A collection of cities and worlds to draw inspiration from or use outright for your own settings.
Assume, to be totally arbitrary, a council of thirteen archmages. Below them are seven circles of seven mages each, and below these are one hundred apprentice mages at various stages of learning. They are not permitted to learn the higher arts of magecraft until an opening appears in one of the seven circles (This may determine what learning they specialize in, if that’s what you’d like. One interesting ramification of this is that a chosen apprentice could potentially have to choose between entering into a school of magic which ze has no interest in, or passing up advancement this time around but risk never being chosen again). (more…)
“Why do you assume I have a choice?” Stephen King, Night Shift.
A month ago I explained horror from an LDS viewpoint, justifying, as it were, the existence of the horror genre. But why me? I recognize the need for electricians but have no desire to be one myself, so the need itself is not reason enough for my participation, and while I don’t think that there’s any reason to defend myself (I already did that to my satisfaction) there is room for curiosity to be had. Why did— well, you think of an author yourself and add “write in that genre?” because I definitely don’t feel qualified to compare myself to the Greats at this point. But why does anyone write how and what they do? (more…)
In light of my earlier article on dystopias, I thought it would be appropriate to bring back an aborted setting that I worked on a long, long time ago. The premise was that there was a great conflict by a number of groups, called the Utopians, who were each genuinely trying to better everyone’s lives. But they disagreed on methods and they disagreed on ends. Even though they acknowledged that they were all trying to do a good job they couldn’t work together because each of the others sacrificed or didn’t address something which they considered to be of vital importance.
That’s what this is about, by demonstrating and giving examples. Good Guys— or at least Decent Guys— who still can’t get along because they have such differing value systems, and the myriad ways that a utopia can take root. (more…)
There are a lot of interesting genres, archetypes, & storytelling devices out there, some of which aren’t very well-known. Here and there, one week and then another, I’d like to describe some of the ones that I’ve grown very fond of, but which don’t seem to be well-known. Hopefully they’ll be new to you, and maybe even spark an idea.
An archetype was first described by Kate Winter. It is a particular kind of Heroine’s Journey (which we’ll tackle in another week altogether) which has its origins in mythology but has really come into its own only in modern times.
I like moral dichotomies and moral conflicts in settings. I even, on occasion, enjoy the epic struggle between Good and Neutral, or Candy and Chocolate. But when you have a conflict between the forces of Light and Darkness and they represent Good and Evil every time, well, I get a little exhausted by it. The next go-to option is little better. Order and Chaos? Nowadays that seems to be just as overplayed as Good and Evil. Sometimes even more— or worse, it’s supposedly about Order vs Chaos but these are just synonyms for Good and Evil. (more…)
At the risk of accidentally helping the next would-be conqueror and subsequent ruler of the world, I want to talk about dystopias today.
When I read about cultures, past and present, there are some different things that I automatically start looking for or asking myself. When I see an imbalance of power, what comes to mind is “Where are the dangerous elements to the present power structure, and how have the rulers co-opted these elements and/or played them against each other so that they won’t pose a threat?” (more…)
This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on August 28th, 2014.
I’ll come right and say it: I’m tired of elemental systems that shamelessly rip from the Greek, Chinese, or Japanese, especially when they do so without really understanding what these people were getting at. Like, if you’re going to go with Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, would it kill you to read a little Empedocles, and maybe Aristotle or Proclus or something? Just doing that would give your system a blast of fresh air to differentiate it from the rest of the crowd.
But all this, it’s been done already. Like I want to say to every fantasy author who refuses to move beyond Tolkien, can we do something else now? I’m sure that somebody can play the old hat and make it look like new, but Sturgeon’s Law applies doubly-well when it comes to beating dead horses: most of it is sheer, undiluted crap.
The second half of this article will discuss some lesser-used elemental systems but first I want to discuss, you know, making your own. Discard your assumptions and everything you know or think you know about the universe. Get into the mindset of the culture that this system is embedded in, whether it’s magical or purely philosophical, and ask yourself “What would make sense to these people?”
Not everyone used the same elements. That’s why we have different systems to begin with. And— this cannot be emphasized enough— question all your assumptions. “Would they really think that this thing was fundamental or important, or is that just an idea that I’m bringing to the table?”
Limyaael gives a few examples of this philosophy in action: “Perhaps your own imaginary culture is very heaven-oriented, and chooses as the elements sun, stars, moons, and cloud. Perhaps the sky, earth, and sea are considered elements, and nothing else is, because nothing else is a place that humans can travel through. Perhaps snow and ice are important to northern cultures, but not to southern ones.”
But remember: “If you’re trying for a serious tone, the twee addition to elemental magic ruins it, especially when it has nothing in common with the other elements. Restrain yourself.”
Limyaael, incidentally, was (I think) referencing the Babylonian system in that second example of hers: it also included “wind,” for a total of four elements, and “sky” was analogous to the aether in the Greek system. It was non-terrestrial stuff (in one of my projects, where elementals seem to be partly influenced by cultural perceptions of their element, Sky elementals kind of resemble astronaut zombie things whose suits may only be “suits”).
There are three systems that I’ve dabbled notably in. The first is based on the Chinese Bagua or trigrams: Heaven, Wind, Water, Metal, Earth, Thunder, Fire, and Wood. The second was written for an entry in my Culture Column series: Absence, (three-dimensional) Space, Sky, Fire, Earth, Water, and Flesh. As the article explains each one was thought to lead to the next, and the thought process manages to be both logical for the culture and pretty unlike anything else that I’ve seen before.
The third, which doesn’t have a good presence anywhere on the web, was very biocentric and based on Bone (inanimate substance), blood (animating force), flesh (animate substance), fear (the compulsion away from things), and desire (the compulsion toward things). The latter two come into play because, in a possibly materialistic twist on the concept, the mind was considered to be just as much a part of the world as anything else, and it was decided that everything could ultimately be understood as either “wanting to get something” or “wanting to avoid something.”
Flesh, or animate substance, could exist without an animating substance, as demonstrated by the existence of things like earthworms and jellyfish, which apparently didn’t have any blood to speak of. On the other hand, things that did have blood could be counted on to become inanimate if they lost too much, so obviously there were some beings that needed an animating substance and some that were solely Flesh.
(I’ve said it before, but feel free to take any of the ideas that I drop in public)
If you’d like some homework then here’s a project for you: Figure out a system used by a people who reasoned that if the universe was born from chaos or void, then the real fundamental elements were absences, not presences. Before fire there was cold. Before light, darkness.
What else would there be in this system?
IRL elemental systems
The classic (and Classical) elemental system is Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Aether was added by Aristotle, who reasoned that because the first four elements were corruptible but no change had ever been observed in the Heavens, the universe beyond must be made of another, incorruptible “quintessence.”
Aristotle assigned as well special qualities to the basic four: Air and Fire were hot, Air and Water were wet, Earth and Fire were dry, and Earth and Water were cold. Proclus thought that the elements had special qualities but gave his own system: Fire was sharp, subtle, and mobile and Earth was blunt, dense, and immobile. These could be considered “more fundamental” than the other two because they were fully opposed and shared no qualities. Air and Water were almost transitional: Air was mostly like Fire but lost sharpness in exchange for bluntness and Water went one step further, losing subtlety to denseness.
Jābir ibn Hayyān left out Aether and added “the stone which burns,” sulphur (representing combustibility) and mercury (metallic properties). Paracelsus built upon Hayyān’s additions and discarded the original system entirely in favor of sulphur (flammability), mercury (volatility), and salt (solidity). In burning wood, mercury/cohesion left in the form of smoke, the fire was the manifestation of flammability (which acted upon the mercury/volatility in the wood), and what remained in the form of ash was the salt, or solidity, of the wood.
In some astrological systems, the opposing forces were Air/Water and Earth/Fire. The Tibetan system was like the Classical but the fifth element was (three-dimensional) Space.
The Japanese Godai, which were broader and more symbolic than the Classical: Earth was solid things, Water was all liquid, Fire was that which destroyed, Air was moving things, and Void was things that were outside of normal experience.
The Chinese Wu Xing were also symbolic, more steps in a process than ever-distinct substances, and they are often translated as “movements” or “phases.” Wood fed Fire, which created Earth, which held Metal, which was used to hold Water, which nourished Wood. On the other side, Wood (roots) divided the Earth, which absorbed Water, which quenched Fire, which melted Metal, which chopped Wood.
If you base your system off of either of these then see what you create when you keep in mind that they’re not just the Classical Greek system with an element or two added on or switched out.
What else could you draw on? Howabout:
“My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance. But that all changed when the Nitrogen Republic attacked…”
Your turn: What’s another elemental system that you’ve found or made yourself?
This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on August 14th, 2014.
Why bother with a fandom?
This is a follow-up to the previous article, Fandom and Fanfiction.
Karen Hunton of Build a Little Biz describes the members of a fandom as having these qualities:
Do you want that stuff? Do you want it?
Kevin Kelley explains that you only need 1000 True Fans to make a living. If you have 1,000 people willing to spend $100 on you every year then that comes to an income of $100,000, minus expenses. That is some good stuff right there. And Karen Hunton’s listed qualities are as good a description of True Fans as any you could find.
So how do you develop a fandom?
You need to get them invested
One of the biggest things that you can do is give your audience “feels.” Make them cry. Make them laugh. Make them hang off the edges of their seats. You know this thing.
But the feels, they are important. Let’s take a look at TV Tropes for a moment, shall we? Most works have subpages to catalog: Crowning Moments of Awesome… Tear Jerkers… Nightmare Fuel… Funny Moments… Heartwarming Moments… and more.
As TV Tropes says on the Emotional Torque page, where these are grouped: “The overriding goal of all storytelling is to get a reaction from the audience— a laugh, a tear, a desire to change, or maybe a desire to kill the storyteller.”
And when you deliver feels, the fandom makes so much music about your work that they can make a radio station webpage that plays nothing but that music over and over and over (I must confess that most of my non-story writing is done to Skaianet Radio).
You also need to build a community. Do you see how I bolded that last bit? That’s because it’s important. Fandoms are groups of people. Get them talking with each other. Get them to feel like there’s this super special connection that binds them all together and makes them, in at least that one respect, similar to each other.
(And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll make sure your work is good enough that the super special connection is well-deserved. Your goal is not to con the marks into sacrificing their boondollars for transient things. It is to touch their souls in some way.)
And interact with them. Be approachable. Comment on the forums. Respond to emails. Ask them questions. Be involved. If you are not part of the community then they will not follow you, they will follow the work, and that’s not too good if you want to ever step away and do something else. Or, you know, just plain be supported in your work.
If your fans love you, and not just your work, but at the very least appreciate you because you’re responsible for the work, then you won’t have to worry about living in the gutter because everybody stole your work and nobody passed a penny in your direction for it.
(I mean, there are other reasons, too, but this is a pretty good one too)
You need to get them active
This ties into the community aspect a lot, because when the fans are active they’re usually going to be active with other people, or their activity will spur activity in others. But get them active.
Harry Potter and Lost were very responsible for the creation of the Wild Mass Guessing pages on TV Tropes. Pretty much every detail was an element in somebody’s theory, because both works had proven that it was worthwhile to analyze the little things.
This is how Kate885 described the situation (in a Livejournal post that, unfortunately, I seem unable to find again, a long time later): “Chances are good that we as a fandom have figured out almost every last detail of DH [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows]. We are the infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters. The only thing left to do is discern which pieces are true and which are false. But, after two years— somebody has come up with every theory that is theoretically possible.
“I remember, back between OotP and HBP, someone actually came up with the theory that Voldemort could be keeping himself alive by splitting parts of his soul and putting them in containers for safekeeping. Yes, someone managed to correctly predict Horcruxes before we even knew what they were called. If you shoot enough arrows in the dark, sooner or later you hit the target.”
Think about that for a second. Imagine what this is implying. The amount of activity that is behind this.
If you had one thousand fans who liked to spend any portion of their time figuring out the mysteries or future events of your work, do you think that they could probably be counted on to spend a lousy $100 a year on you? Do you think that they would become your 1,000 True Fans?
“Become” is an important word there. Your True Fans will analyze and theorize and discuss, of course, but it is not that someone becomes a True Fan and then analyzes and theorizes and discusses. Rather, there is something in your work that is worth analyzing, or theorizing about, or discussing, and in process of time the person who does that becomes a True Fan.
But you need to have something worth analyzing, theorizing about, and discussing.
Oh, and fanfiction? Gets people invested. Writers and readers both. In case it wasn’t obvious.
When people get active, they get invested. They don’t spend their time writing a story or making a song or creating a goshdurned video game and then turn around and decide “Meh, I think I’ll stop caring about this.” Once they get active enough you’ve got a feedback loop that’ll generally only terminate if you do something asinine, because it is human nature to justify your involvement in something that you have already invested time and money in. Every book they buy increases the odds that they will buy the book, and if somebody has read two-thirds of the way through Homestuck, then you can be pretty well counted on to finish the last third if for no other reason than that you have read the equivalent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
It’s called effort justification.
But again, and this is where I have to say, “Use your powers for good, and not for evil”— If you decide to try to use Psychology Wizardry to con people into passing over coin for veritable mental poison, then first, it’s probably not going to work out like you want because the Real Good Stuff is common enough that it’ll show your work for the fool’s gold that it is and, second, you’re an asshole and you should feel bad.
You need to give them something to work with
I remember a conversation at Dark Lord Potter that got onto the topic of why the Harry Potter fandom had gotten where it was. It was pointed out that a major factor— not necessarily the biggest, just big— was, paradoxically, that there was so much room for improvement in the series. There were holes, there were things that didn’t make sense, and there were plot decisions that weren’t liked, and so the series straddled this weird place where it was awesome enough to be worth reading but sucky enough that you wanted to go in and fix the stuff you didn’t like.
As evidence, this commenter brought forward the sheer number of Alternate Universe, “Fix,” and worldbuilding fics in the Harry Potter fandom, especially relative to some other fandoms. DLP especially sometimes has a love-hate relationship with JK, lauding her for this quality over here and mercilessly tearing apart the series’ flaws over there. But DLP is also notable for the volume and quality of work that its members produce, and it is in no small part due to this very quality in Harry Potter.
Now, I wouldn’t suggest intentionally sowing flaws in your work so that people can tear it apart. That’s… That’s pretty damn stupid, okay? But it illustrates the concept.
A better example: Some works don’t garner much fanfiction because they’re not well-known, or they’re just not fun. But some are well-known and well-loved, but still pretty sterile. Why is this?
Because everything gets wrapped up. There’s no room to fill in. There’s nothing to explore after the curtain closes. There are no mysteries left.
So leave things open. Keep some threads loose and untied. Give your audience something to chew on.
Want extra homework? Read The Dynamics of Fandom: Exploring Fan Communities in Online Spaces, available here.
Your turn: What else can be done to build a fandom?
This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on July 31st, 2014.
(Dear Reader, you may also consider this article’s title to be The Secret History of Fandom, because that’s also what it is)
Fandom has a long history. A long and secret history, which common men are not permitted to know, since the days of ancient Babylon. And today, young grasshopper, I shall teach you to how to harness this power, the power of Fandom, but only for good and not for evil.
Okay, that’s not all true. Fandom really only dates back to the 1887 (people have been raving about Sherlock forever), even if fanfiction, as such, dates back even further (Hello, Willie Shakespeare). But in these two articles I will be teaching you how to harness this mighty power of the gods, and why you should even bother.
First of all, why write fanfiction?
Because I do think that you should at least consider it. It may not be your cuppa, but don’t discard the tea before you give it a good look over.
Now, not everybody think that it makes sense. Take George R. R. Martin for perhaps the most famous example: “But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those ‘literary muscles,’ you’ll never develop them.”
Well, let me say something, Mr. Martin: You’re very silly and I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. (Also, if I can make a brief tangent? What is Martin going on about talking about creative laziness, when half of the crap in the fantasy genre is still taking its cues from Tolkien?)
There are two benefits to writing fanfiction that I can think of right off the bat:
And even if you don’t have any trouble with building worlds and characters, it’s still good practice to write within certain limitations. You can set these constraints any number of ways, but there’s something to be said for seeing if you can write specifically within the bounds of an already-existing personality.
You know that City of Bones movie that came out August last year? Cassandra Clare was once— brace yourself, because this is a very inventive pseudonym— Cassandra Claire, writer of The Very Secret Diaries (Lord of the Rings fanfiction) and The Draco Trilogy. The latter is more relevant, because The Mortal Instruments recycles numerous characters, plot elements, and even text from Draco.
Exhibit B is— get ready now— 50 Shades of Grey. E. L. James really takes the cake, as she originally wrote it as Master of the Universe, a sordid Twilight fanfiction, under the penname Snowqueen’s Icedragon. What did she do to translate the story into original fic format?
Just changed the names, actually…
Fanfiction gets a bad name, but it’s honestly been going on for a freaking long while. “Derivative work” or “Transformative work” might be better names, and under that auspice you can see a whole bunch of literature in a different light. The Aeneid steals Aeneas from the Iliad.WilliamShakespeare’s work was heavily derivative or transformative, especially in the first stage of his career. Bram Stoker’s Dracula gave birth to Nosferatu and basically every other story that ties Vlad Tepes to the vampire myth.
Heck, even The Matrix is not too far off from a cyberpunk-skinned rendition of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles (as Morrison says in a Suicide Girls interview, “They [the Wachowskis] should have kept on stealing from me and maybe they would have wound up with something to really be proud of”). And the 19th Century story Edison’s Conquest, as Cracked tells us, gave birth to some of the most fundamental tropes of science fiction.
Look, we’ll just stop here and say, “Fanfiction is so embedded in our history that Cracked wrote another article on the topic.”
If I seem like I’m talking an awful lot about fanfiction, it’s because it’s very, very important. Even if you don’t write fanfiction, encouraging others to write fanfiction of your work will be a very important part of growing a fandom, so any moral imperatives against fanfiction have to be handled before we can move further. Because math proves everything, we’ll turn it into an equation:
No fanfiction = no fandom
(Exceptions may exist, sure, but you wouldn’t bet your career on rolling a “1” on a twenty-sided die, would you?)
Your turn: Whether you agree or not, what do you think about fanfiction, and why?
This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on July 17th, 2014.
Second Contact? Near-First Contact?
I don’t really know what the best term would be, but what we’re talking about is that time after the first contact has been made between two alien civilizations, but not so long after that they’re well-acclimated to each other. In other words, early enough that even the xenophiles are experiencing culture shock.
As before, humans can play either side of the field in the options presented. (more…)