Five Questions to Help You Create a Fictional Culture

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, then you’ve probably tried your hand at creating fantastic creatures and aliens of all sorts. But inventing convincing aliens or fairy-tale creatures involves more than just coming up with cool looks or inhuman superpowers. If all you need for your story is just a scary monster or creepy creature, that’s fine – but if you want an actual alien race or people-group for a fantasy world, then you need more than just the basics of creature traits.

Here are five questions that you can ask yourself as you’re inventing people, cultures, races, and creatures for your fantasy/sci-fi stories. Continue reading

Historical Fiction versus Fantasy – Which is Harder to Write?

Me trying to write fantasy. Or historical fiction. Or a blog post.

Me trying to write fantasy. Or historical fiction. Or a blog post.

 

I’m primarily a fantasy writer, but last year I started a project of historical fiction. At first I thought it would be a breeze, because all I had to do was a little bit of research, and presto! all my story elements are there. No complex world-building and inventing alien alphabets or rules for magic. As it turns out, historical fiction isn’t quite the effortless cake walk I thought it might be.

So now that I have a little experience with two vastly different genres, I thought I’d do a comparison. Continue reading

Sequels: Realism vs Entertainment

So I recently read that a sequel to Frozen is in the works. No surprise there. The movie has made gazillions of dollars, the already-famous Idina Menzel is now popular among six-year-olds, and it’s cool to like warm hugs. I don’t think a title or plot summary has been released yet, so here is my take on what Frozen 2 should be:

Frozen 2: Do You Want to go to Therapy?

High up on the North Mountain, Queen Elsa’s ice palace, now left untended, melts in the summertime sun. Avalanches and floods ensue, ruining crops and endangering Arendell. Elsa, however, is unable to stop it because she’s too busy wrestling with inner demons and the long-repressed anger at her parents for teaching her to fear and hide. Princess Anna is left in charge, but in addition to saving the kingdom and trying to help Elsa help herself, she has to deal with her husband Kristoff’s sudden depression. Sven, the oversized reindeer who acts like a dog, finally dies at the unrealistically old age of 217 in human years, sending Kristoff into despair at losing his only life-long friend. In desperation, Anna is about ready to call in the scumbags Hans and the Duke of Wesleton for help when Olaf – who has miraculously not melted yet like Elsa’s ice palace – has a daring idea.

Dun-dun-duuuuh….

Not much of a kids’ movie, if you want a (sort of) realistic plot like this. Mind you, I’m not bashing Frozen. I loved the movie and would love to see a sequel. But Disney has a so-so track record with sequels. There are the mediocre follow-ups to all of their animated classics of the 1990s. And then there are the more recent and more successful story continuations like the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

So this got me thinking – what makes a good sequel? Is it more important to focus on being “realistic” – like Elsa and Anna having nervous breakdowns due to repressed childhoods and living with dangerous super-powers? Or is it more important to focus on sheer entertainment (that is, box office numbers) by having a funny, song-filled sequel about Norwegian royalty and magical snowmen?

I’m sure Disney will go with something closer to that second option – and rightly so. Because Disney knows their audience. (And their track record with sequels has improved a bit since The Return of Jafar.) That’s actually my point for this post, and the conclusion I came to when I pondered the question of what makes a good sequel.

Know your audience. It’s the same question to consider with any movie, novel, script, or short story that you’re writing. Who are you writing it for? And why are you writing it?

I’m all for writing a sequel – or turning a story into a series – because the audience loved the original story. Or because there’s more story to tell. This is both entertaining and realistic, and I think quite appropriate.

Side note: by “realistic,” I mean realistic within the rules of the world of the story. What is “realistic” or “logical” within the world of Frozen would not be at all appropriate in a Batman story, for example.

So when I think about a “realistic” sequel to a story, what I’m looking for is “what is the next logical occurrence for this plot that fits within the established rules of this world and is expected of these particular characters, based on their beliefs and actions thus far.”

What I don’t like is a sequel that has characters who have undergone a strange personality overhaul somewhere between story 1 and story 2 (like if a different writer and director do the second movie). Contrived plot devices also bug me – like, say, a character who returns from the dead without any sort of precedent for that in the previous story.

As an example, in the X-Men comic series, one expects the character of Jean Grey to die every so often, and then return again after a while, only to later die again (hence her title of Phoenix). This element of world building was established long ago, and so a plot thread featuring the death or resurrection of Jean Grey is “realistic.” This same idea would not work in the world of Middle-Earth, for example, because in Tolkien’s world building, his dead characters usually stay dead (with a few minor exceptions). A Middle-Earth story featuring the unexplained return of (insert dead character here) just because he/she is a cool character would, in my opinion, make for an “unrealistic” sequel.

Of course this is all my personal opinion, and of course there are exceptions to every point that I just laid out. But I do believe that consistency in world building is one of the most important elements, and I feel that the details of a richly-developed fantasy world should not be sacrificed just to capitalize on popularity or make big bucks.

Tell me your opinion? What sort of sequels do you like? Are there some stories that beg to have continual sequels made, or stories that should remain solo tales? What do you think Frozen 2 should be about? Please share!

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.

Revisiting a Forgotten World

Writing Updates

I’m still working on my fantasy trilogy that has been my writing project for a couple of years now. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about some stories I wrote and a world I created many years ago. I don’t want to neglect my time spent on my current projects, but I also want to make some time to revive this older set of stories. Those stories were the ones that got me to where I am today.

Birth

This fantasy world of these old stories was my first foray into epic fantasy – I created a complex world, dozens of characters, and enough of a history and timeline to cover several novels. Initially it didn’t start out with all those elaborate details – it began as just one book, and the story was a rather obvious copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote it in fifth grade, and it was probably barely 20,000 words (I don’t have a word count, since the story was hand written in pencil on notebook paper). Still, not a bad middle-grade “novel,” I suppose – and it was the longest story I had ever written and completed to that point. It spawned a two-part sequel, part one of which I wrote in middle school. Then for a while I left that world behind in favor of Star Wars fan-fiction, a lengthy story about horses on a magical island, and other assorted short stories.

Revisit

I revisited this world sometime in high school, with some fresh ideas and a slightly more mature command of writing and storytelling techniques. I wrote another novel which was intended to be a prequel to the one I’d written in elementary school, and I made plans to re-write that one.

The world was becoming more complex: I crafted different races and cultures, deities and religions, history and geography. I planned out a seven-book saga, even though one novel (and one and a half MG novelettes) is all I had written at the time.

In my college and post-college years I moved away from that world again, launching a new fantasy series, amid more short stories and some pitiful attempts at poetry. But even with all the school assignments, Shiny New Ideas, and other creative projects, I never forgot my first fantasy world that I built.

Revive

And now, even though I’m deep in the middle of something else, I’m feeling a burn to go back to this ancient world that has lain quiet and patient for so long. It requires another revamp – a bigger overhaul than just rewriting a childhood story. Change of format, change of storytelling structure, some changes to the timeline of history that I had created.

But the bones of the world are still there. I spent collectively years creating the complex societies of the centaurs, and the religion of the elves. I came up with detailed descriptions and biologies of several species of dragons, and a magical treasure that managed to make it through all the different versions of the world.

Even though I’m not fond of editing and rewriting, this revisiting is not the same thing: it’s a foundation, dusty but firm, that I can use to build on anew. Editing, revising, and rewriting will come much later, once I’ve got some new stories. But for now, I’m excited to be once again exploring a world that was my first love, in a sense. Let’s see where the stories take me this time.

Please share with me! Have you ever done a complete overhaul of a story idea, keeping it the same yet creating something new? Do you have a story or idea that’s stuck with you for years?

Creating Fantasy Creatures and Alien Species – Real Animals as Magical Races

In a previous post on this subject, I gave some tips for creating convincing and relatable creatures to populate a fantasy or sci-fi world. In this post, I will continue in that vein, but I will come at it from a slightly different view – that is, using animals as characters in your story.

This post is not about creating fantastic new monsters or magical animals, though I might do a post on that later. This is about using familiar, “real” animals as sentient characters or races. While the practice of having sentient, anthropomorphized animals in fantasy is not especially common – except perhaps in children’s books – it can be a valid fantasy storytelling element even in YA or adult fiction.

In my previous post about creating fantasy races, I emphasized two key points in creating believable creatures: elements that make them human, and elements that make them non-human. Both, I believe, are necessary to create convincing, well-rounded fantasy creatures.

The non-human element is probably obvious – you as a writer are seeking something different, something besides just another fantasy kingdom filled with humans. Whether they are Klingons or Elves, the “otherness” aspect is part of the point of fantasy.

But equally important is the human element. There must be some way for the human reader – if not the human characters – to relate to and understand this magical race of “other” in your story. Some common ground should be there – even if the point of your story is the search for that common ground. You can write about Klingons all day long, but always remember that your readers are human.

So how does this work if you want to imbue real animals with magic and use them as the “other,” the alien race? To illustrate how this can be done, I’ll use examples from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. (While both of these series might be considered YA or even children’s literature, they are stories that are complex and mature enough to be enjoyed by adults).

What are the qualities that make them non-human?

In my previous post about creating fantasy species, I discussed three main categories to consider: physical traits, emotions or mindset of the species, and the general culture.

In the Narnia books, there are plenty of non-human creatures – and some of the most non-human of all are the Talking Beasts. The badgers, bears, mice, and dogs that have human speech and mannerisms are perhaps more alien than the fauns and centaurs and gryphons. Though they live in harmony with humans, they are very much non-human.

The physical is the most obvious, of course. Even though some Talking Beasts can walk on their hind legs and wield tools (like the heroic mouse Reepicheep), they are very much animal in appearance and behavior. No cartoony animals in cute clothes in these stories. Each species still behaves according to their animal nature as far as attitude and mindset – the fiercely loyal dogs, jittery hyper squirrels, gentle and aloof deer.

While the humans fight wars, voice their opinions, and rage against Aslan in the name of free will and progress, the Talking Beasts don’t change. Their steadiness of behavior and belief sets them apart from every other sentient race in Narnia.

They love and respect the humans, but the Talking Beasts are quick to remind everyone that they are most definitely not human, and are not trying to be in any way. The Talking Beasts are proud of their Otherness. The magic of Narnia makes them more than mere animals, but they never will be human – and they want to keep it that way.

What are the qualities that make them human?

As I mentioned before, some human elements are needed in your magical animal race if you want your human readers to relate to them at all. Even if the “otherness” is part of the point of your story, having at least some common ground can help to emphasize all the elements that make them non-human.

In Philip Pullman’s books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), the Panserbjørne (Armored Bears or Ice Bears) are at first appearance very animalistic and “other.” These Bears tend to shun human contact, but they are master craftsmen and metal workers. Their physical dwellings and societal structure are more human than animal, with their castles, metal armor, and sense of honor.

The Ice Bears, though emphasized as different and “other,” experience the very human emotions of fear and shame, hatred and love. The Bears have a king and their own laws for their kingdom. Almost the opposite of the animals in Narnia, who live in their natural habitats in the wilderness, the Ice Bears depend on their created laws and their skill with tools to hold their society together.

While the Bears and the humans have reluctant contact at best, until the plot of the story forces them together, the two species have more in common than each one believes at first. The Bears are animals and the Bears are Other, but just like humans, they hate and love and will fight to preserve their world.

Animals as sentient races and important characters can be a valid storytelling element for YA and adult fantasy, I believe, as shown by these examples. Always key is the human element, and the non-human element.Whether it’s a sword-wielding mouse, an armored polar bear, or some other animal, choose your beast and go create some magic.