We are pleased to have J. Zachary Pike visiting us today at Astounding Books as our guest blogger. Pike was once a basement-dwelling fantasy gamer, but over time he metamorphosed into a basement-dwelling fantasy writer. A New Englander by birth and by temperament, he writes strangely funny fiction on the seacoast of New Hampshire. His novel, Orconomics, is available now.
An excerpt from the novel can be found below. Give it a try and enter to win a FREE digital copy of the novel on a Kindle Paperwhite! You can see more of his work at jzacharypike.com, or drop him a line on Facebook or Twitter.
On Writing by J. Zachary Pike
I’ve found plenty of tips over the years for creating three-dimensional characters, and I’ve followed more than a few of the good ones. But I seldom see many tips for building interesting worlds, which I find odd. After all, a fantasy setting can be deep and fascinating or flat and uninteresting just as much as any character can. As I created Arth for my own books, I found it helpful to think of my world as another character, and in so doing try to make it as three-dimensional as possible.
The World is Flat
When a character is simple and stereotypical, they’re often described as flat and two dimensional. There’s nothing wrong with a two dimensional character in passing—simple characters are a critical element of storytelling. (Imagine how horrible the last book you read would be if the author delved into the past, motivations, and flaws of every person who appeared in the book.)
A simple, underdeveloped world can also come across as two-dimensional. Such a simple world might make a good stop for the interdimensional traveler / spaceship crew. Think of all the bizarrely gimmicky worlds that the original Star Trek visited, or the satirically stereotypical planets on Futurama. They make for some great gags or philosophical points, and they’re fun to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to set a novel there.
How a World is Like Another Character
A character isn’t a person, and a fantasy world isn’t a place. They’re both constructs for telling stories and conveying themes. Your characters’ strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and redemption (should) all serve to shape your story and advance your plot. Creating a world is the same way: it’s a tool for advancing the plot plot. The easiest way for me to keep that in mind is to think of Arth as another character.
Here are some of the ways that helps me.
- I try to give my world “flaws.” It’s easy to see if a character is too perfect, or too evil, or just too… flat. One key indication of a two-dimensional character is a lack of flaws (or redemptive qualities for villains.) But a world can be too one-note as well, and a good way to prevent that is to give it “flaws.” it a counter-themes, something that takes it in the opposite direction. One example from Arth is the balance between military and financial forces— on the one hand, the world is full of violence and constant danger, but at the same time a stable economy with advanced financial markets has grown not just despite the conflict, but because of it.
- I use two-dimensional characters to create three dimensional cultures. Part of what makes our world so interesting is the diversity of perspectives and attitudes that you find in any group of people. If all of my minor characters are of one mind and purpose, or even clearly divided along predictable lines, my world would be missing out on some engaging conflict. II try to give the minor characters a variety of voices and perspectives, so that together they’ll create a picture of a more fascinating culture.
- I think about my world’s character arc. A character that doesn’t advance or change over the course of a story is a dull one, and the same goes for a setting that isn’t impacted by the character’s actions. I try to outline the way my heroes’ actions will change their world, and what that does for Arth narratively.
Your mileage may vary, but it always helps me to think of my world as another character, If you’re thinking about writing fantasy or speculative fiction, I highly recommend giving it a try.
Legend held that Andarun had once been the greatest city on Arth, in the early ages when it was the high seat of the kingdoms of the Sten. Then the Sten betrayed the rest of mankind and were subsequently wiped out in retaliation. The armies of Man were quickly driven away by a dragon, which was followed by hordes of Lizardmen, who fell to the Gremlins, who were slain by an Ogre tribe, and so on and so forth. By the time the Freedmen liberated the city from the rule of Ogmar the Mad, one could barely walk down Central Avenue without tripping over a priceless relic from a long-faded conflict. Of course, no one could even venture near a sewer grate for fear of giant spiders or Venomous Scargs or any of the other monstrous denizens that had never fully been expunged from the city.
Ironically, these ancient threats were key to Andarun’s rapid gentrification. Dangerous monsters and abundant treasure attract heroes. Wealthy heroes in need of gear attract merchants. Well-to-do merchants attract industry. Industry needs workers, who need developers for housing, who need builders and laborers, who need services. The ancient ruins beneath Mount Wynspar fertilized a blooming economy on its surface. Within an age, Andarun was again the greatest city on Arth, this time built atop the most deadly dungeon on Arth.
In Andarun, one could wake a nameless fear or two just by digging a wine cellar.
“The city’s built on big steps carved into the mountain back when the Sten were around,” Gorm told Gleebek as they made their way through Andarun’s crowded streets. “The lowest step is called the Base, and the top is the Pinnacle. Every step starts in the Ridge,” he said, pointing to the rough cliff face that cast the western side of the city in shadow, “and ends at the Wall.” He turned and pointed to the giant stone edifice that made up the eastern mirror of the Ridge.
“A zabba,” Gleebek said with a low whistle.
“Aye. The Wall and the Ridge cast long shadows down here on the lower steps. But Andarun rises to their tops, so up near the Pinnacle, where the uppity-ups live, the Wall ain’t much taller than a hedge. Good views, I’m told.”
“Everything’s better by the Wall—the view, the light, the smells. Course, everything’s more expensive too. Makes Andarun almost like a map of society, ye see. The higher up the mountain ye go, the higher your status. The closer to the Wall ye are, the more money ye have.”
“Grong, da nub’root Hupsit—”
“So if we get separated, head down toward the Base and west to the Ridge. Eventually, ye’ll come here.” Gorm rounded a bend and gestured down an alley that was deeper and darker than most swamps.
“Welcome to the Underdim,” grinned Gorm. “They don’t get any more Ridgeward or Baseward.”
Interested in visiting Arth? There’s never been an better time, because right now you can win one of several free copies of Orconomics—including a digital copy on a Kindle Paperwhite. CLICK HERE Enter to win on my contest page.