Sunday, January 22, 2012

Species Creation: Sentient Plants

I've always been fascinated by the idea of sentient plant species. Plants have so much variety, so many adaptations and so much potential for interest. Their experience of the world would be fundamentally different than that of any animal because their methods of living are so different. From feeding through photosynthesis to reproduction through the release of pollen, fruiting, or even budding.

Their point of view would be inherently different and that must have an effect on the way they’d view other forms of life. They need sunlight and water, and they take nutrients from the soil, while all forms of animal life--even herbivores--kill something in order to survive, and imagine that from a plant’s perspective. Of course, perhaps you’re building a species of sentient plant that evolved from carnivorous plants! :-D

Animal life can also have reactions to plants. We can be allergic and they can be poisonous, but plants can also be curatives or drugs. And if that’s the case it would certainly present conflicts, from the idea of sentient plants being the cure of a plague, to an entire black market economy based on the sale of euphoric sentient plant sap. Do the plant people have to die in order to create the poison/drug/curative? Perhaps it’s the basis of their own economy, or the economy of their criminal element.

What would a society of plant people be like? How do they determine who gets the sunniest spots, or the clearest water, or the soil with the most nutrients. Perhaps those go to the leaders, or the oldest, or the strongest, or even the youngest so that they can grow more quickly. The leaders may warrant more sun, while the youngest (saplings?) warrant more water. Are there some plants which are more or less respected? Which get first use of certain resources?

And what about the criminal elements of such a society? What counts as a crime for plant people? They’re just as capable of injuring one another as we are, just as capable of theft, slander, murder. You have to determine how their society punishes such acts, how it views such acts.

Is there hunger or poverty in such a society? There are limited resources. There are only so many spots of ground and plants need hours of sunlight. Perhaps they’ve become nomadic, similar to the way that farmer’s rotate their crops in order to replenish the nutrients in the soil. They may have to be very conscious of what goes into the ground, as well as what comes out of it.

If there’s more than a single species of sentient plant, how do they view one another? Some species might be invasive, taking up soil and sun and water without care for what others need and spreading their own seeds at the cost of other species. Their view of non-sentient plants would be interesting as well. When you need daily sunlight in order to survive, a forest might be a terrifying place, too dark for you to eat in. Plants might even be looked at as we look at other animal species. Some could be pets, but some are probably predators or weeds.

Are your plant people mobile? Perhaps they can move about, but have to put down roots in order to feed and thus must spend parts of the day rooted to a spot. Or perhaps they’re mobile for parts of their lifespan, but rooted at other times. The young might be rooted until they’re grown, or perhaps they grow more sedentary as they age.

Let’s not forget reproduction! How they accomplish reproduction will certainly color their views on any number of other topics, from gender and sexuality to family, religion, philosophy, children, marriage and politics. Some plants are hermaphroditic, producing both male and female blooms. Others have only one gender. Some produce from cuttings and others through different types of pollination. How does a sentient plant view life when reproduction means cutting off a part of themselves to plant in the ground? What sorts of philosophies spring from requiring insects to choose the person you reproduce with?

To us, forests and deserts may be challenging, but how are these geographies viewed by sentient plants? Creating such a species means looking at grasslands and rocky coasts and stretches of sand in entirely different ways. A forest has layers, and each plant that lives within it is adapted to their own space. From the tallest plants which get the most sunlight—and thus block a good deal of it—to the small underbrush which has learned to live with only dappled light. For them, too much sun is just as dangerous as too little. Some plants are resistant to drought and some are not. Some can stand freezing temperatures and some can’t, and all of them deal with these things in different ways. Some of those ways may be similar to our own concepts—if you can’t take the heat, build some shade, or if the weather outside’s too cold, build a greenhouse—but some will no doubt be quite different.

Life cycles also provide a vast array of possibilities. Some plants don’t live long at all, while others can live for centuries. Some lay dormant waiting for just the right conditions in order to spring to life. Some release pollen when stressed, some bear fruit.

I think there’s a lot of untapped potential when it comes to such species. We see a lot of the same types of things over and over, but there so many different kinds of plants and so many different ways for them to evolve, all depending on where they came from. There’s plenty of ways to introduce conflict and story, and so many possibilities for characters and cultures. Basically? I’d love to see more sentient plants!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Worldbuilding: Politics and Political Entities

Politics are a complicated enough subject when you're not making them up whole cloth. There are so many variables and so many different points of view to consider. A single political entity may contain not just the members of the governing body of a given nation, but also anyone who has the power to influence them, such as religious leaders, the leaders of social groups, powerful guilds or unions, and wealthy merchants. Within that political entity everyone has their own agendas, concerns, goals and views and they are all trying to move them forward. Some will work together, some will not, both for a variety of reasons which range from personal dislike or rivalry to disparate worldviews or agendas.

But they all need one another. In most political systems it's not easy for one person, even one powerful person, to get something done. Support may be required in the form of votes, or public support, or money. There's always give and take in the political structure and as complicated as that makes things, it can also produce tension and conflict, become a way to bring together characters who would normally have nothing to do with one another, or influence your plot.

This is just as true for nations as for individuals. A nation which exists in a vacuum can do whatever it wants, but one that has to deal with other nations also depends on those nations. Whether it's for resources, goodwill, or backup in a fight: nations interact. I find it helpful to think of nations as “meta-characters.” While their opinions, desires and needs are made up of thousands of different parts, they still have these things. Thinking of them this way can help you determine how different nations interact and how they are likely to respond to one another throughout the course of the story.

When building the politics of my worlds, I like to start at the top. Create the basic ideas of the different nations, figure how what they have and what they need and where they can get it. I consider them as characters, each with their strengths, weaknesses, and agendas. Their beliefs play a role in this—and any internal conflict of belief should as well—but they also have real, physical needs. Perhaps they’re a desert nation and wood must be imported, or they’ve got no access to water-based trade routes and need to move their goods through a neighboring country. Perhaps they’ve been fighting with another nation for centuries and they’re worn out and need back up.

These are just as important to a nation as food and water is to a character. These are the things which drive them and enable them to be a nation. Without resources, they fall apart. So who can they go to in order to get these resources? What does that nation want in return? Are they happy with the price they have to pay to get what they need?

Once I’ve got the big picture planned out, I generally move inward. The next step is the politicians themselves (and anyone else who has that kind of power), who will all have different views and motives. They’ll all want different things for their nation and have different views on how best to get those things. How in-depth you have to go with them depends on how big a part they play in your story, and how likely they are to have conflict with the main characters. Knowing, in general, how the big political players feel and what they want can show you where your characters are likely to run into problems as well as allies.

Then I like to consider how all of this affects the main characters. Whether you’re writing political fantasy or not, the characters are going to have opinions on their nations. Its policies and resources have repercussions in their lives. Perhaps the ban on importing certain goods makes it impossible for them to get materials for their business, or an alliance with a neighboring nations means that their business is booming because it opens up a new market. The nation’s views on the character’s religion, ethnicity, social class, magic, sexual orientation, gender, occupation, etc. all have an effect on the characters. And knowing how the nation in general, and the big political entities in specific, feel about those things means knowing your character and the immediate world that they inhabit.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Updates and Future Posts

Hello all!

Sorry for the lack of postage lately, but I've been running around like crazy with paperwork and such because I'm going back to school! Which is awesome, but fraught with perilous paperwork pitfalls and amazing amounts of admissions acrobatics. Apparently alliteration is my coping mechanism. ;-)

However, I do have a post about worldbuilding politics and political entities, and another about creating sentient plant species, both of which are almost ready to go up. So, stay tuned and I promise I won't keep you waiting too long!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Armies and Tactics: Raising an Army

Armies are a big part of a lot of fantasy and a good bit of science fiction, but I think that portraying them correctly means considering more than just our own current viewpoint on the topic. In this day and age, we generally think of armies as something that exist all the time and are ready to go at a moment's notice. And that's because we've worked long and hard to make them that way. We pay people to be soldiers and nothing else, and some of the innovations we've made over the years (canning food, for instance) came about because of armies and the need to supply them.

Before these innovations, armies were a different and more troublesome matter altogether. In ancient times, sometimes conflicts came to complete halts because soldiers had to get back home and bring in the harvest. The countryside through which an army traveled could well be completely ravaged, just because the army needed to eat and any crops or provisions that were available were snatched up by the soldiers.

And this has a huge impact on your world and your story. If your army doesn't have canning, for instance, how is it feeding itself when it's marching on the villain’s stronghold? Are the people stopping to hunt (time consuming and not always reliable, ask anyone who's ever played Oregon Trails! ;-) or are they preserving food by some other method and bringing it with them? That would mean supply wagons, which are not fast and require animals to pull them.

Also, a standing army doesn't make sense for a lot of cultures because the cost is just too high. Professional soldiers need to be housed, fed and paid. While they're standing around waiting for a fight, they aren't doing anything else for your society. While some areas such as castles, fortified passes, or guard stations may require a standing force, most areas do not unless there is the immediate threat of danger or a conflict already in progress. Of course, sometimes they can be pressed into service as law enforcement, but that means that if the need to fight arises, your police force is reduced or even nonexistent.

What this means is that, when there is a threat, an army must be raised and equipped. Historically, conscription has been used to drum up soldiers under such circumstances. It has also been common practice to employ mercenaries. Both of these come with their own problems. Conscripted troops are not professional soldiers. While many may have some idea of how to fight, they've probably never fought within an army, which has its own sets of tactics and strategies. If people are conscripted often in your culture, they'll probably be more used to fighting within an army, but at least some of them may not be happy about it being taken away from their homes and families so often.

Mercenaries have their own drawbacks. They're not necessarily loyal to the cause or nation or whatever they're fighting for, so much as the money they're getting paid. They may switch sides if a better offer comes along. Having fought on different sides--or even on the same side--before, groups of mercenaries may be more or less likely to work with one another, depending on how that turned out. Mercenaries may even pull stunts like refusing to fight unless their fees are raised. While it's also entirely possible that mercenaries have some sort of code of honor and consider their work a sacred trust, etc. (or just don’t think they’ll get hired again if they pull that kind of stunt) people being people, there are still going to be some bad apples out there.

So, when thinking about the armies in your world, it always pays to consider a few things: Who's doing the fighting? Mercenaries? Professional soldiers? Conscripted citizens? How do they feel about the fighting, and why are they doing it? How are they paid? How are they fed? How are they housed? Do they have to travel and how is this accomplished?

Don't forget the navy either. It can be overlooked, but if your nations have access to the sea, or even large rivers, lakes, etc., naval attack is always an option. And that brings pirates, privateers and press ganged sailors into the equation. Although, that's probably a separate post!

Problems like these are inherent when it comes to armies, and there are few ways to solve all of them. In fact, instead of trying to solve them all, it can be better to recognize them without fixing them. A culture which loses its policing force when war breaks out can be a valid problem for a culture that doesn't go to war very often. By including it and creating consequences for it, rather than trying to work out why it doesn't matter, you create a realistic culture, and a conflict within it.

In such a culture, some people will then resist going to war for as long as possible, in order to prevent the problem. Some people will want to drum up community spirit in the hopes of keeping crime to a minimum while the army is engaged. Then, of course, you get the people who will take advantage of the situation, who will commit crimes because they know they're unlikely to get caught, or volunteer police forces with their own agendas. All of this creates depth within your culture and cutting out these problems can make your world feel artificial. You can’t, and shouldn’t, solve all of your people’s problems. Instead use them to add complexity to your world.

Soon, we’ll talk about equipping an army, which is a different, but related problem!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Worldbuilding: Creating Magic

Magic is often central to many fantasy worlds, but it can be difficult to come up with something fresh and new. It's very easy to get stuck in what's been done in the past or to lean on the magical theories of our world. Often fantasy cultures think about these things the way we do, whether it’s based on the four elements or the ritual magic of drawn circles and lighted candles. However, these are all concepts that have been explored before, and unless you can put a truly original spin on it or add depth, it probably isn't going to do anything for your story.

It might not hurt anything, but it won't add much either. However, an interesting or original magic system can draw the reader in, characterize a world, and add depth to a culture. The best way to do that is to make it as deeply a part of the culture as you can. The more entrenched in your world the magic is, the more unique it becomes. When you tailor even a general magic system, it shows it in a way that is new and different. Especially if you've given depth to the cultures and/or species with which you've populated your world.

The basic magic questions are fairly straightforward. Where does it come from? What does it require? Is it a learned skill that can be practiced by anyone, or is it something only some people can do? Is it a limited resource, or an infinite power?

But there are other questions that deserve answers which are just as in-depth and thought out. Consider how your characters feel about magic. Not just the ones who use it, but those you can't or don't. What does it require of those who do use it? How does it affect their daily lives? What about the daily lives of those who can't or don't use it? How do their daily lives affect it? What terms do they use to define it? How does it connect to the other aspects of their lives? If asked to explain it to a child, what would they say? As Einstein said, if you can't explain it to a child, you don't really understand it yourself.

Let's start with terms. There are a few things that you'll likely need to find terms for when creating a magic system. What are the people who use magic called? Is there a name for those who can't or don't? What is the act of working magic called? Sorcery? Enchantment? Do your people cast a spell, or summon the elements, call forth the powers? What is an individual work of magic called? A spell? A charm? A working? Are there any objects needed? Does it require strict rituals or certain materials? Words? Gestures?

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to entrench the magic in the culture or species you're creating. If they're fond of singing, perhaps they were their magic in a similar way. If they're big on math, perhaps those are the terms they use to describe what they do with magic. Do they think of it like science or like religion or like art? Is it a means to an end, or an end in itself?

Different cultures from our world have different ideas about magic, and while it is often linked to religious beliefs and rituals, it doesn't have to be. Alchemy is an interesting blend of science (chemistry) and mysticism, and even scientific minds such as Isaac Newton found it a worthwhile pursuit. While many magic systems require rituals there's a distinction between ritual magic and religious ritual or psychodrama. Not every culture will link magic and religion and there may even be conflict between the two--as there has often been among cultures on Earth.

Magic isn't always nice, either. And by that, I'm not referring to "dark arts" or "necromancy" or uses for magic which may not be culturally approved. Often we see the ability to do magic as lifting one section of the population above the rest, unless it is outlawed. However, there is always the possibility that instead of being respected for their ability to do magic, magic-using characters might be reviled for it. That could be because it's considered a defect or because the materials necessary are considered dirty, or simply because magic itself is considered base. All of these factors can help to add a deeper element to even a simple magic system, making them feel fresher.

So, when creating a magic system, think a bit outside the box. Perhaps your culture doesn't recognize four elements, but eight. Perhaps they consider it a discipline that only scientists engage in, or they limit its use to only particular activities. Perhaps no one can have a spell worked on them unless they have consented to it, or perhaps enchantments laid upon a person can be traded and have become a separate form of currency. There aren't any limits when it comes to magic, which makes it a great place to really stretch your creativity!