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.


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!

Clarke’s Third Rule: Applying Science Fiction Mechanics

I tend to write more fantasy than science fiction, mostly because I don’t have enough of a technical mind to explain everything. Of course, that also means that my magic systems won’t be at the same level as Brandon Sanderson’s, but that’s a different blog post altogether. As far as science fiction goes, I feel a little guilty trying to do it. You see, I have ideas for stories, but I don’t know how to make it work without technobabble, and yet I also don’t want to just shrug and say, “What’s the big deal? It works.”

Let me explain. I have one world, or one set of worlds, that is, since they’re canonically linked, that includes the concept of time travel. I’ll deal with time travel and its ramifications in a different post, but what I have here is a distant future with technology that is so advanced humans have stopped being humans for the most part, but have split into various post-human races. Two of these groups end up getting sent back to the far distant past and continue to war against each other, thereby creating two alien empires across the galaxy. By the time that Earth comes around to what we are, there has been intervention by both groups, resulting in individuals with extraordinary powers from the alien technology. In addition, whenever time travel happens, that is to say, whenever someone arrives in the past, then the laws of physics change temporarily as the universe rewrites itself, and anyone caught in the vicinity is altered, mutated, often given strange abilities. Yes, I just explained the premise of a superhero world.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke's Three Laws.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke’s Three Laws.

You see, I didn’t just want to say, “Oh, they have powers. Why not?” or “They’re just evolved mutants.” I wanted some origin to them, as well as the ability to explain futuristic technology in today’s society. To that end, I decided to actually bring the futuristic technology to the present day, but in the end, even the tech, which can change what we know of as the laws of physics, is so advanced it seems magical, as per Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Rule.

Clarke’s Third Rule of scientific prediction states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What this means is that, if we are presented with a technology that uses scientific understanding that is beyond us, then it would look like something that breaks the laws of physics. For example, if you show a pistol to someone in Ancient Sumer, they would have trouble believing that such a small thing can kill a man from such a distance as you claim, yet if they were to see you do it, then they would think it akin to the divine power over life and death. Computers, with their hidden components that rely on electrical impulses, would seem to be strange machines to someone in the time of Archimedes. Sure, given enough time and backward engineering, someone like Archimedes might be able to figure out how to build a computer, a Tesla coil, or a motion sensor camera, but to most people of the time, it would seem to be magical, even divine.’

That said, if someone from a distant future, or from a distant and highly advanced alien culture, were to approach us today with a technology that uses an understanding of the universe that we don’t have, then it would seem to break the laws of physics. In an age where we’re beginning to understand quantum mechanics and physicists theorize the existence of more dimensions than our viewable three, there is still the possibility that there are things about the universe that we won’t understand for thousands of years.

Currently, most scientific understanding scoffs at the idea of ESP, clairvoyance, or other psychic phenomena, but it’s almost a standard in science fiction. What if there is some technology that would allow humans to tap into a currently unknown portion of the brain that would access those abilities? To some, it would seem like magic, but to those who accept Clarke’s Third Rule, it would be, well, sufficiently advanced technology. That said, I want to add a few rules of my own:

  1. Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.
  2. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.
  3. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Now to justify Tom Austin’s Not-Pretentious-At-All (no really) Rules for Applying Clarke’s Third Rule.

Rule 1: Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.

We can’t know the future or what technologies will come from it. As early as the 1200s, Friar Roger Bacon, also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin for “Wonderful Teacher”) predicted flying machines and horseless carriages. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a few flying machines. Five hundred years from now, we might be able to predict what would be possible. Eight hundred years, it might be a little more wild. What about stories that take place thousands of years in the future? We can’t know what technologies are going to be around in the year 20,000, no matter how much we’d like to predict. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the ensuing sequels show how far technology can go with Hal 9000. Heck, even Star Trek, famous for the writer’s bane that is technobabbleshowed it the first full movie, where we saw how the Voyager space probe turned into a sentient godlike being known as V-Ger.

(The movie’s been out since the 80’s. It’s as much a spoiler as knowing that Vader is Luke’s father.)

Basically, if you want to write a science fiction story, like I’m doing with my superhero world, but you don’t want to have to write out the wild, unexplainable stuff, go for the copout and say that it’s “sufficiently advanced technology.”

Rule 2: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke's most famous work.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke’s most famous work.

Okay, here’s the kicker. You can’t just throw it out there and say, “Oh, but Clarke said…” No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work like that. In what way is the tech advanced? What is the field that we’re talking about more advance than we currently understand it? You see, there are a few areas of the world that are fairly well understood. Sure, there are things that scientists are always needing to learn, but the mechanics of them is pretty much down. Biology, chemistry, and Newtonian physics. It’s when you get to the deeper stuff that you can start playing around with things.

I realize I’m not a scientist, and I’ll probably tick a few of them off with this, but here are some ideas. Subatomic physics are pretty well understood by scientists, but even so, they’re still learning about them, and that’s actually how they consider the possibility of more dimensions. Atoms might disappear and reappear somewhere else. Yes, they can teleport atoms, but only atoms at the moment.

Another thing to consider is the theoretical concepts that haven’t yet been shown to be verifiable, such as the existence of wormholes. Some may think it’s an outdated and cliché concept, but I think there is some validity to including it in a science fiction story…if it’s done right.

You see, I’m not saying just make up some kind of unknown quantity such as dilithium, even though that’s exactly what I did when I came up with the Østergard Singularity Drive to provide near infinite power and gravity to a starship. I’m saying that using Clarke’s Third Rule is a copout, but it’s a copout that you can use if you know how to properly b-s it.

Rule 3: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Okay, I take back a bit of what I said. No, not really. I want to clarify. Using Clarke’s Third Rule to explain why your tech isn’t comprehended today can be done right if you know how to properly b-s it. Technobabble is not doing it right. Trying to sound all scientific in order to convince your audience that you know what you’re talking about doesn’t work. Here’s a case where this is done right: Battlestar: Galactica. In the remake, they didn’t use technobabble. In fact, they made a point of avoiding it. FTL worked. We didn’t need to know why. AI was sentient and could communicate over light years. We didn’t need to know why. It was a technology on a level that most people today cannot understand. Given enough time and enough genius, someone today could possibly reverse engineer it (if it was an actual, real thing, that is), but most people would see it as magic.

Really, you don’t need to lean on technobabble to solve the day. Let your characters do that. If you think that falling back of sufficiently advanced technology is too much of a hand wave, then go ahead and write your hard science fiction. Enjoy. I’m going to stick to saying my superheroes can fly because of technology from the distant future.

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.

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.