So, now that normalcy is back, I can address the second part of my blog post I started way back here on the Horror genre.

Funny, that word “normalcy”. See, that’s where real horror rears its ugly head. When blessed normalcy is destroyed, it opens tiny breaches in the walls of our lives that let the horrors in. Anyone can tell a gross-out story that’s more like a wrecking ball smashing into the house–yes, it hurts, but unless you’re blind, you can see it coming (and if you are blind, you can probably hear it coming). REAL horror is slow, the cracks in the foundation where water seeps in and undermines the wall that will bring it down without warning. We’re left picking through the pieces, trying to make sense of what happened and not being able to reassemble even a fraction to recreate the life as it was “before” the horror.

Some post-apoc stories address this in a way that embraces Horror – a future of no-holds-barred version of humanity, where civilization and the things we take for granted are memories. Only those willing and able to exert force against others stand a chance for survival, and even then it’s the slimmest line between who wears the white hat, and who wears the black. Anarchy descends, confrontations become brutal and bloody over the dwindling resources. The lucky ones die first.

There’s another kind of aspect with that concept of “normalcy” that has a very odd highlighting event: Chernobyl. While I grew up with it in the news from half a globe away, others faced it as their horrifying reality. Chernobyl still sits among the world’s concerns after decades, not just because of the extensive political corruption, cover-ups, incompetency and lies. No, the real horror ran a lot deeper, faced by those who responded to the disaster and those who lived in what is now known as the “Exclusion Zone”.

For the first responders, they were just doing their jobs, putting out the fires caused by the explosion, all the while being assaulted by a ghost – incapable of being seen, being heard, being felt – that had very real teeth. The bodies of these men began to betray them with that insidious poison, robbing these strong men of their ability, their dignity, even the comfort of human touch, exchanging it all for intense pain and suffering only death can remove it. THAT is horror.

And the normalcy of the people who lived around there, who may or may not have known about the explosion that rendered the countryside unlivable. Those in Pripyat were forced to leave, and leave everything behind, being reassured that they would return in a little while. Others, the people who only knew their farms and patches of land found themselves approached by the soldiers either ripping them from their homes, unable to even take their pets (to be razed, hauled away and buried, with literally nothing but the underlayer of dirt left behind. I will not mention what happened to the pets.) or who warned them of that invisible threat. They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t drink their cow’s milk, eat their hens’ eggs, or the potatoes grown in their gardens. A scientific concept becomes a beast, a vampire that drains the blood of normalcy from a people innocent of any involvement in its cause.

HBO’s Chernobyl has gotten incredibly high ratings for its depiction of the events surrounding the disaster, and while it wasn’t a “horror” show (like that horrid other movie that tried to capitalize on the creepiness of an entirely empty city) it captured that helplessness in the face of such a threat, as innocent people paid for the sins of their government’s corruption and lies. Wolves, politicians, soldiers – all these things the people could see coming, but the threat of radiation… Few armors could keep such a beast at bay, and no weapon – except time – can remove its threat.

THAT is real horror.

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Posted: July 12, 2019 in Uncategorized

You’ve heard “Save early, safe often” a thousand times, and probably AFTER you’ve lost that masterpiece manuscript you just KNEW was going to skyrocket your writing career to the stars and forever engrave your name in the granite monument of literary genius.

But what about “Save somewhere else.”?

Yeah, I should have done that. Now I’m panicking because some of the projects I’ve been working on could possibly be lost for good, unless my old friend (you know who you are) comes through. See, my motherboard on my laptop decided it was no longer going to function. Just like that. I encountered a black screen of death–sort of. The laptop still powered up, but all I got was a black screen. Couldn’t get it to go into Safe Mode, couldn’t get it to stay powered on for more than two minutes.

Bloody but unbowed, I got another laptop and some peripheral equipment to be able to read the drives I’d had in the old one. Except now the drives were reading as “Unformatted” and “Unallocated”. Panic mode! Like I said, I’m waiting to hear from my friend on whether or not the data can be pulled so I can get my files and keys for downloaded software licenses that were there. Including my Scrivener, which will make me very, very sad if I have to purchase yet another license (long story).

Anyway, the moral is save your important stuff somewhere else, and preferably in multiple places.

That is all.

Next week, back to the horror. Until then…

I’m taking a slight departure from last week’s blog on Horror (which I plan to continue, but want to finish the non-fiction book I am currently reading and want to use as the basis of that blog) and approach a different subject.

Horses.

Horses and nightmares aren’t exactly two completely different things (night-“mare” anyone) but that’s not what this post is about.

Along with joining many others in Holly Lisle’s Summer of Fiction Writing, I am continuing to work on her How to Write a Novel course (yeah, I know, I already wrote a novel but there’s plenty more to learn. AND: Disclaimer: if you purchase it through that link, I will be compensated as I am an affiliate). The subject of that novel happens to be a character I’d already established (and one of my favorites), Ennid the Havoc. If you haven’t met him, you can do so via Amazon or Smashwords. He’s a mash-up kind of character in a mash-up kind of world: a fantasy version of MMA fighting, horses, angels-versus-demons-on-human-world-battlegrounds, pirates. Ennid’s got an uneasy alliance with his world, his past, but enjoys the simple things like good food and the company of his not-so-simple horse, K’zirra.

For this novel, I decided to dive into his near-past and gave him a scene in which he finds himself washed ashore, after he gets swept off of the deck of a seagoing vessel, stranded on the proverbial deserted island*. My original plan had him discovering the remains of a settlement and something very unsettling they left behind.

Then the horse showed up.

Galloping (literaturelly?) onto the shore, this magnificent golden stallion shows up and starts tossing his mane and his attitude right at Ennid. So it got me to wondering — this idea of the horse seemed so left field. Where did it come from?

Once I thought about it, not so left field. Apparently, somewhere in the back of my brain, a memory bloomed in full color after I’d had all of my words on the page. The Black Stallion. (Movie, not the book, although I did read that later in my childhood.) So that scene and the thought of a guy and a horse on a distant shore with no one but each other for company and possibly survival. There are, however, plenty of differences; Ennid isn’t a teen, the horse isn’t black (truth be told, the golden stallion’s not even a –but, wait, that would be a SPOILER) and there’s a whole different threat going on than just having to survive on the island.

Now, for you “horse purists” out there, I will warn you that you won’t find an “accurate” portrayal of a real horse in the stories, so you can save yourself the keystrokes and the electrons of sending hate mail. Sometimes my horses behave horse-like, but other times not at all like the normal equine creatures. This is completely intentional. My inspiration for K’zirra, and subsequently the golden stallion that has no name as yet, came from my love for the Ranyhyn of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. There are “normal” horses in the world, but the Ranyhyn are very special. Aside from being tied to the Earthpower of The Land in those stories, these horses possess a kind of prescience that allows them to know when their chosen rider will call them, and they respond long before the call and show up exactly when their rider calls them, even if they were hundreds of miles away. If anyone has played The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, you will understand when I say that I think Roach is a Ranyhyn, hehehe.

I hadn’t ever planned for there to be a horse in this story about Ennid, other than for a brief mention for other-story-foreshadowing purposes, but this stallion was demanding I do something with him. And he was right.

Hey you writers: have you ever had something come up while you were in that writing zone that seemed so disconnected from what was already on your page or in your plan that turned out to be better than expected?

 

*Which is actually a DESERTED island, as there was something there at one time, as opposed to the “deserted” island in which no living thing had been and established anything in order to desert it. And also as opposed to a desert island, since there’s plenty of foliage and swamp-age and all kinds of things that are pretty opposite from the concept of what a ‘desert’ is.

In preparation for a project I have been wanting to write, I have delved into good articles and books on the subject of Horror. As in, “what makes horror ‘horror’?” Obviously, there’s a lot of debate on the subject, and elements that some say are absolutely integral to some aren’t even mentioned by others. But horror isn’t all subjective.

What I found was 1) on a personal level, it’s easy to find something horrifying but difficult to quantify why, and 2) we all have different fears so that fear we tap into for our writing may not be shared by another (think “public speaking”).

The only way I was going to write anything meaningful on the subject would be to relate it to myself. What do I fear and how can I make that palpable? These are aspects, not one defining element of Horror, but when taken as a whole comprise a terrifying situation. I’ll be going over a few different aspects over several posts, so welcome, and enjoy the ride.

Utter helplessness.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that we’ve all experienced utter helplessness at some point in our lives, either over our own selves or for others. You hear it all the time from parents when their children are sick or dying, “I felt so helpless.” There are people whose entire lives are there to help others: think first responders, military, doctors, etc. When faced with a situation where none of the skills or tools that they can employ will do a damn thing… that kind of dread of utter helplessness. In horror when you set the “monster” up as being impervious to the tools and weapons we have, give it a desire to keep going, to not stop, to churn up everything in its path and nothing has any effect on it… Horror. Yup.

Normalcy Eroded.

Every one of us has an expectation of normalcy in our lives, be it a routine, the people we encounter. But what would happen if that gentle little old man passed you with a smile, and that grin was filled with shiny black pointed teeth. Or the attractive soccer mom who leans closer to you and whispers, “Privileged one, the prince of darkness will fill your womb.” You might question your own sanity – did you see what you really thought you saw? Hear what you thought heard? And when you ask the soccer mom what she said she denies she said anything at all? Those moments of unsettling encounters, very brief, almost dismissible by you and rationalization by some third party you trust over what you REALLY saw or heard… until it’s too late, of course, and instead of little hints of it here and there, a full-blown invasion of the supernatural and normalcy-killers spilling over into our world.

Smallness.

This ties in somewhat with the utter helplessness as above, as it describes that sense of the “what can one person do?” mentality. H. P. Lovecraft’s works sometimes hit on the idea that man senses his miniscule existence in the vastness of space, which crushes him into death or insanity.

Unknown-Unknowable.

Another realm belonging to Lovecraftian fiction, the fear of the unknown, and encounters with the unknowable result in much the same – insanity and/or death. Brushes with alien, supernatural, looking into forbidden books of knowledge. This is really what makes a horror story that much better, when the entity causing all the chaos remains an unknown quantity. When you give it a face, it tends to go to the side of unintentional humor (Freddy Krueger and Chucky come to mind. I never thought they were all that scary to begin with, and over the decades they look more and more ridiculous. I did have a lot of fun watching them at sleepovers and laughing my head off). Keep something totally in the dark all the time, and you keep it in the realm of the psychological. Not so easy to walk away from that horror.

Lovecraft Horror

Oh, there’s so much more to go on this, and I will continue next week. Until then, is there anything you have discovered to be an essential element of horror?

I got this question from a friend: Do Authors (and Artists) have competition?

My answer: They don’t.

Anyone could argue that the author is competing for the customer’s dollar. I’ve been in that position, where I only had so much to spend on a book I wanted, instead of one of everything. However, that didn’t mean I gave up on it altogether – it just went on my list for later. (I still have a long reading list, but my book collection is by no means tiny. In fact, I’m trying to find new homes for some of them, and slowly adding more to the site. Go here if you are interested.)

However, something else is regulating what those who have money to spend on books/art: taste.

Functional goods make it to magazines with comparison charts and categories like “best value” and “most efficient” and numerous other item-specific trait evaluations.

Novels and artwork can’t be classified this way. It can be marketed as “Horror” or “Fantasy” or “Romance” or “Sculpture” or “Pastels” or “Lithograph” and it can be evaluated for how well it was crafted, but, let’s face it, not every bestseller is going to appeal to every reader. Why? Taste. Aesthetics. Preferences. You either like it, or you don’t.

So, no, I don’t think we have competition. In fact, I think we have a sort of symbiosis: “If you like X, you’ll like Y.” And in general, readers don’t ditch an old favorite author because a new one is on the scene, but add it to an ever-growing list of beloved authors.

 

And something marginally-related to this post, based on the discussion with the friend:

Word of warning: seems to be people preying on new/wannabe authors, charging them a fortune for the writer to pitch their story at these writer symposia.

Also, if you give someone a manuscript to read, don’t format it so it looks like the novel before you hand/e-mail it to someone and then expect them to take you seriously. No, no, no.

If you’re just joining the club now, you might want to start at the beginning of the World-Builder’s Anonymous series here.

 

So you see by the articles I’ve drafted so far that there are many, many aspects to building worlds. If you’re building for fun, then there’s something to occupy you for years to come as you could spend all that time and more and still not have a “complete” world.

If you’re doing this for storytelling, I iterate again that you can slip into some serious “too-much” territory, and urge you to follow Holly Lisle’s advice if your intent is to use the building for story, as the build can be an excuse not to even start writing. And while you’re at it, check out some of her other resources on Language, Culture, Plot, Character, etc, all of which have been of immense value to me. I’m not even posting an affiliate link at the moment.

So by now you might be asking, “Where do I start?”

Anywhere. One beautiful thing about worldbuilding is that you can start from any of the points and let them guide you to creating the rest. They feed into each other, and you can bounce back and forth between the different categories with ease.

Say you had a super cool animal in mind, a diamond-crested slinker. You decide it’s an alpha predator, lurking through the forest.

  • Is it a carnivore or an omnivore?
  • What exactly does it eat? What does the thing it eats eat?
  • How abundant are they?
  • What kind of climate does it exist in?
  • Are there humans there? How many?
  • Are they permanent or nomadic?
  • Have they integrated the slinker into their language (crazier than a slinker chewing siliweed)?
  • What kind of relationship do the humans have with the creature – food, fear, sacred/symbolic?
  • How long has this relationship been going on? Is there an historical significance?
  • Does it have prize fur (with natural “diamonds”) that can drive an economy for the humans that hunt it?
  • If they fear it, do they pray/sacrifice to a slinker god or do they pray to a god that protects them from slinkers?
  • If they sell the fur, who are they selling it to? Are the sellers rich from the sales, or are they being exploited?
  • Is the slinker being poached, and are the humans who use it forced to protect it and become warriors/defenders?
  • Do they need someone they trade the furs for that they can’t get anywhere else, and now the demanders have disappeared?

See how much worldbuilding you can get from an idea for single creature? You can also stop from the top down. and make a huge globe and then break it up and populate it. (The D&D-published WorldBuilder’s guide embraces both approaches too, from the town/world creation aspect, but they don’t have the animal/plants as part of their publication.)

Well, that’s it for now, for the worldbuilding. It’s been a lot of fun over the last few months to glaze over it.

Did I miss something? Or is there something you would like to see expanded? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, and have a lot of fun building your worlds!

If you’re just joining the World-Builder’s Anonymous, you might want to go back to the beginning and start here.

But if you’ve been following along, read on!

 

Another interesting aspect of world-building I have discovered is the weather.

Weather literally shapes a world – rain feeds rivers that cut through rock over eons, swelling and diminishing to flood and erode. Wind shapes dunes of sand, scrubs landscapes or buries whole civilizations.

When we think of weather with world-building, the first thing that may come to mind is climate on a global scale (Star Wars was notorious for making the entire planet one climate/geological type – Tattooine the desert planet, Hoth the snow planet, Dagobah the swamp planet, Endor the forest moon, that forgotten name of the planet of the cloner people that had a perpetual stormy sea, etc. – which seems incredibly lazy to me). Globally, there are bands all along the globe where certain climates prevail.

Another thing with weather and climate is that it can shape culture. The people of the Brazilian Jungles have a very different way of life than the Bedouins of the desert, or the folk who live in the remotest parts of Siberia. Their subsistence is affected by what is available, which in turn influences what they perceive to be of most importance (which can give rise to which god(s) they worship), which influences their rites, traditions, even things as “mundane” as the way they dress. The light, airy robes of the Bedouin would hardly be appropriate for those in a jungle, where the long flowing fabric would catch on everything and anything as they pushed through the growth. Folk on the cold tundra couldn’t get by with the little or nothing of the jungle tribes, but they’re not going to be growing a lot of the plants by which they can make cotton/linen, so they would gravitate to animals with fur, etc.

I said ‘animals’ and ‘fur’ there, too, which leads into the other thing about weather and climate – it dictates what can survive there. A lizard that thrives in sunlight is hardly going to make it in Antarctica, but that cold inhospitable place is where you can find penguins. Tiny winged critters are going to find it difficult to thrive in areas with high winds because they’d just get knocked out of the sky or battered against the cliffsides – unless they had a very good “pre-sense” of winds coming on and can get to safety before the worst arrives.

If you’re just building a world just to build a world and have fun, then starting with the planet and giving it areas of different or severe weather is just grand. However, if you are building lightly to create the stage for something you are writing, you can easily go too far if you start with the whole world.

Let’s play along using the latter case, building lightly because you’re writing.

Weather can mean ambience. We’ve all heard the “It was a dark and stormy night…” cliché for horror or drama/thriller. As if horrible things can’t happen on a sunny, mild day. (That might make a good shocker, turning the trope on its head, to have the crime/horror committed on what started out as a beautiful Spring day.)

Weather can also be a hurdle to heighten conflict and suspense.

Sheriff JimBob is chasing Bad BillyRoy west to recover the money and bring him to justice, but the bridge that BillyRoy just used to cross is now floating down the river in pieces thanks to the storm that fed the river. And now JimBob is faced with crossing there, going out of his way and getting more miles between them, or stopping to help the family getting swept away in that same river.

It’s also the hurricane threatening Carrie Saylor who defied the others and rowed to the tiny island alone and ended up with a sunken boat and no shelter.

Used lightly, it can also be used to reinforce an alien setting in a fantasy or science fiction story, with radiation or EMP storms being a constant threat, or a methane rain (like on the moon Titan). For fantasy, there could be magical storms, which are magic in-and-of-themselves or somehow mess with the magic in freaky ways.

Weather can be a tool of the antagonist. For stories with fantasy/magic, this is a great gimmick of evil wizards, sending storms and altering normal patterns to cause misery in the land or directly against the protagonist.

Weather can be the primary antagonist itself – think of the disaster novels and movies with the threatening volcanoes, storms, etc. Sure there can be a lot of other antagonists (usually people taking advantage of the disaster or the panic beforehand).

Shows like Strangest Weather on Earth highlight some truly unusual events that could form the seed of a really good story too.

So, what’s your favorite weather event (mine is lightning, as I’ve mentioned before) and how could you use it in your stories? Share in the comments!

 

 

If you’re just joining me, you should know that I started blogging about my quick-starter world-building process a few weeks ago. You can go back and start here. Or, if you just wanted to read about the culture aspect, start here.

Like I stated above, we went over a quick and dirty culture build, starting with the building blocks: values/fears.

Once you’ve established that, this next step is pretty simple.

Let’s say you wanted your world to have a pantheon, or gods/spirits to worship.

Where would they look for them? In their values and fears.

A deity or deities can arise from each of the values, or one can encompass all of them. A single deity can be dichotomous – instilling values and fears.

Let’s look at the Romans: They valued many, many things, of course, and had dozens if not hundreds of deities of lesser or greater status, but for the sake of this article I am going to point out only a few.

The Romans possessed the greatest military force of its time. Ask any Roman in his day, and he might add that their avid worship of Mars (where we get the term “martial” of course) had as much to do with their prowess as did their physical conditioning, discipline and tactics. In any martial society, a way to replenish the population was absolutely necessary, so they venerated several deities presiding over different aspects (fertility, virility, pregnancy, sex, conception…). Feeding a population was also of utmost importance, so any deity related to the fertility of the land (Ceres as one of them, and she also held ground over life and death and rebirth of nature, and sacred law, and… you get it).

Fears can be leveraged in your culture, especially by people who are cunning enough to trick the people into thinking that whatever it is that they fear can be avoided, such as with sacrifices of people and treasures.

What if you don’t want supernatural beings acknowledged at all? How about that?

There are cultures that venerate or vilify actual historical figures (sometimes even alongside supernatural beings, imagine that! Ha!) Think of America’s Founding Fathers – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere among others – who embodied values of strength, resilience, and the idea that men should be free. There’s the opposite, those who are infamous like Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. But there could be a smaller villain in your culture, something like:

“Now you young’uns, don’t you go traipsing off up to that old cabin at wood edge yonder. That there’s the gateway on to Hell itself, old Shakey Jake butchering them youngfolk gone creeping up there and putting his curse on all round it. That’s why nothing grows in fifty paces all around. And it don’t matter he’s been dead for nigh on a century – if’n he’s done sold his soul so’s he can walk the earth again.”

You get the idea.

Sometimes you can even reach a serendipity – where you have a value that some venerate and others vilify (like Hitler who was adored by some seriously misguided people), and this is beyond awesome for you as a writer, because it means that there’s conflict! Conflict is at the heart of every story, and if you can build that into your very culture, then you can easily insert it into your characters’ lives and give them somewhere to “go” in the story’s arc.

So, what kind of values did you come up with, and how are you using them?

World-building – yes, we’re still on that subject. This is the World-builders Anonymous. If you’re just tuning in, check them out from the first post HERE.

Tackling Culture.

Alright, not so much “tackling” as “touching on”. Like trying to drink the lake through a straw. Pucker up, and hope you don’t get a mouthful of fetid water. And it’s much, much deeper than you think.

In many stories, culture is HUGELY important. Even if your characters don’t go up against it directly, the culture in which they are brought up is going to influence just about everything they do, be it in protection/defense of their culture, or in spite of, or even against.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Imagine a character brought up in a safe, secure mansion whose practical world experience doesn’t go beyond the opulent, manicured courtyard of the home. His careful parents, mindful of their wonderful child, have sequestered him in their luxurious home and shower him with gifts and tutors and just about anything tangible he could want. His only other means of travel is through books. A character could remain there and be happy in that environment, only there’s no conflict in it, and the culture of security/luxury/protection is window-dressing to some other conflict presented in a story. Or it’s just a damn boring story where nothing happens (and yes, there are too many of those out there).

OR…

This kid could have it all but still feel like he’s missing out. He wants to travel, to see the real world (or at least what he thinks is the real world) through his own eyes, as he’s tired of all the servants following him around making him learn math and science and take baths. That’s creating all kinds of conflict, as he’s at odds with the culture he knows, and seeks to escape it somehow.

There’s also a place for a good-culture-threatened. Say we take the first character that has their world of security and opulence and is suddenly wrenched from it, or it’s destroyed outright. They’re going to fight to get it back. They might be turned into a slave, or have inherited debt and now can’t just live in their accustomed culture but work for it, which is a new thing.

In both cases, the culture creates a workable conflict for stories.

The great news is that culture doesn’t have to be developed deeply for it to be useful in your world-building and in the creation of conflicts. After all, how many of us can describe in detail our own cultures? Yet we still live in them, or in spite of them.

Let’s say you really don’t have anything else planned just yet, no characters, no language. Culture is an easy one to start with. Why? Because it’s really based on a concept of values and/or fears.

So you ask yourself: what three things (physical/concrete things or concepts) does your culture value/fear the most? Note: this is not generally what the character values most. We’ll get to that.

In the example above, I used SAFETY/SECURITY, LUXURY, CHILDREN.

In this culture, since Safety/Security is important to them (and we will expand “them” to mean the whole society, not this one family, for the sake of the example) and so they will have spent resources to develop a place for themselves that is safe and secure. Possibly by means of an efficient, large security force, either a military or police (depending on where/who they perceive the most threat is coming from). They may even have very restrictive laws, if the idea of “liberty” isn’t very high in their value system, which is doesn’t seem to be considering how sequestered they keep their child. They live in luxury, which could mean that they were either producing something of extreme value, were shrewd traders or they used that military/police force to seize the resources of others to fuel their lifestyles. And their children are kept behind closed doors, in protected spaces, given anything they want (generally not a good thing, the kind of treatment that turns kids into entitled snowflake monsters).

This could end up being a very dystopian culture, and definitely one where the kid not only dreams of getting out, but of finding a way to change it or escape from it to go where he wants to go and do what he wants to do. And you can see on each level what kind of fight he’s going to have – his parents, for one, who’ve “sacrificed” for him. The society itself, which strains to protect children, especially from themselves.

Whew! That’s a lot of ground already covered and I haven’t even started. But to get you started, try to come up with those three concepts and you can start building around that. Next week, we’ll take those three concepts and build something else that may be vital for your world: a pantheon.

So, tell me below what you came up with for your concepts and the conflicts you can build.

 

In this installment of my Worldbuilding series (if you are joining me late, you can start viewing the others here), I am going to address something that I love to do with WB-ing that is both random and designed: History.

Okay, I can hear the groaning out there, since history tends to be one of the least favorite subjects in school. I’m a nerd there, once again, as I just LOVE history and appreciate it more and more the older I get. But this is easy history, because you, as the writer, get to make it up.

One of the problems I first encountered with some awful stories—including ones I had written—is that the world is designed around the characters that I loved creating. While it makes sense, as you wouldn’t want to go placing a Feudal-Era Japanese Samurai in the middle of Depression-Era New York City, it sometimes gets out of hand in that the world is NOT providing enough conflict that really sharpens the characters.

Flat world* settings are tailored to the character, mostly to showcase the character’s abilities rather than revealing their weaknesses so that the character has something to surmount. Some of this is a very deliberate way of overpowering their character and turning them into uninteresting Mary Sues, because the author can’t bear to do any harm to their character. All writers are at least a little guilty of this as some point in their career, if not in every first draft.

So how do we get over this?

By introducing a little randomness, of course.

In the real world, we have almost no influence over our world (aside from decorating our homes, or helping out in our communities, etc.). We can’t wave our hands and have the entire political system go from being one of two-party power-mongerers preaching that they will be the ones to save you and instead victimizing everyone for the sake of votes into one that is truly run by the people, for the people. BUT… the latter is not nearly as interesting as the former for a source of conflict.

Which brings me to a rule I try to follow: When in doubt, make the world more brutal.

Most importantly, you want your world to feel “lived-in”.

Unless you are deliberately writing a story where the world only exists when your character is there, and doesn’t persist when he is not, then the world needs to be a “lived-in” place.

I’m going to use another video game as an illustration here. Many video games up until the 1990’s had a static, persistent world. When you showed up at the merchant’s, they happened to be open and they happened to be exactly where you needed them to be, ready to buy and sell to you no matter what time of day or night. The world revolved around you, the main character. Enter Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For the first time in my memory, if you showed up at a certain time, the shops would be closed. The occupants wouldn’t just lock up, either, but follow their own routine of taking a walk, or going to the tavern, or slipping off discreetly with someone they shouldn’t have been sneaking off with. They had their own lives that went on whether you were hunting down that Belt of Speechcraft or not, and wouldn’t sell to you unless you came back the next day, during business hours. Bethesda’s title Morrowind (ES III) does this with its world-building, if not the characters (who were persistently in their same spot) but by the incredibly rich history unraveled by the presence of literally hundreds of books, stories from the characters themselves. Your character as a possible “Nerevarine”, would be a re-incarnation of the Ashlander’s hero, Indoril Nerevar, foretold to return and set things straight according to prophecy. In order to give that prophecy weight, it had to exist in a well-developed world, and boy did they ever get that right in Morrowind.

Anyway, back to that “randomness” – to keep the world I am creating from becoming too “me”, I use tables to randomize events. While there have been others of my own creation, one of my all-time favorite go-tos is AD&D’s Oriental Adventures book from back in the 80’s.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Ninjas and Samurai, Oh My!

Inside, you’ll find a table of “Yearly Events”. The writers intended for this to be more of a way to drive a current campaign. However, I have adapted it in order to randomly get 10 or so historical events that helped to shape the culture or cultures I am creating. Selecting events that happened in the past is a way of introducing more conflict, but more importantly, giving the world you are creating a “lived-in” feel. The events as presented are vague enough to be tailored to virtually any world, not just the setting in the book, and also just enough world-building to give you a taste of what might have happened in your world’s past without filling in too many blanks while you’re writing to make the development of the story stale or too pre-structured. And they can be significant enough to stand in for pivotal historical events.

Generally, what I do is roll the dice about 10 times, and then pick at least one of the events to be that ‘pivotal’ moment in history, just as we in the Western world have Christ’s birth delineating us as AD and BC**. If I start with one event, I will roll a d20 for how far away from that pivotal year my characters are, and a d20 to reach backward from that moment. Then I scatter the events with some more random die rolls (it changes all the time, so it wouldn’t do any good to post my method here, unless you are REALLY interested).

In this way, I’ve come up with some rather good ones for stories I have written and am in the process of writing.

Hawkblood: Saint Lorico’s Decree. This one came from the entry “Legendary Hero”. At this point, Saint Lorico is a figure a little like Martin Luther and a little like Robinette Broadhead. Yeah, seriously. But not too deeply built, at least not yet. There’s also the possibility of a second one, much older.

Belly of the Beast: The Crossroads. So far, this moment has only been defined in my personal handbook on the stories of Ennid the Havok. (Note: while *I* know the pivotal date and the stretch of time between that and the time in which the story takes place, the characters do not. They don’t have to know. And neither does the reader…yet.)

Umbra: The Visitation of the Fallen Suns (Again, I know, but the characters don’t, not yet.)

 

Have you created any worlds where you threw in a history? Have you resisted the urge to use it as an info dump prologue? Do you know of any published works that DO throw in a history-of-their-world info dump? Please share in the comments below!

 

*as opposed to Flat Earth, which is a very weird movement to discredit science and convince people that the world really is flat and our solar system is heliocentric. I won’t glorify it by linking it here, and a little google-fu will find you more than enough material to make your day.

 **And, yes, I use Anno Domini and Before Christ and object to the rather stupid adoption of Common-Era and Before-Common-Era as a way to just erase Jesus Christ’s name from the calendar without changing anything else surrounding the computation. It’s petty, at best, especially since there’s nothing “Common” about the so-called CE. And the ones who wanted to change it to be based less on a spiritual figure and more on some shoddy cover-up/denial, they might as well change the names of the days of the week and months to erase that too, since the former are based on Norse gods and the latter on Roman gods and a mortal who was worshipped as a god.