Created By: Larkmarn on July 27, 2013 Last Edited By: Lythande on June 16, 2015

Nonstandard Geographic Directions

Worlds that don\'t have the same cardinal directions as ours.

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
For the most part, because things are Like Reality Unless Noted, no matter what a work of fiction does to change money, animals, or languages, cardinal directions on a Fantasy World Map will still be North, East, South, and West. It's something so fundamental that even many space-based works still use a close variation on the system with directions like "galactic north" (and with the addition of up and down).

However, occasionally in speculative fiction the cardinal directions are replaced by new directions. Often this is a result of the world not functioning like our maps - the world not being a sphere, or not having a single reliable sun to judge direction by - but it's occasionally just a matter of the author using different terminology to make a culture seem more alien.

For other fantastic changes that make a world more obviously not this Earth, see Alien Sky, Fictional Zodiac, and fictional Constellations.


Examples:

Comic Books
  • In ElfQuest the Wolfrider elves refer to "sun-comes-up" and "sun-goes-down" only, until they meet more sophisticated elves who use the standard cardinal compass points (and even then sometimes go back into their old habits when talking amongst themselves).

Literature
  • In Discworld the cardinal directions are Hubwards (towards the center), Rimwards (towards the edge), Turnwise (the direction the disc rotates), and Widdershins (against the disc's rotation)note .
  • Incandescence by Greg Egan uses "shomal" and "junub" (essentially North and South), "garm" and "sard" (toward and away from the center of the orbit) and "rarb" and "sharq" (toward and against the direction of the orbit).
  • The Integral Trees, by Larry Niven, is set in the "Smoke Ring", a vast torus of breathable air around a star. The ring orbits the star, so due to the Coriolis effect and the fact there's no up or down due to microgravity, the inhabitants instead use "Forward takes you out, out takes you back, back takes you in, and in takes you forward."
  • Directions on the Ringworld are spinward (towards the rotation of the ring), starboard, antispinward, and port.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe uses a 3D coordinate system for hyperspace navigation, with (0,0,0), colloquially "Triple Zero," being the Coruscant System. This is about as arbitrary as the assignment of north and south on planets, since Coruscant isn't at the geographical center of the galaxy.
  • Classic Traveller, Supplement 8: Library Data (A-M). The Third Imperium uses four directions for interstellar travel. Rimward is toward the outer rim of the galaxy, and Coreward is toward the center of the galaxy. Spinward is in the direction which the galaxy is spinning (similar to "clockwise"), and Trailing is the opposite direction. These are used in names as well: the most Spinward section of the Third Imperium is called the Spinward Marches, and there's an interstellar transport company called Rimward Lines.

Tabletop Games
  • In the interior of the planet Mystara, the Hollow World setting uses the same names for directions, but with East and West flipped (i.e. North, West, South, East, going clockwise).
  • Role Master, Spacemaster Privateer campaign setting. The ISC (Inter-Species Confederation) uses Terra's Galactic Coordinate System. The map is centered on the Sol system. Positive X coordinates lead toward the galactic center and negative X coordinates head toward the rim. Positive y coordinates head anti-spinward, while negative Y coordinates go spinward (in the direction that the galaxy is spinning). Positive Z coordinates go toward the top of the galaxy, while negative Z coordinates go to the bottom.

Video Games
  • Late in Halo: Combat Evolved Cortana states that the Spirit of Autumn crash-landed several hundred kilometers "up-spin" from where she and the Chief are.
  • Inverted: The X-Universe games arbitrarily assign north, south, east, and west to the up to four jumpgates in a given sector.

Web Comics
  • Schlock Mercenary: the ship and crew are inside a giant hollow sphere, and thus have made up directions like "Up East" and "Down North".

Real Life
  • On the Hawaiian islands, directions are often given in terms of "mauka" and "makai" (away from, or toward the ocean). e.g.: "On the makai side of the street."
  • Mathematicians use "ana" and "kata" as the fourth-dimensional analogues of "up" and "down".

Community Feedback Replies: 35
  • July 27, 2013
    Topazan
    Aversion: In Discworld the cardinal directions are Hubwards (towards the center), Rimwards (towards the edge), Turnwise (the direction the disc rotates), and Widdershins (the opposite of Turnwise).
  • July 27, 2013
    KingZeal
    I'm going to call this an Omnipresent Trope, not a Necessary Weasel.
  • July 27, 2013
    Larkmarn
    Yeah, that was my first thought, but then decided on Necessary Weasel. But if people think it works better as an Omnipresent Trope, I'm happy to change it. Everyone, please chime in.
  • July 27, 2013
    Topazan
    Actually, I'm not sure if its either. Unless there's some Orphaned Etymology issue I'm not aware of, most fantasy worlds have no reason not to use the words North, South, East, and West, so it just becomes part of the Translation Convention. Just like an eye is almost always an eye, a rock is almost always a rock, a cloud is almost always a cloud, and so on.

    Maybe it would be better turn this around to focus on the aversions.
  • July 27, 2013
    xanderiskander
    This is a pretty deep question, but is an Averted Trope really a trope at all? And if so, since it's basically defined as avoidance or the exeption of the use of another trope, how do you tell when this is being used intentionally? What if the writer isn't actually averting Call A Rabbit A Smeerp, but simply didn't think about it? Or maybe it's not something obvious to put into the work? In this case with words like North, South, etc it's not something people normally question, or even talk about. So how do you tell?

    And it doesn't exactly help that the only example is an aversion of the aversion. Makes it seem like it'd be impossible to find any real examples where you know for sure it applies.
  • July 27, 2013
    KingZeal
    That's the whole point of it being an Omnipresent Trope. If a trope is that widespread, then the lack of it is an aversion.
  • July 27, 2013
    Goldfritha
    Indeed, this is not so much a trope as a matter of definition. Astronomers can talk of north, south, east, and west because they are defined by the planet's rotation.

    No, the sun never rises in the west -- despite any claims to contrary -- because east is defined as the direction the sun rises in.
  • July 27, 2013
    xanderiskander
    "If a trope is that widespread, then the lack of it is an aversion."

    But this is an aversion. That's really confusing.

    I don't think the cardinal directions not being renamed is really a trope by itself. Not even an Omnipresent Trope. Because nothing is really happening. There's no reason for it. It's not adding anything to the work. It's just something not happening

    I could see a trope in "creator avoids Call A Rabbit A Smeerp when talking about concepts" because renaming those concepts would confuse the audience. And that's a good reason. But I don't think something specific like not renaming North and South is really trope worthy on it's own.
  • July 27, 2013
    KingZeal
    But in a different world than ours, where familiar things either don't exist, or have different names, there is no reason that the cardinal directions would still be called what we call them.
  • July 27, 2013
    xanderiskander
    ^Yeah I realized that through the second half of my last post.

    What I'm trying to say now is that I think this should be about any familiar concept that in a different world is being called by the same name instead of a different one for storytelling convenience and to avoid confusion. Not just the cardinal directions. It could also include things like numbers, and the rain cycle, sun rise/sunset, etc.

    Kind of used like Common Tongue I guess.

  • July 27, 2013
    MorganWick
    I think the original intent of this may have been a Trope In Aggregate: in series that apply Call A Rabbit A Smeerp for everything imaginable, they don't apply it to the cardinal directions.
  • July 27, 2013
    zarpaulus
    • Directions on the Ringworld are spinward (towards the rotation of the ring), starboard, antispinward, and port.
  • July 27, 2013
    randomsurfer
    On Gor compasses point towards the Sardar Mountains, home of the Physical Gods, and directions are based on their location - which isn't anywhere near the Gorean equivalent of the North Pole. Actual footnote from Nomads of Gor:
    "For purposes of convenience I am recounting directions in English terms, thinking it would be considerably difficult for the reader to follow references to the Gorean compass. Briefly, for those it might interest, all directions on the planet are calculated from the Sardar Mountains, which for the purposes of calculating direction play a role analogous to our north pole; the two main directions, so to speak, in the Gorean way of thinking are Ta-Sardar-Var and Ta-Sardar-Ki-Var, or as one would normally say, Var and Ki-Var; 'Var' means a turning and 'Ki' signifies negation; thus, rather literally, one might speak of 'turning to the Sardar' and 'not turning to the Sardar', something like either facing north or not facing north; on the other hand, more helpfully, the Gorean compass is divided into eight, as opposed to our four, main quadrants, or better said, divisions, and each of these itself is of course subdivided. There is also a system of latitude and longitude figured on the basis of the Gorean day, calculated in Ahn, twenty of which constitute a Gorean day, and Ehn and Ihn, which are subdivisions of the Ahn, or Gorean hour. Ta-Sardar-Var is a direction which appears on all Gorean maps; Ta-Sardar-Ki-Var, of course, never appears on a map, since it would be any direction which is not Ta-Sardar-Var. Accordingly, the main divisions of the map are Ta-Sardar-Var, and the other seven; taking the Sardar as our "north pole" the other directions, clockwise as Earth clocks move (Gorean clock hands move in the opposite direction) would be, first, Ta-Sardar-Var, then, in order, Ror, Rim, Tun, Vask (sometimes spoken of as Verus Var. or the true turning away), Cart, Klim, and Kail,and then again, of course, Ta-Sardar-Var. The Cartius River incidentally, mentioned earlier, was named for the direction it lies from the city of Ar."
  • July 28, 2013
    robinjohnson
    Agree with Topazan. North being always north is like down being always down. Alternate Compass could be a trope, using the Discworld and Ringworld examples.
  • July 28, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    This is Not A Trope. This is just a textbook case of Like Reality Unless Noted.
  • July 28, 2013
    GKaiser
    This makes me wonder: if a planet was, say, cube-shaped, or a dodecahedron, would it still have the four cardinal directions?
  • July 28, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    ^ This is hardly relevant, but since each face of the cube has four edges, I'd imagine there would still be four cardinal directions. The dodecahedron, in turn, would have five cardinal directions. The messed up thing is that the cube world would have six (and the dodecahedron world 12) sides so the saying "to be on the other side of the world" would have a somewhat different meaning.
  • July 28, 2013
    SharleeD
    This would work better as a trope for cases when an alternative system of directions does apply, as with Discworld or Ringworld.
  • July 28, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Yeah, that's a better way to handle it. Can we have non-terrestrial examples, too? Got one from Star Wars and another from Star Carrier, though I'll have to go back and check the details on the latter.

    Literature:
    • The Star Wars Expanded Universe uses a 3D coordinate system for hyperspace navigation, with (0,0,0), colloquially "Triple Zero," being the Coruscant System. This is about as arbitrary as the assignment of north and south on planets, since Coruscant isn't at the geographical center of the galaxy.
  • July 28, 2013
    Arivne
    I agree with the change to "non-standard system of directions".

    Tabletop Games
    • Classic Traveller, Supplement 8: Library Data (A-M). The Third Imperium uses four directions for interstellar travel. Rimward is toward the outer rim of the galaxy, and Coreward is toward the center of the galaxy. Spinward is in the direction which the galaxy is spinning (similar to "clockwise"), and Trailing is the opposite direction. These are used in names as well: the most Spinward section of the Third Imperium is called the Spinward Marches, and there's an interstellar transport company called Rimward Lines.
  • July 29, 2013
    AgProv
    Can't be done on a flat Earth. Refer to comments already made about the Discworld.
  • July 30, 2013
    robinjohnson
    ^ There's no reason a flat Earth couldn't have an arbitrary north, or define east as the direction the sun rises in (however it manages that.) Discworld could have called hubwards north.

    So if the trope is going to be about nonstandard geographical directions, how about Our Compass Is Different?
  • July 30, 2013
    DAN004
    I'd go for a nonstandard cardinal directions. :D
  • July 31, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    Me too. There's really no reason to make this another "Our X Are Different" snowclone.
  • July 31, 2013
    Larkmarn
    Well, this has been... interesting. Since this has mutated to something other than what I intended when I made it, I'm putting this Up For Grabs since I don't... know any examples anymore.
  • July 31, 2013
    JonnyB
    The latest story arc of Schlock Mercenary has another example of Nonstandard Cardinal Directions. The ship and crew are inside a giant hollow sphere, and thus have made up directions like "Up East" and "Down North".
  • July 31, 2013
    SharleeD
    Tabletop Games
    • In the interior of the planet Mystara, the Hollow World setting uses the same names for directions, but with East and West flipped (i.e. North, West, South, East going clockwise).
  • August 1, 2013
    Larkmarn
    Wouldn't almost all space-based fictions have a non-standard set of directions since NESW would have no meaning in space?
  • August 1, 2013
    Shnakepup
    Not sure if this counts:

    • The Integral Trees, by Larry Niven, is set in the "Smoke Ring", a vast torus of breathable air around a star. The ring orbits the star, so due to the Coriolis effect and the fact there's no up or down due to microgravity, the inhabitants instead use "Forward takes you out, out takes you back, back takes you in, and in takes you forward."
  • August 1, 2013
    Melkior
    Comic Books
    • In ElfQuest the Wolfrider elves refer to "sun-comes-up" and "sun-goes-down" only, until they meet more sophisticated elves who use the standard cardinal compass points (and even then sometimes go back into their old habits when talking amongst themselves).

    It may be worth pointing out that on any Earth-like planet, you could call wherever the sun rises from "east", wherever it sets "west" and then establish "north" and "south" according to Earth standards since it would only matter if the magnetic field wasn't the same as on Earth and you brought an Earth magnet/compass instead of making one locally.
  • August 1, 2013
    StarSword
    So Discworld basically uses polar coordinates? Cool.

    @Larkmarn: Actually, a lot of them arbitrarily assign a galactic north, south, east, and west (for instance, the X-Universe games designate gate directions that way; in fact, let me write an example for that).

    Video Games:
    • The X-Universe games arbitrarily assign north, south, east, and west to the up to four jumpgates in a given sector.
    • Late in Halo Combat Evolved Cortana states that the Spirit of Autumn crash-landed several hundred kilometers "up-spin" from where she and the Chief are.
  • August 13, 2013
    Arivne
    Tabletop Games
    • Role Master, Spacemaster Privateer campaign setting. The ISC (Inter-Species Confederation) uses Terra's Galactic Coordinate System. The map is centered on the Sol system. Positive X coordinates lead toward the galactic center and negative X coordinates head toward the rim. Positive y coordinates head anti-spinward, while negative Y coordinates go spinward (in the direction that the galaxy is spinning). Positive Z coordinates go toward the top of the galaxy, while negative Z coordinates go to the bottom.
  • June 16, 2015
    phildonnia
    Literature
    • Incandescence by Greg Egan uses "shomal" and "junub" (essentially North and South), "garm" and "sard" (toward and away from the center of the orbit) and "rarb" and "sharq" (toward and against the direction of the orbit).
    Real Life
    • On the Hawaiian islands, directions are often given in terms of "mauka" and "makai" (away from, or toward the ocean). e.g.: "On the makai side of the street."
    • Mathematicians use "ana" and "kata" as the fourth-dimensional analogues of "up" and "down".
  • June 16, 2015
    Illemar
    Small Discworld note that 'widdershins' is a real, somewhat old-fashioned word meaning counterclockwise.
  • June 16, 2015
    Lythande
    ^ I learned that from Morrowind. Though I think it might have used "Withershins". Either way.

    I'm on the hunt for related tropes. I don't have much of a starting point, but I like this trope very much, so I'm looking.

    And I know we don't like snowclones anymore, but I kinda feel like Our Directions Are Different or Our Compass Is Different is actually the most concise and least awkward name available. It's about compass direction, which are different.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

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