Our guest poster for today is Fantasy author, Grace Draven. Grace is the author of the much loved Master of the Crows which is one of Has’ favourite reads. To learn more about Grace, head on over to her official site. Whilst you’re there, check out the most gorgeous artwork and her upcoming title, a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.
A God with Clay Feet – World Building and how Dungeons and Dragons taught me about keepin’ it real.
By Grace Draven
The early 20th century poet and comedian Spike Milligan once said “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.”
I love that quote. Why? Because it’s the perfect example of how the mundane not only grounds the fantastic but also keeps it fantastical. I write fantasy romance, and when I sit down to build a world, I become a deity, but one who still answers to the utilities company.
Being master of your universe is a heady thing. Want your hero to be stronger than ten men combined? Bam! There you go. He can bench press 747s and waltz with E5 tornadoes while eating a 72-egg cheese omelet that doesn’t cause him to gain weight, knock his cholesterol into the stratosphere or even give him gas. His world is one of candy cane trees growing beside rivers of melted chocolate, and the indigenous population is peaceful, compassionate and altruistic to their last molecule. They also ride cool dragons and go on great sea adventures accompanied by talking whales.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to build a world like that. There’s no challenge to it; I can’t relate to it, and honestly, it just isn’t much fun. As a reader, I’d be bored out of my skull trying to read it. I do want to write about worlds populated by dragons and crews who sail seas where talking whales sound in the mysterious deep, but to keep those things fantastic and fascinating, they need to mesh with the everyday—the stuff we as ordinary humans dealt with in the past or deal with now. Does the ship’s crew have to worry about scurvy? A tainted water supply? A pissed off sperm whale that rams the ship? That really did happen by the way. Talk about reality being stranger than fiction. Read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. Gives you a whole new appreciation for what inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, the mundane. As a writer of fantasy, I spend a lot of time asking myself a lot of dull questions. So I have this dragon. Do I have to supply its food? Will it eat sheep? Cattle? People? And just what kind of volume is that for daily consumption? See? This is pretty boring stuff—however, it creates its own conflict in the story, and since it’s a conflict you and I aren’t going to deal with in the 21st century, it has a particular fantastic quality that goes beyond the “Oh hey, a giant flying lizard!” The challenge of supply meeting demand and cost versus consumption is familiar to us all. We can relate on that level. The fact that we have to do so while trying to figure out how to keep our pet dragon from eating us or the nearest village just puts a unique twist on some basic economics.
When I was in college back in the late eights and early nineties (yes, I’m dating myself), I’d spend a weekend each month playing Dungeons and Dragons with my brother and two or three of his friends. Back then D&D weekends meant working up character sheets, rolling dice to see if your character got a critical hit or critical miss and staying up until 4:00 a.m. pumped up on junk food and enough soda to fill a swimming pool.
My brother was usually the dungeon master—a feral, sneaky dungeon master with a demonic imagination who derived a sadistic pleasure in torturing and finally killing off those characters we’d built and grown attached to through the course of several games. I’m obviously a masochist because to this day I don’t think there’s a better dungeon master than my brother. Not only did we all have a blast playing the games he set up, but I learned some pretty valuable stuff that I apply to my world building now—stuff I learned by watching him play God in the universes he built for these games.
First: I build the world, set the rules and PLAY BY THE RULES I set. If I set the rule in Chapter One that all red-headed women will burst into flame if they’re caught in the light of a full moon, that rule stays in place through the book’s last chapter. That means my redheaded heroine can’t just go out for a moonlight stroll in Chapter 26 without being immolated on the spot. If I allow her to get away with it, I will have invalidated many reasons for why she acted a certain way or said a certain thing in previous scenes. And the reader will ALWAYS catch it.
Second: Everything costs. Nothing is for free. In Master of Crows, my mage is notoriously powerful, but he bleeds for every spell he casts, sometimes literally. When you’re taking a boot to the head each time you mutter an incantation, you’ll consider other more practical alternatives first and use that spell as a last resort. My characters work hard for every triumph and every advantage, just like they did in my brother’s D&D games.
Third: Make my characters human, even when they aren’t. Character building is as much a part of world building as mountain ranges, oceans and thunderstorms. I have a powerful mage who smokes a hookah and wakes up with bed hair, a resurrected guardian who ferociously defends the dead in his cemetery but suffers post traumatic stress disorder and is terrified of flying, a dragon shapeshifter who earns his supper disguised as a human bard, a heroine who possess a rare magical talent but is so tone deaf, she can’t carry a tune in a bucket and another who is resistant to all magic but will face off in a sudden death match with a sentient, blood thirsty rose bush.
Fourth: Make the mundane my characters’ worst enemy. I learned this from my brother’s games as well. In one scenario, a group of us (consisting of a mage/healer, two mercenaries and a thief) managed to ultimately get ourselves killed by escaping into the narrow alley of a seaside town, where we crashed into a series of clothes lines hung with underwear and bed sheets. We were netted, caught and killed by our enemies. An ignominious end to be sure, death by clothesline—something my diabolical brother thought hilariously funny. It’s never the plane crash or erupting volcano that takes you out. It’s that unimagined moment when you step in the puddle of pee your dog left on the tile floor (because you delayed letting him out that morning), lose your footing and crack your skull wide open on the corner of a granite counter top. The fact that the EMT who saved your life is the vampire you meet for bloody marys and bingo every Wednesday night just sorta gives that world building a little something extra.
And to give credit (and much sibling affection) where it’s due..thanks, Richard!