Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Generative Ethnography of the Fantastic

I love me some pretentious titles!

Anyway, I was talking to a couple of friends independently about world building over the last couple of days, specifically about both how to create a world in which to put her characters in one friend's case, and how to tell character stories in a built world, which I think is something we all struggle with in fantasy and science fiction to some extent. So, this is often my process:

1. Big theme, difference, or "hook"

What is the single biggest "not our world" element of your story? Is there a sickness that turns people into animals according to their sins? Is it a future where our smart phones have all become nodes of a global machine consciousness bent on our destruction? Are there psychic alien parasites residing in every bit of aluminum on the planet? More conventionally, is there a world where fairies and humans coexist and fairies are the source of all magic, though humans are slowly appropriating some of it? You know, whatever you like, but this'll be the thing that makes your story genre, and very likely one of the central plot points.

2. Anchor details

I like at least two other big unrelated details about your world or your society. There are rivers full of corrosive hallucinogens, it's a matriarchy, there's been a global war, cannibalism is accepted practice, kids are born by batch cloning, things are modeled on feudal Japan, everyone has a backup heart, the country is on the edge of a revolution because of a powerful anarchist faction, capital punishment is banned and instead criminals are maimed or blinded, graven idols actually grant wishes, family bonds are totemic rather than by blood, what have you. The important thing is that they're things you think would be fun, and they're not related to what you picked in number one.

2.5 Borrowing

My degree is in anthropology and I read a lot of ethnographic, history, science, and trivia stuff for fun. I have a vast cache of information I can plunder from at the drop of a hat, and often my new ideas come from reading the sorts of things above and going "man, that would make a great element in a story". I recommend reading widely and without particular predisposition to anyone interested in world building. Serious, just click the random link of the day in wikipedia and surf on through. When you come across something you're not familiar with, read up. You may end up with a pidgin-speaking wizard with a capybara familiar, and it might just be awesome.

3. Extrapolation

What do your three things mean in conjunction with each other? What kind of society accommodates all three? Let's pick three of the above: the animal plague, the anarchist revolution, and the wishing idols. Because they're a society that can form an anarchist philosophy and stage a revolution, I'm going to say they're pretty sophisticated as far as government, centralization, and dissemination of ideas. In fact, I'm going to say that the fact that idols can grant wishes has led to an economy with very little scarcity, which has allowed technology to flourish, especially since some motivated people were able to wish for faustian level understandings of things, so they actually have some things way more sophisticated than we do (this is a totally arbitrary aesthetic choice I'm backing up with a rationale from one of my three points. What I'm envisioning is something SORT of steam punk, a combination of 18th-19th century style setting and future tech. The point I want to make is at this stage, it's still about what's possible, and what's fun, rather than what's necessary.) I want the animal plague to be something the idols can't fix. The next thought is if anyone can wish for anything, how did we get a centralized system that anarchists would rebel against? And the immediate option I come up with is that there is a single class that controls access to the icons. To me it makes the most sense that they would be priests of some kind, and I love the word hierophant, so our ruling class will be a central religious bureaucracy that has become sprawling, officious, and corrupt. I don't want it to be based on lineage, because that seems done, but I do want it to be secretive and very picky about who it lets in and who it promotes- after all, I'm creating conditions that would lead to popular anarchism and revolution. The animal plague is going to be the spark that lights that whole powder keg, as the priests will start restricting idol access even more when they don't work to cure the plague, because these things are the basis of their power and they don't want them questioned- whereas of course people on the outside will see it as a strike against everyone who isn't bureaucracy.

3.5 Points of conflict

I'm already doing this in the example above, but I think one of the important things to do at this stage is look for points of conflict, because these are where the good stories happen. Is there a massive criminal organization? Does one group have way more power than another? Are there restrictive laws and taboos? Is there a disenfranchised minority? Is there some rare product or material that's necessary for magic or technology to work? Where is a person's social mobility limited? What's potentially unfair? Are there deadly monsters or weather phenomenon? What in this society will get you hurt, exploited, raped, disowned, arrested, or killed?

4. Body stress test

Take a moment and look at what you've made critically. What factors don't work with each other and how can you address them? Important note: I don't think you actually HAVE to revise them. Our world is full of contradictions, and they lend a feeling of lived-in verisimilitude to a fake world. They can be exceptions, rarities, minority group dissensions, or even outright hypocrisy, but you're going to want to be aware they're there. Done consciously it looks nuanced. Done without examining it, it looks sloppy. For example, does your city with high-ranking sacred prostitute priestesses still demonize female sexuality and use "whore" as an insult? If you don't deal with why, it looks inconsistent, but possibly it's a rebellious faction trying to slander them, possibly it's the mores of a conquered people vs. the mores of an invading ruling class, possibly it's the priestesses' own way to undercut and debase any potential competition. Or, you can deal with it by removing either the priestesses or the prejudice for most people. Basically just give everything a once over as a whole piece, look for any glaring errors, and decide if and how they fit into the larger picture.

5. Character choice

Who is least well served by this society? For whom will it require the most conflict to reap the rewards your world offers? In the animal plague story above, I need somebody who is cut out of the political structure entirely- so someone who's no friend either to the bureaucrats or the anarchists. I'll pick somebody who tried to get into the priesthood but failed out and in the process got blacklisted for offending a high level hierophant, so now they get blocked no matter what they try to do, but most especially they are banned from idol wishing, and the anarchists have no love for this person, because they clearly had bureaucracy aspirations. This person has someone they love more than anyone else- I'm tempted to say a spouse, sibling, or child, who has stuck with them and helped them throughout all of this and now has contracted the painful, humiliating, and ultimately personhood-annihilating plague. Maybe they'll win over the anarchists to overthrow the priesthood or maybe they'll beg the priesthood to let them make one wish if they willingly act as a mole. Who knows. The important thing is you've got someone who this world has backed into a corner, and that's when people get desperate and interesting.

Other potentially interesting characters for a longer work, or as an alternate main for a short work, include people who are so thoroughly indoctrinated into one subgroup or culture (or even the main culture) that they can't see the contradictions that inform their daily lives. To borrow from the example above, maybe you write about the specific prostitute priestess whose job it is to defame, punish, and humiliate lesser whores, which she sees as her holy duty because she clearly has nothing in common with these women. These can be great stories of awakening. Often the best people for this are the enforcers or primary beneficiaries of the system, though it's a good arc for someone you want to be an opposition demagogue as well.

You can also, certainly, reverse engineer from this point. Say you've got a fabulous character and their conflict planned out. You can pick their hypocrisies and their points of opposition and build a whole world out of that. Say you want to do a blind seer who falls in love with a prince whose father and kingdom she's seeing dooooooom for. What can you put in to make that even harder for her? Maybe a strict caste marriage system? Maybe all sorts of extra prejudice about blind people and a lingering suspicion that it's communicable by touch? Maybe vastly different vaguely connected language groups that make her seem clumsy and ineloquent to the point of being deliberately hateful to him when she talks, when all she's trying to do is warn him for his own good? And what sort of wars, feuds, or geographic uncrossables would divide two people who previously spoke the same language until they mutated into barely intelligible dialects? You could pick a massive open lava crack that spewed poison and which each side blamed the others' magic for, and across which trade and travel had only just recently been reestablished. The world is your oyster. The best of my advice is to make sure you have fun.

So those are my two cents, which means I appear to be operating at about a $0.000015 a word today.


6. Checklist

This is not as much work as it's about to sound like, you don't have to have an exhaustive encyclopedia on these, but it helps to have at least a vague idea of your fantasy society's:

  1. geographical features
  2. weather patterns
  3. ecology (flora and fauna (also if you have monsters, what do they eat?))
  4. local industries including crops
  5. trade goods
  6. goods acquirable only through trade (what is exotic, valuable, and scary?)
  7. food and fresh water sources
  8. demographics (population numbers, ages, races, common physical features, birth and death numbers)
  9. religions
  10. social groups and castes
  11. methods of determining status
  12. upward or downward mobility
  13. gender and age roles (including sex and relationship expectations)
  14. cuisine
  15. drugs, alcohol, and basically what people do to get high (or at least some segment of people)
  16. fashions (including jewelry and body modification)
  17. taboos and superstitions
  18. local legends, myths, and ghost stories
  19. birth, marriage, coming of age, and funeral rites
  20. holidays and festivals
  21. system of currency or exchange, economics (eg. shells, precious metals, paper money, floating debt, system of gift giving)
  22. laws and process of jurisprudence (who is a criminal, how they are judged, and how they are punished?)
  23. waste disposal process (including human waste. Seriously. It's important)
  24. language
  25. writing system and literacy
  26. means of transportation
  27. methods of communicating over long distances
  28. medicine
  29. level of technology
  30. martial prowess, especially if they have a specialty weapon or style of fighting (eg. Mongol horseback archery)
  31. history including wars, allegiances, and treaties
  32. knowledge of the outside world (including dead-wrong misconceptions)
  33. entertainment, games, leisure activities
  34. magical system, if they have one
  35. criminal segment, black market, or otherwise illicit industries and activities

And probably more, though I think 35's a reasonable list. If you don't know, don't be afraid to just jot in a quick filler like "cuisine: spicy, lots of rice and peppers" or "medicine: medieval Europe". It's not important what you put, just that you've thought about it- and often, just thinking about it will give you an idea for a good scene. And again, each of these can certainly play off another. For example, if you have a taboo about women showing their hair, the fashion will likely include a lot of scarves and hats.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Writing Without Reading

Or an article to that effect anyway. I'm always surprised how many people seem to think that trying to be a writer while lugging around a massive disdain for books is not only acceptable, but desirable.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Formula

First off, and as an aside, happy birthday to both H. G. Wells and Joe Strummer of the Clash, both folk I've really enjoyed and been somewhat influenced by. So yay.

My gut instinct is to say it will probably come as a surprise for me to say so, but honestly I've been very wrong about a lot of things this week, so I guess I wouldn't be surprised if no one was surprised by the confession, but: I actually put a lot of stock in using formulas in writing.

Not to the extent, for example, that I have a checklist of things I feel each story must have and go through and mechanically plug things in, but definitely the flow and rhythm of three act (establishment, complication/rising action, and resolution) or five act structure, things like try-fail cycles (to build dramatic tension for an important achievement, a character should take at least two actions that fail and make the situation worse before eventually winning out), and archetypal plots (the chosen one, the rescue, the big heist, boy meets girl, the who done it?).

I think it helps to begin with at least a rough scaffolding of what kind of story you're trying to tell- it will very much help you determine which parts of the story you want to emphasize, even with interchangeable plot elements. I've been talking about this quite a bit with a friend whose novel I've been beta reading, as it's a story that has both a romantic plot and a fantasy adventure plot, and there's a question of what proportion of the time gets devoted to each and what that leads me as a reader to expect from the rest of the story. Something similar happened to me with last year's national novel writing month novel, where I had elements of both mystery and... I guess we'd call it political action? I had to deal with the question of whether the murder that begins the book was really a mystery or just a macguffin, or somewhere in between, and until I did the whole thing felt very muddled (it's a macguffin, by the way. The situations of the murder are complicated enough to warrant a mystery, but what's important to the book is the fallout and other unrelated events that take place after. I'd certainly like you to care who killed her, but that's not what the book's about in the final tally).

Formulas are a good jumping off point. Obviously the goal is not to create something formula perfect, because that's not really a story so much as the end result of an algorithm (which I think by definition tends to be less interesting than the algorithm itself), but if you look at what resonates about a story formula, I think it's hard not to pick up some good ideas not just about how to follow it, but how to deviate from it. I have a good friend who's working on a young adult chosen one story, except that the moral certainty is removed and there is so far no objective way to tell within the story whether the chosen one will be a savior or a destroyer, and the story has to deal with that lack of righteous confidence. It's something that's in conversation with our expectation of a formula, which of course couldn't happen if that formula weren't there and well known.

I tend to view story structure and formula the same way I view grammar- as a set of conventions that facilitate ease of the transfer of a message, which can be messed with and selectively ignored to great effect by conscious choice. Unfortunately if you don't have them or you screw with them without considering the outcome, what you get is kind of an incomprehensible mess. (Mess kind gotten An of is non-I-pronoun, conditional).

My two cents, anyway.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Shameless Angry Black Woman Repost

I love the Angry Black Woman blog for a number of reasons. The post linked here is a gem from the archives about potential ways to improve diversity among speculative fiction markets.

(I think the kind of underlying question is: "Do you believe diversity in genre fiction is a goal worth expending effort toward?" Obviously Angry Black Woman thinks yes, and I agree, but I think the other side is less "Eeek, diversity makes me terribly uncomfortable!" and more "eh, it SOUNDS nice, but wouldn't that take more work from me?" So really it's not just do you agree in principle, but are you willing to work for it?)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Speak Out With Your Geek Out

This post is in conjunction with Speak Out With Your Geek Out week, which is a big round of blog posting to help all those people who have internalized the negative connotations of geekdom, even as we move into an era of computer phones, cloned organs, and widespread pop culture references to hobbits and orcs.

I'm not doing too badly for myself. I'm an emergency medical technician on my way to full paramedic and a published writer of fantasy and horror. I've gotten to travel all around the world, including Belize, Japan, Egypt, France, Mexico, China, and exotic Canada. I've worked on an archaeological dig, jumped out of planes, ridden camels across a desert, climbed cliff faces, swum with sharks, modeled nude, met one US president, and breathed for a cardiac arrest patient.

I'm also a geek on a number of different axises. I've always read fantasy and science fiction, I love and continue to read comic books, I enjoy role playing and boardgames, I love both western animation and anime, I've been in and out of massive online multiplayers since the web connections were pay-by-the-minute, I've made lasting friends through internet fandom, and I have, on more than occasion, larped. I've also met more than one boyfriend through these activities.

Being a geek isn't something that limits you. It's a passion. It's a light in your life that you can hold up when things are looking dark. It's having tried to live up to being a knight or a paladin, even just as an exercise. It's understanding the prime directive and knowing why it's there. It's learning planetary physics because you want to design a city in the clouds. It's knowing that with great power comes great responsibility, and having planned out what you would do if you had the good luck to get a radioactive spider bite. It's about a powerful combination of imagination, enthusiasm, and precision- about being able to ask “what if?” and then provide the answer. It's about an intimate familiarity with a body of work that asks over and over again “what does it mean to be human?” and “what does it mean to be good?”

I'm a lot of things in addition to being a geek, but I could never have been the whole person I am today without having imagined myself as an X-man, without having cried during Ender's Game, without having learned to draw every character in Ranma 1/2, without wearing a shine into my wasd keys in multiplayer games, without learning the mechanics of storytelling by relentlessly picking apart TV shows and putting them back together the way I thought they ought to go, or without the friends I made because we had these things in common.

And that's not all. I have a friend who used to win anime cosplay competitions. Now she does makeup and special effects for Hollywood movies. One friend who played the Star Wars tabletop roleplaying game with me is a practicing lawyer. Another is a professor. The biggest, sweetest firemen I know carries a toy tricorder in his pocket. The first guy I ever fell in love with could demand chocolate in Klingon. I once had a really surreal conversation with the front man for a punk rock band and the giant bouncer at the door about how much we loved dungeons and dragons and the renaissance fair.

If you're feeling down and alone, you shouldn't. There are a lot of us out here, and we're not always who you'd think.

If you're feeling like what you love makes you a loser, you shouldn't do that either.

The stars are the limit.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I Think I Actually Cried a Little

Who wants to see the sweetest, most nerd-girl affirming site ever?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Academic Racket

I've been complaining about the gatekeeping of knowledge for a while now, but I've never done it as succinctly as this article.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Moving Forward

As I may or may not have mentioned, I have a lot of first drafts lying around, and some stories existing in various stages of middle drafts. One of the things I end up struggling with is how much time to dedicate to combing through the work I've already done and seeing what I can shepherd to a state of completeness, weighed against using that time to produce something new.

The things I've already got to first draft form are by definition closer to completion, but they're also not as good as the first drafts I can write now, having hopefully learned from my previous drafts and edits. I've also apparently got a bit of rose colored nostalgia about the quality of some of the things I'd previously written. I've already trunked and abandoned one story that I looked back on as a favorite.

I know I should be polishing more of my backlog to submission quality, but I also feel like there's a basic psychological nourishment that comes from taking on and finishing a new project. Then again, I'm one of those people who loves the blank canvas and the first draft phase. I've known others who live for the polishing.

How do you folks out there on the internet handle your polishing/new project allotments?

Thursday, September 1, 2011


I've been involved in an online critique site called Fantasy-Writers.Org for several years now. I'm not as frequent a participant as I used to be, but I've helped to set up a rolling list of the blogs for people who are part of the site.