Fantasy Rules and World-Building

In my daily life, I am fascinated with the rules of our natural world. I’m always trying to find out the how and why behind things. How does gravity work? Why are snowflakes different from each other? How do whales navigate? Our world follows specific rules, and these rules help define our reality.

However, the reason I initially chose to write fantasy is because I thought there were no rules. You could let your imagination run wild, no holds barred. Anything was possible. Of course, this belief was founded on Disney fairy tales, where there are generally limited, amorphous rules. Some people, like the wicked witches, have magic, while others don’t. Magic allows people to change shape and mass without any regard for the laws of physics. The old fairy tales are riddled with logical contradictions, because when they were originally written, we didn’t know as much about natural laws and the need for consistency in order to have a working system. I thought fantasy novels were unbound by any laws. Authors didn’t have to worry about creating a consistent, functional world.

Then, in high school, I discovered the works of J.R.R Tolkien. He was a master at world-building. He created a complex world that was defined by specific rules. For the first time, I read a book that not only included magic, but explained where magic came from and what its limits were. Gandalf was not a demigod, unfettered by nature. He had to operate within the boundaries his creator had set in place. I learned that although fantasy writers have considerably more leeway than, say, historical fiction writers, they still have to use logic when designing their worlds.

This is why careful world-building is an integral part of the writing process. One of the reasons I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is because Harry Dresden’s world is filled with magic but also makes sense. Harry is a wizard, but he is limited by things like gravity and the conservation of energy. He has to operate inside a specific set of rules. If he conjures fire in a confined space, he could hurt himself, because fire must behave according to the laws of thermodynamics. There are some situations where he can cheat and sidestep the rules, like when he uses magical portals called “Ways” in order to travel across the country in the space of a few hours. Most of the time, though, he must cooperate with the laws set in place by nature.

Now that I know more about creating a consistent, believable world, I’ve had to go back and revise my own writing. When I started building my magical realm, it relied heavily on imagination with very little logic to ground it. It was like trying to hold down a hot air balloon with a packing peanut. Like in all things, balance is key. The best part of fantasy writing is letting your imagination run loose, but you also have to remember that everything must be consistent. If, for example, a king has the ability to create gold with a wave of his hand, then eventually gold will lose its value. If dragons have the ability to create storms, these storms will in turn influence the weather patterns of the entire region. Magic does’t happen in a bubble. It will effect its surroundings, for better or worse. All actions have reactions, and every world-building choice will have its own consequences.

People sometimes ask why I spend so much time obsessing over the intricacies of my fantasy world. They assume that because it’s fantasy, it doesn’t have to hold up to scrutiny. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. Because my novels are based on fantasy, they have to be more detailed than novels based on reality. No one questions why Brian is trampled by a moose in Hatchet. We all know that moose are notoriously temperamental. It’s an accepted fact. Readers grimace with sympathy at his plight and move on. But if a character in my book is suddenly stricken with a curse, readers will want to know how the curse works and why he was chosen as its intended victim. In Beauty and the Beast, if the prince was attacked by a wolf, I wouldn’t question why it happened. However, I’ve spent plenty of time wondering why the witch decided to curse an eleven-year-old, why she chose a rose, and why his twenty-first birthday marks the expiration date for his salvation. When you write realistic fiction, you can safely assume that the audience already knows and believes in the rules of the real world. Once you enter into fantasy, you can’t take this belief for granted. You have to earn your audience’s trust by making a world with the same consistency as the one they live in.

Needless to say, world-building is one of my favorite topics of fantasy writing, and I’ll be revisiting it again in the coming weeks.

Mr. Luck

Plenty of people have written songs about Lady Luck, usually designating her chief residence as a particularly opulent casino in the heart of Las Vegas.

They conjure up an image of a woman with a tantalizing figure, thick red hair, and a devilish sense of humor. She’s coy, fickle, and derives a particular pleasure from leading balding businessmen along only to abandon them in some back alley after taking their wallets and their dignity. 

Oh yes, people love to sing songs about her, because envisioning luck as a smoldering temptress in a backless red dress is definitely more enticing than writing songs about the real hand that spins the wheel of fortune.

Mr. Luck is a chronically single real estate broker who lives out of his one bedroom apartment in Berwyn, Illinois. He rarely frequents anything you might call a big city, on account of the fact that large crowds make him nauseous and tall buildings give him vertigo. His apartment reeks of Menthol and two-day old Chinese takeout. He likes to laugh at fortune cookies. His bathroom cabinet is stocked with enough sedatives to take down a herd of buffalo.

The last time he bought a new suit was Christmas, and then only because his thoroughly-unpleasant sister-in-law bought him a gift card to Kohl’s. He prefers to avoid mirrors, which do nothing but remind him of his ongoing losses in the battle against premature balding. His couch is decorated with a constellation of blackened circles from where he passed out in front of the television while smoking.

He used to have a cat, a distrustful Persian that looked like someone had once used it as a toilet brush, but it ran away, preferring the comfort of a warm dumpster to the frosty climes of his cramped dwelling.

His last real relationship was four years ago. Her name was Shelley, and they had met on Match.com. She dumped him after six dates, on the grounds that he was as interested in their relationship as he was in proper hygiene.

The only activity that sets his routine apart from the thousands of unattached, despondent residents of the lower-middle class occurs like clockwork on Friday night, when, after a long week spent trying to convince tepid couples to buy leaky apartments in the most inconvenient locations in town, he sits down on his sagging bed and opens a battered atlas of the world. He flips the pages one by one, touching cities at random, tossing out luck like lightning bolts until the delivery boy with his order of chicken teriyaki arrives.

Kitchen Meditations

I’m standing in the kitchen while 50% of the family is asleep, a mere 27 seconds away from a sharp reminder of life’s fragility, its uncertainty, its tendency towards chaos. Wrapped in the downy blue gown my grandmother gave me last Christmas, I am in the middle of my nightly hunt for sustenance to keep me from waking at 3 am to a complaining stomach. Eating so close to bedtime is a terrible habit, I know, the root cause of many a troubling dream, but there is something immensely soothing about routine, especially when the rest of the world is safely tucked in bed while I stubbornly trundle along my rails, completing my usual circuit of activity before giving in to sleep.

 

My feet are bare but still warm from the residual heat of the shower, stubbornly resisting the creeping cold of the kitchen tile. In the next room, my brother is watching an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, the volume at a murmur, his laughter and the unmistakable scent of popcorn wafting through the doorway.

Having completed my evening catalogue of the cupboards without falling in love with any of the partially-empty boxes and crumpled bags, my roving hands turn towards the refrigerator, grasping the awkwardly-edged handle and heaving it open. The seal yields with a puckered hiss, releasing a cloud of cold air. With one hand, I clutch my bathrobe tighter, snuggling into it, less a tired twenty-six-year-old and more a penguin buffeted by Antarctic winds.

Cheese is no good. I know all too well its devilish effects upon the dreamer. Six oranges, bright as traffic cones, huddle together in their red mesh bag, contentedly rotund. On the lower shelf skulks a half-devoured pie, peanut butter cream avalanching off the crust and onto the shining aluminum plate. For one breathless second, I contemplate turning around and raiding the bread bin instead, but fate, that cruel mistress, seizes my hand, and I pluck a single tawny egg from an open Tupperware container. I cradle it in my fingers, unaware of how close I am to disaster.

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has always placed her hard-boiled eggs in a Tupperware container, separating them from their raw comrades and eliminating any disastrous confusion. Trusting in this law, as cemented in my mind as the laws of physics, I carry the egg the two steps to the kitchen counter. Overhead, the kitchen light gleams golden, casting a pale glow over the cream-colored surface. Safe in my soft robe and my familiar pajamas, insulated by electric light from the winter night that scrapes its paws against the frozen windowpane, everything is as warm and cheery as a fifties advertisement for matrimony.

Placing all my faith in one Tupperware container and my grandmother’s wisdom, I begin to roll the egg beneath my palm, expecting to feel the soft crack of its shell flaking away to liberate the smooth, alabaster skin underneath. Instead, I feel the icy touch of the yolk oozing up between my fingers, and I am reminded once again that nothing in life is certain, not even hard-boiled eggs.

Using Time Wisely

When I first started writing, I was in junior high. I didn’t realize it, but back then, I had nothing but time. I’ve always been fairly adept at school, and I often completed my homework ahead of schedule. At that time, I had whole days I could have spent writing, if I was so inclined.

Now, as I juggle multiple jobs, I recognize the irony. When I was in junior high, I had all the time and none of the motivation. I am now moving into the second half of my twenties, and while the motivation is there, free time has become a rarer commodity. After years of taking my writing time for granted, I’ve had to start learning the vital skill of time management.

Every profession involves a balancing act of responsibilities, commitments, and social interaction. I have discovered, to my dismay, that writing is no different. When I was a kid, I imagined that being an author would mainly involve sitting in a wood-paneled study or under a willow tree and dreaming up new adventures to send my characters on. Adult Me has realized that this is not the case. Most authors have to hold multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. They write in the odd moments when they are not out in the world making a living. Even those few lucky authors who manage to carve out a full-time career are forced to divide their time between writing, attending conferences, networking, reaching out to publishers, and giving book talks.

If you want to succeed as an author with your sanity intact, you need to learn how to properly manage your time. You cannot hold off on writing until you have an entire afternoon free; you’ll get nothing done. Instead, you must take advantage of the small moments between your daily responsibilities. I’ve taken to carrying a small notebook everywhere with me, just in case a poem springs to mind in the lull between classes or on the ride to church. (This is one of the reasons I love being a passenger in a car; it frees my attention in case I am suddenly hit with an idea.)

In fact, I am currently writing this very post in the middle of a study hall. Bit by bit, I’m learning to capitalize on my time, making the most of every opportunity instead of waiting for the perfect moment to write. It’s a constant juggling act, but well worth the trouble. When all else fails, I recite the final lines of “The Clock of Man”:

“Count not, waste not the years on the clock.
Behold I stand at the door and knock.” -Eric Lomax

Eating Poetry

         “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
         There is no happiness like mine.
         I have been eating poetry.”
         So writes Mark Strand in his beautifully simple poem “Eating Poetry”. The moment I first read those lines in a cramped corner of my school’s library, I was transfixed. Like many young disciples of literature, I had already discovered the acute pleasure of sitting alone and savoring a poem line by line. I knew how to linger over each word, how to hold onto it like a prayer, whispering it to myself without any regard for the outside world. However, I never had a way to encapsulate this experience. That is, until I discovered this poem.
         As Mark Strand so accurately describes in “Eating Poetry”, literature has the ability to unleash a part of the human spirit that usually lies dormant, a slumbering grizzly buried beneath a thick blanket of mundanity. For some people, this hidden side is awoken by a stirring novel or a well-composed thesis. For me, the greatest thrill will always be found in poetry.
         I sometimes wonder what my students must think when, in the middle of study hall, I lean back in my chair and sigh like some unseen man is whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I have all but swooned over the words of Anis Mojgani; I collect Billy Collins poems like roses. I often catch myself hugging a book of poetry as if it is some long-lost friend.
         Writing poetry is a pleasure all its own, one that takes infinitely more work than enjoying the poetry of others. It is less like a grand seduction and more like a negotiation, the careful courtship of an idea. Although I love the satisfaction of finally producing a worthwhile poem after hours of staring out the window, there is nothing that compares with the simple pleasure of releasing your own artistic ego and letting another poet carry you away.
         In this blog, I will be sharing advice on writing, culled from years spent scribbling on the backs of receipts and brown paper napkins, arguing with characters until my family members began to doubt my mental stability, and drawing maps of imaginary worlds that sometimes feel more realistic than the one I am currently inhabiting. There will be rants, confessions, and the assorted insight into my ongoing battle to publish my first novel. However, before I launch into the world of writing, I wanted to, as my students say, give a shout out to the fantastic poets and authors who set me on this path. Thank you, my friends. I’ve only gotten this far because of all the beautiful writing you set before me to gratefully devour.
          If you are looking for blog-reading extra credit, look up the following:
         “Eating Poetry”, Mark Strand
         “Come Closer”, Anis Mojgani
         “Nightclub”, Billy Collins