Fantasy Celebration: Guest Post with Grace Draven

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!

15 thoughts on “Fantasy Celebration: Guest Post with Grace Draven”

  1. Great tips for world-building and characterization, thank you! I especially like the first. Readers can DEFINITELY tell when writers fudge their own rules. It looks sloppy and strains credibility, two things that automatically jerk me out of of a good story.

  2. I admire authors so so much who create an entire world and spend the time making sure the rules are set in place. That there is mad skillz.

  3. I remember as a child reading books and watching telly and thinking… these people never go to the loo. They must do so at some point, why don’t we see it?

    And then all the cop shows began to show people having a wee and discussing cases / plotting etc in the loos.

    Realism matters just as much in a fantasy setting as a mundane one, the rules matter even more sometimes because limits are what create your tension.

  4. blodeuedd: It’s amazing how a single question like that leads you down a path with no end. If it’s sheep, what species of sheep? And is that species appropriate for the setting of your story? Do dragons get indigestion? Allergic reactions if a sheep eats a particular grass that makes a dragon break out out in hives? Do dragons even get hives? : ) And then your brain melts into a puddle of goo and your intention of writing 1000 words that day goes up in smoke.

    DM: You’re welcome! D&D rules have been a great guideline for me when in the world building arena. I also think having and abiding by the rules you set creates a trust with your reader. They will also trust the story’s authenticity based on those rules. And I’m like you. If I spot some rule breakage when I’m reading, it can really pull me out of the story.

    Lou: Rules make the plotting and characterization fun. If I gave myself leave to keep changing or breaking the rules, there’s no challenge to fleshing out the plot and characters. Granted, I’ve instituted a few rules that caused me to write myself into a corner a few times, but that just presented opportunites to think a little more creatively and work a little harder to get myself out of the corner without compromising those rules.

    Shiv: LOL! I used to think that too! I even once asked my mom if people on TV never had to go to the bathroom. And you’re right. Shows have changed since then. These days, kingdoms are gained and lost during a wizz break in the loo.

    A lot of writing references talk about adding and escalation tension. Rules for the story are an easy way to incorporate that aspect of storytelling.

  5. Great post! So much to think about when putting to gether fantasy.
    I will have to check out your Beauty and the Beast retelling, I love the magic in that tale.

  6. @Grace Draven: Grace, I’ve always wondered how an author keeps track of all the rules and laws of worldbuilding. Do you have to write it down like a manual, or jot down notes so you don’t forget?

  7. Lexi: Thanks, Lexi! I love the magic of B&theB as well. One of my favorite tales of all time. My version of it won’t be available for a few months, but if you get a chance, check out my website for the cover art. That is finished, and I think the artist (Louisa Gallie) did a great job in capturing the tone of the story based on just a few descriptions I gave her at the beginning of the project.

    Lou: Great question! I’m guessing some authors can just keep it straight in their heads. Me–not so much. My memory is crap these days, so I have to make out lists, otherwise I’ll get the rules confused or just simply forget them. This is especially the case if I’m working on a longer piece.

  8. @Grace Draven: I think of the Valdemar, and Pern series, and it amazes me to see how those worlds evolved and kept their shapes. I have trouble keeping a grocery list in my head lol

  9. @Grace Draven Very good point about the story’s authenticity. I love fantasy and fantastic settings, and I’m very willing to suspend disbelief and get pulled into a great novel. But if the author doesn’t abide by their own rules, I lose faith in his/her ability to do that. Even fantasy worlds need an internal logic of some sort, their own standard of realism.

  10. Lou: You’re already ahead of me in the memory game. My purse is stuffed full of old bits of paper containing grocery lists. ~grins~

    DM: Exactly. That standard of realism makes it work.

  11. Clotheslines. That is fricking BRILLIANT! Our games have had 2 main rules for the whole time I’ve played – 1) Keep the DM happy and 2) NEVER give the DM ideas. And the continuity, and the ideas that people throw in that become ongoing plot points…

    We let one set of players’ 6 year old have a go last night. I think we’ve just created a monster…

    And yes for the world building. The rules. There must be rules. And the realism makes it happen. The hero has a banned book collection. The heroine is trying to give up smoking. There’s a tin of biscuits hidden in the kitchen, and cook can’t work out who’s stealing from it. Very trivial things in the grand scheme, but they make it so REAL.

  12. Gillian: I will never forget the clothesline debacle. That gaming moment gave me a huge appreciation for the usefulness of the ridiculous and unexpected in storytelling.

    So true about the 2 gaming rules. We learned pretty quick not to argue too much with my brother when he was DM. It never boded well for our characters in the end.

    I’d love to introduce my daughter to old-style gaming. If my brother ever moves back to this neck of the woods and takes up DM-ing again, it’s a done deal. I think she’ll love it.

    Character quirks, trivial life moments–they’re definitely what bring a story to life.

    Thanks for chiming in, Gillian!

  13. I think this is what is key to the best worldbuilding especially for fantasy setting is the little details. I also think even with a dark and gritty world – hints of humour can shine in an oppressive world.

  14. Has: Absolutely. Humor is necessary in even the darkest books. I just recently finished a fiction book called The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. In general, the story’s setting is bleak, but the author inserts these bright flashes of whimsical humor so that it still feels like entertainment and not an exercise in mental perseverance and a need for therapy just to read “The End.”

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