Friday, December 30, 2016

World Blip – Flora

It’s been a little while since my last world blip, so I thought I’d take this last post of the year to go back to this sort of tradition and wrap up the year. After all, I started out with a prose blip so it seems fitting to end with a world blip. What a year, am I right? Anyway. I’ll be sentimental on Monday instead of today.

There are four things people tend to think of when they think of worldbuilding: creatures (alien races for sci-fi, mythical beasts for fantasy), magic/advanced technology, maps, and weird settings.
Today, I’d like to look at the fourth of those things.
Weird settings.

What makes a setting… weird?
Quite simply, a weird setting is one that’s different from anything we experience in our daily lives. People who live in England or Canada will find a desert planet more “weird” and foreign than people from New Mexico or Saudi Arabia will. People in Alaska and Russia won’t find snowy tundra odd at all, but people in Brazil will.
Therefore, any setting can be weird in a broad sense, depending on your readers.

However, one of the simplest ways to create a “weird” setting is to make it other. Make it distinct from our planet. This is where weird foods, new creatures, different races, other countries, and many more aspects of worldbuilding come into play. The goal is to create an immersive setting.
There’s one thing, however, that I didn’t just list, but it’s what I’m going to talk about today: flora.

Why Plants Matter

What do you think of when you hear the world “flora”? Myself, I think of elementary school where I had to write a report on a country I was learning about and had to include the types of flora and fauna that country had.
For a while, I hated that word, because the flora and fauna were my least favorite parts of those reports and the research I had to do (encyclopedias… yeah).
Now, however, I’ve come to appreciate the power of the word and it’s summation of such a wide topic.

I mean… who cares about plants in novels? If someone cares about plants, they’re not reading a fantasy novel to read about the plants. No, they’re actually experiencing the plants, right?

However, there’s a certain beauty in portraying the new forms of flora created for your novel. There’s this thing about plants: they’re everywhere. If your character steps outside (all sci-fi city-planets excluded), they’re going to be around plants. Even in deserts, there will be the occasional cacti-like strugglers and maybe even some dead-looking gray lichens on the underside of rock outcroppings where they’re hoarding water.

There are always plants. (Which brings up an interesting idea: what if your planet has no plants? What if your character has never seen plants? The implications are certainly interesting… anyway.)
What makes your world’s plants different? What makes them weird? It’s such an odd idea we have, that every other world has the exact same plants. They all have oak trees and green grass and wheat and corn and petunias.
Why? After all, we tend to assume that other planets will have other races and other creatures, but not… other plants. It doesn’t make sense.

Creating Flora

One of the best examples of flora development I’ve ever seen is Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives. These books take place on a world where these massive storms hit the mainland regularly and they’re so powerful that nothing but bare rock remains. There’s little to no dirt, and your average flora and fauna are non-existent for the most part. However, new sorts of plants and creatures have adapted to the weather.
There’s grass that retracts into a hard shell when touched, there’s trees with exoskeletons and leaves which fold up inside when dampened. There are vines that curl into tight balls when touched, and more. His world is so vibrant because of these things.

Here’s the deal: it’s okay to have normal plants. Really, it is. There can be oak trees and green grass and wheat and corn and petunias. At the same time, never having new plants can make your world duller. If you don’t have the time or ability to expend the effort to develop flora, you’ll be fine. Your world won’t be awful if it lacks new flora.
At the same time, there are zero cons to developing flora (aside from time spent).
How do you develop new flora? Start with your world. Start with the geography and location of the place your developing. Is it equatorial? Arctic? Desert? Jungle? Prairie?
Context is always a good place to start.
Then, you have to decide what kind of plant you’re creating. Is it a tree? Vine? Bush? Grass/grain? Flower? Something else entirely?
Kind gives you a basic structure.
Once you have the basics of context and kind, you can begin to let your creative side take over. Let your imagination describe your new flora with all five senses. What does the plant look like? Feel like? Smell like? Taste like? Sound like?
Sensory information paints a vibrant picture.
If you’re artistic, you can draw the plant. That’s optional, I don’t. Finally, what makes this plant unique? What’s its name? Why is it weird?
Final details make it come alive and seem real to your reader.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Music is an Art, Part 3

Two weeks ago, I talked about the ways in which music is an art. A week before that, I discussed why it mattered.
Today, I’d like to look at three separate ways that music has an impact on our lives, and why we should be aware of it and enjoy it.

Brace for Impact: Our Social Lives

One of the main ways that music affects our lives is in the realm of others. Look at the kinds of music you like, and look at the people who enjoy your existence or at least tolerate it. For me, at least, I find that many of the people I know and appreciate have similar tastes in music.
Of course, there are always exceptions and they may even be important exceptions, but there’s almost always some kind of overlap between the kinds of music you listen to and the kinds of music people you enjoy listen to.

What does this mean? Well, it could mean nothing. Correlation – after all – does not equal causation. However, I like to think that music influences who we are to an extent that it influences the people who are like us and therefore who like us.
Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here. It’s not a huge correlation, because I myself have dozens of friends who don’t like the kind of music I do. Even some of my closest friends disagree on music taste (interesting car rides ensuing). But there’s always overlap. No matter which friend group or friend circle, there’s always a running undercurrent: one group likes indie and folk, one likes rock and alternative rap, and that other weird one likes spoken word and jazz.

There’s more to it, I think, than just “birds of a feather flock together”. Look at the music industry today. It’s a behemoth. Our society is consumed with the idea of music. We place musical artists on the plane with movie stars, they determine our next favorite song, our next favorite movie, our next favorite fashion sense, our next favorite piece of gossip.
They hold sway over hundreds of thousands of people.
Sometimes, it’s just because they can make us tap our feet and bop our heads. Other times, it’s because their music moves us to tears and saves our lives and makes us think and ponder on deep things, hard questions.
(Note: I’m not saying that the former is useless; I believe both are important… but we do need both.)
That’s a powerful force in our lives that we can simply ignore. We need to be aware of it, to know when to take back control and say “hey… I’m good, thanks”.

Brace for Impact: Our Personal Lives

Music doesn’t just reveal its strength and artistic subtly in the lives we surround our own with; it permeates our own lives and manifests itself in a variety of ways. One very obvious manifestation is in our brains and ears. Every single one of us (I can say this with certainty because if you have the technological advancement to read this, you’ve certainly been able to experience the phenomenon) has had an earworm before. Not an actual worm, but a song stuck in your head that you subconsciously or consciously hum, sing, or think about repeatedly.
These snippets of audial thought can annoy us or enamor us.
Other manifestations find their way into our lives. We’re constantly surrounded by music.
How does music affect you individually? This is one that I can’t really speak to for you, so I’ll speak to it for me.

Music has, in the last few years, done the following for me: inspired me, hurt me, healed me, created empathy in me, created joy and created sadness. It’s attached itself to memories and created memories all their own.

Music has powerful to shape who we are and to create powerful emotion. What does this sound like?
It sounds like a story.
Speaking of which….

Brace for Impact: Our Stories

Music has the ability to inspire our stories to greater heights. Far, far greater heights. I listen to a lot of music when I write (in addition to… all other times). For instance, I’m currently listening to “Collar Full” by Panic! At the Disco, and up next in the shuffled list is “Rustle of Stars” by A Silent Film. If I’m doing something that doesn’t involve other humans, then I’m definitely listening to music while doing it. It provides inspiration and motivation.

Maybe you can’t write while listening to music.
That’s okay.
At the same time, however, I always suggest listening to music when you can. If nothing else, just lay down and absorb it. Listening to something creative can re-ignite creativity inside of you. Burned out? Have “writer’s block”? Out of inspiration? Out of motivation? Listen to music.

Music is an art. It’s a wonderful, beautiful art full of complexities and stories. Stories worth listening to.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Someone To Look Up To – Strength Overcome

Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea of the mentor, of this person who has advice and wisdom and skill to offer the hero, things that they give the main character purely to help them.
Last week, I discussed a variety of clichés concerning these folks, and ways to make our own mentors stand out from the crowd of bearded hermits (admittedly, it doesn’t take much to stand out from that crowd).

Today, I want to talk about an important relationship in your novels, one that ties those two things together in a powerful way: the mentor and the villain.
I’m not talking about the villain’s mentor (although they should technically have mentors, too, since literally everyone has at least one mentor in life… anyway), but rather the relation between the hero’s mentor and the hero’s villain.
You see, the mentor displays everything the hero could be. The mentor – after all – has the skills and wisdom that help equip the main character to overcome said villain. Without the mentor, the hero could not win. Therefore, the mentor is key to the hero’s plan, and therefore a key obstacle to the villain.

This relationship is easily seen in so many of today’s classic fantasy sagas, which is why I will primarily use them (as I have before) to display this, and make some observations.

Show Strength

When you read Lord of the Rings, you immediately see the power of Gandalf, even if the hobbits see mostly fireworks and mischief. Tolkien paints him as one of the most obvious mentors in the history of mentors. Sure, he’s a white-bearded old man, but he’s also shown as incredibly human in his weaknesses and incredibly human in his strengths. Without Gandalf, Frodo would never have survived, not to mention that he might have never left the Shire in the first place. Gandalf’s wisdoms helped them through all their trials, even when they were without him.
Gandalf’s power is shown most clearly in Moria, as he holds back the Balrog. This monstrous demon of past ages is halted by an old man with a staff and a sword.
That is power.

Before your readers believe that the mentor is actually worth the villain’s time, you have to show their strength and necessity. Show us how your Frodo can’t survive (or even START the adventure) your Gandalf. Give us every reason to care about this character.
Another great Tolkien mentor is Aragorn. Sure, we tend to consider this man an Ally, but I see him as more of a mentor. He cares for the Hobbits: he leads them, feeds them, trains them, guides them. Without Strider, they’d never have made it to Rivendell.
We see his power in healing, in fighting, and in leading. Aragorn’s power is shown clearly and without doubt.

When you create and show your mentor to the world, let us see their strength, as well as their weaknesses. Show us their imperfections along with their strength, so that they become very human, and very powerful.

Breaking Strength

The thing is… if the mentor is so powerful, the villain must be that much more powerful. To create a true villain, they have to be able to win. That means the villain has to beat the mentor, right?

There’s a common trend of showing this defeat before the villain then faces the hero, to show how out of place and weak the hero is.
In Lord of the Rings, the Balrog wins. This servant of the dark powers we’ve yet to face defeats the strongest member of the Fellowship. In Star Wars, Obi-wan is defeated by Darth Vader, the servant of the dark powers we’ve yet to face.

Writers like to do this in the darkest moments, showing the hero at their weakest and the villain at their strongest. It shows us how much the hero has to grow before they can even begin to have the slightest chance of winning.
While this is powerful (and I advocate it wholeheartedly), we find a lot of clichés here that are proliferated because of these stories. For instance, the most common character death (no statistic I can provide, but if you go out there and look, you’ll find this to be true) is that of the mentor. Everyone kills the mentor. It seems that killing the mentor is the only way people know to show this defeat.

The thing is… why is death the only way mentors can be defeated? That’s not very original of us, if we just accept the fact and kill off our mentors blindly because that’s the way everyone shows how powerful their villain is.
Dare to be different.

If it’s cliché to kill the mentor (and it is), then how do we show the mentor’s defeat? I can think of several ways, which I’d like to share, if that’s all right:
Physical defeat. While killing the mentor fits in this category, there are also several other ways this can go: when the mentor has a physical talent they pass to the hero, show the mentor’s defeat in that physical talent. Whatever it is, the villain bests them at it.
Other forms of physical defeat include physical wounds, physical imprisonment, and physical weakness.

Mental defeat. An even better way to show the mentor’s defeat is to show the villain outsmarting them in some way. Mental defeat is much more powerful than physical defeat. Mental defeat leaves your mentor feeling powerless, in spite of their physical abilities and talents that they still possess in full measure. When the villain outthinks the mentor, it makes our main character look hopeless.
When the villain can mentally torture the mentor, it creates far more fear than physical pain. The truth is, people care a lot about their brains. They like having full possession of their mental capabilities. When a character loses that control, the reader loses it, too.

Emotional defeat. This is the most powerful and also the most difficult sort of defeat your characters can suffer. When the mentor is defeated emotionally, they aren’t sure if the goal is worth it anymore. It puts the themes and morals of the “good guys” at risk, on the line, at the brink. When the mentor questions what is right, the reader will, too. That’s the perfect place to have your reader. It’s the place where they are the most invested, the most vulnerable. It’s when you have the chance to show them that despite the questioning of those who we respect, the good is still good and the truth is still the truth.

In Conclusion…

Mentors are, as I’ve said before, excessively important characters. They drive your hero to greater heights, and they pull the reader along.
Done wrong, they’re cliché and flat and boring and we don’t care a bit about them when you destroy them.

Done right, and we weep right alongside the characters as they break down and question their own beliefs. Done right, mentors are powerful, powerful people.