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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 16: World Building -- Non-Human Races

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 16: World Building -- Non-Human Races


Key points: nonhuman races add a sense of wonder to the setting. Don't just borrow Tolkien-esque races. Brandon will almost always focus mostly on humans, maybe. Avoid making an important characteristic a defining theme. Even nonhuman races are individuals. What do they want?

[Brandon] Nonhuman Races. We want to talk about things that aren't human. Obviously. Howard, you have a lot of nonhuman races in your stories. How do you come up with them? What are your guidelines? Why do you use them? Let's start with that. Why do you use nonhuman races?
[Howard] I use them because it adds that sense of wonder to the setting. Science fiction that doesn't have nonhumans in it I think has to work really hard to wow us. And in some cases, that science fiction... the nonhumans are provided by artificial intelligences or evolved humans or modified humans or something.
[Brandon] Sense of wonder.
[Howard] It's sense of wonder.
[Brandon] It's one of the hallmarks of science fiction and fantasy, is that we're dealing with other places, other times, other creatures.

[Brandon] Dan, why? Do you have anything to add? Why do you use nonhuman races? Why did you write a book that has a monster in it killing people rather than just a human killing people?
[Dan] Part of the reason for that is because I was initially aiming for young adults, and thought it would be easier to sell if it was slightly removed from reality. But beyond that, once I actually got into the writing, I realized that a nonhuman monster allowed me to play with the themes a lot more than just a normal human would, 'cause I was able to build rules around this guy and all these other things that would relate with the protagonist in a very different way than a normal human killer would.
[Howard] I do the same sort of thing with the aliens that I create. You don't want to create two-dimensional aliens.
[Brandon] We'll get to that -- that's one of my questions.
[Howard] You don't want to create that, but you can play up a particular physical attribute or mental attribute in such a way that the aliens point up part of your theme.
[Brandon] Exaggeration for use with theme, for use with conflict, it can help you really build your conflict with the nonhuman races are tied to it directly. One of the things I always say is, intermix your conflicts. Make what's important to your characters, important to the plot, important to the world. You can do this really well with nonhuman races. You can do some really interesting parables. Things like the Left Hand of Darkness would never have worked without nonhuman races

[Brandon] Let's... so... why do I use nonhuman races? It's a good question. I want to address it myself because I've thought about this a lot. Fantasy in particular is -- was glutted with Tolkien's races.
[Howard] Elves plus dwarves.
[Brandon] And the reason for that being I think that we all read Tolkien. We -- proverbial we, since I wasn't born -- you were...
[Howard] I was. In fairness, Tolkien sat down to create a mythology for the West that wasn't Greco-Roman...
[Brandon] He did a good job.
[Howard] And he did it so well that we all copied it.
[Brandon] We wanted to return to his world, and the guy up and died on us. And so what are we going to do? We're going to write our own stories. We're gonna write fanfic -- and I say that with the most endearing of terms. I think that some people who write these... I mean, Donaldson wrote fantastic books.
[Howard] So if it's got dwarves and orcs in it, it's Tolkien fan fiction.
[Brandon] Yeah, but you know. I almost... I kind of write professional fan fiction right now, so...
[Howard] Glass house. Throwing stones. We're all about that.
[Dan] We're not throwing stones. We're just pointing out our pretty glass houses...
[Brandon] Yeah, exactly.
[Howard] Okay. Perfect.

[Brandon] I thought about this a lot when I sat down to write as a fantasy writer. I wanted to not include the Tolkien-esque races. I think that fantasy has moved to a point that we've said, "You know what. We love this. These guys did some great stuff. Let me just play around with some of these concepts that Tolkien didn't get time to explore because he died." But now it's time to move on. And so my books are marked pervasively by a lack of nonhuman races. The reason I don't have a lot of nonhuman races, particularly as viewpoint characters, is because I wanted to focus on the people and make them relatable. It's easier to make someone sympathetic and relatable if they are like you. Having an alien race makes this harder. At the same time, I've felt a little bit of a lack there in my books. You'll notice in my third book, I finally have a viewpoint from a nonhuman race. I did that intentionally because I wanted that sense of wonder. It does add something. And I think it is something that there's a little bit of a hole in, in my work. I think my work will almost always focus mostly on the humans. Boy, that was full of caveats.
[Howard] Almost always focus completely...
[Brandon] Mostly...
[Howard] Mostly on... Wow.
[Brandon] But at the same time...
[Dan] Don't tie yourself down.
[Brandon] You heard it here first.
[Howard] Let's put a stake in the ground.
[Brandon] Almost maybe could have not...

[Brandon] All right. How do you make them not one-dimensional? Howard? What are we talking about?
[Howard] How do you make them not... let me talk about some one-dimensional, or two-dimensional aliens. The Klingons in Star Trek the original series were mysterious and unpredictable. They looked exactly like humans only with a little bit of makeup that made them look like the Mongol Hordes sometimes. And then there was that one episode where the energy monster is making everybody fight and they all decide to laugh and they chase the energy monster out and the Klingon commander says, "It's too bad we didn't get to fight today. It would have been a glorious battle." That line got seized upon by every writer who ever wrote Klingons for Star Trek afterwards as the defining point of the Klingon race and they became two-dimensional. They became gods of war or avatars of war and very little else. The way to avoid doing that is to look at what happened to the Klingons and say, "Oh. Oh wait a minute. Let's not do that. Let's not take a sentence that I wrote in chapter 3 and turn it into not just an important characteristic but a defining theme."
[Brandon] You know, I think, at the very next convention that you attend you are going to get a bunch of bat'leth to the stomach? Just so you know.
[Dan] Get ready for that.
[Howard] And that's because those people have no honor.

[Dan] The other key example here is Gimli. Since Lord of the Rings, anyone who has ever written a dwarf has essentially just written Gimli. The entire dwarven race is defined by Gimli.
[Brandon] Is made up of Gimli. And honestly in both of these cases I don't think the problem is in the original characterization. In fact, I think in Star Trek, they've taken pains to try and deal with that in some of the later series. But...
[Howard] Oh, they recognized that it had been done... but...
[Brandon] Season One Whorf was very much this, but they got around it. How do you get around it? How do you avoid this? It's a real problem in creating nonhuman races, is that every one of them acts exactly the same.
[Howard] You put the character in a situation where whatever that theme is that you've identified, whatever that two-dimensional attribute is that's defining that dimension, is just not applicable. Does that make sense?
[Dan] Following the Star Trek thing, I think the best race they ever created in terms of fully fledged roundness, were the Bajorans. And the reason that they eventually became this very well-defined race is because they were forced to spend a lot of time with them. They were forced to define them in more than one way. They were not only this very religious race, but they were also... they had this occupation thing and this rebellion thing going on. They had a lot of different values rather than just one. And then just by the weight of seven seasons of the show...
[Brandon] I think that made them non-iconic at the same time. The Bajorans are not nearly as iconic...
[Howard] They're not the race that we remember when we think of Star Trek.
[Brandon] And so there is a trade-off there.

[Brandon] And how do you do this? How are you going to make a race not one-dimensional if you're going to have only one member of that race show up?
[Howard] Well, I've got that sort of problem in Schlock Mercenaries -- the title character, Sgt. Schlock. When I think of his defining characteristic, his defining characteristic is appetite. Whether he's eating or destroying something or playing, he has an appetite for lots of it. And that's worked well. It serves well as a running gag, it's fun to develop, but I run the risk of him being two-dimensional. The current storyline, I've put him in a situation where he is commanding a mission that has gone wrong and the things that he's doing are command things which don't fit well with the appetite. And I've gotten a lot of e-mail from people who are saying, "Wow, Sgt. Schlock is actually acting like a sergeant. This is awesome."
[Brandon] I've actually -- not to stroke egos -- I've actually really enjoyed that, because he has added a lot of [inaudible] depth.
[Dan] I've been noticing that as well.
[Howard] There was a moment early in the strip when they -- Schlock and a bunch of the other characters are trying to do something -- and one of them says, "Well, Schlock, but don't you have any special amorph powers that can help us here?" And Schlock says, "Why is everybody looking at me? Don't you guys have some special human powers?" And that line...

[Brandon] There's our line right there. And I think looking at this, you need to look at each of your characters as a character, that is shaped by their culture and their physiology. A race -- an alien race is going to have a different physiology and a different culture. That will shape who they are. But you've got to give them real conflict, real character drama, real personality that it can be different from every other person in that race. You've got to treat them like a human who's got a little bit of a...
[Howard] No, I see what you're saying. They have to be human enough that readers can relate to them. I've read a couple of books, and I can't remember what they were, where the aliens were so alien it was impossible to establish them as viewpoint characters. Or if you did, it was only there so that the reader could be confused.
[Brandon] Let's step aside and say you can do that with very exploratory, experimental fiction and do some very interesting things. I think there are people out there who write science fiction who would throw things at me if they listen to me saying you've got to start with the human and extrapolate. Because that's very human centric.
[Howard] But that need is why my uniocs have two eyebrows. Physiologically, they shouldn't have any eyebrows. They don't have a face, it's just an eye. But I put the eyebrows there so that I can give expressions that are meaningful to my readers.

[Brandon] Dan, you made a monster very, very sympathetic in your book.
[Dan] Well, thank you.
[Brandon] You're welcome. How did you do that with a monster? What were you doing? How were you achieving this?
[phone ringing in the background]
[Dan] Well, in this particular case of this particular monster, it was exactly what we've just been talking about. I created a monster who kind of wanted to be human. He had his needs and he had his drives and urges and stuff that forced him to kill, but he didn't necessarily want to. He wanted to be human, he wanted to continue with his normal life, so that made him much more relatable because he hated what he was doing.

[Brandon] I'm going to back up and kind of correct what I said earlier. Rather than starting with a human and extrapolating, you need to start with a personality and extrapolate, if that makes sense. A person should be influenced by their surroundings and their physiology and their culture, but they've got to be an individual. If you can do this with your races, you can really make stories that shine.
[Howard] I did... I created the race, the Yomigans, who have the arm on top of their heads and the upside down faces, and that grew out of a joke about living hand to mouth and the importance of free food in their culture and so on and so forth. But after I'd done it, I realized that... I talk with my hands, a lot of us talk with our hands... if your hand is already that close to your face, what kinds of gestures are going to be common in that culture? And one of them -- I dreamt up an insult which was, "Oh, go stick your fist in your mouth!" Because you've got a fist right there and if you take the hand that's on top of your head and shove it into your mouth, that's like shut up. It works well for a human -- a human reading the book knows what that means, but it seems so much poignant for this race. And I think that sort of thing... any time you design a unique bit of physiology, work that physiology into the dialogue.
[Brandon] Extrapolate...
[Howard] Extrapolate. The moties -- Mote In God's Eye -- on one hand, on the other hand, on the gripping hand -- because they have three arms, and one of the arms is stronger.

[Brandon] How do you decide what to world build for your aliens? We've talked about the warning for world builders disease, we've done it in the last podcast, you can't take time to spend every moment thinking of every bit of religion, of culture, you could spend years world building a race to try and make them as filled out...
[Howard] Tolkien did, and we only have...
[Brandon] Three books...
[Howard] Five books from him.
[Dan] Three and then several others.
[Brandon] Four... we can count four... four and a half.
[Howard] And a big book of notes.
[Brandon] How do you decide?
[Howard] I think you world build up to the point that you got... the character has started to develop his or her own voice. And then you discover, look for the things that are different, look for opportunities to throw lines like "on the gripping hand" or "shove your fist in your mouth" or whatever and as those things come to you, you're going to be able to go back on your rewrite and say, "You know what, that little thing I did there, boy that's brilliant, and I have to support that here, here, and here." So on your rewrite, your alien is going to get fleshed out enough for the rest of the book.
[Dan] The thing we always come back to is conflict. Develop the portions of your race that are going to provide the most interesting conflicts when the character interacts with your other characters.
[Brandon] That's what I would say too. Stay a couple steps ahead of the reader. And if you're working on coming up with really interesting, cool races, make them tied into the conflict like we said before. Make their culture in conflict with the culture of your other races. Work very hard to make this all integrated. And don't worry as much about the parts that aren't going to come out.
[Howard] Make the races -- we talked about this in our thing about villains -- make the races or the members of the races feel like they are the protagonist in their own story. Know what their objectives are, what their goals are, and have them [garbled, perhaps act on them?]

[Brandon] Just [inaudible garble] in here. I want to make a personal plea to end off the podcast. I don't want to tread on sensitive toes so to speak. But I wrote an essay once for Bleeding Edge when I worked there which was called Kill the Elves. And the meaning of this is your interpretation of elves is not going to be unique enough. Your take on orcs is not going to be unique enough. Naming them orcs but spelling it differently is not going to be enough. Naming them orcs but making them act like Klingons is not going to be enough. Not today. We've come far enough that readers are not looking for that anymore.
[Howard] Yeah, in 2010...
[Brandon] You've got to take a few more steps. Go a little bit farther. Don't go into it, writing the Tolkien-esque races, unless you really know what you're doing and really want to be hitting the market intentionally or if you're writing tie-in fiction where it's appropriate. There are reasons to do the Tolkien-esque, but don't take one step away and think that you're not doing it. You've got to take and come up with completely original new races. That's my plea.
[Dan] Excellent.
[Howard] Seconded. No, wait, I'm third.
[Dan] I beat y'a.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Thanks for listening.

[Brandon] The writing prompt is to write...
[Howard] Create a believable alien and write something from his perspective.
[Brandon] There you go.
[Dan] Perfect.
Tags: nonhuman races, world building, writing excuses
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