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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Power and the People: Government in Fantasyland, Part II

If you've decided to ditch monarchy as the go-to government style for your fantasy world, you've opened up a plethora of possibilities. Because you're constructing a world from scratch, you get to decide every detail about the history, culture, economy, and demographics of your setting.

Once you've figured some of these things out, you can decide what form of government best fits the fictional society you've built. 'Government' might actually be a misleading term at this point, since people organise themselves in a diverse number of ways. Maybe your fictional society has never had a need for centralised leadership, and instead groups themselves by extended family. Or maybe they have travelling elders who stop at different towns and mediate disputes. Or a world with very low population density is full of roving nuclear families and singletons.

If they do have a central government, it could be anything from a dictatorship to a representative democracy. Your world might be run by whoever controls the water supply or the distribution mechanism for some other critical resource. At the other extreme, people could take turns being on a decision-making council. Or everyone might get involved voting for their leaders.

All of these systems of social organisation and government have their own inherent problems and potential for grand drama. The key is that the system you choose for your story makes sense in the fictional society you've created and seems like an organic part of the world.

Monday, 4 August 2014

One Monarch to Rule Them All: Government in Fantasyland, Part I

As Diana Wynne Jones observed in her book A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, high fantasy as a genre has a fixation with all things medieval and western European. Obviously, there are a number of exceptions, many incredibly well executed, but there remains a pervasive idea that fantasy setting equals pre-industrial, pre-Englightenment pan-European culture.

One of the prominent markers of this in many high fantasy stories is the hereditary monarchy. Often the struggles for the crown drive the main plot, whether it's a fantasy-flavored political epic (Game of Thrones series) or another royal heir raised as a peasant who's off to overthrow the usurper.  And it's not a figurehead or a constitutional monarch backed up by another governing institution. It's usually full-on divine-right-to-rule hereditary absolute monarchy.

Now, if you're writing historical fantasy or alien-space-bat flavoured alternate history, you may be constrained by what was going on in the time period you're writing about, and should probably ignore this. However, if you're writing a fantasy setting from scratch, it's worth giving a lot of thought to how a monarchy would fit into your world-- if at all. The medieval European monarchies that seem to have inspired the generic fantasyland leaders required special social, economic and cultural circumstances to come into being and survive as political and social institutions. If those circumstances don't exist in your fictional world, it is unlikely that a European-style absolute monarchy would have arisen.

Even if your fictional society had such a system of government, it's worth remembering the myriad of ways the system can collapse without a single usurping uncle. A sex-linked genetic disease can effectively wipe out a line that relies on male heirs within a few generations, particularly if the society in question lacks the tools to treat it. Much more common throughout history have been overthrow by revolution, since a powerful monarch is a focal point for public discontent. Or your line of rulers could simply fail to reproduce, or get wiped out by a plague.

Given all this, I'd suggest that unless you're constrained by a historical setting, it would be more productive-- and a lot less cliche-- to think about some other possible forms of government for your slice of Fantasyland.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Prophecy Spoiler Alert

Prophecies are a well-worn staple of speculative fiction, especially high fantasy. Often, it's the plot device that, directly or indirectly, yanks the protagonist out of their quiet existence as a peasant and sets them off on a quest to save the world. The immediate problem, of course, is that the prophecy in many epic adventures is an epic spoiler.

The problem is that if you establish in-universe that prophecies are reliably true, and then offer a specific prophecy about the main character or the outcome of the conflict, there's no room for the reader to be surprised. They might as well have skipped to the last chapter.

Luckily, there are two possible solutions, and both are equally good ways to add some suspense to a plot involving a prophecy. First, one can introduce a level of ambiguity into the prophecy itself.  It can be vague, or have an inherent double meaning in the language. Either way, if the prophecy can turn from a spoiler into a major twist ending.

The other option is to introduce an element of doubt as to whether or not prophecies are real. The characters might believe them to be true while the narrative subtly subverts this idea. Alternately, the characters may understand that prophecies sometimes don't come true.

Either of these options can allow you to introduce a prophecy into your story as a plot point without giving anything away. Played well, these two options can actually introduce additional suspense and conflict and keep your audience guessing to the end.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Legends Are True

One of the pervasive tropes of high fantasy is the almost-forgotten legend that turns out to be true. Coming from a cultural background that prizes oral tradition and group histories, this seems completely reasonable to me. After all, many cultures have narratives about historical beliefs and events stretching back for thousands of years. That said, these having an ancient legend as a plot device can cause a number of plot holes. Here's some questions to help you place the legend in the context of your plot so that it's a plot point instead of a plot pitfall.

Have any inaccuracies cropped up in the story? The longer and more widely information has been circulating, the more likely it is that details have been lost, changed, or exaggerated.
Is this written down, an oral history, or some combination of the two?
Who knows the story? It could be common knowledge, a culturally specific piece of information, or something that is primarily known within a certain profession.
If it's common knowledge, why are people only acting on it now? There are all kinds of reasons something that was seen as an important part of the past becomes critical to the present.
If it's restricted knowledge, why? Maybe  the story is only circulated in a particular region, or among members of a particular cultural or linguistic group. Maybe a certain group has given up their belief in the story. Maybe it's a closely guarded secret.

If you flesh out how this legend is incorporated into your society as a whole, you have an excuse to sneak in some worldbuilding and make your setting seem more real. The appearance of the legend as a plot point will also seem more believable. Both of these things will help your audience suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

This Is Not Like The Others Either

Courtesy of a politically well-informed acquaintance of mine, I recently found this blog post on how to criticise Israeli foreign policy without leaning on anti-Semitism. The blogger offers concise analysis on some of the more common anti-Semetic tropes, with quite a bit of information in Jewish history to put those tropes into perspective.

What struck me while reading this post is that when we talk about 'marginalised groups', we speak as though they all share some common narrative. Scratch the surface, however, and we find groups with radically different histories and radically different reasons they experience marginalisation. This seems like an obvious statement, but I've heard a remarkable number of well-intentioned people try to make wildly inappropriate analogies between  the experiences of oppressed groups. I've been guilty of making assumptions about what someone would or wouldn't understand based on such flawed analogies ('but you're X and I'm Y, how could you not understand what I'm going through?'). There's also a number of writers I've seen on social media, defending the idea that because they are a member of Marginalised Group A, they totally understand the experience of Marginalised Group B.

This isn't to discount significant overlaps: for example, North American First Nations people and Australian Aborigines would have a lot of similar group history. Similarly, people who can 'pass' as a member of the privileged group will share some common experiences, no matter what their background.

But for the purposes of writing, it's best to focus on what makes that particular situation unique. And of course, do your homework! Primary sources are the best way to do this. No one ever botched their portrayal of a group of people by 'doing too much research' or 'listening too carefully'. Besides, I like to think that understanding the 'Other' through fiction makes us better citizens of the world.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Conflict Proximity

Some stories are small in their scope. The stakes are deeply personal, the landscape of conflict contained. If done well, these stories are no less powerful in their emotional impact than a 'save the world' epic. Conversely, just because the stakes in your plot are 'saving the world from X' doesn't mean it will have any emotional grip on your audience.

One of the most common points where audience emotional investment in a epic adventure is picking the wrong main character. This doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the main character in and of themselves-- in fact, they can be a well-developed, interesting, and likeable character in their own right. However, they're the wrong character to follow for that particular story.

A common cause of this picking a main character who is peripheral to the main conflict, or who has few intrinsic reasons to be invested in the outcome. Telltale signs include characters who must be persuaded, wheedled, and finally dragged by very specific circumstances to join the quest; alternately, characters who require a series of convoluted events to get them to where the main conflict is. Another sign is side characters who are way more interesting than the protagonist, due to having a much deeper investment in the conflict at hand.

Luckily, it's an easy fix: ditch the protagonist, and pick up the viewpoint of one of the other characters Or create a new character with a more compelling relationship to the main issues in the narrative. Either way, if you have an interesting character with a strong investment in the main conflict, you're well on your way to a great story.

Friday, 18 July 2014

On the Nose

In fumbling through our interpersonal relationships, humans rarely say exactly what we mean. This isn't necessarily about deception, but rather about the nuances of communication. Because this is what we're used to, it's particularly jarring when fictional characters carry on extended conversations where each says exactly what's on their mind. So much so that such scenes tend to read as though the characters are intentionally lying to each other. Unless your characters have a reason for speaking this way-- maybe they're communicating across a language barrier, or are autistic, for example-- you should try to make their dialogue less 'on the nose'.

Fictional dialogue may be the cleaned-up version of natural speech-- for example, it's generally best to avoid all the filler words and mundane chitchat we regularly use and get to the 'good bits' of the dialogue-- but it does need to sound like natural speech. A lot of the time, actually, natural speech means not speaking at all, or not saying something. For example:

  • Not stating the obvious. In general, we don't reiterate information which we understand to be shared knowledge, or that seems self-evident to everyone present
  • If you can't say something nice... People generally tend to bite their tongues on unflattering comments unless they're totally sure they can afford to anger the target, or that the target won't hear. 
  • Other inappropriate commentary. Some comments are just not appropriate for work, dinner, or generally offensive. We all have these thoughts, but have been taught to refrain from sharing. 
  • Body language covered it. Much of human communication is nonverbal, so no need to state the obvious when your movements and facial expression is talking. 
If you keep those in mind, this should help your dialogue flow more naturally, even when characters aren't holding things back on purpose.