Modern Mythopoeia

Tolkien’s legendarium is arguably the sine que non of the practice of modern worldbuilding (founded, of course on the ancient mythopoeias of Greece, Rome and especially the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe). The mythological histories that lurk behind the stories of Patrick Rothfuss, Susanna Clarke and G.R.R. Martin likewise inspire a wonder that deepens the metaphoric and thematic meanings of their respective works, reinforcing the actual narratives through foreshadowing, repetition of events and themes and the creation of seemingly-living systems of belief and culture that bring characters to life.

Mythopoeia is powerful because its focus is unabashedly meaning without the need for historicity and “hard” logic—it is the intuitive quality of dreams brought to bear upon the waking world. It is important on one hand because it makes for better fantastic worlds and tales; on the other it bears a power of its own that cannot be found in any other mode of storytelling.

Here’s the rub—the natural drive to develop mythologies and legends for our created worlds is to emulate the feeling of known mythopoeia, to capture the nostalgia of indulging in such modes of thought without sufficient critique of the cultures and ideologies that informed old ways of thinking—whether from the early 20th Century A.D. or the late 20th Century B.C.

Some of my first steps into Avar Narn involved journeys into the mythological and legendary foundations of the setting. I looked to the great writers before me in too imitative and awestruck a manner.

There were two mistakes here. First—this is my opinion based upon my own experience, so take it for what it is—one should not start at the beginning when crafted a world meant for storytelling. Quite the contrary, one should begin in forming the milieu in which the stories will take place—the worlds “modern day,” if you will—because this will more heavily influence the types of stories you tell with that setting. Start with the immediate, and work backwards—what kind of things might have historically occurred to result in the current state of political affairs, what legends and mythologies would have shaped the “modern” ideologies, perspectives and values that exist in that world?

Second, if we adhere too closely to historical mythologies and their fantastic descendants, we are not carefully crafting the values our world has.

By way of example—a world with a mythology of creation that draws heavily upon the Adam and Eve story is more likely to result in a misogynistic worldview—blame Eve for Adam’s sin as historic theologians tended to do. If that influence is there, it either has to be somehow present in the current time of the setting (even if its influence has waned such that people do not openly espouse such a view—but still think it to themselves) or something has to have occurred to change the initial perspective created by that mythology. This could be as simple as a change of the interpretive hermeneutic applied to a mythology or story of spiritual import. But it could represent a major change in theology or the mythology itself—perhaps one explanatory story was replaced by another. This could be a result of historical events: new propagandistic motives of rulers; the influence of foreign ideas upon domestic, whether by trade or conquering; events (natural or otherwise) that undercut or destroyed the explanatory power of the earlier story.

In other words, if we uncritically draw upon Tolkien’s legendarium to shape our own, we’ll get a mythology informed (subtly or not) but the dominant ideas of the early 20th century (and, perhaps, ancient Germanic mythologies as interpreted through the lens of that same time). Draw heavily upon Greek mythology for your world and—without an outside influence—the inhabitants of that world will have Greek values.

I’m tempted to say that sometimes this doesn’t matter, but any work on worldbuilding or crafting narrative that doesn’t influence some other aspect of the process is time wasted and meaning lost.

For me, the productive turn (which has occurred only recently as I return to the Avarian mythologies and legends to revise them as the setting moves toward its final state) happened when I realized that I needed to think about the social values I want to have (and, as important, have conflict over) in the setting.

The most important (and thus controversial) social matters—race, sexuality, religion, politics, immigration, environmental issues, bioethics, etc.—are treated with outdated and untenable views by much mythopoeic work, old and more recent. If you want to deal with these issues in ways that modern readers could relate to, ways that stimulate thought about the subject (particularly as an examination of all sides of an issue rather than solely a diatribe or invective current in your work), your world’s mythopoeia itself needs to challenge or wrestle with these ideas. What does it mean in your world if your mythology has divine beings engaged in homosexual relationships? It is not enough simply to have such stories—if questions of human sexuality are something you want to explore in your world, the context of those stories also matters heavily.

Maybe my point is simple—like Penn & Teller’s statement that “words mean shit!”, stories mean shit! No part of the crafting process of a setting or story should go without scrutiny or intentional design.

From this, the real crux of my argument is simple: do not imitate sample mythologies uncritically! Strive to capture the power and the feel of the mythopoeic, borrow from the tropes of the mythopoeic when helpful, but craft something that is uniquely yours and that tells readers something about the setting and your story! Take hold of the explanatory purpose of the mythopoeic and use it to your own ends! Your fantasy world’s mythologies should inform both you and your readers about the kinds of values and ideas that are taken for granted, as well as those that rebel against traditional beliefs and those that have come into question. Your mythologies are not so much about the conflict within those stories as the conflicts they set up for your “main” narratives.

Rant over.

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Word Count Worries

I’ve posted in the past about short short stories (1500 words or less) and you have some examples on this site with regards to my more “standard”-length short stories. My current plan is to write more short stories set in Avar Narn and submit those for potential publication in spec-fic magazines before turning to attempt publishing a fantasy novel.

To that end, I’ve been working for the past short months on what began as a short story. This story–I’m calling it Shadowgraphy–is a noir story set in the city of Ilessa on the island of Altaena in Avar Narn. The story combines a fantasy setting with a noirish subject into something reminiscent of cyberpunk (a favorite genre of mine); it’s an orphan bastard from a genre perspective, but that’s something I love about it.

The problem is that noir stories are, by nature, complex. I must admit that I don’t read much in the way of conventional mysteries and I can’t recall reading a “proper” mystery short story ever. When you add in the characterization necessary to the noir aesthetic–not just characterization of the people within the story but the setting and sociopolitical milieu (arguably characters themselves in such a thematically-oppressive genre)–perhaps any aspiration at writing a noir short story is a pipe dream to all but the most genius and unburdened of writers. I am neither. I think of Churchill’s “I would have written you a shorter letter if I’d had more time.”

When I started Shadowgraphy, I did what I often do with shorter works–I mulled over a plot in my head for a while and then sat down to commit it to paper without rigid structure, figuring I’d go back and edit it into a more structured and satisfying story once I’ve gotten something on paper (or computer screen, as the case may be). After about 4,000 words of this, I realized two things:(1) a noir (or perhaps any good mystery) story requires very careful planning and plotting and (2) there would be no way I’d fit the tale into the more or less 7,500 words usually allowed for a short story.

At the time of this post, I’m at about 17,000 words. This after scrapping those first 4,000 and spending nearly a month on writing and rewriting an outline of the plot–much time of which was spent on addressing little details and questions that had to be answered to make everything “fit.” When I’m done, I expect it’ll be between 20,000 and 24,000 words.

From one perspective, I’m quite proud of that. It will be, I think, a well-plotted longer story that’s given me a chance to really work on some of the skills I’ll need for writing novels. From another, it’s going to leave me with a commercially-useless result. The novella is a length for self-indulgence or well-established authors with a dedicated fan-base, I’m afraid.

There’s something to be said for putting in such effort for the story’s own sake. It’s a labor of love unfettered by the demands of the marketplace. Money does ruin things–especially art–and there’s a freedom for the artist that often comes from a certain hopelessness at commercial success. It’s also proof that I’m writing because I love it, not because I think it will prove lucrative–this is a good lesson in humility, and one I personally can stand to be reminded of.

Nevertheless, it’s only natural for the writer to want others to enjoy his work enough that they seek it out. You can’t generate that kind of audience without getting something “out there.”

So, here I am, scratching my head about what to do. There’s no question but that I’ll finish the story–it’s come far too far not to. But then what? Do I self-publish it on Amazon for nintey-nine cents and see if anyone reads it? Do I post it on the blog and ride the waves of insecurity and emotion upon seeing the analytics of how many actually read it? Do I put it in an (electronic and metaphoric) drawer to be saved for some later time?

I don’t know. When I post on the blog about writing, I usually want to share some humble advice born of my own experience. Today, though, all I have is a venting of frustration.

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Advice from a dear reader?

An Exercise in Confidence

I apologize for my silence over the past two weeks; that strange combination of business and laziness that tends to hit at the end of the year overtook me for some time. But now I’m back, looking forward to the blog in the new year.

I’d prefer not to name names, but a few days ago a friend asked me to read a short selection from a book by a fantasy writer whose name I have heard but whose books I’ve never read. If you’re confused, it’s the author and not the friend who I’d like to avoid naming.

After reading the selection, I advised my friend never to read something by that author again—to his chagrin. When I told him that the author’s style left much to be desired and that life’s too short to waste time on bad books, the look he gave me said, “Yeah, but he’s been published. Many times. How ‘bout you?”

He’s got me there, but that only matters if you think that only good authors get published. Before they disappear entirely, go walk through the fantasy fiction aisle at your local Barnes & Noble—or, better yet, your local library. Pick a few things at random and read paragraphs from them. You might be surprised at how many make you (honestly) say, “I could do better than that.”

To be fair, no writer is “on” all the time, and even great writers can write bad books (they just do so less frequently than the rest of us). Nevertheless, I think that one can often discern between “could be good but isn’t here” and “please stop writing things.”

Regardless of caveats and fairness (because, hey, the whole writing industry isn’t fair in who gets picked up and published and who does not), the encounter above with my friend gave me an idea. In trying to convince my friend of the author’s poor style, I picked one of his sentences, read it, and then gave my “improved” version (which could have been further improved, but I stand by my assertion that it was better than the published sentence).

That’s where my idea comes in. When I was in law school, K wanted to watch some legal sitcoms. I had trouble with how inaccurate they were until I decided to make a game and study tool out of them. I would watch alongside her and point out the inaccuracies, explaining how things should have been done accurately. While this might have put a strain on our relationship (at least with regards to watching TV), it did prove helpful in honing my legal skills.

All writers need to practice editing, and why not boost your confidence while you’re at it? Here’s the exercise: take a book you think is written poorly, select a passage from it, and rewrite the passage. For bonus points, put the original and your version side by side and see which one your friends think is better. If you’re successful there, try moving to better authors and continuing to use your friends as guinea pigs.

If you become confident with that, try moving beyond the technicalities of syntax and structure to playing with the art of style. Take a passage from a good book and rewrite it as if it were in a different genre or a different point of view.

I do firmly believe that life is too short to waste our time reading bad books. But if we can learn something from a bad book? Well, that’s something entirely different.

RPGs for Writers, Part I

This topic comes to mind because I’m currently spending a good deal of time writing short stories for the world of Avar Narn and have also just started GMing a roleplaying game in the same setting.

I’ve always had a love for both roleplaying games and for writing, and I’m convicted that my experience in one medium has influenced (if not shaped) the other. If, like me, you’d like to be a professional writer–particularly, but not exclusively, in the fantasy or sci-fi genres, I highly recommend that running roleplaying games becomes part of your curriculum of self-education. The reasons are myriad, videlicet:

Roleplaying Games Have Heavily Influenced the Modern Fantasy Genre

When watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, I amusedly observed a certain dialectic that had formed between Tolkien’s works and Dungeons and Dragons (and also the Warhammer Fantasy setting). D&D most certainly drew heavy inspiration from Tolkien (though a look at Gygax’s Appendix N shows that that’s far from the only source). The idea of pointy-eared elves, stubborn dwarves (or dwarfs, if you prefer) and long overland quests all originated in Middle-Earth but found a new home in D&D and its derivatives. Likewise, Games Workshop’s much-beloved Old World setting of Warhammer Fantasy began as an close spin-off of Tolkien, and closely associated with Dungeons and Dragons as well (Citadel miniatures where sculpted and cast for D&D use before they ever had their own setting and style).

In the past few decades, D&D (and again, Warhammer) has become as much a part of mainstream culture as Tolkien has (look to Stranger Things or the fact that D&D got its own movies–however awful they might have been). The tropes of D&D now often stand alone, indebted to but moved beyond the original source material J.R.R. provided.

And so, in a strange reversal, I find several points in Jackson’s films that seem to be inspired far more by the over-the-top “epic” fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons than by the rather low-magic setting of The Lord of the Rings books. A few examples: stone giants attacking one another as the Dwarves and Bilbo  traverse the mountains, Legolas skating down the trunk of an oliphaunt, the boar-riding in the Battle of Five Armies and some of the action-oriented scenes involving Tauriel (who is far more a product of modern gaming than of Tolkien).

What this tells me is that fantasy roleplaying and wargaming have become so ingrained in (at least gamer-) culture that we know look back to the original inspirations (Tolkien, Vance, Lord Dunsany, George McDonald) through the lens of the tropes and ideas of these more-modern creations.

It’s not just the fantasy genre where roleplaying games have had a hand in shaping pop culture. The horror game Vampire: The Masquerade had its own TV series in the 90’s (called Kindred: The Embraced and produced through Aaron Spelling’s production company–find a copy if you can!) and certainly has had a hand in the 21st century vomitorium of vampire novels, TV shows and movies (True Blood, Twilight, etc.).

My point is this: to borrow a quotation from The Music Man, “You have to know the territory!” I’d wager that there are more people who have played D&D than who have read The Name of the Wind or Mistborn: The Final Empire, though both are of a vastly-higher literary quality than any RPG I’ve run or played. There is a certain fantasy mindset that D&D and other games engenders that leaves people with certain expectations (R.A. Salvatore’s sold a lot of books, after all). I’m not encouraging you to emulate the tropes of D&D in your own fantasy works (for the love of God, please don’t!), but you need to know what readers’ expectations and assumptions might be so that you can prey on them (in a completely benign literary sense, of course).

Practice Makes Perfect

In my experience, there are few harsher critics than nerds, and that’s a good thing. Every one of us has our own ideas about what tropes, genres and ideas are cool (or kewl) and which are lame. I love it when nerds find ways to call one another out: “You like Star Trek? How lame! There’s only Firefly.”

Practicing storytelling in front of a tough audience will help you to hone your skills, and RPGs provide a prime opportunity for this. Serious roleplayers (and a discussion of serious versus casual roleplayers merits its own post–but let’s say for now that both are categories are full of respected and valued people) will call you out (or complain behind your back, which is always easy to check on) if your characters are flat or your plot is full of holes. Even those players who prefer to avoid confrontation (in real life–they often play some of the bloody-mindedest characters!) will be happy to help you improve your skills if you ask.

And, as we’ll further discuss below, running a roleplaying game is a very different animal from writing a story on a page. Notice that I called it “storytelling” above–GMing a game is storytelling without the same rigor of grammar, syntax and style of the written text (although it is full of its own set of nuance and stylistic conventions).

I’m a firm believer that style and substance are inseparable in writing (particularly in fiction, when words must evoke a feeling or atmosphere as much as describe events, people and places), but that doesn’t mean that improving the substance by itself–which is possible in some ways at least in the RPG medium–won’t make your writing better as a whole.

Working on the Building Blocks

Outlining a plot for written fiction is a tough task. Making sure you don’t leave any gaps or loose ends, that the narrative flows up and down in drama and tension and that both the logic of events and the characters move in believable ways prove daunting, to say the least.

What can help with that? Having developed characters whose own motivations and personalities suggest the plot and push the story to its conclusion through seemingly-inevitable (but often surprising) actions. Well developed settings that intrude upon the narrative, providing both obstacles and the means to overcome them. Situations that arise organically from the nuance of the setting, creating plot hooks. And, of course, sometimes it comes to a whole lot of creative pondering, brainstorming and working back and forth through the plot as currently written.

Skillfully creating characters, setting and ideas for the beginnings of a story before attempting to sketch out a plot is more efficient (and artistically successful) than starting with a plot and pigeonholing characters and events into it.

As a (good) GM, what are you responsible for: creating memorable characters in an evocative setting and letting the plot develop organically (and often chaotically) out of the intervening actions of the player characters. In other words, creating all of the building blocks for a strong plot and then letting it go, responsively building events and scenes from the characters’ preceding actions.

This is difficult to do at all, much less to do well. But so is writing, and you didn’t decide you wanted to take up writing because you thought it would be easy and relaxing. You decided to take it up because it’s demanding and rewarding and, dammit, you’ll explode if you don’t get some of your ideas out of you and onto paper.

Creative Juices

Because the plot of an RPG develops through the back-and-forth between players and GM, you can only go in with strong building blocks (characters and setting) and a vague idea of plot direction, because no plan will survive contact with the enemy–er, players. The spontaneity demanded of a good GM means that you will have to develop your ability to improvise, synthesize and dramatize quickly and meaningfully. If you become able to do those things well on the fly, just think about your abilities when you’ve got time to sit down and slowly develop and rework a story.

Alongside this, the worldbuilding aspect of roleplaying is, potentially, far more extensive than it is for typical fiction. Tolkien’s example aside, the fiction writer really only has to do enough worldbuilding as will appear “on-screen.” You only need as much culture as will influence the plot and characters, as much geography as suits the story, as much depth as bolsters the fourth wall.

This is not true of a roleplaying game. If your characters wander to the edge of the map (or, more likely, the edge of the scene) and find blank space, they’ve lost all sense of immersion, and the most important aspect of a profound roleplaying experience has been lost–probably never to be recovered. Because of player agency, you need to know what is (or at least, what could and what could not be) on the other side of that hill, what the heretofore unnamed NPC’s life is like if the characters somehow decide he’s more important than you originally intended, what the foreign cultures that the players’ characters may hail from are like. Your worldbuilding has to be far more complete, because the players are not sitting captive in a movie theater exposed only to what appears on the screen–they are holding the camera and may turn it unexpectedly at a whim.

Is deeper worldbuilding always better? No, not necessarily. If you’re writing a standalone story based more on an idea than a setting, it’s probably a waste of time to go into the kind of detail a roleplaying setting demands. But, on the other hand, if the setting itself is part of the fiction you want to weave, why not become adept at doing the thing right?

Go to Amazon and search for books on worldbuilding. If you search well, you’ll find far more books written for roleplaying games with deep discussions of worldbuilding than those for writers. More to the point, you’ll often find the works with “games” in mind deeper and more developed than those with “literature” in mind. This is admittedly changing as Tolkien-esque worldbuilding (along with fantasy map-making and conlanging) becomes more mainstream, though I’d argue that this is another facet of my first point, that roleplaying games have pushed certain aspects of fantasy to the forefront.

A Feel for Narrative

There are plenty of books on “proper” narrative structure. You can find formulae for stories in any kind of genre you can imagine. Plenty of theorists or writers will tell you that there’s only a limited number of dramatic situations (sometimes so few you can count them on fingers and toes) that get recycled from story to story.

Theory is well and good, and I don’t intend to argue with any particular formula or convention here. However, there’s more to plot than the mechanics of dramatic beats and intervening beats, of a rising action and a denouement. The best narrative is like a rollercoaster–it goes up and down, sometimes twists suddenly to the side, gathers momentum or slows, and sometimes, just sometimes, curls back on itself or hangs upside down.

There are even successful stories that in many ways should be described as lacking a plot–Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, for instance.

Of course, roleplaying games without plots really don’t work except for players fastidiously (perhaps narcissistically) concerned with their own characters. The point is really that plot must be felt as much as coldly planned.

Running a roleplaying game (well) requires the development of a keen sense of narrative structure, when to rise, when to fall, when to zig and zag. This relies on a sense of mood and audience as much as “rules” of plot.

Sometimes Rules Help to Control the Fun

By this, I do not mean that a novelist should create roleplaying statistics for all his characters and then have them roll against each other to determine how the plot moves. But, especially in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, a lack of consistency can destroy the suspension of disbelief.

Rules in (good) roleplaying games are designed specifically for consistency–to constrain the possible results and ensure that two similar situations have similar odds of resolving in various possible ways. For a game, this is in part a matter of “fairness,” though the best roleplaying games (I find, and so does John Wick–the game designer and roleplayer, not the Keanu Reeves hitman) are patently unfair in ways that mimic real life (and may or may not be codified within the rules). Regardless of origin, though, the consistency of the rules contributes to the consistency of the world, which contributes to willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody likes a hypocrit; even fewer people like a hypocritical fiction.

The “mundane” rules necessary to roleplaying games are unnecessary in fiction writing–logic can help a writer determine when a character dies of thirst without the need to roll dice or consult charts. On the other hand, certain aspects of speculative fiction–particularly systems of magic and superscience–can benefit from a codified rulesystem that ensures consistency. This does not mean that the fiction writer needs to create a mathematical resolution system for these aspects of a fantasy story, but the principles of creating a well-realized and consistent magic system for written fiction and a workable magic system for a roleplaying game overlap so significantly that experience handling one will certainly help with the other. Speaking from experience, the complex systems of magic in the Avar Narn setting are deeply nuanced and influenced by my own inspirations from and criticisms of magic as portrayed both in fiction and in RPGs (I’m looking at you, D&D; your magic is stupid and lacks the fantastic).

Jim Butcher, author of the wildly successful Dresden Files, helped translate his fictional magic system into RPG rules through the FATE-powered Dresden Files RPG. Given his frequent references to roleplaying games in the novel, it’s clear he’s a fan, so I can’t help but wonder if his roleplaying experiences shaped the way he thought about magic for his setting.

To rag on D&D (and its derivatives) again in this section, sometimes a roleplaying game can tell you how not to structure your world. From a standpoint of game design, I have a lot of bones to pick with Dungeons & Dragons (level- and class-based systems, character growth based on violence, etc.), but the worst of it is that (probably more through players’ fault than the games’ writers) the rules of D&D are usually scene as the physics of the work, rather than the rules attempting to model the physics of a fictional world. What I mean by this is that, if the rules say that something is possible, or even vaguely imply that things should work in a certain way, or the history of those rules carries with it such an implication, then some players assume that the rule trumps all logic and narrative coherence. Hence jokes of leveling up by pouring boiling water on an ant mound (millions of 1XP kills, right?) and far less funny arguments between player and GM about the results of some seemingly ludicrous action supported by the black-letter reading of the rules. This experience may be an artifact of my own biases and agenda when running a roleplaying game, but D&D does seem to be susceptible to this occurrence more than any other game I’ve ever run.

Still, there’re several lessons here. First, you’ve got to be aware that the rules can cut both ways, whether codified in RPG mechanics or simply narrative restrictions–if something works once, you can’t complain when it working again hampers the story you want to tell. Second, as mentioned before, audience expectations must be managed carefully. If you’ve indicated to them in one scene that your story or game is going to be zany and over-the-top in its fantasy tropes, readers or players will be confused and upset when later you try to make things too gritty.

The Future of Entertainment?

While I’d prefer to avoid making decisions based on the commercial aspects of writing, it is worth considering that there is good work for writers to do in emerging media. Video games are becoming more and more concerned with strong storytelling and literary elements–see The Witcher 3 (in my opinion, the best video game made to date, particularly on the storytelling front).

With the impending boom of virtual reality, I think that we can expect a corresponding boom in second-person storytelling in ways previously unavailable to writers and storytellers–except through roleplaying games. Responsive narrative crafted through alternatives of player agency marks an opportunity to tell multiple stories through the same outlet, to examine issues from multiple perspectives and approaches in literary style, and to leave a more powerful impression on the audience than words alone (possibly–I’m willing to accept the possibility that technology will never surpass the power of raw imagination).

Without all the visual and haptic special effects, roleplaying games already do this. I know gamers who have had experiences in roleplaying games that have changed them as people, so powerful was the narrative created at the table. In that sense, a good roleplaying game has the same potential to effect change as a good novel–albeit on a smaller and more intimate scale.

Conclusion

So, have I convinced you, dear fellow writer, that you ought to consider picking up an RPG rulebook, getting some friends together and playing a game? I hope so.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore some different RPG rulesets, systems and settings to think about when selecting which game to play. In the post after that, we’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of using the same setting you intend to write in to run roleplaying games.

RPGs for Writers, Part III

Having offered up some game systems to use if you’re going to take the dive into roleplaying, let’s talk now about the bigger question: should you use your own beloved setting for your game? I answer the question with a categorical “maybe.” Here’re some of my experiences to illustrate the ups and downs.

Can you let go of your baby?

This is the hardest part of using Avar Narn for roleplaying games. I’ve spent years thinking about this world, developing nuance and atmosphere and thinking about the kind of stories that take place here.

No GM’s plan survives contact with the PCs. My players do not always get Avar Narn. Sure, they understand that it’s a gritty fantasy setting where magic is as dangerous as useful, sinister forces wait in the shadows but “regular” people are just as likely to be monsters as some demon-spawn, but that’s not always enough. When you play a roleplaying game, there need to be some rules–not just the mechanics of the game, but an agreement (implicit or explicit) between GM and players about what sorts of things happen in the setting. Avar Narn is very different (perhaps by design) than the high fantasy you’d find in a typical Dungeons and Dragons game. Characters in Avar Narn may have supernatural abilities and great skill, but the setting is not one of over-the-top action or near-invincible heroes.

When your players don’t meet your expectations for how stories go in your setting, when they unintentionally misunderstand or intentionally reject some of the narrative constraints of your setting, you will naturally be disappointed.

There are two ways to handle this, I think. First, you let go of some control of the setting. What happens in your games doesn’t have to become canon in your world and may still reveal to you important things about your setting–or give you new aspects about your world to explore. This is easier said than done; I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished this approach and I’m not sure that–at least at this point in my creative life–I’m able to.

The alternative, and it’s a harsh one, is to train your players to respect the narrative “rules” of the setting. Were I to do this with Avar Narn, my players would lose characters on a regular basis, because recklessness or foolishness (or perhaps even a really bad run of luck) would get them killed. They’d eventually come to understand what I (or if I’m to shirk responsibility, the setting’s rules) expect, but at what cost? If I cast my net far and wide, I could probably find enough players comfortable with this to run a game, but I think that some of my regular players would (understandably) drop out because that kind of game doesn’t meet their expectations of what roleplaying games should be and do.

This issue is tough to navigate and can easily lead to either you or your players (or both) being disappointed. Beware.

Work or play?

Serious fiction does not always have as its goal being fun in an obvious way (bear in mind that this is different from being enjoyable–think of catharsis, the emotional experience of terrible events that can be left behind at their conclusion and the intellectual satisfaction of a story well told even if not felicitous). If your roleplaying game is not fun, you have a problem–few players want only the sort of parenthetical enjoyment previously described.

On your side of things, will using your setting to run a game feel like work? C.S. Lewis was once asked by a young lover of theology whether he (the young man) should go to seminary. Lewis advised that the young man ought to consider whether making his profession in something he loved my deprive him of the joy he found in it. So much for “do a job you love….” But there’s a point here–a roleplaying game may sometimes require creativity on demand, which is not always the best kind of creativity in worldbuilding and writing. If you find yourself forced to enter your setting rather than doing so for the joy of it, you may find yourself hampered in progressing in your writing and the creation of your world.

Doubling Down

I started with the negatives I’ve experienced in running Avar Narn games. Let’s now turn to some positives:

If you’re running an RPG set in the same setting in which you want to write, the work you do goes twice as far. Planning your game will tell you new things about your setting, working on your setting and stories will give you ideas you can use in your game.

Further, the improvisational nature of roleplaying games may help you stumble onto unexpected ideas for the furtherance of setting and stories–your players may stimulate you to unlock untapped creativity for your world.

Constructive Criticism

While by no means a market-study or a scientifically-valid survey, your players’ feedback will help you to revise your setting by identifying what’s working and what’s not. In particular, RPG players tend to be quick to point out internal inconsistency–the death of a fictional setting.

Indulgence

I have to admit that there is a deep joy that comes from diving into your fantasy world rather than viewing it from a remove. I readily defy the idea that fantasy is mostly (or even much) about escapism, but there a happiness endemic to humanity closely attached to creation and experience, to the exploration of something other than what is. (If that sounds like escapism to you, I’d argue that there’s a difference between retreating to a fantasy world to avoid reality and diving into a fantasy world for the joy of experiencing that world regardless of its comparison to reality).

There are few other ways to participate in your world in such an intimate way. Indeed, I’d say that if your inclinations are towards worldbuilding itself rather than storytelling, you’ll get much more enjoyment from running roleplaying games set in your world than you would from writing stories about your world. If you’re like me, do both when you can manage and reap all the benefits you can.

Storytelling Plus

Why do we create fantasy settings? As I mentioned above, there is a deep human need to create, and you may well feel that you have no choice in the matter–you are pregnant with ideas that must be born (to use a Renaissance analogy). Then there’s the natural desire to share things we love with others, to get them to experience the same joy we have from something.

Here’s perhaps where roleplaying can do something no other storytelling medium can–you can immerse your players in your world with second-person fiction, letting them experience your ideas in a way far more intimate than traditional writing.

If you subscribe to Joss Whedon’s statement (about Firefly, if I remember correctly) that “I’d rather create a show that five people have to see than one that fifty-thousand people want to see.” (I’m paraphrasing and the numbers used may be off, but you get the idea). That is to say, if it’s really about the art itself (that we could all bring ourselves to such true virtue!), you may well find more satisfaction in running a game for a few people than writing for the masses.

Conclusion

While I recommend that speculative fiction writers at least try roleplaying games to see how the genre helps them with their craft, I see justifications both for and against using your own narrative setting for those games. If, like me, you have trouble relinquishing artistic control, you may be better of using a different setting for your games. In so doing, whether you use a published setting or a new creation of your own, you’ll learn things that you can readily apply to your spec-fic setting.

If you can let go a little, or especially if you enjoy collaborative creativity, you may well find a deep joy in running games set in your world that enhances the other joys your setting provides.

 

RPGs for Writers, Part II

In the previous post on this subject, I offered some arguments for why writers (particularly speculative fiction writers) should consider adding the running of roleplaying games to their toolbox for development of the craft. This time, I’m going to suggest a few particular games that might help you to begin.

A Bit of Theory

If you spend much time with online forums about pen and paper roleplaying games, you’ll come across a few particular common theories that inform the discussions found there. The first is GNS theory, meaning “Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist.” In short, the idea is that there are three main approaches or sets of goals people have when approaching RPGs. Gamists want to achieve and “win.” Narrativists want to indulge and immerse themselves in character and plot. Simulationists focus on the coherence of the rules and reality in which they play, especially as those rules help create narrative that meshes well with our the player’s own experiences of how reality (extrapolated for fantasy and science-fiction, of course) tends to work. About this, I’ll say what I say about most attempts to categorize things into neat theories–it’s a gross oversimplification that misleads more than helps, I think. I’ve never found a person who fits solidly into only one of those descriptions.

That said, GNS theory has proved useful because it encourages us to think about the games we play critically. At the heart of GNS theory is the idea that different RPGs are about different things; they have different goals that (at least when done well) lead to different rules, attitudes and atmosphere.

The more modern argument about the classification of RPGs is whether they are “traditional roleplaying games” or “storytelling games.” In many ways, this relates to discussions about whether games are or should be “rules-light” or “rules-heavy” (though this is more often called “crunchy.” The argument I commonly see put forth is that storytelling games are an entirely separate category from roleplaying games, the supposed focus of storytelling games being on collectively creating a narrative with very few rules getting in the way and the focus of roleplaying games using rules (extensive or not) to decide the outcome of events in the progressing narrative at least as much, if not more, than “mere” dramatic requirements. Again, I don’t buy this; there are plenty of rules-heavy games that focus on the creation of meaningful narrative above all else, and probably some rules-light games that focus more on the game than the story.

Why bring all this up? Truthfully, probably because I’m a pedant. In my defense, though, these are things I’ve been thinking about lately as I lay the groundwork for creating a roleplaying game for my Avar Narn setting. Since both worldbuilding and creative traditional fiction with Avar Narn are goals I’ve set above a marketable (or even playable) RPG, I’ve been looking at lots of systems to determine how many and what kind of rules would be best to capture the feel and nature of Avar Narn in the improvisational format of the roleplaying game. To speak more plainly (I hope), my thoughts on the above influence the recommendations I’ll make below.

RPGs for the Writer

Roleplaying games have come a long way since the birth of Dungeons and Dragons in the 70’s. “Modern” games have moved away from the wargaming roots of the genre’s pater familias and toward a focus on narrative. By “narrative” in this context, I mean a focus on capturing the feel and structure of traditional fiction.

The gamer/writer will probably get the most out of games with a narrative focus (though any RPG has a narrative focus if you run and play it that way). So, my top three suggestions are some of my favorite narrative-focused RPGs.

FATE (Evil Hat Productions)

If you’re a writer who wants to try running a roleplaying game and it’s something you’ve never done before, I can’t give a better recommendation than FATE. The FATE RPG runs relatively rules-light (although it’s really a toolkit for running the type of game you want to run, so you can make the rules as involved as you like by grafting on additional systems) and, by design, uses narrative logic to influence the mechanics of the game.

The primary vehicle for this is the aspect. An aspect is a short narrative tag on a character, scene or object. Examples might be Sucker for a Pretty Face or (my favorite) On Fire! At the same time an aspect tells you something about the character or situation, it carries oomph–under the right circumstances (usually by spending a character resource called Fate Points, but sometimes for free) a player or the GM can reference an aspect to affect a roll of the dice. If the aspect positively affects a roll, the actor gets a +2 bonus on the roll (quite significant given FATE’s range of results). If it would negatively affect a roll, the same bonus is added to the resistance to the actor.

Aspects can also be compelled by the GM or a player to cause the player to act in a manner that is counter-productive but fitting for the character to complicate the plot. The noir detective with Sucker for a Pretty Face may fall for the femme fatale even though everyone else knows what’s going on. In exchange for accepting this narrative turn, the player receives a Fate point, which he can spend later to help his character succeed (or maybe just survive).

FATE uses Fudge dice, which are six-sided dice that have two blank faces, two faces with a “+” and two faces with a “-“. You roll four, looking at the appropriate character trait’s rating and adding one for each plus and subtracting one for each minus. That number is compared to the difficulty of the task to determine success.

I could go on and on about the innovative and influential aspects of the FATE system (see what I did there?), but there’s more ground to cover and you can find full reviews elsewhere on the net. I’ll summarize by saying that FATE has a system that’s easy to grasp, fun to tweak and that feels intuitive to the creative writer.

I will also say, however, that many of the principles of FATE can be used in other roleplaying games without using the mechanics whole cloth.For instance, you don’t need to spend a lot of time writing down scene aspects on notecards to take a look at the description of the narrative and the scene and say “circumstances should affect your action like this, so here’s a modifier” in other games.

Either way, it’s worth a look. Best of all, it’s free!

Cortex Plus (Margaret Weis Productions)

I’ve heard Cortex Plus called “FATE with more crunch.” I suppose that’s true, but given the toolkit nature of both rulesets, there could be wide variation in the “heaviness” of the rules.

To name drop, Cortex Plus is produced by Margaret Weis, co-creator of Dragonlance and is written by (among others) Ryan Macklin–a major force behind FATE, Rob Donahue (who’s written for many different games) and Philamena Young (who has worked on some of my favorite games–Shadowrun and World of Darkness–and who has become a voice worth listening to in terms of both game theory and gamer culture). Maybe to recommend it more, Cortex Plus is used for the following franchised RPGs: Marvel Superheroes, Leverage, Smallville and Firefly.

The base book (really the only you need unless you’re going to play one of the above-mentioned settings) is the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide.

Like FATE, Cortex Plus focuses on a strong dialectic between narrative and mechanics. Conflict is resolved by forming a dice pools from different sized dice that represent different traits, skills or belongings of the actor and rolling against a dice pool created from the opposing character’s traits or the circumstances of the task and scene. The two highest-rolling dice (this can be manipulated) are totaled and compared to determine success or failure.

By giving you control over the categories into which relevant traits fall, Cortex Plus allows you to use a toolbox game to create the feel of particular types of narrative–from the dramatic television represented by Smallville and its ilk to heist-style stories a la Leverage to the thrillin’ heroics of Firefly and much much more in between. This provides the writer a way to customize the stories she tells in RPG form and even to set the mood of the game without much heartache. A game where you receive dice for your pool based on the nature of your relationship with a person and one of a handful of ideals feels very different from a game with character statistics like “muscle” and “guns”. Same mechanic, different atmosphere.

I’ve run and played in several Cortex Plus games–I’ve even used it to run Avar Narn. The “heroic fantasy” rules in the Hacker’s Guide provided a good starting place for developing the grittier more dangerous feel of my own world.

I really like the way the Cortex Plus system works, but I do have a few complaints. While reskinning rules and attributes to fit the tone of your setting goes a long way, a universal system like FATE or Cortex Plus will never match what a customized ruleset will do to accentuate and define a setting. Also like FATE, I think that some of the concepts from Cortex Plus can be used effectively without needing to resort to mechanics to enforce them. That’s my opinion and the people I game with very much like both FATE and Cortex Plus.

HeroQuest (written by Robin Laws and published by Chaosium)

No to be confused with a number of other titles with the same or similar names, Robin D. Laws’ Heroquest is another narrative-focused ruleset that would suit the author experimenting in roleplaying games quite well.

Robin Laws is unqualifiedly a master of narrative in roleplaying games. His Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and Hamlet’s Hit Points are excellent books for people who want to run games well (no easy task). Writers should read Hamlet’s Hit Points even if they don’t ever run a roleplaying game.

In addition to writing about RPGs, Robin Laws has written for more RPGs and publishers than I can count and has published a number of RPGs of his own design, including Feng Shui, Hillfolk and HeroQuest.

Like FATE and Cortex Plus, HeroQuest turns narrative descriptions into actual mechanics. The mechanics of HeroQuest are simple and streamlined in the interest of telling fast-paced stories where the rules bleed into the background. Does that make it a storytelling game rather than an RPG? Don’t know, don’t care.

While I’ve played FATE and Cortex Plus extensively, I have not played HeroQuest; I’ve only read the rulebook. That said, it made me excited to roleplay in a way that only a few games do, and I’ve considered using it for games I want to run on many occasions.

Conclusion

The three games I’ve mentioned here are on the rules-light side with a stated narrativist agenda, for whatever that’s worth. Really, they’re just games that are or seem to be easy to run, easily adaptable to your setting of choice and focused on the aspects of roleplaying games most useful to the writer.

Online publishing has been a Godsend for gamers, as it’s allowed an explosion of new games and innovative ideas that are not forced to run the gauntlet of publishing pitfalls (which exist even, if not especially, in the gaming world, I gather).

There are many excellent games to play, many very good rulesets (though I’ve found none I’m willing to call perfect) and many interesting settings to explore to pilfer inspiration from. Go out and find them!

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the ups and downs of using your own fantasy setting for running a roleplaying game.

Learning for Science! (Or Worldbuilding)

In one of my previous posts (“Worldbuilding – An Education”) I talked about the value of the worldbuilding hobby for expanding one’s educational goals and accomplishments. This time, I’m going to approach the same topic from the other side–how learning helps your worldbuilding. In particular, I want to share some resources that have been helpful to me in my own practice of the pursuit.

As you know, most of my worldbuilding is done for the purpose of creating settings for my speculative fiction (or, less frequently, for roleplaying games). I’d like to pause for a moment for a brief confession: learning for the purpose of gaining knowledge and tools for worldbuilding is something of a safety net for my productivity. Writing is almost always difficult (sometimes the words come easy, but making them say something worth saying in a way that holds attention is far from automatic) and often frustrating. As much as I enjoy it (and feel called to it), writing is often work.

There are many things that I like to do that are not work. Exercising (though it’s only slightly less difficult than writing–particularly running), reading, building things, watching TV, listening to music, pretending I can draw, and–especially–video games (even though Jane McGonigal would not entirely agree that video games are not work of a sort, and I agree). When writing becomes difficult, the seductive call of things that do not feel like work becomes ever more powerful, and discipline in writing is, for me at least, a difficult thing to maintain as it is. So, when I give in to temptation to mindlessly play video games, find some project around the house to help me procrastinate or otherwise avoid what I feel like I should really be doing, I play an audiobook. That way, I’m at least learning something that will be useful to me when I sit back down to write. A lot of what I have to offer in this post are things I’ve come across during that liminal state of wishing I was writing but lacking the motivation to actually be writing.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

I’ve mentioned Dan Carlin several times in various posts on the blog, but it can’t hurt to bring him up one more time. His Hardcore History series covers many topics throughout human history from the 20th century to the very early historical period. A worldbuilder must be a student of history. Fiction is, in some ways, simply created dramatic history. This is often on the personal level, but the fantasy genre also often thrusts its characters into world-shaking events of epic importance. To do that well, or to create a setting that supports any kind of fantasy story, you need to be able to have a general sense for the flow of history–that is how one event influences and shapes those that follow–and for communicating the feeling of history; that is, giving the reader a sense of what it is to be alive and in the culture and history of the setting.

Dan Carlin is an excellent historian in general I think (though he doesn’t describe himself as such). Where he really shines is in communicating the feeling of history. When you listen to one of Carlin’s series, he takes the time to ask the questions and give the descriptions that invite you to imaginatively and emotionally participate in the events discussed. So, I’d recommend him both for the substance of his histories and for his method of historiography. Carlin gives us an example of how to think about histories–real or fictitious–in ways that bring them to life.

Great Courses

I love the Great Courses series (www.thegreatcourses.com; also available through Audible.com and Amazon). This is partially just because I’d be a perpetual student if I could be. Nevertheless, the breadth and scope of courses offered by The Great Courses company allows you to target specific points in history or culture (or science or politics and many other subjects for that matter) and delve deeply into that subject–for tens of hours.

If you’re not familiar, the Great Courses are essentially recorded undergraduate classes comprised of 30-45 minute lectures prepared and given by some of the foremost professors in the higher education systems of the Western world.

Here are a few courses I’ve personally found useful (your mileage may vary, as they say):

“Buddhism” by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel

“Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” by Prof. Glenn S. Holland

“Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History” by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

“The Italian Renaissance” by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett

“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” by Prof. Andrew C. Fix

“The Late Middle Ages” by Prof. Philip Daileader

“The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Prof. Kenneth W. Harl

“The Medieval World” by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong

“Medieval Heroines in History and Legend” by Prof. Bonnie Wheeler

“The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Prof. Robert Garland

As a note: I have a master’s degree in medieval and renaissance literature and my B.A. in History also focused on that time span, and yet I always gain something new and fascinating in these courses. Knowledge is funny that way, I guess.

Curiosity Stream

Curiosity Stream is a subscription, on-demand service like Netflix except that it is only for documentaries. Feeling lazy and want to veg while watching TV? Here’s your excuse to do so and still like your making some progress on your worldbuilding.

The best part of Curiosity Stream is the source of many of its documentaries–BBC and Sky from the UK and various subtitled or dubbed documentaries from the rest of Europe. This gives you access to docs you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime (the selections on which I often find disappointing) and gives you a look at topics from other than an American worldview (this, also, is essential for good worldbuilding–your cultures must stand on their own, not as representations, modifications or critiques of your own culture).

Worldbuilding Books

To be honest, there are few worldbuilding books that seem worth the investment of time once I’ve gone through them. Some are just too generic and obvious to be helpful; others want you to dive so deeply into things like plate tectonics and the albedo of your planet that (unless you’re writing something where such details are important to setting or story–I’m looking at you, hard sci-fi) you’ll end up wasting hours making calculations that (if you’re like me) probably end up wrong and that you’ll forget and never use anyway. Still, you do need to be able to avoid (or, I suppose, willing to ignore) glaring mistakes in the creation of a world that will distract its visits from the willing suspension of disbelief.

One example–rivers tend to converge; they do not tend to (but on rare occasions do) split into multiple major waterways (with the occasional exception of the river delta, though that’s different, I’d say). Maps or geographic descriptions that do not follow real-world data (and that do not have some sort of in-setting explanation for the variance) will annoy those with the specialized knowledge to point out the error and may even unsettle others who have a sense that something doesn’t add up even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Most of us do not have the time to become intimately familiar and comfortable with such diverse fields as geography, geology, planetary physics, ecology and biology, etc. Having a worldbuilding book that helps manage some of these issues can be a great time-saver (and an interesting read).

I only have two recommendations in this category that I’m really comfortable making:

The Planet Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder. This is a great book for negotiating some of the larger scientific issues if you need to create a whole planet or want your setting to be that detailed.

Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic. This book outlines many aspects of culture that a worldbuilder might want to define, along with some writing exercises to bring that information into narrative form. I won’t say that this book alone is going to inspire you to create a culture, but it is very good at asking the questions you ought to ask while building a culture.

Both Rosenfelder and Lisle have a number of other books on worldbuilding (and language construction, if you’re into that sort of thing) available, but the two above are the only ones I would say should definitely sit on a worldbuilder’s bookshelf (or in the memory of her Kindle or iPad or whatever).

PBS’s SpaceTime Series

This is a recent discovery for me. It’s a show viewable on YouTube (without any subscription) that tackles advanced physics questions in ways understandable to a lay audience. If you’re into hard-science settings (or at least high-plausibility in your sci-fi), there’s a wealth of information here on how to accurate depict artificial gravity (using centrifugal force at the proper radius and rotation speed to achieve 1G while minimizing the Coriolis effect), the feasibility of various sublight and FTL drives, etc.

Have you, dear readers, found some valuable fonts of knowledge and learning that have helped you in your own worldbuilding? Please share through a comment!

 

 

Single Sitting Stories

Hopefully by now you’ve seen the two pieces of my own humble attempts at fiction posted to the blog recently, the short short story “Kenning” and the longer “Rites of Passage.”

Since finishing the longer piece, I’ve decided to turn my hand to more short short stories (1500 words and under). Writer’s Digest is holding a competition for stories of that length and I’ve decided to focus my efforts on that before taking up a different writing task.

I’ll likely post the stories that I write but don’t submit for the competition to the blog, so–provided you enjoy reading my writing–there should be more to look out for relatively soon.

Having completed the first of the pieces of several I’ll chose from for my ultimate submission, I’ve got to say that I wish that I’d started writing short short stories much sooner. I highly recommend them.

A story of 1500 words or less can be written in a single sitting. Yes, this might be a somewhat long sitting depending on your own writing/editing speed, but that’s not a bad thing. Writing a self-contained story in a single go offers many advantages.

First, it forces you to push through. If you’ve determined in advance that you’re not getting up until the story’s finished, you can work on your writing discipline in manageable but meaningful chunks. Discipline is one of the most important attributes of a successful writer (maybe the most important–the lack of such discipline I’ve had until relatively recently certainly prevented me from improving and enjoying my writing to this extent earlier in my life).

Like most skills, you have to work your way up. Over a decade ago, at the end of my college career, I wrote my first novel. No, you can’t see it; I’m embarrassed to even think about it, it’s so poorly written. But one major difficulty I had with it was sitting for long periods to focus on writing–combined with disappointment about my perceived lack of progress.

Writing a short short story gives you a small place to start to build the perseverance necessary to writing longer works over multiple sessions.

Successfully completing a story is a big confidence-builder, too. One of the difficulties of establishing good habits and a sustainable mindset in the pursuit of any complex art is that you have to maintain the focus and will to keep going over periods of time. It’s in some ways the ultimate test of delayed-gratification, exacerbated by the neurosis that most (if not all) creative-types have about the value and worth of their creations.

As important, stories of about 1500 words are a very good length for having a complete (albeit condensed) narrative to practice with, allowing you to experiment with and develop different writing and editing skills more quickly. We don’t all need to write a Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses to learn valuable techniques from imitating and playing with those styles. Further, if–like I used to be (and probably still am, though hopefully to a lesser extent)–it’s sometimes hard to get to the editing phase at all, shorter works can help with that.

In undertaking this endeavor myself, I’m discovering things about the art of writing and the structuring of narratives at microcosmic levels that will nevertheless pertain to and inform future longer works I write. Try it out!

Writing “Race” in Fantasy

Every aspiring fantasy author or worldbuilder must eventually answer the question of what kind of sentient beings will populate his or her world. At that juncture (again) myself, I thought I’d write my way through the problem(s). I’ve agonized over and over again in designing Avar Narn about what “races” (they should really be called “species,” I think) would occupy that world. I’ve made changes and undone them, remade them and tweaked them over and over and (I hope) I’m ready to finally make the decision once and for all. We’ll see at the end of this post.

So what are the problems about “race” in fantasy works?

(1) Ideas of race have meaning and are problematic. Since you’re on the internet to read this, I’m going to assume that you’re aware of how big a deal race currently is in our world (and in the U.S. in particular). How we discuss and think about race is important, and it’s quite easy to make a misstep.

From one perspective, having various races (I’m just gonna say species from now on) in your fantasy world can do a lot for you.

First, the genre is called “fantasy”—readers want to see the fantastic. It’s part of the fun. Second, you have an instant source of potential conflict (and therefore plot) when you have groups of people (in this case fantastic species) who are unlike one another.

If we want to be highbrow, the encounters between different species allow us to look at “otherness” (to borrow the academic term) in a lot of interesting ways—we can analyze and critique how we (by our culture, our ideologies or our very humanity) define and react to the Other. We can, if we want to be heavy-handed, even talk about specific races race-relation issues in the real world through the metaphor of created fantastic species. To be honest, I’m not sure how you could portray enslavement in a written work and not have an American reader not think about the historical slavery of blacks, and the line between what is said about slavery in general and what is a specific commentary on the experience of a particular people is blurry at best.

At the same time, when we create a fantasy species, we have to bring them to life and individuate them. It’s no use saying “these people are like humans, but they’re blue and have an extra eye.” If our differences are only cosmetic, readers will be understandably disappointed in the lost opportunity. But defining peoples and cultures is difficult, and it’s tempting to resort to shorthand: “These guys are like Tolkien’s orcs, but they’re more intelligence and have a culture like ancient Egypt.” Time constraints and a desire to give the reader quick access to understanding of a story push us in this direction. But there’s a trap here—this sort of cribbing can easily drive us to base our fantastic species off of racial stereotypes.

Even Tolkien was guilty of this. He later acknowledged without reservation that the dwarves in his stories had a lot in common with European Jews. Re-read the stories (or re-watch the movies) and think about that—Tolkien’s dwarves have big noses, are geographically displaced, are often greedy and selfish. If the dwarves weren’t such beloved characters, we’d really see some elements of anti-Semitism here. I’m not saying that Tolkien was anti-Semitic; I have no idea about the answer there. But if it’s possible to say that his portrayal of the dwarves perpetuated negative Jewish stereotypes (mostly medieval ones that somehow persist in this case), something negative has been accomplished through writing, and that’s to be avoided.

(2) Clichés. Look at some of the most popular works of current fantasy fiction (A Song of Ice and Fire and The Name of the Wind both come to mind) and you’ll see settings in which you will not find elves and dwarves and Hobbits. There are several reasons for this.

If you want to have fantastic species in a setting or story, ask yourself, “why?” really. Can you tell the same type of story (or even the exact same story) with humans instead of different species? In most cases, the answer is “yes.” If there’s an Occam’s Razor of writing, maybe this is where it best fits—don’t put things in the story you don’t need. That advice sounds really good, but that doesn’t mean I can bring myself to follow it, necessarily. Sometimes there are things I want a story to have.

The more important reason, I think, that there’s a current move away from fantastic species in modern fantasy, or at least the “standard” species (elves, dwarves, halflings, etc.) is that the portrayals of these species has become hackneyed. We’ve had the same pointy-eared elves and pseudo-Norse dwarves for seventy years and, after a while, that starts to lose its fantastic luster.

This is partially a result of Tolkien’s looming presence over the genre—if you’re not doing it like him you’re not doing it right—but it’s also a result of the influence of Dungeons and Dragons. Multiple generations of fans of fantasy have grown up with the roleplaying game’s definition of elves and dwarves (influenced, of course, by Tolkien) setting the standard. We writers now must worry that, if we change the stereotype, readers will say, “that’s not what orcs are like!” while established writers (and many readers) also say, “if you’re using the same old stereotypes, you’re not writing something worthwhile.” I don’t think that the latter statement is necessarily true, but the risk of writing overly-derivative works certainly increases with the use of the “stock” fantasy species. As an aside on that note, perhaps we could argue that the “stock” species should be thought of in the same line as Commedia dell’Arte: as stereotypes that allow us to quickly pull in the reader and get on with the story. After all, avoiding an infodump is usually a good thing.

To be clear, there are modern writers doing wonderful things with (at least mostly) traditional stereotypes. The books of The Witcher world contain elves and dwarves but manage to depict them in a believable and relatable conflict with humanity (that disturbingly resembles a race-war, because it is one). Of course this works especially well for Sapkowski in the larger context of taking traditional fairy tales and twisting them for his own purposes.

(3) It’s impossible to get inside the head of ultimately alien creatures. As humans, we simply cannot fathom what it would be to be a thousand-year-old elf with confidence in her immortality. How differently we would view the world.

To be fair, that’s a surmountable obstacle. We also cannot create a character who is actually every bit as complex and idiosyncratic as a real person. But we can create the illusion of the same. The same principle applies to writing about fantasy species (or alternatively, alien cultures in sci-fi settings)—we can create the illusion of unfathomable otherness.

Though crafting the illusion is possible, it’s nevertheless very difficult. It requires great care and thought to do well, otherwise you end up with phenotypically-variant humans and nothing more.

It’s not enough to give them a culture based on human cultures, I think. If you’re going to create species that really deserve to be something other than humans, they should really feel different, probably even uncomfortable (but not necessarily frightening).

(4) Complicated Relationships. I grew up a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. One of the things that bugged me about it though, is how they treated race. By this, I don’t mean the fact that there were Orks and Trolls and Elves and Dwarves, but about the ethnic differences we tend to mean when we use the word “race” in modern context. The Shadowrun rationale was just too simplistic.

The explanation went something like this: “Twentieth-century racism is a thing of the past. People don’t care about someone’s skin color anymore when the troll over there can crush you with his bare hands.” In other words, the existence of the alternative species of the Shadowrun world had completely subsumed “traditional” racism.

There’s no reason to believe that that would be the case even if people in our world were to suddenly turn into elves and such. There’d still be plenty of “good ol’ fashioned racism” to go round.

This is just an example of a problem that’s really inherent to all fantasy writing–the need to balance complexity with both the writer’s time and energy and the importance to the story.

(5) Monocultures. This relates closely to (4). Humans have a diversity of very different cultures, ideologies and values, but fantasy species tend to be portrayed as monolithic. This practice is most prevalent, at least in my experience, in roleplaying games. A setting may have many different human cultures for players to choose from for their characters, but only one for any character of a non-human species. Sometimes there are two or three options, but these are not terribly fleshed out and are based more on in-game bonuses than real cultural differences. The ad absurdum example, of course, is early D&D, where you could have either a class (magic user, thief, fighting man) or a “race” (like elf). That’s right, all elves are so similar that they need only the name of their species to define their abilities.

The point is, believable species must have individuation between groups and between individuals. If you’re using elves in your fantasy world, they shouldn’t all be flower-loving hippies (or, even more offensive, all be evil if they happen to have black skin). It takes extra time, yes, but if you’re going to be using fantastic species in your writing, they ought to be diverse like humans are diverse (or there had better be a good reason why they have a monolithic culture).

(Potential) Solutions

(1) Avoid the subject altogether. Just don’t use fantastic sentient creatures. Throw in all the griffons and gargoyles and what not that you want, but leave the thinking, feeling characters human.

(2) Cheat. Here’s what I mean: in Avar Narn, several of the fantastic species used to be human—they were reformed, accidentally or on purpose, willingly or not, by magic. That’s happened long ago enough that they’ve developed somewhat alien perspectives on existence and certainly cultures that vary from those of most human cultures, but it leaves within them a core of humanity that somewhat eases the problem of creating an entirely alien culture—humans will definitely be able to relate to these beings on some level, but not completely. One of the reasons that I’ve chosen this path for some (but not all) of the fantastic species in Avar Narn is that it reinforces one of the setting’s themes—the horrible things that humans would do to themselves if given the power to reshape the world through magic.

(3) Be defiant. Just say, “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” and use the traditional fantasy “races” in your stories or setting. If you write those peoples in a believable and interesting way, and especially if the other aspects of your stories are well done, you won’t have to worry about most people complaining. Ignore the ones who complain anyway.

(4) Use alternate mythologies. Tolkien was a philologist, a student of (ancient) languages. He had spent a long time studying Old English and Old Norse, and he drew from Germanic mythology to create his elves and dwarves. But there are many other cultural mythologies from which could be drawn a plethora of new and interesting species to populate your fantasy world. There are plenty of authors, published and not, taking this tack, though, so move quick (this is what Miéville did in Perdido Street Station and the books that follow, for instance).

(5) Use Archetypes. Here I mean Jungian or Campbellian archetypes. I’m not sure that I buy into the whole “monomyth” thing, and I’m a little skeptical about there being a collective unconscious from which we separately derive the same concepts (fascinating as that idea is—especially for fantasy writers). But there are some very common “places” occupied in various mythologies around the world—there are “hidden folk” in both Scandinavia and Southeast Asian countries, smith creatures in all manner of cultures, creatures to be sought for wisdom in many mythologies. So, find those common themes and, instead of drawing upon an existing mythology to find your fantastic species, create your own that fits the motif. Both dwarves and giants are associated with smithing in various European cultures, so what other type of creature might fit there?

(6) Do the twist. Take a traditional fantasy race and tweak it until it’s either an interesting and innovative take on the species or no longer resembles the original concept.

(7) Use biology. Look to how organisms develop and change based on environment and use that to create your fantastic creatures. There’s a caveat here, though—you’re creating a world that readers will be willing to suspend disbelief for, not an alternative science textbook (unless, of course, that’s your postmodern, avant garde sort of writing style), so use what you need and maintain plausibility to the extent you can, but don’t worry too much about having things perfect. And avoid the math. For the love of God, avoid the math.

(8) Create from scratch. This is not “create ex nihilo,” which humans are incapable of doing. But, if you take your building blocks from less-visited wells, you can create something that feels different and unique.

(9) Relax. At the end of the day, the important question is not whether you include or exclude elves in your fantasy—it’s whether you craft a world that seems to make sense (that is at least internally consistent and plausible-seeming based on human experience), craft species and characters that are entertaining and interesting to read about, and tell stories that draw the reader in and make him not want to finish. Can you do that with stories that include elves? Yes. Can you do it with stories that have unique fantasy species? Of course. Could you do either badly, absolutely. So suck it up, figure out what you want to have in your world, do your homework to create diverse and interesting inhabitants for your setting, and get writing.

Have I made my own decisions now? Not exactly, but at least I’ve given myself the kick in the pants I needed to make my final decisions and let it ride.

Worldbuilding: An Education

Before I went to law school, many people (all lawyers, so understand the bias) told me that formal legal training is the best education you can get, regardless of whether you practice law. Law school was an excellent education; one that I’d never wish on anyone.

Still, I think that there is a better education to be found in the world—particularly with the availability of the internet, e-books (free through your library) and other high-speed, low-drag materials. That education is the art and practice of building fantastic worlds.

For me, most of the things that stick best with me are the things I learned for myself, through my own motivation, initiative and follow-through. This likely has something to do with increased investment and meaning in the subject matter because of the intrinsic motivation to study it, but the reason why the subjects I seek out to study seem to be better retained don’t really matter. I do believe, though, that we live in an age where, with resolve and resourcefulness, one can learn almost anything without setting foot in a classroom. Snorre, our exchange student last year, learned to play guitar by watching YouTube; by the end of his stay he could play Hendrix, Zeppelin and B.B. King.

Worldbuilding has become a more mainstream (though not really mainstream) hobby in recent decades. This has to do in part with the internet allowing people with similar interests to easily find one another, the increase in popularity in roleplaying games (probably the greatest single motivator of worldbuilders), the move of the fantasy and sci-fi genres into mainstream culture and, as I’m doing here, the relative modern ease of getting your ideas and creations to the world.

For many, as for myself, worldbuilding started as a means to an end—I wanted a setting to write stories in and to run my roleplaying games in (although I’ve found that, since the two mediums have broadly different goals, the same setting isn’t necessarily suitable for both). Once you start, however, the seduction of creation for its own delight may easily take over. There are some who will admit that they build worlds simply because they love the creation of fantastic peoples and places; these are an honest bunch who probably derive the most pleasure from worldbuilding, enjoying the thing for what it is.

But this post isn’t about how to derive pleasure from worldbuilding (although, with all the writing that is done nowadays on the subject, why does no one talk about this?); it’s about the education worldbuilding gives you.

Quite simply, building a world requires some knowledge of everything. You need at least passable understanding of language, culture, religion, history, geography and cartography, psychology, mythology and folklore and the sciences to create a world for which people are willing to suspend disbelief. Start there, and you’ll quickly find the things you’re really interested in. For me, it’s history, literature, legend, religion and historical occult beliefs (things which, conveniently—or perhaps causally—I studied formally); these are the subject about which you will seek to become something of an expert to make your world “stand out.”

Then there are all the beautiful rabbit trails of things that you could probably fudge and have a reasonably believable fantasy world but which add much to the world if they’re well-incorporated: astronomy, anthropology, archeology, warfare and military history, the attributes of fringe social groups, specific interesting human histories, the art of writing itself, the geo-sciences (including advanced geography, weather and climatology and much more), technology and almost other possible realm of human knowledge.

If you catch the bug to build a world of your own, you’ll find yourself asking many questions that spur research: Why does this sort of thing happen? How does this work? What would this kind of society be like? How would this event change the world? Or, as I found myself asking this morning: Where is it that swamps usually form?

The task in and of itself is a daunting one—not simply because of its scope, but also because of the thorough and excellent work that others are doing and displaying on the internet. The real bugbear, of course, is Tolkien, who has caused us to mistakenly believe that a created world is only a good one if we have invented and codified each of the world’s languages, written down detailed histories of all of the peoples (the History of Middle Earth edited by Tolkien’s son is twelve volumes) and that everything must be clearly defined and described in writing for posterity. We have to keep in mind that, realistically, Tolkien was a worldbuilder for worldbuilding’s sake; his stories, though beloved, were derivative of his worldbuilding. He did not build Middle-Earth so that he could publish books.

If, like Tolkien, our worldbuilding is really for our own pleasure, it can be as detailed or shallow as we like, as fanciful or as serious and deeply believable (for fantasy, of course) as suits us. We can write as much or as little of it down as we want to keep and share. All the extra work of cataloguing and consigning to words our creation is optional. We need only go so far if (1) we enjoy doing so or (2) we have a specific use for the created world that would benefit from writing down its details for later reference.

Given that, anyone can be a worldbuilder without an over-investment of time and energy. You can craft your world while driving in the car, standing in line, waiting for something, working out or doing all manner of other thing. If you don’t want to write it down, worldbuilding is simply an advanced game of “What if?” you play in your head.

Most of the greatest advice I’ve ever received in my life I got as an off-hand statement from someone else, probably because that person had so incorporated the idea into his mindset that it seemed too obvious to need special attention called to it. While studying medieval and Renaissance literature at UT Austin, Professor Frank Wigham advise his class to “be interested in everything.” I’ve tried to follow this advice since and have found that the pursuit of some knowledge of as many subjects as I can manage has thoroughly enriched my mental life—for the knowledge of itself, for the new ways in how I see the interrelation of things and ideas and for the strange ways an understanding of one subject helps one to think about other subjects.

This is the reason I recommend the hobby of worldbuilding to everyone; the practice gives you some tangible reward for taking in interest in all aspects of existence. If you haven’t done it before, give it a try. This time next week you might be spending hours following rabbit trails through Wikipedia as you research little-known cultures and peoples (look up the women-warriors of Dahomey, for instance), visiting the library (in person or electronically) to find deeper and more nuanced sources than what you get from the internet, imagining places for you to play in imaginatively for years to come. You will become interested in everything, and better for it.