Sunday, 21 June 2015

World Building, Part Two -- Going EXTREME

Welcome back! Hope you're having a great weekend. It's Father's Day and I think the kids are downstairs preparing a special lunch, so I'm trapped in the study...

Last week I touched on my inspirations that got be going on writing fantasy. This next post will overlap that, but that's inevitable since when it comes to world-building we're hoping to weave a seamless whole.

Going EXTREME. What does that mean?

It means not sitting on the fence. It means taking your biggest, best ideas and turning them up to 11. In fantasy (and I'll include sci-fi as the image is DUNE after all) you want to explore beyond the boundaries. You're venturing into the unknown, or you'd better be or else you're not offering anything new, are you? The reader wants to stand in awe of the new worlds, peoples and societies you've created. Mediocre has no place in epic.

The Extremes
1. Good and evil. Yeah, we know the world's full of greys. Good people do bad things. Bad people are heroes to some. The world's a twisted, illogical place. In fiction, it all has to have a reason. Randomness can exist, but it's still all part of the plot. There are countless Dark Lords in fantasy. Waaay waay too many to count. How can you add your twist so we're taken by surprise? George Lucas did it in The Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader was our super-evil dude, then turned out to be the hero's dad. I know it was a long time ago (and in a galaxy far, far away) but it was a true OMG moment in cinema history. I was there (about 13, popcorn in face).

You may say "But what about Game of Thrones? Lots of grey characters in there."
To which I'd reply "Not as many as you think. Joeffrey? Robb Stark? Tyrion? Dany (most days)?"

2. Settings. DUNE is a primary example. A whole desert planet, inhabited by bedouin travellers called the Fremen. LORD OF THE RINGS is another great example. Mordor doesn't have any nice spots, does it? The kingdom is EVIL down to its very soil. How can soil be evil? In can in fantasy. This is taken from the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, a poisoned king means a poisoned land. It's the ancient belief that the king and the land are one of the same.

EARTHSEA by Ursula le Guin is loved because she has a brilliant setting, a world made up of tiny islands. She breaks the cliche of horse-riding knights by putting everyone in a boat. How would that affect a world?

Then you have individual locations. Castles should be epic. GORMENGHAST is a world within a castle. So is Hogwarts. So too are the motorized cities of Philip Reeve's epic MORTAL ENGINES saga.

3. History. In fantasy it's usually ridiculously long. Far longer than our recorded history. No kingdom is worth its name unless it's tens of thousands of years old. Legendary founders are a must. Dune, obvs, LotR too, GoT also has a highly detailed past, whole reigns are outlines, and you have Valeria, the mythic past (that world's Atlantis).

4. The inhabitants. This is both the cultures and the creatures. Cultures based on a single attribute. The horseclans of the Dothraki. The Fremen. The Bene Geserit. I have to admit DUNE is probably my fav fantasy/sci-fi book even. It's a masterclass in world building that doesn't follow the North European tropes than, I feel, have bound typical fantasy into a parody of Tolkien since, well, since forever.

Creature-wise we're looking at your dragons and elves and dwarves, wizards and whatnots. If this is the path you're going down, TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT!

My own particular hate is the helpful wise wizard. I still don't quite understand why Gandalf isn't just say "Give me the ring, Frodo. I'll just summon one of my eagle friends, we'll glide over Mount Doom and we'll be home before the kettle's boiled."

Right, I hope that's given you something to think about. More next week.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

World Building Part One --Where to begin?

So, we've all got out favourite fantasy or sci-fi epic. Be it Harry Potter, Dune, Game of Thrones or Conan, we love our heroes and we love entering the world they live in.

We love how REAL the author makes their world. It breathes, and the inhabitants live.

Then, the same could apply to ANY work of fiction, right? Historical, detective, romance.  I'm a huge fan of the Bernard Cornwell Sharpe novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th Century. Sure, there's huge amounts of research gone into it, but Cornwell's tailored it to suit his hero, his view of the world. Sharpe didn't capture the Imperial Eagle, but Cornwall's writing fiction, so breaks reality, breaks history, to make his story work.

But this blog, and the series that will follow, will focus on the FANTASY genre, though the same will apply to pretty much anything.

Okay, you've got in mind a fantasy series. It's going to have dragons and knights and wizards and whatnots. You've got a love of castles so you want those and plenty of swashbuckling. Maybe the idea of an apprentice sorcerer, about to launch into the great and terrible world, maybe a charming swordsman or cunning thief. Perhaps a girl from a noble family harbouring a terrible secret.


Not they need to live somewhere. They need a home.

Inspiration will come from the world we, that's you and me, live in.

That's HARRY POTTER. Boarding school storties were the mainstay of a particular type of children's fiction when J. K. Rowlings was growing up but had become out of fashion until she found a unique spin. They work brilliantly for kids' stories. Our child heroes are stuck together 24-7, they're away from their parents (so no running home to get Mum to sort it out) and these boarding schools are invariably old, mysterious and spooky. It's also terribly romantic, the whole idea of escaping one's parents to live with all your friends, and, unfortunately, your enemies.

See also Rick Riordan's PERCY JACKSON and the recent SCHOOL OF GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chainani. Both centre around the actions and rivalries within a boarding school, whether or not its Camp Halfblood or the SOGE. For the spy fans amongst you there's Ally Cater's GALLAGHER GIRLS series.

For those of you with more violent tastes, the same trope applies to the ludus, the school for gladiators. Watch the SPARTACUS Season One, where Spartacus gets bought and recruited to the ludus and has to climb up the social ladder amongst the other slave warriors. Here the life and death struggles are very literal.

It's well known THE GAME OF THRONES saga takes its inspiration from the English War of the Roses. The Starks are the Yorkists and the Lannisters are the Lancastrians. GRRM picks and weaves snippets of real history (The Red Wedding was based on a real wedding massacre) and brilliantly combines them into his epic. Khal Drogo, isn't he a bit Ghengis Khan, or Attila the Hun?

The 39 CLUES series, we discover that one family, the Cahills, have been the secret manipulators of world history and that many of the great, good and terrible throughout the ages were all actually members of that family. The series takes real historical events (for example the latest book centres around the Titanic) and puts our heroes, Dan and Amy Cahill, smack bang in the centre of it.

There are a number of great time-travelling series (TIME RIDERS by Alex Scarrow leaps to mind) where the magic/sci-fi of the world-setting and real historical events are designed to overlap.

Perhaps you want to base your hero or heroine on a real-life figure/ That's the path I took. My heroine, Lily Shadow, is totally inspired by Elizabeth 1, the great Tudor queen of the sixteenth Century. Her father executed her mother! Plenty of rich material there, methinks.

The obvious one here is Percy Jackson where Riordan took the simple, but amazing, step to wonder "What if the Greek gods were still around, having kids?".

Ancient myth mixed in with the modern day is a great way forward. Look at Sarwat Chadda's ASH MISTRY series, and also all the recent fairy tale adaptations, such as TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan and AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor.

Mythology is also where I'd like to talk about the Monster POV. TWILIGHT  (Stephenie Meyer), THE LESTAT CHRONICLES (Anne Rice), THE CHANGELING (Steve Feasey), Holly Black's TITHE, are all brilliant examples of taking a mythological creature (whether its a vampire or werewolf or fairy) and bringing it into play in our world. Once they were the antagonists, now they are our (dark) heroes.

What's brilliant about myth and history is you can go beyond the familiar shores of Western fantasy. There's plenty of rich resource material that's waiting to be explored out of the East (and the native American world to the West) which brings me to...

If we return to the GoT we see the Dothraki are a hybrid of the Mongol Horde and the nomadic Native American tribes. You look at DUNE, by Frank Herbert, and the Fremen are clearly based on the Arabic desert-dwelling bedouins.

If you want to avoid the trope of producing another North European mediaeval fantasy, you could do worse than adapt a society from somewhere different. You've got Aztecs, China, Japan (Japanese samurai cinema certainly inspired STAR WARS!) and so on. The bonus here is there great material already out there to help you, and yet its relatively unfamiliar to most readers. A complete WIN in my book.

I hope that's given you something to thing about. I'll be building up the, er, world building as the weeks go by. Next week we'll be looking at GOING EXTREME...