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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 allow than the body of the sword, and so when it reacts to being heated, those two sections expand different, 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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Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.

 

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Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

A few days ago, I posted a quote that expressed a rather negative view of our current system of education  (in American and around the world).  First, I’d suggest you watch the anime mentioned in the title of the work from which the quote is excerpted: “Kare Kano”.  This show was also known as Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo in Japanese, and “His and Her Circumstances” in English.  It really gives you an understanding of where the quote is coming from.  Of course, it’s 26 episodes or about 12 hours long.  So, I also hope to elaborate on that in this post and the ones that follow.  You won’t be required to watch the anime to understand the post.  That would be ridiculous.  But I still think it would help.

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with writing science fiction and fantasy–or anything else, for that matter.  The answer is “nothing”.  And “everything”.  It also might have something to do with fact that I’m researching for a near-future SF story dealing with education and society.  Bear with me.

Every society has two important things that make it what it is: expectations and acceptations.  Expectations are pretty obvious, the things one is expected to do to make it in society.  In the modern world, these often include education, occupation, and reproduction.   Acceptations are a little more complicated.  They are culturally wide-spread opinions on what are “acceptable” deviations from the norm.  Being a child film star instead of going to normal school is an acceptation of modern American(US) society.  Becoming a drug dealer is not.

It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what an individual believes, because social pressures are usually strong enough to override individual opinions..  But it most certainly matters in personal terms.  Being forced to conform to a blanket set of expectations can be very damaging to a person.  For instance, in modern America, there is still a great deal of prejudice towards homosexual orientations.  Society expects that a man will pair up with a woman and have children.  When individuals deviate from these expectations, there are consequences, generally negative, in response to those unaccepted actions.

But think about this, there are also ways to positively violate societal expectations.  If someone drops out of college to join a rock band, there would normally be negative reactions, but if they become wealthy or famous or both, suddenly everyone is praising them.  Sort of the old “I’ll show them!” ideal.  But even with numerous examples of this, the negative perception of such behavior still exists, because “normal” people cannot do these things.  You might call these exceptions.  If one drops out of school and becomes a wealthy prostitute or pimp, even that “success” does not justify their deviation.

That’s how it works in the real world.  And on the surface, that’s how it works in fiction.  Especially mainstream, earth-based fiction.  But what about speculative fiction?  All too often, we drag our baggage along with is into stories ostensibly set in other worlds, dimensions, countries, even if the natural expectations and acceptations would normally be different in those settings. 

On the one hand, it could be argued that the whole point of fiction is to explore our own issues.  But I would counter that that doesn’t require us to transport all of our 21st century Earth attitudes into past or future worlds.  You can still address contemporary issues in fictional settings.  All it takes is a little imagination.  And I know the spec fic community—and the writing community in general—has that.

It’s actually a very common discussion topic on web-based spec fic communities whether or not that ham-fisted projection is acceptable in good fiction.  If we look at contemporary foreign literature (and this applies not matter what is “foreign” to you), we can see that these authors can write a story in which we sympathize with character issues that don’t derive exclusively from our own culture.  Look at how popular Japanese cultural exports are in America.  An enormous number of manga, anime, and light novels are translated both officially and unofficially into American English.  Is Japan a radically different culture?  Not in the modern world.  But they do have a different set of cultural expectations, acceptations, and exceptions.

When writing a story, it’s very important to consider what is “normal” within that setting, and what is exceptional or discouraged.  It used to be that people from the lower classes were discouraged from pursuing higher education—or any education at all.  It used to be in our culture that music was a special activity, for a small number of people, and now it’s a part of most curriculums.  And before that, it was a community activity.

These sorts of societal pressure have an enormous impact on us as people, and the same should be true for characters in your story.  Examining and exploring these issues before you begin to write can cut down a great deal on the clichés common to many spec fic stories, such as the plucky princess, the genius peasant,  the scholarly whipping boy, the child seer/mage, and the feisty girl thief.  Assuming they don’t fit in the context of the story, of course.

And, of course, for those characters that do fall outside of the mold, it can create a more deep and realistic sense of tension between them and society.  And it can open up a wide array of themes for the story to explore: gender, age, race, class, etc.

 

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Quote of the Night

Prospective valedictorians take heed:

“A child’s future should not be defined by how much longer they must work their ass off until they can do what they enjoy—because the answer is ‘forever’.”

~Kare Kano: Reflections on a Compulsory Education

 

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World-building—And Why It Matters

One of the first things you’ll hear on going to a writing forum dealing with the genres of Speculative Fiction is that “characters and stories are more important than world-building.” Which, on the surface, is absolutely correct. You could create a fictional world twenty-thousand times as deep and fascinating as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and if you didn’t have a story with characters that took place in it, you’re not going to sell a book. At least, not a commercial fiction book.

But think about this, you could come up with the most fast-paced, suspenseful story ever written, and if the characters are cardboard, you won’t sell it. The same goes for having the most fascinating and intricate characters in the history of story-telling. If you don’t have a story, something for those characters to do, you won’t convince anyone to pay you for writing about them. So, we’ve concluded that no one aspect of a story make up for a lack in the other two.

But wait, didn’t I just quote Generic SFF Writing Forum Member as saying that both character and story are more important than world-building? Well, yes, I did. You can’t sell a story without a story, and it isn’t a good story without good characters. But the question is, how do you create a good story? With good characters? I would like anyone who would buy a story that was exactly the Borne Identity set in 435 BC Japan to raise their hand.

Now, for those of you who didn’t raise your hands, why not? (The rest of you can GTFO.) One reason might be that it makes absolutely no sense. You can’t set a story that’s identical to the Borne Identity in 435 BC Japan, because the story is set in Zurich, relies on the real-world geography of Zurich, and includes a great deal of not only Swiss, but also 20th century culture, that just didn’t exist in Japan (and still doesn’t, and never will) in the 5th Century BC. That makes sense, right?

Now, you could set a similar story to the Borne Identity in 5th century BC Japan. Perhaps an ambitious warlord or clan leader is using deadly proto-ninjas to assassinate his adversaries. (Yeah, it’s cliché, and historically inaccurate, but that’s not the issue. Well… okay, it’s exactly the issue.) But a similar story is still not the same story, right? There are going to be differences, most of them enormous, at least as far as the details go.

You might still be able to throw in some amnesia, and espionage, and a romantic subplot, but there won’t be any car chases, or guns, or long-range communications technology (e.g., cell phones). The characters and the setting, and probably many themes, will be informed by an entirely culture and perspective. And readers will expect the writer to be accurate in those things.

How does a writer do that? They research. A lot. Even the most seat-of-the-pants writer will be constantly checking their ideas against reality. They may decide to ignore it in very important areas, but they will know they are doing so.

In fantasy, or at least, secondary world fantasy, the writer does not have that enormous pool of reality to compare the story to. Instead of research, they do world-building. Everything that your normal, non SFF writer can look up on Wikipedia? You have to make that stuff up.
Of course, you do get the advantage of flexibility. Whereas an author writing in a well-known period of earth will have to fudge things—even when they know some readers will bite their head off for it—an SFF author has a lot more freedom to make shit up.

But, lest the reader still find plot holes you could drive the Deathstar through, you must be internally consistent. And that’s where all that effort you spent world-building comes in. Now, you can borrow a lot from real life: gravity, thermodynamics, human beings—but for most of the history and culture and geography, you can only get inspiration. Same for characters. You have to sew it together yourself from whole cloth. All of it…

Er, well–as much as you need for the story anyway. How much that is will depend on the scope of the story, but considering that most SFF written today has relatively large scope, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.

“But wait! It’s hard enough to come up with a plot and characters. Why must I create an entire world, as well?”

What? You thought SFF was easy? Reality check!

Making shit up is hard, but you have to know all of this stuff because your story and characters have to fit in the world in which they live. Remember our talk about setting the Borne Identity in 5th Century BC Japan? Setting matters—a lot. Now, there are many approaches, many methods, many ways to do this creation.

Some authors spend a few months working this stuff out at the beginning. Some people mix it together with the story and characters as they go along. Some people go back and revise once they have the basic draft of their story on paper. But you’ve got to do this work sometime. We can discuss the advantages of the different methods later. For now, you just need to understand why this stuff matters. In the next post, we’ll discuss how to decide which aspect to cut when they conflict.

 

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