Allegory: C.S. Lewis and Gun Kata

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Equilibrium with Christian Bale, you might want to watch that before reading this.

I’m not a big fan of allegory. I see the point of it as a teaching tool, but as a storytelling device, I think it fails, and here’s why. In allegory, the point of the story isn’t necessarily the story itself, but the meaning that is behind the story. I realize that there are themes in everything; you can’t get away from them. Unfortunately, allegory goes beyond themes, because it requires that everything, or almost everything, has a thematic analogue. Take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example. Aslan is Jesus Christ. The gifts of Father Christmas are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Edmund Pevensie is both Judas Iscariot and the proxy for the grace of God. I could go through the entire book and describe how it’s the Christian Gospel story retold. The Magician’s Nephew is about creation, even including a Garden of Eden scene. The Last Battle is essentially The Book of Revelation.

It's a beloved children's book, so I'm not going to rag on Narnia too much.

It’s a beloved children’s book, so I’m not going to rag on Narnia too much.

But that’s all fine, because C.S. Lewis was writing both for children in those books and to spread the Christian message. He was an unabashed apologist, especially if you look at the rest of his writing. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an even more obvious allegory, with the names being blatant descriptions of what they were supposed to be.

Allegory is great for devotional books, but for a storytelling and world building device, not so much. When you make a story an allegory, you’re not making a world of your own, you’re taking another world, even if it’s this world, and putting it into yours. If you’re honest about it being allegory, that’s fine, but at least be honest about it.

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

In the Kurt Wimmer movie Equilibrium, we’re treated to a flashy albeit logically impossible martial art called Gun Kata, where the users are able to predict and dodge bullets by using a set of exact movements, and they just have to remain standing still. In itself, that would serve for a nice two hours or so where I don’t have to think and just watch the fight scenes. The problem with it is that it also uses a dystopian environment as a direct allegory of the filmmaker’s apparent view that religion is evil.

Oh, look! He's wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

Oh, look! He’s wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

In the first scene, John Preston, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Errol Partridge, played by Sean Bean, confiscate books and artwork, simply because those cause emotion. You see, in the world of the movie, emotions are banned and suppressed with a drug called Prozium. A problem occurs when Preston finds Partridge reading a book of poem and legally executes him…because the sentence for emotion is death. This starts a chain of events where Preston starts questioning the law against emotion and rebelling against the totalitarian regime.

Now, where’s the allegory in that? You see, Preston is a cleric. In the movie, that means he’s trained in Gun Kata and able to dodge bullets (without superpowers, mind) and use the gun as the perfect weapon. If he was just a I’d have no problem, but he’s essentially a priest, and the law enforcement agency is the Grammaton Clerics, who are governed by the Tetragrammaton Council. Now, if you didn’t know, Tetragrammaton is from the Greek for “four letters” and is another name for the Judeo-Christian God, based the unpronounceable name of God, YHWH.

There’s at least one point where Preston does some fancy hand movements that mimic the letters in a scene just before going into a fight.
The rest of the movie pretty much hammers home the message. The execution is reminiscent of medieval robes and done by fire. Everything artistic, literary, and musical is banned. There’s even a Big Brother character known as “The Father” who is later revealed to have died years before. Now, if that’s not a stand-in for Nietzsche idea of “God is dead”, then I must be thinking of another Nietzsche. The message is basically slammed in your face, with absolutely no subtlety to it. If it had been more subtle, the message might have been more effective, but the scene where Preston is killing other clerics because the gun-priests want to kill a puppy was just silly.

Even in a good allegory, the message should line up with reality, and although the movie was definitely anti-religion, the points it was making just don’t add up. If Kurt Wimmer had wanted to say that religion removes individuality, which is apparently what he was going for, then there were more subtle ways to do it than saying religion removes emotion. Also, insinuating that priests were puppy-killers who shoot their friends in the face was a bit much too.

Basically, the problem I see with allegory, especially with how Wimmer handled it in Equilibrium, is that it hurts the final product if it’s too obvious. Equilibrium could have been a popcorn movie about a Big Brother regime that removes individuality and focuses on illogical but supremely fun to watch martial arts. If the allegory had been toned down or made more oblique, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed it and thought, “Hey, that was a fun movie.” As it was, the obvious shout-outs to the intended theme was a little jarring.
If you’re going to try to put a message in your book, movie, or other sort of media, do try to make it a little less obvious and jarring. Let your audience focus on the story rather than the message.

I’ll talk about allegory, themes, and messages in stories in later posts, but what books or movies do you think had allegorical themes that were a bit too obvious?

(Correction: A previous version of this post stated “There are a few times when the seal of the Tetragrammaton Clerics actually shows the letters YHWH.” This is based on a faulty memory of the movie. Sorry about that.)

Gods and Heroes: How Myths Tell What We Value

Zeus, king of the Olympians and god of the sky. The ancient Greeks are now known to have painted the statues in bright colors.  He wouldn't have looked this...marbled.

Zeus, king of the Olympians and god of the sky. The ancient Greeks are now known to have painted the statues in bright colors. He wouldn’t have looked this…marbled.

When we look at mythology, we often see stories that are either interesting or make us do a double-take because they’re so freaking weird, at least to us.  When people hear the stories about Zeus and how he seduced a bunch of women by taking different forms, including a shower of gold and a swan (yes, a swan), we can sometimes just scratch our heads and wonder if the Greeks were toasting to Dionysus a bit too much. At the same time, we can also see what they were thinking simply by looking at the stories that we now call mythology.

What the sexual exploits of Zeus and the other Olympians reveal most is their view of heroes as divine. People were created by the gods, and so the greater people, who would automatically be our people, would actually have divine heritage. After all, people with divine heritage have a right to enslave people who aren’t divine, right? Yes, the Greeks had a lot of slaves, even the noble, democratic Athenians. The point is that many believed that, in order to have the right of rule, they had to have divine heritage, so their original king or patriarchal founder had to have a divine father, usually the king of the gods, Zeus.

The incident with the shower of gold was how Perseus was born. King Acrisius of Argos had received a prophecy that his grandson would kill him. To prevent it, Acrisius locked his daughter Danae in a tower, so she could never have a child. After all, if she was in a tower, she couldn’t get with anyone. Because he was such a horny beast, Zeus entered the room in a shower of gold and…well, Perseus was born nine months later. With the prophecy hanging over his head, Acrisius locked them both in a coffin and put them in the ocean. To make a long story short, they both survived and Perseus grew up to kill Medusa and kill a sea monster to save the princess Andromeda and her entire kingdom.

Oh, and Perseus then kills Acrisius with a discus by accident while competing in some games. By accident. Yeah, you can’t escape fate.

Myth is the story that holds the truth;That’s really what the shower of gold incident is about. It’s not about Zeus loving the freaky (which he does), but about how you can’t outwit fate. The fact that the main part of the story is a hero who ultimately becomes the founder of an entire people means that, to the Greeks, he must have a divine father, and so the strangeness of his birth is really all a part of that.

When reading myths, we need to consider what they’re really trying to say. They’re not just simple stories for children, and many are most certainly not for children. In his most famous work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined the Monomyth that supposedly works through all myth. It has some merit, but not every religion or mythos stacks up to Campbell’s work. Another mythologist is Sir James George Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough in 1890. Both men attempted to bring all the mythologies of the world under one primary mythos, but it simply doesn’t work.

Different cultures value different things, and so different mythologies will invariably reveal different values.  We’re all human, yes, but we all have different ideas, dreams, and  goals. The story I tell cannot be the same story that you tell, simply because we have different spins on life, different points of view. Even if you have two cultures that value honor, family, and respect, they’re going to interpret those values in different ways.

Two cultures have thunder gods. One of these is the king of the gods, and he wields his lightning to rain down torment on the heads of his enemies, regularly sending them to horrible fates in the underworld should they offend him all while fathering heroes and kings. The second of the thunder gods is a protector of mankind. He has a notorious appetite, able to devour an entire cow on his own, and yet he is also a god of fertile lands, as thunder brings rain. These two gods are Zeus and Thor, and the differences show how thunder and lightning are viewed according to the two cultures, as well as how they view their gods. The Olympians don’t really care about humans, not as a whole, at least. On the other hand, the Aesir and Vanir, the gods of the Norse, are the protectors of Midgard, hemming it in with mountains to protect it from Nifleheim, Muspelheim, and Jotunheim.

Apply these myths to a fictional world, and we can reveal what the cultures we make value  by the gods they worship. Apply them today, and we can see how people tend to be the same way.

If I worship a god who is harsh, unforgiving, and openly willing to torment people for the slightest of infractions, I would most likely show those same characteristics, or I might even worship that god because I’m already like that. On the other hand, if I worship a god who is forgiving, loving, and willing to teach people, then those are the characteristics I would show. A monotheist would most likely believe that there is only one truth as epitomized by their god. A polytheist might believe that there are many ways of looking at the world, as there are many gods with many domains and personalities. The second is how I see the world.

When we’re making myths, whether in a story or an actual religion, we need to be mindful of what values we’re telling, because myth is more than just stories, and it is definitely more than lies. Myth is the story that holds the truth; deeper than allegory, it contains a truth that can only be witnessed within the fiction.

Oh, and about the Zeus-becomes-swan incident…Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra (who later murdered her husband Agamemnon), and the divine twins Castor and Pollux (we know them today as the constellation Gemini). Zeus approached her as a swan, and she ended up having four children later that year…by laying eggs.

Okay, so sometimes, the myths are just freaking strange.

New Year, New Start

It’s been just over four months since I’ve posted last, and I’m here to fix that. Before, I was talking about all sorts of different general world building topics, and that was great. I still want to do that, but I need to start over. Four months is a long time to be away from the internet and social media. After four months, I may as well have been a slumbering giant hidden away in the deep hills for centuries. That’s how fast the internet moves.

The main reason I’ve been away is that I’ve been dealing with a lot of personal issues, mostly health related. You see, I have some mental health problems. I’m not diagnosed, but I’m dead certain that I’m bipolar. I can write 10,000 words in a single day and then be so depressed I want to scream for the next week. I can do a thousand or two thousand words steady for three to four months and then crash into a major depressive episode as soon as I’m about to finish the first draft. It makes being steady, stable, and generally functional quite difficult. Writing has always been the way that I am the most stable with this problem, but it’s hard to keep up when the bipolar switches, as I call it when my mood suddenly changes, can happen on the flip of a dime multiple times a day.

Why am I bringing this up in a public setting on a blog about world building? Simple. It’s my blog. It’s my writing, my world building, and my work. Just as when you create your world and write your stories, the issues that you face will go into that. The fears, desires, hopes, and dreams will go into your writing. In a way, my elves are actually inspired by my manic episodes. When I’m manic, I don’t want to sleep. I hate the idea of sleep. I wish to high heaven that I didn’t have to sleep. So I made my elves not have to sleep more than once every five days. I also have so many things that I want to do with my life, so many grand goals that I feel I can’t accomplish in the time allotted to us humans, so I made them live hundreds of years.

Yes, my elves were inspired by my manic fits, and so my own mental health issues, my own problems that keep me from working have been worked into my writing and world building. I realized, though, that my elves were becoming too much of a wish-fulfillment race. They were too perfect, so I gave them the heritage of being descended from gods who are so dark and brutal that they can also be consider demons. There’s more to the dark, brutal heritage of my elves, but I don’t want to spoil Wrath of the Fallen, the novel I’m planning to publish before long.

Essentially, I am going to be coming back, but things are going to be a bit different around here. I won’t just be talking about general world building, but rather about the myth making that goes into it. Culture, art, and society are all founded on shared beliefs, whether they’re moral beliefs, worldview ideas of how the world itself works, or ritual as seen in holidays or religious rites. So, I know I don’t have much to say right now, but here I am.

The Importance of a Foundation for Your Fictional World

Okay, I’m going to go on a rant here. I’ve been away for a while, and something’s happened that’s really ticked me off. Before I start, I just want to say there’s only one person who’s the target of this rant: Tom Austin. Now, you may have no idea who he is, but it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to tell you.

I’m ranting about myself.

My wife is a big help. We talk about my stories and the world I’m making, and she’s offered some really great ideas. There are entire plotlines that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for her. At least half of the world of Yma has come not just from bouncing ideas off of her, but getting more in return.

Last night, we got to talking about the draft I’ve finished, and she brought up some confusion she had about the world. It was a fair thing to have happen, because, now that I’ve talk to her about it, I realize that I wasn’t clear about what the world was.

I’m writing a blog about world building where one of the first rules is making sure it’s cohesive, and you know what I do?

Break that rule.

See? It can happen to anyone!

You see, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted the world to be, but I couldn’t quite decide which ideas to run with. Now that it’s actually been a few years since I first conceived of the world, I can’t even remember what the initial inspirations were, and that’s partially because I made it such a clusterfluff that there ended up being a bunch of nonsensical nonsense that made no sense.

When you’re forging a universe, especially it’s really a multiverse, make dead sure that you have a single foundation to work with. If you have just one universe, then make sure that the races you have, if you have more than one, make sense and work together in their origins and natures. If you have two universes that can interact, make sure that you start with the nature of the connection. Are they parallel universes? Is one higher than the other? Did one come from the other? Were they created by the same deities/interdimensional aliens/spaghetti monsters? What is the foundation?

Pick one.

Don’t just take creation myths from different mythologies and try to shove everything into the same bird. I mean, I’ve heard that Turducken is tasty, but including Nordic, Greek, and Japanese creation myths all in the same world would be like mixing pork, lamb, and tofu, and shoving them all in a pie. Sure, they’re all great on their own, but only one should be used in lieu of the others.

Fortunately, I didn’t go that far in screwing up my world, but I did make it rather nonsensical. Something else to consider is that, if you have to use an analogy to describe the metaphysical nature of your world, use one analogy. This is where I went wrong. I had two separate analogies that each showed the multiverse in conflicting ways, and yet I insisted that they both worked together. If you need to have studied the ancient philosophers to understand the cosmology of a fantasy novel, the fantasy novel is too complicated.CartogQuotePhilosophers

That said, I don’t need to throw out my entire story or my entire world. That would be going too far. I do however, need to rework it. Instead of viewing it like a bread that’s been burned so badly it can’t be eaten, think of a broken fantasy world as being more like a motorcycle that’s been broken. Sure, there are parts that need to be replaced, maybe even be remade in a chop shop, but it can be fixed. It may not be like it was when it was started, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better. Just don’t go adding a bunch of extraneous things on it.

When you’re making your world, pick a theme and go with it. Work with it. Build off it, but make sure that, if you include other themes in the story as well, that they work with the main. If the point is to make a clusterfluff and get your readers to wonder what the heck you were on when you were writing it, then go with it, but only make sure that the mind screw you make is intentional.

I’m certain that’s why I’ve had so much trouble writing, and so much trouble working on the blog, because my own world was an unintentional mind screw. Sure, I understood it, but just because a crazy man understands his insane world, that doesn’t mean he’s not insane.

I’m Still Here, and I’m Coming Back

Hey, everyone. I just wanted to make a quick update. My family has been dealing with some health issues, but I’m going to be starting up again fairly soon. I don’t really have anymore to say tonight, but I’m planning on showing the process of creating a race and culture by doing it and detailing it here.

Anyway, stay with me, folks! I’m still here.

Ogres, Trolls, and Maneaters

(image property of New Line Cinema)

(image property of New Line Cinema)

Monsters, nursery bogies, and nightmare villains. We all know them. Man eaters, ogres, and trolls. I’ve already talked about orcs as a race before, but I think this is a bit different. When you really get down to it, the monsters that plague fairy tale heroes are pretty basic. They’re so basic, in fact, that you can do just about whatever you want with them. Great, huh? Continue reading

6 Things You Can’t Learn Without Finishing

Seeing as I’m in the process of revising “Wrath of the Fallen”, this is fairly applicable to me, and something important for all writers out there to remember, whether your world is for a story or a game.

Saga of Menyoral

I finished a manuscript for my third book.

Excited. I’m satisfied with the work (and panicking, because it’s off to the editor, and I can’t help that little niggle of what-if-it-sucks), and so I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about finishing. Here are six things you can’t learn without finishing your manuscripts. There are more, I’m sure, but these are the ones I can come up with.

1. Pacing

If you’ve never written an ending, you can’t learn how to write a middle. How do you keep pushing? Keep building tension? How do you write a climax? You’ll never know until you write an ending. You can’t go back and study the shape of your work without having a completed piece.

2. Theme

You can decide on theme beforehand, I suppose, but I feel as if what the story is about isn’t always clear until you write…

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Dragons: From Primordial Chaos to Fantasy Cliché

Okay, before you rage quit or try to punch me through the internet, I’m not saying that dragons are cliché. I’m saying that they can be cliché. After all, anything can be cliché if it’s done improperly. The thing about dragons is that there are so many different ways to include them in a story, a game, or a fictional science manual. Yes, I said a fictional science manual; I’ll get to that later.

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film "Dragonheart"

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film “Dragonheart”

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to…never mind. The beginning, as in Creation. In the creation story of the Babylonians, the primordial dragon Tiamat represents the salt water, while her husband Apsu represents the fresh water. When Apsu is killed by the gods, who are led by Marduk, Tiamat is understandably ticked off. She responds, of course, by trying to kill the gods, and therefore everything in the universe that is not her. You see, as the salt water, thereby being the ocean, Tiamat represents chaos incarnate. When Marduk kills her, he forms the world out of her corpse (a fairly common trope in creation myths). Meanwhile, all the demons, evil spirits, and monsters are born out of her. So, by that, Tiamat is chaos, the formation of the earth, but the mother of all dragons. Daenerys Targaryen, eat your heart out.

Continue reading

An update and some busy news

Sorry to just put up a quick post here. I have ideas for some great posts coming, and I’m also going to be putting up a Youtube channel where I actually talk about world building. Right now, though, I need to take a quick break from blogging. Don’t worry! Everything’s fine. More than fine, in fact.

What’s happening is that I’m finishing up my novel. The past few days have been spent writing straight through. I did nearly 10,000 words just yesterday! That said, this draft of the book is complete. I’m sending it on to my editor so we can hammer it out, and I’m going to start getting it together and ready to publish.

I’ve decided to self-publish. I know, it’s a lot of work, but the key is that I have a book I’m confident will be ready to be worth publishing. As the year progresses, I’ll get resources together, find a graphic designer, and work out production costs. Now, that said, I have been living on disability for a while, so I don’t have the funds necessary to do this on my own, so I’m planning to do a Kickstarter when it comes closer to time. I’m not sure how much I’ll need to get it done just yet, so I’m just going to research some more and work on getting a quality manuscript together.

Currently, the novel is called Wrath of the Fallen, a high fantasy adventure about Tanok, an elf who comes to hate his gods only to discover that his reasons for hating them have all been true. Complicating matters is the fact that his wife and brother-in-law are a priestess and priest, and that Tanok has just been called by the mysterious enemy of the gods, supposedly to save his people.

At 110,000 words, Wrath of the Fallen is in its final stages of completion, and I’m hoping to be able to publish it online, both in ebook and print book form, at the beginning of next year. I’ll keep you updated!

Humans: The Original Fantasy Race

Harry Dresden

Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden, a human wizard from Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files”

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, what? Humans aren’t a fantasy race! That’s, like, elves, and dwarves, and dragons, and stuff.”

Yes, but, if you think about it, humans really are a fantasy race. After all, how many fantasy novels have you read that haven’t had humans? Okay, that’s not really the best answer, but seriously, the humans in fantasy stories are often fairly unlike the humans in the real world, and if you consider the genre of science fiction, it’s sometimes even more apparent. Take the world of Harry Potter, for example. You essentially have two races, or rather, two sub-races. You have wizards and witches, who are born with the ability to work magic, so much so that they need to learn how to control it or else be a danger, and you have Muggles, who have so little magical ability that they may as well not even try.

As far as Harry Potter witchcraft goes, we’re all Muggles. We can’t wave wands and say words that send another person flying through the air, or turn teacups into toads. The wizards of the world J.K. Rowling created are a different breed of human, with a genetic difference that makes them…something else.

In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, it’s even more apparent. The Numenoreans are considered one of the races of Man, that is, humans, but they live more than two centuries on average. Really, they’re descended from both elves and humans, and so they’re a sort of half-elf with a human heritage. The point is that they’re considered to be human, and yet they’re different from humans.

Here’s an example from science fiction. On Doctor Who, the characters often go into the future, so far into the future that humans aren’t really humans anymore. They evolve, change, and become something else. Likewise, on Enterprise, the prequel series to the Star Trek franchise, the character of Daniels is asked, “Are you human?” His response? “More or less.”

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Why do we even use humans in these stories? For science fiction and contemporary fiction, it makes sense, because we’re writing about our world, this world, where we already know humans to exist. When we write about other planets, or other universes, why would there be humans? I think it’s because we need someone to relate to. That’s why portal fiction, which involves a character from our world entering another world, exists. The other world may not have humans, but the human character is someone we can understand.

If you’re not writing portal fiction, though, but writing about a world separate and apart, why use humans? Like I said, someone we can understand. We know human psychology, more or less, and we know human physiology. We have a basis to work from in describing and comprehending the world of the story.

That said, I still hold that humans can be considered a fantasy race. In a fantasy story, we can make them whatever we want, change the entire species according to our whims like some cold, capricious god of literary madness. If you change them too much, of course, then they won’t be humans anymore, but suppose you want to give everyone some kind of magical ability. It shouldn’t be too hard to justify it.

It can also be tied in with the creation myth. In my world of the Three Realms, humans are descended from the Ancient Race, an original race of people created by Ilahar for the middle realm of Yma. When the lesser gods rebelled, they took many of the Ancients and corrupted them, turning them into other races, including elves and orcs. Some of the Ancients fled, however, and went deep underground, eventually being changed by proximity to arcane forces deep within the planet. They shrank in size, lost almost all magical ability, and became so short-lived that they could barely even reach a century. In short, they became humans.

That’s just one example that you could use. Perhaps you have a plant-god who grew the world out of the primordial soil, and humans were the sprouts that grew from it, giving them a deep connection to the ground. Perhaps you have a pair of warring gods who slew each other, and humans rose from the blood that spilled onto the ground, and so you have a warlike world where the natural inclination of humanity is to kill and destroy. (Shocking, right?)

World myths are full of the creation of Man, and each one shows how they view humanity and the world around them. What are your humans like, and where do they come from?