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Category Archives: Speculative Reality

The True Cost of Science

Following up on my last post linked to at the bottom of the page, today I’m gonna talk about the issue of requiring a “cost” for magic, and the hidden costs of technology.  I’m sure you know a bit about that second part in the real world, but I want to address it from both narrative and world-building perspectives.

Again, not an attack on the opinions of this panel.  But, the “personal” cost of magic vs. the hidden cost of science is sorta the topic, and this tweet did inspire it.

The main reason that the cost of magic tends to be a personal one is because the function of magic so often tends to be to side-step the infrastructure so indispensable to science and technology.  When we use technology to solve a problem in a story, the world-building and pre-work that supports the tech is so often already implied and accounted for.  Sure, it costs me nothing to dial your cell phone.  But somebody had to invent the tech, build the cell towers, provide the electricity, drill for the oil to make the plastic, mine the gold and copper and process the silicon, etc.  And all of that took thousands of years of set-up on the part of millions if not billions of people from all over the world.

Whereas, if I telepath you in Fantasy Capital City #11 from Frozen Northern Fortress #2490, none of that work was required.  At most, maybe there was a breeding program or a magical experiment.  Maybe a few years of training me.  But you’re still short-cutting uncountable hours of effort that were required for me to text you on Earth.  And some magic is vastly more powerful on a per-second basis than telepathy.  That is, it’s effect on the physical world is enormous in comparison to me pathing you about the cute boy at the inn.

That’s why many people want magic to have a price.  Usually it’s a personal price, because there isn’t the societal infrastructure around to displace that cost to the ancestors or, as Merc so sharply notes above, the environment.  The cost is personal because there’s no structure to allow for other options.  And also because it plays powerfully into the themes of many fantasy works.  is the requirement that there even be a cost puritanical?  That depends, I guess.  Certainly a YA protag whose mom pays the phone bill isn’t expending any more personal effort to make a phone call.

But then, the requirement of all that infrastructure vastly limits what you can do with tech.  Whereas magic can do not only enormous stuff for seemingly no effort, but it can do things that normally would be considered impossible.  Such as throw pure fire at someone.  If Lvl. 3 Fireball is functionally equivalent to a grenade, does that negate the need for a cost to the spell?  Well, can I cast infinite Fireballs where I might only be able to carry six grenades?  Then maybe not.  Even if I have 20 incredibly advanced, complex tools that are carry-able on a tool belt or in a small backpack, I probably still can’t do even a hundredth of what a mediocre hedgemage in some settings can do with zero tools.

If I feel like the character can do literally anything with magic without having to do much prep beforehand, and without the labor of millennia of civilization to back them up, if might take some of the tension out of the story.  Can you substitute unbreakable rules to get around that freedom?  Certainly.  And most systems with a cost do.  But that can steal leave a lot of freedom to avoid the hard work it would otherwise take to get around a plot obstacle.

And finally, we have to look at the other obvious reason for putting a cost on magic, even if it’s only eventual exhaustion.  Every other thing we do or could do in a given situation in the real world has a personal cost.  It might be immediate, like physical exhaustion.  Or it might be more distant like having our phone shut off for not paying the bill.  So, if magic has no such cost, or physical.economic limit, you have to wonder what the point of doing anything the normal way would be.  And if you don’t ever have to do anything the normal way, it’s unlikely your culture and society would match so closely to societies whose entire reason for being the way they are is based on the limitations of “the normal way”.

So, in the end, it’s not that all magic must have a personal cost, and tech can’t.  It’s more that the way magic is used in most fantasy stories means that the easiest or almost only place the cost can fall is on the shoulders of the character.

But there are other ways to do.  Environmental ones, for example.  The cataclysmic mage storms of Mercedes Lackey.  Bacigalupi and Buckell’s The Alchemist, and The Executioness‘s brambles.  Or, for example, perhaps the power for magic comes from living things.  A mage might draw his power from a far distant tree.  Might kill an entire forest at no cost to himself.  Might collapse an empire by sucking dry its rivers and its wombs with her spells.  And at no cost except of course the enmity of those he robs of life, or of the neighbors who blame her for the similar catastrophe wrought upon them by her unknown colleague to the west.  Perhaps they crumble buildings by drawing on the power of “order” stored within its interlocking bricks.  Or maybe the radiation by-products from the spell energy pollutes the soil and the stones, leading to horrific mutations of wild-life that scour the country-side and poison the serfs with their own grain.  Or maybe, just maybe, it cracks the foundation of the heavens with its malignant vibrations and brings the angles toppling down like iron statues and through the crust of the world into hell.

So, as I’ve said before, it’s consequences to the actions of the characters that people want.  And often the easiest or most simplistic costs are personal ones.  But certainly, you could apply environmental costs.  Or narrative costs paid to other characters who don’t much care for the selfish mage’s behavior.  Or metaphysical costs to the order world or the purity of its souls.  Those costs are easily addressed and provided for when they mirror the costs familiar to use from our own use of technology.  But sometimes when were straying far from the realms of earthly happenings, interesting and appropriate costs become harder to work into the story in a way that doesn’t disrupt its progression.

Sure, the choice of a personal cost could be puritanical.  Or it could be efficient.  Or lazy.  But that’s not a flaw of our conception of magic; rather, it’s a flaw in the imagination of the individual author, and the sum of the flaws of all authors as a whole.

I’d love to sea some magic systems that lack a direct personal cost like years off your life, or the blood of your newborn brother.  And while we’re at it, give me some science fiction choices with personal costs.  Technology in our world certainly isn’t consequence free; just ask Marie Curie.  Anyone up for the challenge?

 

 

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Why Is A Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Information Density in Various Media

You’ve obviously heard the the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and you probably even have an idea why we say that.  But rarely do people delve deeply into the underlying reasons for this truth.  And those reasons can be incredibly useful to know.  They can tell you a lot about why we communicate they way we do, how art works, and why it’s so damn hard to get a decent novel adaption into theaters.

I’m going to be focusing mostly on that last complaint in this post, but what I’m talking about has all sorts of broad applications to things like good communication at work, how to tell a good story or joke, and how to function best in society.

So, there’s always complaints about how the book or the comic book, or whatever the original was is better than the movie.  Or the other way around.  And that’s because different artistic media have different strengths in terms of how they convey information.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. Humans have five “senses”.  Basically, there are five paths through which we receive information from the world outside our heads.  The most obvious one is sight, closely followed by sound.  Arguably, touch(which really involves multiple sub-senses, like heat and cold and pain) is the third most important sense, and, in general, taste and smell are battling it out for fourth place.  This is an issue of “kind”.
  2. The second reason has to do with what I’m calling information density.  Basically, how much information a sense can transmit to our brains in how much time.  This is an issue of “degree”.  Sight, at least form humans, probably has the highest information density.  It gives is the most information per unit of time.

So how does that effect the strengths of various media?  After all, both movies and text mostly enter our brain through sight.  You see what’s on the screen and what’s on the page.  And neither can directly transmit information about touch, smell, or taste.

The difference is in information density.  Movies can transmit visual information(and audio) directly to our brains.  But text has to be converted into visual imagery in the brain, and it also takes a lot of text to convey a single piece of visual information.

AI, in the form of image recognition software, is famously bad at captioning photos.  Not only does it do a crappy job of recognizing what is in a picture, but it does a crappy job of summarizing it in text.  But really, could a human do any better?  Sure, you are way better than a computer at recognizing a dog.  But what about captioning?  It takes you milliseconds at most to see a dog in the picture and figure out it is jumping to catch the frisbee.  You know that it’s a black lab, and that it’s in the woods, probably around 4 in the afternoon, and that it’s fall because there’s no leaves on the trees, and it must have rained because there are puddles everywhere, and that…

And now you’ve just spent several seconds at least reading my haphazard description.  A picture is worth a thousand words because it takes a relatively longer amount of time for me to portray the same information in a text description.  In fact, it’s probably impossibly for me to convey all the same information in text.  Just imagine trying to write out every single bit of information explicitly shown in a half-hour cartoon show in text.  It would probably take several novels’ worth of words, and take maybe even days to read.  No one would read that book.  But we have no problem watching TV shows and movies.

Now go back and imagine our poor AI program trying to figure out the important information in the photo of the dog and how to best express it in words.  Yikes.  But as a human, you might pretty quickly decide that “a dog catches a frisbee” adequately describes the image.  Still takes longer than just seeing a picture, but isn’t all that much time or effort.  But, you’re summarizing.  A picture cannot summarize and really has no reason to.  With text(words) you have to summarize.  There’s pretty much no way around it.  So you lose an enormous amount of detail.

So, movies can’t summarize, and books must summarize.  Those are two pretty different constrains on the media in question.  Now, imagine a a radio play.  It’s possible you’ve never heard one.  It’s not the same as an audiobook, despite communicating through the same sense(audio), and it has some serious advantages over books and audiobooks.  You don’t have to worry about conveying dialogue, or sound information because you can do that directly.  Emotion, accents, sound effects.  But of course you can convey visual information like a movie, and unlike in a book or an audiobook, it’s a lot more difficult to just summarize, because you’d have to have a narrator or have the characters include it in dialogue.  So raw text still has some serious advantages based on the conventions of the form.  Similarly, radio dramas/audio plays/pod casts and movies both have to break convention to include character thoughts in storytelling, while books don’t.

So, audio and television media have major advantages in their specific areas than text, but text is in general far more flexible in making up for any short-comings.  And, it can take advantage of the summary nature of the medium when there’s a lot of unnecessary information.  Plus, it can count on the reader to be used to filling in details with their imagination.

Film and radio can’t do that.  They can use montages, cuts, and voiceovers to try and imitate what text can do, but it’s never quite the same effect.  And while language might not limit your ability to understand or experience concepts you have no words for, the chosen medium absolutely influences how effective various story-telling techniques can be.

Consider, an enormous battle scene with lots of action is almost always going to be “better” in a visual medium, because most of the relevant information is audio and video information.  An action scene involving riding a dragon through an avalanche while multiple other people try to get out of the way or stop you involves a great deal of visual information, such that a text can’t convey everything a movie could.  Watching a tennis match is always going to be more exciting than reading about one, because seeing the events lets you decide without an narrator interference whether a player has a real shot at making a return off that amazing serve.  You can look at the ball, and using past experience, imagine yourself in the player’s place and get a feeling of just how impressive that lunging backhand really was.  You can’t do the same in text, because even if the writer could describe all the relevant information such that you could imagine the scene exactly in your head, doing so would kill the pacing because of how long reading that whole description would take.

The very best artists in any medium are always going to use that medium to its fullest, exploiting any tricks or hacks as best as possible to make their creation shine.  And that means they will (often unconsciously) create a story tailored to best take advantage of the medium they are working in.  If and when the time comes to change mediums, a lot of what really made the art work won’t be directly translatable because that other medium will have different strengths and have different “hacks” available to try to imitate actually experiencing events directly.  If you play videogames or make software, it’s sort of like how switching platforms or programming languages (porting the game) means some things that worked really well in the original game won’t work in the ported version, because the shortcut in the original programming language doesn’t exist in the new one.

So, if video media have such a drastically higher information density than text, how do really good authors get around these inherent shortcomings to write a book, say?  It’s all about understanding audience attention.  Say it again, “audience attention.”

While the ways you manipulate it are different in different media, the concept exists in all of them in some form.  The most obvious form is “perspective”, or the viewpoint from which the audience perceives the action.  In film, this generally refers to the camera, but there’s still the layer of who in the story the audience is watching.  Are we following the villain or the hero?  The criminal or the detective?

In film, the creator has the ability to include important visual information in a shot that’s actually focused on something else.  Because there’s no particular emphasis on a given object or person being included in the shot, things can easily be hidden in plain sight.  But in a book, where the author is obviously very carefully choosing what to include in the description in order to control pacing and be efficient with their description, it’s a lot harder to hide something that way.  “Chekov’s gun” is the principle that irrelevant information should not be included in the story.  “If there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in Act 1, it must be fired in Act 2 or 3.”  Readers will automatically pay attention to almost anything the author mentions because why mention it if it’s not relevant?

In a movie, on the other hand, there’s lots of visual and auditory filler because the conceit is that the audience is directly watching events as they actually happened, so a living room with no furniture would seem very odd, even if the cheap Walmart end table plays no significant role in the story.  Thus, the viewer isn’t paying particular attention to anything in the shot if the camera isn’t explicitly drawing their eye to it.  The hangar at the Rebel Base has to be full of fairly detailed fighter ships even if we only really care about the hero’s.  But not novel is going to go in-depth in its description of 30 X-wings that have no real individual bearing on the course of events.  They might say as little as “He slipped past the thirty other fighters in the hangar to get to the cockpit where he’d hidden the explosives.”  Maybe they won’t even specify a number.

So whereas a movie has an easy time hiding clues, a writer has to straddle the line between giving away the plot twist in the first 5 pages and making it seem like a deus ex machina that comes out of nowhere.  But hey, at least your production values for non-cheesy backgrounds and sets are next to nothing!  Silver linings.

To get back to the main point, the strengths of the medium to a greater or lesser extent decide what kind of stories can be best told, and so a gimmick that works well in a novel won’t necessarily work well in a movie.  The narrator who’s secretly a woman or black, or an alien.  Those are pretty simplistic examples, but hopefully they get the point across.

In the second part of this post a couple days from now, I’ll be talking about how what we learned here can help us understand both how to create a more vibrant image in the reader’s head, and why no amount of research is going to allow you to write about a place or culture or subject you haven’t really lived with for most of your life like a someone born to it would.

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Government

On this episode of Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds, I’m going to begin my look at governments in fantasy and how creating a new form government vs. using an old Earth-inspired one affects your world-building.  There are many different forms of government that developed in our world.  Few of them get an in-depth exploration or even usage in fantasy.  So it’s totally possible to use a real form of government to great effect in your world-building.  You can create a unique and original fantasy world without entirely re-inventing the wheel for every possible aspect of society.

For each episode in each series on creating unique fantasy worlds, I’ll be taking a look at the topic from a different angle, and then in the last episode, I’ll be trying to bring it all together to help you better understand the process of world-building.  Although I’m writing this from the perspective of a fantasy author, I do also do world-building for game ideas, whether pen and paper rpgs, boardgames, or video games.  And of course these ideas can apply equally to other artistic media such as television shows, movies, etc.  You could even make use of them in art or music, although full-scale world-building would probably be a bit over-kill even for a concept album or art show.  I will not be delving into the ways in which you can integrate game mechanics with your world-building, as that is not the goal off these posts.  But I’m not against doing so at a later date, since it’s a subject that interests me quite a bit.

This post will be functioning as an intro post for the entire Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds(CUFW) super-series, as well as for the CUF Government series.  I’ll eventually be creating a page on the site for this super-series with a more formal and structured intro to the concept and purpose, which will be linked to in the Nav bar and include a full index of posts.  Once each series has been published, I’ll also be creating a formal introduction post with links to all the posts with brief descriptions of the content and context within the series, and an overview of how everything fits together.

 

I’ll be discussing the purpose of government in general here, followed by individual posts for each of the major forms of government.  Although most of the information presented on government itself is available online and probably on Wikipedia, I’ll be organizing and presenting it for the purposes of world-building, so there’s going to be a slightly different slant to these descriptions than you’d find normally in a more general source.

 

Government as a concept  most broadly refers to the system by which a group of people choose to mediate their affairs.  You can have a government on every level of society, from a student council to the Federal Government of the United States of America.  The specific purpose of each level of government tends to differ slightly because of the group of individual people or collectives of people over whom it has authority.  For example, a town council can ignore aspects of government and human behavior that are crucial to the proper functioning of a US State Government, because such a government must concern itself with the interactions of the sub-units of government it oversees, whereas a town council has no authority over states and so can ignore their interactions with each other.

  1.         The first thing to consider when deciding how to design your fictional government is the collection of people and legal entities(such as corporations) over which it has authority.  If you have a village of 300 people, you might be able to institute a direct democracy where such a thing would be difficult to manage efficiently if it were to have authority over a population the size of the United States.
    Not only does the size of the population you need your government to rule affect the type of government you can reasonably implement, it affects the functions and services the government will need to manage.  These functions and services may include things like judging disputes between subjects, managing services like plumbing or roads, providing for mutual defense or really any possible requirement of the society it may see fit to put under the purview of the government rather than private citizens or groups thereof.
  2.         The second most important thing to consider, and one which divides many forms of government from each other, is who has a voice in the functions executed by the government and how they are executed.  In a direct democracy, each person has a theoretically equal voice in decisions.  In an dictatorship, a single person might have all the political power and be unable to be removed by legal means.  And there are many governments in between.
  3.         The third most important factor to consider is who actually puts these policies into action.  Are there elected, appointed, earned, or inherited positions in whom the people invest practical political power?  If the people vote to build a road between two towns, who actually goes out and gets it done?  Do the subjects organize the project communally?  Do they appoint a leader who is given time, money, and a set of limitations for achieving the goal?  Is such a leader temporary or permanent?  Does his power last for this single project, or does it extend to any similar projects?
  4.         The last major point to consider is how the government, in whatever form, maintains its authority.  If you have a direct democracy, whats to stop someone on the losing side of a vote from ignoring the outcome?  Are there cultural norms in place?  Laws backed up by a military or police force?  Do the people come together to enforce the decision, or do they just hope everyone goes along with it and might makes right, either way?

So, the most important things to know when designing a government are who is being governed, who governs them and how are such people chosen, how do they govern, and how they enforce their governance.

After you have an idea of these things, you should work out what actual things they govern.  Do they regulate trade, business, diplomacy, human behavior such as sex or religion or violence, adjudication, or perhaps various public services?

And finally, perhaps the most important question of all: how do they pay for all of the things they are required to do?  Do they use their personal fortunes?  And or levy taxes on the citizens or some form of interaction between citizens?  Do they ask for payment for services in kind, such as with labor or the products of labor?  Do they delegate to some lesser body of government or a private entity?  Funding government is perhaps one of the biggest political headaches in our world, and one of the strongest limits on the options available to the government itself, and it is likely to be the same in your fictional world, as well.

 

The purpose of these posts is not to provide a checklist or a template from which to construct your fictional government, but rather to make you think about what government really is and how it functions.  Not every fantasy story will require you to share or even know the exact details of your government in order to make sense to the reader.

If your story is about a rebellion against a central authority, your world-building might involve mentioning a greedy king and his big army, and your reader won’t care that truthfully he sits between three powerful nations all of whom would like the trophy of his kingdom on their wall to brag about to their enemies and so he’s forced to maintain a huge standing army on the strength of feudal obligations from his selfish and impoverished noblemen and a vast number of mercenaries who may or may not be trusted to hold to their contracts.  And he’s having to decide which ruthless political animal to create an alliance with by selling off his favorite daughter to be a concubine for the highest bidder.  And by law he can only demand his lords’ service for five months out of the year but his enemies have thousands of troops year-round, and two of his lords are eyeing a big fat paycheck for betraying him and he needs to maintain an atmosphere of frivolity and excess at court in order to distract from his desperate situation.  And damn his father for a greedy corrupt bastard and leaving him this shit-show he feels morally obligated to deal with because the next in line for the throne is a whore-monger and abuses his servants, but the king cannot interfere with internal household matters of his nobles.  Plus he swore in the name of the Gods to protect this kingdom and he knows that’s a pledge with real consequences in the afterlife even if his father and his asshole nephew don’t.  Also, his oh-so-much-more-capable older brother was assassinated by the nobles in a conspiracy with one of their neighbors because he tried to move forward too far, too fast, and the hostage exchange between his kingdoms and its neighbors took his younger sister and her son and left him with eight third and fourth sons by concubines who have surface political value but whom his neighbors just found a convenient way to remove from their succession if he kills them.

I’d hate to even speculate on the politics of a democratic republic or a viciously contested oligarchy in the same position, and you’ve been contracted for a standalone book anyway and you haven’t even mentioned your brilliant magic system that would make Brandon Sanderson weep in shame.  Knowing the right things about world-building can not only help you do it better, but it can teach you when skimming a particular aspect or just dipping your toes in the pond across the board will result in an easier writing experience and less frustrated readers, while letting you properly focus on the part of the story that really excites you.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about the various answers to the second question above and how to figure out which one best fits the story you’re trying to tell.

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Originality

So in the last post I discussed the major challenges of creating unique fantasy worlds and cultures.  The first challenge I identified was the tension between coming up with a new facet of world or culture while not breaking the logical coherency of your world.  Every aspect of your world-building exists on multiple axes.  The two axes that are relevant to this post are originality vs. familiarity and coherency vs. incoherency.  We’re going to need some definitions here:

  • Originality: I’m using this word in the sense of departing from your idea of the standard implementation of an aspect of physical laws or culture.  So the patriarchy is the example of a gender power structure that is most common in our world.  So you maybe want to use a different gender power structure.
  • Coherency: I’m using this word in the sense of the different parts of your culture fitting together logically.  Say you have a people who live on a river.  Their whole livelihood is bound up in the river and it’s natural cycles.  And they worship a god who lives at the top of a far-off mountain.  Can you make that work as an author?  Sure, with enough other factors, such as perhaps they lived on that mountain in the past.  But assuming only the information I’ve given you, wouldn’t a form of worship involving the river make more sense?  If you live in a matriarchal culture, is it more likely you’ll have a king or a queen as your ruler?  If your people live on the coast of the ocean, are they more likely to be known for their sailors or their mountaineers?  If they have huge deposits of iron are they more likely to be known for their ironwork or their copper-smithing?

Now, we’re assuming, given the subject of this blog series, that you want to err on the side of originality over familiarity.  You’re reading an article on world-building, so I’m going to assume you value coherency over incoherency.  (If you write surrealism, maybe not?)

 

One trick to originality is looking at the axes which we use to judge familiarity.  You might think the opposite of patriarchy is a matriarchy, but that only differs on the feature of gender.  It’s still following a complex set of assumptions about what power is and how we define who holds it.  We have in our world a common concept of a struggle for power between the male and female genders.  It’s a single axis alignment of power.  If you want to be really original, you might consider altering a different axis.  Or maybe two.  Or three.  Perhaps there’s an equal division of power between genders.  Maybe it doesn’t even match our pre-conceived gender roles.  Or maybe there’s no gender division at all.

Now, true origianlity would not just be, “okay, let’s have Japan but with a matriarchal power-structure and everything else is the same.”  That’s a valid method to create a fantasy setting, assuming you watch out for things like cultural appropriation.  But it’s not what we’re addressing in this post.

And there are other power structures or aspects of power structures.  Such as do we have a single absolute ruler?  A group of rulers?  A democracy (of sorts)?  How do we decide on who fills these positions?  More generally in world-building, you have to decide on your goals for the culture or world and then pick the method to achieve that goal.  So you can focus your originality on those aspects, which certainly makes life easier.  Perhaps you want everything to be original.  A lofty goal, though I’m not sure it’s a good one.

But you can have a fairly original culture by just changing a few aspects.  What provides the true originality instead of just being gimmicky is whether or not you let these changes trickle down through other aspects of the society.  You have to find the reasons that underlie your new surface structure.

Another important aspect to consider is whether your ground state culture is the average of real-world cultures or those depicted in secondary-world fantasy.  So a democracy is more common in the real world than in fantasy, so within the context of fantasy, it might feel a lot more original than you might otherwise expect.  Theocracies might be arguably more common in fantasy than in real life, so they might feel less original.

You could look at religion the same way.  Polytheistic pantheons are far more common in fantasy than in modern real life.  Monotheistic religions might feel very common in the real world, but are far less common in fantasy, despite being present.  And Judeo-Christian Gods make up most of the fantasy monotheistic Gods.  So even though mono-theism might not feel super original, the way it’s expressed in the world could be.  Pantheism/animism is similarly uncommon in fantasy, though we have real-world examples such as Shinto from Japan.

Worship of spirits and gods is the most common state of religion in both fantasy stories and the real world.  Rarely do we have supernatural forces acknowledged without worship.  Do you often see scientific explorations of the the river and wind spirits in fantasy the same way we look at meteorology in the real world?  When looking to create an original culture, one of the methods with the highest ceiling on originality is to find the underlying assumptions in our ideas of both what’s possible and what’s original.  We have a big conflict between theism and atheism in the real world religious landscape.  But especially from a Western viewpoint, it’s rarely considered that we might have supernatural phenomena acknowledged without being revered.  And there are many other examples.

 

I’ve used examples of religion and politics because they’re very common subjects of “unique” fantasy cultures and I know something about them.  You can do the same thing with food or cleanliness habits, art or clothing or architecture.  Family relationships, education, values either moral or practical.  How they deal with their economy.  With their debts or social obligations.  Politeness is a fun one.

Next time, I’d like to talk about how to make the aspects of your culture fit together in a way that readers will accept/expect.

 

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Challenges

It’s turned out that this is a series of rather long post rather than one or two medium posts, for wish I apologize.  I’m afraid I’m a bit of a discovery writer.  I had a very compact premise for these posts, but I found out as I went along that that premise entailed a large amount of background and set-up that couldn’t fit into a couple thousand words.  This post is going to be about the challenges of writing truly unique and original worlds.

  1. There’s nothing new under the sun.  Well, sort of.  The first thing to understand is that our only reference, our only source of inspiration for how the world and human cultures within it work is our world.  There’s only one.  That one contains thousands of years of recorded history among thousands of cultures.  But it’s still only one world, and all of those cultures follow one set of physical laws.  So even though in fantasy the possibilities are theoretically infinite, in practice, we suffer from a paucity of stimuli.  And even though we have an infinite number of possible combinations of physical laws, only a small subset of them result in coherent worlds and only a small subset of those are intelligible to us as humans.  So this challenge is a bit misleading.There are many things new under the sun, but our ability to understand them thoroughly or even conceive of their existence at all is actually quite limited.  And your challenge in creating a unique fantasy world is diverging far enough from real-world examples to feel new and exciting without diverging so far as to become incoherent to other humans–your readers.
  2. You have to convince the reader that your ideas fit together reasonably.  If you have a desert world where all the characters walk around in several layers of thick animal fur and you have a really cool social structure based around what caste of people wears what fur, that might be cool and original.  But it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  If you have a society set in the same basic geography as Scandinavia, it’s gonna be awful weird if they’re all eating rice and wearing Japanese-style clothing.  And this is because the environment affects how your society develops.  Tons of people in Illinois, USA eat salmon.  But there are no salmon here.  In a world without complex transportation networks stretching thousands of miles and supported by cheap refrigeration technology, that would be really odd.If you have quality steel armor and also katanas, then your world doesn’t make much sense, because katanas developed the way they did due to various factors including the lack of decent iron deposits, so that forging a decent blade required techniques that resulted in the shape of the katana, the sharp edge of which is forged from a different alloy than the body of the sword, and so when it reacts to being heated, those two sections expand differently, creating the trademark curve of the blade.  And beyond that, katanas only functioned because that same lack of quality metal meant the style of armor in use was vulnerable to the slashing attacks that are the main use of the katana, whereas steel plate is not generally vulnerable to slashes, but rather to chops, thrusts, and bludgeoning.
  3. In order to create a logical and coherent culture (or world), you need to know why things work.  But you don’t.  Most people will have no idea why Japanese culture developed katanas, or why the daimyos(lords) had so much power compared to the Emperor.  But they have the dual illusion of an incorrect idea of why those things existed and that they understand the why rather than maybe merely seeing the surface pattern of the what.  You don’t know the underlying reasons for gravity; you only know the surface effects.  Things fall rather than rising, falling causes damage.  But how does gravity create and affect the atmosphere?  How does gravity interact with other forces to create rain?  How does gravity create the tides?  You don’t necessarily need to know how the tides work to sail a ship.  You just need to know how they affect the ship.  The rules, not the reasons.  Because the world takes care of the reasons and how they create interactions between systems.The same goes for the systems that underlie human cultures.But when you are creating a a world or a culture for a story, there is no world to run the system for you.  You can’t input some facts about how you want the culture to work into a computer that knows how things work and let it hash out the results of your combination.  You have to be able to design and understand the way the systems interact yourself.  When you steal a culture from the real world, the reasons are irrelevant, because we all know the rules and we can extrapolate from our years of experience with those rules to create a logical model of how things work that we can use to both predict outcomes and judge how likely the outcomes the author presents are to really happen.  If their model doesn’t fit our model, we decide they screwed up or are outright cheating.

    But when you have an “original” culture, the surface patterns you expect the system to generate are much more likely to differ from the surface patterns your reader expects, and so they will judge your world-building or plotting skills negatively.  They will look at real world cultures that have similar rules and see the general consistency in the resulting surface patterns and extrapolate from that to the patterns your systems should theoretically create.  If your surface patterns don’t match that theoretical model, you’re going to have trouble with reader engagement.

So the two surface challenges for creating a new culture or world (or magic system or whatever) are making your world feel original and still feel coherent and reasonable.  And underlying those surface challenges are the mechanical challenges of not actually knowing how things in the real world work and so how they should work in your world based off your deviations, and how to derive new ideas from our shared experiences.  And in the next post, I’m going to start suggesting possible solutions to some of these challenges.

 

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Creating Unique Fantasy Worlds: Background

In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.  I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.

 

So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape.  The exert an enormous influence.  On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations.  I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.

Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book.  These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author.  But also on their past experiences with the genre.  If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character.  Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader.  A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.

Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight.  Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place.  So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism.  There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story.  You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story.  But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context.  Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom?  Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values.  Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk?  Sure.  So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree.  Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest.  But it would be dishonorable.  And then he might do the same to you.  The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.

People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain.  The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story.  But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it.  By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.

The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture.  Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society.  Readers will be familiar with those tropes.  So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas.  Or legionnaires and barbarians.  Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story.  Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool.  But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.

And even in terms of world-building they can do the same.  The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting.  When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details.  When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer.  There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction.  Sure they happened in real life and we have proof.  But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building.  If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world.  So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it.  And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.

And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular.  We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws.  Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.

And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.

 

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Pre-Post: Fantasy Counterparts Cultures

So,  I promised a post yesterday on the challenges and responses to the challenges of creating unique new cultures for fantasy worlds.  But as I was writing my draft, I realized I needed to talk about something else first.  You see that post was going to be a response to a common trend in fantasy and what I dislike about it.  So I realized I should probably go into that trend, what it is, what I don’t like, and what it does do well.  On that note:

 

One of the most common criticisms of is that so much high and epic fantasy is just a pseudo-medieval European setting, with actually quite a few historical simplifications and misunderstandings.  Not least of which is because “Medieval” relates to a span of approximately 1000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire in approximately 500 AD to the start of of early modern age in approximately 1500.  These dates are rough generalizations, no need to nitpick.  My point is that it was a long and complex period over a broad swath of territory, the complexity of which is generally crushed down to knights and feudalism and chivalry.  (There has been subversion and counter-exampling of this trope throughout the history of fantasy, but overall, this generalization holds mostly true.)

In order to combat this issue, people began to make more of an effort to use alternate settings than they had in the past.  Different cultures and mythologies were incorporated into fantasies in an attempt to ride the wave of pushback against this trope.  Which led to the rise of a new over-used trope: Fantasy Counterpart Cultures.  (Evil lurks here!)  If you don’t want to get lost in the wasteland of TVTropes, this is basically when a for-all-intents-and-purposes real world culture is has the serial numbers sanded off in order to become a semi-consistent “new” culture in a fantasy setting.  Most commonly seen with Rome, China, and Japan.  Occasionally Egypt and Russia.  Making up new cultures, which are both consistent and believable, is pretty hard, I think most would agree.  Why not just give a new coat of paint and some sweet new rims to an old ride from Earth?  People will be able to grok the basics of the culture from prior exposure.

However, there are a few issues with this method.  That prior exposure is likely to be made up of stereotypes, misunderstandings, propaganda, and even occasionally  down-right racism.  You might think you know all about pharaohs and chariots, but did you know that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian?  (You’re reading a blog about fantasy world-building, so you might, actually.)  Most people who aren’t history majors probably don’t.  (Did you know bushido was propaganda?)  It can also lead to lazy writing as the author relies too much on reader knowledge to hold together aspects of the story or world.

There are obvious benefits to the method, of course.  You can rely on reader knowledge, take world-building shortcuts.  It’s quicker.  It provides an exotic flavor to the world without info-dumps, flowery prose, and intense research and understanding of the world.  When well-done, it can be enormously appealing to readers.  There’s a great deal of Rule of Cool that can be applied to the story, both because of ignorance of historical facts underpinning the real-world culture that inspires the story and the verisimilitude it provides.  That way, the writer can “concentrate on a good plot” or build in-depth characters without all the hassle of good world-building.  There are outside rules known to everybody which can be exploited for the writer’s benefit.  The shared cultural context, regardless of its accuracy, can be a major driver in interest in the story.

Bushido is pretty cool as an ethic, much like chivalry.  And why not?  It was intended that way.  It allows for a lot of subversion and the creation of moral dilemmas that can provide depth to characters and explain otherwise odd plot developments.  The same for Rome.  The legions were a unique military construct.  The Empire was both inspiring and open to the sort of darkness that makes for good story-yelling.  Same for the Norse Gods.  And good historical fiction is fucking hard to do.  You have to find a story that fits your goals, or fit a story into the ambiguities and cracks in the historical record.  All while doing tons of research.  Or you could just create a “new” country in a fantasy world where that convenient but historically inaccurate river location just happens to exist, while all the other stuff is the same.  Where there’s no inconvenient “fact” to run your perfect plot idea.  After all, it’s just as hard to create a new living, breathing, believable world as it is to fit non-existent plots into our real world.

But, I’d argue, it’s a lot more interesting.  As I’ll discuss in the next post.

 

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