There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs.
I just got back from a walk up Black Hill (not a euphemism), which is somewhat testing. The summit is only about 300 meters above where I live, but large parts of the track are like climbing a staircase built for and by a drunken troll with one leg significantly longer than the other and a tendency to eat his work. It made me think about names though, and more than just the names of characters in stories, it made me think about names of locations.
There is a good argument that a location is often more than just the context of a work. Eliot’s London in The Wasteland has been said to be “almost another character”1. Tim Burton’s Gotham no less plays the role, albeit silent, of a character. In fact, it has been argued that it is the most important character after Batman himself2.
Fantasy writers perforce build worlds in which their stories are told. They range from a simple re-envisioning of real-world settings, to fully fledged worlds as exemplified by Tolkein. His Shire and Mordor (amongst other locations) convey deep feelings. And the transformation of the shire at the end of the story holds a particular horror; much like seeing a beloved character maimed.
Since The Lord of the Rings there have been many fantasy epics, but few have been set in a world with such depth. Maybe Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane series, or perhaps the Erikson and Esslemont Malazan epic. But no-one does it better than Sir Terry Pratchett (STP).
STP’s writing is often funny, and so he is sometimes treated less seriously, but I’ve noted before how prolific and important STP’s writing is. We can see that by comparing it to some other fantasy sources, as the following Reddit post does.
STP’s Discworld (setting aside his other writing) has 41 novels and is nearly 4 million words; more than double the Game of Thrones and nearly four times Harry Potter’s just over 1 million words. Discworld adaptations also include half a dozen each (more or less) of
- graphic novels;
- TV adaptations;
- stage adaptations;
- radio adaptations;
- board games; and
- video games;
- 6 “Mapps”, an Atlas and a City-Guide;
- 4 Science of the Discworld books; and
- an assortment of Companions, Almanacs, Portfolios, Diaries, Quiz books, Cookbooks and so on.
STP wrote a lot more, but the Discworld series presents a consistent narrative over a large chunk of a made-up world. Within that there are certain locations – most obviously Ankh-Morpork – that loom large. So the Discworld is an ideal place to start to see how location influences a story.
Stories are built from characters and their relationships and we can look at these as networks. There a bunch of nice examples of network visualisations for novels:
- The Network of Thrones; and
- the Dune Character Network;
for TV and Film:
and for the stage:
And this has also been done for several mythological or classical texts as well, e.g., the Icelandic Sagas. It is common to compare these artificial networks to real social networks. However, if locations are so important to a story, why aren’t they included in these networks? My The Colour of Magic (STP’s first Discworld novel) network at the top of the page includes locations. The following describes how I created it.
What’s in a name?
Named Entity Recognition (NER) is a now-standard technique in Natural Language Processing (NLP). NER seeks not just to find names of people, but also of organisations, locations and other types of named entities. I’ve seen a named entity defined as a ‘real-world object’ that’s assigned a name but this presumes the concept of ‘name’ is more obvious than named entity. A more useful description is that a named entity is a (usually singular) thing or person delineated by a proper name, where a proper name expands the idea of a proper noun to include multi-word names, e.g., Peter the Great. It’s still not a perfect definition, and so most people resort to examples. In the The Colour of Magic we have examples like:
- Stren Withel
- Bravd the Hublander
- Ankh-Morpork City Watch
- Wizards’ Quarter
- Hogswatch Night
- Archmandrite of B’Ituni
You can see that named entities include entities other than just people and NER also seeks to classify the names correctly. Common classifications are into People, Organisations and Locations, plus a few other categories, but I’m going to make my classification a little more fine-grained. My primary categories are fairly standard:
- Persons (including supernatural beings, e.g., Death, and named animals)
- Locations (including named buildings)
- Artefacts (named, created things such as books and songs)
- Dates (times of day, holidays, named years …); and
- Miscellany (position names, plant names, races …).
but I’ll subdivide them into smaller groupings, e.g., Rincewind is a Person/Human/Wizard.
The categories aren’t completely disjoint so some value judgements had to be made. For instance, nationalities (demonyms 34) seemed most associated with ‘place’ so they went in the Location category.
NER is a standard part of NLP toolkits (both the NLTK and Spacey have it, as do others) but modern techniques use machine learning and rely on large corpora of tagged text. Unfortunately, those corpora don’t have much to do with the type of text we are looking at. Often they have been based on news texts, or in some cases scientific literature. However, names in literature sources are rather different. For instance, novels typically involve a larger amount of dialogue than, for instance, a scientific text.
Names in fantasy literature are doubly difficult because often they are made up from whole cloth. STP often uses English common names, but equally often just makes up a word, sometimes from scratch or sometimes as a portmanteau like “Rincewind”.
STP also uses some pretty strange punctuations, e.g., exclamation marks as part of a name such as K!sdra or apostrophes as in Re’durat.
One of the features used to classify names (in English) is capitalisation, but STP (and others) frequently use capitalisation for reasons other than names:
- to emphasise the way a character speaks (see Gladys in Making Money);
- where a character who is not very literate is writing;
- to emphasise the importance of an Idea; and
- just for effect, e.g., to create an echo as in “LO, Lo, lo.”
And without wanting to criticise STP, he isn’t consistent over the decades. For instance “Hogswatchnight” or “Hogswatch-night” or “Hogswatch Night.”
So, finding names isn’t as easy as we might hope, beyond just those problems of everyday English. And English is hard enough. Take the example of words morphing from proper noun to adjective: in mathematics we speak of Markov chains (named after Andrey Markov), where here the name is being used adjectivally, that is, Markov is being used as a Proper Adjective. STP uses adjectival forms extensively and in extended ways, e.g., the word “Bentless” for a room lacking a Mr Bent. Neither English nor STP are consistent though; often proper adjectives slip into common usage, e.g., herculean not Herculean. Is that a reference to Hercules or not? And that is just one of the many difficulties presented by English even before we add the idiosyncrasies of fantasy authors.
And there is another problem.
Names, names, and more names
One of the primary difficulties here is a character may be referred to by many “names.” There are all sorts of reasons:
Abbreviations are common. For instance, characters are often referred to by just their family or given name. These may be further abbreviated, and not all such are just shortenings of words, e.g., Bill for William.
Nicknames: often a character will have a nickname, e.g., CMOT (Dibbler) or I-Don’t-Know Jack.
Appellations are often added to a name: e.g., Mr or Mister, Archchancellor or Commander. A character’s appellations may change over time: Captain Vimes becomes Commander Vimes. Other types of appellation can refer to an employment – Vimes of the Watch – or a location. e.g., Duke Mortimer of Sto Helit.
Aliases, noms-de-plume, or sobriquets occur often enough to be difficult. The most prolific example is Moist von Lipwig who has a long list of aliases such as Mr Trespass Hatchcock and Albert Spangler. Other characters have, for instance, stage names such as Delores De Syn aka Theda Withel in Moving Pictures.
Accidental mispellingss happen occasionally, e.g., Ly Tin Weedle in TLF and Ly Tin Wheedle in most other books.
Deliberate mispellingss are more common. Often they are used to indicate an accent or other quirk of speech, e.g., Mishter Shpangler; or some degree of illiteracy, e.g., in Equal Rites: “To ther Hed Wizzard, Unsene Universety,…,Esmerelder Weatherwaxe (Mss) Wytch.“; or to convey the idea of a pre-modern context where spelling was not at all uniform5, e.g., Vimes notebook: “Itym: Ae smalle vegettable shope.”
The net effect is that key characters often have many different terms used for reference. The worst case I’ve seen so far is Moist von Lipwig, who has over 20 aliases.
I don’t just want to identify sets of words that correspond to a named entity, I want to know which entity, and in the end, there were so many special cases that I reverted to creating a manual list of aliases.
The list has a second advantage, which is that it can correct some of the defects in earlier processing where tokenisation or other steps have incorrectly broken up a sentence.
The main global list identifies all entities in the texts read so far. Many occur in more than one book, so forming this list wasn’t as onerous as you might expect – names inserted from one text are often useful in others.
But that raises one other issue I want to mention, which is that although STP is very inventive with names, he occasionally reuses a name, most often just a given name such as Angus, but since characters may be referred to using just their given name we can’t have a purely global list of names. So each book has its own shorter local list.
Luckily there isn’t a huge amount of disambiguation needed, e.g., names that are used for more than one character within a book. That problem only really occurred with titles, e.g., Sergeant, which might be referring to different sergeants in different parts of a text. In general, we don’t try to disambiguate these so some references are missing from our list as well.
There is one problematic name – Igor – which refers to a group of likeminded entities who work for mad scientists, vampires or the Watch. They are nominally separate entities but there is an uncomfortable level of sharing of body parts, and what is more problematic here, they share the same name. I still haven’t quite decided what to do with Igor.
NER in the Discworld
Given the listed issues for NER on fantasy texts, there are pretty big limits on what we might hope to obtain from automated extraction without a large training corpus.
So what have other people done? The “gold” standard is to have a human tag the text manually. I quoted gold here because people aren’t perfect, particularly on a task like this that can involve some ambiguity. It’s also a very time consuming approach.
I did something a little different. I am using this project to improve my Julia coding, so I wrote a NER routine in that lovely little language. It uses an old-school approach. Early on (in the 90s) NER used the rules of English gammar to extract names, particularly capitalisation of words. It isn’t as simple as you might think – English rarely is – and so I don’t expect to get amazing results. However, it can throw up a list of candidates very quickly. I then manually classify the majority of elements on this list. The result is that I can tag names from a book in a few hours with a high level of inclusion.
The approach has the advantage that the manual intervention step allows me to simultaneously
- classify names, and
- build a list of aliases.
There are some excellent resources for checking classifications of the many instances that are non-obvious even to a human reader: for instance the Discworld Wiki and L-Space.
A segment of the resulting data for The Colour of Magic is shown in the table below (click on it to go to the full table or go to the GitHub page to get all the information, particularly a list of the sentences in which a name appears).
|Hrun the Barbarian||139||2||Person||Human||Hero|
The approach isn’t perfect. A character can talk without their name being mentioned (the Emporium shop keeper in The Light Fantastic is a case in point), and a character may be referred to using a common noun, e.g., as “Sergeant Colon” in one line, and then as “the watchman” in another. There are many other special cases that break some rule or other, but the vast majority of mentions are found.
In the The Network of Thrones two characters are linked each time their names (or nicknames) appear within 15 words of one another. That pulls together several cases:
- two characters interacting; or
- a character talking about another; or
- combinations of the above for three or more characters.
If we count the number of such co-occurrences, we can form a measure of the strength of the relationship between two characters.
In The Network of Thrones several thresholds were tried, and 15 was the winner, but also connections with only 1 or 2 joint references were removed from the network. I chose to look at the distance in terms of sentences: a long or a short sentence including two characters is still linking them, so I created connections if two names were in the same sentence regardless of its length.
There are large numbers of named entities in the books (several hundreds) so to ensure the diagram is understandable, we only show those with 8 or more mentions (guess why I chose 8). Isolated nodes are also dropped.
The layout created above is automated using
graphplot from the
GraphRecipes.jl package in conjunction with
You’ve already seen my first network, the network for The Colour of Magic, STP’s first discworld book. You’ll note I haven’t labelled all of the nodes. The nodes were labelled manually so as to make sure that the diagram wasn’t cluttered up with names of relatively inconsequential characters. I do have a completely labelled version but it isn’t as pretty. The table below shows a little of the network in CSV form – click on it to go to the full network.
|Rincewind||Hrun the Barbarian||4|
Why should you care? Well, if I were just a network scientist I would calculate network metrics, e.g., centrality, for this network, and that would tell you something, but actually I think the results are pretty obvious. Rincewind and Twoflower are the main characters and closely linked. No-one will be surprised.
What we can see in the picture is that there are some key locations that link together some characters and provide some structure. Chief amongst these is Ankh-Morpork, STP’s iconic city, which builds on London, Paris, New York and every other great city of our sphereworld. But we can also see something of the structure of the story – it is really four novellas – and the three named locations: Ankh-Morpork, the Wyrmberg and Krull can be seen linking together their parts of the story.
So I think we can see something in this picture, but mostly it’s an excuse to do a new T-shirt.
I think the really interesting results lie in comparing networks between books. One of STP’s most interesting characteristics as a writer is the diversity of approaches he uses in writing. You hear sometimes that he was repetitive, but I really don’t believe that (except maybe near the end). Pratchett had so many ideas flowing through his works that a simplistic labelling of his text as generic fantasy/humour misses the mark by miles.
I hope to display something of this diversity and structure of the stories in this type of analysis.
Quick summary: places in stories are important. Most “character” networks ignore them. A true narrative network should not.
Part of this work was described in a talk at the The Pratchett Project Conference in September 2020. My slides are here. The Pratchett Project has Twitter and Facebook pages if you want to find out more.
- Discworld Wiki and
My Data (so far)
Just a quiet thanks for the people who have been helping me edit these blogs, notably my wife.
- “Maps of The Wasteland”, Eleanor Cook in Bloom’s Guide to the Wasteland, Infobase Publishing, 2007. ↩
- https://www.vice.com/en_asia/article/a3w8w8/well-sorry-joker-gotham-city-is-the-most-important-character-in-batman ↩
A Nationality is more formally called a demonym6 including not just nationalities but any name of a people or tribe in relation to a place. Demonyms are often constructed from the place name by adding suffixes, e.g., “-ish”, or “-ian”, but not always, e.g., Greek. The construction (in English) of demonyms follows rules at least as much as English follows rules, but STP made up his own countries with their own demonyms. He favoured the suffixes “-ian” as in Ankh-Morporkian and “-ean” as in Uberwaldean but uses some others such as Hublandish (and Hublander) and Pseudopolitan. There are many other possibilities though, and I expect to see many of them in STP’s later writing.↩
Another technical term – anthroponymy – refers to the study of proper names of human beings (and I expect we can loosen this to include Dwarfs, Trolls, etc.) for the Discworld. More generally, onomastics is the study of proper names (a proper noun is a one-word proper name, but names often involved several words). And while we are here, toponymy7 is the study of the proper names of places. The full scope of the term includes cosmographical features and in STP’s case, we include transdimensional locations. Note that place names can also have aliases, nicknames and abbreviations just as for the names of people.↩
Shakespeare, one of the most decorated constructors the English language, himself spelled his name 6 different ways. Even in modern times spelling isn’t as fixed as we imagine: in the 1976 Australian census, people claiming themselves as Presbyterian used 383 different spellings of the word!↩
- A demonym is not the name of a demon. ↩
A useful reference for nomenclature used in toponymy is the ICSM Glossary of Generic Terms in Australasia, 1996.↩