Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fiction

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Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fiction

Postby cmsellers » Fri Jan 15, 2016 1:23 am

So KleinerKiller's thread on fan fiction got me thinking, especially after Notch asked the question ("More to the point, why write fanfiction when you could write just[...] fiction?") I would have asked if I didn't feel the incurable need to make This joke.

KK's answer was interesting, because it highlights to me that there's something about some people I will never understand: for some people, world-building is at best unnecessary, at worst a chore.

For me, world-building is the best part of writing, indeed the primary motivation for writing fiction. I've been creating worlds since I was a child. Sometimes they're as small as a map or a question, a few time I've gone into considerably more detail (generally starting with a map of course). The hard part about writing for me is the plot. I want to show off my worlds as much as possible, and find it hard to come up with good plots that can do this.

Tolkien wrote for the same reasons I do. He solved this problem by taking a standard hero's journey narrative and throwing in a lot of exposition to show off his world. Personally, I've never been a huge Tolkien fan, but I liked The Simarillion a fair bit better than LotR because it showed of the depths of his world and reminded me of reading old mythologies.

And there are people who can build worlds and come up with interesting plots. I've often mentioned that my favorite fiction writer is Jack Vance. There is a reason for this. He and uses his world to dresses them up standard plots with so much detail that the underlying plot is unrecognizable. When I was a kid, my favorite writer was Diana Wynne Jones, who I realize now was a lot like Vance in that respect.

It seems like fan-fiction writers are driven by characters. They find a character they like, and want to have more stories driven by the character rather than the world. I don't remember much about Jone's characters, but Vance's protagonists are pretty much always bland Byronic heroes, made interesting only by the circumstances they encounter, while his side characters are basically walking plot points.

This may explain why neither Jones nor Vance ever obtained the audience I felt they deserved, Despite being acclaimed and influential in their fields, I met very few people who had read Dianna Wynne Jones growing up, and I have yet to read another person under 50 who has read Jack Vance. (Though I've always thought that Tolkien's characters in LotR were quite flat, and he's still incredibly popular.)

In fact the man who is generally considered the greatest writer in the history of English language was all about about characters. Shakespeare never invented a world or plot of his own; the power of his writing was in how he rewrote the particulars of the plots and particularly how he developed his characters. Despite this, I don't see Hamlet or MacBeth fanfiction, which tells me that characters alone aren't what drives fan fiction.

So I guess what I'm wondering is:

  1. For TCSers who write, why do you write?
  2. Do you have any authors you love you feel are incredibly underrated, and intutions about why they're not as popular as you think they should be?
  3. Why does every slightly geeky person still read LotR around middle school? Is it just because it's part of geek culture, or is there a valid literary reason for it?
  4. What makes Shakespeare great? (I've heard stories about North Koreans crying when they read translations of his work, so clearly it's not the puns alone.)
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby CarrieVS » Fri Jan 15, 2016 2:00 am

I don't know about questions 2-4, but as for 1: I write because I want to try and share some of the stories I invent. I invent stories because... well because I do. I have done as long as I can remember, though I didn't come up with many very interesting ones back when I was small. I was always a daydreamer, and it would be pretty hard for me not to do it.

Usually I see something, in real life or some work of fiction, and get an impression from it. By that I mean that I get an unusually vivid emotional response to some aspect or quality of the scene. And then I want to recreate that perception that I felt so unusually strongly, to set it down in concrete words so that I can share it, because... I don't know, because I do. Usually this results in me inventing a single scene in a similar scenario.

From there, it varies wildly. I might keep to that - I wrote a novel that I no longer intend to publish but that is basically complete, in which I kept the same premise as the film that contained the scene that inspired the whole thing. I might end up with something totally different. I very frequently come up with a scene in a story with a similar premise, but which goes nowhere, and then I transplant the concept I built it around to an entirely different universe and end up with it in a completely different story. I have characters and concepts that I've come up with four or five different iterations of. Sometimes I wind up imagining a new storyline in a world I made earlier, and sometimes it's a world someone else made that I read about and was interested enough by to want to imagine more around it.

I really enjoy world-building, but I still write a little fanfic and make up a lot more. And honestly it's not so different. I write to pretty strict standards of realism, or if it's a fantastic setting, of plausibility. So world-building is as much about finding out what things are actually like in 'canon' as it is inventing. And in a world another author created, there's always a lot that's not fully fleshed out, so there's plenty of scope for invention. I simply can't read a story that grips me without imagining more things happening in that world.

What's more, even if you're inventing your canon from scratch, you have to be consistent all the way through. Most of the time I spend writing in a world I invented from scratch, I'm still writing in a world that already exists as a concept in a relatively fleshed-out fashion. So it isn't really much different from fanfic.

I think I'm driven mostly not by worlds or characters, but by stories and scenarios. Most scenarios can play out in all kinds of settings, but have somewhat more restriction on the characters involved - they can vary in a lot of ways but internally they usually have to be mostly the same person. In fanfic, I like to write my own characters in, and actually writing other authors' characters is hard and not always satisfying. It's usually the setting that I'm after when I try and write fanfic, though that's not to say I don't use canon characters. Settings are interchangeable, so why not use one I like that happens to be created by someone else?
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby Tesseracts » Fri Jan 15, 2016 2:41 am

I've never been a writer, but it's something I want to be.

I'm most interested in characters. It's what I'm drawn to in most stories, and it's usually what I like to draw. There are exceptions though, sometimes there are themes other than character development I like.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby KleinerKiller » Fri Jan 15, 2016 3:52 am

I should tackle your first point since it was inspired by my thread and I fear my answer may have lead to some false assumptions. I do seriously value world-building in original fiction, but if I honestly had to choose between the two, it's characters that come out on top no matter what. Characters are the drivers of the story, the world is ultimately just the road they travel on. Game of Thrones is set in a developed and interesting world, but nobody would give a rat's ass about it if the characters weren't so compelling. Meanwhile, the Star Wars prequels have tons of world detail and fleshed-out history, but the cast are cardboard cutouts of various bland archetypes and thus everybody laughs.

You probably don't see much fanfiction of Shakespeare's work because it's A) really, really old and thusly lacking an interested audience and B) has such a vastly different style to what fanfic thrives on. His stories were rich, but usually focused on a handful of characters intended to serve very particular purposes to tell a comparatively short tale in a relatively traditional (if magic-filled) world. There's just not a whole lot of material to work with, outside of doing something like retelling A Midsummer Night's Dream with all of the characters replaced by infamous real-world serial killers or something and holy shit I may have a new idea.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby Marcuse » Fri Jan 15, 2016 10:41 am

I write because usually I'm frustrated by the quality of most fiction I come across and I want there to be interesting things I enjoy in the world, even if I have to write them myself. I also do it because it makes me feel like I can create something and since I'm not musical at all, can barely art, I try to express things through writing.

As to worlds vs characters, the more I learn about writing the more I learn that characters are key, and setting is secondary. That's annoying because I love creating worlds, but struggle to populate them with interesting and believable characters, generally because I struggle with insight into other people's feelings and how others process information. It's something I'm working on though, and I'm finding practice seems to be improving my ability to write, but I'm not at the point where I can write a large ensemble cast without losing track of things or getting overwhelmed by how to deliver everyone reacting to an event at the same time.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby gisambards » Fri Jan 15, 2016 11:37 am

cmsellers wrote:1. For TCSers who write, why do you write?
2. Do you have any authors you love you feel are incredibly underrated, and intutions about why they're not as popular as you think they should be?
3. Why does every slightly geeky person still read LotR around middle school? Is it just because it's part of geek culture, or is there a valid literary reason for it?
4. What makes Shakespeare great? (I've heard stories about North Koreans crying when they read translations of his work, so clearly it's not the puns alone.)


1. Mostly because I feel I should share my ideas, partly for what Marcuse said in that I am often underwhelmed by other people's works of fiction and thus want to improve it, and partly because if one succeeds there's a lot of fame and money in it.
2. I think the majority of Young Adult authors are underrated, while the most famous one of all - JK Rowling - is very overrated. This ranges from the well-known ones - I worry more and more young people aren't reading The Hunger Games books because they've seen the (extremely subpar in comparison) films, and also, while the later ones are rubbish and the films all are, I don't think the first Twilight book is actually that bad - to some far lesser known ones - Derek Landy's amazing Skulduggery Pleasant series, for example.
3. I think geek culture. Increasingly, most geeky people will have seen the films by that age, so it stands to reason they'd try to read the books.
4. Shakespeare was an extremely clever writer and - while he did write some duff plays - the majority of his works are amazing pieces of fiction. I think a lot of negative attitudes toward Shakespeare come from the incorrect school-taught versions of his plays: kids are taught that Romeo & Juliet is a straight romance, that Hamlet is a hero,that Macbeth is evil and that Prospero is unambiguously the good guy in The Tempest (or at least I was) when the actual story is always much more complicated than that, with many of his good guys actually being pretty awful, and his best bad guys being good men led astray. I would agree with the OP that it's his extremely strong characters that are the main driving force in this.

With regards to world-building: I find in a fantasy setting world-building is the most interesting part, but then I consider characters a part of world-building - everyone is shaped by their environment, after all, and so should each tell us something, however small, about where they're from.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby Marcuse » Fri Jan 15, 2016 12:16 pm

3.Why does every slightly geeky person still read LotR around middle school? Is it just because it's part of geek culture, or is there a valid literary reason for it?


I actually didn't read it until after I saw the Fellowship of the Ring movie, because I picked it up in about that time of my life and decided it was a weighty story that was far beyond my patience to bother reading. I blasted through all three books in a day when I was about 19/20 to be able to say I've read it and never bothered to again. It's...not really to my taste, but then I recognise it's a story that's classic and people really enjoy it.

What did Gondor do with all the orcs once Sauron was defeated? Who knows.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby sunglasses » Fri Jan 15, 2016 1:43 pm

Marcuse wrote:
3.Why does every slightly geeky person still read LotR around middle school? Is it just because it's part of geek culture, or is there a valid literary reason for it?


I actually didn't read it until after I saw the Fellowship of the Ring movie, because I picked it up in about that time of my life and decided it was a weighty story that was far beyond my patience to bother reading. I blasted through all three books in a day when I was about 19/20 to be able to say I've read it and never bothered to again. It's...not really to my taste, but then I recognise it's a story that's classic and people really enjoy it.

What did Gondor do with all the orcs once Sauron was defeated? Who knows.


Bar-B-Q. Or camps.

As for number 3, my father insisted I read it when I was 11. Mostly to get me out of his hair during summer break.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby Marcuse » Fri Jan 15, 2016 2:07 pm

sunglasses wrote:
Marcuse wrote:
3.Why does every slightly geeky person still read LotR around middle school? Is it just because it's part of geek culture, or is there a valid literary reason for it?


I actually didn't read it until after I saw the Fellowship of the Ring movie, because I picked it up in about that time of my life and decided it was a weighty story that was far beyond my patience to bother reading. I blasted through all three books in a day when I was about 19/20 to be able to say I've read it and never bothered to again. It's...not really to my taste, but then I recognise it's a story that's classic and people really enjoy it.

What did Gondor do with all the orcs once Sauron was defeated? Who knows.


Bar-B-Q. Or camps.

As for number 3, my father insisted I read it when I was 11. Mostly to get me out of his hair during summer break.


Generally, the theme would suggest that they were deliberately exterminated, and the only ones that survived were the ones that fled to the deep places of the world to hide. Now that's fine if you want an unequivocally evil enemy that can be destroyed at will with no moral qualms, but it flies in the face of the idea that Gondor was ruled wisely and well by Aragorn and Arwen. But that's the point about Tolkien, he was more interested in the setting than he was about the characters and what that implied genocide of what are at base elves does to the claim of ruling well.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby gisambards » Fri Jan 15, 2016 2:12 pm

Actually, I suppose whether intentional or not, the not-mentioned but probably implied genocide of the orcs does fit in the theme of The Lord of the Rings - part of the reason the Lord of the Rings is actually quite hard to read is that it is in large part intentionally written in the style of an ancient epic, which was Tolkien's area of expertise: there are a lot of references in the books to things like the Epic of Gilgamesh (the most blatant being the Uruks - Uruk was a major power in ancient Sumeria). And in a lot of ancient epics and histories, they would think nothing of describing a leader as wise and fair while also implying they committed genocide. It was a different time.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby Marcuse » Fri Jan 15, 2016 2:25 pm

gisambards wrote:Actually, I suppose whether intentional or not, the not-mentioned but probably implied genocide of the orcs does fit in the theme of The Lord of the Rings - part of the reason the Lord of the Rings is actually quite hard to read is that it is in large part intentionally written in the style of an ancient epic, which was Tolkien's area of expertise: there are a lot of references in the books to things like the Epic of Gilgamesh (the most blatant being the Uruks - Uruk was a major power in ancient Sumeria). And in a lot of ancient epics and histories, they would think nothing of describing a leader as wise and fair while also implying they committed genocide. It was a different time.


I see what you're saying, and it definitely does fit with the epic style he was writing in. It just ignores an interesting conflict between the implied values of the style and the characters who generally try to adhere to Western values. The story shows Frodo and Gandalf off to be enlightened because they refuse to kill someone who "deserves it" and promotes staying your hand in that situation, but this again is opposite to the casual acceptance of essentially the entire orc race dying.

What then was done with the Easterlings, or the Haradrim? What then with the Black Numenoreans? These aren't twisted false elves, these are humans enthralled by the Dark Lord, primarily because they hate Gondor for being dicks to them for centuries. Nothing is said of them either, and it once again demonstrates how Tolkien was interested in exposing the world of Middle Earth far more than he was asking questions about the characters.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby CarrieVS » Fri Jan 15, 2016 3:03 pm

I assumed for a long time that the Epic of Gilgamesh was something from Tolkien.

It's an interesting point, because in the books we spend a long and not overly gripping time at the end of the book showing how it's not all over just because you killed the Emperor and describing the extensive clean-up operations. I suppose we can assume that there was also mopping-up and reconstruction taking place in Gondor and everywhere else, off-screen, but it does leave those unanswered questions.

In the Shire they were very particular about rounding the villains up and kicking them out, with no more than unavoidable deaths: perhaps we're meant to assume similar scruples everywhere else. For the Orcs that doesn't ring terribly true, looking back over the whole trilogy and the Hobbit. They were always depicted as indisputably evil, even hurting their own causes by their cruelty and fighting amongst each other, and the more of them died the better - neatly sidestepping the issue of prisoners by not, to my recollection, ever having any orc call for quarter in the whole series.

But with the Easterlings and the Haradhrim, those who surrendered might well have been allowed to depart back to their home lands.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby Knicholas » Fri Jan 15, 2016 3:50 pm

I don't really do a lot of writing. I have perpetrated fanfiction on occasion, but not for a very long time. The last time was a proposed Let's Play that went no where. Actually, the only fan fiction I've written related games. What I have done, instead, is tell stories with cartoons/drawings. More like illustrated fan fiction. I mostly do it for shits and giggles, and to amuse my kids. Generally, I enjoy it in that it allows me to take a game world, and figure out how real people would react to it. Usually with amusing results.

The other questions: Lord of the Rings is a compelling epic. I've said this before, it remains my favourite piece of literature, bar none. The world building is magnificent. The characters develop and change. There is an underlying theme of decay, decline that runs though all the books--I once got shouted down during a (drunken) discussion of this theme by comparing this from the Silmarillion to this from the Hobbit. as proof of the decline of the Noldor. It's hard to resist the idea that there was a magnificent world that is just past our ability to discern.

Other underrated writers? I recommend Guy Gavriel Kay.

Shakespeare is eternal in so far as his works can be adapted and changed to meet the changing times. I might leave this to the experts to discuss.

Marcuse, what I recall about the aftermath of the War of the Ring, after the fall of Sauron, the orcs ran and hid like wild beasts, or termites after the Queen is destroyed. The Southrons and Easterlings fought on, but eventually surrendered. From what I recall, they were sent home. The more fertile lands in the south of Mordor were granted to the slaves who were freed, while the Corsairs submitted to Gondor. Not so much a genocide, really. The nature of the orcs was never totally settled--as we all know. They may have been ruined elves, or they may have been animals given a certain degree of sentience, or they may have been evil spirits. What was generally agreed was that they're ability to wage war was dependent on someone holding a whip.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby FaceTheCitizen » Fri Jan 15, 2016 5:13 pm

I do plan on answering your questions, Sellers, but I'm on a tablet and my attention is divided on taking care of a three year old who doesn't understand the concept of personal space. However, I have seen some comments about world building, I agree with them, and I wish to add:

A guy on the Something Awful forums once said that world building should serve the story, not the other way around. I agree with this. World building is fun, but it's pointless if you sacrifice story for it. If you wanna world build and not write a story, then create a game. But don't write story just so you can world build. The work will suffer.
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Re: Worlds vs. their inhabitants as motivation to write fict

Postby cmsellers » Fri Jan 15, 2016 6:00 pm

FaceTheCitizen wrote:But don't write story just so you can world build. The work will suffer.

So I've learned. But I don't really have great story ideas (with one exception), just ideas for worlds.

I figure if one linguist could get away with it, I'm hoping someday I can too. I mean, it took him until he was 45, I'm still not impressed with the result (well The Hobbit is actually decent, but I still don't think much of LotR) and he mostly got away with it because he was taking something old and making it new...

Really, I think the trick is to learn to make compelling characters. I usually re-read Vance when I try to fix my stories, when clearly I need to be re-reading Shakespeare.

Ursula Le Guin is another writer I love whose primary purpose does seem to be world-building. But she's still read fairly often in the sf community, and I think that the fact that her characters are often (though not always) interesting has a lot to do with that.
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