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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: 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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Reading Outside Your Genre: Blogs

One of the most common pieces of advice that I hear from writers is to read outside of your genre.  In fact, some writers go so far as not reading anything inside their genre while they are writing.  Which I think is taking things a bit far, but…  The point is, it’s very good advice.

Why?  Here’s another piece of advice I hear all the time:  “Even if your story is has almost exactly the same topic/characters/theme/plot as someone else’s, it will still be different.  Put your own spin on it.”  Again, a fantastic piece of advice.  But how do you do it?  One way to get ideas is by following our first piece of advice.  Every genre has its own tropes and conventions, things that are common amongst the majority of stories in that genre.  But some of the best work in any genre involves tropes and conventions that aren’t normally a part of it.  And you won’t know what those are if you only read inside your own genre.

Blogging is a lot like writing.  There are tons of blogs out there, about almost every topic you can think of.  So how do you make your own blog stand out?  Here’s My 5 Step Plan to Writing a Rocking Blog:

1.  Identify the goals of your blog.  Who is your target audience?  What are you trying to tell them?  What methods will you use?  What style will you write in?  What is your blog’s genre?

2.  Look at other blogs in the same genre.  How do they approach their readers?  What tips and tricks do they use?  What formatting do they employ?  What are the most common templates for blog posts?  How-tos?  In-depth analysis?  Anecdotes?  What style do they adopt?

3.  Decide how to satsify your target readers.  How can you use what you’ve learned reading other blogs to create a blog that people will want to read?  What have those other blogs done right?  What have they done wrong?  Which of their techniques can you make work for you?

4.  Now read blogs that aren’t in your genre.  What kinds of things don’t your genre’s blogs talk about?  What else do you find interesting besides the standard fare of your genre?  What blogs grabbed your attention?  What techniques did those other bloggers use that made you want to keep reading?  How could these bloggers maintain your interest in topics you had never been interested in before?

5.  Apply what you’ve learned.  What do you see on blogs in other genres that could be adapted to your own blog?  What things in those other blogs could apply to blogs in general?  What topics did you come across that were relevant to your own genre, but rarely addressed?  What did you find that could make your blog stand out?  What will be your twist?

Of course, digging through hundreds and thousands of off-topic blogs is tough.  There has to be a way to narrow down your search.

And you can find it right here on the Chimney.  As a special service just for my readers, I’m going to point you to some of the out-genre blogs that I use to keep my perspective wide.

Tune in every Saturday, when I will write a post featuring a blog outside of my own genre, and why I read it.  I will explore what makes it such a fantastic blog in its own right, and why it is relevant to those of you who may be reading my blog, even if you don’t share a genre with me.

Keep in mind that I am first a spec fic writer and reader, then a fiction reader.  I will be looking at blogs that mostly apply first and foremost to writers, because that’s what I am, and its also my target audience.

So the chances that I will be high-lighting sports blogs; or that if you run a site on how to buy and use a gas grill the blogs I feature will give added value to your site are slim.

But they could!  The whole point of me writing this post was that you never know what could attract readers.

Hopefully, this feature series will kick off Saturday, July 23.  I’ll be plugging it wherever I reasonably can.  Please feel free to mention it to your friends, fellow bloggers, and also your readers.  If you have a blog you think should be featured, or if you like to submit your own blog, don’t hesitate to e-mail me.  You’ll find my contact details on my Contact Me page, in the menu at the top of the page.

I’m also going to put this out on my Twitter, so feel free to Re-Tweet (and follow me if you aren’t already) if the mood strikes you.  There are tons of awesome blogs out there that you should be reading, and I’m going to do my best to introduce as many of them to you as I can.

Because I’m curious about how well people police their identities on the internet, I’m going to wait until six hours before the each post go online to notify the bloggers in question.

(Pro Tip:  Setting up Google Alerts and other services to keep track of how your name is mentioned on the internet is not egotistical.  It is good social net-working practice and it can not only improve your relationship with others by making you aware of their interest in you, it can help nip problems in the bud.)

Now, she doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve already selected Romantic Comedy author Tawna Fenske at Don’t pet me, I’m writing to be the first featured blog.  It was in fact one of her posts that inspired this series, because she is just that awesome.  Don’t wait for the post, go follow her immediately!  And feel free to tell her who sent you. 😉

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in Authors, Blogging, How To

 

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The Good, the Bad, and the Timeskip

One of the most versatile tools in ther writerly arsenal is the time-skip.  In fact, it might be the most versatile tool in the story-teller’s arsenal in general.

Let’s look at some examples from television:

There’s an intense moment, perhaps a friend has just been killed, or fallen off a tall tower, or maybe the heroes have just killed the monster, and… BAM! Timeskip.

Because, really, what is left to show after the hero screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” for two minutes.  How are you going to show the come-down from that?  For the most part you can’t.  Which is why I hate shows with a lot of long, anguished screams.  You see this in anime all the time, as well.  You see, the timeskip can be a great tool, but it can also blind the writer to other possibilities.

After the 40th time I’ve seen a scream/timeskip, I’ve gotten really tired of them.  Seriously, writers, find a better way to show this emotion.  The fact that you have to resort to timeskips so often after a major character dies tells me your skills at emotional depiction are rather one-trick pony.  It’s clear you just don’t know any other way to move on from such a scene.  But they exist!  And you should learn to use them.  And the same goes for any other dramatic moment.  Fade-outs aren’t everything.

 

But timeskips can still be good.  Once you’ve finished the scene and sequel, we don’t need to see everything that happens between then and the next major event.  A little “***” can work wonders.

“Quick, shut the door!” she yelled.  I slid the bolt into place just as the first oozing, moaning thing crashed up against the glass.  The sun peaking over the roofs across the street just made the pale, peeling skin more sickening.  I could hear the scritch-scratch of broken nails as they dug into the solid oak grain.  I could see the hunger in life-less bllodshot eyes.  I closed the curtain.  He wasn’t getting fries with this.

***

Eventually the creature wandered off, looking for easier pickings.  I shivered despite the warm sun poking through the thin fabric of the curtain, knowing that if this had been a summer blockbuster instead of the real thing, there’d have been an arm through the door, ready to rip off whatever was at hand.  But without a fully functioning brain, the nerves couldn’t get enough of a charge to do anything to solid wood except claw and moan.

That’s a passage from halfway through a zombie apocalypse book I wrote for god-knows-what reason.  It’s certainly not well-written enough to stand out from the crowd.  But between those two paragraphs was hours of whispers, weeping and shaking.  It would have taken thousands of words and the reader didn’t need to see it.  And that little line of asterisks let me skip all of it, and you never even realized you were missing anything.  You had the build-up and the resolution and none of the junk in between.

 

The same goes for long journeys.  If nothing happens between Parsell and Merrit, your characters can go to sleep in Parsel and be awake and in Merrit by the next paragraph.  There’s no need to drag the reader through the eleventy-hundred bowls of stew and loaves of journey-bread the characters eat on the way.  Which is not to say that you can’t put scenes in between, especially if it’s a long journey.  They just has to be relevant to the story.

 

Which brings up the third use of time skips.  Lots of time actually passing.  If four years happen between one important scene and the next, you’ll never be able to include the in-between, and you shouldn’t need to.

The real secret to doing good timeskips is knowing how to show the time passed.  In our little zombie snippet, it was just a few hours between evening and morning.  Not much happened but the zombie leaving.  But if you’re skipping months or years, things are going to be different.  Characters will have moved around, things will have been accomplished that may not be important for the reader to see, but they will have an effect on the characters and their circumstances.

 

Those are three common uses of time skips: skipping short periods of time between scene and sequels, skipping over time and distance such as ona  journey, and skipping long periods of time, such as in an epic fantasy saga.  There are more, but I can’t address them all in one post.  I wish I had been able to include more specific exmaples showing the difference between a good timeskip and a lack of one, but that would also take up too much space.  If you’ve read any decent amount of books or watched tv shows or movies, you’ll have your own examples to look at.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in How To, Writing

 

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