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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Right in the Spleen

Another two weeks, another blog post. So it goes.

Really. That’s what it looks like it’s gonna be from here on out, at least for the duration of this school year. I can’t seem to find time to post more often than that. And I’ve got even more bad news.

I won’t be making my goal for the word count of my book. Not even close, in fact. Now I know you’ve already begun gnashing your teeth and tearing at your clothes in sympathy for my plight. But of course, this was a deliberate decision made by me, the reasons for which are twofold. One: I know that you, the countless masses, will be clamoring for many more posts about the creation of my first draft, and I can hardly provide those sustaining posts if the draft is completed. Two: I’m basically out of material at this point; once this book is finished, I’ll have nothing else to write about. So, bearing that in mind, the first draft should be completed by about the year 2050.

Now let’s talk about the book!

Sticking points are on the mind today. By now I’ve probably hit about twenty serious sticking points. You see, when you get set to write a book, it’s best to outline and develop a basic beginning, middle, and end to your story. That’s at least how I’ve gone about it. And when you have all of that laid out you might think, “Great! Now all I have to do is fill in the in-betweens.” Ha! Good luck, smart guy. How little you truly know, and how ignorant of your own ignorance you are! All the little transitions and pieces that fit between the pivotal moments of your story? They take ages to create. Sometimes two scenes really, really don’t want to join together, so you’ll spend a couple days mulling over how the hell to get from A to B. Other times you’ll realize that you don’t know how something mundane and heretofore unthought-of works (“Did they have rubber in 1890? How was a medieval tournament organized? Where does a merchant keep his wares? How the hell do taxes work? No, seriously, can someone help me with my taxes?”). So then you have to spend hours finding out how exactly to write your own story correctly.

This is where that previously mentioned writer’s perseverance has to kick in. Because this kind of thing really makes you want to quit. I’ll compare it to boxing. The exciting challenges of writing a good plot are like getting hit in the face. If you’ve never experienced it, you might think it hurts. But more than anything it makes you grit your teeth and try harder. The aforementioned sticking points, on the other hand, are like body shots. You can get hit in the face a bunch of times and still come back for more. But one unbraced-for bodyshot, and you’ll be ready to crawl meekly under the ropes and out of the ring. They make you want to quit, you see.

So yeah. I’ve been experiencing a lot of those recently. Literary body shots, man. Ouch.

But see, in the long run, it’s probably better to get hit in the body a lot than it is to have your braincase rattled on a regular basis. It’s just hard to keep that in mind when you’re in the moment. When you’re a wimp like me, you don’t realize that mostly it’s just pain, and for the most part pain won’t really stop you unless you let it. Writing stories is the same. You might prefer the challenge of creating a plot and characters, but sticking points are the hurdles that are really going to hurt in the moment. The trick is just not letting them make you quit. It’s just momentary pain, and you’ve got to push through it. Don’t walk away when things get hard. Either try your best, or get knocked out. And I’ve yet to be knocked out by a book, so I think my record is pretty good actually.

I just need to stop letting these sticking points get in my way. Are you ready to see my pitiful progress, reader? The current word count is 32,219. Not great. But we’ll set a new goal right now. Even with impending school work, I’m going to shoot for that 75,000 word goal by the end of October. Two months to write about 50,000 words. And this time, not even the hardest liver shot’s gonna turn me away.

If you want to sop me, book, you’re gonna have to knock me out. And I’d like to see you try.

Please don’t.

Personal Affairs

 

Well, I suppose I’d better write something, lest I fulfill the prediction that I (only half-seriously) made in my first ever post: that this blog would die an imminent and unremarkable death. I don’t want that. My legions of slavering fans certainly don’t want that. So I’m here, not to save the day, but at least to say some words about a subject with which I am most excellently acquainted.

Myself, of course.

Well, not just myself. Obviously I always talk about myself to some degree. Today is special, though! Today I’ll be writing to you, dear reader, about my own personal project. That’s right. I’m currently working on a book. It’s not the first time I’ve ever conceived of writing a book. It’s possibly not my best idea so far, and almost certainly not the best I’ll ever have. But I am determined to make it the first book I ever complete, and trust me–I am bound and determined to finish this one.

Talking about my book should provide a pretty substantial source of blog posts, which is of course the real reason I’m doing it. I have to keep up the veneer of activity somehow. But I suppose in the meantime it could also afford me the opportunity to talk about different aspects of storytelling that are going on in my own narrative.

I’ll talk about subversion of common fantasy tropes, and why those tropes exist in the first place. I’ll talk about the difficulties of switching points of view, and the pitfalls of inactive protagonists. And I’ll finish off every post with a wordcount. My goal is 75,000 words by the start of September, and I almost certainly won’t be making it. Hurrah!

But today, to kick us off, I would first like to talk about the reasons for which stories are written. And the reason I’m writing my own story. There are, perhaps surprisingly, differing views on this. Some believe that the theme or message of the piece is the primary measuring-stick of its value. Others believe that literary complexity determines a book’s worth. For me, however, a story should, first and foremost, entertain. Let’s get into this a little deeper, then.

I know a fellow. He’s an old man: the step-grandfather of my beautiful girlfriend, in fact. He was once an English professor, and his library consists only of books written before 1960, none of which could ever be called anything other than “a classic” or, at the very least, “fine literature.” He spits on modern books and authors which don’t aspire to his perceived zenith of literary sophistication. Not literally, as far as I know, but if anyone’s the sort to furtively open the pages of the latest Dan Brown novel in the back of the bookstore and plant a wad of saliva inside, it’s him.

Girlfriend’s step-grandfather–we’ll call him Arthur–is of the impression that, more than anything, the thematic substance and subtext of a book determine its value. If you don’t understand what I mean, let me give you an example that should clear things right up. He claims to have liked both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, two books renowned for being impossibly difficult to read, and certainly impossible to actually enjoy. In fact, it’s not all that unlikely that the books’ author, “James Joyce,” is nothing more than a front for a government agency tasked with uncovering the whereabouts of alien beings that look exactly like us, but don’t understand entertainment.

Arthur shuns entertainment. He even scoffs at things such as The Count of Monte Cristo for being worthless “romances,” despite the fact that The Count is a classic, thoroughly riveting tale of revenge. Who the hell doesn’t like a good revenge story? Arthur, and other alien replicants like him, is the answer. For Arthur, ill-defined mysterious qualities of questionable literary merit easily trump such paltry things as accessibility and entertainment value when it comes to the important aspects of a book. Relatable characters and a page-turning plot? No, thank you. I’d much prefer dense allegory and a touch of allusion in my book.

Well.

Then there’s another friend, whom I know from school. We’ll call him… I don’t know–Rasputin. Why not. Now Rasputin reads things for the message. He listens to music for the message. Everything has to have a message. If a book isn’t making some profound statement on the state of our fucked-up society, then it’s no good for him. All art seems only to be worth a moment of his time if it challenges authority, or subtly (or overtly, whatever) discusses the shambles that is our crumbled paradise of a world.

If my tone hasn’t tipped you off yet, I’ll condense my thoughts here: I find both of these men to be a bit silly.

Yes, that’s right. Silly bastards, the both of them. Now don’t get me wrong. Much of the best literature of our age strove to accomplish something. That’s one of the reasons that both sci-fi and fantasy are so valuable–they have the capacity to criticize our world indirectly, in such a way that the issues and arguments can be shed with new light. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut if speculative fiction can be used to say something about our own world and times.

Similarly, I’m quite fond of a lot of what is erroneously named “literary fiction,” especially of the fantasy and science fiction variety. Kurt Vonnegut, again, would have something to say about the thematic quality of his work. He’d probably say that it had none, actually, but that’s part of his genius. Ray Bradbury, for God’s sake. The man wrote Fahrenheit 451, in my opinion the best of the dystopian future novels you’re told to read in high school. Gene Wolfe, a modern master of the genre. Of course, Arthur scoffed at a book of Gene Wolfe’s and refused to read it on principle. But if you wish to read a dense, multi-layered, ambiguous, altogether literary sort of book, read Gene’s The Book of the New Sun. It’s absolutely badass.

Anyway, as I was saying. I think that these qualities are important to the overall value of literature. But my comically caricatured friends Arthur and Rasputin don’t seem to understand that stories exist for one reason primarily. Entertainment.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t advise you to start work now on your novelization of Jersey Shore, or begin writing your next piece of Twilight fanfiction. Please, for the love of God, don’t. Entertainment does not mean dumbed-down schlock.

But aren’t things allowed to exist primarily for the purposes of entertainment? Are we too hip and self-aware to enjoy things, and relate to characters, and stay up late even though we have work tomorrow because the book is just too damn good? I don’t want to always sit down with a mug of tea and work my way through a classic stream-of-consciousness turd of a book. Sometimes I just want to be riveted, you know? Sometimes I want to be made to feel as much as I want to be made to think. You get me?

I mean, Harry Potter’s good, isn’t it? It speaks to people of all ages. It has relatively simply drawn, relatable characters that carry the reader through the story. It’s a page-turner, certainly. And yes, the later books were good, when the whole thing became a parallel for Nazi-era Germany and the main characters were reduced to a scrabbling band of embittered, aimless revolutionaries. Trust me, I love that kind of shit. But wasn’t the series better at the start? You know it was. It was good because it had whimsy, and charm, and it was… fun to read.

So.

I’m not writing a Harry Potter type of book. Children probably shouldn’t read the end product of my personal writing adventure, as I’m sure the content of this blog has told you. And my book has a theme, and it has, if only slightly, some intended literary merit. But I don’t ever want to forget the feeling that your first great book can give you, forcing you to lose sleep and miss meals and resent your parents for daring to pull you away from the pages. And I don’t ever want to write a book that has no chance of giving someone that amazing experience. Because that’s why stories exist. They’re powerful things, stories. And authors can do many great things with them. But in my opinion, none of those things will ever be greater than keeping someone so overwhelmingly entertained that they just can’t put the damn thing down.

Until next time.

Oh. The word count, yes. I’ll try to make this a repeat feature until the book is finished. We stand currently at 29,704 words, just 45,296 away from our goal. Wish me luck on the rest. And, as always…

Peace.

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.

Dialogue: Friend, or Foe?

Today we answer the question laid out in the post title. As a writer, is dialogue your friend, or your foe? The answer is foe, of course.

I’m just kidding. The answer is obviously friend. I’m sure you know, learned student of the written word that you are, that dialogue is an incredibly important aspect of a book. And I’ll be honest here, it’s also one of the things that I just can’t seem to get right. I struggle regularly to write convincing dialogue, especially on the first time through a story. It just sounds stilted and, well… is shitty too strong a word? No, I think that shitty is quite an apt description, actually. I write shitty dialogue. Now why it’s shitty is a question that demands an answer.

I often find that I’m just writing dialogue for dialogue’s sake, and that’s a problem. Dialogue is a tool. One of many tools at your disposal as a writer. And as a tool, it needs to be used properly. Writing dialogue just to have quotation marks on your page is about as useful as using a hammer just for the sake of swinging one around. Yeah, it’s neat at first–hell, it might even end up being a lot of fun. But in the end you’re just going to be surrounded by a bunch of broken, messed-up shit, and no good explanation for how or why it got there.

So let’s straighten things out.

Dialogue is obviously conversation between two or more characters–between two or more people. So let’s think. How do people talk to each other? And why? Well, the why is not always as clear as you might think. Often people will engage in conversation to discuss something important, that’s true. But more often people talk to avoid discussing something important. Sometimes talking is merely a way to fill silence. Awkward small talk, and empty conversation are important aspects of dialogue that should not be ignored in a book. Your goal is to write realistic characters, right? Too often writers have their characters speak only when it is expository to the plot. I am myself a victim of this trend. It’s tempting, because you want these bastards to move the damn story along. But remember, these are people talking. Their character and personality needs to show through in their speech. Here’s an example of plain old dialogue:

“Where are you going?” Betty asked.

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar. I don’t know.”

“Ray, you can’t… Not now.”

“I’ve done everything you asked, Betty. I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests. I don’t know what else you want from me. I’m going.”

“Ray!”

So there. That’s some straight dialogue that I just made up. It’s okay, I guess. But it needs more flavor, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes back-and-forth dialogue is good. Hemingway sure did plenty of it, and it worked for him. But the words are not always the focus of the conversation. If this written dialogue is supposed to represent two people talking, then we have to think about the way in which they might speak. Right now our selection reads like a bit from a play, and one with very little direction at that. In a play or movie, the actors and director bring a lot to the dialogue. Body language, tone of voice–there are a lot more factors to a conversation than just lines after lines of dialogue. So let’s try again, this time inserting a little bit of description.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests.” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty. I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

Now see, I like that a bit better. Don’t get me wrong. Straight dialogue can be nice for circumstances in which the speech is the most important aspect, but more often than not that isn’t the case. When we speak, we say a lot more with our hands, eyes, and tones than we do with our words alone. I mentioned Hemingway above, and I often think of him when writing dialogue. I recall hearing once that he did not think much of descriptive dialogue tags. You’ll find his dialogue scenes rarely flirt with any language more complicated than “he/she said.” He didn’t think anything more was necessary. The man was adamant about this simplicity of language, and I admire him for that.

But he’s wrong. Or well… he’s not entirely right. You see, we don’t just say what we mean to say. People aren’t that simple. Sometimes the expression you wear when you speak reveals more about your words than the words themselves. But why write, “‘I really don’t know,’ he said. He smiled” when “‘I really don’t know,’ he smiled” is so much more to the point? And sometimes the tone and volume of your voice express what you really want to say, even when your tongue is unwilling to speak the truth. So obviously the meaning of the words “Please leave” is drastically different when the tag reads “he snarled” rather than “he pleaded.”

Beyond dialogue tags, there are lots of things that we do when we speak that affect the feeling of the conversation. This is where simple description comes into play. Nodding and smiling out of sincere interest is different from stiffly nodding while forcing your clenched jaw into a rictus grin. Staring out a window while you speak doesn’t convey the same feeling that frenetically pacing the floorboards does. Those things are important to the conversation as a whole, and you can’t afford to omit them or forget them entirely.

In addition to description and dialogue tags, you do have to consider the words being spoken. Rather, you have to consider the words not spoken. Would Ray and Betty say all of those things to one another? Would they mention the doctor and the fertility tests so explicitly? Either Ray or his wife is infertile. They know this, even if the reader doesn’t. Taking this into account is where the real atmosphere of your conversation is cultivated. There’s a certain satisfaction to discovering the topic of a written discussion rather than having it handed to you. Not only that, but if realism is your goal, then you must take into account the way that real people speak. Betty and Ray have known each other for years–I guess that they’re either married or in a committed relationship, though I wouldn’t put it past that bastard Ray to cheat on his poor lady. He really is a jerk. In any case, people don’t speak in completely expository sentences. They leave out details, because they both know the details already. Or they skirt around the details deliberately because they’re made uncomfortable by the topic at hand. So let’s change our little scene once more.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I did everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to see… him. I took the tests. I let that bastard poke his nose into my personal life.”

“He’s not a bastard, Ray. It’s his job to ask.”

“He’s a nosy prick who can’t mind his own business!” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. Betty was looking at him with quivering lips and eyes wet with fresh tears. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty.”

“I want to have a family,” Betty whispered. Ray felt his jaw tighten.

“I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

So instead of exposition, we have hints and little details that clue the reader in on what’s really happening.

You can go too far in realism. The “um”s and “ah”s of real conversation are often too much in written dialogue. The conversation on the page has to flow, so a strict sense of realism is out of place when it distracts from the importance of the dialogue itself. But overall, writing dialogue this way gives the reader a lot more than simple, direct words. Dialogue can’t exist merely to fill up space on a page. It has to tell the reader a lot of things at once. Ideally, it should drive the plot, build the characters, and set the mood of the piece or scene all at once. In most circumstances, it will only do two, or even just one of those things. But part of learning how to write well is learning how to say as little as necessary to tell the story you want. Economy of language means a lot to the efficacy of your writing, and dialogue is no exception.

Well, I think I’ve just given myself a few ideas, and hopefully this post did the same for you. You know when you try to explain something that you don’t know yourself, and find a suitable answer in the process? Well I’m about to go off and write some truly spectacular dialogue, then bask in the warm glow of my revelation. Peace, my children. May your conversations be ever filled with pregnant pauses, tense stares, and loaded questions.

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.