What playing Dungeons & Dragons taught me about writing.

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I was planning to write this post a while ago, but work got in the middle (it still does, but I just ignored it for a bit). Then, that dastardly Leo McBride got his take out first at his blog Altered Instinct *shakes fist*. I recommend reading his entry as well *shakes fist once more*.

Unlike Leo, I have played fewer systems, basically just D&D 3erd Ed. BESM, Bureau 13 and Exalted. Of those, most of my gaming hours were dedicated to D&D or a homebrew modification my best friend, our local GM, concocted before passing away a few years ago. It was actually his main D&D campaign that taught me how to play and in a fun twist of fate, taught me a few lessons on writing, lessons I’m sharing now, in no order of importance. For context, my friend had the patience of a saint as most of the party was composed of unruly players (we came to blows at least once) and liked to bounce ideas with me as it was around the time I wrote my first story ‘Silver Horn’ (that, *shameless plug* you can read here) and I was plotting the first iterations of Tempest Blades.

Said that and without further ado, here is my take.

Characters are people.

It sounds obvious but it makes a whole world of difference to understanding it. See, each Playing Characters (PC) was in some way a reflection of who we were at the time of playing. Fionn, my main character in Tempest Blades had his origins in that game. However, the version of Fionn on the game is widely different from the version of the novel (even if they share similarities) because there is a decade of my personal experiences between them. Each player, knowingly or not put their emotional and psychological baggage in their character and that colored their interactions within the game. The fact that our GM asked us before playing and creating our characters to write detailed background history of our PCs added to that in-game personality as to play in character all the time. In a story or a book, we meet the characters at a particular point in their lives, but, if they are well written, had a life before the story’s plot. Understanding that allows you as a reader and even more as the writer to create the motivations and possible reactions of a character to a determined plot point. Not everyone reacts the same to an event, but every character reacts accordingly to their life story up to that point. Getting that is what helps you to develop fully fleshed characters instead of serviceable pawns for moving the plot. When you write your characters, create a small bio of them, so you learn to see them as persons rather than just words and thus their actions will become organic within your plot.

The story is about the characters, not the plot.

Many people focus on the plot of a story, like many players focus on just hacking and slashing their way to epic levels. But what makes a D&D campaign, or any RPG game for that matter, satisfactory is the character’s growth. And I’m not referring to stats. I’m talking about who they are as a person. Have they overcome their fears? Their need for vengeance? Have they found their place in the world? Let’s be honest, most plots in most novels are serviceable. Even ASOIAF has a pretty straightforward plot, split in two (the Game of Thrones and the Long Night, good vs. evil) that is a simple as the one in LOTR. What makes ASOIAF so enthralling to fans is the layers of complexity and nuisance the smaller plots bring to those larger ones thanks to each individuals character’s story. You may have a serviceable plot, but what will make or break your story is the characters. You might have the best plot of the world with unexpected twists and subversions, but if your characters are two-dimensional, your plot will be boring.

No one knows everything, Jon Snow.

This is a temptation many writers, including me, fall for frequently: who knows what. When you play an RPG, you as a player might know the stats of each weapon in the land, every bit of lore of the world, every nook of the rules to get ahead. GM frown at that and readers as well for one reason: your character is not you and it is inside the world, so they shouldn’t know everything because they take the magic away, derail the plot and breaks suspension of disbelief. As writers, we tend to find a character that knows everything and acts as Mr. Expository. Every writer falls into that trap at some point: Yoda, Bran Stark, that random lady of the corner store. However and unless your character is a deity (and even then there must be some restraint). Aside from the fact that know-it-all characters are annoying as hell, we experience the world where our characters dwell through their eyes and like in real life, no one can know everything. Part of any respectable quest is to find the piece of lore that solves the quest, even if the world is large enough to have more lore lying around. You as the writer might know how everything fits, and from time to time a bit of infodump can be useful. But remember, characters know only what they have learned, nothing more. Keeping them in the dark helps the reader to relate to them and share their struggles wonder with the world you have created (which incidentally explains as well why 3rd. person omniscient narration has fallen into disuse. Brent A. Harris will mock me when he reads this admission).

Each act has a consequence.

As I mentioned, my party members were unruly and that was a source of frustration for our GM (I was the min-maxer, another guy was so annoying that I punched him in the face because he derailed the plot to do really stupid things just for the lulz, etc). Our GM then found the way to reign over us: each stupid thing we as a player did, had a dire consequence for our characters. My character? Lost his family sword and had to go on a quest to get it back (I will talk about this point later). The annoying rogue? Got tortured for pissing off the wrong person, to the point his stats were permanently reduced. Our paladin that had become way too violent? Lost his paladin powers and had to retire from the party to regain them (this one, in particular, was a way our GM found to help a player that had grown bored with the restrictions of the paladin class, he retired the character and created a new one that later joined the party, without killing the paladin). Unlike certain video games and as in real life, each character’s action must have a consequence logical to their action and personality and that has to mesh with the overall plot: did they saved the world in front of thousands of people? Now they are famous, which hinder their abilities to help others and put a target on their backs for the bad guys to use them. Killed someone in battle? Maybe a family member of the deceased has sworn vengeance. A character lost a limb during the fight? Show him/her learning how to overcome that (see Jaime Lannister).

Each character’s improvement must be earned.

I mentioned in the point before how my PC lost his family sword and had to go on a quest to get it back. Well, aside from the fact that he had to do most of that naked (he lost his clothes as well), he never recovered said sword, it was destroyed. However, the experience helped me to make my character learn how to fight bare fisted and after all ended, found a more powerful sword. But the quest, more importantly, changed his personality, making him more mature and thoughtful, it helped him to become a better hero (and me a better player). Even if your character is born with special powers, he must learn how to use them effectively. Every ability that your character has, every weapon he possesses and used must feel earned. Otherwise, he or she becomes a Gary Stu/ Mary Sue and loses any depth might have had before. Like in real life, things cost money, effort, practice. You don’t need to show in detail all of that, but you need to mention at some point how the character learned what he knows or who taught him. Otherwise becomes Batman in bat-god mode, and no one likes bat-god mode (I say this as a Batman fan).

Each arc must have a payoff.

In an age where franchises are the rage and people write multiple book sagas, trying to go for a trilogy like LOTR (which for starters was never a trilogy, it was just printed that way due the limitations of the time), it’s easy to leave the payoff for the next book and keep postponing it till the reader loses interest and there are so many plots ends that you get strangled with them (which is what I think is happening to G.R.R. Martin). It is what kills franchise movies and it is what kills your books.

I have a friend that reads on average 30 books per year, but she never, ever buys, with the exception of ASOIAF, sagas that are not finished. She hates having to wait for years for a resolution that may never come. If she buys a book of a saga, odds are she will buy and read the whole saga. It is like an RPG campaign, you can string the players along for your overall arc, but if you don’t give them some sense of closure and achievement now and then, they will lose motivation to keep playing. Split your story in arcs that can get a payoff that impacts on the overall plot. Terry Pratchett was a master of this. He wrote 40+ books of Discworld, each one can be read individually (with the exception of the very first two) and each book has a conclusion. And yet they are part of the same continuity and when read all together you can see the overall arcs in each individual group, be it the Night’s Watch, Death, and Susan, The Witches or the Wizards. I’m actually following this scheme: each one of the proposed Tempest Blades books will be an adventure with a conclusion, but that conclusion impacts the overall plot and there is a progression. However, the reader will get a payoff to that particular story.

Escalation is a problem.

Things escalate powers, wars, abilities. But unless you are prepared to write or play an epic campaign where the characters challenge deities, keep their powers in check, make that escalation slow, earned. Don’t make your character to physically powerful, keep them grounded so when they let loose all their powers it feels epic and not another Tuesday. Otherwise, it will become as ridiculous as Dragon Ball or the old EU of Star Wars.

Good dialogues.

This is short, the best memories of a gaming session I have are not limited to badass fighting scenes, they include the banter, the jokes, the sarcasm and the ‘drop the mic’ moments that made us laugh or clap. Good, fast paced, fun dialogue can make wonders for your characterization and your plot pace. It can even be used to drop key pieces of information and even lampshade the situation. Good dialogue is what keeps a reader engaged.

World building vs. monocultures.

The world is a large place. Each place has a distinct culture, different religions (and approaches to them), different myths, different legendary weapons, social mores, taboos, geography. The best sessions I had playing where with homebrew worlds that allowed for that world building diversity. I rarely play in official settings because of the monoculture pitfall -like in Star Trek- gets boring and is very limited. Have fun creating, have fun to develop seemingly contradictory facts. In ASOIAF, there are like 6 different legends regarding the Long Night that contradict each other (Azor Ahai, The Prince that was Promised, The Last Hero, The lady with the monkey tail, etc). Not all of them have to make total sense, they just need to feel coherent with the culture and the world the characters live in. Like in the real world. Think how many creation myths the ancient cultures had. They had similarities, but they had as well contradictory facts. What is a weapon of mass destruction for a culture, can be an object of worship for another.

Diversity is good, it is a fact of the universe. Don’t fall into the trap of the monocultures because not even modern societies are the same all over the planet. Embrace the wackiness of diversity, for there are hidden treasures that may come into play with your overall plot and make it richer.

As long as every element seems to be coherent (when it comes to myths there is some leeway) and adds to the sense of wonder and mystery of your world, the more the reader will be hooked into the story. I mean in ASOIAF I want to know what the hell lies in Sothoryos even if I know Martin will never explore that piece of his world. But the fact that it has been referenced means that it exists and thus makes the world more solid.

A mixed approach to writing, to keep your sanity intact.

If I learned something of my GM was to plan on the fly. He worked diligently in his plot for weeks and when the session came, the players ruined everything. However, he came always prepared with a menu of options (think those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books) that helped move his plot, while taking into account what his players might do, leaving him leeway. And even when something came out of the field, he learned to incorporate that into the tapestry of the story he was weaving. This takes me to the often heard dichotomy of a writer of being a ‘more pants’ or a ‘planner’. Personally, and based on my own experience, this is a false dichotomy. You can be both. Like my GM what I do when I’m plotting a story is that I create the overall arc, with the key scenes I need to get things done, but no more than that. The in-betweens of those key scenes are ideas I write on the fly, letting my characters guide me through them. I tried to be a ‘pantser’ and I lost a decade of writing, I tried to be a planner and got bored easily due to my lack of attention span. But being both, while having the end game of the story at hand and the characters well developed has helped me to write faster and better.

Keep it Simple. Have fun.

RPGs are meant to be fun, social experiences. The same should apply to writing a book or a short story. If you are not having fun with the overall process, then the story will suffer and your reader will notice. Granted, we all have bad days, bad gaming sessions and tough-to-write scenes and chapters, but they shouldn’t detract from the general experience. Play the games you want to play. My advice for this is: write the book you would like to buy and read. The one that brings you the most fun. Then you will be proud of it. And with some work, even create your own RPG rulebook.

The blood of the wolves. Some musings on Game of Thrones.

Warning: Possible spoilers from last Sunday's episode. If you are not up to date then don't read this.

I know many people are excited about the last minutes of 'Spoils of War', finally witnessing the full power of a gamebreaker weapon as a dragon against a medieval army. And for all intents is cool. But for me, there was a second scene that made the episode:

 

Not only it was well choreographed, it showed two of the best fighters of Westeros merely sparring. But more than that it was Arya's face full of unbridled joy that made the scene for me. It goes back to the first season and her training at hands of Syrio Forel. For all the awful things the Starks kids have gone through, it was nice to see one smiling for a change -Jon rarely smiles, Sansa has learned not to, Bran is dead and the Three Eyed Raven (3ER) has taken his place- and I think it is fitting that Arya, the wild child of the bunch is the one doing it.

But the other reason this scene struck me as important is one tiny detail. It's not the fact that Arya can go toe to toe with Brienne and basically play with her. It is how she acquired such ability and what that does means for the Stark family.

My theory is that at the end of the day, the only great house -in which form, it remains to be seen- that will remain standing is the only house that long ago forsook any mundane power. House Stark, with their grim house words, was never about getting more powerful for the sake of power, unlike the Lannisters or even the Targaryen. The Stark aimed to obtain power but of a different nature. They wanted magical power because they are at the end of the day the first and last line of defense against the supernatural in Westeros. The Game is just a side activity to cover their tracks.

Previously I have shared my musings online about Game of Thrones in Altered Instinct's blog. Back then it was about the source of power in the greater story. Back then I pondered that for different reasons, the common trait of several key players on the story rested deep in their blood. It conflagrated nicely with the medieval idea that royal houses and more important royal blood had divine powers, an idea better reflected by the imagery used in legends such as the Fisher King and even the Holy Grail and JesusChrist'sfamily. And then I read this essay at Tower of the Hand, written by Steven Attewell that tangentially mentioned the fact that for the great houses of Westeros, the Stark had the strongest link to the magic of the world.

We know the Starks not only are descended of the First Men but somehow have Children of the Forest's blood running through their veins. It is what gives them their warg abilities, as seen with Bran. Their founder, Bran the Builder created the Wall and Storm's End, both structures enhanced with magical properties to deflect supernatural enemies. He also started the construction of Winterfell.

The interesting thing that the aforementioned essay brings forth is that the Stark continued adding magic to their bloodline. For starters, they reined on the Bolton's, their direct northern rivals that the canon books suggest were something akin to necromancers or used blood magic, hence the flayed people decorating their gardens. Odds are that some Bolton blood got into the Stark one at one point.

Then, during the Targaryen rule, they had a royal dragon rider staying there for a few days and it has been rumored that the crypts of Winterfell guard a few dragon eggs. Considering that Winterfell was built to have warm waters from a thermal underground source running inside the walls to keep a comfortable temperature during winter, it becomes out of the sudden a nice place to keep dragon eggs, just in case of an emergency.

This leads me to the following. While Bran -sorry, the 3ER- signals the return of the wargs abilities long dormant on the Stark bloodline, Arya and Jon represents the most recent acquisitions of magic powers.

In the case of Arya -and here I will deal now with mostly the show as you know the status of the books- the power of the Faceless Men is hers. Yes, her training might have been truncated, but I doubt that the Faceless Men would let her go so easily. There must be something else afoot. As Melissandre once told her, she has a destiny of many closed eyes in front of her. And she has put those powers to great use for her family, avenging her mother, brother and unborn niece/nephew. The ability to shape-change into another person -an ability I might add that was rumored the Bolton had as well at some point in the past- is the main power here. The mechanism of how that works haven't been explained, but certainly, needs a degree of magic in the blood to make it work. Her combat style as while has some preternatural movements, reactions faster than any seasoned fighter.

As for Jon, well by now we are sure who his parents are and he has Targaryen blood, which makes him a potential dragon rider. But I think it goes beyond that. For starters, I'm getting to the point where I doubt that Lyanna's father and elder brother weren't aware of Rhaegar's plans. I'm starting to think that they knew they were in love and Rhaegar wanted her as a wife. I think as well they knew of the prophecy of the 'Prince that was Promised' as it fits with the Imaginarium of the Northern myths and traditions. That the Mad King killed them and Robert started a rebellion was result of unforeseen actions (I blame the 3ER) and unexpected events. At the end of the day, what better weapon to fight the ancestral enemy of the Starks than a dragon? Jon was the first true attempt to bring the dragon blood into the Stark bloodline. If you add the fact that Jon has now tasted the power of R'hollr and has returned from the dead (another parallel to Christian motifs), we can see that Jon's blood has more power than he even knows. It's no wonder the Night King has targeted him as his main rival.

My nascent theory is that when all is done and the 'wheel is broken' leaving Westeros in a new shape, and providing people survive the Second Long Night, House Stark will remain standing, maybe in a different shape, as custodians of the underworld. The dragon might need three heads, but you know what else had three heads in mythology? Cerberus, the guardian dog of the Underworld. That, I believe, is the true endgame for House Stark. Because the world of Game of Thrones has two other continents full of eldritch abominations -the eastern shores of Essos, Sothoros- and the Iron Men pray to what basically sounds as Cthulhu. There are plenty of things that need to be beaten by the Wolves.

I dunno, at the end of the day these may just be random ramblings written while I should be working. But makes me wonder if that is the intention Martin had at the start or was something that developed organically. What is truth is that as for now, House Stark, the perennial underdogs of the story has now three powerhouses in term of superhuman power. And in a world where a dragon is such a game breaking weapon, the ability to warg into animals -including flocks of ravens and maybe a dragon-, shape-change into other people, moving as a ninja and have ice and fire in your blood plus coming back from death, all concentrated with three siblings make for a very interesting perspective of what might happen. If not, it would make good material for a story.

Moana’s Quest and the ethereal villain

 

Let me preface this entry by explaining that this is not a review of Moana. I’m too late for that train. It is more of a reflection upon some comments my wife made me the other day about Moana. For better context: my wife and I grew up with a steady diet of Disney movies, so we are basically Disney children. However where things differ is that my wife is really into Dinsey animated movies, especially the Princess ones to the point that she and my sister in law can recite, word for word, songs included, most of the classics f the om top of their heads. Her all time favorite is the Little Mermaid by the way (and she knows ALL songs by heart. ALL). She tends to watch them with a critical eye I only use for comic related things or my own writing. She didn’t like Frozen and is warm luke to Moana, whilst for me, Moana is my second favorite Disney movie (the first one being the Lion King). Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, it’s a sustainability parable  is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

So it was a shock for me a few days ago, when I finally had money to buy the blu-ray edition, that my wife said that while she liked Moana enough, it wasn’t a good movie for her. I was aghast so I asked her to explain herself and in summary, her biggest complaint is that Moana, unlike other Disney Princess movies (or Disney movies in general) lacks a clear villain, taking away some of the conflicts from the plot. And that left me thinking about what I’m gonna write right now.

Moana, for the most part, is a kid-friendly approach to the Hero of Thousand Faces heroic journey or monomyth as author Joseph Campbell called it (which by the way, if you are planning to write fantasy, it would be a good idea to check that book). From the refusal of the call to the visit to the underground, Moana checks many of the items of the monomyth. However, my wife is right. It doesn’t have a proper villain.

Teka is more a force of nature created by the actions of men (this is important later for the sake of the post), looking for the heart of Te Fiti for spoilery reasons. Other than that it doesn’t have more motivation that just exists. The Kokomora and Tamatoa are not the main villains, they act more as obstacles. But they are not the main antagonist of the movie. And none of them spend time on screen beyond a few minutes to explain their real motivations. They are just there. Compare that to other classic villains like Ursula, Scar, and Jaffar, who are antagonistc villains and you can see that my wife has a point there.

Now the movie does have a few antagonists, but not in the traditional good-bad dichotomy. One of them, in particular, is vital for the story. This antagonist is there to counter Moana’s views and help her with her personal growth. Notice that I’m not calling him a villain because he is not. He is for most of the movie an anti-hero at a crossroads and goes by the name of Maui. You will say: ‘hey he is the deuteragonist, the other hero of the story’. And for the last third of the movie he is. But on the first part of the movie he is there messing with Moana’s plans for his selfish/not-so-selfish reasons and is on a personal growth journey as well. It’s only when he realizes that both journeys share the same ultimate objective that he goes from anti-hero to bonafide hero. To put it simply, he is the Han Solo to Moana’s Luke/Leia, down to the last minute rescue in a falcon shape.

So if Moana apparently doesn’t has an antagonistic villain, where is the conflict? Well, I think that it does has a villain, but is not a physical one.

Stories like Game of Thrones have got us used to the idea that even villains have proper motivations, that deep inside, they believe they are right and that they are the true heroes of the story. Cersei, for example, does at first most things for the sake of her children. Only the Others/White Walkers haven’t shown a real motivation so far, acting more like a boogeyman or a force of nature. Long gone are the days of evil for the sake of evil villains, like Palpatine. But even so, we are still used to think of villains in terms of an actual guy opposing the heroes for nefarious purposes. And this is where Moana deviates from the norm in a clever way.

Remember when I mentioned the ‘acts of men’ as the cause of the crisis in the story of Moana? Well, it was their constant abusing of Maui’s desire for approval (the guy is still hurting from being abandoned as a baby) that pushed too far the balance, making him steal the heart of Te Fiti and creating Tekai as result. The ‘acts of men’ are also seen in the way of thinking uphold by Moana’s father about not venturing away form the island, forgetting completely his culture’s tradition of wayfinding. This is where Moana becomes a sustainability parable: the actions of our predecessors have caused a disruption on the futures of our descendants. I see Tekai as a symbol of Mother Earth lashing out against humankind for their excess, as a representation of climate change for example, or pollution, that withers the land and deprive us of nurturing elements.

It’s only when Moana understands this, that the ‘acts of men’, the loss of their traditional communion with nature, the close minded way of thinking and greed has caused this crisis that she is capable of reaching an agreement with Tekai to return the heart to its proper place and restore the balance. Of all the people of her island she was chosen  by the Ocean, that allied force of nature, because she is not only smart enough to realize this but compassionate and brave enough to raise up to the challenge of breaking with the societal conventions, the popular wisdom of her context to find a new way of life. In this case, the villain is not a physical one, is an ethereal one composed by many negative thoughts that mired her, her family and even Maui and take a final embodiment in Tekai.

Sometimes, the villains of a story, the real ones, are not the guys in black robes trying to conquer the world, but the inner demons, the preconceptions, the baggage that drags the main character down. Those are villains of equal importance if not more and only when the hero realizes that and is willing to overcome them is that they become able to solve the crisis at hand. So I contend that Moana does have a villain and a central conflict, but not in the shape we are used to from other Disney movies.  And for that,  and for having such a kickass female hero that breaks from the traditional role of a Disney Princess (that’s a topic for another post), I think Moana is superb.

Welcome to (insert name)! On how places get named

Valendale. Courtesy of Freemaps.org

I’ve been thinking lately about how names of places come to be. It’s an especially jarring task when you are world building either for a book or for your role playing sessions.

Most authors (and DM at that) try to go for the Tolkien route: create bombastic sounding names to put in their locations, buildings, even family names. I have done that. But it usually reads and feels hollow, forced, unnatural. It feels like a tacky label glued onto something. The other route is to create a weird sounding word and use it. This is the method I usually use (taking advantage of the frequent misspellings I have by typing too fast on my phone). While useful for minor things, it sounds forced as well with bigger things, namely location names.

I’m not saying this a diss to anyone, as I said, I have done it myself, both in my D&D sessions and in the first drafts of Tempest Blades (when it had other names like Curry -don’t ask why-, Wings of Thunder and so on). But lately, while I’m revising and editing the novel I find myself pondering more on the topic.

The thing is that Tolkien could get away with it because before being a writer he was a superb philologist that had read, translated and studied several old texts such as the Kalevala and the original Beowulf. He studied how the words came to be before doing it himself. It is said that Middle Earth came to be from the need to give a home for the languages he was creating. Thus every elvish word he used had an etymological origin within the language and context of the LOTR universe. That’s why places like Rivendell or Mordor feel like real places. While we are not Tolkien, the process he followed is not different from what happens in real world.

That made me realize something: most location names in real life are not created that way. Regardless of how they sound now, most of them are not all were derived from ancient words used to describe to others where you lived. It was a way to tell your address in a time where there was no concept of addresses or maps. Rivendell has a meaning like The Shire for their inhabitants not related to any mystic word, but usually coming from a descriptor of a place, like ‘clear water’ or ‘under the waterfall’ or ‘mud city’. There are some names that came from real or legendary persons, usually the ones that founded the place such as Alexandria (Alexander the Great) or Rome (Remus), or where people believed their deities communicated with them or were blessed by them, like Athens and Athena. A few of them come from actual events, legends of what happened there. Names reflect either the place or the history of the people that dwelled there. Even humorous confusions can be used for that.

Let’s take a few examples from real life. In Mexico, there is a state called Yucatan (where Cancun and the Mayan Ribera are located). There are two theories about the actual meaning of the name ‘Yucatan’: one that means ‘yu ka t’ann = listen how weird they talk’, which was said by the locals when the Spaniards arrived and the later thought it was the name of the place. The other says ‘Ci u t’ann = I don’t understand you’, again the locals trying to explain the Spaniards that no, not everybody spoke Spanish back then (kinda what happens now with some English speaking tourists, but I digress).

Now take a look at the home of the Bard: Stratford-upon-Avon. Let’s examine it by parts. Stratford is the result of the combination of the Old English strǣt, meaning ‘street’, with ford, indicating a shallow part of a river or stream, allowing it to be crossed by walking. ‘Upon’ is the relative position of the place with respect to the nearby river the Avon. In turn, Avon comes from the Celtic ‘abona’ (or so I have read, please correct me if I’m wrong). So a literal translation of the name would be ‘Street upon the shallow part of the river’ or something like this. There are plenty locations around the world that sound exotic to us Spanish or English speakers but that to the original inhabitants of the place were common descriptors to explain the place where they lived and which words, with the pass of time became nouns by themselves.

Now, writers in the science fiction, fantasy and science fantasy genres tend to get very ‘imaginative’ with the names of the places and institutions, even the last names (more on this one later) but there are truly a few memorable ones. Everybody knows that ‘King’s Landing’ is the nominal capital of Westeros in ASOIAF. But the name has its history explicit on it. It is the place where Aegon the Conqueror settled from Dragonstone to start his campaign to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. That little piece of world building makes the place feel more real for the reader and not just a wild invention to get out of the issue fast. It can happen that the name was quickly created, but so many things happen there through the story that the name becomes ‘solid’. Which is arguably what happens with most names in Star Wars. Regardless, if you are going to use a locale for more than a passing reference, then dedicating a bit of thought on how that name came to be can help to make the place feel ‘real’ and even get plot points across.

This has changed my approach to how I name places in my stories, mainly in the Tempest Blades universe. I go with the descriptor route, with the memorable event/person or with something inspired in my real life.

For example, in Tempest Blades one of my characters studies at a university that has ‘Mercian’ as a name, because it is located in the Mercian region of the Emerald Island. Yes, it sounds weird, but I chose it for a reason. Mercian comes from Mercia, an ancient 6th-century kingdom in England. I obtained my Ph.D. at Loughborough University, whose coat of arms includes the Offa of Mercia´s cross, and whose current location falls withing the old borders of that kingdom. So while the name sounds weird, it is, in reality, a veiled reference to my alma mater which now has a counterpart in my setting (which in turns facilitates describing the place in the novel). Yes, it is a bit of projection, but I want to see it as an homage to a place that has importance in my life. Some places in my novel are derived from real world places that have captivated my mind.

Then there is Saint Lucy’s, the capital of the Emerald Island and the place where the final battle of the first novel takes places, which was named after a saint that blessed the war effort. You have Ravenhall and Ravenstone, both places named after the Raven, aka the Trickster Goddess (the main deity of my setting) or The Maze, which got its name due to the weird spatial configuration of the place that makes people get lost inside it.

Finally, I have Belfrost, the city of spies. This place will appear in later stories (since it was cut from the first novel). Its name is a contraction of ‘Belger’s Frost’. It’s a city on a mountain range that separates the Ionis continent from the as yet unnamed continental mass where the mysterious grasslands are. It was founded by Belger the explorer on a frosty peak and was the last place where he was seen alive before leaving to explore the grasslands, to never been seen again. Thus the name of the city is a homage to its founder.

I think for the most part this has helped me to give the cities of the setting a little bit more of personality and a connection to the characters and the history of that world. I don’t know if this method will help anyone, as often worldbuilding tends to distract from the actual writing, but at least in my case, it has helped me to solve the issue of naming places while writing without making them feel empty or unreal. They feel more tangible (at least in my head). It has also helped to move plot points in way I didn’t expect but now make sense within the story and have as well allowed me to think on more ideas for future stories.

Before closing this post, I want to mention the last name issue. Most last names in the world were created as descriptors of an animal totem, a  work the person was doing like Archer for example; from the place where they lived (most Spanish last names); derived from first names to denote ancestry (again like most Spanish names or nordic names, e.g. Johansson = son of Johan) or to denote important events on the originator’s life (e.g. my last names comes literally from victory, as my great, great grandfather changed his mouthful of last name to Victoria, to celebrate a battle he won against the Spaniards during Mexico’s Independence War). It’s not a rule of course, but it could be a good guide when it comes to giving last names to your characters.

Mentorship roles

Full disclosure: while I had doubts about the new Spider-man movie re-threading the same old plots, the new trailer has assuaged those doubts and I’m eagerly waiting to see it.

Full Disclosure 2: I’m a big fan of Iron Man, specially RDJR’s portrayal of how messed up is Tony. For this post, I will be talking only about his MCU version and not the comic version.

The latest trailer of Spider-man: Homecoming was released and for once I feel like I’m actually watching the Spidey version I grew up with. I’ve never been a big fan of the Raimi films and I liked the first Garfield’s movie, not so much the second. This one feels like proper Spidey. However, I have seen in the interwebs a point of contention: Tony Stark’s role.

We know that Tony is for most of the time, a hypocrite. Most rich superheroes (with maybe the exception of Batman) tend to be so. It’s part of their appeal as it shows them as fallible persons and thus they are more relatable than boy scouts like Superman, but I digress, that’s a topic for another post.

Besides the contention of why Iron Man is in the movie, the hotly debated thing is the attitude he takes with Peter, scolding him and taking the suit, telling him what to do or don’t do, especially in lieu of a mistake by Spidey that almost ended in tragedy if it weren’t for Tony’s opportune help. This exchange is the highlight:

Tony: “What if somebody had died?”

Peter: “I was just trying to be like you.”

Tony: “I want you to be better. I’m going to need the suit back.”

Peter: “But I’m nothing without this suit.”

Tony: “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”

Pretty telling uh? Most people criticizing it come from two points:

1)What’s Tony without the suit? (answer: genius billionaire, playboy & philanthropist)

2)Tony is being a hypocrite because he has messed up as much or even more than Peter. Basically, Tony’s whole story is a redemption arc for his past failures (Vanko, the weapon illegal sales) while he creates new ones and most of his own villains (Stane, Killian, Ultron, Cap’s Avengers). He had no one to take his suits from him and teach him a lesson. He took down his own team! This camp blames him of ‘Do as I say and not as I do’.

Fair points, but I disagree with them, and not because I’m a fan of Iron Man. But because to anyone that has seen the Iron Man Trilogy + Avengers Duology knows, this is fairly consistent with Tony’s personality. In fact, I contend that is the next logical step of his character arc, gearing to the time when RDJR finally steps down.

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Tony is defined by a set of very personal characteristics:

  • It’s an addict: to women, to alcohol, to adrenaline, to technology. But he is a recovering addict sobering up after his latest fiasco (Sokovia and the Avengers’ Civil War). Right now, he is in the equivalent of the AA for superheroes.
  • It’s haunted by regret: Tony messes up a lot. He is not perfect as Steve or honorable as Thor. But he is self-aware enough to admit that and humble enough to try and fix it (whether he fails more than succeed is up for the jury). Most of his career as a superhero has been about owning his disasters and trying to fix them while at the same time grow as a person and helping to create a better world (e.g. free clean energy for all).
  • He has confronted his own mortality and that of his friends: that experience has put a lot of perspective on his own actions.
  • He has proved that he is more than his suit: Iron Man 3 is basically an ode to the idea that Tony is Iron Man because of his resilience, smarts, and bravery. The suit is a piece of metal that can be controlled by anyone. Iron Man is really what Tony is as a person.
  • He lost his parents when he was a teenager and his relationship with Howard was strained at best. He doesn’t know how to interact well with others because he has issues… lots of issues.

If we consider that, then his role in Peter’s life is clearer: he is the surrogate dad that has come from a bad place in his life, has a lot of regrets and is trying to connect to this kid to exorcise his own ghosts while at the same time being the mentor he never had. And as a teacher/mentor, I  can tell you: it’s never easy and often you come off as a hypocrite because you are trying to teach the younger generation the lessons learned from being imperfect and creating more problems than the one you solve.

He is not taking the suit from Peter as a hypocritical punishment. He is taking it to teach him two lessons that Tony himself had to learn the rough way:

  • The suit doesn’t define you. Again, Iron Man 3 explained that particular point of view of Tony. Peter doesn’t need a suit to be Spidey. His powers are not dependent on it. He is smart enough to have developed his own webbing way before Tony entered his life. Peter is a genius. But above all, Peter is Spidey because he is a teenager that knows right from wrong and has the will to act in consequence to help others. He learned that the hard way with Uncle Ben. But it is a lesson that resonates: acts have consequences and helping others help you as well. What Tony wants Peter to learn is that he doesn’t need a fancy suit to be Spider-man; he is Spidey because of who he is and what he does. He needs to realize his own potential as human being. I think many teachers can relate to that.
  • Be prepared. Superheroing is most of the time an act of improvisation. But that doesn’t mean that you have to jump into action without a care in the world. If you are fighting in a ferry, you have to be careful that the ferry won’t sink. Be observant, be smart.

Both are lessons that took Tony 5 movies to learn (Avengers 1 doesn’t count for this particular arc).

Tony takes this mentorship role with Peter because at first, he felt guilty from drawing him into the conflict with Steve. That exposed Peter to a life way different to just dealing with petty criminals in Queens. That Peter is trying to tackle bigger challenges after that taste of the big leagues makes Tony feel guilty and worried that Peter might get seriously hurt or worse (he already has Rhodey to feel guilty about). But later it seems that he has grown fond of this kid that in many ways is a reflection of Tony’s potential at the same age. And Tony knows what is to be addicted to the adrenaline and dependant of a suit. He doesn’t want that for Peter.

As Tony said to Peter in the trailer, he just wants him to be better than he is or has been. Tony is not scolding Peter for messing up, that’s on par of the course of a superhero’s life. Tony is scolding Peter for acting like Tony has done before. He is trying to protect Peter from heartache and regret, to show him the ropes while at the same time saving him from committing the same mistakes that have left Tony’s personal life a total wreck. In a certain way, Tony is trying not only to protect Peter, to teach him and even sponsor. He is seeing this kid as his natural replacement when he finally steps down from the Avengers. Tony sees in Peter untapped potential to be the greatest hero of all: a kid with the spirit of Captain America and the genius of Iron Man.  Tony, as a futurist he has right now an eye on the future and he knows he probably will die (and many others) protecting Earth. Thus part of his legacy would be a new, younger superhero to take the mantle fo the Avengers and protect Earth in the future. And for Tony that means to be as tough as he can, in his own screwed up version of parenting, with Peter.

This takes me to the second part of this posts: mentors in fiction, like in real life are imperfect people trying to do right. Take a look to the ur-example of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Skywalkers. Ben, even with his tempered wisdom still fails as a mentor (and it is hinted that Luke has as will with his own nephew). That’s part of the crux of the Skywalker saga. And yet Ben gave it all in order to serve a higher ideal, out of love for all living beings in general and Anakin (and by extension his family) in particular.

Ned Stark was a lousy mentor to his own children because his vision of honor, while commendable, didn’t fit the worldview of the rest of Westeros, leading Jon, Sansa, Arya and Bran to learn to be clever than him in order to survive (Rob never learned the lesson and the result was a very messy wedding). But Ned Stark was for all intents and purposes a good dad that loved his children above all.

You can write a whole psychology book on how Batman has messed up his kids. And don’t let me start with Green Arrow (my favorite superhero) and his relationship with Roy. In fact the only mentor that is nigh perfect that I can think of is Splinter from the TMNT, but then their story is not about learning, but about facing challenges as a family.

My own novel in editing, Tempest Blades is centered around this idea (at least the first volume): Fionn my main character and from whose POV most of the story is narrated was a flawed mentor to a friend, which has had dire consequences for his life (and for the plot). He is reluctant to get back to that role because he knows he is not a good mentor, but the only way to save the day is to lead this new group of heroes and teach them enough to be sure they survive long enough while cleaning up his own mess. He gets into heated arguments with his proteges, he doubts, he fears. But at the end of the day, he does it because he knows because it is the right thing.

In a certain way, I have drawn from my own experience as a teacher at the same school where I was once a student to write Fionn. Being a teacher or a mentor is a tough job full of heartache and frustration but as well with rewards that you can’t measure. It’s a job that fills you with pride and a clean conscience. But most important it’s a job than when it is well done, leaves a legacy behind. And in the greek ideals, your legacy is the only thing you really have once you are gone.

So yeah, again I’m in Tony’s side this time.

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A bit or a lot of Worldbuilding

cropped-cropped-proposal-ravenhall5.jpgWhile my novel is being edited by a friend so I can start sending it to agents/publishers, I thought in sharing some notes on the world building behind it. Not all of this info appears in the novel or is stated like this. But it will give you if you wish so a sneak peak into the world of Theia, the planet (or the main planet better said) where my novel Tempest Blades, future sequels and most short stories take place. You will find them under the ‘Tempest Blades’ category and with tags that relate them to the characters in question. I hope you enjoy these notes as much as I’m having fun writing them.

 

What the hell is Science Fantasy? Part 2: A Sliding scale.

A few days go I was invited to a discussion in an FB group, regarding what or who determines if a story is science fiction or fantasy. Where the line is drawn between those two apparently distinct genres. The discussion evolved from whether it was an attribution of publishers to the boundaries between such genres to where the borders of one genre start and the other ends. Personally, I think it is a false dichotomy that while may be helpful for marketing purposes, or to attract a specific group of readers, can be very restrictive if we see it as a hard border.

Some of the oldest pulp stories and comics have this blend of science fiction and fantasy from early on. Doc Savage, The Shadow, John Carter of Mars and the first team-up superhero comics such as the Justice Society and the Invaders serve as examples of this.

Returning to the prime example, Star Wars is basically Science Fantasy. Why? Because The Force is magic by another name and yet it cohabitates in a world with lightspeed, robots and space stations.

I think the main confusion and mistake comes from seeing Science Fiction and Fantasy as mutually exclusive genres when in reality it is more like a sliding scale when you go from one color to another, gradually changing bits and pieces of the worldbuilding accordingly to the requirements of the story. Roughly something like this:

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This, of course, is a theory in progress that I will keep revisiting in future posts. However the main point I think stands: it’s not a matter of hard borders between genres, but a sliding scale that is to serve the best interests of the story. Kinda like The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature by Steven Brust (the author of the Dragaera series):

“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

― Steven Brust

The worldbuilding should be in service of telling the story and as such if the author considers that is it has to be hard science fiction, fantasy or a blend of both, it is because that’s the way they feel is the best to tell that particular story. In genres, like in real life, hard borders, enforced by the whims of a few tend to stifle creativity and natural growth.

What the hell is Science Fantasy? Part 1: A definition

This will be the first part of many to come where I discuss what it is Science Fantasy, the genre I like to write the most.

By now, some of you have noticed that my stories have a weird mix of science fiction and fantasy, being more obvious in ‘Cosmic Egg’. Well, the thing is that today, having hard dividing lines between genres is something optional. Now is more common to have settings that blend magic and science and no one bats an eye.

We call that Science Fantasy.

But what the hell is science fantasy?

Rod Serling, the creator of Twilight Zone used to say that “… science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction is improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.” And by now you are well acquitted to that old adage from Arthur C. Clarke about how “any advanced technology is undistinguishable from magic.”

For me at least, parting from those definitions (the researcher in me is speaking, sorry),

My definition of Science Fantasy is:

“….a genre that blends fantastic and scientific elements into a coherent worldbuild to tell a story in a more interesting and flexible way.”

In summary, I believe that science fantasy is that melting pot of a world where magic and science walk together to give you stuff such as digital grimoires in the form of tablets, magical cantrips stored in mp3 players, giant robots moving to fight space dragons, wizards and nuclear physicists debating on why magic messes so much the wi fi signal. All of this in order to allow to tell any story you want the way you want

As I said before is the bastard child of too beloved fiction genres that grew slowly through the cracks to become a subgenre that now permeates our modern culture. You don’t believe me? Well, I have news for you: Star Wars is science fantasy. Think about it, you have a farm boy, alongside two scoundrels and two bumbling servants guided by a crazy wizard to rescue a princess from a black knight while stopping a menace that could destroy the world. It is one of the most basic plots of a fantasy story, but in Star Wars you have all that happening with spaceships, The Force instead of magic and lightsabers replacing magical swords. And like that, there are many examples, some more overt than others. The Shannara books, Dragaera, most of Discworld, John Carter of Mars, most 80’s cartoons, even Babylon 5 are science fantasy. You know what else is? Superhero comics. In a good day at the Justice League, an alien, a detective, a Greek demigoddess, a couple of scientist with superpowers, a space cop, a cyborg and a wizard gather to save the world and no one bats an eyelash. It’s the same with the Avengers. Thor talks about that on his premiere film about how in Asgard magic and science are one and the same and in the second film they use a quantum machine to analyze a soul. You don’t get more science fantasy than that. If you have player Final Fantasy, you have played science fantasy games. Actually, Japan had done quite well on the subgenre considering that most anime falls under it. As you see, there are plenty of examples on the topic.

A science fantasy story can veer a bit more towards one or another like any child can be more like either parent. The important thing is to have fun writing a story that resonates with the readers as much as with the author and allows to tell it in an imaginative way.