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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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Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Human Conception: From Reality to Narrative

Psychology textbooks like to talk about the idea of “roles”: gender roles, professional roles, class roles, etc.  This is merely one instance of the greater process of human understanding.

Premise:  Reality is infinite and almost infinitely complex.

Premise:  Human beings–and their brains/processing power–are finite.

Question: So how do humans manage to interact with and understand the world?

A human being takes a subset of reality, and creates a rule from it.  A system of rules for a given topic becomes a model.  A group of models is understood through a narrative.  Our conception of the world, both physically ad intellectually, is comprised of a series of narratives.

Similarly, when we consider ourselves, there is a process of understanding–

Person -> Perceptions -> Roles -> Ideals -> Narratives -> Identity

–where “person” is a reality whose totality we cannot completely comprehend. When we consider others, we trade out the idea of Identity with the idea of a Label.  Now, a person can have many labels and many identities depending on context.

This goes back to the premise that we cannot understand everything all at the same time.

It is possible to move from the Label/Identity layer down into narratives, roles, and perceptions.  But no matter how low we go, we can never understand the totality, and this is where we run into the problem of false roles, false narratives, and false labels.  The vast majority of our conceptions of other people are flawed, and the other person would probably disagree with a large portion of them.  And so we have misunderstandings do to our inability to completely conceive of the totality of a person (or the world).

 

So, we take the facts we have and try to find what’s called a “best fit” case.  When you graph trends in statistics, you draw a line through your data points that best  approximates the average location of the points.  The same is true when we judge others, no matter on what axis we are judging them.  We look at our system of roles, ideas, and narratives, and try to find the set of them that most closely fits our perceptions of the person in question.  Then, we construct our idea of their identity from that best fit.  In this way, we warp (slightly or egregiously) the unknowable totality of reality as we experience it to fit a narrative.  Because our system for understanding and interacting with the universe is only capable of so much, we reduce reality down to something it feels like our system can handle.

The reason that certain character archetypes and narrative trajectories are so popular is because they match the most easily understandable roles and narratives.  Good vs. evil is easy for our  simplified system to handle.  It’s much harder to judge and therefore arrive at an “appropriate” emotional response to grey morality.  Because humans and the cultural sea in which we swim impose a localized best “best fit” on our collective consciousness, as writers we can learn about these best fits and cleave to or  subvert them for our own purposes in our writing.  We can pick where to deviate in order to focus our attention and our chances of successfully getting across our meaning.  Just as we can only handle a certain complexity in understanding reality, we are limited in our ability to deviate from the norm successfully.  Thus the  commonly re-quoted “You get one big lie” in regards to maintaining suspension of disbelief.

 

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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: Introduction

As I’ve worked on this blog and on my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that my special skill is world-building. It’s not only one of the hallmarks of what I see as my style of writing, but an interest I can and have explored even outside of writing.  There are many writing and literature blogs on the internet, and I’ve long struggled to find my niche.  At this moment, I think my best option is to specialize in world-building, a topic covered in breadth by many others, but rarely covered in the depths I intend to plumb.

I’ll choose a topic every month, with wide enough application to support a lengthy series of posts approximating the following format:

  1. The first post with be a broad introduction to the topic with an idea of what inspired me to pick it.
  2. The second post will be a general exploration of how it applies to the real world.
  3. The third post will be a general exploration of how it might be applied to fictional stories.
  4. The fourth post will be an explanation of how it applies to the triad of fiction: character, plot, and setting.
  5. The fifth post will be a successful real-world example of the concept, covered in-depth.
  6. The sixth post will be a second real-world example, of a failed application.
  7. The seventh will be an example of the application of the concept in fiction, preferably of a short-form work.
  8. The eighth will be an example of the concept in a long-form work.
  9. The ninth post will be an example of a failed application in fiction.
  10. The tenth and final post will be a conclusion of the seminar, possibly some writing prompts, and some questions to keep in mind when writing future stories. And the next topic!

I’ll have at least a partial list of individual topics in the intro post, some reading assignments(though they won’t be necessary to understand and enjoy the seminars, I’d say they add a lot of nuance), and some exploration of my inspiration.

The intro will always be on the first day of the month, and the conclusion on the last day.  The posts in between will on average be two posts a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Feel free to comment, suggest  topics, and in general let me know if I’ve done anything wrong, or right.

The first official topic, starting in June, will be History and Narratives: Putting the “Story” Back in “History”.

The first unofficial topic published on a shortened schedule in May, Technology and Inequality: Understanding Your Setting

 

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