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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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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Narrative vs. History

Putting the “Story” Back in “History”

(A continuation of my Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar series.  For the month of June, I’m looking at the effects of narrative on worldbuilding and its use in writing good stories and characters.)

What do we really know about the past?  What other people tell us.  Go read Ken Liu’s You’ll Always Have the Burden With You.  I’ll wait.  Not only is it a fun story, it’s a perfect example of the fallibility of the historical record.  Human beings are wired for narrative.  It’s in our genes.  It helps us make sense of a world that’s merely a random sequence of events within a given system.  Narratives are our best attempt at making those obscure rules transparent.  In the story, the narrative of a Gilgameshic epic serves the purposes of the head archaeologist.  People like the story, the expeditions get funded.  An alien tax code is boring (not really, but for your average human, it holds little interest), while an epic fantasy with religious overtones is fascinating.  It’s an open question in the story whether the truth really matters.  The main character criticizes an interpretation of the findings that within the expedition team has since been discredited, and yet when the same thing happens with the interpretation of the most fascinating artifact, he refuses to believe it.  or at least bows to the argument of the expedition leader.  It’s unclear if any of the characters notices the irony, although I can only assume Liu intended it to be available to the reader.

This concept is reflected in actual history.  Greek and Roman “historians” have often been suspected of telling fibs to further their agenda.  Did Carthaginians really sacrifice infants, or was that merely a convenient fiction during the conflict between them and the Romans?  Were there really temple prostitutes, or was it merely a way to discredit otherwise comparably civilized opponents?  Does belly-dancing really descend from the sacred dances of the temple priestesses in the Levant?  Or does it just make lessons more marketable to New Age and Feminist customers?

Beyond mere misinterpretation based on imposing our own value systems on alien cultures or just plain old aliens, there’s a purposeful misunderstanding, of which no culture is innocent, that can corrupt true history and misguide us in our understandings of others.

Rather than the truth, history is just the most successful narratives that have survived long enough that no one can refute them.

These narratives can even be so successful that they overshadow living truths of other cultures, or the narratives put forth by the modern descendants of past cultures.  All it requires is a lack of competing narratives.  Whether this is because those narratives are lost to history or are being purposefully suppressed, or because they aren’t available in a given language, or just because they haven’t penetrated popular consciousness, it makes little difference in the end.  Sometimes we can manage to unseat false or misguided narratives.  Sometimes even when the truth is known, it’s just not sexy enough for people to care.

What does this have to do with fiction?  You can take advantage both of narratives and how we apply them to history and apply them to your world-building, to your plots, to your characters, to your themes.  Being able to conceive of multiple plausible narratives for one situation, and being able to point a reader down those roads can be a valuable skill for a writer.  Mystery writers use it to place red herrings, to keep their characters from looking stupid in the multi-suspect structure of many procedurals.  Medical procedurals such as House MD make use of this concept such that a tiny little fact can change what appears to be the most reasonable narrative, or more specifically, the most believable diagnosis given a certain set of symptoms.

The three easiest targets for a narrative are those who are honestly ignorant of a topic, those who are more ignorant than they think they are, and those who are invested in the likely outcome of a given narrative.  Our understanding of economics is rife with competing narratives and confounding factors.  We know many small pieces of the puzzle, but the whole picture eludes us, and that makes for plenty of seemingly reasonable possibilities.

And as a result, what is the general populations view of economics full of?  Conflict.  Various people are invested in various economic narratives for various reasons.  They may or may not believe these narratives to be true, but they act as if they are true, or pretend to act like they are true because of the benefits of doing so.  Trickle-down economics benefits those at the top of the heap; the truth of the theory is irrelevant in that sense.  Plenty of competing theories are guilty of the same.

And that applies to any area of human study or endeavor.  In politics, we may be more familiar with the concept of propaganda, which is a subset of narrative, generally associated with political bodies.

No society is truthful with itself.  Whether they deliberately mislead themselves, are tricked by someone, or are just blind to the perceptions of others.  Neither are humans.  Self-image is also a form of narrative, whether it’s someone’s actual opinion of themselves, or the “reality” they try to project into the minds of others.  Any non-zero number of humans engages in spin at one time or another.

The next time you’re working on a story, whether it involves a single character in the moment, or the history of an entire nation, consider: How would this person or group spin themselves to outsiders?  To insiders?  To themselves?  How do they want to feel about themselves, how do they want others to feel about them, and what do they gain from the various possible interpretations of the facts?

Finally, ask yourself, what are the burdens of maintaining these narratives?  How do they affect your characters’ or society’s relationships with others?  Where do the various narratives your characters or societies feel the need to assume conflict?  How do they balance those conflicts, if they can?  How do the imbalances force their hand?  And how does self-image conflict with self?  Is it better to assimilate to the useful image?  Is it worth the pain and stress not to?  Why these self-images?  Guilt? Ambition? Or desire?

Look forward to next week for some specific analysis of the effects of narrative on history as regards the Japanese in World War II.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in worldbuilding

 

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Monthly World-building Seminar: Fantasy, Technology, and Occupation

Welcome back to Atsiko’s Monthly World-building Seminar!  Today, we’re going to be talking again about technology and its influence on society.  In fantasy literature.

In the spirit of my official seminar schedule, I wanted to talk about how the ideas in the previous post can be applied to the real world.

According to the MIT Technology Review and the National Bureau for Economic Research, income and wealth inequality are directly related to the way in which an increasingly technological culture advantages the technologically literate over any other group.  Which only makes sense.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely to be technologically literate are people who are already advantaged in a given economy/society.  And when new technology comes around, they are also the most likely to have the time and resources available to capitalize on the possibilities of that new technology.  And this has been true throughout history.  When a group of people has a smaller share of inherited wealth, and a technology comes along that eliminates or changes their field of employment drastically, they have less chance of being able to recover and find a place in the new incarnation of society.

The roots of this problem all go back to the concept of specialization of labor: As a society grows larger and more organized, individuals in the society begin to switch from being jacks of all trades to being the master of one.  With the advent of agriculture, the job of producing food could be handled by a smaller percentage of the population, leaving the rest of the society free to pursue other trades.  This leads to the development of trades, where the master passes on their skills and knowledge to the apprentice, and these traditions result in an increasing level of quality in those areas.  As trades become more specialized, it becomes increasingly harder for an individual to learn a new trade, whether by themselves or from a teacher.  Finally, trades become specialized enough, and important enough to the economy that they begin to gain prestige, the supply of those skilled in the trade is exceeded by the demand for their services, and they become economically more stable and lucrative.

 

And some day, a new technology is invented which makes some trade obsolete.  Or perhaps a step in the production of a good that was once important and labor-demanding becomes simpler and easier, eliminating the need for the people who specialized in that step begins to dry up.  Now they must either invest in learning a new skill or be relegated to the pool of laborers suited for only easy tasks which are little trouble to learn.  The suppl of workers is closer to or even exceeds the demand, and the individual faces a decrease in the standard of living.

Not every technology has this effect, but the more innovative and powerful the technology, the more likely it is.  And while new technologies make create new jobs and trades, they tend to be more specialized, and create fewer jobs than a job-killing technology may destroy.

 

The next step of the association between technology and inequality involves the way in which technology breeds complexity in a society.  As more technologies arise, and the limited population divides further between career paths, it becomes necessary to have more effective organization.  Now jobs in organization begin to diversify and increase in complexity.  Because some human beings are better at certain tasks than others, and because there are a limited number of slots in most fields, especially as increasing levels of technology make tasks in those fields more efficient, the ease of switching between careers decreases.  And even the mid-level careers go through this, such that high-level and mid-level careers both drop to low-level when their relevance is eliminated by technology.

Finally, as technology and organization increase in complexity and investment of time and knowledge, there is a class of job that only a tiny number of people are suited for, but for which workers are in high demand.  You can never eliminate all the low-level jobs.; human society will always have the equivalent of today’s “minimum wage” job, at least as far as fantasy is concerned, no matter what the level of technology or magic involved.  Supply and demand will always hold, and so as a result, the greater the level of technology, the wider the income gap is going to be, no matter how much that same technology may raise the floor.  And as this rise in demand for certain skills convinces more people to aim for those career tracks, the people in the middle shift more towards the top, and the economy sees more profit in those areas, increasing demand and also increasing inequality.  Those who would previously have been in the mid-level fields are now instead either hitting the tail-end of the upper-level, or failing out and losing their investment, dropping into the low-level fields.  You can read a bit more about the ideas of capital bias and skill bias here.

 

The easiest example of this today is Silicon Valley.  As noted in the MITTR article, Silicon Valley is one of the areas of the highest economic inequality in this US, being one of the centers of technological innovation and change.  But basically any American corporation can model these concepts.  Certain high demand fields, such as CEO or other management jobs are paid not according to merit, but rather based on competition between companies for an under-available commodity.

 

So technology leads both to a massive increase in the overall productivity of the society, but also to larger and larger amounts of inequality.  This is something that’s important to keep in mind when building your own fictional society, and it can lend a lot of verisimilitude to your world-building. And in our third and final post for this introductory mini-seminar, I’ll go into more detail about both realistic and reasonable applications of these concepts to fictional world.

 

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