Friday, July 30, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds – Part III

The Influence of Government

Our characters do not live their lives in a vacuum. One thing that influences all inhabitants of any world (including our own) is government in its wide verity of forms and functions. Today, I’d like to discuss the value of this often forgotten aspect of character life as it relate to your fiction.

Some stories center around the politics of government. Dune comes to mind (as it has in previous examples). The political landscape is at the heart of Herbert’s stories. But, most characters in our fiction are not part of the ruling body. They are subjects of it. Even without the character’s direct involvement, the governments that control and lead the masses can profoundly impact the way a character views his world. A lowly thief feels the pinch of hardened constables. South-seas pirates seek the environs of an anarchist hideaway far from the prying eyes of the East India Trading Company. The protagonist wants for something more in life but is held back by his caste/station. The list goes on and on.

Government has two sides, those who support its current form and those who oppose it. Most citizens fall in-between these extremes to varying degrees. It’s up to us as we create our characters and our worlds to consider the political landscape and how this affects our characters motivations.

Each society within the story has a form of government, whether the ruling party or a secret cult. Someone must be in charge, and someone will oppose them. It’s the nature of the beast that government creates conflict – and a perfect opportunity to bring that conflict into your story. Most governments, and those who control or benefit from them, oppose change. Many people who feel trod on by their government reject the ideals and fight back (subtly or openly).

Here I’ve given a list of governmental forms. When creating a society for your story, this may give you a starting point for the complexities that are possible. As an example, for my current WIP, I chose at random, since the main character would not be directly part of the government. I let fate decide the forms of government for each major society in my fantasy story. For one, I even randomly selected two (Matriartical and Magocracy) to create a country controlled by female mages. There are endless possibilities… this is just a starting point and a place to gather ideas.

This list is not all inclusive and the specific forms of government are not mutually exclusive. There are, of course, many subtleties and sub-sects of governmental forms. Often there is cross-over of power where more than one “pure” government is merged with another to create something entirely unique.

I highly encourage you to look further into any of these that interest you. The Internet is full of information! For now:

Click here to explore the list of government possibilities.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Farewell, Dear Friend

This week I had to make a very difficult decision. One of the main characters in my WIP is not living up to the expectations I had for him. His was a grand story filled with self doubt and pity culminating in an action filled scene of heart pounding purple prose.

I have only one small issue. His story is part of the theme, not part of the plot. And so, his grand subplot adventure has come to a halt. My word budget simply isn’t large enough to squeeze him in without diluting the rest of the story or telling his emotional tale with half the words missing.

So farewell, dear friend. May we meet in another book, where I can devote the time you deserve – to tell your story in your own words – to be the man whom you are meant to be.

Q4U:  Have you ever deleted a character from your story?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part II

Grounded Imagination
In last week’s blog, I discussed the merits of using reality as a basis for constructing fantasy worlds. We took a quick look at several memorable story worlds and how the authors used realistic, though far from mundane, details to ground their readers in fact. This week, we’ll look closer at some of the imaginary creations from two of these authors.

I also discussed the “5 whys” concept of drilling down into detail. This technique is used in the corporate world when determining the root cause of problems in order to formulate solutions that will nip complicated setbacks in the bud. It applies equally well in many aspects of fiction from building unique and richly layered worlds to character creation to developing plot twists. Continue to ask “why” and you will discover things about your story that you never knew were in there.

One thing I thought noteworthy: Terry Ervin, author of Flank Hawk, was kind enough to point out our efforts when creating this kind of depth are often never represented on the page. So WHY go through all the trouble? As we write, many subtle details come out in the story as subtext. To put it simply, subtext is the words used to portray a theme or idea in a passage without directly stating it. Subtext is used to create mood, reveal motivation, hint at mystery clues, foreshadow upcoming plot events, and a host of other things. It really is a topic of its own and we need to stay focused. But, my point is that subtext, the unwritten words, can be strongly influenced by what we already know about a subject - in this case, the subtle details of our story world. I highly recommend Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld for some good examples of this technique. Although the book covers much more than that, the author’s explanation of the subject will initiate you into the delicate art of subtext.

Impossible Worms

In Dune, Herbert’s world of Arrakis is a lifeless, barren world. Nearly every living thing on the planet was brought there by space craft from other worlds over countless generations. Arrakis cannot generally support life because of its arid conditions. “Never a drop of rain on Arrakis.”

The only famous indigenous life of note? Giant sandworms, as much as 400 meters long, endlessly roam the desert where nothing else grown. What a fantastic and wonderful imagination! But how do the sandworms survive? Realistically, a predatory creature of such magnitude must feed in tremendous quantities. So how then do they live in the middle of nowhere and not prey enough in sight to power their massive bodies?

So much time is dedicated into this subject throughout the Dune series (a little at a time) that it would be unfair for me to spend the entire article on the matter to the exclusion of our other example author.

To keep this brief, sandworms survive by eating their young - sort of. Cannibalistic? Perhaps. But the system seems to work fairly well. Sandworms are born, if you can call it that, as billions of tiny microorganisms called sand plankton. How sand plankton are created is never directly stated (that I can remember). These simple celled creatures are consumed by the hundreds of thousands in a single feeding. Those that survive slowly grow to a stage called a sand trout. The sand trout are basically large amoeba. At this stage in their lifecycle, the sandworms are no longer attracted to them as a food source because trout bodies contain more moisture than the worms can comfortably tolerate. Some die and those that don’t go deep underground where they slowly transform, over several years, into tiny (3 meter long) sandworms. The process continues indefinitely.

What moisture the sandworms do need to survive is brought from the planet’s depths, far from the scorching sun, by these microorganisms and baby worms.

Herbert put allot of effort into just this one imaginary aspect of his books. It’s one of the most well known and most read sci-fi stories to date. The author’s hard work and attention to detail make this an incredibly memorable story in the minds of many readers. The series survives with several books published even after the author’s death.

If you’re curious on just how deeply these details go, take a look at the article on Sandworms (Dune).

Smegol’s Wretched Fate

Few characters from fantasy fiction are as memorable as Gollum. He is a creature of malice, mentally poisoned and tormented over the course of 500 years by his one precious possession of value, the Ring of Power - about which The Lord of the Rings centers. Tolkien’s details of Gollum varied from edition to edition of the story. It should be noted that the original Lord of the Rings was reworked for a subsequent publication, which gave the author more time to flesh out much of the missing details in the original story.

Gollum began his life as Smegol, slightly taller than a hobbit and living in a village near the edge of a stream. While on a fishing trip, Smegol discovers the ring and wants it desperately enough that he murders his friend to claim it. He’s driven out of his village and wanders until coming to rest in an underground cavern deep in the mountains. There he waits until the reader discovers him, centuries later. Though we don’t know precisely why, it’s assumed Smegol became ill from the ring’s poisoning effects. He develops a hacking cough that sounds like “gollum” and the name stuck.

So far, we’re forced to suspend our disbelief - magic is real, the ring can allow this creature to live so long, etc. But, Tolkien grounds this make-believe character with some interesting and realistic details.

Gollum’s skin is described as both pale green and sallow (light yellow) - the result of centuries without sunlight. His eyes have grown overly large, adapting to subterranean life. Most of his teeth have decayed or fallen out. (Actually, it’s surprising he has any teeth left at all, given that much time.) His stomach can no longer process “normal” food, and he is forced to live on a diet of raw meat. This last point actually becomes part of the story, because Gollum cannot eat the bread offered to him by Frodo and Sam, which builds tension. His arms and legs are inhumanly thin from lack of nourishing food and exercise since he never leaves his cave. His hair has fallen out save for a few wisps either due to illness or simple age.

Gollum’s transformation is more than just physical. After so many years in the dark, alone, he has lost a fair chunk of his mind. He talks to himself in second person plural (referring to himself as “we”). He doesn’t know how to relate to other people and often mumbles as if no one else is around, revealing his motives and plans. He’s described as rarely seen in good lighting, because he 1) doesn’t want to be seen and 2) doesn’t like the light.

There’s considerably more to this character and allot of time dedicated on the page for him. His outward appearance is a reflection of the madness that’s consumed him for centuries. Tolkien paints us a great picture of what this antagonist looks like, but rarely, does he say precisely why Gollum is the way he is. We just have to make assumptions about what the author’s intentions were during this character’s design phase.  This is an example of what Terry said last week.  By knowing the details, the "why" comes onto the page, sometimes without us even realizing it.

Can we say the same for our characters? Do we show a 10 foot tall ogre without ever thinking about why or how that creature could possibly be so tall? The challenges it faces? And why it thinks/acts the way it does? Robots must be built by someone. Dragons breathe fire, why? What makes one character a wizard and another a bumbling thief?

Just things to think about.
Q4U: What brings a character or place to life in your mind as a reader? What realistic clues does the author use to bring out such a reaction?

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Importance of Editing

I need to make a correction on my recent post, Building Realistic Worlds - Part 1.  Specifically, on the section regarding Split Infinity.  What actually made it to the post was my rough draft.  It's been a good number of years since I read that series and over time my mind became tainted with the notion that the planet where much of the action takes place is Earth's moon.

OK, so the reality is, in a later draft I had corrected this, the story take place on the planet Proton, which has very similar characteristics to our moon.  It's one of the reasons I remembered the story incorrectly in the first place.

Moreover, I failed to put the corrected version into the blog.  Rather than go back and update it post-mortem, I've decided this is a great opportunity to show my own error and emphasise the importance of editing what you write.  So, cheers to those who might have caught the mistake!  And to those that didn't, let me just say that the premise is the same, just the location is different.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part I

I thought it might be fun to begin discussing some of the many details, large and small, that go into creating fictional worlds. Authors of science fiction and fantasy continually strive to build multilayered depth into their worlds so that the setting, itself, becomes a character of the tale. Some story worlds are so profound, so memorable, that they become household names - even amongst people who have never read the book. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Herbert’s Dune are two such worlds. Non-readers have heard less of these places, but they have heard of them.

So what makes a story world so memorable? That’s what we’re here to explore. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll delve deeper into the art of world building. You may find a nugget of truth in my ramblings, which I hope you can use as inspiration on your current project. Go forth and build worlds that are truly astonishing.

Reality vs. Imaginary

The setting in SF/F, whether a novel or short story, creates a sense of wonder in the reader. It is our objective, perhaps even our obligation, to transport the reader to a place other than the reality they know. Every rock and tree, every person and robot and dragon, every village and space ship - it’s all under our control. Creating an entire world from nothing to act as the backdrop of our stories is a daunting and endless task. It can be quite overwhelming. You start with blank canvas and build mountain and river, forest and town, one at a time until your world takes shape. When choosing a setting, you create realism by combining what truly exists and what is only imagined. It’s that slow build of layer upon layer, mixing real and imaginary, which breathes life into your worlds.

The Real

Real aspects ground the reader in something with which they are already familiar. An oasis in the middle of a desert usually has some forms of plant life around it. Trees tend to grow upright, reaching toward the sun. Ocean coastlines often have sandy beaches or rocky cliff faces where land and water meet. Rivers swell and flood with too much rain. These aspects (and a million others) create a sense of reality that the reader can grasp onto because they know these things subconsciously if not overtly. It makes logical sense to the reader.

If your characters travel over terrain, as often is the case with quest driven fantasies, ask yourself if the location mimics a real place. Allow yourself time to research similar places on Earth and add those aspects that are important into your fiction. Granted, we can’t write every single detail. The poor reader would quickly become board. Still, we seek to bring the reader along on a fantastic journey. Be sure to give them handrails to hold onto during the ride.

Fictional worlds that are truly memorable and stand up to the test of time share this grounded approach. However, just because they are realistic settings doesn’t make them any less fantastic. Here are a few examples.

  • In Dune, the entire planet of Arrakis is a desert wasteland where no rain ever falls. One of the unique features is the sky. With no rain, no open source of moisture, the sky is nearly black - day or night. There are no clouds, no fog, no light-blue heavens. It’s a memorable detail.
  • Lord of the Rings is known for the painstaking detail Tolkien put into the story. The valley that makes up Mordor, where Sauron the Deceiver builds his war machine, is dominated by an active volcano called Mt. Doom. The smog of toxic gas spewed by Mt. Doom settles to the valley floor with little wind to dissipate it.
  • Split Infinity takes Earth’s moon as it’s setting, at least in part. Anthony remembers those little realistic details in memorable ways. Not the least of which is that people on the moon still need to breath. They live under a huge dome - not profound until you consider it’s an entire city and the sheer immensity of the dome itself. None-the-less a realistic detail to make the story believable. Most of the inhabitants walk around completely nude - a byproduct of slaves not owning any possessions and the higher temperature under the dome (no atmosphere to filter the sun).
  • In Black Sun Rising, the world Friedman created is on the very edge of the Milky Way galaxy. It sits on the tip of a spiral arm as far from the galactic center as it possibly can be. Along with the sun and stars, there’s an additional celestial body in the sky. From so far away, the galactic core - tens of thousands of stars in a tight ball - hovers as an additional source of light. And some rare nights, the world is positioned just right and the sky is black and pointed into deep space - no stars, moons, or core - what the author calls “True Night.”
The Imagined

The meat and potatoes of SF/F is imagination, or so it’s thought by beginning writers. But even the fantastic must root itself in reality. We want to bring the reader along with us, but if the make believe is unbelievable, then the reader s lost. Everything in your world has its own reason for being. It has an origin, a life cycle, a geographic location, a logic that only you can define. Even if the trees on Jupiter are blue leaved and have purple poke-a-dots, they are still trees and must still have some form of nourishment to grow. What makes those trees grow?

With each imaginary aspect of your world, you can build reality by asking only one question, over and over again. “Why?” Remember playing that game as a child? I asked “why” so often that my mother started telling me the reason the sky was blue and grass didn’t grow on trees was “to make children ask questions.”

Here’s a simple exercise: Take part of your imaginary world, just one part. Let’s think about that purple tree. Ask yourself “why” five times, letting each answer lead to the next question.
  1. Why is the tree purple? Because it’s not really a tree. It’s a giant amoeba that only shapes itself like a tree.
  2. Why does it shape itself like a tree? To avoid predators and blend in with the forest.
  3. Why would predators be after it? Because the giant amoebas of Jupiter are the only source of some special mineral they need to survive. (Note: define mineral later)
  4. Why are the amoebas the only mineral source? Because the mineral is in the air and the amoebas are the only ones who can absorb and concentrate it into usable form.
  5. Why is a mineral in the air instead of in the ground? Perhaps a big meteor exploded millions of years ago in the atmosphere and Jupiter’s constant winds prevent the partials from settling onto its surface.
Wow, that’s allot of layers for some silly purple tree in the background. You could spend hours and hours on this exercise alone, examining each imaginary aspect of your story. Although that’s pretty time consuming, you should at least consider doing this for the important ones. Notice, too, I did not define “mineral.” Sometimes it’s enough to have a rough sketch of the world rather than all the specifics. If the mineral turns out to be important in the story, a definition of it should be forthcoming at a later date.
Building believable worlds is a fun and challenging activity. Next week, well take a look at how the authors above treated the imaginary aspects of their stories and what makes each one unique and memorable.
Until then, write on!
Q4U: What is your favorite part of creating your own story world? How do you bring reality into your story?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To Blog or Not to Blog

That is the question.

I've decided that it's time to make my formerly unknown presence available to the world at large.  Although I have no high expectations of a crowd flocking to my doorstep nor hanging upon every word, I figured it can't hurt.  So where to begin?  Well as a story teller at heart, I suppose I should start at the beginning, run through the middle, and then stop.

I was born and raised in Detroit with my younger brother and sister.  Growing up in a Catholic school, complete with nuns, did one thing if it did nothing else.  I learned that hard work and dedication paid off.  And in case they didn't, I discovered the side of my head could be used to stop chalk dusted blackboard erasers when a certain teacher grew tired on my talking out of turn and hurled them across the classroom.

From that tender age, I wanted to be a writer, or at least a teller of stories.  So, it was no surprise to me that I carried this belief into adulthood.  Unfortunately, along the way I met life.  That old battle axe, ball and chain of fun and adventure, beat me down for a long time.  Her not-so-soft caress taught me to be complacent with what I had.  Even so, that was never good enough for me.

I started writing my first novel at the age of 14... and again at 19... and again at 25... and again at 37.  I had never written past a few thousand words.  A funny thing happened on the way to creating the Great American Novel.  You guessed it - life reared her ugly head again.  On April 4, 2010, I started once again drafting my brilliant work of staggering genius.  (I love that phrase from Randy Ingermanson.  If you have not read his blog, I highly recommend you do.)  I believed myself serious this time, but I still muddled through the pages as I'd always done, despite my best intentions.  Until.  On May 16, 2010, the head boss in my corporate office called the entire staff into a meeting where the CEO's crackling voice echoed through a poor phone connection into the office's PA system.  His announcement that our business center would be downsized by the end of the year brought a normally work happy environment to a dead stop.  On May 17, 2010, I committed myself to completing the novel I had started.

Since that time, I've clacked away on my keyboard and scribbled countless pages of notes and longhand story fragments.  A little at a time, I will complete my story and be proud to say I'm a successful writer.  Whether or not the world races to build up my ever growing ego is yet to be seen.  But regardless, there's a pride that only artists, writers, poets, and the like feel when their work is perfect in their own minds.  I'm looking forward to that moment in mine.

If you've happened here by luck or chance, feel free to leave a comment.  If I'm only doing this blog for my own amusement, well then, I'll be in great company.  Since time is a commodity that I rarely see, I suppose I'll begin with weekly posts centered on my journey as a writer and what I've learned during that week about the craft and business of writing.  Sounds like fun.  I can't wait to get started.