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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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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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June 2015 World-building Seminar: Technology and World-building

This is the third post in my mini-Seminar on Technology in World-building.  This mini-series follow a slightly different format than the standard-form Monthly Word-building Seminars.  So for this post, I’ll be covering how to match your World-building to your technology in terms of general concepts.

There are five things to consider when deciding what level of technology will reasonably support your narrative with the fewest plot-holes:

  1. You need to have a general idea of what is powering your technology.  Is it man-power?  Horse-power?  Do you have steam engines or electricity?  What natural resource is generating this energy?  You might have food for humans or animals, coal or gas for steam engines or internal combustion engines.  You could have nuclear power running a steam turbine to generate electricity.  Perhaps you have wind, geothermal, solar, tidal, or river power to run an electric generator.
  2. You need to know what support technologies and knowledge are required for your energy-production method.  Do you need metal-working?  What about physics?  Battery power requires knowledge of chemistry.  Electric power requires lots of advanced knowledge to be widely-spread.
  3. What other technologies are likely to have been discovered on the path to your most modern science, and are they obsolete, moribund, or still of practical value?  Most societies with war as a major component learned how to make edged weapons and armor.  Sword-forging techniques are incredibly innovative and complex.  When reliable fire-arms came along, however, they were soon obsolete.  Windmills and watermills were original created to grind grain or pump water.  But even though we have more advanced methods for that today, we were able to incorporate that knowledge into new technology, to generate electric power.  With the advent of computers and electronic mail stationary production is no longer strictly necessary.  Many people no longer rely on letters as a form of communication on a regular basis.  And yet some of the technology and systems involved still survive in diminished capacities.
  4. What technology does evidence suggest are developed alongside the technology you wish to use in your story?  Can or would a society evolve to ignore those technologies if they don’t work for your narrative structure?  Modern communication has invalidated many of our most popular narrative structures.  Yet many authors are so used to writing in those structures, they find increasingly creative and improbably ways to invalidate the new technology and thus create space for their narratives rather than figuring out how to create tension by designing new structures to incorporate modern realities..  Or they don’t have the technology exist at all.
  5. Relatedly, can you somehow justify your narrative or society despite the fact that the necessary combination of technologies is plausible based on your world-building or story events?  How many plot-holes can your story support if you can’t quite make things fit how you’d need them to?

In its simplest usage, technology is the list of possibilities available to you as an author to move your narrative along.  But it’s also a set of restrictions on what you can realistically accomplish within your narrative.

If you have cell-phones, then it’s a lot harder to plot a story where key pieces of information are kept from various characters due to narrative shenanigans.  Really any sort of spycraft story is gonna be very different with long-distance communication.  You can text pictures of important documents, for example, instead of having to break back out of the evil fortress.  Sneaking around is a lot harder with cameras and heat-sensors. It’s relatively easy to assume a false identity in the middle ages.  How are they going to fact-check you when you’re from a thousand miles away with shitty roads and a bandit problem?  In the modern world, it’s a lot harder to get along as a fake person, despite what you may see in the movies.  Communications technology has a huge impact on a society and its national identity, and we’ll be covering those effects in-depth in a later seminar.

Cheap, high-quality steel can lead to very advanced swords–way better than were available back in the day.  But!  They’ve probably been outmoded by guns by the time such steel is available.  But the implications as far as national security and expansion potential given a certain level of military tech relative to neighboring lands should be pretty obvious.

And all this is ignoring the possibility of magic mimicking advanced technology in a fantasy story.

 

It’s also important to keep in mind that available technology is going to have a strong influence on how your society is structured.  Your population density for cities increases sharply with easy transportation or aqueducts to supply water.  Concrete makes for cheap, durable housing for the masses.  Good building insulation increases the number of climates humans can have an advanced civilization in.  Road-building and ship-building technology mean increased trade, which leads to more wealth.  They also make it easier to hold together a large political region, because it’s easier for the ruler to communicate and enforce his will.

Medicine is also important.  Good medical technology lets people live longer, take greater risks, and increases population.  People aren’t dying all the time from plagues, and they’re living longer.  This can lead to more skilled workers, give a genius more time to pursue knowledge, and increase the amount of wealth held by individuals or families.

 

It’s impossible in a single post or even a series of posts to cover even every major question about how technology will influence the world and any narratives that occur in it.  Different environments or political situations are going to affect how important a given aspect of technology is.  Some paths of development on Earth are just accidents of history and can be deviated from.  But it’s still an important thing to consider.  In the fourth and final post in this series (for now), I’m going to examine Jurassic World and the ways in which technology both make the story possible, but also leave some pretty gaping plot holes.

 

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The (Real) Cost of Magic Part 1

You may have guessed this quite a while ago, but one of my favorite things in fantasy fiction is the magic.  And I don’t just mean I think magic is cool.  I love to study the way magic is constructed and used in fiction, and I think I’ve learned a lot of useful things by doing so.  One thing that I keep coming back to is the idea of a cost for magic.

Everything has a cost.  You pay in calories to stay alive, you pay money to get things you want, and you pay in fuel to keep a fire going.  The cost of most things is pretty clear.  But the cost of magic is different.  Because magic breaks the laws of the real world by definition, the cost for using it is only limited by the imagination of the writer who creates the system.  I’ve seen almost everything used to pay for magic: blood, energy, sanity, physical objects, sacrifice…  Another common cost is time spent in gaining knowledge and preparing spells.

All of these can be effective or ineffective costs for magic.  And by effective, I mean that readers accept them as reasonable repayment for breaking the rules of our world.  Before I get to my main point, I think it’s a good idea to look at why these various things might be considered effective costs.  For this  post, we’ll stick with the oft-used and well-accepted “magic makes you tired” magic system:

The costs of a great many things in the real world are paid in energy.  Shoot a bow?  It takes energy to draw and hold that bow before release.  By a very simple process of transference, that energy is also what kills the poor creature that you’re aiming at.  Same is true for starting a fire, whether you strike a match or rub sticks together. 

So why wouldn’t this be an effective cost for magic?  Well, it often is.  But reasons why a reader might not find this form of magic attractive are many–we’ll deal with two, for now:

1.  It’s often not at all clear how this energy is used to create the spells effect.  Pulling back the bow string creates tension in the bow, which is resolved when the ends snap back into place upon release.  This pulls the string forward, pushing the arrow away at a good clip.  Makes perfect sense, right?  This use of a tool is what allows us to get a projectile moving at a much greater speed than we could with our bare hands.

But what about with magic?  How do we convert the energy in our muscles into a giant fireball?  In reality, we can’t.  But let’s say that we decide it takes as much energy to create a fireball as it does to shoot an arrow.  That’s quite a few fireballs, and since fireballs are generally portrayed as stronger than arrows, we’re getting quite a bit more bang for our calorie.  Which is fine; mages are often considered to be more powerful than your average person, so more efficient use of their energy is not a big leap.

But what about for bigger spells?  Mages are often shown to have the power to level cities with a single word.  No matter how efficient our fictitious conversion of energy, it’s rather much to say destroying a city of 10,000 should be as easy for a mage as killing one man is for an archer.  And, it’s not even possible for one man to hit 10,000 targets with 10,000 arrows in the time it takes our mage hero to level a city (or a region).  So now we’re in a bit of trouble.  Our energy example doesn’t have a simple explanation for our city-busting protagonist.

Unless perhaps we decide that a mage can kill 100 men with his magic as easily as an archer kills one with his arrow(whichitself  is not as easy as it would seem).  Or, maybe magic is a much more efficient tool than a bow.  Combine that with it’s utility in the great many areas in which it is usually shown to be useful, we’ve got a fairly ridiculous tool on our hands.  A bow is made for one thing, to hurl arrows at targets as fast as possible.  Yes, it’s much better at it than a human arm, but that arm can do a great many more things than just hurl an arrow.  Jack of all trades and whatnot.  So why should magic be so priviliged?  Casting fireballs, healing wounds, calling lightning, bringing rain, telling the future…  The list goes on forever.

At this point, we might add one of the other common hobbles on magic, a limit.  Perhaps magic only has a few areas in which it can function: scrying, weather magic, calling fire.  But right now we’re talking about cost.  There are magic systems that allow a mage to do all the things I’ve listed and more, so there should be a way to use costs to make such a system reasonable.  Clearly, paying with physical energy cannot handle this task on its own.  At least, not without a lot of contortions and outside limitations.

2.  Now, there are still other reasons why physical energy is not always an effective cost for magic.  One can do great things, and even if they become exhausted, why, all they need is a bite of food and a bit of rest, and they’re ready to do it again.  All it takes to level a city is an apple?  I find it hard to countenence.  What was the creator of this system thinking?

If we were making a trading card game or an rpg, that could be fine.  Once the game–or even just the battle– is done, everything can be reset, both the energy paid and also the damage done with it.  But every action in a story has consequences that last until the story is finished–or at least they should.  Reseting after one battle destroys the point of that scene; the hero is no further along in the story.  The consequence of a magical battle doesn’t have to result from magic, but if it does, being tired for a day and nothing else doesn’t cut it.  Even suffering great pain means nothing if it goes away and never bothers the mage again.  If the result of a scene is benefit to the characters, they need to have paid a fair price for it, and if the result is that they are hurt, it must be a hurt that can continue to affect their progress as the story moves forward.  Every scene needs to have that effect (or those effects), and in a fantasy, magic has a very good chance of being the cause.  So, it’s important to consider how your magic system might be able to incorporate that purpose.

None of that is to say that a form of magic which is paid for in physical energy cannot generate the long-lasting effects a good story requires.  If your character is bone-tired from hurling magical acid the day before, they may miss the signs of their pursuers, or not have the energy to save the peasant girl in the next village when she is captured by slavers. 

But there is a difference between a direct cost that hits hard now, and an indirect cost that hits hard later.  Depending on the story and its themes, it’s possible to lean more toward one than the other.  Perhaps that is the risk of using magic: you can do more now, but you don’t know if that will be worth the suffering you will undergo later, because you are no longer capable of doing anything.  You might gain twice as much money in the short term, but in the long run, you will end up with less than if you had been satisfied the first time.  But in general you will need a combination of short-term and long-term costs.

Most mages who pay for their magic with physical energy are seem to be able to achieve a great deal before the cost becomes even close to endangering their overall position in the plot.  Personally, I feel this is a bug rather than a feature.  Does anyone have some ways in which magic based around physical energy could still be effective in the eyes of a reader?

 

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