Following on from last week’s post, I’m going to wrap up the Creating a Fantasy Race series with a look at the capabilities of a race.
Choice #4: Capabilities – What are the natural characteristics of a given fantasy race, and what can they actually do?
The classic example of this is a dragon, specifically, the type that exists inside the world of Dungeons & Dragons. They can, variously, fly, breathe fire, cast spells, change form, and perform all manner of other unusual abilities inherent in their being dragons. All manner of fantasy races have capabilities somewhere along those lines, but the question to decide when creating one is how powerful should an individual of that race be, and how does that relate to the setting as a whole.
For instance, dragons are exceedingly powerful creatures, regardless of the setting in which they are seen. This is almost always counterbalanced by the fact they are rare, and constantly in a form of limited civil war within their race. Which means that the rest of the setting never entirely has to worry about dragons becoming too powerful. They are a self-policing entity in that regard.
But what happens if all dragons suddenly acquired a hive-mind type ability, where all dragons acted with one mind and one intention? In most settings where they existed, they would be capable of wiping every other civilization from the map. This, then, is the problem of capabilities: There needs to be checks and balances.
Now, as to the actual types of capabilities that a given race might have. Some of these will have been determined by the physical design of the body. Avian races generally fly, and so on. But many of them relate to the nature of magic and religion in the setting. A god might bless every thousandth child, or the race as a whole might possess some form of telepathy or other mental power. Or perhaps they can innately cast spells with the strength of their will. Each of these will increase the power of the race in the setting.
There is no limit as to the type or nature of capabilities that a race can have, provided there exists within the setting a justification such that the reader will believe them. However, if the race with these capabilities contains the protagonist, there is something to remember – the stronger the protagonist is, the stronger the antagonist must be to provide a credible threat. In general, the antagonist is a good deal stronger, meaning that whatever capabilities he has, either personal or racial must be greater than those of the protagonist.
Whatever the capabilities might be, make sure as a writer to enumerate them up front in a story, either through the main character discovering them, or by them being described by a knowledgeable character. This is because first mentioning any capability in the heat of the moment feels very much like a deus ex machina, a saviour created to bail the writer out of a sticky situation, rather than the main character.
In terms of the total number of capabilities, I personally generally assign one or two per race, interlinking them in such a way that they both add flavour and uniqueness to the race in question. For instance, a race that has the physical ability to regrow lost limbs might also have the magical ability to partially or completely shape change, while a race that lives underwater might be telepathic and telekinetic, because the environment and the physical form required for aquatic life makes communication and tool use difficult.
Finally, I would recommend that no two races in a setting share the same capabilities, unless those races are closely related. And even then, I would suggest they be similar, but not the same, allowing each fantasy race to retain its own uniqueness.
This wraps up the series on Creating a Fantasy Race. I hope it proves helpful in your writing endeavours.
I realize it’s been a while since this series was updated (if you’re curious, 22 months, give or take a few days here and there). But after the exceedingly long hiatus, I’ve decided to come back and finish the matter, or at least do as best I can in that direction.
This time around, we’ll be tackling culture, and how it relates to a fantasy race.
Choice #3: Culture – How much has the civil society in which the fantasy race lives dictated its behaviour and capabilities, as well as norms of action.
Art and High Society – Every culture, from the very earliest we humans can trace, has in some way had a form of art and high society. Originally, this was cave paintings and oral recitation of ancient tales, and has evolved from that all the way down to the mass media of today. But what’s important about art and high society is not the nature of its delivery, but more the norms that it engenders. For modern examples, the movie Avatar provoked common and wide ranging discussion, such that almost everyone in a given local had either seen it, or heard about it.
And that right there is what a race needs to have – certain subjects or stories that are so common everyone knows them, without ever having actually witnessed them. They are the mental furniture of a culture, be it that every knows a certain city is ‘The City’, or parables and fables that characters can mention or quote to one another.
When writing a fantasy race, these are the sayings and texts that are foreign to a reader’s understanding of the world, but treated as normal and every day within the culture of the setting. They have to be relatable enough the reader can acquire a knowledge of them quickly, but not something that shares more than a passing basis with the society the reader is from.
What they do for a reader is to make the setting seem alive, to hint that there are the myths and legends and every day knowledge that humans take for granted, without overwhelming the reader with so many of them that they become bored or bewildered.
Religion – Culture, as humanity has demonstrated time and again down the ages, is very often dictated by the strictures of the religion which a society practices. Most world religions prohibit the eating of certain types of animals, be it because the animals are holy or unclean. They also state what days are rest days, whether prayer is to be at dawn, high sun, or dusk, how one can be married, and a whole host of other restrictions and proscriptions.
These need to be equally apparent for the fantasy race being constructed. Perhaps they can’t go to war in high summer until they have completed their religious festivals (This is a problem the ancient Spartans dealt with). Perhaps the women of the culture can’t marry until they’ve killed someone in battle (Sarmatians).
In general, the approach that I use to creating religion for a fantasy race is to decide up two sets of items. What is the focus of the religion (a pantheon, spirits, the elements, a living being) and what are the strictures that the religion places upon those members of the race. In general, it is better to focus on four or five (the number can vary, obviously) strictures that distinctly impact the way the race behaves, rather than to have too many. It is better to introduce a reader to a simple system, and let his imagination make it complex, rather than to introduce him to a complex system, and let him become frustrated.
The form of the religion is somewhat less important, although generally it will dictate the nature of the religions hierarchy, and the amount of power that hierarchy wields. The more that priests and shamans are needed to communicate to the holy powers, the more money and strength will be concentrated inside the religious bureaucracy.
I hope this has been helpful to you in creating new races for your fantasy fiction. Next time, we’ll look at the Capabilities of fantasy races.
Last Friday, I was asked to write a guest post for Thomas Knight on fantasy architecture, for his 29 Days of Fantasy event. Writing it was a blast, and here’s an excerpt from it.
You’ve all seen Lord of the Rings, right? (If you haven’t, go watch all three, and come back tomorrow. You’ll thank me). Now, most people think about the story, the sweeping epic tale of victory through perseverance. I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about something a little duller: Architecture. Specifically, Fantasy Architecture.
In Lord of the Rings, it mostly lives in the background, created through the use of brilliant fantasy art and CG. And in fantasy stories, that’s all too often where it lives – the background. And if it’s not in the background, it’s architecture that looks Asian or European, architecture that draws on landscapes and vistas taken from the medieval world.
In both cases, the author is missing out on a wonderful opportunity to create a mood, a feeling that carries throughout the novel. Take modern architectural design – a well traveled person can look at a city and see exactly where he or she is. And that’s how architecture should be used in fantasy as well.
Here’s some fantasy art that conveys much of what I’m looking for. Yes, I know, it’s a boat, not a building. But it’s unique, and different, and I bought that book (and read it) based on just the cover. And while the architecture of your fantasy society might not sit on the cover of your book, once the reader turns to the first page, you can be damn sure it’s going to make an impression.
Okay, great, you’re saying. Architecture matters. But I’m not an architect and I haven’t got a clue how a building is designed. And it doesn’t matter. It’s called fantasy for a reason. The construction process doesn’t need to be described in detail, the building doesn’t need to pass contemporary safety codes, and the author shouldn’t let fine detail cramp a good story.
So, you want to do that. You want architecture that fits the story without taking too much space. First step – for each culture, pick one or two words or phrases that describe their architectural design. As an example, I’ll use ‘Open’ and ‘Windy’. (I’m cheating, by the way. I already built this culture). ‘Open’ – most contemporary architecture uses this to mean open plan, but think a little outside the box – remove walls. So every building has no exterior walls, aside from some grass mats that can be rolled down in a storm.
To read the rest, just click on through.
This is the second post in a series about the process of writing. Each week, I will discuss one aspect with a Pantser, while I’ll provide my (a Plotter’s) point of view. For those who don’t know the terms, a Pantser is an author who writes more or less without a plan, while a Plotter is someone who lays everything out before starting work. As with most things in life, there’s a spectrum between the two. Personally, I plot everything over about 10k words in length. Under that, I freewrite. Mandy Ward, my guest author this week, is mostly a Pantser, as she’ll explain shortly.
This week’s topic is Distraction, or just how much those new ideas can drag us off course in a story. Read on to see how one of those crazy Pantser people does it, and then follow the link at the bottom to see my response.
I have been both a Plotter and a Pantser. When I started out on the steep climb of the Writing Path, I read every single creative writing book I could get my hands on… and as the accepted way to build stories in the Fantasy Genre (my favourite one) is to build a whole world before you even touch the first chapter / prologue, I did just that.
For two whole years, I built my world and plotted my story out, each chapter receiving a short paragraph of what was going to happen in it.
What no one mentioned in those writing books is that all that plotting and building is useless when you start actually writing the story!
What does this have to do with distraction?
I’m glad you asked. You see I just demonstrated the answer to the question I was asked, when I was asked to write this blog post. It’s an interesting question to be asked actually…
Quit rambling. Get to the point!
What point do you want me to get to? I could continue with the story about me writing my first (ill-fated) novel, I could continue my line of thought about why the question is interesting, or I could go off on a completely different tangent!
You’re doing it deliberately now. Go back to the beginning. What was the question that you were asked to answer for this post?
Hmm? What? Oh, sorry, yes… that’s what I was doing… I got slightly distracted for a moment or two there. Y’see. I’m currently multitasking and I was taken away from the computer to start dinner, do a load of washing and finish the row I was on. I’m currently typing one handed… excuse me a second…
Okay then. Where was I?
The question I’d been asked to answer was “How easy are you to distract to another project?” from the Pantser point of view.
*looks back at the previous 300 odd words and grins*
The answer is: I’m an easily distracted person anyway.
All sorts of things distract me and having more than one muse doesn’t help. When I’m supposed to be writing, my crafting muse will kick in and suggest a project for knitting or making jewellery. When I’m trying to finish a knitting project, I’ll get a story idea screamed at me by my writing muse.
I’m a little like a pinball in that respect. I hurtle from project to project without much in the way of a plan.
And that’s where my initial start point came from… I started out in writing being a Plotter and that helped a lot with my focus in the beginning phases of building a world and a story, but as soon as I started writing, the story caught me up and I became a Pantser.
Therefore, that’s where I stayed. Happily in fact.
Oh, I’ll write with an idea of where I’m going in my head and for a while the story will flow along well, but then an idea for something completely different will poke its nose in and I absolutely have to get the idea down in a rough format.
I have eleven WIP now, and I’m not even counting the number of short stories I’ve started and not finished…
One of these is a five book series, which a publisher has contracted me for. Wisely, my Editor has reassured me that I don’t have a specific deadline to finish the series in (See how well she knows me!)
I am collaborating on a children’s book series that is being self-published. The illustrator (who also knows how I work) prods me to do stuff every so often, in an effort to get things moving.
I have another YA Series which is far from being in a publishable state and a SF/Fantasy novel which has ground to a halt, a paranormal series that isn’t close to being ready (but has interest from a publisher) yet I can’t work on Paranormal while I’m writing Sword & Sorcery…
So in answer to the question – “How easy are you to distract to another project?”
I would say that I’m very easy to distract, it’s getting me to focus that is the hard part!
So, this is the first post in a new series about the process of writing. Each week, I will discuss one aspect with a Pantser, while I’ll provide my (a Plotter’s) point of view. For those who don’t know the terms, a Pantser is an author who writes more or less without a plan, while a Plotter is someone who lays everything out before starting work. As with most things in life, there’s a spectrum between the two. Personally, I plot everything over about 10k words in length. Under that, I freewrite. Megg Jensen, my guest author this week, Pantses everything, as she’ll explain shortly.
As we’re both fantasy authors, this week’s topic is World Building, the process of creating those settings that give flavour and excitement to stories not of this world. Read on to see how one of those crazy Pantser people does it, and then follow the link at the bottom to see my response.
When I have the initial idea for a novel, it’s always a tiny spark inside my mind. I will spend days, sometimes months, thinking about where this spark leads. I allow it to live and grow organically, but only in my thoughts. My preferred genre is fantasy, and all of my novels have been written in a world based upon medieval Europe. I have a BA in medieval history and the familiar conventions and customs are firmly rooted in my consciousness.
When I sit down at my laptop and begin a new novel, I am focused more on character than world. Usually the idea for a story comes from a feeling, or an incident. I know what my character wants (which, as we all know is not the same as what a character needs) and write from there. As a YA (young adult) novelist, my books hover between 50,000 to 60,000 words and I rarely think about the ending until I hit 35,000 to 40,000 words.
Rivers, a hidden grove, an isolated island – all these markers on a map spring up while I’m writing. For instance, in ANATHEMA, a character mentioned a range of mountains in the first chapter. It was an offhand comment by a minor character, but one that solidified itself in my mind. Those mountains became a bit more important in the sequel and will be very important in the final novel of the trilogy.
I didn’t plan the mountains. A character told me, and the reader, that the mountains exist. Voila, mountains in this world.
I didn’t spend all my time in college studying castles and knights in shining armor. Religion, and its impact on women, was a huge focus of much of my coursework. My worlds always have a touch of religion and women’s rights thrown in. I don’t consciously do so, or feel that I need to drive home any particular point about them either, however they always make some kind of appearance.
I enjoy the juxtaposition of tropes from the past of our world, combined with people in an entirely imagined world. I strive to stay away from preaching any particular dogma on social or religious issues, but I adore setting an idea in place and watching how it affects all of my characters, rather than letting them change the conventions of the world. We are all victims, in a sense, to the world surrounding us. How we deal with it and maneuver around it is far more interesting than the rules themselves.
As a lover of fantasy, I know magic always has restrictions. Unlimited power is, quite frankly, boring. I’ve never written a novel where magic is accessible to every character and those who do have it usually are able to wield magic in a unique, and hopefully, unpredictable way. Again, it’s not the magic that’s interesting, but the way it’s utilized.
All these reasons lead to why I am pantser in world building (and all aspects of first draft writing). If I write down the rules of a world then I spend too much time fretting about whether or not I’m following them. Spelling it out is like a death sentence for my writing because then my characters aren’t allowed to explore their world; I find they’re more confined by it.
How would I know this if I’m a pantser? Easy. I tried to force myself into being a plotter. The Spock on my shoulder tells me that order and laws make the world a more perfect place. The Kirk inside me jumps on the teleporter and leads an away mission, even though he knows his place is really on the bridge.
On the novel I attempted to world build before the first draft, I found I was bored with it before I even started writing. If I had everything figured out in the beginning, what was the fun in trying to write it? For me, the discovery of the world while writing is the most thrilling part. It allows me to be a reader of my own works, which is the most amazing gift.
Editing, however, is a totally different and detail-oriented beast. That’s when I let my inner-Spock out to play.
Welcome, welcome back to the second instalment of Birthing the Breed. Last time around I showed you how to create the physical aspect of a fantasy race. This time around I’m going to focus on the behavioural. This is important for several reasons, for it dictates how the creature acts, how the society around it is built, and in some ways how the setting hangs together. Fantasy fiction, more than any other, hangs on the setting, and the aura that it creates.
Choice #2: Behaviour – Is the creature a hunter? A farmer? Does it like solitary occupations or tribal ones? As with the prior post, this single question is going to take up the rest of the article, and I’ll break it out into subheadings once more.
Predator or Prey – Is the creature a predator animal, or a prey animal? In more civilized terms, does it hunt, or does it farm? A good example of the prey animal as a civilization is the traditional, lord of the rings elves. They care for and nurture nature, they live in large clusters, and their racial tendencies are towards pacifism and “living with”, rather than “taking from”. Contrast that with a traditional predator, the half orc or orc. In almost every RPG or fantasy setting, from Eberron to the Wheel of Time (Trollocs), orcs and their cousins are aggressive, greedy, militaristic and evil. This is how a traditional fantasy setting portrays predator behaviour.
There are a wide variety of nuanced ways to discuss fantasy races, and it’s important not to make them too black or white, as otherwise the setting feels too generic, too simplistic. Most societies are a mixture of predator and prey, but here are the important characteristics to choose from for each.
Creatures from a predator race are more likely to be solitary, to be focused on a single task, aggressive in personality, larger, less focused on the family unit, and more acquisitive in nature. They are also more common to play the villain in settings where an entire race is cast as the villain, rather than a kingdom.
Creatures from a prey race are more likely to stick together, to work in tribal units with sentries provided by experienced members, to farm, more pacific in personality, and less focused on personal greed, although for members of a prey race, that is by no means certain.
Society - Closely related to how a race behaves in a fantasy setting is the way the society it lives in is constructed. Is the society a traditional human one, of busy cities and farms around the outside providing food? If so, it’s fairly similar to the feudal system of Medieval Europe, which was imposed from the top down by nobles who sought to control the output from those farms. Or is it a wandering tribal society? In the real world and in fantasy, these racial traits are usually assigned to an ethnicity living in a desert or tropical jungle.
The most important aspect of society to determine is whether it is an imposed society, or an agreed upon society. Effectively, dictatorship or democracy. A dictatorship, be it of the few or the many, means that that group somehow seized power, or was placed in power, and is now holding it over every other member of the race. An agreed upon society allows the leaders to be removed without bloodshed (presumably), and in the world of traditional fantasy, tends to be ruled by mercantile interests who see money as their prime objective, rather than force.
All of these societies have social stratification, resulting in a setting where some creatures are always better than others. This creates many opportunities in the fantasy world for sub-plots, be they looking for advancement, the disdain of “betters”, a people’s rebellion, an overthrow from a dispossessed branch of the royal family. Always make sure to create a society with friction points, places where racial inequality can come to the fore, because that is where the character will shine.
I hope this has been helpful to you in creating new races for your fantasy fiction. Next time, we’ll look at another aspect of creating a fantasy race.
I thought I’d change things up a little bit this week, and given people three writing prompts to choose from. One is SF, one is Fantasy, and the last one is, well, something. If you do write a story based on one of these, give me a link, because I’d love to see what they inspire.
SF – An interstellar empire crumbles as their engines slowly stop working, for no known reason
Fantasy – A flame sputtered and then died, and with it magic began to drain from the world
Other – Rifts appear, and from them step both angels and devils
This time over at Examiner.com. It’s a lot more focused on my upcoming book, Tarranau, what it was like writing it, what I think of the book. Stop by and take a look.
So, I have been interviewed once more, this time on the subject of World Building, how I got about it, what order I do it in, and so on. I highly recommend it if you want to get a look inside the process I use.
It is nice to have you back again for another interview. It was hard picking just one subject to interview you on last time, so I am so pleased that we can get back together for another writing romp. You have put a great deal of thought into building your world. Today, we are going to explore just what you went through to build your setting for your Four Part Land novels. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to talk a little on how you built your world and why it turned out as it did.
Do you remember the first moment that your world was conceived? Does anything stand out to you as being the major source of inspiration for your setting?
Races form the background to a fantasy setting, giving it a depth and a texture that would otherwise be missing. They bind themselves to the environment, to the geography, in a way that few other genres can match, and in doing so they bring that landscape alive. It is very rare to pass through a fantasy book without hearing about the connection between a race and its locations, be it the holy retreat in the desert, or the high passes that gave birth to its culture.
Amongst these, the most famous are the elves, dwarves, hobbits/halflings, orcs and other creatures that sprung from the pages of myth and Tolkien. They have strong legends and many vivid depictions, but they also have a singular drawback – they are known. If you ask a fantasy reader about an elf, each one will have their own distinct impression of what elves, or orcs, or dragons, looks like and behaves. As an author, this means there is a certain inertia when it comes to describing those races, that they have fairly firm boundaries in the mind as to what is a “true” elf.
The solution to this inertia is to use new races, created for a given setting and without the extra baggage that comes with using the traditional fantasy cast. And so today, I’m going to start a series on how to design a new race for fantasy. If you’ve read my Creating a Magic System series, you’ll recognize the style.
Choice #1: Physical Form – What does it look like? Where can it live? What can it do? The critical question for many people, and one that will consume the rest of this post. Because of that, I’m going to split it into a variety of subheadings to make each section a little clearer.
Environment – Where a creature lives is critical to determining all other factors. A race that houses itself in a desert oasis will not likely have the same characteristics as one that was bred in a tundra. So before designing a fantasy race, remember to choose the primary environs where it will be housed. And remember, “everywhere” is an option. Humans have adapted to the Andes, Sahara, Siberia, Jamaica, and everywhere in between, so it’s perfectly reasonable to have a race that can do the same. I would recommend, however, that the more races you plan on introducing to the setting, the more likely it is they will have environment specific traits.
Movement – I’ve placed this before the actual physical form of the creature, because it dictates much of that form. A creature that primarily swims will have a streamlined body and either large paws or a strong tail for propulsion in the water. One that climbs will have strong, agile hands and feet, while one that is a runner is generally, long, low, with four powerful limbs on the ground. A creature that levitates can have almost any shape or form desired. Please note that these are generalities, and straying from them is by no means forbidden. The Platypus and Echidna exist, after all.
I usually research a creature that exists in a similar environment, and borrow a few traits that I think might be worthwhile. This is why the Áðexe have leathery skin – it’s borrowed from crocodiles for swimming.
Limbs - The number of limbs on a creature are fairly important, because of the mental associations that a reader generally holds. On Earth, creatures with four limbs are generally mammalian, and usually among the larger species, while those with six or eight (or more) are usually insectoid or arachnid, or live in the sea. Because of this, there is an inbuilt reaction that large creatures with six or more limbs may not work. Usually we readers are willing to believe, but it is necessary to tread a little more lightly with unusual races as a result
Regardless of the number of limbs, the breed in question should have at least one pair that can perform fine manipulation. Otherwise, unless they are telekinetic, they can’t manipulate tools. Aside from the ability to manipulate tools, the limbs should be designed for moving about in the environment in which the breed exists. The limbs should be proportional to the body they are attached to, although there is certainly leeway in that term.
Finally, do not forget that because the race is fantastical in nature, if it has inherent magic it can ignore many of these restrictions, because it has power beyond simply the physical.
Body – I’ll finish up the post today talking about the overall shape of the creature. The shape of a creature, and the coverings that go on top of it, can be almost anything the imagination can devise, from a hybrid lion-frog to an ephemeral wisp of energy that is nevertheless sentient. And one might be covered in pink polka dots (please don’t), while another might be rust and sand coloured patterning for better hiding in a desert high in iron.
Generally, the more time the race will spend on the screen as a talking character, the closer it is to a bipedal humanoid. This is because it is easier for a reader to relate to the character if it can understand some of his characteristics. However, the opposite is also true. The more the author wants a character to be alien, the more non-human traits are placed onto the character. A wonderful example of this is the traditional dragon – it’s both alien, yet very representative of human characteristics. Why? Because they can shapeshift between draconic (alien) and human (understood) form. Generally the “good” dragons spend more time in human form, and with humans, whereas the “bad” dragons spend their time sitting on piles of gold and lording over the surrounding countryside as a personification of evil.
The physical shape of the body is dictated by the environment – streamlined for running, flying or swimming, more upright and with larger limbs for slower creatures that can manipulate tools more easily. And for levitating or magically powered creatures, anything goes.
For the hide of the creature, there’s two primary characteristics – texture and colouring. Is it hair, scales, leather, chitinous? And then is it camouflaged, brightly coloured as a warning to others, or can it change the tone of its skin to match the environment. Scales and chitin are usually found in warmer climates, while leather and hair are warmer and found in even the coldest regions. As for skin tone, bright colours are more usually found on prey animals, while camouflage is found on both predator and prey.
Now, I know much of the advice today seems like it would be more applicable to creating an actual creature, as opposed to a race that’s supposed to play the part of a character in a story, but don’t worry, we’re coming to that in the next couple installments.