Tag Archives: film

Nine Worlds: Making Horror

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In this talk, Ian will dive into what’s really going on when you’re trying to create strong emotions such as horror in computer games, LARP, and other media, drawing on examples from recent titles he’s worked on. He’ll discuss strategies you can use to elicit specific responses from your players through design, writing, art, sound and gameplay.
Speaker: Ian Thomas

This presentation was fascinating, but primarily aimed at the gaming and LARP communities. I only really took notes on the bits that can be applied to writing, so this is NOT a write-up of the whole presentation. If that’s something you particularly want to read, say so in the comments and I’ll see if Ian is willing to do a more comprehensive write-up.

All In Your Head

To start with, this is about making your audience viscerally feel whatever emotion it is you’re trying to engender. It’s a step beyond show or tell – you need to put the emotion (be it horror or anything else) in people’s heads, not in the medium. Writing down an emotion like horror or joy in detail is exactly how not to do it. Too much of a reveal and your reader will react intellectually, rather than emotionally. Seeing things often robs them of their power, especially in a horror setting. Don’t tell people how they’re feeling – construct scaffolding for them to attach their own feelings.

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The Uncanny Valley effect is a good one to tap into – the hypothesis that replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like the real thing elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion

We’re programmed to take scant pieces of information and build stories out of them, even when it’s not good for us (making us scared, sad, etc). The trick is getting your audience into a receptive state so they tell those stories to themselves without you needing to fill in the blanks. The stories they build will be far more emotive to them than anything you can write, because they’ll create building blocks out of their own experiences. Leave gaps for those building blocks, and Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

Ian drew a comparison with comic books and graphic novels. The panels only provide flash-frames of action – the gaps between them, the white spaces, are everything else which the reader instinctively fills in. Allowing your audience that autonomy makes them complicit in telling the story and therefore more involved in it. The gaps build empathy between your audience and the character, which allows you to collapse the audience and the character into the same space. Things that impact the character will then impact the audience on an emotional level.

Engaging the Senses

Drown the audience in your world. It’s not just about the story on the page (or screen, or whatever). Disframe it, take it out into their lives. Hitchcock’s Psycho announced during the marketing campaign that they’d have paramedics on hand at every cinema in case of heart attacks among the viewers. This was nonsense, but it meant the audience was already on edge before the screen was even turned on. It made the story tangible outside the imagination. In written examples, S. by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams uses inserts like postcards and passed notes to bring the story off the page and fundamentally more tangible.

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S. has multiple story levels, one of which is about people passing the main text between each other with notes and postcards inserted. I believe in that story because I can touch the postcards myself.

Fear (or love, or hatred) of certain things isn’t universal, and therefore universally relatable. [Jeanette Ng has a great Twitter thread on the laziness of cut-and-paste cultures in general.] It’s much more reliable to tap into more primal instincts, rather than things which have a certain anchoring in culture or experience. To do that, to properly involve your audience in the story, you need to scare them as well as the character. This is rather more applicable in gaming but definitely worth bearing in mind in books. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski apparently does it very well indeed (I confess I’ve not read it but it sounds awesome).

When it comes to using cultural taboos to shock or horrify, be really careful. It’s very easy to make your audience angry or disengaged at you, rather than drawn deeper into the story. You can ease the way by having your character react in the same way as the reader likely would, but seriously… delicate touch and common sense required.


And that’s all from Nine Worlds, folks! Lots of food for thought, and a couple of follow-up blogs incoming. Hope you enjoyed it!

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Virtual Reality: Storytelling in REAL Fantasy Worlds

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A few weeks ago I had a really interesting chat with Patrick Collister, Head of Design at Google, who talked to me about the evolution of storytelling as Virtual Reality technology has progressed.

As this is primarily a writing blog, rather than a tech one, I’ll very quickly give a run-down of some key terms:

  1. VR – Virtual Reality. Creating digital spaces that you can walk around in. This is different to computer games because the space stays still even when you move the device you’re looking at it through. Imagine you’re standing in a room, looking at it through the camera on your smartphone. The room doesn’t swing around as the phone moves – it stays still and you see different bits of the room. Exactly like that, except the room is wholly digital.
  2. AR – Augmented Reality. A digital overlay on real stuff. Pokemon Go is Augmented Reality.
  3. MR – Mixed Reality. Still in development, currently. This is basically like AR, but projected directly onto the eyeball rather than viewed through a device.

Making the Reader a Protagonist

I want to talk about VR because that’s the stuff really making waves in storytelling. Google have been doing all manner of cool things with it, and Patrick pointed me towards a particular video on their VR YouTube channel which demonstrated some of what he was talking about.

See, if you’re standing in the virtual world and a story’s unfolding around you, how do you a) interact with it if it’s just a video, and b) ensure you’re looking at the right place to see the crucial plot points? Both these questions are solved in the same way. Google 360 structure the story in very short chapters. Each chapter is triggered only when the viewer is looking in a specific direction. So you don’t miss anything but, more importantly, nothing happens if you don’t look at it. You’ve got the time to look around because the next chapter will wait for your attention.

If a tree falls in a VR wood, and you aren’t looking at it, it doesn’t finish falling.

Suddenly the viewer is critical to the process. They become a protagonist, responsible for making things happen. By way of example, here’s the video Patrick showed me. You can watch it on computer, but watching it on your phone is a WAY better medium to experience this type of storytelling. Because the point is that you move around. Give it a go.

I’m not sure what impact this will have on traditional storytelling structures, if any, as far as the written word is concerned. But it’s early days and there’s no denying video is a very powerful tool to shape how people think. And the trend in digital content over the last few years has consistently been more and more about personalisation. You want to attract people to your creation? Make it personal – give them a starring role.

So far I’ve just been an interested observer, very much on the fringes of what’s going on. Ian Thomas, Director of Talespinners – writer, game designer and all-around storytelling expert – has waaaay more experience than I do. So I asked him what he thought.

Challenges in VR Storytelling – Ian Thomas

Here’s the thing: there are a few groups of people trying to leap on VR for storytelling purposes right now, and at least two of them are coming at it from an angle which isn’t a great fit, and a lot of their problems lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium through trying to apply film techniques. VR is seen as a visual medium most closely related to computer games and film, and to my mind it’s far removed from either.

The first group are film-makers. As you might imagine, the natural inclination of the film-maker when approaching VR is to take a linear piece of storytelling and then to work out how to deliver it in 360 degree surround. Directors are used to having complete control of the action; editors are used to controlling pacing (not to mention being able to cut and have multiple viewpoints, both of which are limited in VR); cinematographers are used to being able to control framing. None of those skills are really of any use in VR, and a lot of lessons are having to be unlearned very swiftly – nearly all the language of cinematography goes out of the window. VR productions coming from this angle tend to be very static, tend to be confusing for the player, don’t take enough account of the player’s presence in the world (being more of a piece for the player to watch, or a ghost train-like experience), and, when they offer any interactivity at all, it’s of the ‘trigger object to continue’ variety.

The second group are game developers – and one of the problems comes specifically from game developers working at the high end. The trouble is that many such AAA developers have spent the last twenty years or so trying to make their games more like films, picking up cinematography techniques (such as ‘frame the important object’), cuts, cutscene pacing and so on. As with film-making, those things simply don’t work – you can’t constrain the player’s head to focus on a specific object, for example. The other issue is that locomotion in VR is completely different from that in most mainstream computer games – walking along a corridor is quite a different experience in VR (and can lead to motion sickness), so you need to find other tricks and techniques; a lot of gaming has been focused around an experience of ‘continuous travelling through a space’, so that needs to be rethought. Again, people are having to unlearn lots of lessons. A lot of early attempts have been experimental VR ports of existing games, which are only really working for the hardcore gamers who are willing to put up with quirks and nausea.

However, games are a better fit than cinema, and there are games companies doing excellent work in this space.  They tend to be people who’ve thrown away their preconceptions and started from scratch and spent a lot of time experimenting and getting to grips with the medium; or even to be people who have no previous background in games and are coming in fresh, with no constraints or expectations. And, in general, games companies tend to get the idea of player agency and embodiment in a way that film-makers don’t.

The fundamental storytelling issue is – a thing happens. How do you get the player to notice? Google’s answer, as you quoted, is to only trigger things when the player is looking in that direction – there are other solutions but that’s not a bad one. However, as you might imagine, pacing is therefore quite different from other media.

But there’s a deeper thing going on here, at least in this stage in the adoption of VR. You’re trying to tell a story. Perhaps an epic tale which will capture the player and sweep them up. At least that’s the intention. But behaviourally, a lot of game creators are finding that the player spends all their time just looking around the room and picking up objects, ignoring your carefully crafted dramatic content. Because that’s where they’re finding the fascination and the fun. Maybe that’s only temporary, because the experience is so new. But in any case, perhaps that should be your storytelling method – just picking things up and looking. In the games industry this is known as environmental storytelling, and existing non-VR games such as Gone Home are great exponents of this sort of experience, allowing players to piece things together at their own pace.

What I’ve found most powerful in VR so far is the sense of presence you feel when there’s another character in the scene. Even if the character isn’t modelled photorealistically, the human brain interprets them as ‘there’ in a way that I haven’t seen in any other medium – it’s absolutely uncanny. If you play through Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham VR and are nose-to-nose with the Joker… there’s no feeling like it. It’s something which took me completely by surprise, and it’s the thing I’m most interested in pursuing.

Another important thing to mention is 3D audio. Well-designed audio is hugely important in VR, and again isn’t something that film audio can adapt to very well due to the non-linear way the sounds are encountered or triggered. It’s a lot closer to game audio, but many games still treat audio as of secondary importance. In VR it’s utterly critical, as it underpins and helps define the reality of the space around you. And, where you perhaps can’t rely on camerawork in the way you could in other media, you can absolutely rely on sound and get much more out of it than in other media.

VR experiences aren’t simply translations of existing games techniques. Nor are they simply translations of film techniques. I think the closest thing we have so far is single-audience-member participatory theatre-in-the-round, but no-one’s really drawing on theatre experience yet. But at the root of it, VR is its own thing, and no-one knows quite what yet.

Ian is a games writer, designer and coder who has wrestled computers for a living for over two decades. He’s worked in interactive television, education, puppet-making, film, publishing, live events, and the games industry, where he’s helped bring to life games such as Frictional’s SOMA, The Bunker, and a wide variety of other titles from LittleBigPlanet to LEGO. He’s written action movies, children’s books about Cthulhu, interactive fiction and pulp novels. Most of his time is spent running Talespinners, a story-for-games company that helps games studios deliver their narrative. Amongst other things, he’s currently writing for a VR multiplayer RPG.

Nine Worlds: Heroism & Morality in Genre Fiction

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Genre units around a simple, classic concept – the journey of the hero/ine. But what does it take to be a solidly good hero, or a dark and dangerous anti-hero, and how has it changed in fiction over time?

Chris Wooding, Lisa Tuttle, Peter Newman, Anne Lyle, Jen Williams

Moral quandaries can arise from the most unexpected places and some of the very best speculative fiction is driven by them. How do you do right or wrong when the world around you has shifted the goalposts? Hero or villain?

Lisa Tuttle, Al Robertson, Matt Blakstad, Stark Holborn, Jen Williams, Mark de Jager

This blog post is a combination of two panel sessions, because both of them essentially devolved into a discussion about relative morality. There’s also a whole bunch of my own ideas mixed in because it’s a huge subject that I’ve given a reasonable amount of thought to, and the panel sessions weren’t long enough to do more than scrape the surface. Hopefully I’ve written it all well enough that you can’t see the joins!

Defining A Hero

The panel on heroism opened by asking whether the nature of a hero was dependent on the readership. Does your hero have to change for different audiences? This is actually something I’ve covered before – Vogler gives several examples of the different interpretations of the heroic figure from different cultures. One man’s hero is another man’s idiot. Of course your hero has to be appropriate for your audience.

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“Someone who gets other people killed.”

Okay, so next question: what is the role of a hero? That’s way more interesting. It’s important to note that the hero is not necessarily the same thing as the protagonist – something else I’ve covered in the past. The hero is the figure that gets stuff done. They are the agent of change, the restorer of order, the person who takes a stand against something.

Applying the label of ‘hero’ is a risky business, though, both in fiction and more seriously in real life. The word has connotations and expectations attached. If or when the character then fails to live up to those expectations, society has a tendency to tear them down with extreme prejudice. When our heroes fail our perceived ideal, we feel a personal sense of betrayal.

The style of the heroic figure has changed with the times, both as speculative fiction became more sophisticated and in response to social pressures in the real world. Shiny white heroes gave way to flawed heroes, who in turn made room for antiheroes. There is a couple of things they all have in common, though: anyone can become a hero, and they all have some kind of moral code. Or do they?

The Morality of Heroes & Villains

If the nature of a hero changes, that means the definition – the code, if you like – of heroism is a malleable thing. Flawed heroes and antiheroes are not always nice, moral people. Does this stop them being heroes? Does the making of immoral choices degrade them from heroic status into vigilantes? It’s a question that Marvel’s actually had a couple of cracks at recently, with both Avengers: Civil War and Deadpool:

Okay, so your character can be a hero without being moral 24/7. That brings us to a rather delicate question, which is the negotiation of where moral and legal lines are. Many of our popular superheroes cause massive property damage and multiple counts of murder, yet we continue to accord them heroic status. What laws can our heroes break in a story whilst remaining sympathetic characters? Even more awkwardly, who is it okay to murder? At what point do they devolve into antiheroes, or even villains?

Remember that the best villains believe they are the heroes – think Loki from Marvel, or Ozymandias from Watchmen. The difference is that they don’t have the sympathy of the audience, because the story is being told in such a way as to present them in an unsympathetic light. It’s important to give villains that depth, almost the benefit of the doubt, both when creating the character and when reading history. In all our ‘true’ accounts of historical events, the role of the victor, or the aggressor, or the morally justified, is defined purely by who is narrating and for which audience.

Heroism, then, is fundamentally tied to presentation: by whom, for whom, and in what light. Different cultures and time periods have different moral and legal approaches. It doesn’t make any of them intrinsically wrong. And this brings us back to the notion of flawed heroes, particularly the ones who are also the narrators or protagonists and therefore let the reader further into the details of their lives. Because no one’s perfect. Perfect characters are boring. But if we see everything – all the doubts, rage, instincts for violence – can they remain a hero in our eyes? Or does heroic status depend on only seeing the outward presentation?

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Shout out to DC for this one. I can’t let Marvel have all the airtime!

Must heroism have a cost? Or is easy morality, victory without sacrifice, equally heroic? The panel didn’t really answer that one and I’m not certain myself. In real life, possibly. On the page, well… a character without a struggle isn’t much of a story.

Writing A Convincing Hero

“Speculative fiction helps us understand there are other ways we can construct humanity and society.” – Lisa Tuttle

As mentioned above, morality is relative to the society or person experiencing it. The panel said that the key to writing an interesting and complex villain is to attribute them with a series of choices that you personally disagree with, and then make them understandable. I completely agree with this, but I think you can take it further. Do the same for the hero. Why should they be a representation of your own morals? If they’re from a non-Western culture that isn’t even logical. Writing alien morals, not all of which you agree with, and then convincing your readers to buy into that morality, is an awful lot of fun.

There’s a follow up to that, which is the question of learned behaviour versus personal responsibility. If a social structure is evil (in the eyes of outsiders), and conditions or forces people within it to do evil things, that does make those people evil themselves? I think David Hume had quite a lot to say on the subject, but I’ll leave you to do your own philosophical studies if you want to follow down that rabbit hole.

Put your characters in difficult or painful situations, forcing them to make morally difficult choices. It makes it easier for the reader to sympathise with them when they make the hard call, thus retaining their heroic status despite their actions. How deep can you take the hero, using this technique? How deep can you take the reader? This is something I personally find fascinating. In speculative fiction – particularly high fantasy – the so-called heroes regularly do things that the reader would find abhorrent in real life. So how did we reach the stage where such behaviour is accepted without question in fiction? Can we push the boundaries of what we make our readers accept? Should we?

“In dark worlds, look for light in the smaller actions… That changes the contrast, makes everything else highlight how bad it is, but there’s a seed of hope. Find the humanity in people. Even heroes have other things in their lives. It’s not all about the terrible, immediate situation,” – Lisa Tuttle

That quote is probably the best piece of advice I took away from both panels. Remember to make your heroes more than just the situation they find themselves in. Anyone can be a hero. That means even heroes are people.

Next week: non-binary gender in literature

Nine Worlds: Feedback Loops & Transmedia Storytelling

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Two academic talks: “The Afterlife of the Dalek Emperor – Spinoff material, canon and intertextuality in Doctor Who” by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens, and “Roleplaying games: transmedia studies and producer/consumer relationships” by Allen Stroud.

Okay, so this blog post won’t actually be about that, exactly. Whilst I am a Doctor Who fan, it’s in a fairly casual way. I don’t know the original series or the wider verse, and Moore and Stevens clearly care way more about this stuff than I do. So mostly this blog post will be about Allen Stroud’s paper, with the occasional Moore/Stevens comment thrown in where relevant.

Consumption & Creation

At its simplest, transmedia storytelling is the use of multiple media channels to tell a story, be they books, TV, film, radio, audiobooks, comics, graffiti, semaphore or smoke signals from distant mountain tops. Different media requires the story to be told in different ways (it’s hard to get the complexities of internal dialogue into smoke signals, for example) so the nature of the story alters depending on the channel in use. 

The consumer’s (the term ‘reader’ isn’t always applicable here for obvious reasons) experience of the story is still usually linear. You mostly consume a story via different formats consecutively, rather than trying to take in multiple channels at once. But transmedia storytelling means that the narrative itself isn’t necessarily linear. It’s fragmented, with lots of different perspectives and potentially lots of different starting points:

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Reproduced by kind permission of Allen Stroud

  • Multi-linear transmedia narrative means that the entry point can be anywhere and the story should still work.
  • Fragmented narrative means that the consumer must collect all the pieces of the story in order for it to make sense.
  • Layered narrative means each piece of chapter will stand alone as a single story but the more the consumer experiences, the more information they have around the story and therefore the greater their understanding.

The consumer therefore starts to make choices (knowingly or not) about what content or chapter is consumed in what order via which medium. With layered narratives, they have to put in ‘more than non-trivial effort’ in order to engage with the story, such as codes, seeking out more chapters on other channels, and so on. This is called ergodic literature.

This is also the point at which the consumer can start to contribute, which can lead to issues of content ownership (and this is where my notes from Moore/Stevens become relevant). Does fan-made content contribute to the creation of a wider story universe, and a dialogue between consumer and creator? Or does it represent a risk to IP rights? In the Doctor Who universe, the writers apparently need to keep a strict provenance of ideas and steer very clear of incorporating known fan ideas in order to avoid IP challenges. This obviously impacts their options on where they can take the story (as described in TV Topes’ article on Ascended Fanon, which gives multiple examples of this actually happening).

Working in Expanded ‘Verses

When you have multiple people contributing to the same story you end up with an expanded universe, or intertextuality – dialogues between different media within a single wider setting. This in turn leads to an external body of knowledge, or referential code, which builds up the distinctive features of that setting and allows consumers to fill in assumptions without always explaining them.

Take Bram Stoker’s Dracula as an example origin text. Modern vampire stories have to acknowledge stakes, garlic and so on because consumers already have that body of knowledge around the expected setting.

In a way, this gives power back to the consumer – the popular definition of the setting becomes more powerful and important than the reality or the origin text. At the very least, the expectation has to be acknowledged before it can be subverted.

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Legally, expanded ‘verses can be problematic. In a collaborative franchise project who actually owns the IP? Do individual writers own individual plotlines and characters? If so, how do you ensure continuity? In the Doctor Who ‘verse, where this used to be the case, the wider story ended up with unresolvable contradictions. So should the franchise own everything? Is that fair on the individuals who are actually creating the story?

Macro to Mega

There’s a couple of handful terms for thinking about this stuff, and framing it:

  • Mythopoeia is “the weave within the story narrative primarily designed to project depth.” So, hinting at a wider universe which this singular story doesn’t have time to go into. Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of this.
  • Megatext is “a shared subconscious catalogue of familiar themes in a genre.” We’re back to Bram Stoker and garlic, stakes, etc. with this. Where the theme of the setting is something widely known by the audience and written in by multiple non-collaborative authors who collectively build up a knowledge base.
  • Macrotext is “the guide for a specific fictional world, the frame work through which a large project of multiple outputs can be devised.” The worlds of Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Any specified universe which ends up being used collaboratively and which therefore requires some consistent record.

Stroud made the point that macrotexts can be ‘mutable’. There will always be corners of the universe that haven’t previously been detailed and which can therefore be added to. This in effect keeps such fictional worlds alive and evolving. The trick is to avoid contradiction with established facts, as that’s how you break a devoted reader’s immersion. Which is where databases like Wookieepedia come in.

Next week: transformative works and the colonisation of historical space, which has more stuff on macro text and shared universe creation.

Pixar’s First Rule: Character Failure is Important

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There have been multiple lists of ‘Pixar’s rules’ doing the rounds on reddit over the years, not least because Pixar has a reputation for telling a good story. When I was catching up with the backlog of Writing Excuses podcasts during my commute last week, they dissected a list and one rule in particular struck me as important but under-discussed.

The Try-Fail Cycle for character development is something that often happens fairly organically, or as part of the 5-Act Structure. The hero attempts to do something, fails, and tries again later with climactic success (unless it’s a tragedy). It’s an almost instinctive part of the plot peak-trough pattern. What’s not often explored is WHY it’s important.

Superman is boring

Um… I’m referring here to a generic superman, not the caped superhero (although he’s also often quite dull). The point is that a hero who automatically succeeds at everything is uninteresting for the reader. They can’t relate to them, or root for them during a character growth arc. There is, in fact, no room for growth which means character development is a challenge. And without character development, where’s half the story? If the assumption of success is there, you also lose the tension of conflict and, indeed, a significant proportion of the actual conflict.

Failure provides an opportunity for conflict and character development.

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Everybody fails (apart from Superman). Not everybody picks themselves up and tries again. That determination to succeed, that perseverance in the face of all odds is a heroic trait and one that endears the character to the audience. A reader can empathise and cheer for someone who keeps try, try, trying again. It shows a strength and greatness of… well, character.

Failure demonstrates the character’s heroism.

Raise the stakes

If you’ve already failed once, how do you know you’ll succeed next time? The previous failure raises the tension for the next attempt, which is what keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Regardless of narrative convention, there’s no guarantee that this second attempt will be successful. The audience has seen how badly it could go – will it go that way again? But if the character hasn’t had that previous failure, your reader is slumped back in their chair with a shrug because they know the character will win. They’ve seen it before.

Failure builds tension.

So there you have it. Three important reasons why beating your character round the head with a stick early on is important. Well done, Pixar. I’m not saying it’s essential – you can’t write by rote, after all – but it’s definitely a factor to keep in mind.

Wrong, Right & Left: Creating an Alien Moral Code

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More world-building stuff. Yay! This was prompted by a discussion over at Lair of the Jiggy Beast, where he was talking about the tendency of roleplay characters to Evil Neutral morality. A lot of our heroes end up doing morally questionable things in the name of the greater good (or just ‘coz), at least by our standards. Swords and sorcery settings are, by their very nature, violent. The protagonists are frequently forced into acts of GBH at the very least. And because it’s the fantasy norm, we accept it. Which raises the question of variable moral standards both within the characters and within the readers.

These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others.   ~ Groucho Marx

The thing is, despite this evident flexibility in the minds of readers, it’s rarely taken advantage of. We build fantastical worlds and cultures, and fill them with morals very similar to either our own or the fantasy norm (which is to say, our own with added violence provided it turns out okay). Yet moral differences exist between real life cultures and are one of the key ways to distinguish those cultures. They identify what is valued and reviled, the type of people that do well, even aspects of history. They’re a great way to both make a culture feel exotic to a reader, and to bring them into it.

I’m not talking about amorality, here. Amorality is the ignoring of the common moral standpoint, not operating within a different one, and it’s also quite a common character approach. Nor am I talking about the morals and ethics of actual aliens, necessarily. A human culture with different experiences and history to ours will have different standards of behaviour. This is true of the real world so why not of the fictional one? Now, this guy over at SciFi Ideas makes some excellent points for why our morals are the way they are. But where he holds that there is a basic morality that transcends education or culture, I disagree. It all depends on perspective. And, according to Robert Wright, tech level.

1. Technology as a moral driver

The global community

The global community

Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games.   ~ Robert Wright

Basically, the more we talk to people, the more we have to acknowledge that – despite their differences – they are the same as us. That leads to greater acceptance and co-operation within societies. The approach of a culture to difference is a key driver of morality. Gender, skin colour, caste – all these play into the world-view and ethical approach. They’re also really easy ways to flag to your reader that this culture has a foreign attitude.

2. Religious directive

What is the god/pantheon of your culture like? Are they wrathful or merciful? Are their priests expansionist, fanatical or genuine shepherds of their flock (if that’s even an appropriate simile)? Is there hope for redemption or life after death? Concepts of heaven and hell equivalents? These will all impact the taught ethics of the culture. Fear of what happens to your immortal soul is a very powerful motivator. Likewise the absence of that fear.

The film Agora with Rachel Weisz is a fantastic example of how different religions can impact cultural approaches to things like gender, education, right and wrong. Seriously, go watch it.

3. Cultural oddities

Probably my favourite one. This is where you get to sneak some really flavourful bits in, that show your reader volumes about the culture without having to actually tell them. As an example, a culture who places great emphasis on contracts – and seals them with handshakes – might therefore not like to use handshakes for anything else. One that holds literal truth as the greatest virtue might take a rather restrictive view on interpretive art and fiction.

This is also where you can work backwards to build culture from a character trait. Is there’s something slightly odd about your protagonist or supporting cast that you can make more of? Something you can use to shed light on the place they came from, which in turn sheds light on other behavioural traits they might possess. It’s difficult to know which way round things came in the finished article but, as a guess, FitzChivalry’s Wit in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is an example of this. Fitz can talk to animals – an unusual character trait that leads to a cultural stance on tainted bloodlines, bestial magic and the persecution of those who have it. That shows the reader plenty about the morality of the Six Duchies, from the perspective of one who is deemed unclean.

4. The shadows of history

The concentration camps of WW2, the bloody colonial settling of America, Oliver Cromwell – these have all left marks, however slight, on the moral scenery of Great Britain. If an historical event is significant enough to cause shockwaves in the culture, it will likely do the same to that culture’s ethical approach. What are the landmark events of your fictional culture’s past? What are the knock-on effects likely to be? Maybe a war challenged the usual stance on religious extremism, or made it unacceptable to speak at a certain time on a certain date. Maybe a system of government or a martyred bandit impacted the general perception of what counted as greedy and what was normal consumption.

This is a double-whammy of win for the writer. In one go they can hint at both depth of history and depth of cultural mores, giving the reader a greater illusion of reality and immersion. Just remember not to overdo things – show, don’t tell, and Resist the Urge to Explain.

5. Individual characteristics

Moving away from a cultural norm, why does your protagonist behave in a certain way? What is their private code of behaviour and how did they arrive at it? Why might it be different to that of others from their country? My heroine, for example, was raised by an immigrant and therefore has a slightly odd perspective on what counts as balanced justice. Exploring this difference gives me a chance to bring out elements of her backstory, her relationship to said immigrant and her struggle to equate what she was taught as a child to what’s expected by her own society.

If there’s conflicting approaches, which one is right? What if neither approach fits with the reader’s idea of what is right? Now, there’s a fun thing to challenge in your readers. Can you make them absorb enough of this strange culture that, by the end of the book, they are completely on board with notions that – at the beginning – they might find weird or abhorrent? Minds are made flexible by imagination. Give them the gift of a different point of view.

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