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.

Orcs: The Irredeemable Race?

Most of the magical races found in fantasy literature have been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Both elves and dwarves stretch back to pre-Christian Northern Europe, found in the lósalfar and svartalfar of the Nordic mythos. There is another race, however, that has become as much as staple of fantasy literature as elves and dwarves: orcs.

Although the term “orc” was first applied to the evil, corrupted race invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, they were based on goblins, which date back almost as far as the svartalfar that would eventually morph into dwarves. A medieval concept, the word “goblin” means “demon.” It shares an etymology with a similar being known as a kobold and with the metal cobalt. Cobalt was known as a demon metal because alchemists thought it was useless. As a corrupted, evil race, however, goblins and orcs became what they are today primarily thanks to Tolkien’s stories.

Now, I have to admit something; the idea of an entire fully evil race make me uncomfortable. It’s how many governments portray their very human enemies to make it okay to kill them. I realize that orcs aren’t human, but even if they are entirely evil, it’s kind of lazy writing to leave it at that. Why are they all evil? Why are there no redeeming features? What are they anyway? Is there even any individuality? Here are the ways that different authors and companies, starting with J.R.R. Tolkien, have treated the subject:

An orc from the film version of "Lord of the Rings"

An orc from the film version of “Lord of the Rings”

Tolkien

When Tolkien wrote his stories about Middle Earth and the earlier age in Beleriand, he wrote the orcs, not as a redeemable, noble barbarian race, but as demons. The very name orc means “demon.” Tolkien’s orcs were originally elves who had been captured, tortured, and corrupted by the power of Morgoth, the Satan figure of the world. That said, they were entirely evil, broken, bestial, and monstrous. They had cities, as evident in the Goblintown of The Hobbit. (Tolkien’s goblins were really just smaller orcs.) If you’re going to be including a race of purely evil, irredeemable monsters, then giving them corrupted, almost demonic souls would seem the way to go. Just know that Tolkien did it first. (That’s not saying much, since he did most things in modern fantasy first.)

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons has never been known for deep philosophy, but they have been known for repeating things from legend, myth, and…well, Tolkien in ways that brought fantasy to the late-Twentieth Century mind. In D&D, the evil nature of orcs, or much else for that matter, isn’t explained beyond worshipping evil gods, but that’s understandable. The point really is to just kill them and loot their still-warm corpses. My point is that D&D, and other roleplaying games, for that matter, doesn’t need to explain why they’re evil. It’s basically pulp adventure.

That said, they do have half-orcs, brutal characters best suited to being barbarians that can, at least, be redeemed through being player characters, or PCs.

An orc from Blizzard's "World of Warcraft"

An orc from Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft”

Blizzard

With D&D’s inclusion of a semi-redeemable orcish, or half-orcish, character type, Blizzard went a step further. In their Warcraft series, players can take on the role of the orcs. While they are, indeed, the enemies of humans, this means that orcs are seen in a more sympathetic light. They’re still brutal, harsh, and often barbaric, but they resemble more the humanized half-orc of Dungeons and Dragons than the demonic, corrupted orcs of Tolkien.

Originally an agrarian race from another dimension, orcs were enslaved and corrupted by demons and really did become what Tolkien envisioned. However, by the time that World of Warcraft takes place, they’ve been freed and are now little more than a race of proud, sometimes noble barbarians with a dark and violent past. In other words, just another world culture.

Paolini

Then there’s another way of going about writing your orcs, goblins, or other villain race. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s essentially making them an irredeemable evil, but not trying to explain why. At least in Dungeons and Dragons, they were tribal groups that worshiped evil, violent gods. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini included the Urgals. Yes, he’s totally not ripping of Tolkien, because they’re not orcs; they’re Urgals. Right, whatever. They’re a race of baby-skewering (no, really) evil people whose existence is never really explained. Never explained, that’s my point. They’re just there to be hated, feared, and killed, kind of like the barbarian hordes of racially insensitive movies from the 1940s and 1950s.

Okay, you know what? I realize that I’ll be seen as being silly. They’re not human, so make them whatever you want. Just do it right. If you just say, “They’re evil,” and actually tell us why, that’s fine, great. But if you don’t give an explanation, it’s just lazy. When you make a world, especially when there are racial issues (even non-human racial issues) at play, then you need to be able to explain everything that you decide on.

Know your world, and know why it is the way it is, especially why your enemy races are the way they are. No one likes a flat character, and the culture is a character in itself.

 

On a related side note: I’ll be starting a series of blog posts about the steps to take in creating a race and culture of your own, and, for a bit of variety, since most seem to focus on human cultures, I’ll be dealing with an orcish nation from my world, perhaps, even throw in some short stories about them.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 3

I’m a few days later than I had intended, but I’m finishing up my series on “Mythopoeia”, the poem that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to convince C.S. Lewis (who was an atheist at the time) of the validity, even necessity of the creation of modern myth, as Tolkien is so famous for doing with Middle Earth.

“Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.”

In repeating “blessed are…” three times, Tolkien mimics the Beatitudes, where Jesus uses the same phrase a number of times in his Sermon on the Mount. Myth-makers are not simply fantasists, but heroes, however timid they may be in life, who are opposing evil by the very act of mythopoeia.

“Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.”

Again, Tolkien includes his Christian background by comparing the myth-makers to Noah, who built his ark to save humanity from the flood that destroyed the world. In this, myth-making is more than escapism from the world, but escapism to save the world.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

Here Tolkien expressed his general disdain for modern life, calling the modern focus on “economic bliss” a drug, comparing it both to the lotus eaters and the memory erasing Circe, both found in The Odyssey. Myth is not something that we find in history, but something deeper and wider than what has actually been or what is physically real. It is deep and real, and the fact that it is not “organized delight” makes it a personal thing for the “legend-makers with their rhyme” who are then able to come more closer to however they understand the Divine Truth.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

Tolkien is declaring, not just his desire to read myth, but to make it. The minstrels who sing the songs that stir our emotions and the mariners who bring back stories of a distant world, of sirens and harpies, Cyclopes and dog-head men: these are what inspires him. We who are called fools for caring so much about an unseen world, hiding away our hearts from the cold, regimented world; we are the myth-makers.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

This is one of my favorite passages of all time. “I will not walk with your progressive ape, erect and sapient. Before them gapes the dark abyss to which their progress tends…” Tolkien is going all out in blasting the progressive ideals that leave myth behind. Where are we going, and why should blind progression be automatically better? If the names we give things are the only way we know them, where is the meaning to our live? Why should a crow be only a crow, and not be Huginn and Muninn? Why should a mushroom be only a mushroom, and not a spot where the Fair Folk dance? When will we realize that the removal of Myth from our lives yields us to the Iron Crown, which Tolkien ascribed to Morgoth, the original Dark Lord?

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

And now we come to the ultimate purpose of Myth. Paradise, the ultimate Divine Truth. There are monsters and evil things in myth, yes, but they only show us what is in this world, the monsters that we must confront, the villains that we must defeat. Perseus slew Medusa and turned her on the king who set him up for death. Theseus slew the Minotaur with the help so needed to him. Odysseus opposed a god and lived to retake his home. Cú Chulainn stood against his foes to be remembered as a mighty hero.

When all is said and done, Myth inspires us to reach beyond what we are. It’s more than just a man’s story, as women in myth are also strong, crafty, and as brave as the men they face. Deirdre, Rhiannon, and Arianrhod had troubles, but they still continued. Myth allows us to see beyond this world, beyond the cold rocks and hard bark of the trees to see the gnomes and dryads that dwell within our hearts. Through those, we can come closer to the Paradise that we seek. Tolkien was a Christian, and so his Divine Truth was the Judeo-Christian Paradise. Whether you seek Elysium, Valhalla, or Tir Na Nog, myth is the path your soul takes you to the Transcendent Divine.

If you seek none of those, but rather seek to better understand yourself, myth-making is the perfect way to that. Truth is more than what we are told; it is what is. By myth-making, we become the bards, the poets, the minstrels, and the mariners. We become Taliesin, Merlin, and Tiresias. World creation can be so much more than creating a setting for a game or a story; it can be the creation of a myth, a living, breathing world.

Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings all resonate with people so strongly that the people who love them are more than fans, but almost religious devotees. It’s because they did more than just create a world. They created a myth.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 2

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1916

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he first created Middle Earth in the trenches of WWI.

In my last post, I discussed the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, which was written to C.S. Lewis when he had been dismissive of myth and escapist fantasy as “wish-fulfillment.” In the poem, named after a term Tolkien coined with uses the Greek roots “mythos” and “poeia” to mean “myth-making”, Tolkien not only defends, but celebrates the concept of myth as something real, alive, and vital to human existence. In the section I’m going to discuss here, Tolkien defends it as our divine right.

“Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.”

“Yes trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen…” This phrase fairly well sums up the layers of meaning that I discussed in my previous entry in this series. Trees exist without us, and without the mythic layers we add in our understanding, but all that we know about them and all that we feel about them requires us to name them. Naming is a decidedly mythic thing to do, and is a part of many myths and religions as a thing that is given to gods and heroes.

“Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.”

And of course, because it’s Tolkien, there are going to be elves. Elves are the archetype of a mythic race for many, masters of poetry and the forging of great things. Even as we now consider dwarves to be master craftsmen today, that honor was once given to elves. In fact, what we know of as fantasy dwarves, with thanks due to Tolkien, evolved out of the svartalfr of Nordic lore, a name that means “dark elf.”

As for the rest of this portion, Tolkien is saying that mythmakers created their myths out of looking backward in time and culture. An ancient time, now lost to empirical understanding, is a place of legend, emotion, and myth. There may be some imagination built in, but imagination has its place, and when it’s honest, it makes the story more real, thus making it mythic.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Tolkien doesn’t just ask the question, “Can we know of something without imagining mythically?” He flat out gives the answer: no, we can’t. To Tolkien, nothing exists and nothing is seen except through the mythic, legendary, and poetic meaning that we give to it. Yes, stars exist, and we can see the burning balls of gas far above us, but without a frame of reference, what is it that we see but specks of light? Myth is the frame of reference by which we see.

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

And here Tolkien exhibits three ideals. First, is his Christian worldview, in that he believes that “the only Wise” is a singular, male deity, and that “gods and their houses out of dark and light” are creations of Man. At the same time, he believes that, in the second point I want to mention and unlike many who have spoken and written through the centuries within Christianity, that mankind is “not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” No matter our origin, whether you are a Christian, atheist, or pagan, there is no denying the creative power of humanity, which is the third point I want to bring up here. We have the creative power, and not only that, but it is our right to do so, to create fill “the crannies of the world” with elves, goblins, and other beings, to be like Theseus and Cadmus in sowing the seed of the dragon’s teeth.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

As if in answer to a previous accusation by Lewis, Tolkien admits to creating dreams of wish fulfillment and avoid harsh reality. In this stanza, he admits to and celebrates the fact that myth, particularly myth creation, is escapist by nature. In the end, he answers why it must be, because “of Evil this alone is deadly certain: Evil is.”

The very fact that there is such a thing as evil gives us the need to do something about it, and often, we feel powerless in the face of it. Mythopoeia, or the creation of myths, is just that. In our escapism, we can create the ideal, and by creating the ideal heroes, we give them monsters to fight. Our heroes are the ideal, and the monsters we create are the embodiment of evil.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 1

J.R.R. Tolkien

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth

I want to talk about a poem by one of the masters of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, Tolkien has been called the Father of Modern Fantasy, as it was his work, especially, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion , that have inspired fantasy writers for the second half of the century, ever since the story of the War of the Ring became popular in the Sixties. In the poem Mythopoeia, Tolkien explains his view of the validity of myth, particularly of the creation of myth, which is what the word “mythopoeia” means. Since it’s so long, I’m going to be breaking this discussion into three parts, with this as the first part.

So, here’s Mythopoeia by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

“To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus”

First off, we can see from the dedication that the poem was intended for C.S. Lewis, whom Tolkien calls “Misomythus”, or Myth Hater. I’m assuming that this was written before Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity, as he had, before his conversion, been a rationalist, which often denies the validity of myth.

 “You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.”

I love the beginning of this. Myth is much more than just a lie believed by savages. It’s living poetry that keeps us from being trapped in a cold and inane world where all we are is atoms. With myth, whether organic or created, we become alive, more than someone who simply calls “some matter in a ball, compelled to courses mathematical.”

“At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.”

Time marches on, and what are we in the great scheme of things? As we see the world continue, “from dark beginnings to uncertain goals”, we see “an endless multitude of forms.” These forms are the things by which we make our myth, all originating from the “remote Origo”, a term that means, essentially, the origin of all we’re discussing. In this case, the origo of the world.

 “God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.”

As a Christian, it makes sense that Tolkien would proscribe the creation of the world to God, and he imbues in the world a mythic standard. While some of the phrases, like “tellurian earth”, “stellar stars”, and “homuncular men”, are redundant, that may be the point. Myth involves layers upon layers of meaning, and when those layers are redundant, it adds intention, strength, and purpose to them. Of course earth is tellurian, and stars are obviously stellar, but Tolkien’s point is that they are more than just the thing we see. There is a deeper meaning that is not understood through words or science, but through meditation on the nature of what it means to be tellurian, stellar, and homuncular.

As we’ve seen, myth is more than simply stories; it’s the layers of meaning that are hidden beneath the way we view the world. When we create a world of our own, to make it real, we need to do more than simply copy the work of others. Elves, dwarves, and orcs are fine to include. Dragons, chimeras, and gryphons are great. Make them your own. Give them your own meaning, not just something to say, “This isn’t like the rest.” Make it something that is yours, coming from your view of the world, and therefore from your world. Even if you’re not religious, making a living, meaningful fantasy world borders on a religious experience, because it’s drawing from the myth that gives you meaning.

Subcreation and the Religion of Myth-Making

I haven’t been writing much on world building lately, and I think I know why. You see, sometimes, meaning most times, I tend to forget that it’s not just about making a fantasy world for a story that I’m writing. It’s not just a game. Tolkien used the word “subcreation” to describe it. In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which was originally a speech, he talked about the nature of fantasy and the creation of fictional realms as a religious experience. As a Catholic, he believed that the world was created by a divine spark, namely, the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments. The greater Creation was the work of God, and creation was part of the very nature of God. That said, because, as the Bible claims, man is made in the image of God, Man (I’m using it as a gender neutral term meaning “humanity”) is a natural creator.

Some would say that it just means that we create life by having children, but Tolkien believed, and I agree, that it means that we create. Not just life, but art, dreams, fantasies, and even entire worlds. Subcreation is a way of expressing the world in a new way, showing it through the lens perspective of Man’s image. If Man is made in God’s image, then elves, dwarves, and…yes, even orcs…are made in Man’s image. It’s not enough for us to simply create a fantasy world and leave it alone as if it has no meaning. It has loads of meaning.

Tolkien’s work has been loved by both Christians and Pagans alike. It has the Messianic overtones in Lord of the Rings that resonate with Christians, but also shows the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell as being in many world religions. Tolkien’s deep love of the past and the balance of nature is very Druidic in nature. I’ve even heard of people who take the Valar (as seen in The Silmarillion) for their personal gods. It may not be how he intended it, but remember that this is a man who, by his own admission, hated all forms of allegory. It wasn’t his purpose to make Middle Earth his allegorical manifesto, but to create a mythology for England, and mythology has the natural tendency to resonate differently with different people.

I suppose that’s why I started with the topic of religion when I started up the blog. You see, I don’t really want to turn this into a philosophizing collection of religiosity, but world building really is a religious experience for me. I’m not going to get into what that religion is, because, for one, it’s not really what this is about. This is about your creation of your mythology. World building, when done effectively, is more than just writing for entertainment; it’s the mythological expression of the soul of the world builder. The second reason I’m not going to say my religion is because, by seeing my soul through my world, you’ll probably be able to figure out what it is I believe and what I used to believe eventually, if you care enough to look, that is.

For me, at least, world building is so much more than just creating a story. It’s creating a mythology, forging a Subcreation as a work of art and, even if you don’t believe in a supernatural deity, an act of worship. Whether you worship the Christian Trinity, the Wiccan Horned God and Triple Goddess, or the rational influences of empirical sciences, creating a world of your own is a great way to not just reveal, but experience what is truly important to you.

Genres in World Building

Genres of World Building

Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More

Fantasy

Epic Fantasy

When you’re writing epic or high fantasy, it’s good to remember the conventions that are out there, and then smash them to bits. Elves, dwarves, and orcs are great, but you don’t want to just retread Tolkien’s world, or even reboot Gary Gigax’s worlds. (For the uninitiated, Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons.) There are different views on the use of races people already know. Some people hate them, and won’t read a story if it has any version of elves. Others think they’re great, and actually prefer when a writer uses the traditional take on them. Still others think that it’s okay to use the traditional fantasy races, so long as you use your own take on them.

Personally, I’m in the third camp. Yes, I do have the traditional races, but I try to have a different origin and culture for them. After all, I’m using humans, so why not elves and dwarves? Okay, yes, humans are real, but this is a story about a non-Earth world, so why would there even be humans? My point is that, whatever world you create, make it your own.

The key to epic fantasy is that it’s not just a different world, but that the story has the character of high adventure, so creating a world for that genre is really just creating a rich, in-depth world. It’s all up to you what you make. Want elves in your world? Make them, but make them your own. Don’t just base them off of Tolkien, or D&D, or World of Warcraft. (Especially not WoW. I can’t stand Night Elves.) Make them yours. Want dwarves, or orcs? It goes for the same with them. Dragons? Go for it.

The real key to making epic fantasy is that it’s a vast world with a rich, maybe noble/maybe ignoble culture.

Dark Fantasy

My advice for making epic fantasy stands for dark fantasy. Typically filled with vampires, werewolves, the undead, and dangerous magic, dark fantasy has expectations to it as well, mostly in the mood you set. One thing you need to be aware of is that it’s easy to make try to make something dark and scary, but end up just going for the same old thing. Yes, vampires vs. werewolves is cool, but don’t try to remake Underworld. Also, if you do have an idea that’s neither vampires, werewolves, or even the undead, then absolutely go for it. The key is that it’s yours.

  1. Are there vampires? If so, what are they like?
  2. Are there werewolves or shape shifters? What kinds?
  3. Is there magic or witchcraft? What kind and is it evil or benign?
  4. What kinds of demons, ghosts, or incorporeal beings are there?
  5. Is it Earth, an alternate Earth, or a non-Earth?

Another thing is that dark fantasy is more about the tone. It can be an alternate world, making it on the lines of epic or high fantasy, but it can also be in the modern world, making it contemporary. Genre can be a bit wobbly.

Contemporary Fantasy

Okay, contemporary fantasy, or urban fantasy. It’s separate from epic fantasy in that it takes place in today’s world, as opposed to an alternate world, and from dark fantasy in that the mood isn’t necessarily horror-based. The definitions can get pretty fuzzy, particularly when dealing with the vampires and demons of The Dresden Files. The real difference between contemporary fantasy and others is the need to incorporate the real world into the fantasy. If the story is supposed to take place on the real Earth, just with magic, you need to understand the real location that you’re using. Otherwise, you might as well just make up your own, alternate world. Of course, there is a place for that.

  1. Does the public know that magic exists? If not, why? If so, how does it affect them?
  2. What magical races are there? Is it just one culture’s magic, or all of them?
  3. How is witchcraft and magic handled? Are witches evil, benign, or neutral?

Science Fiction

Space Travel

When you’re making a world for science fiction, consider that you need to avoid making it a rip off from Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and pretty much everything else out there. As always, make it your own. Even so, a few questions need to be answered:

  1. Are there aliens/nonhumans? If so, why didn’t humanity know about them sooner?
  2. How does FTL (faster-than-light) work. You don’t need to get into all the scientific theories, and there are some, like Battlestar Galactica that actually avoid getting into that, so they don’t muddle things with technobabble. Is it hyperspace, warp drive, space jumps, or something else entirely? At least make it clear what they’re doing.
  3. How far out from the Earth is it? Confined to the Solar System? The Galaxy? Or is it even a different galaxy?
  4. How far into the future is it? This would decidedly affect the technology level, which really seems to be growing at an exponential rate. Look into futurist predictions to figure out what would work best. Granted, they’re just predictions, but you want it to at least be plausible.
  5. What happened to the Earth? Some writers make it an uninhabitable Garbage World, others destroy it, and still others (like Star Trek) make it a paradise.
  6. Is it the future, or the past? Star Wars is the most notable example of making it deep into the past. You don’t have to avoid that just because George Lucas did it. Just use an interesting take on it.

Contemporary Science Fiction

When most people think of science fiction, they think of space stories. At the same time, you have X-Files­, ­Men in Black, and other science fiction stories that take place on Earth. Many are in a subset I call “conspiracy science fiction” because the only way that aliens and other hi-tech stuff are hidden from view is by a government conspiracy, sometimes malevolent, as in X-Files, and sometimes (mostly) benign, as in Men in Black and the (non-alien) series Eureka.

  1. Are there aliens? If so, how does the public not know about them?
  2. Does the public know about the hi-tech stuff? If not, why?
  3. Is there a government conspiracy? Are they evil, neutral, or benign?

Alternate History

This is a fun one. Harry Turtledove has made a living at alternate history, and Eric Flint has the Ring of Fire series that started with 1632, a novel about a West Virginia mining town being sent back to Thuringia (in Germany) during 1632 C.E. (the middle of the Thirty Years War).

Alternate history often involves time travel to explain why the timeline is different from what really happened, but not always, as in the case of Fatherland, a story of what if the Nazis won WWII. It’s an interesting way to create a world based on our world if things had been different.

Time Travel Fiction

Like alternate history, time travel involves imagining things as they might have been, and often overlaps. However, I’m including it in a genre of its own, because I want to talk about worlds that involves multiple timelines and multiple ways the world plays out. This is based very much on the characters and all the possible interactions they might have. In Back to the Future, Marty sees different possible futures and presents that are caused by his meddling with time. When creating a world where time travel is real, it’s not so important how it happens, but how it affects things. Look into the different paradoxes and see which ones you want to include and how to explain away the others.

Realistic World Building

When writing fiction that’s neither fantasy nor science fiction, you’re essentially taking the world and saying, “This is how it is.” At the same time, there is a certain amount of world building that goes into the story. You have to decide which portions of the world you want to show, and in what way you want to show it. Not only that, but it’s different for historical and contemporary fiction.

Just a quick note. When world building for historical or contemporary non-speculative fiction, you need to do research. Research before you write. Otherwise, you run the very large risk of insulting people. Poor research in historical and contemporary fiction is a large factor in racist depictions of people groups, and in simplistic renderings of ideas and ideals. If you’re writing about this world, don’t try to make it up. Figure out what happened or what happens, how things are done, and treat the subjects with respect.

Making things up for fantasy and science fiction world building is great, but not something you want to do for realistic fiction. That’s the whole point of realistic fiction, that it’s not just made up. Make up the characters, the places even. Fictional towns and cities are great, because you don’t have to be bothered by geography or specific history, but don’t make up the culture or the dialect. Make your research your world building.

World Building: Why Bother?

I had been planning on moving on from posts about language to other aspects of world building, but I really think I need to address something. Why do we world build? Why bother making up a fictional planet, or a fictional timeline, or a fictional country? What’s the point? Yes, writing fantasy needs that, but are there other reasons to create worlds? Is it just a personal exercise that doesn’t have any meaning? Does any of it even matter?

Well, I just want to say that, yes, world building does matter and that there are a number of reasons to do it. One obvious reason is to create a believable world for a story or game design. You don’t want your readers to lose suspension of disbelief because you included something (or left something out) that was important, like actually having space to grow food for your massive city in the middle of the wasteland. Even in writing fiction, though, there are different reasons to make a world however you make it.

1) Writing for a story.

When you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world for a story, then the story is the goal, but the world is essential. There needs to be rules that dictate the magic or technology, even if you don’t get into them in the story. In a world where anything can happen, nothing ever happens. There’s no drama, no conflict, and no reason to care about the characters. At the same time, if you focus so much on developing the world, it’s easy to forget about the characters, and about their part in the world. The story is a microcosm of the universe that you’re creating, even if it’s just about two people in a room. The only part of the world that matters for the story is the part that affects it. If you have a distant nation a thousand miles from where your story takes place, why are you focusing on that unless it plays a part in the plot?

2) Writing for a role playing game.

Like world building for a story, you need to create as much, and no more, than is needed for what you’re doing. It takes time and effort to create a culture, and focusing too much time on cultures that your players will never reach, whether because they’re too far or simply back story, takes away time that you could have spent working on the world that actually affects the game. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t make the world bigger, grander, and more realized than you would for, say, a novel about a single small kingdom. Players can mess with the plan that a DM has for the game. All they have to do is say, “We’re boarding this ship to sail to Kharzan.” A good DM has the player’s enjoyment in mind, and so, if you players want to go to Kharzan, you’d better have Kharzan ready for them.

3) Making a point.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. Some writers craft their stories around making a point. In fact, I really think that most writers do that, even if they don’t mean to. A good story needs a good theme, and the stronger that theme, the more it’s going to permeate the world of your story. I’d argue that, if you have a point to make, let it happen naturally. Make your world to represent how you see the real world. J.R.R. Tolkien hated technology, and so in his grand mythos of the ancient Middle Earth, technology and metal machines were inherently evil, used only by the powers of Morgoth and Sauron. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin’s world doesn’t even touch on the subject, because that’s not the point he’s making. A Song of Ice and Fire is less about mythologizing a lost past and more about deconstructing the chivalric mythos. While I would argue that his books are actually more brutal than the majority of the real medieval history, it does make the point that he is going for.

A more blunt example of world building for making a point is found in dystopian science fiction. The theme of government over-control, which is common to the genre, lends itself to a certain kind of world. If you want to talk about the need for freedom or independence, creating a world that shows the dangers of lacking either of those is a fairly simply way to go. At the same time, when you write to make a point, make sure that not everything in your world is allegorical, or else you end up clobbering the reader with too much. Having everything you mention lead toward the goal makes it very clear that it’s more of a treatise than a story, but if you make the world more naturally, craft it so that you’re telling a story rather than preaching a sermon, you have more of a chance of drawing the reader in.

4) Just to have fun.

Now, not everyone wants to build a world for stories or games. Some of us just like making up fictional worlds and seeing what we can do with them. As far as that goes, it’s a very personal hobby that holds value just in that fact. Research what interests you and craft the world as you see fit. It’s your world and it’s your hobby. Just have fun with it.

 

Next post—Genres of World Building: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More.