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Posts tagged ‘worldbuilding’

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I’m pretty solidly blocked on Scrap Star, right now. Not entirely sure why, and haven’t taken the time to work through it. I’m absolutely certain it has nothing at all to do with my poor sleep habits, lousy diet, and nonexistent exercise regimen. I figure it’s because of holidays, and travel, and children. So I’m doing a little monkeying about with game things. Mrs. Dave may have cadged me an invite to a work buddy’s gaming group, and I had an idea about a dungeon.
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Greasing Mental Gears

I hope everybody has survived the Annual Feast of Gratitude followed by the Annual Frenzy of Materialism. I managed to find several virtual opportunities to replace or upgrade items, which was nice. I also ate too much. There was pie. Most of it happened for breakfast the following morning. I also stumbled into one of the classic blunders. Not the Asia thing, or even the Sicilian one, no: I peopled for a week as an introvert and expected to get things done after returning home. Oops. Suffice to say, I’ve gotten nearly sufficient sleep, barely-adequate nutrition, and the Vitamin M hasn’t really touched my headache. So I’m just going to ramble for a while and hope it coalesces from inherent gravity. Foolish? Then I shall become that fool!
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On worldbuilding, sequels and keeping it all straight

As I was trying to figure out what to write about today, I came across this article. It’s a fairly good short — note the short — description of some of the problems writers fall into when sticking to worldbuilding tropes. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them but, as with anything, if you rely on tropes too much, your run the risk of turning your work into something much too predictable to maintain steam.

But what the article really started me thinking about is how you maintain an overall story arc — and keeping your characters in, well, character — over the course of several books or a lengthy series. It is a problem you see in books, movies, TV shows and even gaming. You want your characters to grow. You want to have them suffer as well as have joy. But, if you want to keep your readers happy and not have them throwing the book — or game or whatever — across the room, you can’t have them acting one way in one installment and then turn them into something completely different in another. Or, if you do, you have to have a pretty darned good reason for doing it.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, your readers expect your character to react in a certain way unless there are new outside factors impacting his decision making. For instance, even though it was very early in the series, we already knew in Honor of the Queen, that Honor Harrington was a competent and extremely talented officer. Because of how she was raised, from the philosophy and example set by her parents, as well as the society she grew up in, she did not understand or “get” a society that believed women were not just as competent and capable as men. So, when she was given the assignment to transport Manticore’s representatives to meet with Protector Benjamin Mayhew on Grayson, we as readers expected her to be her usual, competent and often brilliant self. However, because of some of her own insecurities, it didn’t surprise us when she took her ship away from Grayson, leaving another ship, one with a male commander (iirc) there.

What would have surprised me is if Honor had pushed herself and her abilities at the Protector and the rest of the planet from the very beginning. That wasn’t the Honor we knew. She was still young and still had personal demons she was fighting, demons that often undermined her self-confidence everywhere but in battle. She would see her initial withdrawal as making it easier for Manticore’s reps to do their duty on Grayson. The events that played out helped force her to deal with the fact that she couldn’t let those insecurities impact her decisions as an officer and did, in my opinion, help push her down the road into healing and moving past what had happened so long ago.

Now if, instead of having Honor withdraw from the planet when she saw how her presence was impacting the Grayson media and more hidebound members, Weber had her force the issue and throw the fact she was female and every bit as capable as a man in the faces of the patriarchal society that Grayson was, it would not have been in character and the book would have gone against the wall. There had to be a trigger to push Honor into stepping away from her shyness and from her doubts. She needed something to make her take an in-your-face approach to the Protector. That trigger was an attack on the planet that led to the death of her beloved mentor. Now she had a personal stake and she was, by God, going to do her duty not only to her Queen but to their prospective allies as well.

That was the Honor we had come to know in the previous two books and it is an Honor who has grown and matured over the course of the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, that sort of growth and consistency isn’t always present. Sometimes it happens when an author — for whatever reason — takes a series and warps it from one genre to another. One example of this is what Laurell K. Hamilton did with the Anita Black series. When the series began, it was firmly in the realm of urban fantasy. The story revolved around Anita Blake and her work dealing with rogue vampires. She was basically a bounty hunter with a license to kill vamps that didn’t follow the rules. In other words, it was a modified police procedural/mystery.

After half a dozen or so books in the series, it went to paranormal romance and then to what can only be called erotica. Why? Because the plot no longer centered on Anita’s work but on her sex life. She went from being a human who was also a necromancer to being basically a necromancer and a succubus and a were leader and mistress of a vampire and who knows what else. To me, and to a lot of other readers, Anita had been broken and the books no longer held the “must read” tag they once had. Friends who did stick with the series have said that Hamilton has gone back to something more akin to the early books but I’ve not returned to the series. Hamilton broke trust with me when she made a major change in Anita’s character without adequate explanation or reason other than someone thought it would sell more books.

In gaming, I have seen this at work as well. The latest example is in the Borderlands series. Borderlands and Borderlands 2 are fun games. While the plot is thin in Borderlands, nothing all that new to gaming, it is more apparent in B2. There is a consistency in characters, characterization of classes and in lore between the two games. B2 very clearly built upon the legacy of Borderlands and expanded upon it.

Not long ago, the game developers released what they have called a “pre-sequel” in the series. Appropriately titled “Borderlands – the Pre Sequel”, it falls chronologically between Borderlands and B2. Which it had to since one of the main characters, even if a non-playable character, was killed at the end of B2. My problem is that it takes characters we’ve known from the other two games as basically the good guys and makes them not so good. They set up and then betray Jack. That, in turn, leads to him becoming the evil madman who is the bad guy in B2. So here you have the villain you killed in B2 acting as basically the hero, albeit a slightly unhinged one from the very beginning of the game. The good guys from Borderlands are now basically the bad guys and they are responsible for what happens in B2 — something that you aren’t given any clue of in B2.

But it is the hanging threads from the pre-sequel that bother me, especially when I think about those who might play the games for the first time in chronological order. The pre-sequel takes characters and classes from the first game and use one of them — I’m trying not to give too many spoilers here. Sorry — to warn of problems to come. The only problem is, none of those problems are shown in B2. So, as far as I’m concerned, Gearbox and Gearbox Australia have dropped the ball and they need to get Borderlands 3 out soon.

In this case, they broke the timeline, another problem you can find yourself faced with in writing series. So, keep your notes about your characters and timeline and all the details that can trip you up close at hand. You might not think it important if you vary from the world you’ve built but your readers will. More than that, they will remember and their good will only lasts so long.

The Queen is Dead (What the hell do we do now?)

*I got this all written up, then realized this is the first time it’s been my privilege to post on MGC. I’d be more concerned about starting with a post on death, but for a couple things. Thing the first is that I’m rocking this uncaffeinated, and it was an early morning. Thing the second: it’s been a hell of a month, and I just don’t care. Thing the third: we’re all mad here [insert best Cheshire Cat grin]. For those as what haven’t yet met me, I’m Dave, I wear kilts and hats (and I like long walks on the beach). I’ve published a couple of things that could charitably be called urban fantasy, though one is most definitely rural, and the other is closer to nightmare than any fantasy of mine.*

On Valentine’s Day, my grandfather died. I’ve written about that (and some tangentially related notions) over at According To Hoyt. This post has its genesis in an addendum I wrote for that. I got it typed up all purty, and then WordPress ATE IT. *grumblegrowlsnort* The All-Devouring-Technobeast aside, this seems to be a season of death among us. The day Mrs. Dave and I left Nevada, my grandmother had a heart attack. Transport to the hospital was arranged, angioplasty was performed and stents installed, and Mor Mor was improving. Looking forward to discharge and getting on with her life. Then a week after the cardiac episode, she suffered a massive stroke that affected her brain stem, and died that afternoon.

With my grandfather, he’d been dying for decades. With Mor Mor, we had not an inkling, and while Mor Far was often the driving force of the greater Snow clan, she was our heart. On the Day, a significant – and surprising – percentage of the hospital staff filtered through her room. They expressed shock and dismay. Many said that she was their favorite (a sentiment echoed by most of her friends and social circle) and railed against the unfairness of it. “But I just saw her this morning!” “She was getting better!”

Personally, I’ve “enjoyed” dashed hopes and ruined expectations. My mother and her sisters are in shock, and my father and his fellow brothers-in-law are doing little better. I’ve had little chance to communicate with my cousins, but I don’t expect they’re doing any better than I am, and a few no doubt worse. As I said, Mor Mor was the glue that held us together as a family.

The weekend was, as such things go, excellent. My father, the Irreverend, spoke at the memorial service, while my uncle, Herr Doktor, spoke at the graveside. Both were excellent, and among the best such I’ve heard. Having sat through umpteen million (or so) sermons in my life, that’s pretty good. Much food and drink were consumed. My gin/tonics went over nearly as well as the Old Fashioneds from the previous endeavor. Which means I’ll need to work up a new cocktail for next time. Maybe Vesper Martinis. I enjoyed the one of those I’ve had, but then, that was an odd night.

We did all the things our family does, but everything was more raw. Emotions were much closer to the surface. Which, for one who habitually plays things very close to the proverbial vest, was more than a little exhausting.
Contrary to my own personal experience, the sun was shining over the little veterans cemetery at Fernley, NV. Which is to say, I saw the colors, but everything seemed flat and grey. The usual phrase – celebration of life (and more on that later) – felt likewise flat. Oh, we laughed, and we cried. We felt all the feels, and are still doing so. We divided up the stuffs: tokens of hers that reminded us of what she meant, and of who she was. Details of her life that had passed into clan lore were brought up for public mastication, and our souls were fed by it.

As mentioned above, everybody was shocked. The whole clan. Many still are, all things considered. We’re trying to get on with life, but it’s all still too close. One of those iconic moments happened … Saturday, I think. Someone asked a question about a preference, and the response was, “we’ll just ask Mor Mor . . .”
What does this have to do with writing? Absolutely nothing! (Not even a very tasty red snapper.) I tell a lie. Death is a thing in fiction, and just as important (at least to the writer) to get right. Plus, I’m a writer, so I use the words when I need to deal with a thing that is all uncomfortable.

I mentioned in The King Is Dead… that we do death poorly in this country, and in the Western World in general. Our societal worship of youth and beauty mitigates against it, and the American drive toward the John Wayne ideal and stoic, rugged individualism likewise mitigates against public displays of grief. At least beyond the single, manly tear glistening on the rough-weathered cheek.
As writers, we deal a lot in death. Our characters die, and depending on (sub)genre, by windrows. Hero-ing isn’t exactly a profession with a great retirement package. And one thing that gets ignored (a lot) are a society’s funeral traditions. Unless your characters subscribe to the Indiana Jones Method of Cultural Preservation, of course. In which case, it’s more a matter of figuring out if the God-Empress of the Third Belkrazhian Despotism was more partial to spinning blades or pressurized high-salt liquid spray for the booby traps littering Her Cosmic Munificence’s long-forgotten and just rediscovered mausoleum. Or was it micro-antimatter explosives? The third moon of Tranthor will never be the same.

I’ve seen it argued that one of the hallmarks of civilization (or at least of burgeoning humane-ness among the squalling mass of humanity) is rituals for caring for our dead. Whether the thing to do is a parade through town in Sunday best with a jazz band, or ritual cleansing of the home and immolation, or even the burning of a longboat heavy-laden with looted treasures and unwilling thralls (my favorite),

Depending on the cultural background, these rituals may be more about publicly honoring the dead than they are about comforting the newly bereaved. It’s hard to say, and sociology isn’t necessarily the most robust of sciences.
When designing a world and its attendant civilizations, we as writers need to have more than a passing familiarity with the funerary rites of our world, and of history. If only so our characters react appropriately to the messiness we ladle on them. More than that, unquestioned (except by us) assumptions will influence personal conflicts. Suppose the romantic couple come from vastly different backgrounds. (Pfff, like that ever happens.) Their friend dies of the grand vizier’s poison. She prepares to immolate him, but her beloved is stunned by this sacrilege.

Much is going to be framed by religion, and just as much by environment. What stance do People X have on the concept of the soul? Does the anima become one with the spirit of the universe immediately upon death? What happens if a Valkyrie gets sidetracked by one of Loki’s endless machinations before she scoops up the newly incorporeal warrior? Does Hel get to snag him if she may? What is the important part of the individual to a god, anyway? As for environment, can people living on a generation ship afford to get rid of that much fertilizer? Is it right to fire off Dad’s mortal remains into the system primary, when the hydroponics section hasn’t had a boost in a while? What about a society living in primitive conditions in a jungle?

These questions – and more – are going to influence the way your peoples deal with the shock of death. What about the ceremony is going to comfort the grieving widow? Is said widow even allowed to mourn in a public manner? What if that manner involves her own immolation?

In a similar vein, what about legal considerations? Is it legal for a corpse to be ritually cannibalized? What’s involved in the simple transport of a body from one municipality to another? And then there’s everybody’s favorite: inheritance. Who gets what? Are the wishes of the decedent to be honored, or is it what gets written down and witnessed. Does the new clan leader dispose of the deceased belongings? Does it go to the lawyers, and how much of a cut does the state get for the privilege of letting the guest of honor die with dignity?

The answers to any and all of these questions could be fraught (FRAUGHT, I say) with potential conflict which you may inflict upon your characters. Any number of stories begin with odd bequests from heretofore unknown family members (incidentally, Dad, I’m still waiting to be told about our wealthy and childless relatives). Good, old Uncle Bartholomew died? That’s terrible! And he left me that bizarre set of books that looked like they’d been bound by a madman? What a dear! I shall have to stay up late reading them. On a full moon. When the stars are aligned.

For that matter, a death can be a complication. What do you mean I have to travel across the country for Aunt Millicent’s funeral? Don’t you know that if I give up the chase now, Doctor Calipergum will reach the Tomb of the Sun God first? My reputation will be ruined! And, worse, he’ll publish first!
These examples are relatively lighthearted, but how we care for our dead matters, if only (and I’m not convinced it’s only) because it reflects well or poorly on us. As people, we need to be able to confront death. As writers, we need to portray it in believable ways, and our characters need to react well (for a given value thereof: react believably, whether with great distress or great stoicism is up to them, and you) or at least appropriately.

World-building

Happy 4th Americans 🙂 

“There’s a world outside my window…”

I was peripheral to a discussion the other day asking authors to commend good examples of world building for a class on the same to wannabe writers. Unfortunately the discussion followed another in which a lady author told us that she’d looked at a number of sf author sites, and female authors were not able to put themselves forward the way males did. This unquantified generalisation resulted in someone else kindly explaining that it was solidarity with those who had been told boastfulness was immodest in a woman, so now I understand how this is so. The effect was that various female authors started putting themselves forward as world-builders par excellance… and not one male did. The law of unintended consequences triumphed again, and sadly, world-building and helping newbies did not.

You see, self-promotion may be part of being an author, but we’re really our own worst critics often enough. And the problem was no-one said ‘well, what _is_ good world-building?’ Because it’s easy enough for an author to judge if they’ve exerted themselves at world-building, and near impossible to judge if that world-building is good. That depends on the reader. And good requires a book world to feel ‘real’. 

In my humble opinion, as reader foremost, and writer secondly, good world building depends on three things: Firstly–that the writer has done adequate research or has the background to build a world in first place. Now, worlds are big, complex places, and if you’re starting from scratch and not appropriating large chunks of Earth’s biology, geology, geography, history and socio-political dynamics (just to start with), you need to be either a polymath, and a well-read one at that, or a very fluent liar (more on this anon.) Or preferably, both… Of course not all of any audience are going to well-enough versed in any one of the disciplines to notice that you’re a plonker (there is lot of ignorance out there. Some of it saying ‘great world-building’ in reviews) but inevitably there are SOME readers who are experts, and they only have to be experts in one of the disciplines you need to pick holes in your world. And wrong in ONE area mentally translates to wrong everywhere.

The mistake so often made is to conflate vast amounts of detail with veracity. For example I ran across (some years ago) a fantasy novel I threw across the room (TBAR) because the author (one of the self-elected great, who teaches worldbuilding) had worked out all sorts of details. And drawn a really pretty map, even including the fields… The trouble was the map – to anyone who ever used a map, who ever had an inkling of geography said… impossible. And to boot, non-arable without massive terracing. Certainly never going to support more than a very tiny population per square km (and yes, distances were included). The fields growing oats in a world totally unlike our own, would have fed one family. Maybe. When you added a load of peaceful lady knights in different castles who were great warriors and experts in martial arts… (thus displaying a nicely politically correct world which was as probable as no-one celebrating the 4th of July, as, sorry, feudal society didn’t get told it had to be PC and evolved separately in at least seven locales I can think of and… didn’t work like this. Being warriors requires a reason… and it’s not peace. And castles are not built to look ornamental and romantic either. There are reasons for Amazon corps to arise, and there are exceptional female martial-artists… but it ain’t peace and lurve either. Men are bigger and stronger and more aggressive on average, and therefore, without other major factors, dominant in conflict societies. There has to be a very good reason, pretty quickly upfront why the inverse could possibly be, or it is TBAR time. Sorry if it doesn’t fit your PC world-building.

Nor does expertise in say Norse myth or medieval English help that much… unless you are writing in a setting which uses those in situ. But for building a ‘de novo’ world, you need to be an expert in so much more (or research them or lie plausibly) Because a REAL world has real biology, real geology… and ignorance of these can make your world as real as a salary cut for politicians.

Which appropriately brings me to my second need for good world building. To be a fluent liar.

It’s happened to me a good 5 times (3 at cons) now and I believe it is an occupational hazard… you’ll get buttonholed by this rather bright-eyed guy (so far it’s been 4 males, 1 female for me) who will fix you with a crazed tremulous smile and a satchel… with three chapters of their manuscript and 5000 pages of ‘world-building’ background in it. They have entire languages, societies, maps by the dozen, complete histories…geology, physiology… you name it. Some are rather like their fave RPG or Tolkein, and some are truly wildly detailed exercises in imagination. FAR, far better researched than the lady knights or Medieval English… And yet those first three chapters suck most spectacularly. Even worse than the Lady Knights…

Quite simply the writer is making the same mistake as the Lady Knights, but with more material to do it with. They always put _everything_ in. The correctness of the detail might be better thought out… but it’s all there is. And sorry, with too much, and if you don’t bore me rigid, you will, sooner or later, get it wrong. The world is too big and complex for any one normal head, even in a lifetime, let alone the few months/years at most, generally put into these efforts.  And ‘wrong once’ in the reader’s mind, often just translates out as implausible and wrong about the lot. Find one mistake and they’ll pick until they find many.

The skilled liar knows that the well-cut garment is often a lot sexier than the nude. And a poor light hides a multitude of sins and cellulite. He knows enough detail, and puts just enough in sight to convince you that the liar (AKA author) knows the curves behind the cloth intimately. The liar knows that WHAT TO LEAVE OUT is as important as what to put in.

And why does it work? Because it is plausible, and internally consistent. The author may really know every detail about his world. Tolkein did. Diana Wynne Jones probably didn’t… . Good world-building, put simply, is a SMALL amount of well-crafted minutiae, and vast amount of plausible, logical internal consistency. Some of us need ALL the detail worked out precisely to make us that consistent. But don’t confuse doing that with being a good world-builder. There are those who can do without it, who make the reader fill in the gaps… and readers get it right for themselves. PERFECTLY right.  That was Diana Wynne Jones. Tiny precise details, and she was plausible and internally consistent most of the time, so you believed that she did have that whole world in her head. You just weren’t seeing more of it than needed for the story.

Which brings me to my third and final point – that which separates the Ok and even good world-builders from the truly great. The good show you a plausible internally consistent world, which you see through their writing and the eyes of their characters. The great — and they’re out there (and not particularly confined by gender either) create the illusion of bigger world outside that window that the reader sees. That is genius. It does get done. I’ve tried to work out just how to do it myself for years. A part at least is to bend the Chekhov rule, just a little. (Not smash it!) and allow detail that is germane but not directly so into bits of ‘irrelevant’ text. Like junk DNA… we’re not too sure what it does, but it’s POSSIBLY relevant so we keep it in mind. It’s a balancing act.

Great world-building… near invisible if done well. So who would you commend?