logic and chaos

Chaos and I old friends… well, friends may be putting it a trifle strongly.  We’ve spent a lot of time together, anyway. I always try to reduce it with logic, and it always tries to reduce me. I think it may be winning.

I got drawn into something I basically don’t do: pure ‘pantsing’ (writing off the seat of your pants with no idea of the next word, let alone where you’re going from the shotgun over the mantelpiece in the first line to using the shotgun to blow the villain’s head off in the last.). It was a speed writing challenge (a sprint) – a couple of other things I just don’t do – I’m a long distance writer not a sprinter. And I’m not really competitive about this. I just want to write stories I’d like to read, and they take me as long as they take. I try to work to a minimum word count – about 2K. On a good day I can do that in about 4-5 hours (and then I do more) on a bad day it might take me 14.

But it was all put to me in a good-natured way, so I thought I’d make everyone else feel good. Which of course I am sure I did. I’m not fast. But merely writing with no particular direction… I have to admit it read well. It was entertaining in that I had no idea what came next, let alone where the hell it was going.  And it was written with no goal in mind, so…

The rotten thing took me to do something else I just don’t do: which was write typical high fantasy.  Before you say: “But you wrote the Heirs of Alexandria (SHADOW OF LION, A MANKIND WITCH etc.) and DRAGON’S RING and DOG & DRAGON) you write High Fantasy, perhaps I need to be a little more precise about the definition.  What I mean (which is maybe not what you mean) is medieval type fantasy with lords, ladies, horses and castles, probably dragons or elves or the like, but not necessarily drawn from a coherent historical mythology, and exceptionally rarely drawn from a coherent geography.  A lot are derived from LotR.  They range from exceptionally good (Diana Wynne Jones Dalemark quartet) to groaningly bad, with social and geographical implausibility that just does the logical side of my head in.  Women warrior-nobles who live in perfect peace and amity for millennia, in castles (with crenellation, drawbridges, etc.) And have vast numbers of horses (and outfits) with no peasant class to care for them, or clean and cook in the castles.  By the provided map, no arable land or valuable resources to produce and trade. 

My ventures into this were well-grounded in historical mythology and real geography. In practice I wasn’t creating a whole-cloth fantasy.

And of course, I knew where I was going before I set out. Tons of research into the myths, history, geography, etc. This means my nobles are the apex of a vast number of peasants, some of whom get written about, and food other resources – are based on real reason. If I have people living in Castles, it’s because they get attacked, and so on.

I’ve enjoyed several high fantasy books. But a little bit of me always wonders why there are horses, sheep and oats, let alone the fashions of specific patches of history,

So… here I am, suddenly writing a high fantasy. No idea of the geography, the place, the climate, the reason these are. They just are. No basis for the society, the religion, the conflict. They just are.

And here I am 14K into it.

And guess what?

There just HAD to be reasons. I’m frantically writing up a mythology, derived from the geography, and social structure derives from the geography, and reasons for the oats and horses and sheep being there. I know. That stops it being ‘fantasy’.

The point is… I’ve told you, but I am not going tell my readers. But I’ve told me, and now I have a framework that I can build a background world with – which is logical, not chaotic.

Chaos is not chaos if it is built onto underlying order.

Even in the real world what appears chaos, seldom is, if you start breaking down the elements. Whether we talk about mysterious and implausible changes in voting patterns, or the reason why a guy who seems to have hit a lucky break suddenly goes on a rum-fueled bender and wrecks all his prospects… dig and there are reasons.

If you can work out those reasons, it makes sense – and it’s a lot easier to write.  

And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Or do you come from the opposite camp, where it doesn’t have to ‘make sense’?

How do you avoid getting trapped into ‘that doesn’t make sense’?

I’d seriously like to know.

36 thoughts on “logic and chaos

  1. Dave, Dave, Dave, haven’t you heard? It’s fantasy, you don’t need to worry about historical reality. Fantasyland can be just like the modern age. Horses are cars that eat grass and crossbows are guns. All this “logic” and “accuracy” stuff sounds suspiciously like dogwhistles. /sarc

    1. And the oats come from “the store room.” Which is kind of like the supermarket, in that it’s a place where food spontaneously generates without the need for an outside source.

  2. I gotta admit, I do prefer my fantasy–even my high fantasy–to have logical underpinnings. LOTR definitely did. Prydain did (except for the horses. Alexander definitely was not a horse guy–he treated them very much as mobile automated things that didn’t require food/grooming/sufficient rest/etc. He mentioned, once, some extra tack (late, LATE in the series) but it didn’t serve much of a purpose other than as use as attempted bargaining chips with some robbers.).

  3. Does it make sense in the story world? That’s the key for me. I can take (and dish out) a lot of balognium (like handwavium, but in thinner slices) if it makes sense in the story world and fits the internal logic. That’s probably because as a historian, I read a lot of things that made sense in their time and place, but today we cringe at, or roll our eyes at, like Earthquakes => miasmas released from rotting soil=>plagues. If it fits in the story world and the characters’ logic, then I might boggle, or giggle, but I’ll accept it and read on. If it breaks all reality, especially story logic, then I’m out. (Or if it presses certain buttons, like a lot of current Paranormal Romance does, then the book gets walled, literally or electronically.)

    Powerful women warriors living in peace for centuries? OK, show me 1) why women have to train for war and what threats they are training to stop, 2) why the men don’t train or are too scarce to risk in warfare, and 3) what else women have in their bags of tricks to counter their physical weakness compared to men – some kind of X-linked magic, in other words. Them I might roll with it. Maaaaaayyyyybe.

    1. What TXRed said, but with the following qualifications:

      The people have to act like real people. Their actions don’t have to be logical all the time, but they can’t keep being stupid just to advance the plot.

      There has to be internal consistency, what TXRed called making sense in the story world. For example I was reading an issue of a new electronic S&S magazine. In the first story, the hero is fighting the king of a tribe who has kidnapped a young girl to sacrifice to the volcano. (Not kidding.) Both men are described as large and much taller than average, about the same height. The girl is described as petite, barely coming up to the hero’s chest. Yet in the middle of the fight she picks up a rock and bashes the back of the king’s skull in with a single blow. Uh, no. There were similar issues, but that was the most blatant. I was going to review it unfavorably until a friend tipped me off that the story was written under the editor’s pen name. Since I might want to submit to this market, I refrained.

    2. Just start with women living in peace…I just read HR Haggard’s Allan Quartermain – that has a realistic example of woman living in peace! (Peaceable at the start, peaceable at the end with one Queen dead, civil war in the middle)

  4. Speaking as a straight-up seat of the pants type, I go from the characters. Who are they, what are they doing, what’s the goal? If there even is a goal. Usually they’re sitting around and a problem crops up.

    Then we have tools. What do they have to hand? In my case, the tools are meant to move planets so there’s plenty of leeway to come up with just-in-time-ium weapons to deal with Bad Guy. There’s also a Nerd Corps to think up crazy stuff on demand. That’s their actual job. They sit around and figure out ways to blow up stars.

    But the structure comes from Reality. Example, what would it take to get a 30,000 ton, fusion powered, 100 foot by 300 foot tank from the Beach Strip in Hamilton Ontario to Hudson’s Bay? She can drive there, but that will take some time and break a lot of stuff. She can swim down the lake and out the St Lawrence, then go all the way around in the ocean, but that will take forever. So, she has to fly to meet the timeline.

    What would it take to get a 30,000 ton giant tank into the air? Can an airplane do it, or do we need the Nerd Corps to have invented something suitable earlier in the story? Et cetera.

    This takes a long time to write. They have to solve the problem, and I’m not that smart so it takes them a while to figure it out.

    High Fantasy, you have magic. That covers a multitude of sins. The woman warrior with a closet full of dresses and no farm land? Magic closet, magic horse, magical fighting skillz. It’s more fun if the magic has rules and they have to be smart about things, but cute relationships and witty repartee will get you pretty far. ~:D For example, the magic closet complains bitterly when asked to produce anything but fancy ball gowns. You can get half a chapter out of Warrior Woman arguing with Magic Closet that lady’s armor should not look like a ball gown.

    1. Yep. For me, everything ultimately derives from the characters. What they do, how they react and interact, how that builds or breaks things, how that affects them, what they do about it. And when they (not being human) do something unexpected or weird, then I have to figure out WHY and HOW that fits into their world. (Sometimes they are less than forthcoming, and I have to drag it out of them with a hand-tractor.) And that builds more of their world for them to interact with, or bang into as the case may be. It’s an ongoing, symbiotic process.

      1. Yeah, I think I mostly don’t even notice world building problems until it makes the characters either do something stupid or something that otherwise does not make sense.

        I think the only series I actually went splat on because of world building was when Mensa became the antagonist in the Honor Harrington series.

        It made total sense that they would do something that caused one of their high end researchers to pull apart at the seams.

        It made no sense that they had somehow managed to run the Onion for more than a couple generations before they did that, though. Once someone views people as widgets, they view everyone as widgets, and will break them. And for the onion to have gone centuries like that? I cannot believe it.

        But things like the Ginger Star trilogy, I know stars heat up as they die, but it’s also not like no star can ever cool down, so it’s easy to paper over it as, “this star is weird and they’ve got the cause somewhat off,” and get on with the story. It’s a little harder to believe the Wandsmen could maintain their hold so long over a medieval level society, but it didn’t start medieval, just had decayed to that point by that time, so weird starts lead to odd final states. And the author never had a society that should have torn itself apart running happily along in peace and tranquility. It’s been rumbling quite hard; the hero just managed to arrive when things are getting ready to go boom (probably because the guy he is looking was professionally involved in poking sleeping bears too, so the timing isn’t just coincidence either.)

        So while there are questions about how they got there, everyone is behaving in ways that are either rational or make sense in context. (A lot of the people are very not rational anymore)

        I don’t know where I was going with any of that anymore. I think for me, the people’s behavior and reasons have to be consistent and make sense, and I’m less concerned with the physics behind it.

        1. I never got past the first Honor Harrington book… I’d have court-martialed the dumb bint early on, and that would have been the end of the series. She’s not special; she’s hazardous.

          My nonhumans’ society is a bit peculiar — 13,000 years in space, yet dirtside they’re often to varying degrees medieval; frex onworld travel is by aircar or critterback, but there are no long distance roads. Thing was, when they revolted against and destroyed their makers (they didn’t evolve naturally) they confiscated the technology, so went directly from nothing to spacefaring without the tedium and upheaval of working up to an industrial revolution. So whole chunks of parallel-to-human-development are entirely absent.

            1. I meant built roads that make major treks from city to city. There are short-haul goat tracks and farm roads as may be needful or convenient, ordinary streets in town (generally cobble or concrete), and freight rail as required, but nothing like modern Earth highways that cross continents. Atmospheric craft came with the tech they appropriated from their late masters, and are now common in various classes (for economy, capacity, speed, or range). There’s just no reason to build long-distance roads for everyday travel, nor the population density to demand it. Suggest it, they’d look at you funny, then go fetch an aircar (cheap, ubiquitous, and pretty much idiot-proof). Or for a day trip, maybe a skid (surface repulsor) which doesn’t much care if there’s a road, a dirt track will do. There exist wheeled groundcarts, but they fill the niche between ATV and forklift, and no one would consider taking one further than say, spaceport to adjacent town.

              We also have riding animals approximating donkey and camel, useful if you’re dirtside in rough country. Or if your author throws you out in the backbeyond and leaves you to fend for yourself. 😀

  5. There is an absolutely fascinating talk by Brandon Sanderson on writing soft magic versus hard magic. His magic absolutely has to have rules and make sense…. and he was quite flummoxed when he sat on a panel at a con with a writer who held the opinion that if it had rules, that took all the “magic” out of the magic. Eventually, he came up with “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.” with the added note that mysterious “soft” magic that isn’t defined will be used to create awe and wonder, and may create problems, but breaks the story if it’s used to solve them.

    I expand beyond magic to worldbuilding: the ability of characters to use their world to solve the problem is directly proportional to how well the author understands the world. So when you have green hills and verdant fields of (un-irrigated) wheat growing right up to the “edge of a desert” (excuse me while I stop and shudder at that ecological impossibility here), then you know the author does not understand farming or geology, meteorology, or geography. So I try to shut off my brain and go “this must not be story-related, it’s just set dressing. Terrible set dressing, done by a kid who has no lived experience, but not important to the story.”
    But if they get into a swamp and suddenly there are mosquitoes and sucking steps through the mire as mud clumps to their boots, with the bubbles rising as they go from patch of reeds to patch of reeds releasing foul odours and the ripples spreading out making them forget the mosquitoes in the worry that something might be out in the deeper channels, tracking them…
    Then I know that either the author is familiar with a certain type of what cubicle-dwellers euphemistically whitewash by calling it “wetland”, or the environment is suddenly important enough to the story that the author researched it.

    That said, even Generic European Medieval Fantasies and Category Romances can get away with this… *if* they have something awesome enough to balance out the stupid. The book usually won’t hold up to a re-read, but if the thriller has tight pacing and excellent chemistry between the team members and a real feel of danger… granted, I’ll roll my eyes a few times and go “REALLY? You’re trying to tell me… That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.” …but I’ll keep reading. Romances get away with some truly stupid abortions of worldbuilding on both ecological and economic sense, because they have a good enough romance… and the readers will forgive it, as long as the chemistry between the characters catches fire. (Granted, when it gets too stupid, I start muttering that said fire needs to be Willy Pete, but I am not Yon Average Genre Reader.)

    1. I agree on the soft magic. Drake’s Lord of the Isles series has a wildly insane soft magic system. There were some rules, but bonkers stuff happened in it.

      But the magic was generally never actually fixing things, and when it did, it wasn’t about the magic fixing it, it the people putting the effort to make things right.

      Nine times out of ten, the magic was someone with more power than sense trying to do something gigantic, and having it do far more than was ever intended.

      Because of that, it really felt like there was a hard magic system under the hood, but that none of the characters trying to use it actually knew what all the rules were. The people who tried to do a small careful effect, got small, careful effects. The people who tried to lift and throw mountains, sank cities, punted themselves through time and unleashed eldrich horrors, that the heroes had to go fix.

  6. I’m of the school of “what do you mean, there were supposed to be pants??” I not only don’t plot, I don’t write in anything like order, despite that one word begets the next. A blip here, a scene there (not necessarily from the same book), eventually a lot of bridgework to tie them together, and the result is coherent and moves in its needful direction… because my hypertrophied Node of Extrapolation is in charge of the process. Show it an acorn, and pretty soon it’s generated the entire forest, complete with terrain, climate, timber industry, trash trees and pulp mills, paper, education, customs, government, history, and mythology. All from a mere n/a/i/l/ acorn!

    Meanwhile, said Node actively resists “wouldn’t it be cool if” because that does not fit the extrapolation. Thus plot bunnies are shot and eaten, not followed into the bushes, and the way remains solid, if not immediately clear. And if something weird comes up, it gets dinged at until there’s a coherent explanation. The map must fit the territory. You want me to believe in your magic, it has to fit your world, with appropriate limits and costs. Same for my own.

    An example of how that’s made stuff develop: My planetary governments support themselves via export tariffs, and to oversimplify… if the government is large and visible and the planetary prince never gets a day off, the planet is resource-rich and prosperous and has plenty to export, and further has all the population and infrastructure that implies (and takes a dim view of smugglers trying to duck the tariff). At the opposite extreme there’s a resource-poor planet with scantl population and only seasonal exports, where the government seems to consist entirely of the part-time tariffs clerk, and the spaceport is just a clearing, a railhead, and a warehouse.

    1. > I not only don’t plot, I don’t write in anything like order, despite that one word begets the next.
      I’ve sold some nonfiction. I started by writing down what I knew, then made an outline, placed those bits in the outline, and filled in the gaps.

      Technically an outline should be first, but they were cases of “you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to do it.”

      Granted, nonfiction is *much* simpler than fiction.

      1. Good point. The nonlinear mind is not bothered by information arriving in a nonlinear fashion, whether applied to fiction or nonfiction.

        This may also serve to train the writer to keep sight of the whole, because perforce you have to have that overview so you know where to put information as it arrives. What looks to the uninitiated like a lack of framework is merely information either still absent (hang on, I’ll go find it) or not yet placed.

  7. In theory, I’m of the school that is flexible about what categories have to ‘make sense’ for me to enjoy the story. I have fond memories of enjoying stuff that cheerfully ignored several categories of realism.

    In practice, I spent part of my morning taking some notes on why around half a dozen story descriptions didn’t grab me, even if they had some elements that seemed a little cool. (I read a bunch of fanfic, and have huge lists of stuff that looked kinda of cool, that I haven’t spent the time to really look at.)

    A few years ago, I was thinking of Heirs of Alexandria, and some other stories, and noticed that there are several flavors of hardness of religion in fiction. Heirs is pretty hard in terms of the characters feeling like they really believe. And that question raised early on of whether the pagan gods are simply aspects of the devil is pretty relevant to the magic system, and the spiritual world building. It is also ‘hard’ in terms of feeling a real sense of peril for souls. In comparison, Highschool DxD is extremely soft in terms of feeling like real religious practice, fidelity to borrowed mythology, and awareness of spiritual peril, etc.

    I’ve been heavily into reading and rereading a multigenre thing that is a mix of kung fu wizards (xianxia) and epic fantasy. Lot of effort has clearly gone into synthesizing the mythological sources for it, as well as some of the social and economic world building. I’m not entirely sure if the mad logic of it will hold together, or fall apart. I’m a little bit concerned that it may prove that the author is pulling a Phillip Pullman or a Shotaro Mizuki. Beyond those concerns about the mythological and spiritual world building, I don’t understand enough about the author’s sociological and economic thinking to be confident about it being right, or about it being wrong.

    I’ll forgive a lot if it serves the needs of the story, and the story does not betray its own premise or logic.

  8. L. Sprague de Camp went down that path, too. He wrote several articles about making a coherent backstory:


    Jack Vance used the standalone “castle on a hill” with no supporting structure several times. He moved the creation of the castle back into deep time, by people and conflicts long forgotten, and as far as the current occupants were concerned, it had always been there.

    I was always bothered by Tolkein’s hobbits. As described they weren’t in the least industrious, yet they lived in comparative luxury while widely spread out. Hobbit serfs cut out of the story? *Someone* had to work.

    1. Frodo & Bilbo are obvious “upper-class” Hobbits (possibly living on rents paid besides dragon treasure).

      Samwise was portrayed as a working-class Hobbit. IIRC He was Frodo’s grounds-keeper at the beginning of LOTR.

      The other hobbits of the Fellowship were somewhat “upper-class” from a more rural Hobbit Clan. Most likely at their roots they were more upper-class farmers (owning & managing several farms).

      There was at least one “Yeoman” farmer mentioned as living in the Shire. Apparently he was well known for the quality of the mushrooms he grew and well known for the fierceness of his defense of the mushrooms. (Frodo was very worried about cutting across his farm lands in the first book).

      IMO the Shire was an idealized vision of rural England of Tolkien’s time. No serfs. Just a combination of Squires and Yeomen Farmers.

  9. It has to be internally consistent. Bus schedules matter, so the writer had better have a reason for leaping across entire continents in an hour. I spend a lot of time working out logical reasons for why the society is the way it is.

    The story has to make sense on a visceral level because somebody’s cleaning those toilets and growing that food.

    That said, if the writing is good enough and fast-paced, I’ll forgive a lot.

    As for magic, it should come with costs. Energy (and that’s what magic is, a form of energy) has to come from somewhere. It has to be paid for.

    1. “As for magic, it should come with costs. Energy (and that’s what magic is, a form of energy) has to come from somewhere. It has to be paid for.”

      I agree with this.

    2. Magic, or any special powers. Frex, my nonhumans have varying levels of telepathy (in some individuals, extending to low-grade telekinesis, limited by square of the distance and cube of the mass). The cost is that it uses a lot of energy. So compared to humans they have a high metabolic rate, and their diet is energy-dense.

      And if seriously misused, it can result in self-immolation… by basically melting the insulation.

      1. Exactly! I always thought magic-users should eat like stevedores (a bacon-double-cheeseburger, cheese fries, milkshake-heavy diet) and then sleep fourteen hours after a round of serious spellcasting.

        1. Thus Lelia and André’s constant plaints about grocery bills in the Familiars stories . . . Teenaged male magic user. Four words to terrify buffet owners and grocery buyers. 😀

          1. In Chris Nuttall’s “Schooled In Magic”, the Main Character is surprised to meet a very over-weight magic-user because she has never seen a fat magic-user before.

            Oh, he tells her to call him “Fatty”. 😆

            Of course, I think Chris borrowed a master magician called Ruddygore from Jack Chalkers’ “River Of Dancing Gods”. 😆

            1. Yeah, my guys don’t come in seriously overweight, or even noticeably chunky. A middle-aged individual who flies a desk too much might slightly thicken up, but it’s quickly lost if they do much of anything else.

              I have another species (of completely different origins) that carries no body fat whatsoever; concomitantly they have no energy buffer and need to eat regularly (if starved, they’ll go into a sort of hibernation state), and don’t tolerate cold at all. They’re also not very bright, perhaps due to energy limitations on their brains. It should perhaps be no surprise that they evolved from a parasite.

  10. For me, different stories have different levels of realism. I find Lord of the Rings much more realistic than L. Frank Baum’s Oz books but I enjoyed both of them. If I love the characters I will follow them through ridiculous plots and coincidences. I like exotic settings as well; I found Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fascinating but I’m not sure his geography and astrophysics were accurate. It also depends on how much focus you want to put on something in a story as well; fewer details means less research in my mind. Patchwork geography with tropical forests next to mountain highlands doesn’t necessarily make me wall a book; I’ll probably assume Fairyland or sometime of eldritch location. And I like eldritch locations.

  11. One of my “favorite” examples of a clueless author doing fantasy was when Brian Wood was running Dark Horse’s Conan into the ground. Conan takes Belit across half the Hyborian world, across the Pictish Wilderness (home of the blood-enemies of the Cimmerians), just so he could bring his girlfriend home to meet his mother. Dear Crom, but that was just galling. Not only was it completely contrary to the spirit of Robert E. Howard’s stories, but it was such a painful example of a modern author who fails to grasp even basics about preindustrial times and thinking.

  12. Pilgrim’s Progress to the courtesy phone…

    There are stories where the underlying details don’t matter. Many of them are allegorical (in my opinion, better suited for short stories, but there’s no argument that some have made it work very well.)
    Some have characters as the source of consistency (Conan is Conan, and the craziness of the world around him is only a frame to contrast with Conan.)
    Some have an institution instead of an individual to provide grounding, such as The Black Company. (Can you get more High Fantasy than flying whales?) Or The Outsider in the Dishonored video game. (A enigmatic amoral supernatural entity that gives power to the desperate, because he wants to watch what they do with it. Most behave badly.)
    Some have a weird idea at the center, and all the disjointed bits and bobs fall into place when you “get it”. (Tim Powers wrote it? It’ll make sense. At some point. Mostly.)
    Some are a celebration of folklore that’s already disjointed. (Silverlock, American Gods, perhaps Pyramid Scheme)
    Some just want to don a paper mâché helmet, hop on a broken down nag, and lay waste to overused tropes. (Where you may see Grunts tripping The Light Fantastic.)

  13. I always start out pantsing wildly. Then I have to stop and start asking myself things like “What is the story problem?” “Why does it matter to this guy/gal you’ve had running about?” “And where and when is this running about happening?” “Roughly, just roughly, how is the story going to end?”

    Mind you, it’s still not an outline, but it starts flowing again once I’ve tossed a Bad Guy out there to start messing up the good guy’s day.

  14. The thing is that your characters can’t always dig. Sometimes they don’t have time, sometimes they aren’t curious….

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