Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.


Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.

Galaxy Crushers and Miserable Shits; the Binary World of Villainy

Sometimes, hatred is awesome. Not, obviously, in the real world, where it makes you itchy, cranky, and disagreeable, but when dealing with books. There are few pleasures as exquisite as loathing fictional villains for hundreds of pages, groaning at their triumphs, cheering at their failures, and then, in the end, watching them get what they so richly deserve. I will stay up all night reading, regardless of the quality of the writing or the coherence of the plot, just to see a character I detest brought to justice. And there are some truly detestable characters out there.

William Hamleigh, the central villain of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, springs to mind, establishing his villainy early, awfully, and often. By the end of the book he’s killed and raped dozens of innocents, helped to slaughter Thomas Beckett, and generally made life miserable for just about everyone he meets. Pillars of the Earth is a long book. I would have read ten of them to see the end of William.

Interestingly enough, it’s not simply the badness of the baddie that makes us hate him or her. Darth Vader is pretty bad. He helps to destroy an entire planet. Hannibal Lecter isn’t so nice either. The thing is, I never really detest these characters. In fact, if the thriving prequel and sequel market are any indication, it seems as though most readers and viewers actually want more of Vader and Lecter (more on that here). They’re frightening. We accept that they must be defeated in the end. But then, even Agent Starling has a soft spot for Lecter.

It seems that we can classify villains into two broad categories: the loathsome and the frightening. There is overlap in the Venn diagram, naturally, but not so much as we might expect. Lecter: mostly frightening. William Hamleigh: most loathsome. That’s because the traits we find terrifying are not the same traits that we detest.

Let’s consider Lecter and Vader for moment. Both are scary, but they are also brilliant, extremely capable, and in the case of Lecter, funny. It’s hard to hate a character who’s brilliant and capable, even if he’s turned his (impressive) cloak to serve an evil, galaxy-crushing Empire, even if he wants to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

William, on the other hand, is somewhat dim-witted and relatively incompetent. He holds power by virtue of his birth, his gender, and his size. In this he reminds me of another execrable turd: Joffrey Baratheon. I wish George R.R. Martin would devote an entire novella to Joffrey’s demise; cut the Daenerys plotline and just give me chapter after chapter of Joffrey getting kicked in the shins. The thing is, neither Joffrey nor William is all that scary. I would be worried if I were in Joffrey’s clutches because of the advantages afforded him by his position, but I wouldn’t be scared of him personally any more than I’d be scared of William if I ran into him at a bar. They simply don’t have the personal stature, in and of themselves, to warrant fear.

It’s an interesting situation for a fantasy writer, one with, I think, an obvious conclusion: you really need two villains (unless you’re over the whole bad-guy thing), because the one the reader loves to hate won’t be the same one who makes the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Of course, in this, as in so many things, Tolkien was a step ahead. Sauron is terrifying; Saruman, once you take away his orcs, is just a little shit of a magician who doesn’t belong in the big leagues.

While we’re at it, let’s just get a list going. Who are the great villains of fantasy, and where do they fall on the spectrum?

Usain Bolt Versus Gimli; A World Without Seconds

Usain Bolt would hate living in a fantasy novel. He’d still be fast, obviously, but no one would know just how fast. The tiny slivers of seconds separating him from the rest of the pack, making him, officially, the fastest human being in the recorded history of the world wouldn’t be, well… recorded. Imagine the scene: Bolt at the finish line, left arm extended, pointing, right arm bent – his classic victory pose – while a couple of monks squint at the hourglass and sundial.

Monk 1: Did you see it move?

Monk 2 (querulously): Well, there was a cloud.

Monk 1: How many grains went through the hourglass?

Monk 2 (with increasing irritation): I don’t know. It kept running after he crossed the line.

On the other hand, Bolt’s problems pale compared to those of the writer of fantasy, who has to deal with this sort of thing in nearly every chapter. After all, even if we stuck Bolt into, say, the Lord of the Rings, even if we never knew exactly how fast he was, it’d be pretty clear that he was faster than, say, Gimli. As a racer, Bolt can always just mark off a section of dirt and challenge people to a race. The author of fantasy, on the other hand, is in the position of the monks mentioned above; she is the timekeeper, not the racer, and she’s not allowed to use a clock.

Of course, clocks existed in the medieval world and, if you include water clocks, much earlier. Archaeologists have discovered clepsydrae in Babylon, India, Egypt, and China, some dating back more than five thousand years. The clocks themselves are not anachronistic. The ubiquity of timekeeping, on the other hand, our ability to glance at our watches or computers or wall clocks or phones or televisions and see time ticking past in seconds and minutes, nice and orderly, is uniquely a hallmark of the modern world. From where I’m sitting right now, in a café in Brattleboro, Vermont, I can see seven clocks (if you include the parking meter just outside the window).

A writer whose books are set in the contemporary world can easily jot down a sentence like this: “For a few seconds, Jim held his breath, hoping the walrus would not hear him.” The same sentence, however, even excluding the walrus, might give a writer of fantasy pause. After all, the denizens of her world are unlikely to think in terms of seconds. Even if there were a clock tower in the center of their town, they lack wristwatches. The narrator, naturally, need not be constrained by the psychological limitations of the characters, but if she too freely appropriates the temporal precision of the modern world, she risks shattering the illusion of her invented land.

Different authors of fantasy and historical fiction have approached the problem from different angles. Steven Erikson’s elegant solution is to use heartbeats instead of seconds. Of course, not all heartbeats are equal, but the order of magnitude is right. Hours are also simple enough; you can usually get away with “half the morning,” or, “for most of the day.” If the scene takes place in a city or town, someplace with bells or gongs or a massive church clock in the center square, so much the better.

Things get tough in the middle realm, the chunks of time greater than a few heartbeats and shorter than a morning. If you want your character to hide beneath the floorboards for fifteen minutes, what do you do? A few ideas:

Make the poor bastard count: “Jarrel waited for the echoing footfalls above to recede, then forced himself to count upward to a thousand before he dared to risk raising the trap door.” This is rarely a great solution. Unless the reader is quick to convert a thousand-count into minutes (16.6), it’s not very precise. Also, it’s psychologically implausible in most situations: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts and counted to a thousand…”

Put in some clocks: Maybe you thought your town didn’t have clocks? Maybe you want to think again: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts, ignoring the clock tolling ten, and ignoring it, too, when it later tolled eleven.” But then, this isn’t going to do you much good if they’re making out in the woods.

Fudge it: “For what seemed a very long time Elesse ran her hands over Jarrel, his chest, his back, marveling that, after so many years, he should be in her arms once more.” This solution tends to work well in battle, too: “Elesse hacked with her blade for what seemed like days, until her arms were spattered with blood and her breath burned in her chest.”

Compare it to something else: I still remember the prologue to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, which is a great book, but has this strange sentence in the prologue: “…another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile.” It’s a game attempt to solve the temporal problem. Unfortunately, the sentence needs to be taken out into the street and shot.

The most useful approach is probably to mix the methods; the timekeeping for love will be different from the timekeeping for blacksmithing, and there are certainly other approaches that I’ve forgotten or never even considered. I’d be very curious to hear what I’ve left out. In a world without seconds, can you have a rodeo?