Playing Kronos: Taking Time into Account in World Creation

Even Kronos would be impressed with a clock that looks like this!

Moving from C. S. Lewis back to some practical aspects of world creation, I’d like to take today to look at something that I’m not sure some authors really give as much thought to as they should:  time and how their characters tell it.  That is important because one commonality everyone who reads your story or book will share with you is the passage of time.  Handled well, it will give you a point on which to build a broader imaginative experience.  Handled poorly it can become a distraction and an annoyance.

When I’m discussing the philosophy of history in class, I sometimes ask my students:  Do you know any time travelers? They usually just look at me with a “how-stupid-can-you-be-of-course-not” silence…until I point out that we all are time travelers.  Given, we can only move forward and at a generally set pace, but our passage through time is unavoidable.  Our experience of it may exhibit variations and we may measure it differently, but the basic facts are universal to our experience.

Many authors to simply adopt our familiar sense of reckoning and talk about years, days, season, etc. as we know them.  Some do it with good reason.  For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is in theory set on our actual planet in extreme antiquity, so it makes perfect sense for his time reckoning to more or less be the same (with appropriate tweaks–i.e. Shire Reckoning, v.s. the King’s Reckoning).  Others, like C. S. Lewis, just don’t pay it much mind.  Narnia is in theory a completely different world, but when you’re in it, its manner of counting days and hours more or less resembles our own.  His stories are good enough, though, that we generally don’t notice.  Narnia is intended to be children’s fantasy, not adult science fiction.

I would posit, however, that with a little thinking, you can create a unique measurements that will make your creation truly feel different and alien to your readers.  If you do it right, it can increase their sense of confusion, awe, and excitement–or any combination thereof.

Without getting too complicated, time is the fourth dimension in which human beings primarily exist (the others being the three spatial dimensions).*  The ways we measure that dimension vary greatly.  Some cultures use a lunar calendar, others a solar one.  Most of us are familiar with the latter, and we use the sun for our basic clock.  One year is the time that it takes for us to orbit the sun once, and our reckoning of time moves upward and downward from that point.  Ten years is a decade.  Ten decades is a century.  12 months is a year.  Thirty days (roughly) is a month.  Twenty-four hours is a day, etc. etc. etc.

The point that I am belaboring is that while the dimension of time is a constant (as far back as we can know), our measurements of it vary depending on our place in the cosmos.  That means that if you really want to come up with a clear, intelligent culture, you must understand a bit about the cosmos in which you set it down.  Try asking some of the following questions:

  • What is the basic layout of their solar system?  Remember, even primitive societies often have an incredibly detailed knowledge of the heavens.  They may have no idea that their watching giant balls burning gas or of rock that their far descendant might fly to one day, but they know the stars’ paths through the sky and have probably given them names.
  • How long is their day and night?  How about their year?  Remember, you need to keep the days and nights roughly earth-like in order to make human life viable.  Eternal night sounds interesting, but in reality that would mean your world would probably be a giant chunk of ice.  Eternal day would of course mean insanely hot temperatures.
  • How do they describe the motions of the heavenly bodies?  What are their names?
  • What is the relationship between those those heavenly bodies and the way they tell time?  For instance, we automatically think that one revolution around a sun is a “year.”  But what if it takes 150 years of our years to complete a revolution and the average lifespan is 40 ?  In that case, that culture wouldn’t be likely to use the sun as their primary instrument of measurement.  What then?  Perhaps something connected to the moon, the rotation of their planet, or the position of a certain star.
Thinking these through a little better, you can come up just enough unique cultural markers that you can hopefully make your setting feel different, but not so different that you lose all points of prime temporal identification.

Who could write a respectable article about time without referencing Big Ben?

How has this worked out in my own writing?  I’ve created two worlds thus far, and for convenience’s sake, their days and years are approximately comparable to those on earth.  Their methods of measurement are unique, however.  In Waverly Hall (due out this weekend with Lantern Hollow!), the main character travels to a world called Relois, where “years” are measured by solar event called a “shift.”  Once a year, their sun reaches a low point in the sky, and that marks the beginning of a new cycle.  That  became the starting point for what we might call (tongue-in-cheek) “Reloian Reckoning.”  Moving downward from there to something practical for everyday life involved another step unique to that world. In Relois, everyone has been forcibly addicted to a plague inoculation that is pumped into their bodies by machines called “intervers” which were actually been installed into each person at birth.  Therefore, their cultures marks shorter amounts of time based on their intervers, which are universal to their people.  One “click” (the sound the interver makes when dosing) is comparable to twenty earth minutes, twenty-four clicks equals one shift, and three shifts equals one day.
There is danger in this.  If you create a system of time-keeping that makes perfect sense and accounts for every second of every day by detailing the location of sixteen planets and thirty-eight stars in fourteen constellations, you can easily overwhelm your readers.  I’ve encountered some stories (usually unpublished) where I felt that I would need to visit that world and get an advanced degrees in theoretical astrophysics and astrology just to figure out what time the characters are eating lunch.  If that happens, your beautiful creation just became a distraction that ultimately defeats your purpose.
Again, time is a universal human experience.  We can tap into that experience and use it build bridges, to isolate our readers in the loneliness of a new culture, and/or provide an impressive depth of realism.  I suppose you could say that the effort would definitely be worth your time.

*Yes, I am also aware of several of the various multi-dimensional theories out there, and I find them fascinating.  I just can’t make a discussion of them fit this post!  🙂


About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on June 30, 2011, in Authors, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Middle Earth, Narnia, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Universes, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. In fantasy writing, such as Tolkien and Lewis, using our standard reference of time is generally accepted. After all, the elves, dwarves, and faeries are speaking English, aren’t they? Why not use hours and days? Moreover, fantasy worlds generally have the same solar and at least similar lunar cycles as we have, thus days and months and years are the same.

    In inter-planetary sci-fi, time-telling becomes a completely different problem, because each world will have it’s own days and years, and may or may not have months, or may have multiple ways of telling them. If you have an inter-planetary civilization, odds are they’ve come up with some sort of standardized time. If you have multiple civilizations, they each may have their own standard (if they come from different worlds), or they may have all agreed on one.

    One thing that bugs me about messing with time, though, is that the author must EXPLAIN it, in a straightforward and honest way, but without pulling a cliche like some adult explaining time to a child, or worse, explaining time to another adult as if they were a child. You may do it in a preface, you may do it in a narration, but make sure you do it. I recently read the Helliconia series, and the author didn’t explain how his time was different from our time until something like halfway through the first book (maybe later). Instead he just said that 9-year-olds were almost adults, and few live past 27. 14-year-olds lead the hunting parties. For a long time, I thought the author was talking about some kind of bizzaro-world Lost Boys and that an evil Wendy would show up at any moment.

    • True, though I think the explanation issue cuts both ways, and in the end it just depends on what a particular reader thinks appropriate. For instance, I’m one who wonders why you’ve dropped me into a completely alien world–fantasy or sci fi–and they’re still using our time standards. People like me require some kind of in-or-out of story explanation as to why that makes sense at all, especially when many other steps are taken to emphasize the world’s originality.

      I haven’t read Helliconia, but honestly it sounds a bit like Jamestown, Virginia in the early days of settlement. Most men didn’t live past 40 (in fact most didn’t make it more than a year after they stepped off the boat) so that would put the teen years as “mid life.”

      I personally like authors who use smaller touches–like perhaps a familiar time frame broken up using an easily explainable, unique method. That way you get the feel of a different world without reams of explanation. 🙂

  2. Wayne the Shrink

    Brian, you mention but do not comment on our base ten math and counting system. Many think it’s due to having ten fingers, but didn’t the Bablyonians use a base eight system? believe that there was a base twelve system (dozen) used in middle Europe at one time as well. They all had ten fingers and toes.

    If the counting system is different how does that affect the understanding and communication of time? Lets use the assumption and create an alien society that has three didgets on each hand. Base six, anyone? How does that change our divisions of time?

    • I think the Mayans also used a base twelve system.

    • Hmmm…I’m not sure I fully buy the particular argument that we use base ten because we have ten fingers. I believe the base ten number sequence is present in math much more foundational to the universe than the number of digits on our hands. I would also question if that played a huge role in our time keeping why so much of our time is divisible by six as well–60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours in a day (which isn’t divisible by ten at all). Honestly, I’m not sure about the Babylonians.

      That said, I do think you bring up an interesting point, and now I wonder how we might have done things differently if we had eight fingers or the like!

  3. So many worlds . . . so little time.

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