Archive for the 'Worldbuilding' Category


The Map Thing

Seeing this amusing example of “Geography Fail” triggered this post. What’s wrong with this picture?

ur doin it wrong

ur doin it wrong

So as we confront yet another example of how Americans can’t even manage to correctly render maps of our own, very real world, I find myself contemplating the nature of maps in fantasy.

They’ve become a staple of epic fantasy, particularly those of doorstopper size, to the point that Diana Wynne Jones ruthlessly skewered them as a cliche in her seminal The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Note: I haven’t seen the revised version, which I’m told has a different parody map; the original was Europe upside down, with names that are anagrams of Our World names.) TV Tropes has a few choice things to say about them too. (Warning — I have never managed to visit TV Tropes without losing several hours of time browsing and laughing my nether regions off. Here there be lulz; click at your peril.)

It’s easy to make fun of fantasy maps — and yet we continue to see them throughout the genre, even when authors don’t want them (e.g., Terry Goodkind). It’s gotten to the point that an epic fantasy sans map doesn’t actually feel like epic fantasy to some readers. I was at Worldcon this past weekend, schmoozing and doing all the usual stuff debut authors need to do to promote their book. I handed one of my Advanced Reader Copies to an author whose work I admired, in hopes that she would read it and offer a favorable review. She thumbed through it, looked impressed by the teaser blurb, but then frowned and said, “I thought this was epic fantasy? There’s no map.” At which point I was obliged to explain that it had all the other tropes of epic fantasy — world-spanning scale, one brave heroine fighting impossible odds, Fate Of The Universe At Stake, the usual. Just no map. She still looked a bit dubious, but said she’d read it. Here’s hoping.

I got anxious enough about this during the early production phase of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I actually drew a map. This was a mistake, of course, because I know diddlysquat about cartography and plate tectonics and had probably put a continent in the way of some critical Gulf Streamlike current, thus making the whole planet uninhabitable by human beings. But I worried that readers would protest that the story wasn’t Epic enough, despite warring gods and exploding mountains and such, without a map to illustrate the epic-ness. So I finished the map, then asked my editor if she wanted it. Here’s proof of how good she is — she demurred, noting correctly that it’s a good thing not to adhere to the overdone cliches of the genre. Amazing that I needed a reminder of this, but that’s how deep the programming runs.

Because I didn’t really believe I needed one. I feel the same way about maps as I do about depictions of characters in novel cover art — I know they supposedly sell more books, but I hate it when my mental image of the story is messed with by someone else’s rendering. When I finished my crappy map, I didn’t actually like it. For one thing, the underlying story of the series spans thousands of years. Imagine how much human civilizations in our world have changed in, say, the last two millennia. Which era would you choose to map? How would you depict shifting national boundaries, cities destroyed and rebuilt, and so on? On top of this, I make a point in the series of noting that this world’s rulers routinely obliterate nations that annoy them, literally wiping them off the map. Even the gods get in on the planetary renovation act, sinking continents and boiling oceans now and again. The survivors move to an undamaged location, plant a flag and name the new territory after the old, and hope they’ll manage to last a few centuries before the next displacement.

Trying to map all this made the world, complex and dynamic in my imagination, look simple. Static. Small. Which is partly a testament to my mapmaking (non-)skill, but also partly the purpose of a map — to render something as vast as a landscape into a comprehensible, graspable, quantifiable representation. Necessary for explorers, but for readers? I think it actually diminishes the epic fantasy experience.

So here’s my question for all of you. Fantasy maps: necessary? Desirable? Or an evil that must be stopped? You’ve got my vote, obviously, but maybe I’m atypical. I’d like to know what some other fantasy readers think.


Life in the big city

Apologies for the lack of a post last week; I was in Montreal on vacation before Worldcon, and the blog completely slipped my mind.  (Blame the tasty duck sandwiches.  No, blame the weather.  No, blame…anyway.)

Montreal’s a beautiful city, and completely unlike any other I’ve visited.  I was trying to make comparisons for the first couple of days I was there — this part is like that one section of San Francisco, this part is like New York, this is like Paris — but it completely fell apart before long, and I think it’s because I was going about it the wrong way.

Cities can be compared one to another, but each one has its own soul, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that when writing.  Particularly if, like me, you’re from a small town and all cities have that first shock of Too Many People and Too Many Buildings.  It’s really tempting to write all of them from that point of view, to assume all cities are like the one city you know well, or just to ignore the individual differences between cities, concentrating instead on the action and treating the tall buildings as just something more for your hero to pose atop.

But readers notice — even if it doesn’t kick them out of the story, they notice when something’s done well.  Night Watch wouldn’t be the same without the film of Moscow clinging to it, and I probably wouldn’t like it so well.  Last Call captures a sense of Las Vegas that blends with the mythical underpinnings of the story so well that I can’t see pictures of certain casinos without shivering.  Neverwhere might be about London Below, but it’s still London.  If any one of these were set in, say, New York, they wouldn’t feel right.  The city shapes the story.

This carries over into fictional cities as well: New Crobuzon is a very different city from Ankh-Morpork, despite the superficial similarity of “corrrupt and squalid city inhabited by many strange varieties of people.”  Riverside is not the same place as Camorr.  Palimpsest is not Ashamoil.  Tavernel is not King’s Landing.  Even though some of the difference we as readers see has to do with the stories that are set there, the cities still have to have their own personalities.

For a city to work — for a fantasy to be urban — it needs to be a character in its own right.  And though it can have echoes of other cities, the same way that Vieux-Montreal echoes certain European cities, the same way that many glittering downtowns echo New York, it can’t be just a reflection of one.  It has to be an entirely new place — and as with any new place, it’ll give a visitor culture shock.

What cities have come through in what you’ve read?  Which would you most like to explore?


Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2

This is something I was going to do on my own blog, as a followup to an earlier post on ways to describe characters of color in fiction. But since a) I was coming up short on something to write about for this week’s Magic District post, and b) this is International Blog Against Racism Week* (IBARW), I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.

I’m a Harry Potter fan, if you haven’t guessed it by now from my repeated references. I’m such a fan that initially I only wanted the British versions of the books, so the first one I read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I did this because I found it suspect that the publisher had changed the name for the US release to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, completely ignoring the alchemical history that the original title evoked. If they were going to change something like that, I reasoned, who knew what else they would change?

So when I later got the US version and compared the two, I wasn’t surprised to see that a number of words and lines had been changed. Most of these changes were minor, for example clarifying Britishisms that USians might not have picked up on, like using the word “sweater” in place of “jumper”, since in the US a jumper is a kind of girl’s dress. But in several places I noticed a more curious difference. For example, at one point the character Dean Thomas is explicitly stated to be black in the US version — a line which doesn’t even exist in the UK version.

Now, note: Dean is described in the UK version in ways that strongly suggest his race, but it’s subtly done. His dredlocks are mentioned repeatedly, as is his love of a particular soccer (sorry, football) team which is known in the UK for having a lot of black players and fans. There are other clues. But somewhere along the way, some US editor for Rowling’s book decided that US kids just wouldn’t pick up on the clues, and decided to add that line to make it clear. Continue reading ‘Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2’


How Much Magic is Too Much/Not Enough?

Wow — book launches, weddings, babies; my fellow Magic Districtians have been up to so much cool stuff lately! (Congrats to all!) My own recent projects are pretty minor by comparison, but I guess I’ll talk about them anyway.

I experimented with voice acting recently, doing a reading for the fantasy fiction audio ‘zine PodCastle. I read the excellent story of fantasy writer Alaya Dawn Johnson, called “Shard of Glass”, which first debuted in Strange Horizons; check it out. Doing the reading was a lot of fun, although apparently the sound quality is a little iffy and my voice is too slow/soft. (Sorry ’bout that. My first time.)
Continue reading ‘How Much Magic is Too Much/Not Enough?’


The powerless power

A year or so ago I read the quote from Helen Mirren. It was her answer in response to an interview question about growing older and trying to avoid the “sexy” label:

“I’m still trying to wriggle out from under that label. […] Being a sexual object is mortifying and irritating, yet it’s giving you power–an awful power that you’ve done nothing to deserve, a powerless power. I think some young women fall in love with that power, and it’s really objectifying. And when it starts falling away, it’s an incredible relief.”

Nora’s post on objectification got me thinking about this again. It’s one of my favorite concepts – the powerless power, the power others give you, but that you yourself neither own or control. The quote is talking about sexual power, particularly the over sexualization of very young women, barely more than girls, that our culture thrives on. We take these lovely girls and give them power, media power, money, attention, and then wonder why the sixteen-year-old can’t handle it.

Of course, stars are a bad example, they had to have some kind of talent to get where they are. But think of girls you knew in high school, the really pretty ones. Think about all the women whose main talent in life is being lovely, because being lovely got them everywhere they wanted to be. Who these women might have been with out the free ride of good genes, we’ll never know. But, we all know what happens when their beauty starts to slip, and the power fades away. Several billion dollar industries are funded by women trying to salvage their beauty, and the power tied to it, from the ravages of time, but in the end, it’s futile, because the power was never theirs to begin with. It was always given to them for reasons outside their control, and love of power you do not control is the most dangerous obsession of all.

Which brings me back to fantasy. Fantasy novels are full of people clinging to powerless power, which, in fantasy worlds (places which tend to be populated by kings and born magicians)  encompasses a lot more than just sexual objectification. Tons of fantasies (mine included) have people born with strong, innate magical power. It’s like winning the genetic lotto, you came out an archmagus while your brother got the large nose. Or take the prince, born into fantastic power by virtue of primogenitor. Both of these are powers the person holding them did nothing to obtain. The prince didn’t struggle to better himself, win the hearts of the people, and claim throne. He didn’t even take it by force, at the head of a conquering army. Similarly, the born mage may have to train so as not to blow themselves up, but with that much power she probably didn’t have to work very hard to be at the top of the heap, magically speaking.

It’s not uncommon for a fantasy to be full of people born into power, be it royalty, magical powers, inheritors of some great artifact of a lost age, chosen child of a god, etc., etc., I am endlessly amazed at how decent most authors depict these folks turning out. Compare your average fantasy land princess to anyone an American tabloid would call a “princess,” one saves the kingdom by teaming up with the unlikeliest of companions, the other is up to her nose in cocaine. This is a gross generalization on both counts, but you get my drift. We like our fantasy MCs powerful and good, but when that power comes from anywhere but their own hard work, especially if it comes at birth, you’ve got to take into account how that power warped a young mind notoriously unable to responsibly deal with power on that scale or risk creating a cardboard character.

It all goes back to my post waaaay long ago about letting people be people. If you have individuals born into great power, most of them won’t handle it well, because it’s not their power. It’s power they were given through no deserving of their own, and though you don’t generally age out of great magical ability, I don’t imagine most child prodigy wizards would end up any better than child prodigy actors. Of course, this is where the clever author could start turning things in interesting directions. How many times in fantasy have we seen the young boy born with terrible power, who, though a loving foster parent (since his own are dead, natch), learns to fear and control his own magic and then goes on to do wonderful things. It’s going to take a lot of originality to sell that plot. However, how interesting could it be to have that same child mage become world famous as a magical prodigy, and then lose his power? Everything he’d been handed by life would vanish, and he’d be left with what precious little he’d done for himself. What lengths would he go through to get it back? How would he support his magical coke habit? What if magic itself was addictive (and you know it would be, once you’ve had world shaping power at your fingers, life can never be the same), how would he deal with the withdrawl?

Everything comes down understanding the difference between power a person earns and power they are given. Knowledge, skills, friendship, determination built on your own goals, magic you learned through hard trial, these are real powers, earned, not given, and can not be taken away. But powerless power, especially when it comes at a young age, is never truly the character’s own. Because of this, I think powerless power can be one of the most volatile and interesting elements in a story. Provided, of course, your characters react to it like people, and not like train cars on the plot railroad.


Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Favorite References

As an epic fantasy writer, I’m fascinated by the ways societies develop, rise, and fall, and the ways that people react to all these stages. So my favorite references include The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (I think we’re up to IV now), because it literally catalogs the vast array of psychological types and personality variants that make up the people of any society. Also, I like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, despite some misgivings; it’s still good research, and an interesting analysis of how some societies reach technological/resource dominance, or fall apart from stupid decision-making despite this dominance. By the same token, I’m fond of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn — not only is it the first history text I’ve ever enjoyed reading, but it’s an interesting examination of how perspective skews reality; history truly is written (and heavily revised) by the victors.

This kind of stuff is the epitomy of epic fantasy, IMO; Tolkien’s Mordor was based on the German war machine, after all. So how better to develop fantasy ideas than to examine all the ways in which reality can be interpreted and reinterpreted, individually and on the “big picture” scale?

On a more personal level, I’m fascinated by how people resist oppression within restrictive societies. This means I read a lot of books about and autobiographies of revolutionaries, but also weirder stuff. For example, I like Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden — a nonfiction collection of women’s sexual fantasies, written at the height of the Sexual Revolution (1973). Seriously racy, and controversial even today. But it’s also an interesting examination of what repression does to the human psyche — how people naturally yearn for B when they’ve been taught their whole lives to want A and C.

I ref mythology too, and have read Hamilton’s book and the usual. I’m fond of Richard Cavendish’s Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia because it contains gorgeous color panels of artwork depicting the various pantheons and cosmologies of different cultures. But I’ve made a conscious effort to step beyond the usual Greco-Roman and Northern European mythologies that these books tend to concentrate on. It’s hard to find good scholarly material on other mythologies in English; unfortunately, time and experience have shown that Western scholars often “get it wrong” when summarizing and analyzing non-Western stuff, for various reasons. So when I can, I try to find the myths of other cultures as primary sources, though usually in translated form. Most recently I’ve read The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales, collected by Diane Wolkstein. I also seek out storytellers, even when I can’t understand them; one of my favorite travel experiences was listening to an old Italian storyteller in the common room of a quaint old medieval-looking inn, on a recent trip to Sicily. Had no clue what he was saying, but the way he said it was a work of art in itself. More recently I got to hear a storytelling competition by Navajo children “on the rez” in Chinle, AZ — and man, those kids were fierce. Hope some of them grow up to become writers.

(Why is it that I never manage to do these Quickies quickly??)


Food in Fantasy

Been re-reading a favorite “comfort food” novel this week. And because I was literally hungry while reading a few chapters of it today, the book’s descriptions of food really jumped out at me. Here’s what the characters scarfed in the course of several meals:

  • Stew (apparently beef)
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Steak
  • “Steak pie” (Shepherd’s pie, maybe? Not sure how a slab of ribeye in pie crust would work.)
  • Coffee
  • Wine
  • Fruit in a jar
  • Biscuits
  • Casserole
  • Boiled eggs
  • More stew

Continue reading ‘Food in Fantasy’