Inspire: Holidays in Fantasy

There are very few of us who actually dislike holidays, and chances are those who are in fact unaffected by modern-day holidays probably aren’t reading this blog. I’d be interested to hear from you if that were the case, however.

Today’s topic is brought to you by Thanksgivvukah.

You know. Hannukah and Thanksgiving.

Regardless, holidays exist for a multitude of reasons. They could be religious observances, historical events, or as we’ve seen in the recent century, completely fabricated for profit.

I’m rather fond of holidays whose meaning change as historical events come to life. I never really liked Columbus much anyway.

But the real fun is inventing one’s own holidays for one’s own writing. In a setting taking place on your own world or perhaps an alternate version of our own, where new gods exist or even old ones forgotten have made a resurgence, there’re plenty of opportunities for holidays. Historical events, such as the landing of legendary conquerors or the invention of magic. Astronomical events can be a lot of fun as well. I’ve even played around with a holiday I simply called “Two Moon’s Day,” which is little more than your run-of-the-mill excuse to drink and feast in celebration of something happening.

Holidays carry a host of other considerations, however, not least of which being calendars, seasons, and how big your world actually is. Seriously, how likely do you think it is that another spinning orb out there, capable of housing life-sustaining conditions for humans (or at least what we recognize as humans in the context of the story/movie/game), also just happens to be the same size, have a single moon, and spin at the same speed?

I feel like many writers do not consider t his, but the very fact that we have seasons is not something universal (literally). Winter occurs because our world (Earth, for those of you paying attention) rotates on an axis, and we tilt on that axis due to a massive impact that happened billions of years ago. Most of this is 2nd Grade science, but still, the presence of shifting seasons is so prevalent that I’d almost venture a guess at one of two things:

1) The conscious choice was made by the author to make things relatable to the reader. “Eh, I’m not gonna change the seasons of this world because that’s too much work.” This’s perfectly acceptable if it is, in fact, planet Earth, but without specific references one is left to assume – or guess – and only if done well is that good writing.

2) Season in a 365 day calendar exist simply because of a lack of imagination. Narnia has winter even though the world is probably the size of, I don’t know, North and South Dakota? But C.S. Lewis gets a pass for that on account of Narnia (and it’s surrounding countries) more or less being a plane, as opposed to a planet. Middle-Earth is not a plane, but is also thoroughly more thought out; J.R.R. Tolkien gets a pass as well, on account of the tremendous cosmology and divine influences that are more or less truth in that world.

Westeros, on the other hand, is unique. As much as I hate to cite Game of Thrones for my examples of things (I often feel it is over-used), George R.R. Martin did something fairly unique among fantasy writers I’ve read. (Key phrase: That I’ve Read. Still reading, still looking; throw me some examples that are exceptions if you know of any!) Anyone familiar with Game of Thrones knows that winter in Westeros can last up to nine years (at least!). Here’s an awesome article about How Seasons Work (Or Don’t Work) in A Song of Ice and Fire , wherein the author’s stated reason is, “It’s magic.” But there’s a lot more; check it out.

Then, of course, there’s simply adopting currently existing holidays and converting them to one’s world. A great example of this would be from Azeroth, popular in Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Blizzard games are notorious for breaking the fourth wall and adding references to real-world things, so in a place like Azeroth the appearance of Hallow’s End (Halloween), Feast of Winter’s Veil (the equivalent of Azerothien Christmas, though the ambiguity of it is a safe winter holiday that can encompass anything), or the Lunar Festival (or what we call the Chinese New Year). Cleverly done, Blizzard.

So, we’ve got calendars, planetary axial tilts, celestial movements, and characters of history or religion. That’s a lot to consider when inventing holidays, but in the end the more you put into the backstory of your writing, whether or not the readers know it, the more it shows in the culture of your setting.

How about a holiday generator from Chaotic Shiny to really get some ideas?

Happy writing!

Concept: Slavery in Fantasy (light edition)

Slavery is among the most despicable of things conceived by man, and because of this, it makes for great villainy. It isn’t hard to hate a slave-owner, in fiction or otherwise. As an American, I am painfully aware of the fact that my country was built on the backs of slaves (most empires are), and there is no excusing it.

In fiction writing, slavery can and does exist in a myriad of ways. Whereas in the history of the United States the distinction between master and slave was visually obvious, in other parts of the world this may not be so. There was a great deal of slavery happening in Africa before white folks came along, and many such slaves were sold by native Africans to the Europeans. And slavery need not be restricted to the definition of hard manual labor vs. some guy with a feathered hat and a whip in his belt nearby. Slavery persists into the modern era, under guises we may not recognize. If I go further with this, I’d be stepping into the realm of modern sociopolitical ideas, so lets set that aside for the moment.

In fiction, slavery can be used as a tool for creating a villain or for drawing sympathy from a character – likely both at once, for those of us who are not cold blooded. But in fantasy, more aspects can be added to the mix to make things more interesting. One can opt to either make the distinction between those in charge and those in trouble clear —

When the distinction is clear and obvious, it makes our brains easy to understand the “us and them” concept. Turning the rulers into something bestial also tends to flip things around, as in our world something this extreme is born entirely of the imagination.

I’m sure he at least gets dental.

One could also make the distinction a little more subtle. Visual cues aside, perhaps there’s something deeper that influences someone into subservience?

Slavery is about power dynamics, oppression (both physical and mental), and the illusion of restriction. The classic line of slavedrivers (office supervisors, factory owners, mining prospectors, take your pick from whatever story you like), usually when being confronted by the hero, is: “These people,” gesturing towards the crowds of slaving folk, “are free to leave.” But, of course, there is a catch; the slaves don’t speak the language. They’re addicted to some kind of drug. Their families are held hostage. Violence and fear might work in the short term for smaller groups, but when it comes to domination of one race over another – or the formation of entire social castes – there’s usually some underlying aspect a bit deeper.

When adding slaves to any setting, it’s important to consider the social and economic impacts this would have on a society. Is the culture based on the enslavement? Are there pockets of resistance who, for some reason or another, disagree? If the slaves were to rise up, would it break the economy or disrupt the social order? Is there a distinction between steed, servant, or slave? Do the slaves even know that they’re slaves? Better yet, do some (all) of them in fact enjoy their servitude, or do they just not know any better? Is freedom a possibility for “good slaves that earned it” (As in say, Ancient Rome), or do the enslaved people/beasts/demi-humans believe that they deserve their lot in life?

Many things to consider, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface as they say. Hopefully if or when you undertake such a setting, you’ll keep some of these ideas in mind.

What of you, dear readers? What’s the first question you would ask when designing a fantastical slave race/owner setting?

Review: A Hat Full Of Sky

So it has come to my attention that I missed out on a post. Apologies, to anyone keeping track. I have a legitimate excuse!

Yes folks, I’m going to blame it on NaNoWriMo. Truly, this annual event has engulfed my mind and almost all of my time outside of Where They Think I Am Working. As for my progress itself, well, the bad news is that I fell behind (mostly on account of familial visitations on the weekends). But the good news is that I’m catching back up. A minimum of 2,000 words per day should put me back within the “finishing it in time” zone, but I intend to more than that to put myself ahead.

This is a public announcement, deserving of public shame should I not follow up with my promise!

Now then, on the review.

~~~

I’m fairly new to Terry Pratchet, and my experience of Discworld comes predominently from only one book, a film, and some brief exposure to an animated cartoon series. A Hat Full of Sky came to me as a sort of whim, I honestly thought to myself: “You know, I haven’t read anything like that since Interesting Times, I think I’m about due.”

I was not disappointed. Terry Pratchet’s writing style alone is worthy of praise, and only afterward did I find out that AHFOS was supposedly written with young readers in mind. Normally I don’t like Young Adult much, but seeing as I didn’t even notice, I don’t really care.

I’m not sure how to describe this except as genuine fun. The setting and plot is usually quite believable, the characters are hysterical, and the fantastical setting lends itself to madness. I look forward to my next T.P. book, of which you’ll hear about around here, most likely.

But AHFOS also took a surprisingly sharp turn from whimsical fun to the deep and rather philosophical. In the story, we discover a creature relevant to the plot known as a hiver, and according to the Discworld wiki, it is a sort of misunderstood parasite. Here’s a quote since the wiki can put it in better words than yours truly:

~[“A strange organism in many ways. They are like bodiless minds, but incapable of thought. Normally, they cannot be seen. They can be faintly heard, with a sound like a swarm of flies, and animals can certainly sense them. They are parasitic; they take over the mind and body of other creatures. Hivers normally target powerful creatures, like tigers, and when attacking Humans, aim for powerful ones such as Wizards and monarchs. The people and things a hiver consumes begin to become incredibly powerful, eventually dying insane. The reason why they do this seems to be because they’re afraid of the whole universe. They are completely and utterly aware of everything around them, knowing every single blade of grass, seeing all the colours in a tree. They envy humans because, in comparison, we are nearly blind, with the amazing talent known as ‘boredom’.”]~

The hiver is without doubt better experienced in the context of the story, but I found the concept of this creature fascinating. Ideas, and better yet creatures based on these ideas, regarding consciousness and otherwise bending the rules of what we perceive as consciousness really are made of the stuff that makes me want to sit back and think. Do not get me geeked out about Evangelion.

Just felt like sharing hivers with people.

Happy writing, dear readers!

Concept: Random Encounters

An element commonly used in stories, in general, is the random encounter.  This is what adds spontaneity to a narrative, and is usually the reason for things happening in the first place.

The random encounter is why peasant boys get tied up in princely politics, or why otherwise peaceful times are disrupted. In many video games, this is simply a mechanic used  to insert action and a means of garnering experience points or money, and in novels it can be used to expand the pages. The well-written ones are either A) those coming from out of left field, or B) those we saw coming, but weren’t sure how.

Take the journey of a caravan along a lengthy route, or perhaps a group of adventurers on their way to complete a quest. In such an event, any unforeseen obstacle along the way, particularly those involving bandits, monsters, or even a natural disaster, might present itself. It is the duty of the author to show meaning in these encounters; otherwise, there is an argument that they contribute nothing to the plot.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Adversity and obstacles are what make life life, and often enough, they serve no obvious purpose. In most any given day, a person will experience a long succession of forgettable moments that did nothing (visibly) to affect them. Minutiae will shape us, to be sure, but this does not make for good writing. It makes for boring text. How many of you remember (any of) those random encounter battles in [Insert_Serialized_RPG_Here]?

I too have fallen prey to this – writing encounters for the sake of encounters, because writing “…and they made it across the desert,” simply would not do. Or worse, because of NaNoWriMo or otherwise, trying to expand one’s word count. I’ll never forget a sequence in a certain line of novels about a certain famous dark elf where a horde of trolls was encountered in a swamp; I remember, even in the throws of enjoyment while exploring this novelist’s rendition of a familiar world, what the point of the sequence was. There was expansion for the sake of expansion, and this can be proven through by asking one’s self this:

Is the scene there because it provides foreshadowing, character development, or otherwise something else that moves the plot along?

Does the story suffer if the sequence were to be cut out via a certain Russian razor I’m fond of invoking?

Or is it there simply because you like it?

What inspired this post was in fact a random encounter in my own life; meeting up with an old High School friend after nigh ten years of, well, not communicating, was an experience both enriching and uplifting. It was not another forgettable event in an otherwise less than remarkable narrative, but something that rekindled memories and spurred a bit of on-the-fly creative juice for a certain blog post.

How’s that for random?

 

Inspire: Folk Heroes

I’ve always been attracted to martial arts. For a brief time, I had even taken some classes; Aikido, to be specific. I rather wish I had continued.

But that does not stop me from enjoying movies with over-the-top martial arts and under-the-decent budgets. We’re talking cheesy, poorly dubbed/subtitled films from the 70s, and not your classics as might be seen featuring Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. Those are in fact good. The movies of which I speak to you today, dear readers, fall more along the lines of terrible.

I was treated to one recently called “Deadly Snail vs. Kung Fu Killer.” Days after watching it, to its end, I am still unsure as to what happened. And that’s the magic of it.

Underpaid voice actors or no, branching out on these really obscure, horrendously made movies can have its benefits, creatively speaking. Aside from the whole “it’s so good it’s bad” and “what not to do when making a movie” arguments, let’s step back and think of a different angle.

Consider this. As a round-eyed gweilo westerner, when I view asian fantasies (and by asian I mean usually Chinese, though I saw a Taiwanese doozy called “Magic Spell” a few weeks ago. Talk about a flying circus.), like these, I’m being granted a glimpse – however grossly distorted – of a culture vasty different from my own. There are certain manuerisms or even iconic characters that will occasionally make an appearance. The Monkey King is one, a legendary fighter with a mischevious streak. I’ve seen fighting manifestations of the five elements (Wood, Metal, Fire, Water, andWind for those of you unfamiliar), and even manifestations of Eastern zodiac symbols. Then, of course, there are random ones that took me completely off guard, like a sort of ginger/ginseng spirit, or a snail fairy.

Many of these figures may have ancient origins, but a fairly recent one is one Wong Fei-Hung. This was a man who became a folk hero in a way that we really don’t have in the west, or at least in America. I suppose we have Davy Crockett or Che Guevara (depending on you talk to), but even they weren’t legendary. Prominent, but not legendary.

Whether from Kung-fu movies or revolutionaries, one does not need to look far for inspiration when it comes to inventing one’s own folk heroes. After all, one people’s folk hero is another people’s terrorist/traitor/demon.

Good stuff.

Happy writing!

Concept: Golems

Golems in fantasy are an strange and varied thing. No doubt you’ve encountered one in a game or novel at some point or another, made from materials either obscure or common. According to wikipedia…

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing. The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the Golem was brought to life and afterwards controlled.

It goes back even earlier, though, back to when the dust of Adam (as in, Adam and Eve of the Judeo-Christian mythos) was made into a golem. The way it goes is that golems were always made from mud, and were very close to the Christian god. Nifty stuff. Also very different from what we see today in popular fantasy.

So that’s the origin of the word, but what is a golem, exactly?

Aggregating details from a variety of sources, it would seem that a golem is most often a being made from inanimate material(s), then brought to life by magical or miraculous means. We see them most often as stewards and servants. Perhaps one could think of them as the robots of the fantasy realm. As with the famous golem of involving Judah ben Bezalel, golems are often seen made from mud or clay, and unlike robots don’t appear to be reliant on circuitry or a power source – depending on what mythos you choose to adhere to. Let’s look at some examples both conventional and debatable.

Heroes of Might and Magic series

Best image I could find.

The Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM) series of turn-based strategy games had many merits going for it, and if you were into golems, they didn’t disappoint. In HoMM 2 there were iron golems which could be upgraded to steel, and in HoMM 3 there were golems ranging from stone to iron, gold, and even diamond (only one not pictured – bottom-most images are from HoMM 5). They were generally slow, but highly resistant to magic, were tough (they’re not made out of flesh), and while they did not always hit hard, their evident strength was their refusal to die. It’s no wonder that wizards of many realms set about creating these things as servants; without the will to question their creators (see ahead…) and the means to both shrug off and inflict damage without any particular qualms about doing it, a golem of most any material could find its uses.

Shale – Dragon Age: Origins

Bane of all fowl.

Dragon Age was a game of tremendous immersion and enjoyable characters, not least of which Shale, a verbose and free-willed golem who joins the player after being rescued from being frozen as a statue in the town square for upwards of thirty years. It is eventually learned that Shale was once a dwarf, who’s spirit/mind was transferred into the empty shell of a deactivated golem – this is a very rare occurrence in the world from which she has come (Ferelden), but apparently it is possible. See also Full Metal Alchemist for a similar concept in action.

Blitzcrank – League of Legends

 

“Metal is harder than flesh.”

Another outright golem, powered by steam and likely made of gold, iron and steel. He was a happy accident type of scenario, where the magi/scientists of the age lashed him together for a specific purpose (hazardous waste reclamation), and he slowly attained sentience – and eventually full autonomy – not unlike Number Johnny 5.

The Tin Man and the Scarecrow

S: “Sheeet, you see dat ass?”
T: “I’d tap that oil field, if you know what I mean.”

 

You heard me.

A pair of magical beings, man-made constructs, with unknown origins and clearly no sense of discretion. The Tin Man would obviously be considered to be, in fact, a tin golem, but what of the scarecrow? Perhaps he is essentially a straw golem, draped in clothing to not only hold him together but provide the guise of a man.

They fit the bill if you ask me.

Inspire: Sword Metallurgy

So the gun has fired, and the race is on. National Novel Writing Month is since officially in full swing, and yours truly has thus been able able to keep up. I won’t get into many details about my story here, as that is not the purpose of this blog, but I will tell you that something integral to the plot is the creation of a weapon.

As it happened, this last weekend I went to visit family (and still managed to not fall behind in my NaNoWriMo word count!) and was pleasantly surprised to view a documentary relevant to my story – and general interest, for that matter. In this 50-minute piece, we learn of the Ulfberht, the name ascribed to a line of Viking swords forged between the years 800 and 1,000 AD. These were weapons vastly superior to the rest of Europe, and even – against all pop culture references – would give Japanese swordsmithing a run for its money.

Yikes.

You can find the documentary here. It is well worth the hour, whether you are an aspiring blacksmith or a fantasy writer.

Clear as day.

While watching this, I was inspired. I’d already mentioned that it was relevant to the piece of writing I’m endeavoring to accomplish for this month. What I haven’t mentioned is that I attempted to take up amateur blacksmithing back in the day – unsuccessfully, I might add – but for a teenager with no money and almost no help, the setup I had was pretty nifty. If for no other reason than to heat up railroad spikes and scrap steel to misshapen uselessness.

But that’s besides the point. The documentary covered numerous things, one of which I wanted to talk about today: the importance placed on the weapons of the vikings. Axes were effective, spears were cheap, but to own a sword was as much a symbol of wealth as it was a genuine honor to one’s ancestors. There were those (I can’t say all, but apparently enough for the lore to survive) who believed wielding a sword, such as the Ulfberht, endowed them with the power of their ancestors, or perhaps something else; a bear, a mountain, any number of those burlymanly type things. But it wasn’t so simple as to just have one of these things made and say “Yes, Olaf! This blade I hitherto name after my granpappy!”

To understand this, it’s necessary to have some grasp of the crafting of these materials. The Ulfberhts were made of superior steel of the age. Steel is an alloy of iron, found in its rawest form as just ore in the ground, and carbon, which was added to the iron usually in the form of coal. But these vikings did not use any old iron or any old carbon.

Iron, as well as forging techniques, were learned and found as far as Damascus, and carbon was acquired from the burning of bones at times. Imagine the symbolism of of having the carbon (who knows what they called coal) acquired from a certain special mountain? Or from the bones of a bear a warrior hunted?

Or the bones of his grandfather? Added to the iron, to make steel that not only rang of excellent metallurgical properties, but that of symbolic purpose as well.

We’re talking serious weaponry here, the kind that would cut through the blades of enemy defenders, powered by the strong arm of a Norseman who truly believed that his ancestors fought alongside him – or perhaps through him.

The intersection of mind (the belief behind the arm) as well as matter (the metal as well as the arm itself) really is something to be reckoned with.

I think their legacy speaks for itself.