Guy Gavriel Kay

I just recently read Under Heaven,  a spectacular book written by this guy right here.

That smug bastard. Look at him. What’s that? Why do I sound bitter, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

Under Heaven was amazing. I was mezmerized by this book. The prose, the characters, the world. It was the perfect blend of the real and the fantastic. It was a damn fine book. And it was very close to the kinds of books I’d like to write. It’s history, really. Heavily inspired by history, anyway. Kay is even more unabashed about his unrelenting borrowing of real-world fact than most. He totally understands what he’s doing in his books, and he has damn good reason for it. He writes what I want to write, albeit with a bit less snark and general rudeness.

A little about the book then.

Under Heaven is a fantasy based on the Tang period in China. In particular Kay was heavily influenced by the poetry of the time, and it shows in his writing. Not only does his book contain a fictionalized representation of the great Tang poet Li Bai, but his words and world are heavily inspired by the poetry of that same man. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Li Bai’s poetry was the initial impetus for the writing of this book.

Kay does a lot of really cool things with his writing. He has no qualms about switching to omniscient mid-chapter, even stepping out of the time period of the story and analyzing the events of his plot from the viewpoint of his world’s future fictional historians and antiquarians. His characters are well crafted, though they seem to be more vehicles for the time period than truly inspiring personalities. Still, that’s alright in a book like this, in which much of the wonder and enjoyment is derived from the fantastic world that the characters inhabit. Kay even messes around with tense, writing his male characters in the usual third person limited past tense, and his female characters in a sometimes-omniscient third present tense, so that the actions in the female chapters have both a sense of immediacy, and a strange sense of distance. Very cool stuff that you don’t typically see in a fantasy novel.

So basically, Kay is making me look bad. Pathetic, even. This clever son of a bitch even talks about his reasons for writing historically-inspired fiction, and they’re good ones. I’ll link you now to an essay written by Mr. Kay: Home and Away. Follow that link, and read the words contained therein. Do you see? Do you see now, gentle readers? Guy Gavriel Kay writes in that essay the same things that I’ve written about on this blog, but better. This essay of his? This is how I discovered that Kay is not only a man after my own heart, but also a man I am destined to destroy. In fact, disregard my previous request: don’t read the essay on the other side of that link. Just read my thing about fantasy again and pretend that it–you know, sounds better.

I do, however, have one complaint about Under Heaven, a complaint which I shall cherish, it having prevented the creation of a near-perfect fantasy novel that would have forever dashed my hopes of creating anything of even comparable quality. It seems at times that Under Heaven, as well as Kay’s other books, perhaps take a little too much from one period and region of history. They end up feeling like direct copies of actual historical events. I’d prefer a little more of a grab-bag approach to using history in a fantastic setting. That is to say, you can evoke a period of history and realistic events/cultures/characters without borrowing exact details and merely changing some names. This isn’t to say that Kay’s approach to fantasy is incorrect, but perhaps the Martins and Abercrombies of the world are a bit more creative with the content of their fictional worlds.

Alright, that’s all for now. More updates on my first draft in a short while.

Peace.

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Tabletop Role-playing: Revenge of the Worldbuilding

 

Oh, tabletop role-playing games… You have brought me back to my roots. Back to the pure, unadulterated joy and excitement that I first felt before ever I became bogged down in the drudgery of writing complex characters and interesting plots. Or the successive disappointment I experienced when I realized that my plots and my characters were pretty shitty after all. But oh, role-playing games! I find myself once again reliving my salad days: drawing maps, doing write-ups of city histories and regional lore, imagining political and religious conflicts…

Yes folks, I’m talking about worldbuilding, undeniably the most fun part of writing a book and, luckily for me, the largest part of creating a module for a tabletop RPG. Now, I know that to most people a lot of that stuff up there doesn’t seem very fun. Political and religious conflicts aren’t exactly the stuff of daydreams. At least not for normal folks. But I’ll tell you why it actually is fun, and also why you’re wrong if you still disagree. Why do you always need me to convince you, reader? You’re really starting to piss me off, you know.

Er–well. The point is, the worldbuilding is fun because it is the sole reason that most of us got into writing fantasy in the first place. When we all read Tolkien for the first time, those of us destined to write in his genre were struck by a few things: his languages, his cultures, his histories, and his beautiful, beautiful maps. But most of all, we were impressed with his creativity. And that’s what worldbuilding is–pure creativity. That’s why we got into books, right? That’s why we’re fantasy nerds and not just people who like to read.

Or wait.. I’m the fantasy nerd. I keep assuming that you and I are the same, reader. But you probably wear cool European clothes and read Noam Chomsky, and you’re only reading this blog until you inevitably discover that other people know about it too, at which point you’ll toss my paltry words to the wayside proclaiming, “I read Discipulus once in a bar with, like, five other people.”

Anyway, I’ve been doing my worldbuilding nonsense. I’ve been just creating. Not worrying about the structure of the writing, but just recording made-up facts, drawing maps, and relishing every moment.

So. A status update. At this stage in our journey to Tabletop-Gamingtown I’ve written six pages of material. I’ve drawn a city map of our starting location. I have come up with a number of potential quests. I’ll share with you two revelations I have had about the process while doing these things.

Firstly, it is hard to avoid clichés. I have a bit more sympathy now for people who design video games. Perhaps I’ll complain a little less the next time I have to do a fetch quest or escort some wuss without any semblance of artificial intelligence through a dangerous sewer. These clichés happen, I now realize, because of the restrictions of a story-telling game. Namely, if you want your characters to fill out much of the story for themselves (and in tabletop RPGs especially you do), then your options are limited. It boils down to: I can have my characters go somewhere to collect something, I can have them escort someone, and I can have them go somewhere to kill something, plus any combinations of those three quest types.

It’s the background of your tale that makes these simple types of story compelling. So the realism with which you portray your world has a serious effect on how seriously your players will take the quest. Fighting might be fun, but if all of your fights are against mere goons then people will stop giving a damn after a while. Some of this comes down to your live storytelling skills, but a lot of it has to do with how much effort and thought you really put into your world. A play that takes place on an empty black stage might impress a few theater snobs, but it’s hard to argue that the experience isn’t a hell of a lot more immersive when the actors are surrounded by a spectacular set, and their lines and behaviors reflect their surroundings and their times.

The second revelation is this: that I have no clue how a city is organized. Drawing a map of a city (the first time I’ve done something with this level of detail) was an eye-opener. “Wait… where do the churches go? How much of the city is walled? How much open space is there within the city, again? Wait… where do the markets go?” During the creation of this map I probably spent more time staring, drooling, and scratching my head than I did actually putting pencil to paper and sketching.

But in the end I like the way things have turned out so far. So now I need to meet up with my fellow GM, the man who will run the numbers while I tell the majority of the story, and hammer out the details of how to get this thing started. More to come on my descent into the heart of dorkness in future episodes!

Farewell, gentle reader.

Tabletop Role-playing – The Adventure Begins

 

I would apologize for my long absence from this blog. But the truth is, it was a calculated marketing move. You see, now my multitudes of fans are clamoring for my wisdom in my long absence, lost and confused without the soothing power of my words. I know. It was rough. But now I’m back, and I haven’t tired of talking about myself yet. So here we go.

I’ve recently become involved with a group of friends who enjoy role-playing games. Actually, my girlfriend is one of the players. (A word of advice to the fellas out there: if you find a hot girl who’s willing to role play without the reward of sex that most women would expect upon hearing that phrase, then you stay with her. Also, you steal her lunch money, because she’s a major nerd.) So we’ve been playing a pretty fun quest so far, and there has been talks of yours truly writing a module for the next campaign. And I thought, what an excellent idea for a series of blog posts.

So that’s what this is. The first installment in a series that will go on till the ends of time. Or for a couple of weeks. You’ll get to follow me in my process of being a story GM (that’s game master for you normies). We’ll work on constructing the world in which the campaign will take place. We’ll create interesting antagonists, a number of routs for our players to follow, unique NPC’s, and probably some giant spiders, because everyone hates giant spiders.

So what’s first?

Well, much of writing a tabletop RPG is just a visit with our old friend worldbuilding. The players are the characters, and they drive the story, so you needn’t write a protagonist’s personality into the tale. You also need flexibility, because nobody likes a GM who refuses to let the players have their way. That’s part of the appeal of tabletop gaming. There’s no graphics or exciting visuals, but there are virtually no limitations in terms of where the tale can lead. The GMs of the campaign I’m currently playing meet between play sessions to talk about where the story will go next, because sometimes the players want to read the mysterious note and follow your intriguing quest, and sometimes they just want to burn it without opening it and start a barfight that culminates in the destruction of the entire city. It’s your job as GM to adapt to their desires, while still imposing some sense of direction.

And it’s important to have a background for all of these shenanigans. That’s where the worldbuilding comes in. You need a well fleshed-out world in which to run the campaign. You need religions, politics, cities, towns, dungeons, and loads of sweet, sexy maps.

So that’s what we’ll be doing in a couple of days. We’ll begin designing our starting point, explaining the world, and I’ll talk a little about the place of RPGs in the realm of fantasy fiction.

Until next time, intrepid readers!

Building a Book

What the hell is worldbuilding?

That was a rhetorical question, because of course I’m about to tell you. Worldbuilding is something inherent to fantasy. Science fiction too, for that matter–really any genre which places its story in an alternate universe. That universe has to be built, and if I do say so myself, doing so is the most creative, exciting phase of writing a story. I go nuts for maps and fictional histories, and I quite like creating religions and mythologies for the made-up little people that inhabit my made-up little worlds. Those–all of those aspects–are all part of worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding has been for far too long the focus of lots of fantasy authors. Those of us who love roleplaying games and Lord of the Rings and all that nerdy stuff take joy in imagining these strange, foreign worlds, with their own laws of physics and magic, and their own unique kingdoms and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process we’ve ended up neglecting another construction project that should be just as important to the structure of our stories.

Listen up: you need to write characters, people. You need to write people, people! You need interesting, complex, realistic folks to inhabit your fantastic new world, which won’t seem all that fantastic when it’s filled with cardboard characters, such as the wise old wizard, the farmboy with the heroic destiny, and his friend, the horde of slavering orcs.

See there’s two types of realism. You can have a realistic world. I’ll call that Tolkien realism, though that phrase comes with some caveats, to be discussed in a bit. Then you have what I’ll call Abercrombie realism, that is a cast of realistic characters. This one is named after Joe Abercrombie, an author I urge you to read if you wish to see how complex characters painted in shades of gray can make a book fantastic, even without the inclusion of a map (gasp).

So. First, Tolkien realism. Now, Tolkien’s world isn’t entirely realistic. There is no religion, a feature of our actual world that Tolkien deliberately omitted. Additionally, the world isn’t constructed entirely realistically as far as climates and economies are concerned. Some of these things the professor considered after the fact, such as his explanation that the armies of Mordor were fed mostly on fish caught from Mordor’s inland sea–an explanation prompted by people’s questioning how the volcanic environment of Sauron’s kingdom could support any kind of population. Those and other negligible things aside, however, Tolkien paid great attention to the history, language, and culture of his world. The man devised entire languages, wrote whole mythologies, and had a clear origin defined for every race and nation in his Middle Earth. Hell, he even included a little bit of good old-fashioned racism.

The downside to Tolkien’s world? His characters aren’t all exactly relatable humans. The very best example of humanity in his entire book is Gandalf’s insistence that he mustn’t touch the ring, lest it make him more powerful and dangerous than Sauron himself. That is a moment of truly human temptation that I’m quite fond of. Ah, but then of course we have Faramir, the brother of Boromir, who casually ignores the temptations of the ring without a second thought. Immediately we readers think, Hmm… That seems strange. What power does Faramir have that he’s so easily able to resist the ring? But I guess he’s just… noble, or something? Not a shining moment of character realism, and one that the creators of the film adaptation wisely chose to change.

So that’s where Mr. Abercrombie’s brand of realism comes in. This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.

Now let’s be clear. I think that both forms of realism are necessary for a good book. And both authors have their moments using each type. Tolkien has moments of relatable humanity, as mentioned above, and characters that stick with you despite their usually simple personalities; and Abercrombie’s world seems to be well-realized by the author himself–he merely doles out the information to the reader in small doses. But while I recognize that both character and world realism are important for our genre, I’m realizing more and more that character-driven stories mean more than stories driven only by the “Look at the neat stuff I thought up” factor. Characters stay with you–good ones forever–whereas we all outgrow the neat stuff category of fiction eventually.

What we as readers and writers of fantasy need to avoid most are characters that seem shallow. Especially shallow villains. I can’t tell you how tiresome the “Dark Lord” category of villain has become. Dark Lord? What the hell kind of personality is that? How am I supposed to feel anything towards an antagonist whose only motivation is “enslave the earth.” You see, every character can be written sympathetically. I’m fond of saying that one could write a sympathetic story about Hitler. In fact, I’m sure some already have been written. Or you could write a sympathetic story about… Satan, perhaps. Actually, that’s got potential. Guy’s created as an angel, destined to tempt the first humans and be damned to rule over hell, but he doesn’t have the power of free will, so he can’t help but accomplish his awful destiny, even if he doesn’t want to. You could make a very sympathetic story out of that if you tried.

My point is summarized best by a maxim that I try to always keep in mind: “The villain is the hero of the other side.” Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s that black-and-white simple. Everyone’s got his motivations and temptations. Everyone’s got emotions that any reader can relate to.

And including those things is how you make your story stick with your readers. It’s how you keep them turning the pages, and begging you to write more books starring their same beloved characters, in turn bringing you ever closer to your goal of enslaving the earth.

What? I never said fantasy writers had to be sympathetic.