After finishing off Stephen King’s Dark Tower series last year, I was a equal parts annoyed and thrilled when I heard he had yet still another book in the series on the way. On the one hand, “Yes! Another tale of the weird post-apocalyptic fantasy western world of the Gunslinger!” On the other, “But I was finished! You were finished! Why can’t we just be done and get on with our lives?”
Now that I’m halfway through The Wind Through the Keyhole (book 197 in the never-ending Dark Tower series), I’m finding a new appreciation for Stephen King’s world-building. Specifically, I’m digging his use of language to help define the setting.
Folks in Mid-world say “thankee” for “thank you” and refer to people of respect as “sai” instead of “mister” or “miss.” While “yes” is used for affirmation, it’s just as often “yar.” And when you ask for forgiveness, you “cry pardon” and hope for leniency.
Now these aren’t crazy, gibberish-sounding made-up words. They’re slight variations on normal English, close enough that we don’t need them defined. You don’t have to keep flipping to a glossary in the back of the book to understand what people are saying. And yet, these simple changes are enough to convey the feel of a different world. It’s a little archaic, a little formal — not unlike Roland the Gunslinger himself.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. By swapping out a few common words and phrases for modified (but still accessible) version of the same, you can convey a sense of place and establish a tone for that place.
With just a few words, you can tell the audience we’ve left Kansas a few miles back. It’s nothing but Oz from on out.
I’m still reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower books.
No, not again. For the first time.
This is the project I started oh… (checks the blog archives, can’t find the entry) let’s say a year ago. These books are big, each one longer than the last. And there are dozens of them (I think. I’ll have to double-check that number.) I’m up to The Wolves of the Calla, and I’m enjoying it as much as the others. I appreciate how King creates and uses the local dialect; I find myself wanting to use “ya ken” for “you know” and “do ya?” for “okay?”
One of the themes of the series is Fate. The characters are very aware of the role fate (called “ka”) plays in their lives. It pushes problems – and solutions – across their paths. It drives them to do what they might otherwise consider unwise. They go with their guts, trusting that those unconscious instincts are more in touch with fate than they are. If they get a feeling that they should, say, whittle a key out of a certain tree branch, they go with it, and hope that fate thrusts a key-shaped hole into their lives.
Not that the characters are every truly confident in fate. Even as they turn their lives over to this unseen, ever-driving force, they are constantly wondering if they are doing the right thing. And even when they do accept their fates, they aren’t sure if they can do what fate requires of them. Failure is always possible.
It’s heady stuff. And it’s been leading me to ponder how use these themes in game mechanics. How would I create a system that gives the players the same sense of discovering their true paths?
I’m still pondering. If I come up with anything useful, I’ll share with the class. If you have any ideas, please share them. I’d love to see someone else’s take on the material.