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World Building: 102 Structures in worlds [Apr. 9th, 2006|08:31 am]

Let's talk about patterns, frameworks, or a mixture of them both. These things pop up in the structure of worlds. They can be references to 'real world' events or ideas or they could be references to fictional structures in your stories.

One thing that drives me nuts are stories based off of the tarot. You see a lot of them used as fortune telling tools. Or compared to situations. Or, for example, in X1999, the characters are shown as various tarot cards.

There's two factors at play here. One is that a tarot system gives both you and your readers a framework. People can guess that John's the World or argue who's the Wheel or the meaning of the Tower. It also means you know that you may, for example, have a falling tower or some situation that evokes it. These are, in my opinion, pluses since that helps you make a story that either converges or diverges with exisiting mythos and you can create foreshadowing and suspense via imagery and calling on these mythos. Also, you know that, for example, you have a set of icons which you can apply to various situations or people and you can use that for brainstorming ideas. In plain English, using tarot cards gives you a dictionary to subvert or use in your writing.

The other factor is more negative. By using a system like the tarot, you may find your story limited by the cards. You may find that in the end it doesn't work for what you want, or that your carefully crafted interpretation is too vauge for the reader to understand. It may also be that you have too big of a cast of mythos, and your story may end up feeling like far too much research into something that doesn't really matter in the end. Arthurian stories, in my opinion, often have this feel like they're juggling years of stories or bound by the original story to closely. Another problem is that if you're trying to be coy about your source material, your readers may be annoyed that you think they wouldn't notice, say a man with a habit of hanging upside down and calling himself the Joker. In plain English, using tarot cards can annoy the reader by overly obvious sources and feel forced onto your story.

So, good points and bad points to using the tarot. How does this apply to story? Basically you can use patterns, frameworks, or a mixture of them as a way to make your life easier as you write. Let's define the terms I'm using.

A pattern is often a good way of helping your theme. If almost everyone has had trouble with the government and you want to show that the government is bad, you have a pattern. You know that your characters need to show what they're annoyed about and why they're not saying to heck with this and going off to be a hermit. Another pattern could be simply imagery. Bob's always associated with red, sunset, and violence. Jane's always associated with doves and sunrise. Patterns are pretty easy to notice, since people naturally try to find patterns in things. Therefore, using them with care is a good idea. A simple test to see if you've got an over kill of a pattern is to pick a relevant word (let's say 'light') and do a search in your document for it. If you're getting a ton of that word, your readers may be feeling like they're being bludgeoned with the idea.

Frameworks are my term for things like the tarot, playing cards, fairy tales, etc. These don't have to be real things. You can, for example, have a song in your world that is a framework for the story. Many characters, situations, cities, world views are based off of this song, and that song is one way you can foreshadow / influence your story. Another way to look at a framework is to take - well, let's say you're dealing with a place that calls themselves the Three Musketeers. You can ask how this group is like the story, how they're unlike the story, and why _that_ story is the most fun to play with. What can you do with the original material? Can you use it at the beginning of chapters for fun quotes? Is there something there that appeals to the characters or you? What is it?

How do patterns and frameworks improve your world? Well, it can help you add details quickly. Let's use one of my cities, Lorena, as an example. It's based off of Venice, situated in an area similar to an Italy / France type of language group and climate. I know it had money, but the economy's fallen apart and the government is corrupt. Technology is early cybernetics, but a lot of it doesn't work in Lorena due to local conditions that make tv's have poor signals and short out delicate electronics. Theme wise, I want a rusty steampunk like city with canals, vivid saturated colors in a sea of monochrome shades.

With this setup, I can quickly say, okay, due to the poverty, a lot of people are probably on the dole. Due to the political corruption, I bet the dole has problems. The canals mean there's probably issues with sewer and water. I think that cigarettes are given out in the dole along with some alcohol. Since cigarettes sometimes come with free gifts and since my characters are a member of a group called the Cards, let's say that one brand of cigarettes is doing a thing where you get a free playing card in the pack and a coupon to buy the rest of the deck. And so on.

So, how can you use patterns or frameworks in your work? Well, look to see if you have iconography in your world that your characters would know. Could you use it (or transform it) into something that would contribute to your plot? Or, if there's something you want to happen, can you use other canon details to explain why it would happen? Let's say you want Joe and Jane kissing in the river. If there's a summer moon festival with sweaty dancing and feasting, it's quite possible that Joe and Jane would want to wander off and chat in the cool water of the river. If you don't want them nipping off to neck in the river, then you can just as easily claim that it'd be inappropiate for them to leave. As for patterns, you could say that - oh, all people in this organization have a reason for joining. They don't all need the same reason, but that reason could be usefull for plot purposes. Here's some things you might want to look at in regard to adding patterns and frameworks to your story:

1. Is there something that keeps popping up in my story? Is it just a writing quirk (like always describing someone's hair style) or an aspect of the theme / plot / something I just love to have in a story? If I think it helps the story, how can I make more oppurtunities for this or make it an integral part of the setting? If it fights the story, how can I make a story where this will get to appear?

2. If it's a moral opinion (like, say, a pattern of mentors who like Rand), is it consistant with the character's world view or merely my own? Do readers find it to be annoying or interfering with the story? My personal annoyances are antihero types who express their philosophy in arrogant terms and then are accepted by everyone around them for no explained reason. Even if the message is amazing, the messenger needs to be fascinating in some manner to get things heard.

3. Plausibility but not inevitability are nice things to find in patterns or frameworks. By this, I mean that the structure makes sense within your world, but it does not mean that everyone and everything is exactly identical. If there is something that is so integral to your story, make sure that it isn't constantly noticed as being something startling. Bear in mind how an outsider would view things.

4. Bear in mind that your readers are not you, and may not care about your lovingly crafted descriptions of silverware and how it's used. If you cannot say why this detail improves the story / adds flavor / helps your theme don't devote a lot of word count to it.

5. Once you decide on a pattern or framework, keep track of your decisions so you can avoid inconsistancies.

Now, here's the other side of this concept. Let's say you have a world where there's no - for example, concept of a formalized civil union in any manner. People tend to try to find patterns in things. If you say there's no getting married simply because you don't want to deal with said plot line, or because you want to make things different, I, as a reader, will be wondering why. Why did this come about? How did things change? What does this say about authorial intent? Why does this improve the story? Of course, you can create settings that lack any number of things compared to the real world (any historical setting, for example, will lack modern technology.) However, there's usually a few things that are good to consider if you're eliminating a pattern or framework:

1. Why isn't it there? Did it never evolve into the society or wasn't needed? Did someone deliberately encourage this?

2. What's replaced it? If you've taken out, say, all kissing, what are common courting procedures? How do people flirt? What does this say about physical intimacy? Are other kinds of touching not typical?

3. What can you do with the absence of this? How does it help your story?

4. Where is it applicable in your story? Where is it not applicable? If it's a regional thing, how would an outsider react to this strange fact? Is it even noticeable? Are your people aware that X is not 'normal' according to Y's culture? Bear in mind that nomalcy for your characters is not the same as normalcy for your readers. Your reader may find X to be bizarre and repugnant, but that does not mean that Joe, raised in that world, would find X to be bizarre. (I've read stories with areas with very liberal sexual views, but characters who exhibit extremely typically conservative American views. The author seems to assume that the reader must have this view point character to identify with the story even if the writing is good enough to draw the reader in.)