Monthly Archives: August 2013

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part III)

This post, once again, continues the discussion I’ve started on world building in fantasy literature.

 

The last technique I want to mention concerns how one deals with those things that normally have some kind of numeric designation; particularly those things which require some type of numeric manipulation. Here, again, simplicity is the key. The item that most readily comes to mind is the calendar. Here on Earth, our calendar (in the West, at least) consists of three hundred and sixty five (and a quarter) days. There are twelve months of varying lengths (either 28, 30, or 31 days apiece). And each of the fifty-two weeks consists of seven days. To be sure, one’s fantasy world could use a similar calendar with fifty-two weeks of seven days length, and twelve months of unpredictable length. But I would advise against it. Instead, use easily computable number groups; it makes for far less headaches.

 

For example, a calendar year of 365 days is not easily divisible into seven day weeks. As a result, on our calendar, the day of the week a particular date falls on changes every year. This need not be the case. In fact, you may find that such a thing causes you difficulties as you write. The solution is to use more easily manageable numbers. There is no reason why a year must be 365 days, or that it should consist of 12 months, or 52 weeks. Yet, ours does, and each of those different slices of time are all inter-related. In a fantasy world, the world builder has the option of simplifying, thus making the inter-relationships of those temporal slices easier to grasp. One of the simplest things to do, is to use a year of 360 days that consists of twelve 30-day months (that was my choice for Athron). From there, you must simply decide on the length of the week. If you want your numbers easily manageable, then you really have only a few options: five 6-day weeks (again, my choice), six 5-day weeks, three 10-day weeks (Tad Williams’ choice in Shadowmarch), or two 15-day weeks (but that last is really a stretch). Tad Williams also had five festival days that fell outside of weeks and months to get the total of the year up to 365 like ours. On the other hand, I simply deleted the five days. 360 is a nice round number that works fine for me.

 

A final word of advice, dealing with shorter numbers is usually better than longer numbers. It’s easier to keep five different days of a week straight than it is to keep ten. Likewise, if you aren’t going to use a mnemonic device that helps sort through your various months, I’d suggest using a number lower than twelve. Once upon a time, I used a year of thirteen 28-day months which gives you a 364 day year. However, in such an instance both you and the reader will have to keep track of 13 different months, none of which will align properly with our own.

Note: Due to a family emergency, I’m going to be heading out of town for a few days and I’m not sure when I’ll be back to post again.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part II)

This post continues my discussion on world building for fantasy literature. Previously, I discussed the authors Tad Williams and Brandon Sanderson and some (in my view) mistakes these authors made in certain works of theirs. As I said, when one develops a fantasy world, one wants to make it as realistic as possible without sacrificing readability. J.R.R. Tolkien could have written all his dialogue in The Lord of the Rings in Elvish, but he didn’t, because he realized that that would have made the work virtually unintelligible to the average reader. The key is to strike the right balance between those characteristics unique to the fantasy world and those characteristics common to our own.

 

One technique I’ve stumbled upon (largely from reading Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams) is to use mnemonic devices in your writing, particularly for characteristics that might be confusing and difficult to remember for your Earth-readers. For example, in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams references the months of Novander and Decander, among others. That struck me as a clever way to accomplish two things at once: 1) provide a list of names for the months of the year that are unique to one’s world, and 2) at the same time, make the list easily understood and recognizable by the majority of readers in The West. Obviously, Novander and Decander are parallels to our own November and December. The reader will get that right away and won’t have to refer back to the index, thereby ejecting herself from the story, in order to sort it out. I liked the technique so much, I borrowed it for some of my own work (I use Novenya, and Decendra in The Children of Lubrochius).

 

Now, another mnemonic device can be used for characters with multiple names. In my own work, I have a character (only one, so far) that is referenced by three different names. My solution to the explosion of confusing names that so bedeviled Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series is to make the names similar to each other: different enough so as to be distinct, but sounding alike enough that the reader will easily remember them. Specifically, there is one character who is referred to by the following three names: Korina, Zarina, and Sarina. One must be careful with this technique, though; it works best with only a very small number of characters. If one has something like a complete pantheon of deities and gives multiple names (all of which sound similar) to each one, it may come across as sounding forced and unnatural. In such a case, one would have to come up with some other technique.

 

In my next post, I will discuss how to effectively manage units of time and other elements of a story with a numeric designation.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part I)

If you are going to embark on a career writing fantasy literature, at some point or another you are going to have to familiarize yourself with the concept of world building. World building is the art of constructing an alternate world or universe in which the action of your story takes place. One of the most important things you can do in that regard is read: You can learn a lot from reading other writers’ works. You can figure out what works and what doesn’t work. One important lesson I have learned from reading others work is “all things in moderation.” This applies particularly to world-building activities in fantasy literature. A part of that is the notion of limits that I discussed in an earlier post. In that post I mentioned the important point that unless a reader loves your work so much (as we all hope they do) that they reread the book a dozen times, they will not be nearly as conversant in all the characteristics and relationships in the world as the author is. Because of this, what is clear to the author may not be clear to the reader on a first read. And that can be dangerous.

 

Two examples of well-respected authors who have fallen into this trap are Brandon Sanderson and Tad Williams. Specifically, Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings involves extensive world building. In my opinion, it involves too much. I read the book quite some time ago and reviewed it here. I can deal with multiple moons, different weather patterns from our own, and even different days of the week than ours, but what I find excessive is a whole slew of alien critters that aren’t essential to the story but are added to simply give the world an alien feel. Likewise, inventing entirely new types of material for clothing and what have you. I only read the book once, and although it was an excellent book, I don’t intend to read it again. As for Tad Williams, his Shadowmarch series was a semi-decent series, not exceptional and certainly not as good as his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. However, the Shadowmarch series suffered one serious failing. He gave approximately three different names to each of his world’s deities. That was confusing as all heck. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I think there were at least eight significant deities, maybe more. That’s twenty-four names that the reader has to keep track of as they cross reference themselves many times. Like I said: very confusing.

 

The lesson from this is that creativity is a good thing, but there’s a point where it can be detrimental. Just because something makes logical sense, doesn’t mean you should incorporate it into your writing. In the next post, I’ll give you a way to manage such an abundance of creativity, inspired by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and some of my own experience.

Movie Review: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

Percy Jackson returns to the big screen in this latest adaptation of a novel from the popular series; here, he and his friends embark on a quest into the fabled Sea of Monsters in search of the famous Golden Fleece. Several years ago, the young Thalia, daughter of Zeus, was killed in a battle with several Cyclops, but Zeus managed to spare her life by transforming her into a tree. Now, she serves as protector of Camp Half-Blood, home to all the children of gods and mortals, by maintaining an impenetrable barrier around the camp. But Luke, the villain of the first movie, is not done with Percy Jackson or his friends. He poisons the tree and the barrier begins to fail. The only way to save Thalia and the camp’s field of protection is to heal the tree with the Golden Fleece. So, the camp sends out Clarisse, the daughter of Ares to retrieve it. Then, Percy Jackson and his friends embark separately on their own quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece and save the camp.

 

Soon, Percy finds himself in a race against time to acquire the Golden Fleece before Luke. Luke has plans of his own for the Fleece, and they don’t involve healing trees. No, (spoiler alert) he is intent upon resurrecting Chronos, the arch-titan and father of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. If he is successful, ruin will come upon the Earth, and not even gods will be able to save it. It is up to Percy and his friends to thwart the coming chaos. But, even as the child of prophecy is Percy up to the task required of him?

 

Strengths: the special effects in this movie were good—but that’s to be expected as it was a big budget film; the acting was fine; the plot held together well; and the lessons it taught were admirable. Weaknesses: well, I thought there was a bit too much humor in the story. I don’t mind humor, but I went to see a fantasy action/adventure film, not a comedy. The three taxicab witches in particular, I found tiresome. Also, and more significantly, my impression of Percy’s friend, Annabeth, changed from the first movie. It was the same actress, but the character portrayed seemed to change. In the first movie, she was a confident kick-butt warrior. Here, she seemed little more than a sidekick. And that, I thought was a crucial flaw.

 

Ultimately, though, the movie was still enjoyable and I’ll give it three and a half stars out of five.

Short Story Review: Polaris

I have a whole book of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. One of the first ones in the book is a short piece entitled “Polaris.” It comes in at only 4 pages or so. But that is all it needs. Polaris is a clever little piece about the mystery of the North Star and dreams (the entire book is a collection of dream related stories, actually).

 

It tells the story of a man living in a house by a swamp who spends a great deal of time watching Polaris. Its position fixed in the sky gives him considerable pause to ruminate and wonder about hidden meanings. To him, it seems as if the star has a message, perhaps to him, but one that has been lost in time. So, he begins to dream. He dreams of an ancient civilization 26,000 years in the past; a civilization called Lomar that flourished at an earlier time at which Polaris held a similar position in the firmament (according to astronomers, the actual position of the North Star does change, but very slowly, as a result of a wobble of the Earth’s axis. This phenomenon is called precession (I think) and it causes the apparent motion of Polaris in the sky. It takes the star approximately 26,000 years to complete one cycle and return to the same position—it’s a clever little scientific insert into the story). After some time he assumes an identity in that civilization of a craven man who possessed incredibly keen eyes. As a result, he is tasked with watching for the advance of a hostile army of creatures called Inutos: “squat, hellish yellow fiends” that have been plaguing the ancient kingdom. Atop the watchtower, the accursed narrator is bewitched by Polaris and falls asleep. Instead of keeping faithful watch, he dreams of a future time in which he is a man grown accustomed to sitting by his window in a house by a swamp to stare at the North Star. He cannot wake from this dream, and no matter how he tries to explain his predicament to those around him, they do not believe him. There is no record of a long lost civilization called Lomar; the only beings to ever dwell in these frozen wastes before are the Esquimaux: “squat, yellow creatures.” (Another name for Eskimos is Inuit, a word deliberately close to Inuto) By the end of the story, the narrator’s descent into madness is all but assured as the division between dream and reality is so obscured. Which story is the dream? And which the truth? Is the narrator a dreaming watchman who has failed his countrymen in the lone task to which he was appointed? Or is he a modern day man who has lost his grip on reality? Or … is he a modern day man who is the reincarnation of a dreaming watchman who failed his countrymen? The story does not answer these questions; it simply asks them and leaves the reader wondering and with a profound distrust of the seemingly mundane North Star.

 

The only weakness in the story that I can think of is the possible accusation of racism against Eskimos. But that seems a trifle unfair and a bit too PC for my tastes. He described the Eskimos and imagined a conflict 26,000 years in the past with an imaginary ancient civilization. In the conflict, the Eskimos are the aggressors and every culture in history has been an aggressor at one point or another. If you seek to be offended by such, you can choose to be so; but for myself, I don’t think imagining conflicts between cultures or even using the terms “squat” or “yellow” to describe someone or a group of people is necessarily racist. I can see how it can be interpreted that way, but I choose not to (then again, I’m not an Eskimo). Putting all that aside, I thought this was a great story.

 

Overall, I’ll give this short story four and a half stars out of five. Most excellent!

Novella Review: Infinity Blade: Awakening

“Infinity Blade: Awakening” is a short novella by Brandon Sanderson (currently my favorite author). There is also a computer game out called “Infinity Blade” (I have the app for my iPad) and both game and novella are intertwined. I’m not sure which came first, but either way, Sanderson’s novella makes a kind of a cool story. It’s a mix of fantasy and sci-fi … actually, it is sci-fi where the protagonist is a primitive character that regards technology as magic and treats it accordingly. Kind of an interesting combination. Also, it is worth pointing out, that this is the first novella in a series. At the time of this writing, I believe the next book of the series is due out fairly soon. I’ll probably read it, because I did enjoy this one quite a bit; I read it all in a single day.

 

The novella tells the story of Siris, the human being chosen as the Sacrifice from the village of Drem’s Maw. According to tradition, one family has the honor of providing a single male child (the Sacrifice) to be raised as a warrior to fight the hated God-king in a single duel to the death. The God-king is one of, and the leader of, the Deathless, a race of immortals that have enslaved humanity. The story begins with the surprising fact of Siris’ victory over the God-king; he fought an unbeatable foe and won. But that is just the beginning. Now, he possesses the God-king’s weapon: the Infinity Blade; the only weapon capable of permanently slaying one of the Deathless. And the other Deathless know he has it. He returns to Drem’s Maw, but is not welcomed. Realizing his very existence is a threat to those he cares about, he sets off to lead possible pursuers away.  Along the way, he meets a female assassin named Isa who, when she’s not trying to kill him, proves to be a reliable companion instrumental to his survival. Together they set off to unravel the mysteries of the Infinity Blade and find its maker: the Worker of Secrets.

 

Strengths: like most of Sanderson’s work, the prose is smooth, the action well-paced, and the story is sprinkled with humor. Weaknesses: there weren’t many. My only complaint was that one or two places were overly-humorous. I mean, I’m reading a fantasy adventure novella not a comedy; some of the back-and-forths between Siris and Isa seemed a bit forced and overextended. Oh well. Still, it was an excellent read.

 

I’ll give it four and a half stars out of five.

 

Oh, and check out my Stupid Hobgoblin Jokes from the two weeks ago and vote in the poll … just for kicks!

Movie Review: The Conjuring (2013)

The movie The Conjuring is a tale of horror revolving around witchcraft and its attendant evil. Well, that’s how the movie tries to come across; the problem is, of course, that witchcraft as understood by most Wiccans has nothing to do with Satan and is not evil. That said, this movie is supposed to be based on a true story. And in this story, the witch in question sacrifices her young baby to “Satan,” (whether or not it was actually Satan or a misunderstanding of the Wiccan horned god, I don’t know) and after her own death goes about forcing other mothers to do the same. Hence, this particular witch—supposedly based on a true account—clearly is/was evil regardless of the religion she practiced or how one understands said religion. Well, enough of a digression into comparative religion and moral philosophy :), on with the movie …

 

This film tells the story of the Perrons, a family who recently moved into a house that is haunted by a dark presence (the aforementioned evil witch, to be precise). They are so terrorized they call on paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed and Lorraine Warren are actually quite famous in paranormal circles. As I said, the film is supposed to be based on a true account. The Perrons experience the whole bevy of demonic harassments. It begins with simple things: an occasional unexplainable sound, clocks stopping, and similar such things. It progresses to people being awoken by something pulling on their legs, to being attacked by ghostly apparitions and ghost-propelled objects. It culminates in a possession and an attempted murder.

 

Strengths: this movie held my attention from the very beginning. It was not your typical hacker/slasher horror movie filled with people being slain left and right. I won’t tell you how many people actually died in the film, because that would ruin the surprise (it is a very low number—I’ll tell you that much). The low death toll is actually a strength in my opinion; the movie got its scares without killing people … and it did a good job at that. It had all the potential of the movie Sinister, but it delivered because it didn’t end in a blood bath. Weaknesses: My one and only complaint was the over dramatization of the special effects in the end. As the movie reached its climax, so did the use of special effects. And if paranormal events involved such phenomena to such a degree in real life, I don’t think anyone would question their reality. But I guess that’s just Hollywood, dressing up the truth to better compete in the marketplace. Other than that, I don’t think there were any weaknesses.

 

I’ll give the movie The Conjuring four out of five stars.

Movie Review: The Wolverine (2013)

The movie The Wolverine stars Hugh Jackman in the title role, of course. He is reprising his role of the virtually indestructible X-men character to which he seems quite well-suited. According to the earlier story, not only does the Wolverine have an adamantium skeleton (making it virtually indestructible), but he heals at an incredible rate and he has stopped aging. So, Wolverine has a unique problem: he can’t die. And that sets the backdrop for the whole story.

 

The movie begins with a flashback to World War II. Wolverine is held captive near Hiroshima (or was it Nagasaki?) on the day the bomb is dropped. He rescues a lone Japanese soldier from near certain death, and basically survives a nuclear blast (although he is partially shielded by the hole he’s hiding in). Fast forward to the present day, the lone Japanese soldier is now an old man named Yashida who has built a powerful corporate empire. He is now dying. So, he summons Wolverine to Japan and makes him an offer; Yashida will use his technological prowess to transfer Wolverine’s long life and regenerative abilities to Yashida. This will allow Wolverine to live a natural life and finally die in peace. Yashida, who is dying, still feels he has much to accomplish and wants an extra lease on life. They will both benefit. Wolverine, however, declines the offer.  Shortly thereafter, things start to go wrong. Wolverine is attacked by a woman named Viper—she’s a highly intelligent mutant with many snake-like abilities passing for a doctor in Yashida’s lab. Then, Yashida dies and there is an assassination attempt on his granddaughter. Wolverine intervenes and stops the assassination attempt, but is wounded in the process. This time, however, his wound does not heal. And so a deadly adventure of intrigue and mystery begins involving ninjas, mutants, and corrupt businessmen.

 

Strengths: the movie held my interest throughout. The action was good; the plot was good, as was the acting. There were a number of clever ideas, and it was refreshing to see Wolverine showing some limits and vulnerability. Weaknesses: I did not like who they chose for the ultimate bad guy. Although it made the story a complete and coherent logical whole, it just seemed to spit on the whole notion of gratitude. Also, the so-called (and related) twist at the end was kind of predictable. Still, it was a good movie.

 

I’ll give the movie The Wolverine four stars out of five.

 

Oh, and check out my Stupid Hobgoblin Jokes from last week and vote in the poll … just for kicks!

Fantasy Literature: World Building and Limits

The world is an awfully big place. It really is. Seven continents, thousands of languages, and an endless variety of cultures. There’s really only one dominate species on the planet (us humans), but we have thousands of years of written history. The goal of world building in a fantasy literature environment is to provide a background to the story that is as believable as the real-life background that our very real world provides to the stories and events that take place here. However, trying to be as complete and exhausting in detail as the real world is impossible and ill-advised. One can only work within certain limits, within which you, as the author, have free reign. You can develop a world with but one continent or just a vast collection of islands, with one language and culture, or many, and so on. What I’ve found in my own writing, though, is that there is an upper limit to the number of facets that can be adequately described. As a rule, the writer does a certain amount of world building, but only uses about 10% of that material for his/her book. That may seem like a waste, but it really isn’t. Although you only use 10% of your world building materially directly in your book, the other 90% does influence the work: It provides the context for that slice of material that you do use. You will draw on this other 90% in subtle, yet important, ways. A conflict between two religions can be spelt out in detail in your world resources and because you know the why’s and wherefore’s of this conflict, you can incorporate touches of it in a striking, realistic manner that does not overwhelm the reader with unnecessary details, nor pull her out of the story as she is reading.

 

The important thing to remember when using the material in the book is, as my title suggests, limits. The human mind can only handle so many details at once (there’s a reason phone numbers are only seven digits long—barring area codes). I think a good number range is 3-5 for any particular aspect of world building. You can, if you wish, develop thirteen different cultures on your world (in fact, to be realistic, there should probably be many, many more), but I think you would be ill-advised to use more than five in a particular novel, or say, seven, if it is a very long series like “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson. For a single stand-alone book, in fact, I would recommend limiting yourself to three. That lets you develop each one fully without overwhelming the reader. Remember, it is far easier for an author who has written, re-written, edited, and re-edited the same work several times to keep all the details straight than it is for a single reader who only reads the book once. The goal is to strike the appropriate balance, producing a world rich in detail, but not overwhelmingly complex and confusing. The same can be said for religions, races, creatures, or what-have-you. A smaller number of well-developed world building aspects will probably serve you far better than a hodgepodge of everything under the sun.