It’s been two years now since I released the last book in my sci-fi series The Chronicles of the Great Migration. And though I am coming close to finishing the book now… today, I had a conversation with a stranger that, despite the fact it had nothing to do with what I am working on in the novel, it inspired me to consider one of my characters in a new light.
Because… Writing is living.
We live in a world where indie authors tout rapid release. We are pushed to write quickly and publish quickly. Produce. Produce. Produce. Produce. Produce. Produce. Produce.
For those of you who don’t know there are even algorithms in place that, if we don’t publish quickly, our work stops being as visible on places like Amazon. We writers find ourselves on the factory floor, the assembly line in this algorithmic revolution.
But… Writing is living.
There’s a lot of pressure to write quickly. And, I am, honestly, a starving artist in the traditional sense. I hold multiple jobs to try and maintain my life. I want to write faster. I want to publish more often, but life has a way of intruding on art and art, in turn, life.
Because… Writing is living
I’m not here to argue that writing and publishing quickly is wrong.
I don’t think it is.
There have always been writers who can write and publish very quickly. The Romance Genre has always been that way, and a lot of the pulp novels throughout time are that way as well.
I am far from perfect with my writing habit. I wish I was writing every day. But mostly I write a few times a week and on weeks when money is tight, and I need to drive Doordash for 20 or 30 hours on top of teaching and parenting… writing falls away completely. It seems to slide into the shadows away from my vision and passes from memory.
Almost none of my income comes from writing currently, so I must prioritize.
But… Writing is living?
So, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write this series quickly. I tell myself… you want your dream of being a full-time writer don’t you?
Because… Writing is living.
When I don’t write, I feel guilt.
When I don’t write, I feel shame.
When I don’t write, I feel like I am not being true to myself.
When I don’t write I am miserable.
But then, it’s far more miserable when you can’t keep the power on, or food in your fridge, or you can’t go to the doctor when you are sick. Or you struggle to buy your kids a birthday present because you may have to skip meals. And you hate that there aren’t more hours in the day. If only there was more time…
Because… Writing is living.
And then, there are moments like today. When I realize that my book will be better because it’s been a long road. That the time between sentences is only as long as it takes to start typing again, even as the setting sun marks the passing of another day.
Because… Writing is living.
When, a conversation, an experience, a thought, triggers this revelation about your characters or your world or your own perception of what is… and you think to yourself, gods, if I had been more consistent with my writing, I may have never had this revelation and my story would have been poorer for it.
Because… Writing is living.
There are plenty of things I can write fast. I wrote what became the first novel of the series, Mimi of the Nowhere in 10 days. But at that time, I was only working one job and, I had only thought it was going to be a short story and it just all hit me at once. Mimi possessed me. She took hold of me for those ten days and I could not stop thinking of her. Two of those nights I didn’t sleep. It was like love.
Because… Writing is living.
Upon Stilted cities, which was originally the first book and was so long, it was split because of length, took me the better part of two years of effort to finish. But the first pages were originally started when I was in graduate school over a decade ago. And then it sat, for 6 years, waiting to be remembered. Then, one day, it called out my name, and demanded my attention. And so, I sat again, pouring on to the page.
Because… Writing is living.
What does all this mean? It’s a good question. Part of me is writing this is to understand the question. At the moment of writing this, I don’t even know if I will ever publish this essay or not. Sometimes I write to discover something about myself or to understand my thoughts. Sometimes I just open a document and begin typing, with no idea what will come. If you’re reading this… that’s what you are reading.
Because… Writing is living.
I have a relationship with my keyboard, where my fingers come to life and I stop thinking and just let words flow, in the same way, a faucet doesn’t think about the water that spills from the nozzle, it just does what it does when the path is open.
Because… Writing is living.
I think maybe I want to say, don’t judge your pace or your speed of writing or sculpting or painting. I think maybe want I want to say is that all that pressure you put on yourself is unnecessary.
That Writing is living.
They aren’t separate.
Life happens to you, and you reflect, and think about it and feel it out and then it transforms you. And with it, your art. When the caterpillar enters the chrysalis it rearranges everything before it can emerge. But all you see is the final product, we do not bear witness to transformation. We live it.
Because… Writing is living.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need a habit, a time and space dedicated to the act of creation, but if you had a hard week and you couldn’t paint, or photograph or write or compose that song, don’t hate yourself for it. Perhaps, instead, reflect on the lessons you learned about that time, about that space, about the intersection of your knowledge and experience, and draw on it. Let it flow through you so that when you do have a moment to turn on the faucet, so much flows that your cup of joy spills all over and makes such a mess, that you are forever changed. Don’t even bother to breathe… this paragraph didn’t.
Because… Writing is living.
And expectations are the death of joy.
I know so many authors, myself included, want that big break, those huge sale numbers, that perfect agent who will sell your novels for a huge advance, or that fanbase that just can’t get enough of your work, so that your cup runneth over, with great abundance. So you can just write, just create. Just… be. And life will be perfect… won’t it?
But… Writing is living.
That’s the danger of our culture. That we, in fact, mark success by the dollars attached to it. That if you aren’t contributing to the myth of this… supposed American dream… with your everyday actions, you fail as a human. If you can’t commodify what you create, what’s it good for? You have no value without productivity. And so we measure our art, our living, on our ability to produce, to… capitalize on what we have created.
And we think that is living. This… bootstraps mythology. Have you realized yet, you can’t lift yourself by your own bootstraps? Physics doesn’t allow it.
But… Writing is living.
We forget what art, in whatever form, is for.
Writing is living.
Sculpting is living.
Painting is living.
Singing, dancing, running, loving, crying, laughing, fright, anger, pain, they are all living. Maybe nothing gets in the way of art. Maybe our only real enemy is our doubt and anxiety. But then… doubt and anxiety are living too.
We are strange creatures. We have so much potential and yet we evaluate success by the smallest of measures. Greed is so small… so impermanent. But sharing another way of knowing, an experience, a thought, an image, these are great treasures.
Writing is living.
Simple words. But the truth is, we are all just stories, flashlights illuminating dark corridors, but never able to see the bigger picture. At least not alone.
Many lights, many stories, light up the night… together.
Writing is not a lonely act. It is a profoundly social one.
Writing is living.
Writing is walking to the edge of town, beyond the limits of what you have always known, and peering beyond. It is meeting a stranger and eliminating your differences, to discover your similarities.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.
But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.
1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledgea culture uses to interpret reality.
Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.
Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.
When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.
2. Myths structure our idea of purity
Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.
Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.
Myths may or may not include the following
What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
How we mark or think about time
What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
Is there free will?
How many lives do we have?
What words are sacred/dangerous?
Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?
You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.
3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power
Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)
Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.
4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality
Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.
In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…
5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity
Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.
And one final thing…
6. Myths are not monolithic
If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.
If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.
Recently, I signed up to take part in a Flash Fiction Contest. The contest gave us a genre, a word, and and an action from which we had to build a 250 word or less story on. My Genre was Suspense/Thriller and here is my story…
“It’s called the Gathering.”
There was venom in that smile. Lips peeled back, revealing
wide sharp teeth.
Angela didn’t like Rein. He was an arrogant, self-serving
asshole from the moment she met him.
“The Gathering?” she
asked. “What kind of meeting is it?”
She felt a chill.
He considered. “It’s a place where power is recognized.”
He licked his lips. “Would you like to come with me tonight?”
Angela’s stomach tightened. “I… guess so.”
Tired of her assigned fluff pieces, she needed a story that would
give her the recognition she deserved at the newspaper. She had a feeling this might
Rein dug in his long brown trenchcoat, and from the depths
of his pockets, he pulled something long, soft, and black.
“You have to put this on.”
He put the cloth in her palm. Silky but cold.
She took a deep breath, tied the cloth around her head, and
the world went dark.
It was almost an hour’s car ride before they reached their
destination. There was a long walk on what felt like cobblestones and then, a
change from the cold damp of the autumn air to the warmth of indoors.
“Take it off.
Coldness and fear gripped her as she saw the women tied up,
near-naked on crucifixes. There was agony, and there was a gathering around
Behind her in a whisper, Rein said, “And now it’s your turn.”
So here’s the key question, how does your world impact your characters? This really is the biggest and most important piece of your world building and the easiest place to lose consistency. If you mess this up, your story could suck or at least have readers rolling their eyes. At the end of the day, it’s compelling characters that we care about. Also, don’t forget to listen to your characters. They have hopes and dreams too.
I touched on this a little bit last time, but this time we’re diving deep into a little social science of identity construction.
1. Nature vs Nurture
Since good old Descartes (but really all the way back to the ancient Greeks) wrote on Dualism in the 1600’s there has been a question of what influences us most, Nature or Nurture.
Most of you probably know this already but the answer is both.
Humans are not a tabula rasa (a blank slate). On a very physical level we have certain tendencies that have been fostered by natural selection. For example, human’s don’t have wings (of course if they do in your story you might need to consider various elements of winged culture) they walk on two legs (known as bipedalism) and they speak.
A terrible example of world-building done wrong because of the physical limitations is the Planet of the Apes series. Now, I enjoy those movies but what kills me is this. In order to have human speech, your mouth, throat, and tongue must have a certain shape to produce human noises. Apes do not have the physical apparatus for speech and even the shape of their face and neck would have to change significantly before they were capable of human-like speech. Still, they are fun films and I do enjoy them, but I can be heard grumbling like a disgruntled Star Wars fan after I watch them.
So that’s an example of nature, there are certain things in our neurology and physical makeup that put limitations on us as well as certain instinctual things that pop up.
There’s now also some science to suggest that your experiences and traumas may pass themselves on to the next generation. This surrounds epigenetics, and I am not going to get into this here (as I am definitely no expert in this area) and admittedly there is still a lot of unknowns about the science behind this, but if true, it certainly complicates things doesn’t it?
What about nurture? Well, there certainly isn’t something inherent or genetic in religion. If there was, we would have people who have never had any contact to Christianity spontaneously becoming Christian in remote areas (we don’t). We are enculturated (basically taught our culture) as we grow up. Our family brings us to church or perhaps we are raised Atheist or Buddhist or Pagan and learn the values and ideals of those practices (remember that purity stuff back in part 1). A huge portion of your personality comes down to nurture.
Speaking of which…
Personality is one of those that is a hard mix of both. If any of you out there reading this have more than one child, you know that they are born with a tendency towards a certain personality. Some children are more cautious, some are absolutely fearless (I’ve got both types and it’s fascinating to see the difference). Some have short tempers and are emotional while others are calm in almost any circumstance. Add environmental factors and it shapes and reshapes their personality. People always have tendencies but the wonderful thing about human beings is that we are capable of changing the way we experience the world, it’s just that a lot of us don’t because it’s a lot of work. As some of you frequent readers know, I have spent a great deal of time working on meditation and have seen changes in my own thinking and experiences, but damn is it hard!
So how does this relate to your character? Well, what elements of nature and nurture come into play? If you have a genetically engineered winged population that’s going to change the experience of your character. Are there benevolent vampires? Well, they gotta eat, right? Perhaps your humans have undergone gene editing to live on Mars but suddenly find themselves back on Earth? Robert Heinlein’s famous sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land posits the question of a human who is raised by Martians returning to earth and how he struggles to understand what it means to be human with some fascinating cultural results. So, just in the nature/nuture part, there’s a lot to consider.
2. Imagined Past
So, before I get into this, when I use the phrase ‘Imagined Past’ I don’t mean that something is made up. What it means is that our upbringing and cultural perspective foster history in such a way that we imagine that one event is important and another isn’t. Of course, there are objectively more and less important events in history, but how we imagine those events unfolding is based on things like culture and ideology.
The reality is, history is always messy as hell. I don’t care what event you are talking about. Nothing is ever straightforward and simple. Remember our discussion in part one of world-building on Power and Resistance? That’s why.
The Imagined past is your perspective and your wider culture’s perspective on history and events. They are an interpretation of what happened and why they happened that way.
Let’s take an example that is debated every October, Columbus Day.
But where you sit on the side of Columbus isn’t the point here. The point is, both sides IMAGINE THE PAST and take a certain perspective on what happened and if the events were good and we should honor Columbus, or they were bad and we should ax the holiday. I am, admittedly very critical of Columbus day, but it is impossible to argue that 1492 wasn’t a very important year in world history. After Europeans realized there was a huge chunk of populated territory waiting to be exploited, the world changed significantly. The event happened but how we interpret it changes in our imagination and our perspective. That is imagined past.
So why should you think about imagined past in your worldbuilding? Well, if you have a story where two sides are at war, you might consider having characters from both sides of the conflict. For example, In Avatar the Last Airbender, where four different nations rule the world (one for each of the four elements) the Fire Nation, the conquerors have a very different imagined past as the Earth Kingdom, whom the Fire Nation are trying to subjugate. The amazing thing about that world is that you have characters from all four nations (I really recommend that series if you aren’t familiar), and you get an amazing backstory and shift in perspectives of characters from different nations and even variety within each of the nations (Remember in Part 1 we talked about how every population is variable?) So consider that in your world-building, how do your characters imagine the past? How can this create conflict? Could the sharing of a perspective of the various perspectives on a historical event change the character interactions? Could it further entrench them? Perhaps part of the past was hidden and is now revealed and changes how charters see things? Think of how your favorite stories do this well.
Red alert Red alert! If you have heard this term before and don’t understand it, you might cringe at its use. I promise I don’t have some crazy agenda here so just hear me out.
It’s actually really quite simple.
Intersectionality = Identity is complex and variable
Intersectionality is really about considering the various components of identity. Identity is really complex.
I will use myself as an example to begin with. A White, Middle Class, Straight, Male, Raise Catholic (and now Buddhist), with a Graduate Degree in Anthropology and raised on the East Coast is going to have certain kinds of expectations, perspectives, and thoughts that will impact his perspective. All of those components, plus my personal experiences went into making me the person typing this blog right now.
Now, imagine an African American, Woman, Wealthy, Gay, raised Atheist, with a degree in Engineering, and Raised on the West Coast. She’s going to have very different experiences, expectations and perspectives then I do right?
Intersectionality shows us that Identity is Conditional.It is based on the various ingredients of your life and your experiences and fosters different identities.
But it’s still not even that simple! Because imagine you took another copy of me and raised me five blocks away in near identical upbringing both of us are still going to end up different, aren’t we? We may have a lot in common but maybe my clone loves Nickleback (which means we couldn’t be friends) and thus we may end up going to different concerts and meeting and encountering different people and thus changing our experiences and perspectives.
Let’s talk about freewill really briefly here too. Though, if you want a prolonged philosophical discussion on this check out my blog on Freewill. When studying a culture Anthropologists often look at something we call ‘agency’. Agency means basically, your ability to act based on the rules (formal and informal) of the society. Agents are individuals within a society that have to function based on cultural norms, laws, and expectations. So yes, we do have free will, but our culture puts rules around what that means. For more on this check out a YouTube Video on ‘Field Theory’ Also if this or anything is confusing to you, feel free to comment and I will do my best to clarify.
There is nothing wrong with difference, but if we want to understand someone else’s perspective and why they might think or act in a certain way, then intersectionality, understanding the conditional nature of identity is a good tool to consider.
What about intersectionality in your characters? Well, intersectionality can help you to avoid those annoying stereotypes and tropes, such as strong women come from tragic backgrounds. Maybe, for example, the woman in question was raised as a blacksmiths daughter and had to work with her father and deal with difficult customers on a daily basis. Or perhaps you have a character that comes from a race of elves that are savage and violent, yet the character has adopted a pacifistic religion after a personal revelation? The point is you can look at the conditions of your characters lives and upbringing. Some people make character profiles in this regard where you can plot different parts of your character identities. I don’t do this unless I run into a roadblock, but some of you may find it useful to do so. Really, there is no wrong answer for method in writing.
Oh, one more thing, your identity changes every day little by little (or a lot if your world comes crashing down) based on your experiences and daily interactions. You are never the same person from day to day. Consider this also in your characters.
4. Personal Bias and Blind Spots in knowledge
All of the above contributes to this section. Everyone has blind spots in knowledge. Everyone has bias and limitations as to what they can see and understand. If you put me in front of a motorcycle and tell me to fix it I will blink at you until my eyelashes fall off. If you tell me to understand the experience of a Muslim woman growing up in Sri Lanka, I probably can’t help you there either. There is nothing wrong with having blind spots, the problem is, when we assume that blind spots equal weakness and we make arrogant statements to cover it up (I can’t tell you how many times I myself have done this only to realize what I was doing later).
So back to me and my conditional identity. I grew up on the East Coast. On the East Coast there is often a kind of linguistic style in play where it’s actually weird and awkward not to interrupt people. We are very often active communicators cutting each other off mid-sentence and it’s not considered rude. Also, I come from a huge family. Now you might think your family with 3 kids is big, but my Dad had 14 brothers and sisters and I have 3 brothers, with some of my aunts and uncles, who were my age raised almost like siblings. So, on top of this east coast conversational style (Here’s a wonderful YouTube on that for you who really want to understand the linguistics of it) and my huge family upbringing, I can be a loud, arrogant, interrupting son of a bitch. Now living in Denver Colorado, it took me a long time to understand that people don’t always appreciate the way I communicate because this region in the Rocky Mountains has a very different conversational style. So there is a huge blind spot for me. Understanding that blind spot was really powerful and helped me to see the way I bulldoze people in conversation sometimes.
So what are your character blind spots? Is your character a Buddhist monk and barely knows anything of Christianity? Is your character a male who suddenly finds himself in a female-dominated society? Hell, look at Star Trek TNG, is your character a Klingon growing up in a human world and trying to bridge both cultures? What kinds of things wouldn’t your character easily understand because of their training or knowledge? A pacifist priest isn’t usually going to understand combat. A warlord may not understand diplomacy. Good characters have flaws and weakness and blindspots.No one likes a perfect character. They are boring. My character Mimi, in Mimi of the Nowhere, doesn’t trust easily. She struggles with sharing intimate parts of herself after a long life living on the streets. Blindspots can also be where your characters grow and change. The world you built could suddenly come crashing in and force them to change and alter their identity.
I hope this short series was helpful for some of you on your writing journey. Certainly, there are other blogs and podcasts and stuff on worldbuilding out there, but I hope sharing some of my knowledge and experience from my field of study helped you to consider some things about your writing.
I am more than happy to entertain other questions and perhaps write future editions to this series but unless someone has a specific question about worldbuilding, I’m gonna call this series complete for now. Good luck with your writing journey!
My book series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration are about giant walking cities in a dystopian future. When I first started writing about this idea, I thought I was the most original person in the world. Arrogant as hell right? It’s okay, go on and laugh at me. I completely understand. I laugh at myself all the time now.
You know what made it really funny? I started writing this series in 2011, thinking, wow, no one has ever thought of an idea quite like this before. I was completely oblivious to the award-winning and very wonderful books by Philip Reeve who wrote the series ‘The Mortal Engines’, which is coming out in film form this year. When I discovered this two years ago, it made my heart ache a little and it certainly humbled me. But I loved my characters so much that I decided to resume writing.
Then, I had to laugh some more when earlier this year, this article came out. Imagine a World of Walking Cities and references a man who came up with the idea in 1964, twenty years before I was even born.
But here’s the thing. It actually doesn’t matter. Now I want to note here, that as a University Professor, plagiarism is wrong and immoral, and you should never ever steal the work of another human being. But, when it comes to grand ideas, overarching themes and concepts, there is, and has always been a lot of borrowing going on. Even Ursula K LeGuin (who is arguably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century) grappled with this in her article Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion
But, are Dune and Star Wars the same thing? Certainly not. Yes, a lot of borrowing went on, but the Universes of each story are very different and explored different questions. (Star Wars Fans don’t hate me but I think Dune is the superior of the two).
Similarly is there anything super unique about a boy going through a Wizarding school? No of course not, that theme has been done to death, but JK Rowling made it her own and built a unique and interesting world and the characters that go with it.
So, does your story share common elements with another? So what if it does. Here is a short list of the things that actually matter in crafting a good story.
You have taken a concept and played with it in a unique way
What makes a story a part of a fantasy genre? Things like magic, warriors, rogues, special objects or locations? Fantasy might be the genre with the most overlap because some of it’s core characteristics require that overlap. But what makes a series like the King Killer Chronicles or Mistborn standout? Both these use magic systems, but both have taken the concept of magic and added some interesting and unique elements to it. In return, the goals and experiences of the characters are necessarily also unique.
For example, Allomancy (one of the three systems of magic from Mistborn) has the magic wielders consuming and then using certain metals for their powers. Some people can burn certain metals, and others cannot, while some people can burn all the metals. This unique form of magic will necessitate a specific kind of problem-solving and character conflicts. For example, two Mistborn (people who can burn all the metals) fight with the knowledge that each opponent probably has a limited supply of each metal. This creates certain plot points and influences thinking in each character.
Science Fiction might be the genre that has the most arena of play and thus allow for all kinds of variation. Do you have aliens? AI? Superhumans? Genetic Engineering? Alternative history? It’s a very broad genre and there are endless things to explore.
So for example in my series, yes there are giant migrating cities (they are really more moving mountains because of their size) but you also have telepathy, artificial intelligence, life-extension, superstorms and a variety of undead creatures called ‘Recycled’. All of these various elements work together to create a unique world.
By themselves, none of those elements are unique and can be found in a hundred different science fiction novels.
Make your world unique and colorful. Small changes to world building can create some really interesting results. Why? Because cultures and worlds are holistic. A change in a political sphere will change economics, kinship, religion, gender, class, ect. Trust me on this, I’m an anthropologist and we see it all the time. A small change in your world building can create some pretty significant results.
2. Are your characters unique or can they have a unique experience?
Certainly, if the universe you are writing in is unique then unique character experiences are too difficult to manage. But what if you write something like romance or thrillers that are limited to the current reality in which we reside?
Your characters are your strength regardless of the genre. Ultimately, what people are reading your book for is the characters. If they don’t give a shit about your characters, then they aren’t going to keep reading. Empathy with characters is really important. Check out this YouTube Video on this topic for more.
But beyond empathy what makes your characters unique? Or perhaps their particular interactions are unique. What makes your characters one of a kind and unforgettable? Are they funny? Do they have an interesting internal struggle? Do they have a really interesting talent or fatal flaw? Maybe they have all of these things? A unique and/or interesting character will change the story for the better.
Think of it this way. If you put a character in a situation where someone tries to run them off a road in an act of road rage, not all characters (or people) are going to behave equally right? How they interact with a stressful situation can tell a lot about whether your character is interesting or not. And, life is pretty stressful, even without an evil robot from the 29th century coming to kill you.
3. What’s the change agent?
It’s not true that all characters change. In fact, having a character stay the same while the rest of the world changes around them, can also be a fascinating story element. One thing that makes a story unique is whatever is causing the change.
It could be as simple as that new woman in the characters life, or perhaps someone stole their wallet and the next they know, they end up in a parallel universe where humans are extinct and ruled by a telepath race of snails… sorry I go on tangents a lot in real life too haha.
The point is though, what is causing things to change? Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about how most of the time, he likes to put a character in a particular situation and see if they can work their way out of it. So, in what ways would your character solve their issue? Or could they even? Maybe the whole point of your story is that they can’t solve anything and they are a bumbling idiot and it’s sheer luck that gets them through. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams played with this a lot. The results are pretty comedic.
4. At the end of the day, it’s about telling a compelling story, even if many of your elements have been done to death.
So, to summarize it doesn’t matter if elements of your story have been done to death. I mean… time travel right? How many books and movies have explored that? But think of the ones you enjoy, what made you love them?
It is all about owning your story, about taking those old ideas and putting a fresh spin on them, that’s how you tell a great story. Consider some of these elements if you ever feel stuck or if your beta readers tell you they were bored.
Never forget, it’s okay to give up on a story if it’s not working. Sometimes putting something aside will make room for something even better. Life is too short to bang your head against the wall. If you aren’t excited about your story, the reader probably won’t be either.