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.



  1. Very nice.

    You write about world building, I wrote about plot building.... Lion! Throw in the imagery lesson and we have a "Idiot's Guide to Writing Bad Fiction" going here.

  2. I'm not sure imagery is my piece of the Triforce; I think it wraps into Lesli's. Maybe pathos and handwringing?

    And then I'd have to make a blog, wouldn't I? Cooties! (I killed my blogspot because it was too embarrassing to live. I guess I do still have the livejournal, but that was always more of a social tool when I posted on it. Sort of a pre-Facebook Facebook.)

  3. I do enjoy your penchant for pathos and handwringing, Lion :) And you should totally make a blog! It's so much more fun than it looks like from the outside. Plus, plus, now that you're an editor, you can use it to get the word out about the types of submissions you'd like to see. I bet if you get your name out at least a few people will find the press based on what you write.

    And wouldn't you love to get a pathos drenched bi-curious urban fantasy full of beautiful men with bad attitudes and intimacy issues?

    Also, Stoneaxe- Bad Fiction?

    Also also.... would you guys want a post on imagery? Because I love imagery.

  4. I would like a post on imagery, thank you for asking.

  5. Actually, I should have said, "bad-ass fiction." Put that thumb right in the eye of the collective literati crowd!

    Don't take anything I say/write too seriously. I sure don't.

    Imagery? Sure. Educate us, o wise one! :D

  6. Oh yeah, that's me. Mistress of metaphor, Potentate of Prose.

    You know, I really do sometimes worry these posts make me look like a big self proclaimed know it all smarty pants.

  7. Love this, Lesli. I've been jotting down ideas for a new NaNo novel next month, and this really jives with that--I started with a loose idea of the characters and one anchor point and then went back from there to the big difference and then outward. It's been pretty vague in some areas, though, and taking a look at your post should help me be deliberate about shoring that up. Awesome!