5 Steps to Design a Fantasy Religion

Religion is extremely important on a personal level to many people, and it affects everyone indirectly if not directly. Conflicts over differing opinions on the essential qualities of deity, creation, and human society as it relates to mystical importance abound in the real world.

Fantasy worlds can be equally convoluted. Even a fantasy world in which everyone is atheist or agnostic is still a world with a designed religion, but it can be elevated to a world with designed intent.

5. Know What Beliefs Real Religions Espouse

People can be led to believe in almost anything (just research QAnon), so it doesn’t really matter how mad you make the premise of your religion. What does matter, however, is how your religion makes adherents feel. How does it encourage your characters to act?

Successful religions have all encourages some form of morality and altruism tied into their beliefs. Do good things for the poor, don’t steal things, and respect your elders are common traits. At its core, a fantasy religion should include elements of good. Why?

Well, I’m glad you asked. See, remember that horrible set of books I read last month? Remember The Tombs of Atuan? In it, the gods only take, harm, and maim, and the king uses the reality of their existence to enhance his power. The gods in Tombs of Atuan don’t do anything good – so what was the use of worshipping them? Solely to prevent evil from happening? That lack of benefit – even lack of a theoretical benefit – to the gods in Tombs of Atuan made the entire religion a bit less believable.

People prefer to believe:

  1. The deity will bring peace and health in return for faith and worship
  2. The deity will support their people group, even at the cost of other people groups
  3. The deity will bring prosperity to the faithful
  4. The deity will enforce a social order, especially one beneficial to the adherents

Read up on how a religion uses these promises in order to attract followers. If you don’t know much about the Abrahamic religions, I encourage boning up on that because of their importance in English language literature. If you’re interested in polytheistic beliefs, study Hinduism, currently the polytheistic religion with the most followers. Strangely enough, I also strongly suggest watching Leah Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath – if nothing else, it shows you how religions can successfully draw people in (though Scientology is a bit crazier than others) by using good acts as a sort of bait.

4. Define Your Society’s and Characters’ Goals

In that last section, we defined what a religion can give an individual. Individuals, though, don’t enforce religious rules and standards: communities do, and communities need reasons to keep the religion going. Society as a whole has goals, just like characters in a book. People often imagine countries as characters, and any group of people can be seen similarly. What does this group want?

Some societies struggle for survival. The Pentateuch (the Torah or first five books of the Old Testament) tell the story of a people fleeing persecution and establishing themselves with the safety God provides. Safety for yourself, even if it means the destruction of others, is a very interesting societal goal. I love that sort of thing because it can be easily twisted to develop a genuinely evil society while still giving the relief of moral goodness. Whether or not God physically did much to help them, the faith at least allowed the Jewish people to band together for their survival.

Remember, society tends to be out for itself. The word “genocide” wasn’t even invented until the 1940’s; even Winston Churchill called the Holocaust a “crime without a name” because nothing had been invented yet. That’s right – people didn’t care about wholesale slaughter of a people group enough to make a word for it until less than 80 years ago. Your society will want to survive and win.

3. Make a Creation Myth

There’s elements to every religion that go beyond creation myths, but almost unilaterally there needs to be a creation story in order for it to work. Part of what has empowered atheism in recent decades is the extremely plausible creation story* that didn’t exist prior to the increased pace of discovery in the Industrial Age. Atheism has always been around, but a “creation myth” was necessary to give it a boost and make it palatable to masses.

The order in which things are created is important in all myths. In Cherokee myths, there is the heavens and there is an expanse of water below. Animals came down from the heavens and dug up the mud from beneath the ocean, then tied the land to the heavens with cords so it wouldn’t sink.

Now, what does that say about the power of animals? How do you think a believer of that story would feel about animals vs. someone who believes animals a passive creation of a human-like god? They’d probably think the animals are much more important!

So what is important in your mythology? Start them early, give them a job, and give them power. Consider when “evil” is created, because that will determine much about the morality of your world.

Your myth can be as crazy as you want.

2. Create a Power Hierarchy

Your religion starts with one prophet, for whatever reason, but then the prophet leaves or dies. What next?

All groups, from companies to unions to religions, must have a hierarchy dedicated to protecting itself. Just like any society, as mentioned in number 4 above, church hierarchy will organize itself to carry out its goals of 1) spread religion and 2) get power for the religion. The Catholic church has a very complex and well-defined heirarchy, and honestly you really can’t get a better example when it comes to religious hierarchy and how it works. They have everything planned out, and it just gets deeper the further you look into it. Though the church hierarchy has done a lot to spread goodness and charity, it has also been used to cover up heinous abuses as well as entrench heinous beliefs. Whether or not the deity of your fantasy religion is good, the believers of the religion are still people, still flawed.

I grew up Baptist, and I didn’t realize there was a church hierarchy beyond just your deacons and a pastor until I got into high school and took history classes. Believe it or not, Baptists have no creed, no real external leadership structure beyond each individual congregation (there are “conventions”, but honestly churches leave those and get kicked out or join all the time, and no one really cares). There’s probably a looser-structured religious group out there, but believe it or not, Baptists have very little structure to their church despite the outsized political power they enjoy.

1. Entrench Your Hierarchy

After you’ve created an organization (or a lack of one, in the case of Baptists and the like), it’s time to look at the part that will really make your religion pop: how does it interact with politics?

There are two main ways you can entrench your hierarchy politically: an outright state with a theocracy (think Iran), or a sort of shadow state that influences government leaders and enforces itself through the power of a deity. A religious hierarchy with sufficient elaboration and order will be able to organize itself effectively and perform both its moral duties and lobby governments of any kind to do its will. Hold souls hostage, get what you want.

If you don’t have a great hierarchy, you’ll probably need to have extremely charismatic individuals that carry a lot of power. As a Baptist, I immediately think Billy Graham. He was crazy influential in politics, and it was probably him who made Baptists so much more powerful. He was able to move masses with a word and cause voting blocs to shift. Following his death, there is no single voice to fill the void, and that is also a risk for a less-organized religion: lack of continuity and lack of singular goal. It’s way harder to entrench loose confederacies for long periods of time.

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Do you include a fantasy religion in your works? I’d love to hear about your deities and myths! Let me know more in the comments!

*These creation stories can be entirely right and still don’t disprove most mythos. However, they can be taken alone, which makes them both interesting and powerful.

Worldbuilding in Fiction – Geography 1: Maps

While setting usually doesn’t make a story in and of itself, a well-defined setting that is fitting with its plot can make a story far more rich and engaging. At the same time, a poorly thought out story can confuse readers as to locations, distance, and travel.

One book with fantastic geographical features, a well-thought out set of locations, and gorgeously written pieces on travel and setting is Watership Down by Richard Adams. A classic novel written for children but enjoyable on a different level for adults, Watership Down follows a set of male rabbits as they leave their home warren in search of a new one.

So why praise this book, a book about anthropomorphic rabbits, on its geography? Don’t many fantasy books have maps and plans and fantastic journeys? Does not the average fantasy writer have a much wider variation of settings, with grander and more pointed importance?

Perhaps. But what Adams does in Watership Down is make the journey come to life. The obstacles that are carefully and purposefully placed are intrinsically important to the story. The lay of the land, the placement of roads and railroad tracks, the idea of the existence of an ocean, and the presence of enemy forces are all important to the way the story plays out. It’s one of those stories that feels like the place existed before the plot.

So how can this lesson be applied?

Even if a reader won’t keep up with exactly all the directions and landmarks of a place, they can keep up with whether or not your travel times make sense. If you travel between the same two places and take half the time in one instance, there better be a reason!

It is easy to forget, though. A reader can focus on the inaccuracies in subjects they care about, whereas the writer must be concerned with inconsistencies in every realm. One way to make your geography and travel make more sense as you write is to make a to-scale map to help remind you.

Making A Rough To-Scale Map

A functional map doesn’t need to be very in-depth, just have a rough outline and enough room to write details as you figure them out.

If you have already written your story, it’s always a nice idea to make a map to be certain that your geography was consistent. Read over your work and take notes like “Main character traveled from the city to the village in 2 hours.” Collect all geographic information you can. Below is a table of cities and travel times that I came up with for a modern setting.

Travel Time in Minutes by Car

New Alcaran Karlotte Port Rumber Davistown
New Alcaran 38 89
Karlotte 38 51 46
Port Rumber 89 51 18
Davistown 46 18

In your book, you may not have so many details concerning your cities or places. Don’t worry, that’ll be fine. You’ll have more leeway to change up your places and positions.  If you have as much data as I have above, you’ll easily be able to tell if your story’s geography makes sense – you’ll see why later – but you won’t be able to adjust and make a different map.

Gather Your Materials

To make a useful map that makes sense, you can take a long time measuring distances (take the travel times above, figure out a scale with a ruler), or you can cheat with the following materials:

  • Materials for Map MakingPushpins – the number of these should match the number of locations on your map.
  • Wide rubber bands – the amount of these could vary depending on the distances and amount of data you have, so I suggest having more than you think you’ll need.  I guess you could also use string, but you’d have to tie knots and that could mess up your scale and be tedious.
  • Ruler – to help you determine the scale
  • Scissors
  • Paper(s)
  • A bulletin board would be nice, but I’m cheap and lazy and just used a couch (don’t tell anyone…).
  • Permanent Marker, Pencil and Pen
  • Scanner and GIMP or Photoshop if you want to make it pretty later

The first batch of steps is determining the scale.

  1. Label your pushpins using the permanent marker so you can identify which landmark or city is which.  I numbered mine 1 through 4.
  2. Cut the rubber bands so that they’re flat strips rather than curved bands.
  3. Choose the two landmarks with the largest distance between them.  Poke each of these pushpins through the ends of a rubber band.
  4. Measure the distance between the center of the two pushpins with a ruler.  Divide the distance by travel time (see note at the bottom of the page for multiple travel methods) to get your scale.  Calculate the length of each trip in rubber-band-distance by multiplying this number with the travel time (as seen in the table above).  You’ll come up with a new table like this one.  My scale was 19 cm/89 minutes.
    Rubber Band Distance in Centimeters

    New Alcaran Karlotte Port Rumber Davistown
    New Alcaran 8.1 19
    Karlotte 8.1 10.8 9.8
    Port Rumber 19 10.8 3.8
    Davistown 9.8 3.8
  5. Cut pieces of rubber band so that your trips are the right length.  For instance, I cut an 8.1 cm rubber band for New Alcaran to Karlotte.  Then, poke the two appropriate pushpins through the rubber band.  You may end up with some pushpins that have collected several rubber bands.
  6. You’ll have what looks like a mess of rubber and pushpins.  Choose one of the pushpins connected to your longest rubber band and poke it through your piece of paper.  Push the other end of the longest band into the paper, keeping it taut (or, if your travel must necessarily wind, leave it appropriately loose).  Here it is helpful to have a bulletin board so your pushpins will stay in place in your piece of paper.
  7. From there, take a connecting pushpin and extend so the rubber band is taut but not forcefully stretched and push it into your piece of paper.  Keep going until all the pushpins have been inserted.  You can rearrange to get everything onto one page, or just add paper to use multiple pages in a pinch.

Push Pin MapSo, as you can see to the left, what I made was pretty simple – only four landmarks, or cities, as per my plan.  More cities will take more time and be more confusing, but it can be sorted out.  These towns worked out nicely, with taught lines between them.

This is also where you’ll find out if your geography makes sense or not.  If you have any three cities that connect with each other, your bands will form a triangle.  However, you may experience floppy lines that you can’t get rid of.  Why?

The rule for triangles is that the lengths of two sides added together must be longer than the remaining side.  So, let’s say that my Port Rumber to New Alcaran rubber band length was 20 cm.  This is longer than the sum of Port Rumber to Karlotte and New Alcaran to Karlotte, or 19.9 cm.  If I don’t want to add ‘difficult terrain’ or have my cities be in a straight line, I’ll need to re-think my travel distances.

You may have cities with only one connection, so you can move those around until you have what you want.  If in the end you have nice, straight lines, everything makes sense and you can continue to the next step.

The next set of steps are how to draw your map and have more than just a piece of paper with holes in it.Map Scan

  1. If you have a lot of connections, consider drawing penciled lines beneath your connecting bands.  That way you have a nice guide once the pins are gone.
  2. Pull out your pushpins and, using a pen or pencil (pencil can be erased, so I’d go with that), draw the coastlines, rivers, roads, and any other feature that you think important for your map.
    (You can depart from what you saw exactly with the rubber bands – in fact, natural barriers make it preferable for humans to build curving roads!  You can see a scan of what I drew to the right, complete with a few leftovers of what was on the back of the page.)
  3. Get a new sheet of paper and poke new holes if you don’t like what you come up with and can’t erase it all.
  4. If you want to stop here, label your pushpin holes with city names and call it a day.
  5. If you want to make your map pretty, scan in your lines to the computer or ink them with a pen.

Making Your Map Pretty

You can try inking your page and carefully drawing your letters, which is a good option and can lead to some gorgeous maps, but I’m not going to detail that process here.  You can take some ideas from my computerized process into account, though.

I have Photoshop CS6 because my company has a contract that allowed me to get it without paying from my own pocket, but you can achieve the same quality of work using the free program GIMP.

Map LabelsIn Photoshop, I opened my scanned sheet and shrunk it down to make a smaller file (and a smaller photo to work with for a website space).  After that, I added a new layer (CTRL+Shift+N for those on PCs).  On this new layer, I used a 1-px black brush to follow the outline of the coast.  You can alternatively use color selection on the background layer to re-draw your coasts or roads, but this act can give you the chance to make a more detailed coast or fix some of the problem areas on your map.

I then added another layer, switched the brush to orange, and drew in the roads.  If I were actually going to use this map, I might consider adding a few more roads to nowhere, perhaps making up a few random towns as I went.

Anyway, after that, I made the labels using the text function, then the key by making a straight line of the appropriate color next to my labels.  After that, I cropped the picture to cut off the edges, made a new layer underneath that was white, and deleted the old background to get rid of all the trash from the backside of my paper.  Map Colored

You can stop here, or you can add color or more details.  I suggested above to put your roads and coasts on a different layer because, here, you can copy the coast and paste to a new layer.  This will allow you to select either land or sea to mess with.  You can use the magic wand to select, for instance, just the land pieces.  From that, you can use brushes however you want and not worry about coloring outside the lines.

You can see to the right that I chose to make Port Rumber and New Alcaran port towns on the coastlines.  I used green round brushes with 60% opacity to make the trees around New Alcaran, then 100% opacity left slanted brush to make the eastern shrubbery color.  100% opacity gray brushes created the city color.

For the ocean, I paint bucketed blue then used the magic wand to select the ocean.  For a quick wavy look, I filtered in the oil paint effect then blurred it just enough that you couldn’t tell that’s what I’d done.  Spending more time on this could have given you a better look, but I think that’s pretty good considering the effort I gave it.

All told, this took me about an hour.

You can also make these maps look old, or give them a photographic feel (I have an example of this below).  This will probably take significantly more time, but it can feel rewarding once a major effort is complete.

Now… I didn’t make up these distances.  I copied the driving times from Google maps for four cities in the San Francisco Bay Area and, from that, constructed my map.

Map Side by SideSo, as you can see, if you have appropriate travel distances when you make your rubber bands, your distances between your towns on paper will be roughly what they have to be.  If your map cannot work, you may want to make some changes to your geography to keep everything aligned.

Making Your Maps Super Pretty

I’ve made several maps.  Below, see a world map I made to go with my novel. I tried to give it a futuristic feel.  Whereas the above took me an hour, this took me several.  I find this to be my prettiest, so that’s why it’s here.

World Map

I’ve also made other maps for a more fantastical setting, with older appearance.  It’s one of my favorite parts of worldbuilding, so I hope you can enjoy map-making too.

Notes

What if your travel times aren’t all the same?  For instance, what if your characters are flying on dragonback between two landmarks, but riding camels between a couple of others?  You can take that into account with your scale.  Divide the speed of the ‘normal’ (or most common) travel method by your second travel method to get your relative speed.  To get the length of your rubber band, multiply your travel time by your scale (described earlier) and then by your relative speed.  Here I’ve tabulated the speeds of several common travel methods.  Unfortunately, you’ll have to determine the airspeed velocities of dragons and unladen swallows on your own time.

Transportation Method Speed in mph Speed in kph Notes
Ships
WWII Era Aircraft Carrier 37.4 60.2 Other battleships in the group can be estimated at the same speed
Modern Era Aircraft Carrier 38.7 62.2 Other battleships in the group can be estimated at the same speed
Modern Ocean Liner 25 40
Spanish Galleon 9.2 14.8 As in pirate ships
The Mayflower 2 3.2 Other old sailing ships
Land Vehicles
Car on Highway 65 104.6
Car in Cities 25 40.2
Steam Engine Train 78 125 Technological developments may alter this. Estimate for late 1800’s.
Electric Train 300 482 Technological developments may alter this.
Subways 33 52
Bicycle 15.5 24.9
WWII Era Tank 28 45 M4-Sherman
Modern Era Tank 45 74.2 M1-Abrams
Aircraft
Commercial Jet 591 951
Modern Fighter Jet 1385 2228 F22-Raptor
WWII Era Fighter Plane 400 643 P51-Mustang
Horses
Horse, Walking 6 9.6 Normal horses for long distance
Horse, Trotting 8 12.8 Like fancy walking, but less sustainable
Horse, Gallop 28 45 Only over short distances
Horse, Ambling 15 24 Sustainable over long distance, but only select breeds
Horse with Wagon 3 4.8
Humans
Walking 3.1 5
Jogging 6 9.6
Running 12 19.3

Note: This was published by me in June 2015, way before I was trying hard with the blog.  I think this post could be useful for way more people than the 2 I think read it before, hence why I decided to post this again.

How to Write Biology in Science Fiction, Part 3: Making Aliens and Fantastic Beasts

If you’ve read much of my two long-fiction stories or several of my short stories, you’d see that one of my greatest skills and interests is in non-human characters and narrators.  This guide will help you think about new creatures and come up with a creative monster, friend, or decoration in your next work.

Sci-Fi Creatures: Inspired by Evolution

Even if you don’t go into depth about the evolution of your organism, it can be helpful to go through these steps to determine both physical traits as well as psychological.  We’ll focus on intelligent creatures first.

Step 1: Build an Ecosystem

daylight environment forest green

Luckily, this isn’t the same as building a planet! Think about the planet Earth – only a few biomes match that of the desirable human living condition.  All the others that we have dominated came about because we used technology to force them into obedience.  The only thing you need to do is determine what sort of environment your creature first appeared in.

Is it a sandy desert?  If so, you may want to have your creature have eyes built for sandstorms, with long lashes and transparent second lids.  You may want it to have methods to recycle water within its own system.

Is it a swamp?  Your creature likely needs to be capable of remaining underwater for some time, perhaps living primarily in the muck.  It needs to be fair at swimming if it is to remain competitive for food.

Whatever your biome, you can study existing creatures in an analogous one on Earth.  If you have a weather pattern not present on Earth (i.e. constant hurricane), you can come up with adaptations to fit.  Figure out what every creature in that region needs to have for survival.

Step 2: Determine Placement on the Food Chain

Once you know where your creature will live, it’s helpful to determine what further adaptations it will need for survival.

On Earth, it is uncommon for purely prey animals to be very intelligent.  However, we can think of the horse as a prey animal that has shown quite an array of cognitive skill – it’s not impossible to imagine a prey animal that has evolved intelligence.  How would that change the animal from a human’s life experience?  How would intelligent prey act, even long after they’ve stopped the predators from eating them?

Step 3: Create a Physical Appearance

Now that you know enough about what your creature needs to survive, you can outfit them with adaptations suited to that end.  If they’re a predator, you might want to give them claws or teeth.  You might, similarly to humans, want to give them the ability to throw weapons at range.

The picture below is of a gecko, which uses amazing surface area to volume ratios and Van der Waals interactions to have ‘sticky’ fingers.  This nigh-alien ability and natural adaptation could inspire you to create something equally wild.

nature hand animal glass

One of the most important things you’ll have to do is decide what kind of covering they’ll have.  On Earth, it’s common to choose between skin, hair/fur, scales, coral, chitin, or cellulosic outer shells.  Humans easily develop ideas based off outer covering.  I’ve found it hard to come up with completely alien coverings, but I have thought of a few.

Step 4: Come Up with a Psychology

If intelligent, the creature will have some psychological nuances to make them inhuman.  Like I said earlier, determining rank on the food chain will cause a big difference, but so will their group mentality, their willingness to live in proximity, and other social qualities.

photo of head bust print artwork

Though I hate the James Cameron movie Avatar, one of the things his blue cats do is use the psychic link to speak with each other and the nature around them.  This means their connection to the planet Pandora is tighter than we can imagine as humans, and their impassioned defense is fueled by a psychological depth we can’t easily understand.  While them movie didn’t take full advantage of this, it is an accessible example.

Otherwise, read Ancillary Justice and the Imperial Radch trilogy.  The psychology of the AI’s and the Presger will show you the way of things.

Step 5: Write It

When I start writing about the aliens and magical creatures I imagine, that’s when all of the above comes together.  It’s when I realize I’ve left holes that need to be filled, when I can make the thing truly come to life.

If you’ve invented an alien or otherworldly creature, let me know in the comments!  I’d love to read about or see images of what you’ve invented.

pen writing gold ink

Dying With Taste – Southern Funeral Traditions

Tomorrow, I’m posting a story – the first of a series of unconnected tales – about dying in the South.  I was inspired to write that fantasy after a really strange, really interesting Sunday School lesson.

(Edit: Here are the four stories – The EmbalmistsThe Funeral Ribbon QuiltThe WakeThe Preacher’s Wife -)

On August 13th, my church had a speaker from the North Carolina Museum of History come to talk about Southern funeral traditions.  The speaker focused on the tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt, which I’ll include in this little snippit of an article, but other Southern funerary traditions found their way into the talk.  Most of the information presented here came from that lesson.

If you have access, you can read the paper here:

Bell-Kite, Diana.  Memorials of Satin: Funeral Ribbon Quilts in Context.  Uncoverings.  Volume 37, pp. 41-74.  2016.

Embalming and Cremation – Sins That Weaved Their Way In

The first story, the one that comes out tomorrow, speaks about the practice of embalming.  Though invented in the 1700’s as a method to preserve organ specimens for scientific study, popularization of embalming as a means of corpse preservation occurred during the Civil War.  Union soldiers with rich enough families would pay a battlefield undertaker to embalm their dead relative so that the corpse could be transported back home instead of buried on site.

100Once the war was over, the Northerners kept the tradition of embalming and started commercializing death.  Instead of handling a funeral in their home, they would outsource the work to the local funeral directors.  Cremation became an acceptable means of disposing the body due to cost, location, and other restrictions more common in the urbanizing North.

Back in the south, those luxuries were unaffordable.  Association with the North, those evil ragamuffins, served to make them seem evil.  After getting out of church on Sunday, I called my mom and talked to her about what I’d learned.  She audibly shuddered and said, “Cremation’s awful.  Everyone says you go to hell if you get cremated.”  She paused a minute while she thought on it a little more.  “It’s something from up North.  They don’t care about goin’ to hell as much up there.”

“Full of sinners?” I asked.

“Yeah, I reckon.”

That being said, both practices are making their way into the unique and customized traditions of the south.  Some people are even requesting cremation so they can be interred in their favorite mayonnaise jars.

The Wake

The Southern Wake is something I’ve never experienced but have known about.  Though embalming is now a legal requirement in most states, even those down here, the wake was a tradition in which the body rested in the house for the night (two, tops).  The family and those close to the deceased would keep a vigil, staying up through the night with alternating celebration and mourning.  People bring food for the bereaved to enjoy and help ease the moment.

Mr. Bill, one of the most outgoing and personable human beings at the church I attend, had something to say after Sunday School was done.

“I ‘member when Mama and Daddy used to take me to the old-style funerals.  They had all kind of food and it was the greatest.  I loved it.”

The wake preceded a long funerary service at the church, which is usually where I started my experiences with Southern Funerals.  At the church you enjoy even more food, listen to multiple hours of sermon, then the deceased are buried.  From death to dirt, it takes about a day.

Because I grew up in a poor, rural area of the south, the old-style funeral is the only one I’ve experienced.  People would bring an absolute trove of goodies to assuage the bereaved family members and throw a bit of a party.  You could bet there’d be banana pudding and deviled eggs.  Regional trends would determine exactly what kind of food appeared, but there’d always be plenty of it.

Flowers Of a Particular Kind (And Their Ribbons)

sweet-thought-standing-sprayA tradition killed by the recession, Southern funeral bouquets were a major part of dying.  Florists were able to equate the purchase of flowers with a moral obligation, and Southerners bought this line without question.  The more flowers a deceased party had at their funeral, the more well-loved and popular they had obviously been.  To not give flowers would be considered a grave (pun, get it) insult.

The subject of the talk in Sunday School was an offshoot of this practice.  In order to cheapen bouquets and ensure adequate flower supply, florists would tie in long, satin-acetate bows.  Southern ladies would take the bows off the flowers and sew them into a quilt.  The tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt died when the material for these bows changed from the satin-acetate to the weather-resistant polypropylene (short part of the story).

The practice of giving copious flowers at a Southern funeral still remained in many areas, at least the one I grew up in, until the Great Recession.  I remember the piles and piles of flowers at the funerals I’ve been to.  Once the Recession hit, though, people stopped being able to afford such frippery.  In the 10 years since the market crashed, I think the last vestiges of the floral funeral may have finally ended.  A few people remain who will insist on dying the old way, but the more modest and practical funeral of the North seems to have taken over.

Lord have mercy on us all.

 

Writing About Time Travel

Time travel isn’t, of course, a currently available technology – in fact, it may be theoretically impossible to do with any amount of control or predictability.  There’s plenty of books out there by theoretical physicists and authors on writing time travel sci fi for the masses, so I’ll leave the science to them (I’m just a meager chemist, after all).  I’ll glance over some scientific principles of time travel, but I’m primarily going to think about more social aspects of the theoretical technology.

steam-3160715_1280

Traveling In and Out of Control

You’ve built your time machine – but do you know when it will take you?

A time machine within your control can take you whenever you please.  By doing the right calculations or plugging in the right settings, you can choose any era or year to land in.  A time machine outside of your control takes you to an unspecified time that you can’t determine a priori.  If we want to get scientific, the random time machine seems more approachable due to the randomness of quantum physics.

Random time travel can pose several problems, though, some of which could pose cool story complications or ideas:

  • If your time travel is random, how can you be sure you won’t just go to the beginning of the universe, or a time period where Earth doesn’t exist?
  • Why would anyone want to use one of those things?  Is there anything worth taking that risk over?

To Be Fair, The Past Sucks

caveman

From Spongebob Squarepants.

So you’ve decided to assume technology that can let you off the time travel boat whenever you damn well please, and this includes the past.

Besides potential time paradoxes, you might want to consider that the past actually sucked. Are you nonwhite or not straight-cis-male?  Gonna suck even harder. Forget Victorian fashion – I’d rather have indoor plumbing for the poor and rural.  Screw ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt – I’d rather not be captured and turned into a slave tutor (if I were lucky).  Not only that, remember reading old books?  Even Twain can be hard to decipher into modern English at times, much less Shakespeare.  The further you travel, the less likely your language even exists.

If you want to travel back in time, keep in mind how much the past really does suck.

The Far Future is a Crapshoot

We already know the past sucks – but what about the future?  Surely upward economic trends will continue, technology will improve, and social niceties will get nicer.

But we can’t know.  It’s possible that Earth will suffer from runaway global warming and become uninhabitable.  It’s possible that we’ll nuke each other and the Earth will become uninhabitable.  It’s possible eradicated diseases will return and everything will be lame and dangerous.

There’s only one good option for time travelers…

Using Your Power to Buy LOTTO Tickets

bold strategy

The people who use their time machines for betting purposes always lose or get made out to be the bad guys on TV and movies.  They get told “You’re ruining everything!” or that they’re cheating other people.

But they’re not.

You might kill the gambling industry, especially when it’s apparent you’ll need to make money by selling machines to other gamblers, but that isn’t too bad.  The lottery definitely destroys more lives and marriages than it saves thanks to gambling addiction, so you know what?  Screw it.

Horse racing?  Archaic form of animal and rider abuse. Screw it.

Sports?  The NFL is killing its players – I don’t care if it gets ruined.  Sports precipitates a rather wide variety of evil in this world, and removing the excitement by inventing time machines doesn’t bother me.

And the thing you’d get in return for making those sweet, sweet gambles?  That giant pile of cash?  There are powerful people already out there who have plenty more cash than any lottery – or two lotteries – could possibly give you. Getting the money isn’t evil; it’s what you do with it after that could be.

If you ever find yourself with a time machine, take the safe road out.  Take a gamble.

Boolean Thoughts – AI in Stories

Last month, I examined the spectrum from animals to humans in stories.  This month, we’re looking at robots and AI, and what better place to start than the Turing test?

The Turing Test

Named after Alan Turing, the Turing Test measures the capability of a machine to possess the same intelligence and capabilities of a human mind (some argue it’s about whether or not a computer can imitate a human, but that’s no fun).  In the test, a human judge tries to determine which of two correspondants is a computer and which is a human.

You can test drive talking to a robot right now with Cleverbot.  We’re not to a point where an AI can convincingly replicate human speech, but we are getting closer.  Robots may one day become a reality.

Incorporating AI’s That Pass the Turing Test

These AI’s are basically humans, sometimes indistinguishable.  They’re a pretty common form of robot in television since they can easily be played by human actors.  They allow the robot to show a range of emotion, something that helps draw an audience to sympathize with the character.

The cylons, robots of the 2003 Battlestar Galactica reboot, fit perfectly in this role.  Battlestar-GalacticaThe human-like models even posed as people on the Galactica.  Worry about who could be a cylon rocketed through the rag-tag human fleet.  Some of the cylons were even programmed to believe they were human, and no one knew better until they snapped.

This worked in the 2003 reboot because of the ever-looming threat of mutual annihilation.  It allowed the viewer to connect with the cylon characters, and the intrigue while you figured out who was or wasn’t a cylon kept you watching for several seasons.  It is the ability of the cylons to perfectly mimic human behavior that allows the show’s premise to succeed.  The Stepford Wives has a similar idea behind it, with robots capable of imitating humans.

Well, You Almost Passed…

As pointed out by booksofb, any kind of talk of AI without mentioning Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie would be incredibly remiss.

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The main character – a battleship whose consciousness has become trapped in a single human body – can almost pass the Turing test.  Most of the time, people consider her human, but they find her a little uncanny.  A few of her traits, especially her cold aloofness and drive to action, sets her apart from the humans around her.  She has emotions, but she thinks of them in almost a transcendental manner.

These AI can be given psychological quirks that allow their societies to develop interesting, unique traits.  An AI culture can develop, separate and distinctive from humans.  I like this place as a starting point for a lot of robot fiction, and I think it’s somewhere more authors need to go.

Other AI that land in this realm are Data from Star Trek, the android that participates in most ship functions but fails to express emotions (save a few episodes, but whatever, don’t get pissy).  Those things that separate Data from humanity makes him a more interesting character, and deeper than most of the aliens that show up.

Good Luck Passing

Robots that have no chance of passing the Turing test are some of the most intriguing.  Because they are definitely not human, it can be hard for a reader to predict what the character will do.

HAL 9000HAL, the famous computer of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, becomes unexpectedly murderous as Dave Bowman and Frank Poole plan to deactivate him.  His logic – that he is necessary to the mission – seems strange, almost alien, when an obvious ulterior motive is self preservation.

Another evil computer that warrants investigation is Portal’s GLaDOS. She lives to test and tests to death.  Her drive to do science becomes bizarre and murderous, and each of her personality cores are an intriguing piece if her.  I enjoyed this computer’s goals and liked trying to figure her out.

Though wrapped in a biological layer, Arnold’s Terminator – T-800 – as well as other Skynet creations fall into this category.  They clearly follow a non-human set of logic and rely on nigh invulnerable bodies to carry out their orders.

Do you enjoy robots or AI?  Tell me about your favorite below!

5 Ways Pets Inspire Our Writing

I’ve had several pets throughout my life.  I grew up in the sticks, and my parents were the kind that fully believed in ‘outside dogs’ before we got Spud, who ended up being my dog.  Though Spud is long gone, he holds a special place in my heart and shows up in my writing every so often.  One day I might share his stories, but let’s focus on animals in writing and how pets inspire us!

5. Experience the Outdoors

Now that I’m an adult in a very ‘indoors’ profession, I find it hard to make time to enjoy the outdoors.  Even though it’s just small walks, small sessions of fetch in the neighborhood soccer field, or tiny potty breaks, my dog still forces me to go outside.  adorable-animal-animal-portrait-219770

While I had been working up an awesome monitor tan through grad school, I appreciate the vitamin D I now get.  Nature refreshes me, as it does many people, and a breath outside helps cleanse the soul.

Even indoor pets can inspire you to think about outside.  A fish tank is like a tiny ‘outside’ that you can place on a table, and indoor cats sometimes draw your attention to what’s going on outside your window.

4. Welcome Distraction

My dog sits at my feet in my office.  Sometimes, when I’m crunching data and working on reports or scientific papers, he’ll bite my toes and be excruciatingly annoying.

Other times, the data will be sad and playing with him is all I can think of to do.

With writing, there needs to be breaks as well.  Taking time to enjoy the company of another – even a dog, cat, or other pet – can rejuvenate you when you’re alone for too long.  As much as I see people lament that they didn’t write enough in a day, week, month, or what have you, it’s moments like these that make that loss of work worth it.

3. The Sad Times Inspire Us, Too

A community matriarch – Mama Grace – died while I was away at college, but no one thought it relevant to tell me or invite me to the funeral.  I’ve been to one funeral – for an in-law, Great-Uncle Russel – and I still have all 4 of my grandparents, both parents, and all 8 aunts-and-uncles and their spouses alive.  I’ve had 1 great-Aunt die (in a strange, almost comical way) who I didn’t hear about until it was too late.  I chat a lot with Tom Darby of Eagle Canyon, and while he’s experienced the loss of a lot of people (especially recently), I haven’t.  I obviously cannot relate to these feelings terribly well and have to sympathize through another route.

Pomeranian Dog

To this day, the loss of Spud remains the greatest grief I’ve experienced.  My parents had gotten other dogs, little collies that weren’t useless, and I’ll never be sure why they decided to go look at Pomeranian puppies (though, once seen, Spud wasn’t going to be left behind).  Because I was left at home to tend the garden and fish for trout that summer we first got Spud, the dog ended up being mine.

There’s a reason everyone cries at the end of Ol’ Yeller.  The loss of a pet is tragic and painful, and the memories of those times can carry us through hard parts in a story.  Spud’s death carried a lot of sadness and anger with it, and writing through those emotions has felt powerful.  I feel the pain of loss through this dog.  Other young writers may have similar issues with inexperience of death, and animals may be their only real memories of the pain.

I don’t want to seem uncaring to those who have lost close friends and family by comparing it to the loss of a dog.  Your pain is something I simply can’t understand or appreciate fully, and hopefully won’t for a long time.

2. Funny Antics

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So, in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a Pom person. The Pomeranian at the polling station to the left is my one and only fuzzy boy.  He’s pretty good, walks alright on a leash – but he hates large bags of any sort and LOVES stuffed sheep.  I don’t understand it, but I find it to be part of his spunkiness.

Cat gifs and dog pictures are all over the interwebs.  We love the silliness of our pets, and it’s also fun to write about.  Why, I haven’t had so much fun writing a blog post of this type ever before!  I’ve followed Milly Schmidt, the crazy cats-and-writing blogger, for a little over a month now, and I still think she’s got one of the cutest themes around.  She exemplifies what it means to honor an animal’s funny ways.

The antics of our pets can also make us think about how our characters have fun, what kinds of quirks they may have, and how even animals have personalities.  Spud and the current fluffball, Hector, aren’t the same despite their similar lineages as purebreds.

1. Loyal Comforters

There are tons of people out there who love their dogs (and cats!), turning to them in times of sadness or crisis for abounding joy.  Hector has certainly improved my grumpiness since I’ve had him.  Even animals that aren’t dogs, though, can show you love and loyalty.  I tend to think this is best seen in mammals and (sometimes) birds, but I bet you owners of exotic lizards and fish and spiders may think otherwise.

As you sit writing, animal on your lap and (inevitably) your keyboard, remember that they’re not just there to annoy you.  They’re just there to make sure you don’t feel the pain of writing right now.  They’re there because they know you need it.

Animal Characters in Writing

This month is animal month on my blog, and in honor of that, I’m going to focus on getting into the mindset of a non-human character.  These principles can, at least in some respect, be tied to alien or fantastical creatures, but for now we’re going to look at the creatures that share the planet with us.

In writing, animals exist on a sort of continuum from “Real Animal” to “Human,” and deciding where the characters you want to write should exist on that spectrum is a good place to start for your research.  You probably already have an idea on just how human your animals need to be, so I will focus here on ‘next steps’ to add extra flare to animal (and, in some cases, non-human) characters.

Completely Inhuman

AnimalAnimal thoughts are unknowable.  They can’t communicate (in most cases), and even when they do, conversations focus on food and other needs.  Alex the African Grey Parrot remains the only animal to ask an existential question “What color am I?”

Because it’s hard to create characters, either dynamic or static, writing about true animals usually takes either an informative stance or focuses on the relationship of the animal with a human – and almost always through the human’s lens.   Both of these try to be didactic, usually having a conservation message.  Typical popular books about real animals are about soft, fuzzy, or cute animals, and choosing the correct animal is important.

Another strange place to find writing about real animals is children’s books.  Often devoid of a narrative or deeper information, the books are intended to teach a child what kinds of animals there are, what colors they come in, and sometimes the body parts of the animal.  Though lively creatures with voices and forethought are more common in children’s literature, basic information about animals is abundant.

True animals as main characters are difficult to write –  I have tried – since the narrator necessarily can’t be the animal itself.  If the animal cannot communicate, its feelings and needs must be interpreted by the author and presented through the animal’s actions and reactions.  An animal also has very little sense of time, and thus planning or forethought would be missing from their narrative.  An animal’s struggle is far more instantaneous than a human’s, and goals that can span a story are difficult to come by.  After writing a mere short story from the perspective of a real mouse, I also thought that it became dull; there was no development or chance of development of my character, and writing anything longer than what I had would be both difficult and likely unrewarding.

The most interesting true animals in narratives, then, are often secondary characters or characters that have a close human companion.  I think the perfect example of this is Old Yeller (getting out my extremely manly tissue box while I think about it), where the titular dog is a stellar companion to Travis and his family.  Though the dog never has any real goals, Travis’s bildungsroman allows us to see the dog as an important character.  It allows the viewer (or reader – it was a book first, believe it or not) to import human feelings onto an animal.  Out of all the ways to psychologically explore true animals, doing so in relation to humans may be the best method.

Semi-Human

AnimalBy adding even a modicum of planning ability, including the ability to seek a longer goal, animal main characters become much more tenable.  Some famous examples of books in this realm include the unstoppable classic, Watership Down, in which characters that are physically and – in many respects – mentally rabbits are capable of being the subjects of a novel.  These characters have complex stories and emotions, and they are capable of communicating those emotions to an audience.

In Watership Down, which I will probably brag on until the day I die, the rabbits obviously lack an element of logic.  When Blackberry, the smartest of the lot, comes up with the idea of using a raft to get the weaker rabbits across a stream, most of the remaining rabbits are amazed and confused by the magic.  They have the goals of eating, sleeping, and mating like ‘true animals,’ but it is their ability to plan for the long run that makes them excellent characters.

To me, these are the most interesting characters to analyze psychologically.  Because they must necessarily miss some element of human logic lest they become human, a self-consistent story requires the characters to have interesting thoughts.  Richard Adams, in writing Watership Down, did so by studying Ronald Lockley’s Private Life of the Rabbit and incorporating several instinctual features.  Nilanjana Roy in The Wildings included a prey drive and knowledge of cats based on years of living with them.

I suggest researching your animal well before writing this type of story.  Being loyal to the animal’s nature, at least in a ‘truthiness‘ sense rather than a ‘true’ sense, is important to make these books and stories feel right.  As the two examples I mentioned (and will review later this month!) show, these stories can target an adult audience.

Mostly Human

AnimalThese characters act human, have human logic and planning capabilities, and often do things like cook, wear clothes, and have genuine wars (rather than just fights).  Other than their appearance and body parts, such as whiskers, these characters may have some animal traits (like an excellent sense of smell) but are otherwise mistakable for human.  Trading out human characters for animal ones would not necessarily change the course of the story too much.

One of the best examples of this is the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  In it, animal protagonists and antagonists come together to fight in a D&D-like war.  There is deep folklore passed down among the peoples, and it is often easy to forget that you’re reading about (mostly) mice.  Only when there are multiple species present in the story do you really need to remember that you’re reading about mice.  It’s rarely relevant to consider the animal nature of the characters.

That being said, I don’t think Redwall would have been quite so good if it hadn’t included animal characters.  I don’t think I can put my finger on it, and perhaps it’s just in the way their society developed, but I don’t think the tale would have been as complete in a world populated by humans and orcs, etc.

In this story, research about animals need only be minimal.  Picking and choosing animal traits to examine is fair game.

How To Write Biology In Science Fiction, Part 2: Evolution (Including How It Affects Religion)

In the first installment in this series, we thought about what DNA itself was, and we delved into ideas about genetic modification in science fiction.  What I was building up to was this article, which was a terrible thing to tackle in such a short space. Multiple scientists and philosophers have considered what to think about evolution, and many have struggled. What I intend to do here is show how evolution is theorized to work, show some of the common misconceptions about evolution and why using them makes for a weaker story, and then have a brief aside on the religious aspects of evolution.

How Evolution Actually Works

1. Cartoon version of Peppered Moths in their natural state.

Let’s say you have a spotted moth that lives on a tree.  They might look something like what you see to the left.

As long as the moth doesn’t get dirty, it will remain somewhat difficult to see by a passing bird.  A moth like this exists in Britain – and it has for quite a long time.   It’s the peppered moth, and it’s a lovely example of how natural selection and evolution work.

2. Cartoon version of peppered moths after their trees become covered in soot.

In the early 1800’s, right when Britain was industrializing and producing more coal smoke, people began noticing these moths.  Judging by the picture to the left, it’s pretty obvious why this happened – the dirty trees made it easy to pick out the mostly white moths.  Humans weren’t the only creatures to begin noticing this moth, though.  Birds, the natural predators of the peppered moth, were also better able to pick out their prey and eat them.

3. Some peppered moths are born with defects that make them darker than the normal moths.

Sometimes, mutations happen in DNA that cause interesting effects, or sometimes DNA combines from parents in interesting ways to create a new effect.  At one time, a moth or some moths were born that contained a darker pigment.  This sooty looking moth wasn’t easy to see, and the birds also did not notice them as much.  The white moths were eaten at an increased rate, and so were not able to lay eggs and make as many new white moths.  Meanwhile, the black moths were getting it on.

4. Eventually, nearly all the moths were black. The black moths remained predominant until environmental laws got rid of the soot and, in some areas, the white moths returned.

The black moths became more common, since they had babies and weren’t eaten.  Eventually, as many of the white moths died off, the dark version became the main color of moth.  Humans were able to notice this change because the lifespan of a moth is so much shorter than that of a person’s.  The moths evolved over the course of several generations, and the changes were thus relatively slow.

Common Misconception 1 – Passing On Adaptations

Let’s think about the above moth scenario again.  This time, though, a moth isn’t born looking darker.  Instead, it flies into some soot and happens to look like the dirty trees, sort of like wearing makeup.  When it mates and has babies, this moth’s genes are still the underlying white.  Its children are no more likely to breed than any other moth because they have no natural advantage.  That first moth that got covered in soot simply had a lucky break.  Experience or changes in an individual don’t result in evolution.

Here’s a potentially better example.  Let’s say you have a pig, and you need to tag it so your neighbors won’t steal it.  You thus poke a hole in its ear where it’s not going to hurt.  Later, since this pig is a good pig, you decide to breed it.  Even though an offspring pig would be better off if it came with a pierced ear (since you wouldn’t need to do it and risk infections or pain later), there’s no way your offspring piglet will come with a pierced ear.  Neither of its parents had this advantage, so without random mutations, it won’t either.

Things that happen to an animal during its lifetime won’t affect how its offspring look.  Those are individual adaptations, or things that an animal can go through without dying.  To pass on a trait, the organism must have had that trait to begin with.

Common Misconceptions 2 – Metamorphic Evolution

This is more like what happens with butterflies or Pokemon.  It basically means that you start out with one organism, and that organism changes into another organism sometime during its life cycle.

If you ever watched a butterfly metamorphose, though, you know that the stages it goes through will be the same stages its offspring will go through.  It’s not quite accurate to call the stages of a butterfly as evolution, since pupal, larval, and adult stages are all the same insect.  Deciduous trees go through stages during the seasons, but just because it doesn’t have any leaves doesn’t mean it’s not an oak or a maple anymore.  It is impossible to start with an animal of one species and end up with an animal of another species.

Am I Doing Something Immoral by Writing About Evolution?

Long story short – only you can really determine if writing about evolution is immoral for you, but if you’re looking at this section with any sort of seriousness, you’re probably looking for an excuse.

If this is true, look at this.

Pictured: Proof of humanity’s hand screwing with God’s master plan.  Adorably, though.

This is a Pomeranian.  While it’s my favorite breed of dog, it’s still a 5-lb ball of fur that needs a human to comb it lest the fur mats, skin develops hot spots, and the animal gains tons of health issues.  It has no way to fight against almost any predator or prey despite being (mostly) a wolf by genetics.  In fact, the actual dog pictured to the left was incapable of killing a betta fish out of its tank (he just cried instead, which did allow me to save the poor fish from suffocating).  If this dog were to be left to the wild, I have no doubt in my mind that it would fail to survive.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household.  Like straight-up ‘7 modern-Earth length days of creation with no leeway’ kind of fundamentalist.  I appreciate that upbringing, and I totally understand where people who do think that way are coming from.  There is no way to prove them wrong, because in their mind God is too great for things that are so limiting as carbon-13 testing or the speed of light.  If you are in this camp, that is totally ok.  If believing in a strict 7-day, young earth interpretation of scripture is what makes you feel like God is the greatest of gods, then you should believe that.  If you believe that by writing a story with evolution in it, you are leading people away from a loving creator, you should strongly consider whether the story is worth telling.

I’m going to return to the Pomeranian, though.  Humans MADE that.  There’s no doubt in this fact.  They did so by selective breeding, or by making dogs with similar traits have puppies until they came out with the adorable fluffball.  The peppered moth above is a true story about how animals changed over a few generations without the direct (though, I admit, indirect) influence of humans.  While there are some gaps in evolutionary theory, like how eyes came to be, the basics makes a lot of sense.  I began to feel uncomfortable denying evolution as an undergraduate when I realized that dog evolution had to have happened.  Yet, at the same time, I felt uncomfortable leaving what I had learned growing up, especially when Biblical texts, interpreted literally, are pretty devoid of evolutionary theory.

But I could never leave the idea that God is too great for things that are limiting at all, whether through science or through our meager interpretations.  I decided that to read the text and limit God to 7 days as modern humans understand the time frame, to reduce his voice to a sound rather than a force which humans are barely capable of fathoming, or to reduce God’s workings into anything less than what God actually did is just as much a sin as forcing God out of the picture.  To deny the possibility of evolution, in my opinion, is wrong.  I suppose I can believe in both God and evolution because I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, but they are ideas I can hold in tension, at odds with each other in some ways, and yet believe both are true without believing everything is true.

If you can hold the ideas in tension, and if you believe that other people are just as intelligent and thoughtful as you, then no, it’s not immoral.  C.S. Lewis wrote fantastical stories like the Chronicles of Narnia or Out of the Silent Planet that have moral implications many believe trump the fantastical or evolutionary elements.  At worst, I think people are made in the image of God, and that means people enjoy creating.  Evolution can be a literary tool that, at least for us mere mortals, allows us to form ideas and imitate the creator that loves us.

My insight is probably not unique.  I’m probably not breaking any new ground or changing any minds, but perhaps I’ve given you something to think about.  That’s all I really wanted.

Storytelling in D&D

This past Friday evening, I and my two players completed a level 1 to 20 fifth edition D&D campaign.  We had started the campaign in October of 2015, and the past two and a half years of nearly-weekly D&D has been fantastic.  In celebration of the end of my campaign, I decided to talk about the storytelling elements of RPG games.

Dungeons and Dragons contains a lot of elements like strategy, luck, improvisation, and storytelling.  Some groups focus on different aspects more than others, but  my group focused on telling a collaborative story using D&D’s ground rules.

DMs and Authors Both Need to Know How to Treat Main Characters

I have learned a lot about writing and planning stories through Dungeons and Dragons, and this latest campaign was no exception.  One of the unique things about this recent campaign was how few players were involved: me, as the DM and controller of a silent character to balance out the party mechanics, and two players.

In other campaigns I’ve DM’d, I’ve had a larger group of people – usually between four and six regular players – and the balance is much different.  You tend to have sessions focused on an individual player, and it’s much harder to have all players engaged simultaneously at the same interest level.

In both types of play, I find that it’s necessary to select one of the player characters to be the main driver of the overall story.  It’s easiest to do so if every player is at least somewhat interested in this ‘main’ story, and extremely hard to do if there are no common threads between player characters.

In writing, as well, the number of main characters drastically changes the feel.  In my novel posted here, I have a single main character with only a single secondary character.  In one of my other works not seen here, I have three point of view characters.  They feel impressively different; I got much deeper into the single character’s head, much more quickly.  With the additional characters in the unpublished work, I had to have a much longer story to convey each of their motivations equally well.  If I shared the air time correctly between my main characters, they will each seem just as exciting.  If I allow each of my players to have a similar time in the spotlight, they should all have the same amount of fun.

My experience with a very small party has taught me to consider not just how well each character is portrayed but how many characters there are and if any should be eliminated altogether.  With only two players, I got to feel like their characters were so much more important than some of the characters in a larger campaign.  How deeply you want your readers to care about each character is, at least somewhat, dependent on how much time you can spend on them.

RPG’s Increase Your Awareness of World Details

When either playing or DMing for a campaign, you make use of a world and its culture to bring about action.  Tiny details can be caught and used by players to wreak havoc on a campaign.

But true havoc only happens if you want to look at it that way (or if it destroys a player’s fun).  Sometimes your players are taking the most sensible route forward even if you, as a DM, didn’t think of it.  At a point, I stopped making solutions for my players to follow at all and just built the problem that their solutions (if judged reasonable) would be eligible to solve.

In writing, you’re usually the only one coming up with a solution, but RPGs can still help you see through the logic of others.  By watching how your friends play a game and write a story, you begin to wonder how your solutions could be superceded.  Let your characters solve the book’s main problem, not you.

Roleplay Can Help Make Dialogue More Natural

I talked about it in an earlier post, but D&D can contain a lot of improv – both in problem solving and in character representation.  I don’t think I’m altogether asocial, but D&D is still great to both consume and, without even realizing it, study social relationships.  With both your characters’ and your players’ input on display, you also get the opportunity to think and voice your thoughts through another’s mouth.

In writing, you have to do this a lot.  You have to speak through many characters, and what makes one different from another? What can you do to emphasize through mere action and sentence structure what those characters are like?  D&D is a great place to practice, and it gas a built in audience to help!

Feel free to comment with your own experiences playing RPGs or insights about how gaming and storytelling intersect!  I’d love to connect with other people who play D&D to create a collaborative story.

Thanks especially to my players, both near and far, current and old, as well as my DMs for the excellent times and the friendship.  Cheers!