Worldbuilding for Democracy

Whether playing a game of thrones or awaiting the return of the king, fantasy literature tends to have a lot of monarchies. This is true in part because the genre grew out of literary traditions created to justify the power of kings and aristocrats and in part because royal families lend themselves so well to drama (it seems to be the only job the British royals have left, for one example).

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There’s plenty of room for fantasy to explore societies without kings or thrones. Many cultures in the past have had alternatives to monarchy. Most famous may be the democracies of ancient Greece, but other ways of sharing power out among multiple individuals, families, or factions can be found around the world, in places like the early city-states of Sumer, the medieval cantons of Switzerland, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in North America. Not all of these societies operated in ways we would recognize as fully democratic today (for instance, Greek democracy excluded women, immigrants, and slaves), but they all represent functional alternatives to a monarchy or entrenched aristocracy.

These forms of governance came about as the result of particular social, historical, and geographic circumstances. If you want to build a democratic society (even in such a loose sense) into your fantasy worldbuilding, here are a few approaches to consider.

Friends don’t let friends start monarchies

Small-scale societies are usually egalitarian and tend to resist individual claims to power. In societies small enough that people all know each other or are bound together by ties of family and friendship, personal relationships matter more than formal structures of power. One person trying to put themselves above others in such a culture is a threat to the stability of those relationships and can expect little support. With the rest of society so closely bound together by ties of kinship and affection, resistance is easy to organize. Monarchies only work in societies large enough that most people are strangers to one another.

Poor lands make poor kings

One of the defining features of monarchy is that it consolidates wealth in one or a few people’s hands. This isn’t just a perk of the job (although, as Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king), it’s necessary for keeping a monarch in power. Kings justify their power in many ways, sometimes by providing the benefits of stability and order to the people they rule over, sometimes by cloaking themselves in religious ideology, but at the base of it all is a threat: do what I say or my soldiers will come burn your house and take your stuff. That threat only works if the soldiers will actually back it up, and while a good king may earn the personal loyalty of his troops, you can’t eat loyalty. An army big enough to keep a monarchy in power will fall apart if it doesn’t get paid, and maybe even turn on the monarch themselves. A monarchy can only sustain itself in a place where it can command enough economic resources to be sure of being able to pay its army in a crisis. In regions that don’t have that kind of wealth, or whose wealth is difficult for any one faction or family to control, monarchies tend not to last long.

The divided are hard to conquer

“Divide and conquer” is all well and good, but when the landscape itself divides people, it is hard for even a conqueror to maintain control. Fragmented landscapes that limit the movement of troops and supplies make it hard for would-be rulers to assert control. They also tend to foster a strong sense of local identity that limits a monarch’s ability to command the people’s loyalty. Many different kinds of landscape can have this quality, such as those divided into many small islands or mountain valleys, or lands broken up by marshes and forests. Wherever people are used to being isolated and having to rely on themselves and their neighbors, they tend to create societies that distribute power rather than relying on a distant and unfamiliar king.

We are struggling together

The points above have a common thread: the smaller a society is, the more likely it is to be democratic. The bigger a society gets, the weaker the forces keeping it egalitarian and the more likely that someone will succeed in establishing a durable monarchy. Large-scale democracies tend to arise from a particular historical experience: when lots of small societies find themselves having to work together. When several tribes, clans, islands, or cities of comparable wealth and power have to coordinate their efforts, such as to resist pressure from an invading empire or to control valuable natural resources, compromises have to be made. A single leader is unlikely to get everyone on board without making concessions to ensure the sharing of power and resources. These arrangements can take many forms, such as governance through a council representing all members or rules of succession that guarantee no single family line has a lock on power.

Many different forces can be at work at once in any given culture. Small mountain villages that are egalitarian because of their small size and poverty may band together in a democratic league to coordinate their response to pressure from a nearby kingdom in the lowlands. Once that league is well established, it might expand to take in some of that kingdom’s outlying cities, even pull together an army to conquer the flatlands for itself while still preserving its democratic basis. What happens to such a democracy when it comes to rule over people accustomed to the claims of monarchy? How do people used to being ruled by kings adapt to being part of a league where they have a voice of their own? There are lots of good stories to explore in fantasy that don’t revolve around kings and crowns.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Protagonists with Radical Acceptance Decide to Let Adversity Wash over Them

Fantasy and science fiction author Vida Cruz tackles an aspect in SFF that was new to me: that BIPOC protagonists are often seen by (white, Western) editors and readers as inactive, and why that’s false.

(I’ve written elsewhere a little about teaching myself to read novels in English after I started learning the language in 7th grade, how it’s so effortless to me now because I took the time and trouble then, and how reading mostly Anglo-American literature has shaped my thinking and expectations of stories.)

Cruz’s thread starts here. I’ve unraveled it below:

***

I want to talk about how western editors and readers often mistake protags written by BIPOC as “inactive protagonists.” It’s too common an issue that’s happened to every BIPOC author I know.

Often, our protags are just trying to survive overwhelming odds. Survival is an active choice, you know. Survival is a story. Choosing to be strong in the face of the world ending, even if you can’t blast a wall down to do it, is a choice.

It’s how we live these days.

Western editors, readers, and writers are too married to the three-act structure, to the type of storytelling that is driven by conflict, to that go-getter individualism. Please read more widely out of your comfort zone. A lot of great non-western stories do not hinge on these.

Sometimes I wonder if you’re all so hopped up on the conflict-driven story because that’s exactly how your colonizer ancestors dealt with people different from them. Oops, I said it, sorry not sorry. Yes, even this mindset has roots in colonialism, deal with it.

If you want examples of non-conflict-driven storytelling google the following: kishoutenketsu, johakyu, daisy chain storytelling/wheel spoke storytelling. There was another one whose name I forgot but I will tweet it when I recall it.

Anyway, I think there is a space in literature and beyond for stories about radical acceptance or that have a radical acceptance aesthetic. Accepting the things you cannot change but dealing with them in your own way. No pyrotechnics but plenty of potential for drama.

What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.

Once again, I repeat: SURVIVING IS A DECISION. BIPOC based in Western countries do it all the time. Us third worlders do it all the time. But of course if you grew up white in a Western country, being mired in hopeless systems will be hard for you to grasp.

And if you’re a BIPOC author, listen: you may be already as good, if not better, than most of the competition out there. You keep getting rejected not because your story sucks but because white editors do not know how to read your work. Keep trying.

Last but not least, we don’t just need diverse demographics for everything, WE NEED DIVERSE STORIES. Get your colonizer heads out of your asses and seek out other traditions. End rant.

I found the other storytelling structure! It’s called Robleto and is of Nicaraguan origin.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

One last! Another type of story that everyone loves (or pretends not to love) but no one will publish in the west is FLUFF. YES THAT’S RIGHT, FANFICTION FLUFF. SUCK ON THAT.

It has been pointed out several times so I will amend the thread to say: all my points apply for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill protagonists, too. Our way of showing agency is DEFINITELY different from yours so please be mindful of that.

***

For me, the main point Cruz makes is:

“What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.”

– Vida Cruz on Twitter

This reminds me of my frustration with the Halle Berry -led SF series Extant (which I referred to in an earlier post). I’ve asked myself whether they really wrote her merely feeling and flailing around or whether it is my misreading. Granted, it was some years ago now, but I don’t think I misinterpreted it; Extant lacked self-awareness or self-examination. (Or perhaps the writers’ room was forced to put out such claptrap by people higher up in the production.)

Possible examples of stories with radical acceptance / survival protagonists that do come to mind include the novels The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (Black protag) and Among Others by Jo Walton (disabled protag).

Anything you can think of? Please share! The concept is something I’m still mulling over, so more examples would help.

Also, any suggestions on a concise name for protagonists like this? I’m drawing a blank for the moment.

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Nordic Myth and Magic School Vølurheim

Artist Even Amundsen has been doodling character portraits for teachers at a hypothetical Harry Potter -style Scandinavian myth and magic school. He calls the school Vølurheim.

The names of the Professors include very Scandi monikers such as Hulda Kvænangsdottir, Dagfinn Snauholt, and Kari Sigfridsdotter. Amundsen has even come up with a background for everyone.

The portraits are fabulous in every sense – and as a bonus, the outfits are very reminiscent of historical Scandinavian garb and folk costumes. Below are some of my favorite characters.

Ragnhild Stubbemoen is the Professor of Dragon Lore and Care:

ArtStation Even Amundsen Volurheim Ragnhild

Apparently she’s taught at Vølurheim for 79 years already—and by the looks of her, she’s ready for another 80.

Mumrikk Stigandur is the Professor of Herbology:

ArtStation Even Amundsen Volurheim Mumrikk

Amundsen said he’s “heavily inspired” by Snufkin (Snusmumriken in Swedish or Nuuskamuikkunen in Finnish) from the Moomin stories. You can definitely see the resemblance!

Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts and veteran warlock of the Troll Wars is called Grimstav Draugsleiven. His portrait really shows his survival capabilities:

ArtStation Even Amundsen Volurheim Grimstav

Magnificent, isn’t it? (Elemental shaman in WoW, anyone?)

Even Mehl Amundsen is a freelance concept artist from Norway who has worked for studios like Ubisoft, Blizzard, Riot, Axis Animation, and Wizards of the Coasts, among others. You can see more of his work at ArtStation.

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Quotes: The Rigid Rules of My Life Were Stories

This is a thought that’s very easy to pass with a shrug and an “Of course”:

“It was ironic, wasn’t it, Solís? I was not even aware that the rigid rules of my life were stories, passed on from generation to generation because that’s all we knew. Tía Inez believed it, and la cuentista before her did, too. And so, we gave every cuentista of Empalme the same rules, the same restrictions, and we held them down, and we forced them into a life they couldn’t possibly have chosen.”

–Xochital in Mark Oshiro’s Each of Us a Desert [original emphasis]

But it gets very different very fast when you start thinking of everything, absolutely everything, that’s involved in your daily life. Start with how you’re brought up, kindergarten, school, and on. Or travel a bit further away from your home, or are able to talk with a stranger who trusts you with their life story.

For instance, I’m pretty sure that the sweater I’m wearing right now is “supposed” to be a boy’s. I saw it in a second-hand shop, liked the colors and print, liked the size, liked the price even more, and bought it. It’s a sweater; it kept me warm and left money in my pocket as a poor student. It still fits my “supposedly” “wrong” shape well enough after all the years I’ve had it. Who cares who is supposed to wear it?

Twitter CatCafeLiverpool Cat Fits Cat Sits

If it fits, I sits… err, wears. Me wearing this sweater isn’t hurting anything or anyone. But, of course, little things like an article of clothing can symbolically stand for larger issues, and those, as we all know, can really be thorny.

Humans really are storytelling animals.

Oshiro, Mark. Each of Us a Desert. New York: Tor, 2020, p. 374-5.

Images: Each of Us a Desert by Eppu Jensen. Cat in a box via Cat Cafe Liverpool.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Gandalf’s Staff-Top as Table Lamp

This shall most definitely pass!

Marco at 3dartem on Etsy makes and sells 3d-printed table lamps featuring the top of Gandalf’s staff from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.

Etsy Marco 3dartem Gandalfs Staff 3dPrinted Lamp

If the power supply weren’t 220 V type L, I’d seriously consider buying one. It’s absolutely gorgeous!

(We have no connection, financial or otherwise, with Marco.)

Image by Marco at 3dartem on Etsy

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

A Downloadable ElfQuest Coloring Book

To ease some of the covid-19 cabin fever, Wendy and Richard Pini have released a pdf version of an ElfQuest coloring book that was included in a past Kickstarter project of theirs.

Wendy Richard Pini ElfQuest Coloring Book Covid-19 Version

The coloring book is free to download for private use, with one catch. In their words:

“One condition: You may not post images of the uncolored line art from the coloring book publicly online anywhere. The art is still copyright Warp Graphics. Thanks for your understanding. Bootleggers already steal ElfQuest images for unauthorized t-shirts and such; we don’t want to give them any more access than they’re already thieving.”

Thank you for sharing!

Image by Wendy Pini

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

The Letter for the King Trailer

A new Netflix young adult fantasy The Letter for the King has a trailer out:

The Letter for the King | Official Trailer | Netflix on YouTube

The Letter for the King is based on a novel by Dutch author Tonke Dragt and, according to IMDB, filmed in Czech Republic and New Zealand. (I thought I recognized the Southern Alps from Peter Jackson’s LotR films!)

Apart from what Tor.com has to tell, I don’t know anything about the series except that it reminds me of The Shannara Chronicles (both in the good and the bad). Of the writers I know nothing; of the cast, I’ve only seen two of the adults (David Wenham, Andy Serkis), so neither helps me decide whether it might be worth tracking down. Anyone know anything interesting about this project?

The series will be available on Netflix March 20, 2020.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Slavic Pagan Fusion Photoshoot Is Out of This World

This photo project is an older one, but due to the buzz generated by The Witcher screen adaptation it might be of interest.

(FYI: I can’t find a webpage dedicated solely to the project, so what I know mainly comes from an article at Design You Trust.)

Polish photographer and graphic designer Marcin Nagraba collaborated with designer Agnieszka Osipa to create a photoshoot entitled Pagan Poetry. Stylistically it can be described as Slavic fusion meets myth, fantasy, or Baroque. Osipa’s outfits certainly are out of this world—just check out the three examples below!

FB Marcin Nagraba See No Evil

FB Marcin Nagraba White and Red

FB Marcin Nagraba Alberta Ushakova

Nagraba’s personal Facebook page states he’s a “Former Photographer at Marcin Nagraba – Photography & Art”, so it sounds like he will not be continuing this project. Osipa is active, however, and she’s posting new work on Instagram and Facebook.

Found via Design You Trust. Check out the article and Nagraba’s Facebook page for more photos!

Images by Marcin Nagraba via Facebook: See No Evil, red and white, Alberta Ushakova.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Quotes: Because the World Is Yours and It Is up to You

I remember reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising pentalogy in a Finnish translation as a child. This summer I read them all in the original English. I didn’t remember much of them at all, just impressions, and was struck by how much more simplistic the story was than I’d thought.

Current Reading The Dark Is Rising

There was only one section in the whole 1,000+-word tome that the present-day me reponded to:

“We [Old Ones] have delivered you [humakind] from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands—your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth. The future cannot blame the present, just as the present cannot blame the past. The hope is always there, always alive, but only your fierce caring can fan it into a fire to warm the world.

“[…] and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and marvellous joy.”

– Merriman in Susan Cooper’s novel Silver on the Tree

The novel this quote comes from, Silver on the Tree, was originally published in 1977. I wonder whether World War II and/or the fear of atomic power might have been behind this paragraph? For me, however, it clearly applies to the current climate crisis.

Cooper, Susan. The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, p. 1079.

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

On the Finicky, Fussbudgety Facts of Faction Fighting in WoW

Writing on the patch 8.2.5 story for the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth expansion, Robert “Bobby” Davis blogging at Kaylriene puts into words what I’ve long thought: while I understand the need for a company to put the best positive spin into talking about their own products, Blizzard really needs to stop deluding themselves about the quality of their storytelling. Here’s Kaylriene on the topic:

“Saurfang says what I’ve thought about the writing of this story the whole time – the faction conflict is stupid and outdated, because Blizzard tries to pretend there is a depth and nuance to it that doesn’t exist in their writing. The Horde are villains, outright – every time this cycle comes about, the Horde does something awful and atrocious that pushes the world into conflict, the Horde leaders who suddenly have conscience about it reject the action and rebel, we storm up to Orgrimmar to depose whomever the despot is today, and then we move on until the next time it happens. He makes clear in-lore precisely what I’ve felt about the faction conflict the whole time – it was set dressing that no longer serves a meaningful purpose.” [emphasis added]

I’m not inclined to be generous to a story that repeats the same gimmick ad nauseam. Granted, you don’t need to look farther than our own human history—and not very far at that—to find nigh-endless faction conflict. But this is supposed to be fantasy, a genre that can have anything happen.

It’s been years since I logged back to WoW for the story—these days I play for completely different reasons than following the plot du jour. Not being a PvPer the faction conflict never was a big draw to begin with, but it used to have at least somewhat interesting turns.

Now, I also understand the difficulty of a rotating team trying to keep up with past writing, storylines, character arcs, details, all of it. There is, however, a lot to be said for storytelling, continuity, and proactive quality control, especially in case of a billion(!)-dollar tech company, lest you end up looking rather like an incompetent fool.

Flickr Robert WoWScrnShot_091106_234735

Image: World of Warcraft screencap by Robert on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.