Worldbuilding: The Why before the How

I’ve written several posts about world building for fantasy and sci-fi, but on this post I want to come at it from a slightly different angle. What’s more important than the how-to of putting together a new society or creating an alien race is why. Why do you want an alien species that can live on the surface of a sun? Why do you want steampunk airships powered by magic spells instead of gas or steam?

The coolness factor aside, what I’m talking about is getting you to look at the bones of your story and your world. Cultural habits, societal structures, technology and industry, animals both wild and domesticated – all of these elements of life are the way they are for a reason. It may not always seem logical or even right – like in the case of a society’s sense of fashion – but it still fits within the context of the larger world as a whole.

For example, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Talking Beasts are more than just cute anthropomorphized animals to make the story appealing to children. Even if they originally started out that way, C.S. Lewis develops the Talking Beasts into their own culture. The reason for the existence of this fantasy culture is revealed throughout the stories. In Prince Caspian, the children encounter a bear who had once been a Talking Beast, but after living like a wild animal for too long, he lost the blessing of his speech and intelligence. In The Silver Chair, the giants kill and eat a Talking Stag, which solidifies the giants as the enemy in the minds of the characters and readers alike. It is not until the sixth book of the series, The Magician’s Nephew, where Lewis addresses the creation of the Talking Beasts as Aslan sets them apart from regular animals in order to live out a unique purpose in the world.

The how of fantasy worlds can be important – and the how is even more key in science fiction. But if there’s no reason within the continuity of the world or the story for something to exist, it will probably come across to readers as feeling contrived. What if C.S. Lewis had put the hrossa or the sorns of Mars from his sci-fi book Out of the Silent Planet into the world of Narnia? Those two Martian races are beautiful, gentle, intelligent creatures – but they aren’t Narnians. He designed them to live on a lush, cool, low-gravity planet, not a magical representation of Earth. As fantasy creatures, they’re every bit as engaging as any of Lewis’ creations – but he had his “why” in order in his mind, and so did not have to contrive some illogical reason to explain “how” the Martians were in Narnia.

A word of caution, though – it is not necessary for there to be a lengthy explanation of all the whys and reasons behind the creatures and customs. As in my Narnia example, all of those details were worked into the story itself.

I know it’s tempting, after you’ve gone to so much work to create this elaborate world, to share every little detail and bit of backstory. If a detail can be worked into the story without pulling the reader out of the plot and into a textbook, then do it; otherwise, it will have to live only in your head.

But the important part is that it’s there. You as the author must know and understand all these whys and details. Even if you don’t write it out in words, an astute reader is able to tell when a writer understands their world or not. Don’t hesitate to let your creativity flow while you’re building your worlds. Map out all the how’s and explanations of societal structures, magic, technology, and creatures. Just don’t forget to ask yourself why.

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What Not to Say to a Writer

I am not a published author yet (as of the time of this writing), and I may not be as experienced as many writers, but thus far in my writing journey I have encountered well-meaning people who say some really not-so-great things.

Writing can be not only a lonely pursuit, but an odd one. Let’s face it: we walk around with whole worlds in our heads, every horrible or bizarre thing we see would work great in a story, and we struggle with choosing between two different words that actually mean the same thing. So I guess it’s no wonder that a) most regular people don’t understand us, and b) because of that, questions that would otherwise be polite or innocuous are not viewed that way by us.

Whether you’re a professional writer, or you’re just getting started and have told more than two people that you’re working on a book, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve heard at least one of these comments from someone. And if the comment didn’t annoy you or confuse you, then just wait.

Please note: I mean no offense to anyone reading this who isn’t a writer, nor any offense towards well-meaning family and friends of writers. My purpose here is to shamelessly elicit sympathy from other writers help non-writers to understand where we’re coming from.

How’s your book coming? (Or, when can I read your book?) When I’m able to answer this question with “The first shipment of my new book should be here next week,” I probably won’t mind answering this. But otherwise, this question really bugs me, and here’s why: no matter how much writing I’ve done lately or how well a project is going, I’m always thinking I ought to be farther along at this point and that the writing could be better quality. I’ve taken to answering the “when can I read your book” question with “when it’s finished.” And then when they ask when that will be, I repeat “when it’s finished.” Yes, I have some specific goals set for the stories I’m writing, but I don’t feel like telling people “I plan to be finished with draft three of chapter four of book one by next month.”

I wish I had time to write a book. So do I. So do all writers, probably. Nobody really has time to write a book. Those who want to write make the time. It’s not easy. Everyone is busy with jobs, kids, daily life. But writers figure out how to carve out time and write. If you want to write badly enough, you can do that, too.

My mom/brother/neighbor’s cousin wrote/published a book. You should talk to them! I love connecting with writers of all experience levels, and I believe there’s something I can learn from anyone.  The mom/brother/neighbor’s cousin is probably a great person and fine writer, but usually when I get this comment from a friend (or a stranger), the person talking can’t remember the name of the book, has no idea whether the author is self-published or traditionally published, and doesn’t know if said author is working on anything new. I appreciate the thought and wish the author all the best, but I don’t think I need to spend time figuring out if the published work is a series of main-stream novels or a church cookbook.

How do you write something that long? I can’t even write a short story. (I get this one a lot because I write epic fantasy. You might get some variation of this comment depending on what your format or genre is). When I bother answering this question, I usually laugh and say that I struggle to write something short (which is true). Then they laugh, and have no idea what to say next. I’m working on some short stories right now, in addition to a novel, but the two are totally different animals. Writing a novel is not just taking a short story and adding 40,000 words to it. I write long stuff because that’s what I like and what I’m good at.

Where do you get your ideas? This one annoys me the most. It’s not the fault of the person asking the question – they’re genuinely impressed by my creativity, and I should be flattered. But when this comes as a question, I truly don’t know how to answer it. I don’t go out searching for ideas – they come to me. Whether I want them to or not. I do understand that some writers need more prompts and inspiration than others, and then of course there’s writer’s block in all its forms. But my ideas usually come unbidden and at random times. Driving at night, I see a lamp post and get an idea for a story. A line of a song leads to an unrelated thought, and then there’s the seed of a story idea. I read a book, and that kicks my creativity into overdrive. If you’re looking for my secret idea formula, I don’t have one.

What other “please don’t ever say that to a writer” questions or comments have you encountered?

Story Prompts

Some people ask me how I come up with ideas for my stories. The answer is: I don’t. the ideas come to me, frequently when I’m not expecting it or looking for an idea.

I know that some writers struggle a bit more with the initial idea for a story. And even the most abundantly creative person can hit a dry spell (which has happened to me before). Some people just want to try their hand at something new – a new idea, a new genre, a new style of writing.

Enter the story prompt. A picture, a word, a phrase – all of these can prompt an idea. My intent with this post is to give a boost to a fellow writer, to get you over that hump if your creative juices have run dry. A story prompt can also be very useful if you’re new at writing, if you want to tell a story but you don’t know what to write about or where to begin.

A note: most of these story prompts have a fantasy slant, because that what I write. A prompt, though, is just that – the seed of an idea, intended to prompt you to think on it and develop it. A picture of a dragon does not have to prompt a fantasy tale, just as a picture of a happy modern couple in a sports car does not have to prompt a contemporary romance.

Here are some ideas:

The famous artist who says that his pet dragon actually does the art

A lonely basilisk

A boy and his best friend, a cloud

Demons swim in all the sacred places

It was two days before Christmas when the spaceships landed outside of town.

As the choke of midnight comes, the trees grow and the darkness begins to cry.

In that silent future after the world has ended, a child is born.

Where is this place? What happened here?

Where is this place? What happened here?

Now go write!

For Writing and Life: Where Are You Going?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

Where are you going?

Each of the four questions in this “writing and life” series builds upon the previous one. If you’re figuring out what your purpose is, and what your goals and dreams are, then next you need to look ahead to see where you’re going.

Intentional action

Answering all of these questions for yourself is good, but without a plan of action, you will not get to where you want to go.

In Babylon 5, the Vorlons have a plan for defeating the Shadows. This plan, centuries in the making, remains a mystery to all of the other characters until it’s almost too late. But the Vorlons know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where it will take them.

Everything the Vorlons do, they do with deliberate intention: everything from the genetic altering of other races to create telepaths, to their involvement with the Rangers, to their assistance with Delenn’s transformation. Their questionable ethics aside, the Vorlons know how to be diligent in following the path they have decided upon.

Intentional writing, intentional life

If you are a writer (or pursuing some other sort of creative passion or career), deliberate action is necessary if you want to hit any goals. If you are pursuing your creative endeavors outside of a full-time job, then the intentional and consistent action is even more necessary. Creative bursts can come and go, but to actually finish a project, discipline is required.

Determine where you want to end up, map out a plan to get there, and then follow your plan. Do you want to finally publish that book, get that degree, take that trip? You can accomplish all of that and more with intentional action, backed by a secure understanding of who you are, what you want, and why you want it.

Enjoy your journey!

Who are you?

What do you want?

Why are you here?

Where are you going?

“All my life I’ve had doubts about who I am, where I belonged. Now I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitations, no doubts. The path is clear.” -Sinclair, “War without End, part 1”

 

For Writing and Life: Why are You Here?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

Why are you here?

I believe that every person was created for a specific purpose. Whether you share the belief of a loving Creator with divine intent, or you believe humanity’s presence is more random, most people agree that to feel fulfilled in life, you should try to find your purpose.

Destiny, choice, or a combination of both – the details don’t actually matter that much. I believe what matters is your pursuit of your purpose or calling. Or the pursuit of discovering your purpose.

“Why are you here” builds upon knowing the answers to the previous questions discussed in this series. If you know who you are and what you want – or are actively learning and discovering these answers about yourself – then it follows that you may soon understand why you are here.

The journey

Discovering your purpose is a valid life pursuit. If you’re a writer or other creative type, you’ve probably been on this journey of self-discovery most of your life. What I find sad is that so many people believe that they are accidents or mistakes and have nothing of value to contribute to the world, and so they never even try to discover who they are, what they want, or why they are here. Who’s to say that your journey of discovery itself isn’t your purpose? You can grow as a person and add value to the world all along the way.

In Babylon 5, some of the character actively engage in the journey of self-discovery more than others, but all of the main characters pursue their purpose – even if they don’t know that they are. The characters of Sinclair and Sheridan, who both commanded the Babylon 5 station, have destiny and purpose thrust upon them. Zathras lays out their callings as “The One Who Was” and “The One Who Will Be” in the episode “War Without End, part 2.”

But it’s still up to Sheridan and Sinclair to walk out their journeys. Sheridan doesn’t know everything that’s involved in being The One Who Will Be – what he’ll have to do, have to sacrifice, or what the results might be. Still, he decides to embrace this destiny, and he continues to do what he believes is right, for himself and his world; and he uncovers his purpose more and more with each step.

It’s your choice

Even if you have an idea about what your purpose is, you can choose to ignore it. The capacity of free will gives us that right.

Londo Mollari is one of the most tragic characters of the series, largely due to the choices he makes involving his purpose. Right from the beginning of the story, Londo knows the answer to the question of “Why are you here?” He believes he has a destiny to do great things – great things for himself, for the Centauri empire, and for all of history.

He does accomplish great things that change the course of history, but not in a positive way. Londo willingly makes choices that propel him to the greatness of an architect of disasters. In his journey of self-discovery, he finds himself to be a guilty, weak, and broken man.

Your choices, more than anything, I believe, determine your destiny. If you know why you are here, then pursue that calling with wisdom. If you don’t know, then choose to begin the journey of discovering.

Why are you here?

“You’re not embracing life, you’re fleeing death… Your friends need what you can be when you are no longer afraid, when you know who you are and why you are, and what you want. When you are no longer looking for reasons to live, but can simply be. … It’s easy to find something worth dying for. Do you have anything worth living for?” -Lorien, “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?”

For Writing and Life: What Do You Want?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

     What do you want?

We all want things: money, fans, ice cream, sleep, friendship, new shoes. We express hundreds of wants every day, from the fantastically wishful to the mundane.

In Babylon 5, it’s the Shadows and their servants who most often ask this question. For all their faults (the Shadows are the main antagonists of the series), they know how to pull the answer to this question from the deepest parts of a person. They do not ask this question because they’re curious about what a character wants for dinner or wants to do tomorrow – they are searching for the driving force at the core of each person, their deepest motivations.

Goals and Dreams

These two things are not the same, though they go hand in hand. A dream is the calling of your heart, your deepest desires and your highest wishes. A dream can be motivation, even when circumstances are against you.

A goal is a dream with a deadline. If you’re a writer, your goal might be a publishing deadline, a trip across the country for hands-on research for your next book, a daily wordcount, or maintaining a consistent blogging schedule.

Set a date, plan your action steps, and do the work. This is how goals – for writing, and for life – are pursued and accomplished. But a goal is useless – and usually unattained – if it’s not backed by a true want, a dream.

Never stop asking the question

As life goes on, you change and your writing changes. And sometimes your dreams and wants change, and that’s okay.

It’s important to keep asking yourself what you want. Periodically analyze your dreams and goals, and see if they are really what you want. It’s a good thing to change a goal because your deep desires and motivations have changed over time.

The Shadows, though they were masters at asking the question of others, had forgotten how to answer it for themselves. They could no longer be the guardians they were originally intended to be. They were so busy pursuing the same goal they had always pursued that they never stopped to explore their own desires. They became creatures of habit instead of dreams.

Make sure that you’re always writing about what you want to write about. This keeps your writing genuine and your voice unique. Never lose track of your dreams.

What do you want?

“The question is its own purpose. What do you want?” -Morden, “Signs and Portents”