Friday, August 19, 2011

Creating Cultures in Fantasy: Part 1: Breed



Anyone who reads even a little bit of fantasy knows that fantastic or mystical races are a common element to the genre, easily as common as magic. If you’ve read books like Lord of the Rings, or Dritzz Duordan, you know how easily a well constructed, original culture can elevate a story to a whole other level of greatness. Where would LOTR be without the furry footed Hobbits of Hobbiton, or the creepy creature Golom? What would the Elvin race, rather white as they were before him, be without the last black elf called Dritzz? But have you noticed that when it comes to fantasy, but for a few exceptions, most books feature the same beings? Vampires, werewolves, faeries, Elves, Dwarves. And few new authors bother to develop a culture behind their race, a deep and complex system of habits, taboos, and beliefs. At least if authors added a few cultural quirks to their vampires or faeries, they would feel a little more original. I think that’s because for most, the concept of building an entire race from the ground up is such a daunting task that it’s too overwhelming for most. But could you imagine developing your own culture and having it become so much a part of the world’s consciousness that everyone, everywhere knows it by name? A writer’s dream come true, that. But in this day and age, when there are so many other stories to compete with, how can one hope to stand out from the crowd and get noticed? And with the endless possibilities that could go into the creation of whole race, how can you be sure you have a winning combination?

The task of building an entire culture from the ground up is a massive undertaking and a huge topic, enough that I’ve decided to collaborate with fellow FTLOW author and veteran creator Madelaine Bauman, to bring you a 5 part blog on the subject.

After talking with Maddie, we saw that there are literally dozens of elements that can go into a single race. Consider the real cultures of our world. Every race on this planet has a way of dressing, thinking, acting, that is as different from the others as light is to day. All over the world, everything our many cultures do differs, from the music we listen to, to the language we speak, from our faith to what we eat, to the way we view other races. In many cultures, there are various sub-cultures, sometimes with a different dialect of the same tongue, sometimes with slightly altered belief systems, ones that to us, seem like a different shade of the same hue, but to them, seems a vastly different as light and dark. What one culture considers the norm another might consider an enormous taboo. With so many possibilities, how does one even know where to start? Not to mention, races in fantasy have other layers that those of this world do not. The race in your story may have other features besides human, and may also have magic or other abilities that make it even more complex than the races of our world. After much discussion, Maddie and I decided that creating an effective fantasy culture can be broken down into five basic components: Breed, Beliefs, Powers, Language, and Purpose. I don’t think development has to go in that order, but I personally find it easiest to start by giving my new race a face, or, more definitively, a physical framework to build from. So for this first installment, we’ll discuss Breed - that is, what physical traits your beings should have.

For those of you who’ve been reading me for a while, you know I’m fond of breaking things into smaller steps. It makes it easier to organize a larger topic. Where we've cut the construction of a race into four sections, the subject of breed is also broken into parts. For me, it breaks down into three. Relatability, appeal, and plausibility. 

To my mind, the physical aspects of creation is perhaps the most difficult. This is partially because of the sheer scope of possibilities. Are your beings bi-peddle or four legged? Do they have smooth skin, scales, fur or something else? Do they have claws? Wings? Two eyes or eight? The other reason this aspect is so difficult is that there’s a fine line between coming up with something unique and interesting, and something that is still relatable to readers.

Consider what’s been done. The most common ancestry seems to be birds, bats, wolves, and winged insects (faeries). When creating a race, a first step toward making it unique can be to use a creature or traits that haven’t been used much, or combine several. Winged beings are all too common, but why not give your beings the wings of a bird, and the pointed ears of an elf? And throw in blue skin just for fun? Many novice writers who try to create a new race will use a more unlikely creature thinking that it will score them points on the originality meter. They’ll give their beings a half spider form, or make them look like a hybrid of a worm and a human. Nine times out of ten, that won’t work. So many of us are unsettled by creepy crawlies that beings who possess too many such traits will be an instant repellent and not at all easy to relate to. I’m not saying certain traits from any creature can’t work. Who doesn’t love Spiderman? I’m a firm believer that anything can work if it’s used right. In the case of Spiderman, the idea of a man with the abilities of a spider worked because, other than his ability to sling webs and scale walls, he was a normal everyday guy. That and there was nothing horrifically gross about him. He didn’t spit acid out of his mouth, or molt his skin like a snake. Yuck. Your beings have to be relatable, and like it or not, that means giving them some human traits that make us see them the way we see ourselves.

I think there’s a second reason certain creatures are overused – it’s because they’re safe. We already know people will accept Vampires and Werewolves. Creating a new race with as yet unused traits is risky. Readers might not be able to suspend their disbelief enough to accept them. They might be seen as b-movie material. But if you combine features the right way, and you put it right on the page, readers will accept anything. It’s all about the appeal of the race and the writer’s ability to make a reader believe in what they say. Which brings me to the second part of the segment.

When I say appeal, I’m not referring to whether or not readers find your new race of people attractive. I’m talking about whether or not they have a mass market appeal. So, whether or not your beings will be accepted by a wide range of readers. The trick to creating a race of beings that appeals to many is to give them traits that appeal to most humans. I know it sounds shallow, but that’s why creatures with eight legs or a head full of eyes is so hard to pull off, and if they are used, they’re usually villains or henchmen, temporary challenges for the heroes to overcome, without big roles or heavy interaction. We as humans have a hard time relating to that. You can still avoid your people being overly attractive or generic without making them so unusual that people can’t take it seriously.

Consider the concept of a Werewolf. A huge, hairy creature that mauls and kills people. How is that attractive? But why does it work? Because Werewolves are only like that part of the time. In most stories that feature a werewolf, the character is human for the bulk of the time, perhaps with certain traits of the wolf left over while in man form, like heightened senses or super speed, the kind of traits that makes people look badass. Not to mention, predatory animal traits in a sexy package generate a massive hottie appeal. :D. *Wipes drool from mouth* (Actually, I don’t like werewolves or vamps, but I love creating races with badass animal traits, and if used right, they are sexy).  

Getting back on track, if you combine human traits with those of another creature without losing the being’s humanity, you make it easier to believe in. Which brings us to the third and final element. Plausibility.

If you think about it, any being with human and animal traits combined seems a little far fetched. Take a mermaid. A being with the head and torso of a woman, (a man if it’s a Merman) and the tail of a fish? How weird is that? And yet, stories the world over tell of these half fish beings who live in the sea, and people love them. Why? Partially it’s because we have the other two elements, relatablity and appeal, at work here. Mermaids are just human enough to see as being like us, but just “fish” enough to seem exotic. Plus they come from a place that is universally mysterious and still relatively unexplored. This adds to the mass market appeal and the exotic allure of a race. But Mermaids are also effective because, from the perspective of readers who like to escape into a fantasy world, they seem plausible. The sea’s largely unknown depths leave open the plausibility necessary for readers to suspend disbelief enough to accept the concept. Plausibility in creating a new and original race lies in cultivating the ever tantalizing question all humans have in the back of their minds - What if. It lies in starting with the seed of an idea and then building off it by answering other questions. Other questions that spark our curiosity and make us want to learn more. Questions like, if you create a race, how do they act? What do they believe in? What might their religion be like? How different might they’re every day lives be from ours? When we begin to explore these concepts, that’s when a whole culture starts to come to life in our minds. 

This Monday, Madelaine Bauman continues our blog with Part 2: Beliefs, through which she’ll delve into perhaps the most interesting aspect of building a race, developing a belief system that will keep your readers wanting to learn more, and offer your story a real world feel that makes your readers forget the world they’re in is just a fantasy.

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