Worldbuilding Series Part 2: Conflict

Last time we discussed the origin of my world and my decision to have a romantic tone instead of a nihilistic tone. Now comes the fun (and crucial) part: deciding the central conflict.

Not all worlds need a central conflict, and likewise not all stories need a central conflict. Shannon Dickson’s story from Sojourn is a wonderful example of a story that does not have any conflict whatsoever. But for most worlds it is important to have a clear and dynamic central conflict because down the road when you are writing stories or DMing games in your world you want to pull upon the central conflict of the world into your story. Here are some examples of conflicts from settings: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter (good vs. evil). A Game of Thrones (ice vs. fire–at least I think, the series isn’t done yet), Mistborn (order vs. chaos), Firefly (freedom vs control). The most common central conflicts, at least to my mind, are good vs. evil and order vs. chaos.

Let’s step back from the theoretical and start talking about my world. I was tempted to make the central conflict good vs. evil, but I hesitated. I am a huge fan of Tolkien’s work and I feel that pretty much he hit the nail on the head when it comes to good vs. evil. For as much his work is unjustly panned as a brutish, simplistic story of goody-goods vs. mindless evil, I have found that his insights on good and evil to be extremely sophisticated (take for example, his insight that the very wise, such as Saruman or Gandalf, are the most susceptible to evil). I shy away from doing good vs. evil because every step that I take I will think “I am ripping off Tolkien.” And not just in a elves, dwarves, and magic ring sense but in a much deeper thematic sense. My hesitation stems not from any fear of being declared, either from myself or from others, a plagiarist or “ripping off Tolkien,” for I am sure that I could add my own spin to good vs. evil. But that is it, only a good spin. I have nothing new to say about the subject. Writing about it, while the subject is extremely interesting to me, would be like a chore for me. I don’t know how I know this but as a creative person often you just need to follow your instincts. This is some good advice for you guys: the litmus test for whether an idea is a brilliant idea or a good idea is if the idea is so powerful that it can lift your fat butt off the couch, sit you down, open up a Mircrosoft Word doc, and get you writing. When an idea truly inspires you it is a force of nature.

On the flip-side of good vs. evil is order vs. chaos. On this I will be brief (hopefully). I never very much enjoyed the idea of order vs. chaos. I remember as a kid watching the History Channel and a show started talking about Zoroastrianism. They talked about how it was about a god of good and a god of evil duking it out. “Wow!” I thought, “that sounds awesome.” Then years later I read about it on Wikipedia and I learned that it was just all order vs. chaos and I was bummed out. Order vs. chaos inevitably boils down to: order is the stagnant pool of water and chaos is a consuming flame that destroys everything. Each side is so balanced in its bummer factor that I lose all interest.

What to do? What to do? How do you come up with something “original?” Well one source that I take inspiration from is the real world. I was contemplating about the news stories of the day and trying to find a common link between them. My advice for anyone doing this is to not go for the “writ from the headlines” because a) that will instantly date you b) the story will become as much about the real life issue as the story itself. Don’t believe me, watch The Dark Knight and then The Dark Knight Rises. The former is a classic about order vs.chaos and the latter is a confused mess about Occupy Wall-street and other topical issues of the day.

So anyway, I was thinking a lot about the culture wars going on in the United States. Like Archimedes leaping out of his tub I shouted “Eureka” (okay not really but he sentiment is the same)! I realized that what what the central theme to all the different culture war issues was virtue vs. passion.  I wanted a central conflict that was not so black and white as good vs. evil but not something so morally relative as order vs. chaos. What do I mean by virtue vs. passion? Well someone who falls under the virtuous camp holds ideas like chivalry, honor, ethics, and tradition above their own desires and passions. Whereas the passion camp says that what is good is whatever your heart desires it to be, and who are we to say otherwise. The virtue camp holds that the virtues that they live by (and thus the god/philosophy by which those moral laws were ordained) is the center of life and above humanity. Whereas the passion camp says that humanity decides where the center of life to be. Like in real life this does not mean that virtuous people cannot be passionate and that passionate people cannot be virtuous, but instead determines what it is that each civilization/culture/society hold up as the most dear. And what they are willing to let go in order to uphold those principles.

This is perfect for me because while I personally am in the virtuous camp I can completely empathize and communicate the passion camp. Each ideology is rich with both good and evil characters and both good and evil cultures.

Okay this post has been going on way too long. Next time we are going to talk about the basic geography of the world.

The World of Blind Barthon

The World of Blind Barthon

The World of Blind Barthon

My contribution to Sojourn was a pseudo-myth story called “Blind Barthon.” The basic premise is that Barthon must go on a quest to find the perfect bride, guided (and insulted) by the gods all along the way. The story began its life as backstory. Over the last three years I have been developing an EPIC fantasy world that I call the Mortal Realm (emphasis of epic). I wanted a mythology for a Nordic culture in this world, a people that I called the Jarls (j pronounced as y–and yes I do know that Jarl means King in the real world). This world is where I fully devote my passion for history. I want as much of the world as possible to feel authentic and plausible–at least to me. Basically not sound made up. I wanted the Jarls to have a mythology suitable for their inspirational heritage so I hit the books. I read up much on Norse mythology specifically with The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. While reading that book I had a spur of inspiration and I started penning some myths. One of the myths (and honestly the best of the bunch) was the story that is now available in Sojourn.

Now to the map. Part of the function of the Barthon myth is not only to teach Jardic boys what are the preferable qualities in a wife, but to also give a geography lessen. Pre-modern peoples had a very limited scope of their surroundings. Only 200 years ago it took pioneers years to cross the North American continent. Nowadays the roughly two thousand miles from NY to LA is crossed in hours. Even driving is not much more of a hassle. A year ago my family vacationed in California. On the return trip my brother, dad, and I drove from California to Illinois in 24 hours. We drove in a Ford Explorer so at least one person was able to have a nap in the backseat (also we are from good Scottish stock so we were up for it). That is a colorful anecdote of how much time and distance has changed in the world. Barthon, and his pre-modern contemporaries, probably never strayed 20 miles from the place they were born. So how they learned of the surrounding world was through stories such as mine. Along with just directional information, the stories would be filled with what type of people lived such faraway places along with how they related to them. For instance, Barthon’s people were mainly a hearty warrior people and such they looked upon the Normons as very strange for their vigor of the seas.

The map only shows a quarter of the world (as I said EPIC) that is called Borea. Hemmed in by the Hygeann Mountains (high-JEE-in), the region is approximately the size of the Atlantic to the Mississippi. The region is divided into three horizontal cultural halves. The bottom half, comprised of those jutting peninsulas is subtropical and home to mainly the Waelens, an amalgam of invaders and foreign cultures. The Waelens are very cosmopolitan and the home of fine wine and finer intrigue. The middle bulk of the continent is inhabited by the great swordsmiths and hearty warriors of the Aluns (my Celtic analogy). And last but not least, is the most northerly half– home of winter and cold winds. Barthon the Jarl calls this his home.

The circles show the places where Barthon visited. Reread Blind Barthon and discover the places listed in the story. Have fun!

(Sorry about the confusing mess of lines on the map. This comes from one of those fractal map generators. The original files were corrupted but I did manage to save some images from the maps. I intend to one day draw out the maps properly so that they don’t look so squirrely, but that is for another day. Just cross your eyes…maybe that will help)