Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about what kind of biological costs superpowers or magic might have on the biology of the brain. We discussed the impact of cognitive maps based on different biological and environmental systems, and why these are things that might be useful to consider for building fictional worlds. The reality is, the one thing so often overlooked in fictional worldbuilding, is that different species, and different mutations (in regards to superpowers or magic powers) would have a profound impact on the brain structure and perception of the living person/creature. So, it’s worth at least considering a few elements in how a cognitive map, and how a special ability or power might not just impact individual characters, but also fictional cultures as a whole.
You might be asking, well, what is a cognitive map?
To quote a 2012 academic article titled, Movement: Search, Navigation, Migration, and Dispersal:
“A cognitive map is an internal neural representation of the landscape in which an animal travels. Animals that use cognitive maps can “visualize” the landscape and solve orientation problems by referring to these maps. While it is generally accepted that birds and mammals can form cognitive maps, and that the hippocampus is the most important part of the brain in their formation, considerable controversy has centered around whether other animals, such as honeybees, can form similar maps.”
Different animals have different cognitive maps. Different kinds of sensory input changes how a particular species would navigate their environment. Say for example a Mantis Shrimp, which has the most complex visual system of any creature on this planet, would have an entirely different cognitive map than a human. Why? Because humans have 3 photoreceptors in their eyes, a Mantis Shrimp has 12-16 depending on which variety of mantis shrimp you’re talking about.
Now imagine for a moment, a mantis shrimp took an evolutionarily leap and became as intelligent and as self-aware as the human species, but still had that same complex visual system. Naturally, their cognitive map would be far different than humans.
Well, one sci-fi author by the name of Adrian Tchaikovsky, played with this idea (though not specifically mantis shrimp) in his books, Children of Time, and it’s sequel Children of Ruin.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin
Without giving too much away, Tchaikovsky’s books Children of Time and Children of Ruin, ask the question, what kind of civilization would a spider, an octopus, and a kind of fungi analog build if they were genetically engineered to evolve human level, or greater intelligence. The answer? One that is a hell of a lot different than humans. But, at the same time, a creature, regardless of its cognitive map, still has to solve the problem of energy, or rather how do you build a large-scale civilization and economic system that could support a large population with different cognitive maps. So even though their maps might be different, to build civilization there would be some overlapping concerns.
For example, (and again I am not going to give away too many spoilers and ruin these amazing books for you) Tchaikovsky, at the beginning of Children of Time, introduces a jumping spider that has been accidentally introduced to a virus that will artificially accelerate its intelligence. The spiders, with completely different senses, biological imperatives, and priorities, build a civilization throughout the book. This civilization is based on a creature that not only builds a web but uses it as a primary means of communication. In this particular species, the male is much smaller and is often eaten after mating with a female, and thus, their world also includes a component of significant gender inequality, where the larger female spiders control civilization. Tchaikovsky, uses these differences to highlight how difficult communication would be with a species with a fundamentally different cognitive map than humans.
So it’s something to think about. If you have giant intelligent snake people in your fictional world, you would have different cognitive maps.
Oh and also, another bone to pick about video game worlds like the Elder Scrolls, Argonians and Kadjit would never, ever be able to mimic human speech, and certainly not English. This is also a problem with the Planet of the Apes series. Biologically speaking, the physical apparatus of a mouth, nose, throat, tongue, teeth, pharynx, larynx, and other parts create a specific kind of instrument from which certain sounds are produced by humans. It’s why some animals make noises that humans could never mimic. So an Argonian speaking English would be akin to trying to get trumpet noises out of a violin, it’s completely impossible. Of course, with your fictional world you can certainly do what you like, but understand that even other primates can’t mimic the same sounds humans make. It’s why Koko the Gorilla, and Kanzi the Chimpanzee, both used sign language and/or soundboards to communicate with humans because they physically can’t produce the sounds for human language.
Different Cultures Have Different Cognitive Maps
In the book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett discusses the Piraha tribe who live on the Amazon. Though he never explicitly discusses cognitive maps, at one point in the book, he takes some of the men from the Piraha, to a Brazilian City. While there, the members of the tribe are almost hit by cars, and have, what are basically anxiety attacks about being in the city. They really hate it. Why? Well first, Everett then talks about his own experiences in the Jungle for the first few years. In one story, he talks about a python hanging from a tree that the Piraha spot without a second thought. They try to point it out to him, but he can’t see it no matter how hard he tries. He talks about several other instances when he just wasn’t able to see or experience the things the Piraha tribe were, and he had, what was basically anxiety about it similar to the men’s experiences in the city.
One of the things that cultures do, is map their environment as they learn to navigate it. So, if you’re suddenly dropped in a new environment, say, as a Piraha person in a city they have never been to, or an Anthropologist, who grew up in a suburb and suddenly finds themselves in the dense jungle, the cognitive maps you have used your whole life will no longer function properly and you will struggle to adapt until you can construct a new cognitive map (which can take years for completely foreign environments). This is in part what creates culture shock for people who travel to other countries and cultures.
Remember, a cognitive map, is a mental picture of the environment around you. Over time, these maps become a part of our subconscious assumptions of the world and structure our biases. Different cultures are the result of different environmental conditions, and thus will have a different cognitive map as a result. Now, of course, the variation in which these maps can come in, is limited by human biology, but it’s work thinking about as you are building fictional worlds, that different cultures will have different perceptions and priorities based on the physical and cultural conditions on the ground. Of course, this certainly relates to my YouTube episode on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and is worth considering, how this also impacts language.
Neurodivergence, The Brain, and Super Powers
There are more than a few problems with the way that Super Powers and Magic use are displayed in popular fiction. Now granted, these aren’t things that occur to most people (myself included until recently) and of course, part of worldbuilding is the suspension of belief. But if you are doing a hard magic system, something you might want to consider is the physical toll that superpowers or magic might have on the nervous system and the configuration of the brain.
By definition, someone with super powers or the ability to wield magic would necessarily be neurodivergent. This term means, essentially, that the person’s brain would not work the same as the average population (Of course if your goal is to make a world where the norm is magic users, they would have normal cognition for that world).
I myself have a form of neurodivergence called Prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness. This means that I am not able to hold faces in my memory the way that most people can. It can be incredibly frustrating when dealing with large crowds, but once I discovered I had the condition, I was able to create new strategies for moving and interacting through the world. You could say, in fact, that I, had to have a different cognitive map to function. Neurodivergence comes in a lot of flavors, it’s most often associated with people with psychiatric disorders, autism, ADHD, and a host of other conditions that humans have in the modern world. Divergence doesn’t make anyone less of a person, but it does mean that their cognitive maps are different.
Take Albert Einstein for instance. There are many who suggest that he was neurodivergent. There is speculation that he might have had one or all of the following: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, on the Autism Spectrum, and possibly ADHD. There are a number of reasons for these speculations including his difficulty with social situations and his inability to function in traditional European school systems. But here’s the point, he was a super genius and that had a cognitive cost. His cognitive map was far different from the average human and the way he navigated that environment was different from most people. This, in turn, allowed him to tackle questions that most human beings could not, and he changed the world as a result.
Again, this isn’t saying that one kind of brain is necessarily better or worse than another, but that, in fact, different brains will approach problems and solutions differently. It’s one of the reasons that, I argue in my Ted Talk, that diversity is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal as humans. But be warned, I’ve met quite a few people who believe they are better or worse than others because their brain is different, that’s simply not true. It’s like arguing which fruit is objectively the tastiest. It’s pointless. But it is empowering to understand how your own brain works isn’t it?
So, back to superpowers. One thing you might want to consider if your character has, say, telepathy or telekinesis, is that they would in fact be neurodivergent. They would have completely different senses that were required for those abilities to function.
Here’s the thing, Our brain only has so much processing power, and can only handle so many kinds of sense perceptions. Contrary to popular brief, we use all of our brain. This idea that we only use 10% of our brain is utter nonsense. So if you’re adding in other senses or abilities, realistically, it would have to be at the detriment of other senses or brainpower. Keep in mind that the human brain uses an average of 20% of our daily energy.
Also, as it turns out, Human senses are a hell of a lot more complicated than just the five we’ve been told about in elementary/primary education. Check out this NYT article for a better explanation on why we have more than five senses, and why senses are a complicated spectrum of experience.
Different sense perceptions necessitate different cognitive maps. After all, cognitive maps are built from our sense perception. You use all of your senses to build a mental model of the environment around you. So if you could fly, that would necessitate different sense perceptions and thus a different cognitive map. Consider the Marvel character, Daredevil, who has the ability to see based on what’s basically sonar, but the cost of that ability, was the standard human trichromatic visual system that we experience. That gave him some advantages, but anyone who watches the Netflix series, or reads the comics, knows that it comes with some significant disadvantages as well. Though personally, I think the advantages are a bit unrealistic even though I definitely enjoyed watching Matt Murdock kick ass in the Defenders.
So if you have a hard magic system, genetically engineered super powers, or something similar, you might want to consider what things your characters would have to sacrifice in order for those abilities to be viable. Much of the world’s fiction is filled with examples of this done horribly wrong, but then, a lot of the time, imagination is about playing with the unrealistic isn’t it? Considering the above could be a really interesting way to build a different kind of fictional world. After all, one of the problems we face in fiction is repetitive stories, so perhaps different cognitive maps could help us ask different kinds of questions about ourselves and what’s possible.
Special Thanks to my friend Lyndsie Clark for inspiring this blog. Go check out her website.
Also, you want to know more about how to build a more realistic fictional world using real Anthropology? Check out my co-authored book with Kyra Wellstrom, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers.
And of course, if you are looking for more free worldbuilding resources, check out my webpage on writing advice.
Recently I sat down with the very wonderful Joanna Penn on her podcast, The Creative Penn. Her podcast has more than 500 episodes on just about everything you can think of when it comes to writing and she’s also a very well published author. Definitely check out her podcast and her books.
Good morning everyone,
Today, Kyra Wellstrom and I go live to read a sample chapter from our worldbuilding book and answer worldbuilding questions on YouTube at 11am MST. You can find the stream at https://youtu.be/QS3Yse-rv3g
The discussion will be recorded so if you miss it don’t fret! You will be able to find it at the same link. But if you can come live, we’d love to field your questions about worldbuilding and anthropology.
See you soon!
I am so incredibly happy to announce that as of this morning, our new book, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers is now available for purchase on Amazon. Next week the first paperback copies will also come available.
This book is a product of a solid year of work with my amazing co-author Kyra Wellstrom. While my specialty is cultural anthropology, hers is biological anthropology giving the book a well rounded approach from both directions of the field. In many ways this book is an introduction to anthropology that you might take in a college course, but with a twist, it contains tips and ideas for building fictional world and lots of references to other pieces of fiction. We created this book to be a tool kit for creatives so that they can seriously consider real world cultural systems as they construct the world of their imagination.
In many ways this book was inspired by my several posts on Worldbuilding. This book is a much more expansive treatise on elements of real world and cultures. I hope those of you out there looking for a deep dive into cultures to improve your own work find this volume useful. Best of luck on all your projects!
Last week I posted a sample chapter from Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. The book is due out this fall and will cover a host of issues in worldbuilding from the perspective of Cultural Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology and Archaeology. By using the science to compare real life cultures and what core elements exist in them, the book talks about how better to create authentic fictional cultures.
Without further ado, here is the cover for the ebook version of Build Better Worlds. More info and the official release date coming soon!
On May 3rd 2021 Kyra and I did a Livestream reading of this chapter followed by a 35 minute Q&A on Worldbuilding. You can find that here.
In February of 2021 I wrapped up a book project with a fellow Anthropologist by the name of Kyra Wellstrom. The book is called, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. You can find it at that link. The purpose of the book is to use real anthropology to help people create better worlds and more authentic characters based on the actual science and data on culture. What follows here is one of the final chapters of the book (which is now in Beta Testing) and will be out this fall.
Monsters, Aliens, and Evil Androids an Exploration of Fear and Anxiety
What is a monster?
It has been stated by numerous philosophers and ethnographers that monsters are simply the embodiment of cultural fears; our anxieties made flesh and blood. We see these reflections and patterns across cultures and over again and for good reason. The monsters a culture believes in often shed light on the things they fear most, and monsters that emigrate to new cultures often change their form in their new surroundings. Monsters represent a fascinating blend of the familiar and the foreign; easily recognized but alien enough to terrify. Many monsters possess elements of humanity and exemplify the very worst elements of culture as a form of hyperbole. Their faces are what changes most easily. It is the bones, the marrow of the spirit of what a monster is, and the fears that they embody, that reflect the heart of what it means to be human.
Like our anxieties about death, monsters often follow patterns that reflect our collective fears as a species. Just like we see in every horror movie, monsters attack in lonely places, in the dark, and in our sleep. They reflect the anxieties we have about our natural environment and they come from the water or caves or the night sky. Demons and spirits come for us when we are weakened by illness, childbirth, or impending death. They target the isolated, the frail, and the young. They can often appear human to gain our trust, only to reveal their true forms when it’s too late to escape them. They can lure or entrap us through promises of food, or comfort, or money; playing upon our moral weakness and greed.
Think of how often a monster’s teeth are discussed. Monsters often feed off humans, either in a spiritual or a literal sense. Vampires suck blood, zombies eat brains, dragons and sea monsters devour virgins. Even in modern monster movies, monsters nearly always eat defenseless humans. Giant animals like sharks or snakes, aliens that feed us to their young, or giant kaiju that eat us like popcorn. They are discussed with terms like “fangs”, “razor-sharp teeth”, “drooling”, “sucking”, and “crunching”. Hell, even killer clowns from outer space cocoon us for later consumption.
When you consider our species, these fears appear logical. Imagine early humans, alone on the African plains, surrounded by frightening animals that lurked around every corner. These monsters were very much real, but this did nothing to lessen their terrors. We were small, between three and four feet tall, we had terrible night vision and no claws or fangs to help defend us. We were prey to birds and leopards that could drop from above. Snakes grabbed us from holes in the ground and lashed out with sharp poisonous fangs. Lions and hyenas slunk through the darkness just beyond the edge of vision, shadows out of the corner of our eyes, and crocodiles and hippos lurked in rivers and lakes making people disappear beneath the surface. Our only protection from the creatures that wanted to consume us lay in the light of day and our campfires, in our culture and its defenses, and in each other. The darkness, the water, and isolation became a natural reservoir for our terror.
Most of the world now lives apart from these real monsters. The megafauna that hunted us like any other prey are gone and the remaining large predators are dwindling in number and range. The vast majority of humanity has nothing to fear from large beasts. However, our fears remain. A tremendous number of monsters are described as being “prehistoric” or pre large scale human civilization.. We find these descriptions from as far back as we have writing. Many monsters that haunt religions are described as being from the time before their deities created peace and order in the world or before the world was civilized. Writers of weird fiction and cosmic horror like H.P. Lovecraft write of “antediluvian terrors” and “prehistoric nightmares”. It’s as though we as a species have some lingering genetic terror of the time when we were small and vulnerable. Coupled with our gifts as a species to spin tales and exaggerate for the purpose of entertainment, many of these creatures became larger than life when they filled our nightmares.
Many monsters also reflect the fears we still face in the modern world, despite our cultural advances in the last 3 million years. We can still all too easily be carried off by disease or poison, by other people, or, worst of all, by unknown causes. These very real and very human fears are interpreted through a cultural lens. Numerous cultures speak of spirits that will steal a woman’s life away during childbirth if attracted by her cries. This is particularly common in foraging cultures where the margins for survival are slim and medical care is an at-home affair. Cultures with a focus on purity (Catholicism and Malaysia are good examples of this) have demons that possess the body and cause their vessel to break the laws of the society, causing bouts of violence, sin, and general bad behavior. Industrialized nations tend to have human monsters, serial killers, zombies, or criminals, that reflect the unease we feel when surrounded by strangers, as well as anxiety about dark crowded spaces.
To die, to sleep…
Sleep is one of the reservoirs of fear for humans. Sleep makes us vulnerable as we lay unawares in darkness for hours on end. Sleep also exposes us to the world of dreams, which are as likely to be horrifying as they are to be pleasant. Many cultures have tales of beings that can drain the life from a person while they sleep, often while the person is awake but trapped in a horrifying state of sleep paralysis. People’s sleep paralysis nightmares almost always follow patterns; in the US, sleep paralysis monsters have passed through different phases. In the 1990s, when the cultural zeitgeist had become fascinated with aliens, sufferers often reported little gray men with giant eyes performing tests on them. In the early 2000s, when there was a spate of demon-child films, people began to report nightmarish children crawling on to their beds as they slept. Suffers from southeast Asia tell stories of a horrible old hag with white skin who sits on their chest and slowly chokes the life out of the sleeping person while they lie awake and unable to move or cry out.
This monster, the dab tsog in the Hmong language, became widely known in the 1970s and 80s when there was a rash of deaths attributed to it in the United States and Thailand. More than 100 Hmong refugees in the U.S., almost exclusively men in their 30s, died in their sleep from unknown causes. Some men reported nightmares about the dab tsog at the time. Men became terrified of sleep and would try desperately to stay awake. The story so intrigued director Wes Craven that he went on to write A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Instead of the white-skinned hag, however, Craven changed the face of the monster to that of a disfigured homeless man who had chased him as a child and changed him from an evil spirit to the ghost of a murderer.
Stories of night hags may be so common in southeast Asia because of a very real genetic condition. Brugada syndrome causes electrical abnormalities in the heart that can lead to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). This syndrome is found most commonly in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos and Thailand, and predominantly affects men, with most deaths occurring between 30 and 40 years of age. A monster that kills men in their sleep is a much more palatable explanation, especially before the era of electrocardiograms, and no explanation at all. A night hag may be terrifying, but not nearly so terrifying as the unknown.
Sometimes monsters are used to explain myriad, nebulous fears; things we could hardly put into words. The wendigo is a perfect example of this. Territorially, the wendigo is one of the most widespread monsters in the world; it’s spoken of in the mythology of a collective of First Nations groups all across subarctic Canada, stretching from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and down into the northern United States. While there are slight variations in the story between the various groups, the stories all agree on the main features of the monster. The wendigo is a fascinating monster because it is a curious mix of a physical creature, a possessing spirit, and a culture bound syndrome (see chapter 10). The physical body of the wendigo is towering and lanky, with enormous clawed hind feet and paw-like hands. Its breath starts off howling, icy winds that blow with such force that they can blow down trees and even start tornados. Its heart, and sometimes its other organs too, are made of solid ice. Its most distinctive feature is its insatiable desire for human flesh; so strong that it eats off its own lips in its hunger, baring its pointed teeth.
Wendigos were once human. Once the wendigo gets hold of you it changes you into a monster like itself. This is where the wendigo begins to shift its mythological form. I can get hold of you in a number of ways: through dreams, visions, possession, physical force, or even through your own thoughts. If it catches you physically, it does so while you’re out hunting. Those who venture off into the forests in winter and never return are thought to have been taken by the creature. It captures you and transforms you into a monster like itself. If it catches you though your thoughts or dreams, it has worked its way into your head through your hunger and cold. When a person dreams of a wendigo, they begin to have cannibalistic desires towards their own family. Most cultures believe that a person in the early stages of wendigo madness can be stopped and cured, although often the cures are horrifying enough, but if the person actually consumes any part of another human being, they are done for. There’s no hope for a person who has gone wendigo and the only course of action is to kill them for the safety of the group. There are numerous recorded cases of wendigo killings in tribal and legal records throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The diagnosis of “wendigo madness” is found in psychological papers throughout this time as well as a way to explain a temporary psychosis with a focus on cannibalism.
Look at the main features of the wendigo story: a monster of cold that lives in the wild spaces and feeds off hunger. It drives people to cannibalize their family and turns them into cold-hearted monsters. It will ultimately separate you forever from the people and civilization you love and strip you of your humanity, leaving you to wander alone in the freezing wilderness. These fears are easy enough to imagine in subarctic Canada, where temperatures that go well below freezing and isolation caused by snow and weather can lead to starvation and madness over the long winters. It’s the same set of vague fears that drive Stephen King’s The Shining or John W. Campbell Jr.s Who Goes There?. The wendigo is a single, corporeal manifestation of these fears. It groups them all into one grotesque form and gives them shape.
Fears of domination, experimentation, and colonization
In the pantheon of monsters, aliens are relatively new. In some ways, they are just a new face on the same stories people have been telling for millennia. Space, after all, is just a combination of those things we fear. It’s cold, dark, isolated, far older than our little planet, and almost completely unexplored. Aliens are often just monsters from this final frontier rather than our own backyard. Many aliens fit the mold of grotesque, slobbering, man-eaters, or shape-shifting deceivers. Even stories of alien abductions, lost time, and mysterious lights are nearly identical to stories that people have been telling for centuries about fairies, will-o-the-wisps, and the little people of the hills, all of which can lead you away and trap you in another world.
But aliens can embody fears that other monsters cannot. These fears, like all others, are reflections of the time and culture in which people live. Aliens as colonizers, as invaders, and as dispassionate scientists are all reflections of the fears that stalk people in the industrial age. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1895-97) was written after the author and his brother discussed the terrible disaster the Tasmanians suffered after their invasion by the British. Wells was musing about what would happen if someone did to the British what they had done to the Tasmanians. In fact, there were many “invasion” stories written at that time, although Wells was the only one to use aliens as his aggressors. Britons were worried that their military might was waning and the increasing armament of Germany and France stoked anxieties that the British would face the same treatment they had given their colonies.
Throughout the Cold War, science fiction featured alien invaders, either working secretly or in open displays of aggression, trying to take over the Western World. Endless troupes of aliens landing on the White House lawn fill the fiction of the 1950s and 60s. Change “aliens” to “Russians” and you have a nearly exact mirror of what Americans feared happening at the time. Many aliens are often a gestalt consciousness, a shared mind, or can manifest as a kind of extreme conformity and the end of the individual as seen in the famous Star Trek villains, The Borg. We can also look at the protagonists in these films and see the kinds of qualities they embody and how they reflect the morals and values of our society like a modern myth or morality play.
Many science fiction stories from that time also reveal an uneasiness about the level of violence and aggression the world was experiencing. In the 1950s the 20th century was only half over and had already seen two world wars, half a dozen genocides, and the invention of weapons that could unleash destruction on a level we had never dreamt of. Many films in the 1940s and 50’s, perhaps most recognizably exemplified by The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), feature aliens as advanced beings, capable of great destruction but also of nearly miraculous feats of science and medicine, who come to Earth to warn us away from a path of violence. Klaatu, the alien emissary, warns all of Earth’s leaders that “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” People around the world, after decades of violence, nationalism, and xenophobia, were afraid. They feared that the ever-mounting aggression would eventually lead to a conflict that no nation could win.
“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen…”
The famous words of HAL 9000, the evil artificial intelligence that coldly murders it’s crew in the sci-fi book and film 2001, demonstrate another one of our fears made manifest, our fear of the dangers of technology.
On August 6th, 1945 the world entered a new age, an atomic age. After the first atomic bomb was used on a population in Hiroshima, our relationship with technology changed forever, and with it, came the rise of a new kind of monster, one of our own making. To be sure, humans have always had anxieties about new technology, and with the industrial revolution came literature about automatons (what we now call robots) and other technological wonders that sometimes turned against their masters. One of the earliest examples of modern science fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, explored the potential and dangers, as well as the deep philosophical questions surrounding electricity. Shelly set off a wave of stories, that even to this day still discuss the idea of our technological creations getting the best of us.
As Anthropologist Willie Lempert explains in his article, Navajo’s on Mars  humans have developed countless films, like The Matrix, 2001, and Terminator, to highlight our fear of technology. Even the new Star Trek Series: Picard features a plotline surrounding evil ‘synths’ and questions about the humanity of artificial intelligence and it’s compatibility with organic life. Part of this has to do with our religious worldview, the idea that in most of western European based culture, there is only one kind of intelligence, humans. As we talked about in the religion chapter, other cultures have multiple kinds of intelligence. Further, our fear of AI may stem from the idea that only the Judeo/Christian God has the true power of creation. Ultimately though, fear of AI stems from the fear of what we do, to what we consider to be inferior species.
As we entered the 1980s and 90s, aliens changed slightly. No longer were they brazen colonists landing on our shores, they were shadowy and subversive, often entwined with the murkier branches of government. Aliens and the government branches that studied them would abduct people and experiment on them. They would implant people with tracking devices, create alien/human hybrids, and mutilate cattle in their ruthless quest for data. They were cold, unfeeling scientists that existed outside of human empathy or compassion. The declassification of wartime documents about Nazi scientists, exposure of government experiments like MK-Ultra, and a number of dubious psychological research projects like the Stanford Prison Experiment were increasingly making people uneasy about science and scientists. The perpetrators of the experiments seemed, to regular people, just like the inhuman aliens from another planet. Add this to a growing dissatisfaction with the government nearly everywhere in the world and the X-Files style alien/government conspiracy became not just a popular element in fiction, but also an integral part of the mythology of the time period.
When you are creating memorable monsters or antagonists in your world, it’s important to consider the core values of your fictional culture. Remember the chapter on Imagined Past, Myth and Cultural Purity? The core lessons of that chapter are essential to creating a creature that challenges the core values of your characters, and readers, world view.
Things to consider when creating monstrous beings in your world:
– What are the most significant fears and anxieties of the culture?
- What are some memorable features of your creature? What keeps people up at night?
- How does your creature tie into the myth structure of your world? Sense of purity?
- Is your monster/creature sentient? How are it’s goals similar or different to your main character?
- What arenas of your culture does the monster most impact?
- What’s at stake if your protagonist fails to subdue the creature?
 Monsters David Gilmore – University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. – 2009
 What The War Of the Worlds Means Now Philip Ball – https://www.newstatesman.com/2018/07/war-of-the-worlds-2018-bbc-hg-wells
 Navajo’s On Mars William Lempert https://medium.com/space-anthropology/navajos-on-mars-4c336175d945
Last weekend I was on a panel with three other awesome authors discussing some of the core points on Worldbuilding in fiction. With permission I recorded the panel for anyone to listen to. You can play the recording below.
You can also check out my co-written book on worldbuilding with another anthropologist. Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers.
Michael Kilman is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver. He is the author of The Chronicles of the Great Migration and coauthor of the forthcoming book (August 2020) Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers. He is also the host of the YouTube Channel Anthropology in 10 or Less you can find more resources on worldbuilding on this page at Writing and Writing Advice
Stant Litore is the author of Ansible, The Running of the Tyrannosaurs, The Zombie Bible, and Dante’s Heart. Besides science fiction and fantasy, he has written the writers’ toolkits Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget and Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, as well as Lives of Unstoppable Hope and Lives of Unforgetting, and has been featured in Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. He has served as a developmental editor for Westmarch Publishing and holds a Ph.D. in English. He lives in Aurora, Colorado with his wife and three children and is currently at work on his next novel.
Jim Henderson is a writer of fun, varied, and technically sound science fiction adventures that also explore the human condition. A long-term Air Force veteran and cybersecurity professional with decades of experience in intelligence, communications, computers, and cyber operations, he has been a life-long aficionado of science fiction in almost every form – books, movies, TV, and games (role-playing, tabletop, and computer). When not mentally exploring the universe, he lives with his wife, stepson, and two dogs and enjoys hiking in the mountains of Colorado.
Charles McLean Redding is an artist and author local to Colorado Springs, as well as an active member of the local theater community. His Wasteland Bears have turned heads at conventions throughout the region over the last few years, and his upcoming works include Western Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy, and Asian Mythic Fantasy titles, as well as his ongoing Snack Pack: Raptor Comics.
One thing that can really make or break a piece of fiction (regardless of format) is the tension. It’s often is missing when something goes horribly wrong and (for me at least) it was the what was seriously wrong with the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. So, I thought I would throw together a few important things to consider in writing and building tension. A warning if you are sensitive to talking about sex, this is going to be an R-rated blog.
1. Building Anticipation
Tension in storytelling is a lot like really good sex. It’s really rare to have great sex that is just the, let’s stick it in variety. Instead, like fiction, there is teasing and touch and playing with the body (reader). You reveal just a little bit at a time, building anticipation and pleasure until your partner (reader) absolutely needs to go all in. You take your time, but you move with a kind flow and rhythm, you let things rise and then pull back, rise and then pull back and then there is a point in your story where it is, indeed time for full steam ahead and you go for it.
If you think about it, that’s what a master of storytelling does. They give you glimpses and foreshadowing of what’s to come. The set the frame of your mind and they control the narrative. This is particularly important in genres like horror. An example of really effective tension building is the film Paranormal activity.
Sorry… but it’s been quite long enough for spoilers! If you haven’t seen the film you can always leave now and come back later…
The great thing about this film is how each night is an event that ramps up the tension a little. Virtually no scene is wasted and there is a great interplay between what the characters experiencing each night, and then reliving it through the following day. Each day the tension builds just a little, until the shit hits the fan in the last fifteen minutes of the film.
The story itself offers almost nothing unique. It’s found footage, it’s dealing with a lineage demon, and of course ultimately there is a possession. But the writer and filmmakers give you just enough in each scene to slowly and gradually ramp up the tension and the creep factor. You aren’t bludgeoned over the head with something outrageous the moment it begins. Instead in the first few minutes of the film, you wonder to yourself where this could possibly get creepy. Half-way through the film, you can feel your heart rate increase every time you get some of the bedtime footage and ultimately the payoff is great. But without the tension, this film would have been slow and boring.
2. Framing and Foreshadowing
But what about films or books that have a lot of downtime, that take a bit of world building to get to that good tension building?
Jurassic Park is an excellent example.
The scene itself foreshadows what’s coming. The first thing you see after the credits is something rustling through the trees. Just like later when the T-rex makes it’s first deadly appearance. In this scene you see the creature watching the man walk on top of the kennel (shipping container, whatever you call it) as they try to move the Raptor into position. The key to this scene, the great foreshadowing it does, is that you have dozens of men with guns, you have a number of precautions taken to prevent the dinosaur from hurting anyone, and yet, still, ‘life finds a way’ and things go horribly wrong. Notice the kinds of camera angels, the key dialogue, the set design, lighting, and everything else. All of it creates this perfect tension where you just know something is about to go wrong.
After this scene it takes some time to assemble the characters and get them all in the right place for the real story to begin. Mixed in there you have the science behind the story, the introduction to the wonders and beauty of the park itself and how the characters fall in love with the idea of meeting real dinosaurs. But in the back of your mind, that opening always looms, all that foreshadowing, frames your experience. And each piece of dialogue seeks to serve a contrast between wonder and terror.
If you know you are going to have a slow build, framing something big in the beginning can be a powerful way to start the tension rolling while giving the reader something to think about. Speaking of which…
3. Sustaining the Tension (Give them something to think about)
One thing that I think many films and books struggle with is sustaining tension. One way to do that is, even in moments where this is no apparent tension in place, creating tension can be successfully done by leaving unanswered questions or creating a state if disequilibrium for the characters. Did you leave a character in real serious mortal danger at the end of a chapter? Did you drop a philosophical bomb on your audience and leave them pondering it while you diverge into another character or area of the book?
This happens a lot in books like The Light Bringer Series by Brent weeks. In moments where there won’t be tension and he has to get a character from point A to B, he often leaves off the previous chapter with some large revelation, some grand conflict, or some serious question that the character must address. This makes your reader turn that page, even if the current chapter isn’t as intense. Why? Because you’ve instilled a kind of artificial anxiety in your reader and that makes them want to know just what the hell happens.
This is actually why, despite some readers hating cliffhangers… I still use them all the time. All of my favorite books and series utilize these tools and it’s one of the reasons I love them. A good story keeps you on edge, keeps you anticipating all the time… but…
4. Never give them everything they want.
Okay, maybe not never, but if you always keep things predicable and similar, if the character always get’s out of danger, or their assumptions are confirmed, your boring the hell out of your reader and probably out of yourself writing it.
Cliffhangers don’t have to resolve in ways we might expect. You might leave your character surrounded by what they think is an enemy, but maybe they are allies in disguise? Maybe they are an enemy but they can’t recognize the main character? The point is, if you always use cliffhangers in the same way, if you foreshadow too much and make things obvious, it will kill the tension.
Tension is about keeping the reader on their toes, about giving them another reason to turn the page. But, if you use too much tension you also risk overwhelming your reader. Find the flow or rhythm, let your pages breath a little, not everything has to be constantly tense.
What are your favorite ways of building tension? What books do you think do it best? Comment and let me know.