World-building Series: Diversity

Diversity is the spice of life and has brought humanity several great things from tasty foods, fun festivals and a variety of sports to different arts and music. However, diversity can serve as a double-edged sword, resulting in conflicts, because — let’s face — it humans often have a fear of “otherness.” Whether that “otherness” is another race, culture, sex or sex orientation, sometimes it brings out the worse in other people, which is sad to see.

No matter what diversity is being used to describe — race, culture, sex or sexual orientation — it has become a buzzword in today’s world. Movies and books might very well find themselves criticized for not having enough diversity. Perhaps fearing this criticism, diversity is introduced just for its sake in a variety of creative projects, including in the adaptations of books — where not much diversity could be found — to the big or small screen. Diversity is something that is almost being pressed on writers nowadays.

Now don’t take me the wrong way, diversity is a good thing; however, writers should not feel forced to tackle this topic or even address it unless their works call for it and they as a writer feel confident to enter those waters. With that said, diversity can add flavor into a book or a completely crafted world in a work of speculative fiction. Particularly in a completely crafted world, diversity should appear in whatever form a writer chooses because it adds realism to a piece, even if that diversity is only briefly featured.

This entry will be largely geared toward those speculative fiction writers; however, writers in other writing disciplines might find some helpful seeds to take away and plant in their own works. Continue reading

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World and Character Series: Are your characters human?

Sometimes writers forget the basics while putting our vision to paper. And in this case I’m not talking about basics like grammar, plot or even character development. No, I’m talking about the basics of life: the need to eat. Often, times characters in books will go days without eating, making them more robot than human.

In my first book, which was completed in middle school, I don’t think my characters ate at all, except during one scene … needless to say, they should all be dead from starvation. Later characters in more recent writing endeavors have fared better in the food and drink department; they have also actually felt hungry when food is not readily available.

Food should appear in a character’s day-to-day life; it makes them more human, and food is something readers of all creeds can connect with. While food is a basic staple for life, it should not dominate any text, unless it is being intentional used to say something about a character. However, it should be sprinkled throughout a manuscript whether shown or mentioned in passing.

Beyond adding realism to your manuscript, the inclusion of food can have two other benefits: character building and world building. After all, food can say a lot about a person and a world/culture.

Characters

Is your character a picky eater or do they follow the see-food-eat-food method? Are there certain foods they do not eat, either through choice or because of cultural or religious reasons? Does your character have any food allergies? Hot and spicy or as bland as it comes? Would your character kill for chocolate, maybe even literally?

All these questions add depth to a character and can actually say a lot about them — not only that, they might make a good plot point. Perhaps, they don’t realize they are allergic to a type of fruit, leading them and associates on a hunt to find a doctor in a land where they don’t speak the language. As for depth, food choices tune an audience into a character. If they are vegetarian that will tell the audience something just like if your character follows all his/her cultural or religious eating norms or one that follows most but enjoys something that is not suppose to be on the menu.

Food choices can also affect how your character interacts with others, possibly adding conflict. Your vegan character visits a party full of personal taboo food items. How do they or the people around them react? In general some people, no matter whether they are meat eaters, vegan or so on, can be defensive about their eating habits.

Do not forget about the have-nots and have-plenties. They will each react differently to food. How has your character’s childhood of living off scraps affected them? If placed in a situation where they will have to do without food again, do they accept it and continue on or do they dive back to the past traumas? Does your wealthy, always well-fed nobleman cave after missing a lunch and dinner or persevere? There are many possibilities to explore.

Of course, a lot of your character’s eating habits will be influenced by the world and culture they inhabit.

World

Certain foods can’t grow everywhere. And while conducting world-building, this is a topic that needs delved into. What grows in the various regions of your world? Can certain regions sustain livestock? Or can certain ones only sustain smaller critters like chickens or sheep and goats? This will affect your characters and possibly have economical consequences in your crafted world.

Is one region the sole source for grapes? This might make the region exceptionally wealthy through trade, or perhaps it has attracted the attention of neighboring regions who have since conquered it, leaving the native populace poor and at the mercy of their overlords who benefit from the resource. One region might depend on hunting and gathering while another has established a strong agricultural society. A region with plenty will view its food very differently compared to a desert region where all food and drink is not to be wasted.

Don’t forget the politics that can revolve around food. Maybe one of your regions has forbidden the import of a delicacy that can only be found in a neighboring region. Or maybe they just place high levies on the delicacy, meaning only the wealthy can procure it. Governments can also place embargoes on other countries and regions, which might keep certain foods from reaching that country.

There is a lot to be considered when plotting your world’s food chain, as it were. And perhaps the best way to map it out is to explore your local agriculture scene in addition to those that can be found around our world. Research crops to see if they could exist in the environment you intend to place them. For example, you are not going to find rice paddies in a desert region or world, cherries require a temperate latitude to be grown and mangoes require tropical temperatures. Each plant has its own requirements.

Other research revolves around livestock. Certain livestock like cows require a lot of resources to raise, which is why it is important to make sure a region in your world can actually provide for them. Beyond integrating livestock into a world and its regions, don’t forget wild game — which will also require certain resources be available in order for them to feasible exist there.

While all this research might seem tedious, it will provide add realism to your novel and possible open doors to unique conflicts or character development.

World-building Series: Money, money, money

Money truly makes the world go around, so it is a given writers’ built worlds will have it and that the characters that inhabit the world will have to use it at some point: whether to get provisions or procure lodging. Money, or currency, has seen interesting transformations in our world, evolving several times before becoming what we know today.

Why is it important to include currency on your world-building to-do list, you ask? Your reader is reading your novel, fully immersed in the world you have built, and then suddenly your characters go to buy a loaf of bread: They are paying with a dollar. The fantasy is shattered. The currency is American and sticks out like a sore thumb. So what options are available to speculative fiction writers?

Bartering was the main way of exchanging goods for the longest of times, and who knows, maybe some of your worlds use this tried and true system for exchanging goods that is still around today. If they are, you will need to figure out an approximation of equivalent exchange: what can a character get for a cow, for instance? Are cows considered valuable in your world or are they not as valuable, as say, a llama. These are the questions you have to ask yourself when creating a bartering system that your characters will no doubt be using. Another hot button topic with a barter system that writers have to ask is: What is the barter system for services? What do characters have to give in order to stay at an inn?

Is the bartering system not fitting in your world? Perhaps it is time to introduce more concrete forms currency. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all money has to be metal and paper. Did you know that cowrie shells were once considered a form of currency? In fact, cowrie shells are the most widely and longest used currency in the world. Other unique forms of currency include leather money, wampum (beads made from clam shells), among others. Look at your worlds and see if there is anything unique that might be used as currency.

If your heart is set on coinage and paper money, go for it. Coinage has been around for a long time with the NOVA website stating it has been around since 1000 B.C., originating in China, while paper money first appeared in 806 A.D., also in China. I will admit, coinage and paper money is very fun, at least for me. I have enjoyed determining what goes into the making of the different coins used by one of my countries, including the metals used and each ones’ appearance as far as markings. There is nothing more fun than designing your own coinage or paper money. However, coinage comes with its own set off questions writers need to answer: who mints it and where? Or are there multiple versions of coins that crop up in different regions? Similarly, who is in-charge of creating the paper money?

If you are writing a futuristic tale, currency may have further evolved further to becoming completely electronic, a path that we are currently on the way to, or at least it would seem. However, the sky is the limit when it comes to creating currency types.

Alright, you have a pretty good idea about what type of currency you want, now where are your characters going to store their currency safely? Does your world have banks? If yes, who runs them? Are they government-owned or family-operated? Banks, in the modern sense of the word, appeared in medieval  and Renaissance Italy, and were operated by wealthy families, such as the Medici family. Going along with banking, were there certain sects within your world or countries that were more prone to be apart of banking, such as the court Jews, who would loan money to European nobles or serve as financial advisers to them?

Some other consideration for writers to ponder as they world-build currency: How do your countries combat counterfeit currency? Who is backing the money since certain types of currency require a strong government to back them? How do the different currencies translate between countries? Do your countries have a problem with different regions or cities within them minting their own currencies? Do certain currencies have nicknames, such as greenbacks, bucks, pink lady, etc.?

While currency might not seem like a very big thing to worry about when world-building, and writers probably shouldn’t put too much time into its creation, writers will find that putting a little time into creating currency for their world will only enrich the reading experience of their readers.

World-building: Resources

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Think about all the things made with wood. What would it mean for the cultures in your world if this resource were scarce? How would they cope?

Anyone who has played Sid Meier’s Civilization or Age of Empires, will know all about the importance of resources. They determine what you can build, trade or sustain. Wars are fought over them: I know I’m guilty of this, taking out the French (in Civilization) for daring to set up a village and steal the gold resource I had been eying with lust.

For these reasons, writers need to know what resources each of the countries or regions in their world are privy to; after all, resources determine what is possibility and are a great way to provide a sense of realism. Resources can also add a good source of conflict in your story.

How plentiful or sparse certain resources are will have an effect on your story. If your story takes place in a desert, your characters are not going to have access to wood products, unless they are imported. The lack of wood will affect tools or weapons used by your characters, similar to countries with less access to certain metals. Consider how the people in each country or region cope with not having certain resources.

Import and export is another important aspect, and these concepts can say a lot about characters if they own certain products that are made from rare or inaccessible resources in their country.

Take time when plotting your resources, research where they are found to make sure where you want to place them makes it logical. Think long and hard on the impact of certain resources being rare or absent and how people have adapted to not having them. Do resources provide conflict within your world? Which resources or products made from them are costly to import? How do resources affect your world’s economies?

Happy world-building!

World-building Series: Courting (Valentine Bonus)

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How is love expressed in your world?

As we celebrate the overly commercialized Valentine’s Day, I decided to do a themed piece for the day and settled on a world-building related topic, because to be honest, I’m not the most romantic person in the world so a how-to-write romance is a little out of my league.

However, courtship is an important topic for those who are working in speculative fiction, especially since odds are there will be some variety of romance in your writing. What are the expectations in the cultures that exist in your book when it comes to courtship? This will have to be explored before you start writing your romances, whether they are the main dish or the side dish of a side dish. The audience needs to be clued into what is acceptable or what is at stake if the characters are going against the grain.

Explore different cultures, periods of history, etc., for the answer to this question, and don’t be afraid to make your own unique traditions. Did you know back in the day, Finnish girls who came of age would wear an empty sheath around their girdles, which would be filled by the knife of an interested man — if a girl returned his interest, she would keep the knife. If anyone has seen “The Patriot,” they will know about bundling bags, which allowed for a slumber party of sorts for couples who were courting without endangering a woman’s virtue.

In older eras, writers should note the level of control parents often had over their children, including deciding when and who they married; after all, marriage was more about family advancement than love for the longest time. Among nobility in Europe, it was not so odd for betrothals to occur when the intended spouses were infants or children. The betrothed then often did not meet until just before their wedding. In some cultures, parents will even employ matchmakers to ensure their children wed well.

However, writers are not bound to courting traditions of the past, when creating their culture’s courting behaviors. No, writers have the freedom to toy with gender roles, expectations and traditions, so have fun with your cultures’ courting. If given thought, courting behaviors and traditions will not go unnoticed by readers and they will only add depth to the story as long as writers resist the urge to info-dump.

For additional reading, visit this blog post on ‘The Dreamer’ webcomic blog that talks a little about courting and marriage in Colonial American (the webcomic itself is also very good and worth the read).

World-building Series: Culture

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What instruments are present in your world and what type of music is preferred?

While this may seem like putting the cart before the horse, when world-building, writers need to consider what their world’s cultures will look and feel like. This is a step some writers never fully realize, making their worlds feel like cardboard or a carbon copy of another world, built by another writer: Let’s face it, there are tons of Middle-Earths running around out there. Culture is important to have in your world, to have it feel-able as it were, especially since culture will shape who your characters are and their viewpoints.

So what is culture? Surprisingly, the answer can be different depending on who you ask. Dictionary.com describes culture as: “the quality in a person or society that arises from concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.; the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” An anthropologist would state culture is the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor described culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

When setting up their worlds, writers need to consider what the cultures within it hold dear — what they value. What arts have they perfected? What laws do they uphold? What morals are passed down to their children? What customs are performed and how did they get started? How have these aspects of culture morphed over the years to the current practices? Who or what group is leading culture? Are there subcultures within the main culture? Who are the great philosophers of your cultures and what philosophies do they teach? The questions are endless.

Before tackling these questions and others, I highly advise writers to look at the culture they inhabit and then branch out by researching other cultures. Through this research, writers will be able to see that continents, regions, countries, states, cities, towns, etc., will each have their own culture, some will even have more than one culture in them. There is nothing quite as rewarding as researching how culture has progressed, especially since it provides a lot of inspiration, different combinations to reflect different societies in your world, and mannerisms for characters.

Once a writer has a firm handle on the cultures that inhabit their world, they need to consider how these cultures will affect who their characters are; after all, people are often products of the culture they originate from. Yes, there will be rebels, there always will be, but the odds of all your characters being rebels are slim, unless they are all part of a subculture. Characters may very well have viewpoints and beliefs that are frowned upon nowadays due to the culture they have been raised in, but that is fine, since it is believable.

Beyond having characters that feel has if they have been raised in the culture, it is important for the writer to not make one culture holier-than-thou or exceedingly better than others in exposition. It is alright for characters to view their way of life as being better, but the narrative should remain neutral. If the point-of-view is first person or close-third, the narrative can be slightly slanted but the author should still provide hints that the other culture is not as bad as their biased narrative characters thinks it to be.

Each culture has their high points and their low points; it is important to not forget this — just like it is important to not transplant characters that stick out like sore thumbs in the setting where they have supposedly been reared or lived the entirety of their life.

[Writer’s Note: No doubt in the future, I will explore more in-depth some of the aspects that go into cultures. I know I plan to write an article on leisure activities in the near future.]

World-building Series: Intro

What does your world hold?

What does your world hold?

World-building is an intricate part of crafting a story — if done properly, it provides believability and envelopes the reader, holding their interest while also making them want to delve deeper into the world you have crafted.

While world-building is often considered the realm of fantasy and scifi writers that is not the case. Writers from all disciplines need to know the “world” their characters inhabit. Cities and towns have different flavors, just like countries do, requiring research to achieve believability to know what is possible and what isn’t. While most fantasy and scifi writers get to start with a clean sheet, they, however, must have set rules for their world, which requires understanding of their world’s history, culture, social issues, etc., and why they exist as such.

This world-building series, which will be posted each Sunday, will highlight different aspects, and since I am a speculative fiction writer, it will be aimed toward that discipline but with any luck writers in other disciplines will also be able to take away helpful grains from my posts. Posts will be in no order of importance with the first one most likely tackling culture. Be sure to tune in.