World-Building Elements in My Stories: A Tale of Two Worlds

Quality 1Continuing the examination of the world-building in my three (so far) published fantasy and science fiction series, I’m going to deal this time with A Tale of Two Worlds, which has at this point two titles, The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born. This series is alternate-world fantasy and is not set in our world, but (as the name implies) in two different alternate worlds. Human beings evolved on one of them, called the “Old World,” while the “New World” is where the Old Gods and the magic users, who became the Faerie, migrated at the dawn of civilization. I’ll deal with the worlds themselves first and go into the fantasy elements afterwards.

The Old World and the New World

The Old World is similar to our own world, but not identical. It is home to an early-modern civilization at the time when the story begins, roughly 18th-century Europe equivalent, and the nations have a European feel to them. There are five nations mentioned in the books, the High Vance Empire, the Kingdom (later Republic) of Grandlock, Corlia, Forcia, and Thurbia. The Empire and Grandlock have a more or less “English” feel to them, while Corlia and Forcia are reminiscent of France and Italy, respectively, and Thurbia isn’t clearly identified with any Terrestrial nation.

Prevailing technology is early industrial revolution: steam engines, railroads, muskets and cannon, gas lamps, etc. It would be a good base for steampunk if the steam tech were more outlandish, but it isn’t. Government is constitutional monarchy, but Grandlock is on the edge of a democratic revolution which actually takes place in Goddess-Born. Noble privilege is enshrined in law, and an established religion exists, the Church of the Good God who is believed ot have given humanity agriculture long ago. Magic is outlawed and its practice punishable by death, but it’s still practiced in secret. Some parts of the planet, notably the South Islands, are inhabited by more primitive societies. The Kingdom of Grandlock was once part of the High Vance Empire, but broke away and gained independence during a time of civil war in the Empire.

The New World was established as a human habitation some ten thousand years ago. The Old Gods led the magic users through a number of connecting portals, the Green Stone Towers, when most humans began persecuting mages. The inhabitants of the New World have evolved into powerful magicians, the immortal Faerie Folk, and created a strongly magical society, more primitive in technology than the Old World, but with advanced magic substituting for technology. When the series begins, the Faerie are divided into two groups. The larger group, who call themselves the People (and whom the other group calls the Foe), live in cities over most of the surface of the New World and worship and interact with all of the Old Gods except Malatant. The smaller group, who call themselves the Faithful (and whom the People call the Darklings) live in the Darkling Wood and the underground city of D’Kushith, and worship Malatant.

Both the People and the Faithful are hunters and gatherers, not farmers, but magic creates such abundance from the wild that the arts of agriculture aren’t needed and the bounty supports a civilized life. The Faerie in both their branches are immortal, but over time their hair turns white, they become infertile, and they enter a state called “Elderhood” and eventually retire from the world, going to other places prepared for them by the gods.

The Towers remain as portals between the two worlds, but they are difficult and arduous to use.


The magic of A Tale of Two Worlds is less solidly grounded in real-world occultism and more fantasy-leaning than that of Refuge. Magicians in Tale can cast spells that summon demons, untie knots and open locks, blind people with bright lights, directly cause harm or kill, and similar effects. There is ritual involved, invocation of the Old Gods, use of herbs, sigils, magical circles, and other occult devices, but the effects are not realistic or limited to real-world magic or a reasonable extrapolation; this is an alternate-reality system of magic.

Magicians are believed to be descended from the Old Gods, but that may not universally be true; certainly it must not have been true at one point, since human beings existed before the Gods did and magic was necessary to their creation.

The Gods

Each of the Old Gods in A Tale of Two Worlds was once a human being and a powerful magician, who became immortal and even more powerful through a death and rebirth transition. All of the gods in existence at the beginning of The Green Stone Tower emerged into their divinity before or roughly at the dawn of civilization in the Old World. (Two more came into being at the end of Tower and played a part in Goddess-Born.) The ten deities who existed at the beginning of the series are: Pashi of the Waters, Shavana the Mother of Life, Prathur the Storm Lord, Rontar the Hunter, Illowara of the Mysteries, Hephos the Tower Builder, Drithur Lord of Riddles, Olthas the Warrior, Lasatha the Wise, and Malatant of Shadow. Each of the gods has an Aspect that defines their main area of focus and the area of life where their power is greatest.

An especially important deity in both books is Malatant of Shadow, the youngest god (some ten thousand years old — by comparison, Pashi is roughly 200,o00 years old). Malatant is the god of shadow, cold, and the evil in the hearts of men. The People fear and loathe him, the Faithful adore him and respect him, and much is revealed about him in the course of the two books.

The Not-Gods

Unlike the gods, the Not-Gods are native to the New World and have no human origins. They are beings of immense power, and on a par with the gods, or even greater.

The most powerful and enigmatic of the Not-Gods is the Worm of the World, who takes the form of an enormous snake that circles the entire New World. Its head emerges from a cave in the mountains to devour its prey, who are digested alive in its belly, their struggles and suffering feeding the magic of the world; the Worm takes only the wicked and cruel to feed its hunger.

The other Not-Gods are the Phoenix, the Moonbird, the Wolf Lord, the Turtle King, the Tree Spirit, and the Mightiest Troll. Most of those don’t come into either The Green Stone Tower or Goddess-Born, although the Worm, the Phoenix, and the Moonbird play small parts.


The Faerie Folk were originally human and are descended from the magic users of the Old World who fled to the New World. The only other quasi-humans mentioned in Tale are the trolls, who are big, dim-witted brutes of the New World, hostile to the People and even more hostile to the Faithful.

Next week: world-building elements in The Star Mages.

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World Building Elements in My Stories: Refuge

the-order-masterI’m going to do a series of three posts on the world building elements in my own fiction series: Refuge, A Tale of Two Worlds, and The Star Mages. I’m doing this mainly because I’ve never done it before, and it’s a useful exercise.

Two of these are contemporary fantasy, Refuge is also science fiction, and A Tale of Two Worlds is alternate-world fantasy of a fairly non-standard variety. I think they present fairly decent examples of atypical world-building, since none of them follows a usual script for fantasy or science fiction. I’ll post these in reverse chronological order by year of publication (Refuge is the most recent, while The Star Mages is the oldest).

Refuge is contemporary fantasy, and so it’s set in our own modern-day world. The events of the stories are hidden from the general populace, so the fantasy and science fiction elements don’t result in an altered reality, except for the main characters. Those elements appear in the stories but not in the news. All of these elements are “added” to the world we live in to produce a fantasy/SF story.


Magic is the only fantasy element (so far) in Refuge. There are no gods, devils, or superbeings, the only quasi-humans are aliens rather than fantasy creatures, there are no powerful talismans, and there are no other worlds involved unless you count the home worlds of the Droon and the Andol, which no longer exist.

The magic in Refuge is that of real-world occultism, somewhat amplified. Magic users can sense other people’s emotional states and influence those states by telepathy. They can obtain information through psychic vision about distant events and future events, always somewhat cryptic and unreliable. They can see auras, and both the Droon and the Andol have distinct auras that identify them as non-human. They can influence the flows and currents of fate and shape random events in the world. They can link effects like these to talismans which are created through ritual. They employ meditation, visualization, breath control, symbolic ritual, and sex to create magical links, enter useful states of consciousness, and gather magical power.

The Droon and the Andol don’t have magic that human beings don’t, and aren’t inherently more magical than humans who practice the art (though compared to average human beings they are), but they do have knowledge and refinements that humans haven’t achieved, and are advanced in magic just as they are in science and technology. This allows them, and humans trained by them, to perform magic that real-world occultists normally can’t, but for the most part it isn’t too far out there.

One advanced magical power the aliens use is time control. By focusing conscious attention on their own time stream, they can speed themselves up and slow everything else down. This can have some pretty dramatic effects and is useful in combat. Humans with magical talent are quite capable of learning time control, so again this isn’t an inherent advantage of the aliens, just the fruit of superior knowledge.

Another important bit of magic used by the aliens is the Refuge spell, which I’ll describe below.

Some human beings, in fact, have magic beyond what the aliens can do. Claire Chang, the main character of The Ingathering, is one such prodigy.


Non-human intelligence from other planets is of course a staple science fiction element, and it’s present in Refuge. In a twist, though, the Droon and the Andol are incarnate in human bodies, so for most intents and purposes they are human. No one knows where their home worlds were located. They may not even be in this universe. Both worlds were destroyed in an interstellar war between the two species, and some members of each race employed the Refuge spell to reincarnate as a different species — which turned out to be human.

Although the Droon and Andol are fully human in biology, they retain the memories of their first life as an avian Andol or insectoid Droon, and have some personality characteristics derived from those memories. They also have distinctly non-human auras, which they and human magic users can see.

The Droon and the Andol retain knowledge of advanced technology, too, although they didn’t bring any tools with them and must use human technology as a base, which means that only recently have they become able to build some of the more advanced devices from their former societies, especially in the way of computers. At all times, the aliens have been just a few steps ahead of human technology, in practical terms, although they know of much more.

The Refuge Spell

The Refuge spell was first developed by the Droon Hive Mother in the distant past. It allowed her to reincarnate upon death with all of her memories intact. She worked this magic long before the events that destroyed the Droon and Andol home worlds, so she’s by far the oldest living intelligence in the stories, being some five thousand years old.

When the aliens destroyed each other’s home world, the Hive Mother led the Droon in crafting the Refuge spell for about ten thousand of their most magical elite, using the deaths of the rest of the Droon as a source of magical power. This allowed the Droon to reincarnate on Earth as human beings, and they have been doing so ever since.

The Andol currently incarnate on Earth as Amanda Johnson initiated a similar project among her people, using the Hive Mother as a template. This project was an emergency measure, though, and so not nearly as many of the Andol could be saved; there are a total of 418 of the avian aliens on Earth.

The aliens arrived on Earth in the 14th century in Europe. Thus, all of them except for the Hive Mother herself are roughly 700 years old.

The Conflict

The Droon and Andol represent two different paths of social evolution for an advanced species. The Andol are egalitarian. Their government was democratic, their economy a form of decentralized socialism, and genetic engineering allowed all Andol to be highly intelligent, well-adjusted, non-violent contributors to society. The Droon formed a fierce oligarchy in which a master caste held absolute power over the lower ranks. Although wealth was distributed quite broadly among the Droon compared to what obtains in modern human societies, power was not. The Droon master caste could command obedience from ordinary Droon even to the point of confining them in horror chambers and torturing them merely to exert their dominance and superiority. This was a popular form of entertainment among the insectoid Droon and remains popular among them in human form.

Both these paths were adopted by the aliens in order to survive the crisis that currently faces humanity: to end war and achieve a sustainable relationship with nature. The Andol did it collectively through advanced global enlightenment, while the Droon achieved success by imposing harsh, draconic control. Both methods were successful, both societies non-warlike and green, but otherwise the difference between them was stark.

Today, the aliens seek to transform the Earth into an advanced society similar to what they had on the home world. Both intend to use genetic engineering to modify the human genome, but currently lack the necessary genetic knowledge (techniques that worked on the Droon or Andol aren’t suitable for use on the radically different human genome).

The Human Response

True human beings are caught in the middle between the two alien species. Humans may choose to side with one or the other species, or they may oppose both and seek a destiny that is right for us, recognizing that the Earth is our planet — not that of an alien species, whether benign or malevolent.

While some human beings take this human-first attitude, there are others who side with the Andol for idealistic reasons or with the Droon for selfish ones.

Next week: world-building elements in A Tale of Two Worlds.

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Book Release: The Ingathering (Refuge Volume Two)

the ingatheringRefuge Volume Two: The Ingathering is now available from Amazon and Smashwords and will be available at many other outlets shortly. You can preview the book by scrolling down a bit.

Here’s the book description from the vendor sites:

Claire’s magic is so powerful it makes her mentally ill. Suffering symptoms of bipolar disorder caused by her undeveloped talent, she escapes a Droon murder squad and reluctantly seeks training from the Andol. But the enemy follows and launches a plot to destroy the Andol stronghold and kill everyone in it, including Claire.

Meanwhile, the war between the Droon and the Andol is heating up, as the Andol seek human allies with magical talent, while the Droon hunt human magicians down and kill them. It’s a race between the Andol rescue operations and the Droon murder squads. Who will win the race? Can Claire recover her sanity and develop her powers in time to save herself, her friends, and the Andol from certain death?

From now until the end of November, I’m also dropping the price of Refuge Volume One: The Order Master to 99 cents. It’s also available at Amazon and Smashwords, and the reduced price should be effective at other vendors within one to two weeks.

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A Preview of Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering

the ingatheringRefuge Volume Two: The Ingathering will be published next week. Here’s a preview of the first few chapters. Read Chapter One here, and follow the links to the next few chapters.

This is the sequel to Refuge Volume One: The Order Master, which you can preview here. The Refuge series is about the conflict between two alien species, the Droon and the Andol, who have destroyed each other in a war and then, through magical arts, reincarnated as human beings, making the Earth their new battleground.



The Pike Place Market teemed with people, especially in the front part where the bronze pig kept watch and the fish merchants juggled salmon for the crowd. Claire bumped and weaved through the mob past the sea smell and the noise, making her way towards the fruit and vegetable sellers further back. Her Starbucks latte with soymilk felt warm tucked close to her body to avoid spilling. The sky was gray (as usual) but the rain fell in a light mist, which to a Seattleite wasn’t even Real Rain.

Claire had popped her meds that morning automatically, like a clockwork mechanism, and felt the drowsiness that sometimes followed, which the coffee helped to counter. She also felt the crowd around her as a threat of suffocation, depression looming on the edges of her mind, but knew something to do about that. Closing her eyes briefly and breathing rhythmically for a few seconds while the crowd eddied around her slim, short body, she opened her second sight and felt the minds of the people. As expected: annoyance at the crowds, amusement at the sights, concentration on the desired whatever or directionless browsing through the cacophony of goods, a flash of anger from a child kept from darting under a counter, smoldering pain from a woman whose husband was cheating on her, about what she expected in a crowd of shoppers and tourists.

She opened her eyes and saw the auras flashing and bumping and blending, multi-hued cues to personality, health, and mood, but Claire always got more just from feeling the minds around her than visually. The colors were pretty to look at, though.

As the magic at the base of her spine found an outlet, the threat of depression receded a little, but she knew it would come back. It always did, despite the medication, and using her magic only helped a little, enough to let her get through college, but not enough so far to make a relationship work for more than a month or two.

Still, a little help would do this morning. She pressed on through the crowd, which thinned as she came to the back portion of the Market where the shops she wanted stood. First the fruit and vegetable stand for a bag of apples and a couple of star fruit, then the tea shop where she picked up a sack of Earl Gray and popped it into the fruit bag, and finally her favorite bakery, where she scored a loaf of dense, nut-packed multi-grain yummy.

Loaded down with success, Claire wove her way through the crowds to the bus stop where she caught a bus to her Capitol Hill apartment. She had time to eat something, shower, and study for a bit before taking another bus to the University and her film class at two in the afternoon.

The time went quickly, and Claire jumped when the alarm sounded. She tossed Shakespeare to the side and threw her bag over her shoulder, zipped out her front door and locked it behind her, and had just turned towards the elevator door when it opened.

Four men stepped out of the elevator. One of them looked at her and smiled. She didn’t like the smile much. She didn’t recognize any of them, but the smiling guy seemed to know her. They were four white men, somewhere between their twenties and their forties, in good shape, not especially good looking or ugly, nothing remarkable about them, but —

The second sight came on her and she reeled. The aura that sprang to her view looked as if the men were surrounded by a spinning cloud of jagged, broken glass sparkling against a night-dark background. She could feel the malice of their minds. Only in her hallucinations and nightmares had she ever before sensed such pure, toxic evil. Claire’s breath caught. She backed away.

The lead man drew a knife. “You’re luckier than you know, girl,” he said. “We don’t dare take chances with the likes of you. That means you’ll die in seconds instead of years.”

Claire ran toward the stairs at the end of the hall. The men ran after.

At the stairway door she turned and kicked out at the lead man, the one with the knife drawn. Years of martial arts training came to her assistance and she tripped him. Her hand on his knife-arm shifted his motion enough to ram his head into the wall. He fell, dropping the knife. Claire picked it up.

But the others came right behind. One of them thrust another knife at her heart. She twisted to avoid it but the man moved so fast she could only deflect the blow slightly. It sliced into Claire’s side. She cried out and backed through the stairway door, closing it behind her. She jammed the knife into the hinge and broke off the handle, then turned and ran up the stairs. Why up? Why not down? The thought occurred to her after she’d already gone a floor, but by then it was too late; the knife blade in the door hinge wouldn’t hold back her pursuers long.

Out onto the roof. The breeze stirred her hair. Her side hurt. Her fingers felt sticky. She could smell the blood. She could also hear running footsteps in the stairwell. Where could she go?

She reached the edge of the building just as the door to the stairwell opened behind her and her three remaining pursuers emerged from it. Gasping, she looked over the roof edge. There was nothing below except an open dumpster full of garbage, three floors down.

The men ran towards her. She had nowhere else to go. Over the side and down, feet-first into the pile of refuse. She felt something twist in her leg. She blacked out momentarily.

Then she pulled herself out of the dumpster and limped away down the street with no idea where to go.


Blood seeped between Claire’s fingers where she held onto her side. It oozed through her shirt and trickled down her skin and onto her pants. The breeze stirred her dark brown hair and she felt light-headed.

They were still following her, those men. She felt sure of it. They wanted to kill her. She had no idea why. She had never done any of them any harm. She had never seen any of them before! Who were they?

Claire moved as quickly as she could away from her apartment building. The day still hung heavy with dense Seattle clouds, although it wasn’t raining at the moment. She could feel her pursuers following her, delayed by her jump from the roof but not deterred. Where could she go? She was just one young Asian woman in a city full of them, one small figure winding through the streets and alleyways, easily lost, surely. Somehow, though, they came on, following her as if with radar.

They found her in an alley, not a cul-de-sac but she limped and clutched at her side. She couldn’t run. As they advanced, she fell to her knees. A trail of red ran down her side. She was weak from blood loss and seemed to have injured her leg jumping off the roof into the dumpster.

“Who are you guys?” she said, her eyes darting from one implacable face to another.

“Your death,” one of them said.

“Why? What did I do to you?”

“Nothing yet. But we’d like to keep it that way.” He drew his knife and stepped forward. “I’ll make this quick.”

A shot rang out. Blood burst from the man’s chest. He fell, an expression of surprise on his face, dropping his knife. Two more guns sang their songs and the other two pursuers also fell, groaning or silent. Five men stepped from the shadows. Four of them ran to the three fallen killers and made sure of them with knives. The fifth, tall, thin, and Hispanic, with dark hair long but well cut and a closely-trimmed mustache, squatted by Claire. “How bad is it?” he said.

“Richard?” Claire said.

“Yes. Let me look at that injury. It looks like it might be pretty bad.”

“Uh. Sure.” Claire moved her hand.

Richard pulled her bloody shirt away from the wound. “No arteries cut, but we’d best get you to a safe place and tend to it. I have some AB and sutures at home.”

“Maybe I should go to the hospital.”

“I don’t recommend that, Claire. Another hit team will be sent once the people who sent that one learn that it failed. You need to disappear from sight.”

“I don’t understand.”

Richard sighed. “No, of course you don’t. I’m afraid you’ve been found by a nightmare. They’re the whole planet’s nightmare, and we — these men and I, and others — are trying to stop them.”

Claire shook her head. “That’s crazy talk, Richard. I’m supposed to be the crazy one.”

“You aren’t crazy, Claire. It’s just your magic.”

“Richard, my magic is all that helps the craziness. Medication helps some, but without the magic I’d be completely zotty.”

Richard smiled. “Yes. That’s what I mean. The craziness happens because your magic needs more training. It was worse before you had any training at all, right? But that can wait, Claire. Let’s get you to a safe place, and then we can talk. There are so many things you don’t know, and it’s obvious now that you need to know.”

He scooped her up in his arms and stood, carrying her. The others followed him to a car, leaving the bodies of her would-be killers behind. They drove quietly away, no one noticing them as the sirens sounded behind.


Sutured and drugged on pain-killers, resting in bed, Claire felt well enough to talk. She sipped miso soup that Richard made for her. She smiled. He was so nice. But then, he was also a killer, wasn’t he? That came as a surprise: her pharmacist leading a team that fought a battle to the death with mysterious assassins.

She ran slim, brown fingers through her hair. It felt dirty. She wanted a shower, but probably a sponge bath would make better sense, what with the bandages and all. Maybe she could wash her hair in a basin or something. Unless the bandages were waterproof. Were they?

“Richard,” she said.

“I know. You want some answers.”


“All right, but I warn you, this is going to sound crazier than some of your nightmares.”

She laughed, hearing the edge of hysteria in her voice. “It already seems like that.”

“Okay. Well, where should I start?”

“Those men. Who were they? Why did they want to kill me?”

“I don’t know for certain why they wanted to kill you. As for who they were, they’re called Droon. They’re — well, they’re human, but they’re also aliens.”

“You mean, like, from another planet?”


“I — I don’t understand. How can they be both human and aliens?”

Richard smiled. “This will take some time. It’s quite a story.”

“All right.”

An hour later, Claire’s head was spinning. Destroyed planets, migrating alien spirits, the Earth a battleground between two non-human species that had become human, and herself somehow caught right in the middle of it.

“Richard, this is a lot to take in. You sound crazier than I am.”

“I told you, you’re not mentally ill. You don’t have true bipolar disorder, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You have the symptoms, but not the real disease. You’re magical. That may be why the Droon tried to kill you, although I don’t know that for certain.”

“You killed those men.”

“They would have killed you if we hadn’t.”

“Are you magical, too?”

“Oh, yes. Our entire order is, although most of us haven’t received the kind of training that my chapter has.”

“Your order. What is that exactly?”

“We’re called the Scourge of God. And that’s another long story.”

Claire shook her head. “I have plenty of time. Go ahead. I’m ready for some more crazy.”

She got it in the form of Medieval Christian assassins, a sorcerous secret society, and a split in the ranks between old-style hard-liners like fundamentalists on crack, and modernizers who somehow still thought of themselves as part of the same group.

“You’re one of the modernizers.”

“Of course. That’s true in many ways. We’re a religious order, a Christian order.”

“I’m sort of a Buddhist myself.”

“I know that.” He smiled. “One of the more traditional Scourge members would think you were destined to Hell and would try to save your soul out of misguided compassion.”

She laughed. “Christians do tend to do that.”

“Yes. As you can imagine, there’s a sharp divide between the two sides of the order. We don’t even communicate much now. The hard-liners consider me a heretic.”

She nodded. “I can see why they would. How did you just happen to be there to rescue me, Richard?”

“That didn’t just happen, Claire. We’ve been watching those Droon. In the past month, they’ve killed three other people. We couldn’t see any connection between them, but now I’m wondering if they might all have been magically talented. I know for certain one of them was. Anyway, we were watching them, they gathered for another killing, and we decided to stop them. It happened to be you we saved, and I’m glad of that.”

“Me, too.”

“Claire, the Droon don’t give up easily. There were four of them in that group and one of them is still alive, unless you killed him.”

“No. I cracked his head on a wall but I don’t think it was fatal.”

“Well, then their failure will be reported and the Droon will investigate it, and they’ll keep trying to find you and kill you.”

“What can we do?”

“What I think we should do is get you to a safe place. But that won’t be easy. There’s only one place that’s truly safe from them. The Andol have a secret fortress that the Droon can’t break into. Mike Cambridge is there. He’s the Order Master of the modernist wing of the Scourge. So is Amanda, the Andol leader. It’s called the Birds’ Nest. If we can get you there, you’ll be safe, and the Andol can figure out what to do.”

“I’d have to quit school. But I guess I have to do that anyway. All right. Sounds good to me.”

“There’s only one problem. It’s in Wyoming. Getting there may not be easy, with you injured and the Droon out for your blood. But I think we have to try, not just for you, but because I have a suspicion about what the Droon are doing and the Andol need to know about it.”

“What do you think they’re doing?”

“The Andol have started reaching out to people with magical talent, trying to recruit humans into an army. See, their biggest problem is that they’re outnumbered. So the only way they can win this struggle —”

“Wait a minute. You haven’t explained why you’re on the side of the Andol.”

Richard nodded. “The Andol are good people. The Droon are horrible. If they win this struggle, the human race will be genetically engineered to be slaves. Any of us could be seized by any of them and tortured to death over a period of years. The Droon like to do that. So in a way, when Osgood called them demons, he was right. They do act like demons.”

Claire shuddered. “One of them said I was lucky, that they couldn’t take chances with me, so it would take me seconds to die instead of years. I guess that’s what he meant.”

“That’s what he meant.”

“All right, I guess I understand why you’re on the Andol’s side. The enemy of my enemy and all that.”

“Partly. As I was saying, I think the Droon may be targeting magically-talented humans for assassination. Any of you they kill is a potential recruit denied to the Andol. That will need to be countered, if it can be. And I sure hope it can.”

Claire nodded. “So we go to Wyoming?”


“All right. Wyoming it is.”

Continue to Chapter Two

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cityContinuing the series of posts on not-so-dark storytelling, I’m now going to deal with a subject that is the antithesis of darkness: optimism. A good story may include circumstances and events that are gruesome and appalling, challenges that seem insurmountable, and problems that cause the readers to shake their heads in grim certainty that they cannot be solved, but they are. Or most of them are. Or at any rate, things work out. Things get better. Good triumphs over evil, and They Live Happily Ever After.

I’ll divide the subject of optimism into two parts, as I did that of heroism, but I think they may both fit into a single post.

Optimism Is Realistic

Let’s start with an observation that, despite the proclamations of cynics, optimism is actually realistic. It’s borne out by the patterns of history and the flow of events up to now. Things haven’t gotten worse, nor have they remained intractably dire. Things have, for the most part, gotten better for most people over most of the world. Here is a partial list of major evils that either no longer happen, or happen rarely compared to the past.

Chattel slavery. There’s still a bit of slavery in the world, but for thousands of years, whole societies were founded on it, from the ancient Roman Empire to 18th and 19th century America. That’s gone. Sure, you’ll hear some people talk about wage slavery, but that’s a metaphor. Capitalism has few critics harsher than I am, but I’d much rather be a wage slave than a real slave.

Institutionalized racism and sexism. All right, we still have racism and sexism around, far too much of both, but in my childhood both of those were institutionalized in law and practice, from Jim Crow to laws against married women owning property to common practices in housing and employment. Most of that, and all of it on an overt level, is gone from the advanced world.

Great-power war. Yes, we still have wars. But they aren’t fought by great powers against each other, and that means the most destructive wars aren’t happening anymore. The last time that kind of thing was going on was 69 years ago (1945). The United States and the Soviet Union had a rivalry and military arms race from 1945 until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. The two powers never once fought an actual war against each other. During the Cold War, conventional wisdom was that it would end eventually in a hot war, because that’s how such rivalries always had ended in the past. It didn’t, and that was so unprecedented as to be miraculous. A combination of nuclear standoff and economic interdependence made great power war unthinkable, and it still does.

These three evils — slavery, institutionalized racism and sexism, and great-power war — are things that were once viewed as part of the human condition, impossible to eliminate. That belief was wrong. Today, fewer people die from violence as a fraction of total deaths than ever before. Famine and epidemic have both declined as well. The general trend is that things have gotten better, and barring a collapse of civilization, we have every reason to expect that they will continue to get better.

Take someone from 500 years in the past, pop him into a time machine to the year 2014, and his first impression on seeing the world of today would be that he had found Utopia. He’d change his mind about that on better acquaintance, one imagines, but he’d certainly conclude that things had improved dramatically. Jump in a time machine and travel 500 years from the future, and you or I would, almost certainly, draw a similar conclusion about the world of the future.

Pessimism is historically counter-factual. Optimism is justified by the facts, past and present.

Optimism Makes a Good Story

A story takes the reader on a journey of the spirit. Through the imagination and the power of the word, a reader faces dangers and challenges, learns and grows, tries, fails, and ultimately succeeds, and is transformed. Into what? Into whatever the story’s protagonists become, following the trajectory of the themes and messages incorporated into the writing.

The experience of reading a story in which things get better and problems are solved, with great difficulty and danger, is uplifting and makes the reader feel good at the end. The harder the problems, the more dreadful the dangers and challenges facing the protagonists, the more satisfying it is when it all works out in the end. The worse the protagonists’ moral and personal shortcomings, the greater the triumph when they are overcome.

Optimism makes for a good story, provided of course that the happy outcome isn’t easily achieved and the obstacles are great and challenging for the characters. The contrast between the depths of trouble and the ultimate triumph is what creates the emotional tension, the wild ride of the spirit, that gives the reader a memorable experience and a smile when the story is finished.

In fact, there’s really only one reason why a reader would be unsatisfied with such a tale, and that’s if the reader’s own cynicism makes it impossible to believe in good outcomes (or to suspend disbelief). If the reader is personally convinced by pessimism, despite the facts of history that tell us pessimism is unrealistic, then an optimistic story can seem like a promise that can’t be fulfilled, an attempt to deceive, to sell the reader a bill of goods.

But where does that leave the author? If there can be no uplifting, positive outcome to the struggle, if things can’t get better, if all hopes, dreams, and aspirations are false, then where is the emotional contrast, the journey from depth and darkness to the illuminated heights, that makes for a gripping tale? It’s not impossible to make this work, but it’s difficult, and in the end the achievement is less memorable and much less satisfying, in this reader’s opinion at least.


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Heroes Part II: The Journey

10034764_sThis posts continues my meandering musing on the subject of heroism and other hopeful topics, especially as it involves fantasy storytelling. Last post dealt with heroes that are not the main protagonists of a story, but supporting characters. I now turn to the other category of hero: those that are the main protagonists of the story.

The protagonist needs to be treated a little differently from the side-character. The protagonist isn’t a Champion, or if he is, then we see through the Champion’s aura of perfection from the beginning. The protagonist is someone we identify with. He or she is flawed, uncertain, and must over time and experience come either to develop the skills and powers needed to meet the story’s challenge, or to believe in himself, or to reform his character to become a hero.  Too perfect, too quickly, and we can’t identify with the protagonist or care about her. That change over the course of the story, in which the protagonist hero emerges into someone who can overcome obstacles and achieve goals, and we share in her growth as a hero and as a person, is the Journey. The Journey is the story, the character’s development and the plot weaving together like strands in a rope.

In the beginning, the protagonist isn’t up to the challenge that we soon learn he must face. One or more things is wrong or inadequate, and over the course of the Journey the problem is corrected, with the final change occurring in the course of meeting the climactic challenge and in its aftermath.

Weakness and Inexperience

The simplest way to chart the protagonist hero’s Journey is to make him weak, unschooled, unskilled, and hopelessly inadequate to defeat the Dark Lord, rule the kingdom, find the hidden magical treasure, rescue the captive princess, tame the flying horse, or whatever else the story’s quest may involve. The Journey, then, involves learning, development, and the acquisition of skills and powers. The protagonist is like Luke Skywalker, barely able to use the Force or wield a light-saber, hopelessly inadequate to face Darth Vader in combat; or like the boy Inigo Montoya, trying to fence with the six-fingered man after his father’s death and receiving scars on his cheeks for his trouble. This is the simplest form of Journey, in which the hero must learn, develop his skills, and face lesser challenges to build his confidence before he faces the big trial.

It’s also perhaps the least engaging and satisfying of the three, and is best used in combination with one or both of the others.

Lack of Confidence

A slightly more nuanced obstacle within the hero is when he doesn’t believe in himself. Raised in unexceptional circumstances, ignorant of her own potential, the hero sees herself as completely ordinary and everyday, a common peasant, an ordinary shop clerk, a simple college student. The main obstacle in the way of the hero accomplishing the great task and completing the Journey is that she doesn’t believe. The Journey, for such a hero, consists of trials that convince her, over time and through much struggle, that she is better, stronger, smarter, wiser than she thought, the right one to slay the enemy, rule the kingdom, or bring about peace in our time.

Moral Failure

The most complicated way to allow for the hero-protagonist to grow is to make him a jerk. There are, of course, a lot of ways to do this. Maybe instead of lack of confidence, he has too much, too soon. Maybe he’s arrogant. Maybe she’s a troubled teenager who pushes everyone away. Maybe he’s a dark wizard and must undergo a crisis of conscience and personal transformation. Maybe he’s a cruel, evil warrior and must confront personal loss to learn mercy. Maybe she has always used and abused others, and must face and overcome the reasons why when she becomes a mother.

Like the growth of skill and power or of self-confidence, a moral transformation is a part of the Journey. In making that transition, the hero-protagonist allows us to make it ourselves vicariously, and to explore what we would do if confronted with a similar task (which in a metaphorical sense we are).

The Sacrifice

In the course of the Journey, the hero must make sacrifices. He or she must give something up in order to secure victory or achieve the goal. Perhaps the hero must die. Perhaps he must accept that he’s not going to marry the woman he adores. Perhaps she must allow someone else to gain the throne or other position she desires. Perhaps she must lose a cherished possession, or even, most tragically of all, accept the death of another person that she loves.

In the course of the Journey, the hero becomes someone who can make this sacrifice, this painful choice in order to save the world (literally or figuratively).

 A Lesson For All of Us

Here’s the thing about the Journey, regardless of exactly how it’s constructed and what path the hero takes. It provides encouragement and inspiration for all of us reading the story, because while we aren’t all destined to defeat the Dark Lord, assume the throne, or solve the mystery of creation, we all have a Journey to make in our own lives, and something we would or should achieve, if we can overcome the obstacles that are in the way — external obstacles and, more importantly, internal ones.

And that’s the real value of the hero in fiction. He or she gives us a myth to live by, a model of who we can become and what we can aspire to be and achieve. To do that, the Journey must be two things: difficult and successful, the latter even if it’s also tragic. We should look at the hero as depicted in the story and feel a desire — not a selfish desire, but a higher ambition or purpose — to be like that, and to achieve something as fine, requiring as great an effort, and costing as dearly, as the hero does.

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Heroes Part I: The Champion

HeroA while back, I posted on the subject of dark fiction and expressed the hope that our collective obsession with it is coming to an end. One of the defining qualities of dark fiction is the absence of heroes. In a dark story, we find protagonists to identify with, and we care what happens to them if the story is told well, but we don’t admire them. All governments are corrupt, all religious authorities hypocritical, all warriors merciless killers, and at their best even basically decent people find themselves in situations where they have to act like monsters in order to survive or to protect those they care about. Or push comes to shove and all their values of honor and integrity and compassion go out the window in a storm of fury and rage. This is the lesson of the dark side: that under the skin, or when put to the test, we are all depraved horrors.

But of course, that’s not the only (or in my opinion, the best) type of story to tell, and while it expresses a partial truth, there are other truths to be told involving hope, compassion, and the achievement of something better than the ordinary. In a story like that, a special part is played by heroes: people we look up to and admire, people that save the day, people that sacrifice themselves for a greater good, and people who, by imitating their virtues, we use as springboards to make us better people.

A hero can be, but isn’t necessarily, a main protagonist. A protagonist hero has a little different dynamic in the story than one that is not a protagonist. The protagonist is a viewpoint character (whether the story is told in first or third person) and so the reader becomes intimately aware of his or her flaws, limits, and doubts. That doesn’t have to be the case with a non-protagonist (although there’s no particular reason it can’t be), and that means a non-protagonist hero can be (apparently, from the protagonist’s perspective) pure, fearless, invincible, and glorious. All of this means that the non-protagonist hero — let’s call him the Champion — calls for a little different treatment than the protagonist hero.

The Champion

A Champion is someone that the protagonist looks up to. He may be a great warrior, a powerful and wise magician, a cunning thief or spy, a noble and enlightened ruler, a spiritual teacher or leader, the protagonist’s parent or guardian, or really anyone in a position to help, support, advise, or protect the protagonist. During scenes when the protagonist and the Champion interact, the protagonist obtains important lessons on how to be a hero, on right action, and on virtues such as courage and self control. The Champion may also impart important practical skills — magic, use of the Force, how to sword fight, how to fly a space fighter, how to pick locks and scale walls — and serve as a fulcrum for the protagonist’s character development and setting  up the story’s main theme and conflicts.

Having this sort of figure in the story gives the protagonist a model to emulate and someone to believe in, but of course you don’t want the protagonist to be too secure and comfortable. It can’t be possible for the protagonist to rely on the Champion entirely; he must strive with his own efforts, suffer through his crises, and deal with the consequences of his decisions. There are several ways to accomplish this.

The Champion is gone when most needed. One device to put the protagonist on his own is to simply remove the Champion from the picture at a crucial juncture. Perhaps he’s called away for some vital task that takes precedence over helping the protagonist out. Perhaps he’s overcome by truly awful foes and killed or held prisoner. Perhaps the protagonist becomes annoyed with the Champion casting such a long shadow and strikes out on his own without telling anyone.

The foe is too much for the Champion alone. In this variant, the Champion doesn’t really disappear, but the enemy is so powerful or the challenge so great that it’s beyond even the Champion’s awe-inspiring abilities. Unless the protagonist steps up to the plate and applies crucial skills and insights and courage at the right moment, all is lost.

The Champion doesn’t believe the protagonist’s warning. Another way to remove the Champion’s protection is to give him a stubborn streak, a flaw in his character that keeps him from taking the protagonist seriously. The protagonist knows that something is amiss, but the Champion refuses to believe it, and so the protagonist must face the problem without the Champion’s protection and guidance, either because it must be faced now and there is no one around to do it, or because the protagonist wants to prove to the Champion that he’s someone to take seriously.

The Champion becomes the antagonist. A third, somewhat darker way to remove the Champion is to turn him into an antagonist. This can happen by many different roads. Perhaps the Champion was always corrupt, and the protagonist comes to see this over time and turns against him. Perhaps the problem is higher up, in persons or institutions to whom the Champion has pledged loyalty, and when the protagonist struggles against those persons or institutions the Champion sees the protagonist as a traitor. Perhaps the Champion was grooming the protagonist for some sinister purpose, and the protagonist figures this out. Perhaps the Champion began sincerely, but the habit of power and honor has turned him callous and arrogant.

Whether the Champion becomes the antagonist or just isn’t there when needed, the protagonist has to face the main challenge of the story without that protection and help — maybe even up against it.

A fine line needs to be drawn here, because before that happens the protagonist must learn enough from the Champion, from companions, and from facing lesser challenges that he will be up to the challenge of facing the big threat alone. In all cases, though, the Champion presents for the reader an image of what a hero should be and what we should all strive to become. Even when the Champion turns out to be flawed or becomes an enemy, that very flaw illustrates the ideal, as something the Champion fell short of, requiring the protagonist to do better.

Copyright: Prometeus / 123RF Stock Photo

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