Friday, September 25, 2015

10 Books to Read for the World

Today, I’m giving you a reading list.
It’ll be short (ten books), and you might have even read some of them. But let me tell you, if you want advice on how and what to world build (because this is my favorite topic), then these books are your greatest hope.
These ten books vary in length, reading level, and complexity, but they all do a wonderful job in building the world they created.
So. Let’s start the list, shall we?
In no particular order:

1. The Lord of the Rings
Okay, admit it. You knew that book would be here. So I went and stuck it on top to get it over with.
Basically, every novelist trying to build a fantasy world can only aspire to do what Tolkien did with Middle Earth. Read Lord of the Rings to appreciate his world, read The Silmarillion to be blown away by it. (Sometimes I wonder if Tolkien had any hobbies beyond creating languages and naming things in those languages.)
His world is so vast, so diverse, and so complex I don’t have time to do more than say so. But chances are you’ve already read them. If you haven’t, you should. Right now. Come back when you’ve finished.

2. The Hunger Games
Yes, be surprised. My list isn’t all fantasy.
While this trilogy declined in excellence from book to book, the world is a classic example of Dystopian. Everything goes wrong, and only a remnant survives. Despair and struggle among the masses, delicacy and choice among the select few.
If nothing else, Collins does an excellent job describing the gritty reality of her world, and makes the reader wonder: could this happen for real?
After all, people in the theatre I went to see the first one in cheered for Katniss.
As she killed children in the arena.
Just… just like the citizens of the Capitol.
Food for thought.

3. The Wheel of Time
Okay. This is actually a series (it seems all good worlds end up having multiple books in them… but that’s a discussion for later), written by Robert Jordan.
This series, while some of the writing itself is dry, has an excellently diverse planet. Countries with rich and varied inhabitants, religions and governments by the score, and a slightly gritty feel to the end-of-days that approaches.

4. The Invisible Heart
Here’s a good one for you. This story (written by Russel Roberts) is set in modern times, in the real world. It portrays the real world in a very clear way, and does an excellent job of showing our world in a new light, a new perspective.
Oh, and it’s an Economic Romance, so that’s an interesting genre.

5. All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Remarque wrote this one, a World War One novel set in the grimy trenches. I’m not usually a fan of WWI or WWII novels, because they all tend to sound the same eventually. But this one, this one does something interesting. It tells the story of a German soldier, not an English or American one.
It’s a horrific tale, in some ways, but very vivid and real. The world it portrays is a real one, a stark comparison of warfare and beauty. The story itself is wonderful and the world it presents it in is just as awe-inspiring (if a different kind of awe).

6. Mistborn
This novel (the first of yet another trilogy) is written by Brandon Sanderson. It’s a fantasy set in a world of ash and dust and terrible mists.
Brandon Sanderson is perhaps my favorite author. He understands just what makes a world tick and how to make the reader want to read more and more about it.
Oh, and his book Alloy of Law is set in the same world as this trilogy, but three hundred years later as technology comes into play.
Talk about combining the 1880s and a fantasy world.

7. Sailing to Sarantium
Guy Gavriel Kay wrote this one (if the name sounds familiar, he helped edit and prepare The Silmarillion after Tolkien’s death). His world is inspired by the Byzantine Empire and is full of depth.
It’s the first in a series (I’ve not read the others) and does a marvelous job of displaying this world he’s obviously spent quite a bit of time one.
(As a disclaimer, there is some adult content in this one.)

8. Alice in Wonderland
Yes, I just said that. You know, the slightly weird and very abstract novel by Lewis Carroll? Yeah, that one.
Read it.
I know it’s weird and abstract and slightly (very) nonsensical.
That is a well-created world. Abstract, yes. Weird, yes. Well-created?
Beyond your wildest dreams (quite literally).

9. The Magician’s Nephew
This is one of the seven books of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (and I say it’s the first, but let’s not discuss which book is the first and so forth… another time, yes?). It is about the creation of Narnia, and how the Witch came to be there. In a way, it is the prequel to all the rest. Without it, there could be no Wardrobe, no Silver Chair, no Dawntreader, and no Last Battle.
It is literally about the creation of a world (and the death of one, I might add).
Worth reading, yes?

10. The Stormlight Archives
I might have saved my favorite for last. But that’s not the point.
This is a series of books (the first two are The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance) that are huge. I’m talking eleven hundred pages each (or ~400,000 words).
These are also written by Brandon Sanderson. And I think they’re the closest anyone will ever get to making a world like Tolkien’s. His countries, cultures, races, and even climate are so different and diverse and wonderful.
Not to mention the plot is magnificent.

All right. That’s the conclusion of my list. (And I might add that only seven are fantasy. One of those hardly counts as fantasy, so you might even say only SIX. Yay for diversity.) What about you? Do you have books you read for the world? I’d love to hear about them, so leave a comment and share!
(No seriously… give me book suggestions I need stuffs to read.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Solving Impossible Conflicts

Does your Heroine ever get too stuck? Does she end up deep, deep within the dungeons of the evil overlord, who is planning on destroy all that is green in this world? In fact, he’s doing it right now and she’s stuck a hundred feet underground. There’s no way out. 

The climax is in one chapter, and you’ve got to get her out! You, the author, are scrambling to find a way to get your heroine out of her cell, up out of the dungeons, out of the castle, across the countryside, up the mountain, and all in time to stop the villain from winning.
Good luck with that.

As authors, we’re very good at writing ourselves (and our poor main character) into rather tight corners. The only way out, it seems, is to write ourselves out.
That’s where it gets sticky. One of the easiest ways to write oneself out of a corner is to place a series of convenient happenstances right at the MC’s feet and walk away. Mission accomplished.
The heroine now has the ability to trick the guard into coming into her cell, she snatches the keys, learns some quick martial arts, escapes the dungeons, and uses the evil overlords super, super fast magical horse to ride to the mountain. After that, she whips out a magic locket that belonged to her long dead mother (who for some reason held on to it despite it being… magical?) and uses it to slay the villain.

Easy as that. Dust your hands and congratulate yourself.

Dues ex Machina. That’s what you’ve just done. “God in the machine”. You’ve manipulated your story to get out of unsolvable conflicts.
Eh… let’s see if we can try something else.
This might entail rewriting and re-plotting large portions of your novel. That’s okay. Rewriting is part of writing (if you want to be literal, writing is literally a part of rewriting).

If you don’t have the slightest inkling1 of how your hero is going to defeat the villain, I suggest these steps:

1. Assess the situation. Write down all the things that you and your hero can’t overcome. This can range from being locked in a dungeon to having a phobia of the villain’s pet praying mantis. List them in order of what needs to be conquered chronologically in your story. Not in the order of what is hardest to figure out.

2. List your hero’s strengths. All of the hero’s strengths are your strengths, okay? If the hero knows something, has some talent, or is really bad at math, then whatever you write must follow what the main character can do. Even if you have some fabulous, fully necessary allies, let’s ignore them for the moment. 
If your hero is an expert whittler, but can’t swing a sword for naught, then he can’t escape the dungeon by challenging the head guard to a duel. That won’t work in his favor.

3. List what strengths are necessary to win. If your hero hasn’t a single one, that’s bad. If he has all of them, that’s bad. These two options make it either impossible or impossibly easy. If he has to be able to: pick a lock, swing a sword, beat a dragon, and answer a clever riddle, then he needs to be incapable of at least one. Maybe two. That makes it seem – to the reader – that the story goal is impossible to reach.

4. Look to the allies. Do they have any strengths the Hero needs? Are they willing to sacrifice that strength to help the hero win? They shouldn’t just happen to have this strength, it needs to make sense. If the strength is simply convenient to you, it shouldn’t exist.

5. Use the chinks. Every villain, no matter how good, has chinks in his armor. What weaknesses does your villain have? If he has none… then it’s time for you to consider a more realistic villain. As a note: never make this chink the minor villains. Those poor fellows have struggled enough under the cliché of weakness and ineptitude that has befallen them. Make them better; make your main villain weaker in a different way.

6. Keep us holding our breath. As the heroine uses a pin from her hair to pick the lock, then use her womanly wiles to slip the guard, make us think to the very last second that she won’t make it. The guard will realize who she is, what’s she’s doing, and ram a sword through her stomach. As she races (on foot) across the plains and up the mountain, let the storm clouds gather. It turns out the villain has to wait to a particular day (because he needs a special weather pattern to unleash his weapon), and it’s the day she arrives at his camp. His guards attack her, but her ally and mentor have spent the past few years infiltrating the villain’s hideout. That is, after all, their job. Her friends take the minor villains while the hero confronts the villain. 

The reader is terrified. The heroine can’t beat the villain. No way. He’s basically invincible, and his weapon is about to be unleashed. All good things end now.
And then she wins.
Your reader is going to be ecstatic. If you can pull it off, make every single page worth turning, then we’re going to congratulate you.

And if you’ve already done that, then we already do.

What about you? What corners have your written yourself into - and out of – in your writings? Leave a comment and share!

No, I’m not talking about a miniature Lewis or Tolkien. But if you DO have one of those… I’m coming to visit and poke it with a toothpick.

Friday, September 11, 2015

5 Ways to Diversify Government in Your World

Last week I rambled on about religions in worlds. In fact, I spent two posts talking about it. All in one weekend. First about why you need more than one, and then on how to build a religion Fun stuff, when I wasn’t going off on tangents and making little sense and…


Today, I’d like to take a look at another aspect of Worldbuilding. More specifically, at government.

I realize government is not exactly the most… exciting… subject. But it can be exciting, at least when it comes to building one for your world. A government is one of the easiest ways to create tension and conflict in your novel. Whether that be through politics, border disputes, cruel overlords, or even all-out wars. 

As a word of warning, there are many ways in which government-fueled conflict can be cliché. The most obvious, perhaps, is the Dystopian Totalitarian government. As Saruman put it: “You know of what I speak.”

Basically, something went wrong and an evil government rises up to oppress the good citizens of wherever. Probably America. Because… ‘merica, I guess. This government is then, through the plot of the novel, opposed by a poorly-equipped (or even highly-equipped, but still outnumbered and with the odds not in their favor) rebel faction that somehow manages to break free of societies' boxes and CRUSH the government’s stranglehold on society.
Because, you know, the government’s economic and foreign policies wouldn’t have brought it down in a year anyway.
(Yes, that was sarcasm… I’ve found very few dystopian with governments that have legitimate economic and foreign policy. These governments would collapse long before the novel started, simply from economic instability or foreign invaders. But that’s a different blog post, hm?)

Another common cliché government is that of the medieval fantasy. It usually follows the plot line of “independent princess [or slovenly prince] is usurped by their evil relative [uncle, brother] and must take back the throne with the help of a random group of rebels they found hiding in the woods”. For one thing, there’s a lot wrong with that cliché. But I’ll bypass most of it to focus on the government side of things.

First, this evil relative takes over the country from their king. This king is generally a very good king. And when the king is suddenly deposed, those under him (read: lords, knights, etc.) form no counter Coup d'état to restore the rightful king/his heir to the throne. Why not? If he was a good king, then why do they let the evil relative take over? It makes less sense than sending in a donkey to buy you a burrito at a pizza place. Sorry, buddy, but you’re not getting the burrito.
Second, this rebel group. They show up out of nowhere [the woods], despite the king being known as a very kind, gentle soul. Case in point.

Now. Enough about that. Instead, here are my five tips to diversify government in your world:

1. Variety is close to… reality. In this day and age, there aren’t very many forms of government. There are democracies, socialist states, and fascist states. Maybe one or two countries don’t fit into one of these categories precisely, but in vague terms; every country has a government like this.
However, there are dozens of kinds of government, most of which have been practice on our earth at one time or another. From monarchy to diarchy to oligarchy to empire to tribes to aristocracies. Here, have a link. That’s not all forms of government, but it’s a nice list.
Not only is it realistic, but it’s refreshing when a novel uses a rarely mentioned form of government. So, why not try a triarchy with a complex feudal caste system instead of a boring old monarchy?

2. Create realistic tension. I’ve read dozens of novels in which two countries are at war. In many, however, there is no apparent reason for the countries to be fighting. They just… are. Or perhaps they’re fighting over a border. That’s realistic, right?
Well, yes. But not when the land they’re fighting over has no intrinsic value. Countries don’t fight over a scrap of land unless it’s worth something.
It’s perfectly fine to have countries fighting or gearing up for it. What is not perfectly fine is when there is no good reason for it.

3. Set the Laws in stone. Take this as a metaphor. Please. Don’t go find a slab of rock and spend the next year carving laws into it. 
What do I mean by this? Take some time – an hour, maybe – and sketch out the laws of your country.
For instance, I spent twenty minutes forming a constitution for the Republic of Clenesk way-back-when I was gearing up for my most recent project. Agram Awakens takes place in several countries, none of which have identical governments. It has a triarchy, a monarchical empire, a series of tribes, an oligarchy, a republic, a commonwealth, and two forms of feudal monarchical-aristocracies. I don’t have the laws for all of those governments, but for the important ones, I’ve got at least an idea.
When you have the laws written down, it’s easier to realize what consequences the main character’s actions might have. Stealing the villain’s sword isn’t so easy when the villain is actually a powerful warlord who has decreed all theft be punished by death.
Getting an audience with the king suddenly means a lot of paperwork. A lot of paperwork.

4. Balance Injustice with Justice. I’ve read very few novels in which the government is portrayed as good.
A lot of novels (especially dystopian, historical fiction, and contemporary fiction) spend time railing against the government. Why it’s bad, how it needs to be fixed, etcetera.
But without government (even a broken one), we wouldn’t sleep so safe at night, would we?
I’m a minarchist. I tend to disagree with a lot of things governments do. But that doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t have one at all. Even I think we need government for something.
When you write, don’t spend all your time talking about how bad the government is. Show a few nobles trying their best to be honorable. Show a few clerks in the dystopian government who slip the poor extra rations, who don’t take bribes.
That “evil” government is made of people. Some are broken; some are “evil”, but not all of them. Some people can be good.

5. Experiment. It’s okay to try a form of government and find out it doesn’t work. Great! That means you get to try another one. The more you try, the more you experiment, the better your chances of finding just the right one.

What about you? What forms of government are in your novel(s)? Leave a comment and share; I’d love to hear about them!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Tips for Creating a Religion for Your World

Friday, I mentioned I’d do this, so, here it is:

I’d like to skip past formality and assume you want to create a religion (or two or nineteen) for your world. That’s great. However, how does one go about such a thing?
So today, I want to give you a bullet list of questions you can ask yourself, and then provide an example with a religion of my own devising which plays an important role in my most recent project.

-Before you begin constructing a religion, you need to decide what sort of religion it is. Is it:
1. Monotheistic? (one god or deity)
2. Polytheistic? (many gods/deities)
3. Atheistic/Agnostic? (A form of no gods, lack of gods, or hatred of gods?)
4. Other? (Pantheistic, etc.)

-Once you answer that question, you can ask further, more in-depth questions about each type of religion. I’ll post a few examples below, in short lists:

Who is the deity? What is s/he like?
What is the defining attribute of this god? (Kindness, Rage, etc.)
Why do his/her followers believe in him/her?
Is the 'will' of this deity revealed in a religious text? If so, what sort of book is it?
What sort of beliefs are there surrounding the future/afterlife?
How do the followers worship? Why?
What rituals, myths, and rites surround this worship?

Who are the main gods? What are they like? 
Are there less-significant deities? 
What one attribute describes each deity? (War, peace, mercy, etc.) 
Which (if any) is the highest of the gods? Why? 
Are these gods related in any way?
Why are they worshipped?
What rituals and customs are followed in this worship?

Why does this people group choose to believe in no god? 
Do they hate gods, or just simply not believe in them? 
Do they consider religious people less intelligent?
How do they treat those who turned to religion after once believing there were no gods?

What sort of deity (ies) do your people group worship/follow/obey? 
What sort of practices do they follow?

But you can’t just ask those questions. Ask the broad questions, like “what kind of holidays do these people observe?” “Are there any dietary restrictions?” “When did this religion first come to be?” “What does this religion think of the after-life?”
Don’t be afraid to create schisms. Disagreements within a religious body are more common than you’d think. What sorts of things might your religious group disagree about? What might make some of them leave to form their own group? How do their practices differ from the original religion?
Finally, here’s a very important question: how does this religious group view other religions/heretics/non-believers?
That question can and will define how characters who aren’t of this religion will view it. If this religion views outsiders with hostility, your character probably won’t view it with favor.

Now. I’d like to do a brief summary example, by answering the questions I’ve given as examples. I’ll be using a religion from my Epic Fantasy, Agram Awakens:

This religion’s name is Tubrim, so you have some context.

Tubrim is a Monotheistic religion. I’ll repost the monotheism questions and then answer them in bolded text:

Who is the deity? What is s/he like?
 The deity is Tubrim (such a nice, original name hm?). He is considered the creator, sustainer, and source of life. He is generally considered to be the only spiritual being beyond the souls of the intelligent races.

What is the defining attribute of this god? (Kindness, Rage, etc.)
 Tubrim is known for his desire for harmony. It is the key word of the religion, and what most peoples think when they hear that name.

Why do his/her followers believe in him/her?
 The main beliefs of this religion are almost deistic. The Citadel (this religion’s name for the church) teaches that when Tubrim made the races, he realized that they were not in harmony with themselves, each other, nor with the earth. So, he left, commanding the races to come into harmony with everything. Once they do so, he supposedly will return and dwell among his creation in a physical form. Thus, his followers believe in him because they desire his presence and for harmony and peace.

Is the 'will' of this deity revealed in a religious text? If so, what sort of book is it?
It is, in fact. This information is found in a collection of teachings known as the Tubron, this religion’s only religious text. The book is small, perhaps two hundred pages in total (considering the size of an average, modern day Bible that is very small), and contains proverbs, warnings, promises, and guides to sacrifice. The first copy, supposedly, came directly from the hand of Tubrim. In addition, the book includes customs regarding rituals such as marriage, conversion, divorce, childbirth, and death.

What sort of beliefs are there surrounding the future/afterlife?
At death, a person is to be either buried or set adrift at sea. Customs involve speaking of blessings, mourning, music, and later a celebration of the deceased person’s life. Death in battle is considered the most honorable death, suicide the least honorable.
The afterlife is generally viewed as and called after-travels. In fact, the blessing for a dead person goes as follows:
“Peace of the Ever-Father be with you, may your after-travels be safe and the roads beyond easy." - A blessing from an Oacamen burial (has its origins in Tubrim, which often calls its deity [Tubrim] the Ever-Father)
Life after death is considered a constant journey toward something. Toward harmony, as is generally believe, and once the living achieve harmony the dead can rest from their after-travels. The ease or difficulty of the after-travels is believed to depend on how harmonious a life the deceased lived.

How do the followers worship? Why?
The followers of this religion attend Citadel whenever they can/feel like it. Citadels are places of refuge, and if anyone enters a Citadel with a weapon he is considered defiled. Supposedly, Tubrim will crush his soul.
Worship can include song, prayer, confession to a priest, or even outside the citadel bringing harmony in some form. Every act of harmony is said to be worship to Tubrim.
Lastly, sacrifices are to be made at the start of every New Year, the morning after parties, gatherings, and festivals, when a child is born, when someone is converted, and at a few other times. The sacrifice is to consist of a genetically perfect ram (bought from a priest whose sole job is to raise these ‘genetically perfect’ animals), the heart of a crow, and a bottle of wine. These sacrifices are to be burnt (except for one glass of the wine, which is to be consumed by the priest overseeing the sacrifice) on an altar at a citadel.

What rituals, myths, and rites surround this religion?
Marriages are presided over by a priest of the Citadel, and involve such customary rituals as binding of the hands (of the couple), lighting of candles, exchanged oaths, dowry presents, and lots of music and dancing. 

Divorces can only be approved by the Citadel when a spouse is unfaithful, and proven so by four witnesses. (couples can be divorced via the government, but these are not recognized by the Citadel until both spouses have remarried, thus declaring both parties unfaithful to the other and making the divorce complete. These are, however, frowned upon because of the disharmony created by said divorce.)
   ● The birth of a child is marked by sacrifice, as mentioned above. For seven weeks after the child is born, the mother and father are forbidden to see each other in any fashion. This is supposed to make sure the child is, in fact, wanted by both of them. If neither wants it, the child is given to an orphanage. If only one wants it, then the child is kept, but is never supposed to be seen by the parent which does not want the child. Illegitimate children are nearly always abandoned, although some nobles keep them around.

I could go into further detail about myths, rituals, priests, etc.
But I think you get the idea.
It’s not hard to create a religion. And it’s not hard to create it well. I create nineteen of them (most of them with less detail than the one above) in a few hours. I’d like to think that my world is better off for it.

Good luck with your world, and I’ll be back on Friday to discuss yet another aspect of world building!