There's one thing a writer of fiction learns early — don't knock a reader out of your story because of words that mean what you want, but that the character would never have used.
If you're writing a work of contemporary fiction, that usually means matching your dialogue to your characters. The impoverished nine-year-old is not likely to use gold-plated words, except perhaps as a comic gesture.
For non-contemporary fiction, the bigger problem is anachronism. When you remember that “khaki” comes out of British imperial rule in India, you are well-advised to avoid it as a descriptive term in a book on the Crusades, or in a fantasy world where neither Britain nor India have ever existed.
When I read books, I find the worst offenders are phrases based on technology that the author forgot is modern, or at least, too modern for the context. “He's never learned to put on the brakes”, “He's just blowing off steam”, “He's a real live wire, isn't he?” — these are a slap in the reader's face in the wrong context.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Dungeon Masters and Fantasy Authors both need to create characters, but DMs have software to help them.
For my current series, The Chained Adept, I used a Character Card creator module from ProFantasy called Character Artist. Some writers browse the internet looking for photos that remind them of their characters, but I think that takes too long. I had much more fun coming up with an iconic “card” for some of the main characters in The Chained Adept.
These are not paper dress-up fashion dolls, and the choices are limited, but it's surprising how much you can do with the given tools to provide a very quick sketch. While I don't want to get too specific when describing a character for a reader, so that the reader can fill in much of the picture himself, I do find it helpful to get specific for my own view.
So, here's what I think about my main character (Penarit), her companion (Sanderel), and the commander of the military unit they accompany (Benir Zant).
Of course, there's one big difference between Dungeon Masters and Fantasy Authors. The DMs don't care about keeping your character alive.
It's a good thing you can trust authors. Most of the time. Unless that character really, really, needs to go.
Writers of fantasy and science fiction books have special needs. Not only do we have characters to create from scratch, like every novelist, but we have entire worlds to build — not just the verisimilitude of the historical past, but entire planets, spacecraft, or fantastic realms. Our desks are littered with bad sketches of landscapes, terrible character portraits, and far too many scraps of idiosyncratic cosmogenesis.
You know who else has these problems? Dungeon masters.
The world of Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent games created a need for game masters, those referees who control the world of their game for their players, to make maps, create character cards, and so forth. Not surprisingly, there's an ecosystem of software to support this.
A couple of months ago, I invested in most of the software modules from ProFantasy and started playing around. I needed to design a complete secondary world for a new series, The Chained Adept, and it wasn't going to be modeled on Earth at the geology level (although I planned to keep the flora & fauna so that the readers wouldn't need to master an entire ecosystem of vocabulary).
I started by designing a planet, using Fractal Terrains 3. By providing a handful of parameters and tinkering with the results, you can create an infinite number of alien planets.
In addition to the novels I'm currently working on, I'm making a practice of producing more short stories and submitting them to various magazine and anthology markets. Rather than just search for random topics, I've decided to write as many of them as possible for ultimate inclusion in a single collection, called There's a Sword for That.
As you can see from the progress meters on the right, there are four stories so far. This is a science fiction collection, not fantasy, somewhat unexpectedly for stories with swords in them. So far, they've included children, sessile tentacular creatures, intelligent multi-purpose devices, and a famous historical kris (not all at once, of course).
There's a frame to this collection — the Curious Arms weapon shop, tucked away on a space station. All the covers will show the weapon shop and one of the weapons (the cover for the collection will include a rosette of all the weapons).
As each story completes the submission process and becomes available again, it will be published by Perkunas Press, and eventually the entire collection will be available as a book, too. That's more than a year away for some of the stories, but at least a few should be available this year. Since I like to get the covers done sooner rather than later, you can at least get a preview of what they'll look like.
The Fantasy and Science Fiction genres are distinct in several ways, but there is a certain degree of overlap as well. Both of them specialize not in things as they are but in things as they might be. They may differ in where the emphasis of the story goes — SF is notorious for typically making “the idea” and its consequences the point of the story, not necessarily the characters — but in this post I want to concentrate on what they have in common.
I’ve read SF&F all my life, and the two genres are cross-fertilized for me now. I like my SF best when it has moral characters as well as ideas, and I like my Fantasy best when its magical or supernatural elements are treated consistently, as though they were science.
It’s a truism in an SF story that you can change just one thing arbitrarily (time travel works, men live for centuries instead of decades, there are sapient aliens we can meet) and, if you can do an adequate handwave in the direction of scientific plausibility, the reader will accept it, as long as the notional basis is scientific (rational). For example, there may be religion in SF societies, and there may be powerful beings who seem to be indistinguishable from gods, but you can’t have real gods (supernatural entities) as agents in SF (though you can have a belief in them). That’s because god(s) may or may not exist, but science has nothing to say on the subject. That’s why they are literally “supernatural”, not “natural”.
What you must do in SF, however, is deal with the change consistently, e.g., if men live for centuries, there will be social and economic consequences. The story can be about those consequences, or they can be a background to the story, but they must be consistent, and a very great part of the pleasure of reading SF is the exploration of the consequences of such an idea.
Fantasy is a broader category. It accepts that those areas where it differs from quotidian reality may not be capable of rational explanation. Hence you can have supernatural entities (gods, elves, demons) as well as beings that might or might not be supernatural (vampires, werewolves, dragons).
Eric S. Raymond offers an excellent article on the forms of the Science Fiction genre, and why it matters.
First, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.
This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.
One of SF’s central impulses is to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.
Having advanced this definition of SF, I’m now going to make a temporary concession to people who consider it too narrow by relabeling what it covers “classical SF”, or cSF. Those with a little historical awareness of the field will recognize that the classical period began in 1939 with Robert Heinlein’s first publication under John W. Campbell, the then-new editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
Almost anyone with any exposure to SF will recognize that much but not all of what is popularly labeled SF is cSF. The question I will address in the remainder of this essay is: why should we consider cSF normative? What grounds do we have for regarding a work that claims to be SF but is not cSF to be defective SF?
One reason is historical. Previous attempts to abandon the deep norms of cSF while preserving its stage furniture and surface tropes have not aged well. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and early 1970s was spent by the early 1980s. Later insurgencies within the field, notably the cyberpunks of the late 1980s and early 1990s, retained cSF’s assumption of rational knowability (and all that followed from it) even while trying to radically transform the genre in other ways.
The reason beneath that history is reader response. SF doesn’t exist in a vacuum; people who want fantasies or Westerns or romances know how to find them, and in general the kind of person who can be attracted by the way SF is packaged (spaceships and other high technology on covers, etc.) wants rational knowability and wants to play the kind of game with the author that is characteristic of cSF, even if he or she is not very introspective about that desire and not very good at the game yet.
This is why SF readers – even inexperienced ones – often experience violation of the deep norms of cSF as a kind of dishonesty or malicious subversion. They can tell they’re being cheated of something even if they don’t know quite what. Forty years ago this feeling was often articulated against the New Wave by complaining that its works were “depressing” – which was true, and remains true of a lot of defective SF and anti-SF today, but doesn’t get at the actual root of the problem.