Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#1
I've seen readers react both ways to what kinds of units of measurement are utilized in a fantasy/sci-fi universe. 

"Why are there liters in a fantasy world separate from Earth? Makes no sense and ruins immersion."

"Why make up a system of measurement? Just use meters/kilos, it's easier to follow. Trying to convert this stuff ruins immersion."

I know there's no right or wrong way to go about this. Just wanted to see the opinions of others.

DrakanGlasses

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#2

Colin Wrote: I'm American, I just use our standard.
I'd personally just keep it how it is, so readers already know what your talking about.
Using American is the last option I'd use. I feel like both sides would complain about miles/inches. 


Although I do think US measurements have a more poetic sound to them than metric. "Miles" and "inches" rolls off the tongue a lot better that "kilometers" and "centimeters."

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#5

FGC_Checkmate Wrote: Although I do think US measurements have a more poetic sound to them than metric. "Miles" and "inches" rolls off the tongue a lot better that "kilometers" and "centimeters."
The "poetic sounding" reason that you stated actually makes it nice for fantasy in my opinion. All the units are messed up and don't convert to each other easily, but an inch is about your first knuckle and a foot about your forearm (or rumor has it--the king's foot). It makes sense for medieval and low tech societies imo.


The metric system is more "scientific sounding" and sounds better in modern of futuristic settings, again, to me anyway. This is coming from an American so of course I associate the metric system with science because it's the only time I use it.

Unless the systems of measurement somehow reflects on the fantasy culture / themes of the story somehow, don't bother with it. Efforts are better spent elsewhere than minute details most readers won't care about / be slightly annoyed no matter what you do.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#6
I use a mix of both or just avoid mentioning exact measurements. I might mention a name of a measuring unit and it's probably going to be what I'm familiar with which isn't metric. However, it's the latter than the former because no matter the measurement system, it not tangible to me. All numbers are that way.

Someone can spout numbers and measurements to me all day, but they don't compute. Heck reading through The Martian was just me nodding my head when the man character went through most of his calculations. Now,  if I had an actual object to reference, I'll use that. Comparison are just better for me and often times, that something I will use in writing. 

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#7
I tend to avoid specific measurements whenever possible. The dragon is tall as trees, taller maybe. When I do give specifics, I use American measurements as those are what come naturally to me, and I'd prefer that the reader easily get the picture, even at the cost of some immersion. My general stance is that I am translating the events anyway... otherwise I might as well be writing all of the dialogue in a fictional language, too.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#9
I tried so hard to avoid mentioning units of measurement for as long as possible due to this exact problem. peolaughing I think I eventually gave up and just used metric despite being American, since it's more universal.

FFXIV is the main thing that comes to mind that has its own in-universe units of measurement (at least in the NA localization) and those are pretty easy to pick up via context and similarity to western measurements. Ilms are inches, yalms are yards, and malms are miles. I think. I've always assumed that's what they are cause it sounds right based on how they're talked about whenever they're mentioned. So in that case I find them pretty fine, but it's also not going to hurt my experience much if someone decides to just use real world measurements for the sake of ease and audience understanding.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#10

Mai Wrote: FFXIV is the main thing that comes to mind that has its own in-universe units of measurement (at least in the NA localization) and those are pretty easy to pick up via context and similarity to western measurements. Ilms are inches, yalms are yards, and malms are miles. I think. I've always assumed that's what they are cause it sounds right based on how they're talked about whenever they're mentioned. So in that case I find them pretty fine, but it's also not going to hurt my experience much if someone decides to just use real world measurements for the sake of ease and audience understanding.
I think video games get away with it a lot more easily because you're actually interacting with those measurements for hours at a time, and have a good deal of hands-on context to learn what they mean. You can experiment with them to see what actions cause what numbers to change (wearing armor to change weight, steps to change distance, etc.), which reflects greatly how one would come to grasp measurement dynamics in their actual life. In prose, it's a matter of scouring a glossary and deliberately dedicating these measurements to memory.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#11
It seems to be the consensus to use established metrics, and I have to agree.

Imagine trying to create a system of measurements with no reference. "He stood eight hands tall, gazing upon the object six wanes away." What does that even mean? How tall is he? How far away is the object?

Of course, you can write up and publish a conversion chart or something, but who wants to read, study, and memorize that?

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#12
It is easier to use some kind of established unit rather than coming up with your own scaling system. If you have a good grasp of the feel of your world and have good grounded reasons for what the name and base of the unit is so that it is easier to convey, it could be fun, though.  

I agree with the "what units used depend on the feel of the world" sentiment, though.  I definitely would lean on metric for sci-fi worlds or stories with an important science aspect in modern era.  I would definitely use imperial for more casual settings or certain age scenarios (or certain specialties).  I would also totally lean on older measurements for more medieval fantasy feels (and certain specialties).  Totally would use grains, inches, rods, chains, bushels, drams, etc.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#13

SonictheEvil Wrote:
Mai Wrote: FFXIV is the main thing that comes to mind that has its own in-universe units of measurement (at least in the NA localization) and those are pretty easy to pick up via context and similarity to western measurements. Ilms are inches, yalms are yards, and malms are miles. I think. I've always assumed that's what they are cause it sounds right based on how they're talked about whenever they're mentioned. So in that case I find them pretty fine, but it's also not going to hurt my experience much if someone decides to just use real world measurements for the sake of ease and audience understanding.
I think video games get away with it a lot more easily because you're actually interacting with those measurements for hours at a time, and have a good deal of hands-on context to learn what they mean. You can experiment with them to see what actions cause what numbers to change (wearing armor to change weight, steps to change distance, etc.), which reflects greatly how one would come to grasp measurement dynamics in their actual life. In prose, it's a matter of scouring a glossary and deliberately dedicating these measurements to memory.
Probably also true! In FFXIV's case, most measurements are mentioned during story cutscenes and aren't really interacted with in that sense. Skills do have ranges listed on them in those measurements... but I honestly don't ever remember those are there. It could be that I do pick up on that subconsciously though. But yeah, in general, video games do have that potential a lot more.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#14
I've done both. In my primary fantasy world, I use the metric system, even though I grew up on the Imperial system. I also tried to make one up and...it's...kind of made my brain a mess, but in my defense, I'm not good at any measurement system, so... :D Honestly, you have to decide how much defamiliarization you're willing to do. Are you going to reinvent birds? If not, take any advice that says to make your own system with a grain of salt. Your readers only have so much capacity to learn a new thing in one sitting. So do you want your book to be binge-able? If so, maybe consider a known system. If you don't care, well...Dune has a very long glossary at the end and it worked out fine.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#16
I think established mixed with a bit of new measurement systems work best. Just make the new measurements have intuitive sense.

For example: make a measurement system for mana, or for measuring the power output of a rune.


I like established for normal measurements though. Its like how the people in the story all generally speak English . It does not make sense in context, but most readers dont care. Fantasy measurement with a real equivalent can confuse readers, so I wouldnt use them often, and if I do, I would make it based on a decimal system or something else familiar to the reader.

Re: Create a system of measurements for a fictional world or use an established system?

#17
The TL;DR answer-- The less jargon you ask your readers to learn, the more likely they are to learn what little you do ask.

If a system of measurements features as a prominent plot point of your story and you want to have specific names and terms you can go that route. However, do so with caution. Most people can estimate how long "a mile" or "three kilometers" is to walk, but if you are asking people to remember what an "Elisan League" is, then they might not be willing to care. It would only confuse them when four chapters later a character tells them then next waystation is "a bakers dozen cyclopean leagues spinward of the riftdocks." That might be very accurate in your head, and completely impenetrable to readers telling them nearly nothing. Depending on your goals and the perspective you are telling the story from that might be the point, but you need to be aware of what you are doing and the relationship you as an author are having the your reader. 

The sole exception I make is for movement types that have no real earth standard. Moving through time, or through mana planes of specific density, or something even more esoteric might have demanded its own conventions. You have to make the call on if it is worth trying to explain that to a reader or if you can drop it in as a side note and brush past it. Anyone who has ever watched any fiction try and get tenses right when talking about time travel knows that there needs to be a better standard for non-linear temporal motion. If your story features time travel, then perhaps that standard was settled upon by whomever is the largest governing body of the timestreams. 

I am mostly focused on distance here. But the same can go for other measures as well. If there is an Earth equivalent, then break with it only if its needed for the plot otherwise its a distraction. If there is no earth equivalent, like trying to quantify "mana" or "chi" or whatever other exotic magic energy you have, then maybe there does need to be a short lesson in measurement. Just don't fall into the "ITS OVER 9000!" trap of including a measurement just to use it to scare readers later. Some things shouldn't be directly measured or measurable; it helps build tension.