsword”.
A world that has brand names is a world that’s lived in, a world which is that much more real – and which is at least a step away from the generic.
(However, for a funny take on what can go wrong with brand names, check out this post on the Wild Rose Press’s blog.)