Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vilifying

I like villain characters. I like the kind with motivations and goals and loves and hates, the ones that jump off the page, grab you by the throat and shout to be noticed. For me, the villain has to be just as real as the heroes, or how could they ever be a match? Every Holmes needs a Moriarty, after all. Someone they’d actually jump off a cliff to get rid of, someone they’d fight just because they are fundamentally opposed to one another.

I also love it when the author tricks us, makes us feel for the villain even when they’ve done things we find unforgiveable. It’s not easy to achieve, but when it works it’s fantastic. Unfortunately, when it doesn’t it can be very bad.

But not all characters who make the wrong choices, or who believe things we don’t agree with are villains. I like to experiment with characters who are morally grey, who do things they’re not always proud of, or who make the wrong choices, or who believe things that I find hard to wrap my head around. In the writing of these characters, I feel as if I reach some sort of understanding of human nature. We all make mistakes, do things we’re not proud of, believe things we come to see as foolish or just plain wrong.

But just how far can that be pushed? Just how much will a reader forgive a character for? What kinds of beliefs, actions and opinions are we willing to overlook? What will instantly get a reader’s ire up? Is there a clear line separating “villain” and “likeable character?” Are we more likely to forgive humans their flaws, because we understand them so well?

That’s another reason I enjoy fantasy and science fiction. They give me a way to see these behaviors through other points of view, points of view that don’t share the same expectations, the same moral, social or cultural boundaries. I think it reveals humanity when it is viewed by an outside observer. And if you can reflect a particular trait or belief or ideal in a dozen mirrors, you can see it from a dozen points of view.

And all of those views have something to tell us. They contain within them some comment upon the reflected trait or belief or ideal. Even the villains tell us something, maybe especially the villains.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Future Archeologists

Recently, I read about Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the government is creating a facility to store nuclear waste. They want it to safely house this waste for 10,000 years and this has brought up some extremely interesting issues, even beyond the storage of nuclear waste.

The most interesting, to me, is how to tell the people we will be in 5,000 (or even 2,000) years, what we’ve done and why. Consider how much we know about the Ancient Greeks, Mayans, or Egyptians. While we know a great deal more than we used to, a lot of what we have are theories and there are plenty of misconceptions. We explore their landfills, their cemeteries, their sacred places, and if there’s a warning that says “Go no farther?” We call a camera crew.

Language, culture and humans in general, are still evolving. We tend to think of ourselves as the end of a long evolutionary line, but assuming we make it another 2,000 years, 5,000 years, 10,000 years, we’ll be a blip on the radar. Just another past era. We think the knowledge we’ve gathered will live on forever, but books don’t last forever. And as the way we store data changes, even data is lost. Think of all the old computer games that only live on as we remember them, the programs that have faded away. And that’s in a very short time of our evolution. The Library of Alexandria was a center for the knowledge amassed by our ancient ancestors, the Smithsonian of their age. It certainly doesn’t exist now. It, and all the knowledge it contained, is gone.

Language will grow and change, what we speak now will be the languages of scholars and will it even be understood? Will it be understood in time to keep someone from drilling in a site made to store nuclear waste? Will the symbols and signs that we find so recognizable today still mean “biohazard,” “radiation,” or even “danger?”

In 2,000 years we will be to future humans what the ancient civilizations are to us. Future archeologists will search our graveyards for some understanding of how we lived and what we went through. They’ll pick through our landfills to find out what we made and what sort of technology we used. They will walk in our sacred places, and maybe they will speak to them and maybe they will be only an interesting puzzle. And if there’s a sign that says “Go no further,” what will they do?

Links to the articles I’ve been reading:

Buried But Not Forgotten?

Excerpts from Expert "Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Creating Creatures

This is one of my favorite aspects of fantasy, science fiction and horror. I watch nature documentaries incessantly and I approach creature creation from that view point. In Court of Scales, my dragons have three sets of wings, breath that smells like an alchemist’s workshop and scales that grow cloudy-white with age.

The more important aspects, to me, are that they’re solitary creatures slowly becoming social ones. It’s a long process, taking several hundred years already and still not very advanced. They have a voluntary political system because there’s no way to force them and only the more social dragons even bother to gain position. They mate for about a month every two years and the mothers raise their offspring without any contact with the fathers. While I find all that very fun to play with, what’s even more fun is to look at the exceptions. Razier, the main dragon character, is one of those and desperately wishes he wasn’t. Poor thing.

I really enjoy looking into the instincts of a creature and pondering their evolution. In another story, I’m playing with the concept of the dwarf. Dwarves, as they are commonly thought of, probably didn’t evolve underground, but rather moved there sometime in their past. Dwarves that evolved underground have no reason to have eyes. There’s no light. There’s no way to see, so why would nature give them organs to do it? What would a story written from the “point of view” of a creature without eyes be like? How would they communicate? How would their society have come about and evolved? What would it mean to them? How would they sense, get around and interact with the world?

I find these questions fascinating and I like working on the story because it forces me to come up with new ways of describing things, new ways of understanding things. There’s even—currently—a dream scene description that I adore. It may get cut, but right now it makes me smile every time I read it.

Creatures don’t have to be sentient, of course, although I think it makes them more interesting. I like creating the non-sentient creatures, too. Birds that attract mates by singing a particular note, lizards that eat sewer rats and small foxes on the canals of my story’s setting, dogs the size of horses that pull sleds like elaborate carriages, and birds with pine-tree-branch wings. Then there’s the weird stuff, the burrowing rock mites, sand-eating lizard-birds and spacefaring cephalopods.

My philosophy of creature creation is to start with a detail and ask lots of questions. When creating creatures, sometimes I start with a sketch. I have a notebook that I call my bestiary and I sketch out any ideas I have. More often, though, I start with a non-visual detail: an interesting system of magic, an aspect of their physiology, an idea of how they find nutrition. Then I work backwards.

Generally, life needs water and nutrition. To survive more than a generation it needs to be able to reproduce. These are all basic, but once you get an idea of the basics, one thing leads to another. For instance, if you start with the idea of a plant-based sentient life form, you know that your creature’s going to need light, possibly other nutrients, water and a means of reproduction. Plants have a whole range of interesting reproduction practices, and some only produce flowers, fruits and seeds when under stress. That could be pretty fun to play with, a character that starts to flower when under stress. How long does it take? What resources (light, water, nutrients) does it use? Does it have other effects on the creature? Do they start flowering immediately? Do some types of stress have a greater effect than others?

I think questions are the best way to create a creature. Answering the question creates other questions to ask and answer. The answers build the creature up from that one idea. Well, that's my system at least. :D