Characters of Color: Easy Mode

Excellent advice from Colette Aburime about writing people of color.

When you write with racial and ethnic diversity, you hear a lot about what to avoid. Now, it’s not without good reason. The road to good representation is paved with harmful stereotypes and worn-out depictions of People of Color. Advice-givers, like me and the rest of the folks at WritingwithColor, put up caution signs and leave the rest of the journey up to you.

Still, there are some do’s that make for both good writing and good representation.

Writers tend to think big. Our craft demands that we keep our brains fired up with ideas. 

I’m asking you to think small.

This is the kind of article I wish I’d had years ago, though I think I somehow stumbled through writing some African American secondary characters in Into the Wonder. I look forward to the next installments!

The Prehistoric World Is Moving into D&D 5e Territory

I have previously opined that the prehistoric world was somewhat “Tolkienesque,” with multiple humanoid species interacting with each other in a variety of ways. In a recent Discover article, Bridget Alex surveys how things have changed even in recent years.

When I first wrote about extinct hominins and fantasy fiction, the newly discovered “hobbit” (Homo floresiensis) was all the rage. The very next year saw the discovery of H. naledi in South Africa, and an article published just this year concludes that remains found in the Philippines come from an otherwise unknown species dubbed H. luzonensis.

If we can assume some late surviving members of H. erectus on the margins (they were contemporary with us but geographically separated), that brings us to seven hominin species fighting, trading, and in at least some instances interbreeding with each other from roughly 300,000 to 30,000 years ago.

So it’s no longer just humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings. Now we’ve got to add gnomes, orcs, and…I don’t know, tieflings?—with no guarantees somebody won’t find yet another extinct hominin species tomorrow.

The prehistoric world is quickly gaining the appearance of a D&D campaign with no restrictions on character race.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-García

I’m not sure what put me on a vampire kick, but here we are. Silvia Moreno-García’s Certain Dark Things presents an interesting take on the vampire mythos. The premise of the story is that the mundane world learned that vampires were real some fifty years ago. At that point, the various nations took steps to either contain the monsters or expel them outright. For various reasons, many of these banished bloodsuckers ended up in Mexico, where the anti-vampire laws were more lenient than most places, and European-style vampires are now running Mexico’s drug cartels in competition with the tlahuelpocmimi, the indigenous vampires of Aztec culture.

The story begins as Atl, the last surviving member of a powerful family of tlahuelpocmimi, is on the run after a deadly altercation with the Necros, vampires of the clan that had recently massacred her family. She flees to Mexico City, the lone ostensibly vampire-free stronghold in the country, where she meets a street kid named Domingo. The novel plays out as Atl and Domingo evade hostile forces both human and superhuman in a quest to find a place of refuge. As might be expected, the two grow in affection for each other, though there remains the nagging sense that their relationship might bring complications to Atl—and prove deadly for Domingo. You see, Moreno-García humanizes her vampires, but they’re still ultimately monsters. At one point, an ancient vampire warns Domingo, “We are our hunger.” Indeed.

The novel is well written, the characters believable, the near-future world fascinating. I especially appreciate how Moreno-García played with varying vampire legends from around the globe. There are ten known vampire species in this world: European, African, Indian, Chinese, and of course Mexican. Three of them are most involved in the plot, although about half of them at least get a mention at some point. (She describes all ten in an appendix, but I found this a bit of a letdown. If you’re not going to put them in the story and you don’t have plans for a sequel, why the info dump?)

Moreno-García takes some liberties with vampire mythology—they’re all living members of a distinct human species, and as much as possible their special powers and weaknesses are described in scientific terms—but she does this creatively, not haphazardly. She has obviously done her research, and it shows.

If you like vampire stories at all, you owe it to yourself to give Certain Dark Things a look.

Medieval Alchemy 101

Have a look at Sarah Durn’s primer on medieval and Renaissance alchemy as it is depicted (quite accurately, apparently) in Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.

Where many fantasy novels are complete works of fiction, perhaps inspired by the medieval period, but not in any way historically accurate, A Discovery of Witches combines the fantastical with the academic. Deborah Harkness, the author of the series, is a history of science professor at the University of Southern California. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of science and magic in Europe from 1500 to 1700—the same subject her protagonist, Dr. Diana Bishop (played by Teresa Palmer in the adaptation), is researching in Oxford’s Bodleian at the outset of A Discovery of Witches.

I have looked for a long time for a concise, objective, and easy to follow description of alchemy. Thanks to Dr. Burns, an actual card-carrying medievalist, I now have it!

And it looks like I also have a trilogy of books I need to read…

How to Speak with a Wakandan Accent

According to Charles Pulliam Moore at io9, there’s a good reason there are a variety of “Wakandan” accents in the new Black Panther movie. Pragmatically, it’s because the cast comes from a variety of backgrounds and couldn’t help but bring their native idiolect into their respective roles. Beth McGuire, the dialect coach on the film, does a great job of explaining that at the linked article.

But there’s also an in-story explanation that actually makes some sense:

In both Marvel’s comics and movies, a significant part of the lore about Wakanda focuses on the fact that the country was never colonized—something that might make one assume there would be a singular Wakandan accent. But because the MCU’s depiction of Wakanda is so deeply rooted in much of the iconography and traditions of real-world African cultures, it makes sense that there would be a multiplicity of accents.

What’s more, Black Panther actually goes out of its way to emphasize the fact that modern-day Wakanda began as a coalition of multiple tribes who seized the opportunity to unite and grow together around the impact site of the vibranium mound. Respect for tradition and history is a central element to the MCU’s Wakandan society, and it stands to reason that the different accents unique to each tribe would still very much be a part of modern Wakanda.

So, linguistics and superheroes! Yay!

All the World’s Mythical Beasts, (Eventually) Illustrated

This just in from Atlas Obscura:

Every culture has its own distinctive mythological beasts. In Brazil, there’s the Headless Mule, a cursed creature whose decapitated head hovers above a fire-spewing neck as it gallops across the country. From Japan, the Kotobuki is a Zodiac Frankenstein’s monster: it consists of all 12 signs, from the nose of the rat to the tail of the snake. Peru has the Huayramama, which looks like a vast snake plus the billowing hair and face of an old woman.

With such rich and broad source material to draw from, the artist Iman Joy El Shami-Mader has lately found herself on a mission: she wants to illustrate as many mythical beasts as she can find. Since October 2017, El Shami-Mader has been illustrating one such creature a day, which she then features on her Instagram account. To keep up a steady supply of beasts to draw, El Shami-Mader initially worked from books. “It all started with the book Phantasmagoria—which is great—but there are many creatures that are only mentioned in passing or without any description at all,” she says. So she ordered more books, researched online, and tried her local library. “I’m from a tiny town in the Alps, so other than local creatures, there was little to be found.”

Lately she’s decided to try to crowdsource ideas to keep her project going. Through Instagram, she’s asked her followers to send stories and descriptions of mythical beasts she’s still missing. Her illustrated bestiary now spans mythologies from around the world and across a variety of time periods, and even includes the odd fictional character (she has a porg from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and an Owlbear from Dungeons & Dragons).

Atlas Obscura spoke with El Shami-Mader about her project, the challenges of depicting mythical creatures, and the appeal of the lovable Squonk. If you’d like to suggest a creature, email her at mythical.creaturologist@gmail.com.

The interview features several illustrations. And, of course, there are plenty more on the artist’s Instagram account.

Let’s Make an RPG Magic System (or Three)

So lately I’ve been thinking about role-playing games. So when I saw Codey Amprim’s post at Mythic Scribes on “Using Role-Playing to Rein in Your WIP,” I knew I had to read it. Codey’s point is quite simple, to the point of being self-evident: you can learn a lot about your world-building, characters, settings, etc. simply by inviting your friends to role-play in your setting. If you’re into RPGs (and have some friends that are, too), running a session in which your friends can not just read your WIP but experience bits of it firsthand can open your eyes to what is working and what isn’t. Codey writes,

In my opinion, this is just as valuable, if not more (depending on how serious your role-playing companions get), than using beta readers. You get to take in their reactions, not just their words. You get the chance to see how they respond to your WIP, by directly engaging them and their imaginations – without a manuscript. It’s a great chance to test the waters of your work while having a good time.

I’ve been world-building a new WIP to within an inch of its life lately, and I’ve been intentionally thinking of the magic system in terms of “game mechanics.” What should the characters I’m imagining be able to do? What would be too hard? What shouldn’t be possible at all? As a former old-school gamer (from back before there was a new school!), I find it helpful to quantify things like that—even if I eventually scrap or retcon some things in the course of actually writing!

To me, the easiest system to “hack” with a home-brewed magic system is Fate Core, which has the advantage of an excellent online source reference document (SRD) where you can read pretty much the whole rule set for free. There’s also Fate Accelerated, a stripped-down version especially suitable for new or younger gamers. From here on, I’m going to say Fate, but I’m talking specifically about Fate Core. As a system, Fate is immensely customizable to fit any conceivable genre.

Disclaimer: I’ve never played Fate, so I can’t comment on how it works at the table. I understand it’s not every gamer’s cup of tea. But from a writing point of view, it was just what I was looking for.

 

If you’ve never heard of Fate, the basic mechanic revolves around aspects, which are brief phrases or descriptors that describe a character (or a scene, or a magical artifact, etc.). Aspects underline what is most crucial to understand about something, both positively or negatively. Harry Potter might have aspects like “Lord Voldemort’s Nemesis” or “Good at Flying.” Percy Jackson might have aspects like “Son of Poseidon” or “Would Do Anything for his Friends.” Your aspects can give you advantages on certain dice rolls, but they can also be used against you to complicate your character’s life.

There are also skills, drawn from a fairly limited set—although these can be customized to fit the needs of the genre of game you’re playing. Finally, there are stunts, which are essentially “super-skills,” the signature moves or amazing, unique abilities that characters possess. Where skills are somewhat narrowly defined, stunts can be pretty much anything. Hermione Granger probably has a stunt that lets her do magic far beyond her baseline ability as long as she has time to do the appropriate research. Annabeth Chase definitely has a stunt that lets her analyze conditions on a battlefield and use what she learns to create advantages for herself or her teammates.

You get a certain number of stunts for free. After that, you have to “buy” them with points of Refresh. This number indicates how many Fate Points a character starts each game session with, generally set at 3. You use Fate Points to invoke your aspects, using them to get dice bonuses. You gain Fate Points when someone invokes your aspects against you (called “compelling”). (This is important to playing Fate, maybe not so much to using the Fate system to describe a work of fiction!)

So here’s what I was aiming at, and some rough notes about how I think it can be translated into a Fate rule set.

  • First, the basic conceit of my WIP is the existence of supernatural beings—elves, dwarves, mermaids, trolls, etc.—living undercover, beneath the radar, in the contemporary, mundane world. Some are just passing through. Some have been exiled from the supernatural realm and can’t get back. Some, however, are on the run from someone or something and never want to go back. The classic American immigrant story, just with magic!
  • A secondary conceit is that these beings roughly correspond to the elemental spirits described in the 16th century by Paracelsus: sylphs, undines, gnomes, and salamanders, each spinning off with bewildering diversity of form and power level, but generally corresponding to one of the four classical elements: air, water, earth, or fire. (I eventually added a few others just to keep it interesting.)

I found it actually quite easy to translate what I was looking for into Fate terms. Actually, works similarly to the Stormcallers magic system suggested in the supplemental Fate System Toolkit. My system favors magic that is more versatile and yet more subtle than Stormcallers, however. For example, you can’t use the basic Magic skill for combat rolls—if you want to lob fireballs or whatever, you need to buy a stunt for that.

Here’s the 30-second version:

  1. Each character must buy an aspect that indicates their kindred (elf, dwarf, etc.), the “flavor” of their magic (Air Magic, Earth Magic, etc.), or both.
  2. Buy the (newly invented) Wild Magic skill. Reduce the character’s Refresh by 1.
  3. Declare which elemental chaos powers the character’s magic: Air, Earth, Fire, Ice, Lightning, Metal, Water, or Wood.
  4. If desired, buy additional Wild Magic skills in other elemental chaoses. A second Wild Magic aspect does not reduce refresh, but a third aspect requires another one-step reduction.
  5. If desired, build one or more stunts related to the characters magical skill(s).

From there, it’s mostly a matter of figuring out what each elemental chaos is all about. Here, I turn to classical alchemy, neo-paganism, and pervasive cultural symbolism surrounding each element. So Water Magic also has to do with intuition, the subconscious, and healing arts, for example, while Air Magic also governs thoughts and perceptions. Anything suitably subtle can be done with the basic skill. Anything flashy or notably dangerous has to be bought as a stunt.

In my WIP, it’s also possible for mortals to practice magic, although theirs works a bit differently…and will have to be addressed in another post down the road.