Characters, fantasy, Fiction, General Writing

Roleplaying Norms That Don’t Translate Into Fiction

New writers are often inspired by roleplaying. Probably, only film and anime inspire more — with fiction, sadly, a distant fourth. At first, that seems to make sense. After all, aren’t both games and fiction a form of storytelling? Yes, but they are different forms of storytelling. In fact, there are at least seven ways in which storytelling in games differs from storytelling in fiction:

Gaming is communal

Roleplaying tells stories that are outlined by DMs, fleshed out by players’ choices and interaction, and often determined by the dice. The responsibility is shared around. Fiction, by contrast, is entirely the responsibility of the writer. Nor is it generally a matter of chance. It’s far more work — and all up to you, which is why online forums often have posts in which the writer tries to get others to do the work for them.

Gaming largely ignores diversity

Despite recent changes, gaming still tends towards a racial perspective: elves are agile and clever, orcs are stupid and evil, and dwarves combative and good with their hands. Especially in Young Adult books, such stereotyping is apt to get you flayed alive on Twitter today. Just as importantly, such casting usually makes for derivative and uninspiring fiction. What was acceptable in Tolkien is obsolete today.

Gaming is episodic

A roleplaying game can run for months, or even years. While the best games have an overall goal, and even several arcs, all games tend to be episodic, with one session often having minimal connection to others. Some fiction is like that, too; it’s call picaresque. More often, though, fiction is plotted: the first event causes the second, and the second the third, and so on until only one possibility remains at the climax. If you use games as a model, you are likely to lose direction and flounder because of what, in fiction, is a lack of structure.

Gaming does not consider point of view

On the one hand, a gaming session is developed by the players. Even the DM doesn’t always know what all the characters are thinking. A skilled DM might make some information known only to selected players, but, more often, all characters know what the others know. On the other hand, a fiction writer needs to decide on the point of view? Limited or deep third person? First person? Omniscient narrator? All these choices present challenges that gaming does not

Gaming emphasizes action

In most games, character points are based on action — if not killing, then figuring out traps and puzzles. Inner thoughts and dialog are only part of the socializing that is part of a gaming session. But focus on action in fiction, and the result is as mesmerizing as a choreograph diagram. Whether it’s fighting or sex, thoughts and reactions make the scene more readable in fiction.

Gaming focuses on a limited number of characteristics

Because games focus on action, their character development focuses on talents and skills. Anything further will be provided –if at all — by the player using the character. Some players may commission a sketch of their favorite character, but all the things that make fictional characters enjoyable, from background and appearance to how they move and talk, is rarely considered and is unimportant if it is.

Gaming develops characters separately from plot

When you roleplay, your characters are developed before the story begins. In fact, most characters can be dropped into any scenario. In comparison, characters are developed alongside the plot. The plot of Hamlet, for example, depends on a main character who thinks before he acts. Put Othello into the lead, and the play would be over before the end of act one; once he talks to the ghost, Othello would immediately rush off to kill his uncle. Conversely drop Hamlet into Othello, and no one would be murdered, because Hamlet investigates thoroughly before he acts. For this reason, the character sheets that are often suggested for fiction writers are largely useless. They simply provide the illusion of progress.

Two Forms of Storytelling

None of this is to disparage games. Rather, it is to point out that what works in roleplaying is likely to fail in fiction. If games inspire you to tell stories, perhaps you should consider writing roleplaying scenarios. But if you decide to write fiction, carrying the assumptions of games on to a novel or short story is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, read as widely as possible, and learn the conventions of your new form of storytelling.

fantasy, Uncategorized

Why Sword and Sorcery Is Obsolete

As a pre-teen, I devoured sword and sorcery. Even then, I could see most of it was mediocre at best. The sole exception was Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, which was rarely about hack and slash, and first made me aware that fantasy could be humorous and ironic.Leiber, at least, stilll holds up today (In fact, I wrote and published a Master’s thesis on his career). But unfortunately, Leiber was never typical S & S. So when I recently came across a magazine whose goal is to revive S & S, I had to wonder why anyone would want to. The conventions of S & S date both badly and embarrassing.

The most obvious convention is the portrayal of women. In vintage S & S, women are accessories. They kneel at the hero’s feet and gaze lustfully up at his face in a way that leaves no doubt who is the dom and who is the sub in the relation. Often they are manacled. At the end of the story, they tumble into bed with the hero, only to mysteriously disappear before the start of the next adventure. Personally, I suspect the hero sold them for drinking money. Yes, you can point to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry or Joanna Russ’ Alyx, but they are exceptions, and you can’t easily find them to point out. Vintage S & S is toxic masculinity, soaked with the outlook of a boy who has just discovered puberty, but is still a little nervous about girls and probably doesn’t know any

Less obviously, S & S is still enmired in a concept of other cultures that was dead and rotting before the twentieth century. This concept is seen in the typical barbarian hero — a simple, but honest Noble Savage who is always pitted against the corruption of civilization. S & S rarely stops to consider that such a character never existed, and is essentially racist. A true member of a culture that S & S labels “barbarian” may be unable to read, but is likely to have tens of thousands of lines of poetic wisdom stored in their heads. Probably, too, they can rattle off complicated family relationships and social obligations. They may have no agriculture because they live in a rich environment where you would have to be stupid to starve. Or perhaps their agriculture is centered on practices like clam farms or the rights to a defined hunting ground that the so-called civilized eye misses because it doesn’t expect them. They may even have breathtaking arts. In any event, they are not ill-bred half-wits like Conan. And far from despising or being over-awed by technologically advanced cultures, they will gladly trade with them and cheerily borrow anything that might enrich their daily lives. Barbarians are a stale fictional conceit that has been kept alive only by roleplaying games. In real life, there are only humans with different cultures.

Most of the time, Sword and Sorcery has one basic plot. And it’s not the Hero’s Journey, the story of how a character matures and becomes useful to their society. Instead, the story is a power fantasy, a tale of how brawn and pigheadedness win out over wits and knowledge, traits that are often personified by evil wizards. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, puerile — the outlook of a naive teenage boy who feels overwhelmed by looming adulthood and longs to imagine himself superior to it. There’s a reason Sword and Sorcery has become unpopular in recent decades: shackled with such conventions, it is nearly impossible to write a story in the genre that is meaningful in today’s world. The genre deserves to stay buried — or, better yet, cremated, and the ashes scattered to the winds where they can never be reassembled.

General Writing

How to Coin Fantasy Names

Take a look at a writer’s names, and you can predict how well they write. Are the names dull and strewn with unusual letters? Shamelessly borrowed, like Mycenae and Illyria? Or have they become an end in themselves with no relationship to the back story? The fact is, coining names is a minor art in itself, and, like all aspects of storytelling, takes practice to do well.

You can choose from lists of names in a modern setting. No one expects originality with realism, and lists of popular names are available online for many countries and eras. Digging into the original meaning of names, though, is likely wasted effort, that will be only appreciated by one in ten thousand readers. Avoid, too, the lists of fantasy names online — they’re fine for gaming, but why risk using the same name as half a dozen other writers? Besides, the lists are rarely fine examples of the craft of naming. I remember one that was so impoverished that it suggested Brassica — the Latin word for cabbages — as suitable for dryads. I can only imagined an exceptionally dowdy dryad with that name.

Similarly, be wary of adopting typos, mashed-together keystrokes, drawn Scrabble tiles, or any of the other half-seriously suggested methods for randomly coining names. The problem with such tactics
is precisely that they are random, and languages are not. If you do discover a usable name at random, it will be an accident.

All true languages have a consistency about them. English, for example, makes infrequent use of Q, X, and Z, while northern Germanic languages often use “sk.” Every language will also have its own distribution of diphthongs like “str” or “th.” And don’t forget diacriticals — English may make little use of accents, but a modern word processor gives access to a complete list of characters, at least for western European languages. Just be sure that you know how to use them. An apostrophe, for example, in English means letters are left out (yes, even when used as a possessive; originally, the possessive ending in English was “es,” but today we omit the “e.”). But when other languages are written with Latin characters, an apostrophe can indicate a glottal stop, so be sure you don’t just throw one in without knowing what sound you are indicating. You’ll only look ignorant.

To be believable, fantasy languages should have their own patterns. If you are a linguist, you can invent your own patterns; there will always be favored sounds, and sounds that are rarely used in any language. For the rest of us, a quick and dirty way to create the appearance of patterns is to choose half a dozen words from a real language, and rearrange their syllables to suit yourself. In this way, you can quickly create psedo-French, pseudo-Malaysian, or any other pseudo-language of your choice. If you want to be more elaborate, use two or more languages to draw your random syllables from.

Alternatively, you might try a poetic approach like Lord Dunsany and E. R. R. Eddison did, manipulating sounds n the hopes of creating the impression you want. For instance, to my ear, “Jolgoth” with its sonorous vowels suggests a hulking, Conan-like character.In the same way, I borrowed Haulteclare, the name of the sword carried by Charlemagne’s fictional paladin Olivier for the vaguely French name of Alteclare. Then, naturally, I named Alteclare’s captal Tolivier, just as an Easter egg. To provide other names, I borrowed syllables from Old French.

Once you have names ready, you can add to their plausibility by the way you distribute them. The names of people and places often reflect the movements of people, so that in England you can tell where the invading Vikings settled down by the place names. In the same way, you can cluster place names to create a sense of history, and name characters from each cluster in a pattern. In my own case, the most western names are derived from the syllables of Frankish and Old English. Further east, the inspiration for names is Middle English, and in the utmost east, the names sound like those of the American West, reflecting a mass pattern of settlement.

Whatever method you use to coin names, be prepared for a high failure rate. Even though I’ve been coining names for years, I still reject four or five coinings for everyone that goes into a dictionary of names. Moreover, dozens of names that go into my dictionaries will never be actually used. I will only ever chose a few, but I can be sure that I only use the best of the best. The result, I firmly believe, is greater realism, and the satisfaction of practicing the art of names properly.