In honor of the new King’s Quest series now being painfully slowly rolled out, let’s take a retrospective look at one of the most seminal computer game series of the 90s: King’s Quest.
King’s Quest was the brain child of Roberta Williams, one of the three great computer game auteurs. It was a series of eight medieval-themed graphics adventure games starring the archer-hatted King Graham and his family. Released between 1983 and 1994, this series was an important touchstone still fondly remembered by kids of that era.
The series can be divided into two parts: The 80s games (I-IV), which featured 16-color graphics and a parser interface, and the 90s games (V-VII), which featured 256 colors and a point-and-click interface. (I won’t be addressing King’s Quest VIII, which I feel differs too much to be really considered part of the series.) Let’s jump right in with King’s Quest I.
King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown
The king is dying, and Sir Graham must find three treasures to prove himself worthy of taking the throne. The story was simple, but the game was revolutionary. Bursting into a world of text-only games and static graphics, King’s Quest allowed you to actually watch Graham moving around and exploring a lush, expansive world. (Fun fact: To save memory, the first four King’s Quest games use vector graphics instead of raster. The visuals become incredibly impressive when you imagine the time it took to encode them that way.)
Unfortunately, the graphics and animation that wowed players in 1983 are almost unplayable now. Many of us of a certain age are fond of old graphics, but there’s old and there’s old. King’s Quest’s 16-color 200×160 vectors are so basic that it’s sometimes hard to tell what you’re looking at. The big open-format map that wraps on all sides (is Daventry a torus?) impressed contemporary players, for whom simply wandering around a map and looking at things were new experiences, but nowadays it feels poorly designed because many of the screens don’t feature any gameplay elements at all. Plus, let’s face it, both Daventry and Sir Graham are generic as hell.
Modern players often complain about the parser, which requires players to type commands in order to control Graham. It was such an impediment that fans released free remakes of all four games with point-and-click interfaces (I didn’t like the remakes and won’t be addressing them). Coupled with the rudimentary graphics, the parser can be a frustrating experience when you find yourself trying to examine that blob of yellow pixels, but it has its advantages. Using commands like “jump” and “dive,” it requires players to think more carefully about their choices and take a more lateral approach than the “use this on that” mindset of point-and-click adventures. Still, I don’t fault anyone who finds the parser an insurmountable obstacle.
King’s Quest I introduced a beloved protagonist and introduced many standards of the franchise, like the incorporation of fairy tales, and of adventure games as a whole. If you can get past its limitations, it’s well worth checking out for a student of computer game history.
King’s Quest II: Romancing the Throne
Just kidding. But honestly, there isn’t much to say about this one. Graham is king now, though he still wears his adventuring hat, and he’s off to find himself a bride.
Some of the awkward parts of King’s Quest I have been improved—there are no more big sections of map that don’t do anything—and, generally, the graphics-adventure format seemed to be hitting its stride, but like the first game, the graphics and gameplay that earned high praise at the time offer very little to the modern player. The story and characters are rudimentary and not very memorable. The puzzles are challenging, but also don’t stand out. There’s a visually striking (for the time) bit where you pass through a magic door into a bizarre-looking world with blue ground and purple water, but the princess you find there is disappointingly normal.
King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human
In terms of story and gameplay, King’s Quest III is a huge leap forward. King Graham’s son, Gwydion, has been kidnapped by an evil wizard. In order to escape, he must steal the wizard’s wand and cast various spells, eventually—and delightfully—turning the wizard into a cat.
It’s a great concept. How well it succeeds, though, is a matter of opinion. The wizard appears and disappears at regular intervals and he’ll kill you if he catches you in the act, so you need to take the wand, leave the castle, run around looking for spell components, rush back to the castle, put the wand back, and hide all the spell components under your bed before he returns, and that’s not counting the time spent figuring out that that’s what you need to do.
As a result, the ratio of actual exploring and puzzle-solving to walking to and from the castle and hiding things is rather low, and instead of the other games’ leisurely atmosphere of exploration, this game’s first act constantly feels in a hurry.
Once you transform the wizard, the plot switches to the journey home and becomes more conventional. The puzzles, which use the spells you learned earlier, are fun and creative, and some of the spells you cast are pretty awesome.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about King’s Quest III. The mechanics can be frustrating, but it’s innovative and features the most interesting and unique mechanics in the whole series. By all means, give it a try.
King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
This is by far the most well-remembered of the first four games, and for one thing: It’s the one about a girl. Targeting a computer game at girls was an innovation at the time and no doubt contributed to its success, but how does it hold up otherwise?
While King’s Quest III began to focus on plot, in King’s Quest IV, plot is king. King Graham is sick and Rosella must fetch the fruit that can save him, along the way saving the life of a good fairy and defeating an evil one. “Can a computer game make you cry?” asked the advertisements. There’s a 10-minute intro animation, and the subsequent game features, for the first time, complex characters who aren’t all simple archetypes. Interestingly, Rosella spends most of the game forced to do quests for the villain.
Though it would be quickly overshadowed by King’s Quest V, the technical achievements of King’s Quest IV match its storytelling. It features higher resolution, mouse support, a better parser, and sound card support, and it makes great use of all of them. In particular, scary parts like the haunted mansion evoke a genuinely creepy atmosphere. It also features a real-time element: Day eventually turns to night, and certain quests must be completed before then.
The weaknesses of King’s Quest IV are mostly present in the other games as well, but become noticeable here because of the game’s overall high quality: Staircases where you can easily fall and die, items that break if you use them one too many times, and generally being overly punishing.
This is the game that’s worth mastering the parser for. As to whether it will make you cry…well, that depends on whether you manage to save King Graham.
But King’s Quest IV barely hinted at the massive changes that would overhaul computer games in the 90s. Next time, I’ll look at the franchise’s second generation: King’s Quest V-VII.
*The other two being, of course, Brian Fargo and Sid Meiers.
Well, Back to the Future Day is over. From now on, Back to the Future is officially a historical film. Instead of bemoaning the passage of time, let’s take a moment take a moment to appreciate what makes this movie so classic. Because aside from being funny and wildly entertaining, Back to the Future is well written and tightly plotted, rare virtues in Hollywood or out*.
Setups and Payoffs
This movie is all about setup and payoff. The first act, especially the scene with the McFly family at the dinner table, is stuffed with detail about the characters, their pasts, and the history of the town, all of which will become pertinent to the plot in the second act. But the exposition is never forced. It always flows naturally out of the characters’ actions. For instance, Marty needs to acquire the flyer about the clock tower, but simply being handed the flyer isn’t enough; he would have no reason to keep it. Solution: Jennifer writes her number on the flyer. The additional detail that she’s at her grandma’s house explains why her boyfriend doesn’t already have her number. This kind of precision continues throughout the movie.
Practically every joke has a setup and a payoff, too. This joke structure is great for a time-travel story, since it gives a sense of repetition. And every time Marty’s parents do something that he did earlier (or vice versa) it underlines the main theme of the movie: Marty learning to understand his parents and discovering how much he has in common with them.
But all those setups require a long first act, which could easily lose interest (notice how the movie drags whenever the jokeless Jennifer is onscreen). So the structure of the jokes varies. Most have the setup first, followed by the joke. But sometimes, like when Marty blows out the speaker, the joke comes first and a callback comes later. And better still, whenever possible, the setup and payoff are both jokes.
And isn’t it great that the movie allows Marty to be the butt of jokes instead of relegating him to the role of good-looking straight man?
Back to the Future has three main sets of stakes: Marty must return to the future, he must hook up his parents, and he must warn Doc about his death. (More on the latter below.) Notice the order in which the stakes are established. Marty’s initial goal is to get back to his own time, but before he can find Doc and figure out a plan, he’s already met his parents and accidentally changed their future.
This strengthens the story for two reasons. First, since Marty meets his parents before Doc warns him about changing the future, it comes across as an understandable mistake rather than a stupid blunder, maintaining him as a sympathetic character. Second, the overlapping order of the goals ensures that there’s never any downtime where the characters don’t have anything to do. Marty and Doc must wait a week for lightning to strike the clock tower, but Marty spends the entire time trying to deal with his parents. Meanwhile, the knowledge that Doc will be killed back in 1985 is an undercurrent throughout the film.
Compare this to an alternate plot structure: Marty goes back in time, finds Doc immediately, learns that he can’t return until Saturday, spends some time bumming around 1955, and then accidentally changes his parents’ future. While this tells essentially the same story, it’s a much weaker plot because it leaves gaps during which Marty has no active goal. The plot as written is tightly paced and keeps the viewer engaged.
Marty’s attempt to prevent Doc’s death is the film’s only non-comedic stakes, and it requires careful handling. If Marty doesn’t put enough effort into warning Doc, their relationship will seem cursory and insincere. On the other hand, if the film focuses too much on Doc’s death, it will lose its comedic value. Marty’s letter allows him to think he’s succeeded in warning Doc so that problem can take the back burner during the second act. Then, in the third act, he makes every possible effort to tell Doc until it becomes physically impossible, which makes his concern feel very authentic.
It’s the climax so great they put it in all three movies. The basic climax required by the plot would have been exciting enough: Marty must hit the wire at the exact time lightning strikes while going exactly 88 miles per hour. But they just keep piling on more beats: The wire gets unplugged and Doc must climb out onto the clock tower to plug it back in, then it’s too short to reach, then the Delorean won’t start, then the wire gets unplugged again, each beat increasing the tension.
Not only does this create an exciting, high-stakes climax, it’s also an incredibly fun climax. Action comedy is difficult. Jokes tend to undermine tension, so most movies set aside the humor during their action scenes. But Back to the Future seamlessly weaves them together, using the humor to build the stakes and vice versa. Action comedy this effective wouldn’t return until Guardians of the Galaxy.
Good plotting is invisible: While plot holes immediately jump out at the viewer, a well-constructed story moves through its beats without drawing attention to itself, leaving the viewer’s attention where it should be: On the characters, the action, and the jokes. Back to the Future is full of great jokes and memorable moments, but it’s the care taken with the writing and plotting that really elevates it and makes it a classic.
*In this post, I’m only discussing the first film. The sequels, while entertaining, aren’t nearly as tightly written.
Back to the Future is the property of Universal.
The principle of tinkering with something isn’t to rag on something bad, but to look at something that might have been good but missed the mark, or that we wanted to like but didn’t, and to see how it could have been improved while staying true to the basic premise. With that in mind, let’s have a look at Jurassic World.
Jurassic World opens on the wrong foot by spending unnecessary time establishing the family that doesn’t serve to make the characters any more sympathetic or strongly defined. Zach has a girlfriend who is never mentioned again, Gray confusingly doesn’t seem eager to leave on the trip he’s supposed to be excited about, and their mother is an irritating sanctimommy who mostly exists to cry and berate Claire. (Berating Claire is a major theme in this movie.)
The solution is to cut the parents entirely and start the movie with the boys on the ferry. The crow opening shot can stay, since there’s no reason that can’t take place on the ferry. Showing Gray excited and Zach bored is all we need to establish their characterization, and the line “Where’s Aunt Claire?” is sufficient to explain their relationship to her. Removing the parents also eliminates the odd scene where Gray abruptly starts crying about his parents getting a divorce, another plot thread which will never be mentioned again.
I love Chris Pratt as much as the next Parks and Recreation fan, but he’s all wrong for this movie. It’s extremely difficult to imagine him as ex-military, and the romance between him and Bryce Dallas Howard is a strong contender for a Razzie.
Keeping his character as written, he needs to be played by someone who can both be a take-command ass-kicker and a lovable teddy bear, like Channing Tatum or…Channing Tatum. A corny casting choice, possibly, but appropriate for a movie franchise that places fun first. Alternately, if we drop the romance (probably a good idea), Owen can become an older Harrison Ford type with a more world-weary, seen-everything attitude.
To shake things up further, make Owen a woman. She could either remain as written or be an older character; either way she’d be more interesting than the existing Owen.
By far the biggest problem with Jurassic World is Claire. High heels and the fact that she’s repeatedly berated for not liking kids aren’t the real problem: The movie doesn’t respect her, and we can’t invest in a movie that doesn’t respect its own protagonists.
The first possible solution is simply to make her actually good at something. Claire’s ability to run the park is informed; we never actually see her demonstrating competence. She ought to immediately take charge when things go wrong and to competently handle damage control. Or maybe she’s a high-charisma people person whose employees really like her.
But I prefer the opposite tack: Make it her first day on the job. She’s a young career woman with all the right qualifications but no experience who immediately finds herself out of her depth when everything goes sideways. This would immediately turn her into a sympathetic character and it would make a lot of her existing actions more comprehensible, like not meeting her nephews (maybe she’s so harried that she forgot they were coming that day) and the bit where she messes around with her blouse to show that she’s ready to go.
Claire also lacks a character arc that fits into the action of the story. She gets to surmount her inability to care about the dinosaurs by crying a single glistening tear (all the women in this movie both cry and scream), but it’s a scene that doesn’t advance the plot. Her moment luring the T. Rex at the end is cool, but has nothing to do with her character arc. Properly the two ought to be connected: Maybe she’s afraid of the T. Rex and her big character arc is overcoming that fear. Or, if her main arc is learning to empathize with the dinosaurs, then the climax should hinge on that; maybe she ends up needing to communicate with the velociraptors, for instance.
The plot of Jurassic World is full of holes. The military wanted a small-sized killing machine, but for some reason they built a giant one. When the Indominus Rex doesn’t show up on the thermal scanners, they immediately go into the enclosure instead of just calling control to ask where it is. And someone apparently found a prehistoric mosquito that had bitten a mosasaurus.
But you know what? None of that really matters. Fury Road is also full of dubious plot elements (if there are fuel shortages, why does everyone drive giant cars everywhere?), but nobody cares because the whole experience is so immersive and enjoyable. The trouble with Jurassic World is that we aren’t invested, so we get distracted and notice all the plot holes.
Jurassic World was full of glimpses of the really entertaining movie it might have been, but it was killed by the lack of likable characters with strong arcs we could invest in. A few minor changes could have allowed us to get our fix of rampaging dinosaurs in the context of a much stronger movie.
Our attitude toward Nazis is changing, and not for the better.
Ever since World War II, Nazis have occupied a unique niche as the West’s universal standard for evil*. Even during the Cold War, Communists never quite had the requisite degree of absolute soulless villainy: Lucas didn’t model the Star Wars villains’ outfits on the Red Army, for instance, and Indiana Jones wouldn’t go up against Communists until 2008.
Today, Nazis are still treated as the embodiment of absolute evil. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is Lucas and the rest of the media, not them, who has become the primary voice influencing how we understand them. Most people today, especially young people, do not know any Holocaust survivors personally. But we’ve all seen countless movies with Nazi villains, many of them in sci-fi or other settings strongly divorced from historical reality.
The influence this change has on our culture is subtle. After all, when Nazis show up in movies, they’re the villains almost without exception. But there’s a difference between a movie villain, however evil, and a real-life mass murderer who killed millions of actual people. There’s a growing attitude that views Nazis as evil, but evil like Darth Vader. And it’s acceptable to like and even admire and emulate a movie villain (for instance, through cosplay).
Since movie villains harm no one in real life, they’re in a sense more of an aesthetic choice or a statement of one’s attitude, an attitude which some people, often a lot of people, identify with. The villain is often a movie’s most memorable character. Villains are clever, they’re stylish, they don’t play by the rules, and they always have a plan. It’s easy to see why this style, divorced from any actual misdeeds, can be appealing, as in Tom Hiddleston’s Jaguar ads.
This villainy-as-aesthetic attitude, I think, accounts for the resurgence of overt Nazi imagery and language on the internet in communities like GamerGate, which has a mascot who is—you guessed it—a literal Nazi. And also an anime schoolgirl. (No, for you sweet summer children who have never heard of GamerGate, I am not making any of that up.) They see themselves as movie villains and therefore identify with Nazis, who have been presented to them as movie villains all their lives.
Nazis as movie villains also account for the otherwise-inexplicable Case of the Nazi Romance Novel For Such a Time. Casting a real-life concentration camp commandant as not only redeemable but romantically desirable would be both impossible and obviously reprehensible. But how about a movie Nazi? Kate Breslin isn’t writing a romance about a real Nazi and a real Jew; she’s writing the equivalent of a fanfic about Princess Leia and General Tarkin. And Aric’s redemption at the end is not forgiveness for killing thousands of real people, but redemption in the sense of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that strikes me as both the most plausible and the most generous interpretation. The fact that GamerGate came to the defense of For Such a Time brings the story full circle.
This shift in cultural attitudes is not harmless. This abstraction of Nazis from real to fictional both provides cover for real-life white supremacist movements and blunts our reaction to the actual historical atrocities**. As a fiction writer, it’s difficult to figure out the most constructive reaction. It’s a Catch-22: Any depiction of Nazis in fiction, however careful, inherently reinforces the problem, but ignoring them clearly doesn’t help, either.
So for now, I’ll simply urge everyone to remember that, however many movies they appear in, the Nazis were real people who committed real atrocities, and this is something we can’t afford to forget.
*I’m curious about who, if anyone, occupied this niche before World War II. None of the players in World War I had the necessary nefariousness, nor did earlier conquerors like Napoleon, who always had a streak of the admirable, even from his enemies’ perspective.
**Coupled with the extremely high profile of the Holocaust relative to other historical atrocities, there’s an even more insidious possible consequence: The abstraction of genocide itself into a quasi-fictional concept. According to the media, only Nazis commit genocide, and Nazis are movie villains; therefore, genocide could pass from a real, recurrent, and critically important problem into the same sort of threat as a villain taking over the world. After all, when was the last time you read a book or watched a movie about, say, the Hutus and Tutsis?
Title comes from the TVTropes page about Nazis, another good example of diluting them into a stock type defined by their appearance and mannerisms. Star Wars is the property of Disney. Red Skull is…also the property of Disney. Darth Vader cosplay found here (Darth Vader is, of course, the property of Disney). GamerGate Nazi mascot found on Reddit, obviously. For Such a Time is the property of Kate Breslin and not, thankfully, the property of Disney.
Last time I talked about good worldbuilding: What it is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. Today I’m going to expand on my third point: Worldbuilding that doesn’t actually make it into the story.
Have you ever read a book where the world feels vague and spare, only to discover that the author had actually put a huge amount of work and detail into constructing that world? If you’re like me, you might feel the need to walk back your opinion of the book because the world really was well-developed, you just didn’t know it. But you shouldn’t. A book should be judged by—surprise!—the actual content of the book, not by whatever the author thought of but didn’t include. A world that’s complex and well-developed, but the reader doesn’t know it, is in fact indistinguishable from a world that isn’t complex and well-developed.
As an example, I’ll use the only person I can fairly pick on: Myself. Here’s another detail from my first novel, the same one that included Continent Not-Appearing-In-This-Book.
I’m sure my 18-year-old self found the expansion of acceptable color combinations in Kalandaz heraldry incredibly fascinating, but I’m equally sure that my readers, if I’d had any, would not have agreed. More to the point, how much of this do you think actually made it into the story? Essentially nothing, of course.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t bothered to work out much in the way of climate, customs, class structure, architecture, clothing, cuisine, how people spend their free time, or just about anything else that the characters were likely to encounter during the story. The actual story felt like any other generic Tolkienesque fantasy world. So I’d managed to simultaneously put a lot of work into worldbuilding and give the readers the impression that I’d put no work into it.
As a writer, the way to avoid this is to simply be honest with yourself about whether you’re developing details that really affect the story or whether you’re just noodling about for fun. Since heraldry was my hobby at the time, it’s pretty obvious in my case. Aimless noodling is perfectly allowable, but don’t entertain the illusion that it makes your book better.
The other aspect is that some types of worldbuilding tend to affect the story more directly than others. Unless I wrote a book about actual heralds, my heraldry system would never have been more than an occasional bit of window dressing. There are certain types of worldbuilding—history, geography, languages, various logistical details—that authors love but that just tend not to affect the actual characters and their lives that much. Compare that to, for instance, food. Everyone interacts with food on a daily basis and it’s a great way to flesh out the world. Something as simple as a bowl of apples on a table versus a bowl of dates versus a bowl of mangoes immediately speaks volumes about the setting.
The above example suggests a corollary rule: The more unusual the setting, the more fleshed out it will feel. A reader might not even notice the bowl of apples, for instance, but the bowl of mangoes would jump out. In fantasy, no matter how much work you put into worldbuilding, if your world is just like medieval Europe, it will seem like you put almost no effort in. Conversely, if you put the exact same amount of effort into a setting based on prehistoric Polynesia, it will feel much more developed because nearly every detail will be something readers haven’t seen before.
Happily for everyone involved (ie, me and me), my epic Kalandaz trilogy (80,000 words total) never saw the light of day, and I’ve moved on to an era of, hopefully, more sensible worldbuilding. So far, it hasn’t involved heraldry.
Let’s talk about worldbuilding.
It has come to my attention that my definition of good worldbuilding is drastically different—and far more demanding—than most people’s. So here I present my view for your consideration. In my view, worldbuilding is far more than simply making stuff up; it is a delicate process tied up with the other aspects of the story, and there are far more ways to do it wrong than right.
Let’s start out by defining what good worldbuilding isn’t.
Good worldbuilding isn’t a vehicle for the plot.
When writing speculative fiction, it’s extremely tempting to worldbuild your way out of plot problems. Need a character to find out a secret? Give them telepathy. Want a witness to something that happened a long time ago? Make them immortal. And so on. But worlds created this way don’t feel like real, holistic places that might actually exist. They feel like places that exist only to help the main character advance the plot, because that’s exactly what they are. And the more you do this, the cheaper the story feels, as the answer to every “Why don’t they do this?” question becomes “Because there’s something in the world that specifically prevents that.”
Good worldbuilding needs to be free to develop in whatever direction feels the most realistic without being shackled to the plot. It’s fine to begin a story by saying “I want these characters to shoot lightning at each other from a mountaintop in the third act, so I’ll give them electricity powers,” but then you need to fully explore the implications of people having those powers. Do all the appliances in a room turn on when they walk in, like they were a human Tesla coil? Is electricity free because people generate it? How does that affect the economy? And so on. If consistent, believable worldbuilding ends up making the original plot idea unfeasible, you need to be willing to change the plot, rather than kludging more and more implausible details into the world until the plot works.
Curiously, genre comedies are often more successful at this type of worldbuilding than dramas; driven more by jokes than plot, they’re free to explore a premise in whatever silly direction it takes them, like giving a supervillain a time share lair where they keep getting phone calls for other supervillains.
Good worldbuilding isn’t a massive amount of fluff.
I define “fluff” as small, nonessential detail. For instance, if your character lives in the capital city of the nation, the name of the city and the fact that it’s the capital are essential information. But if they walk through the city square and you describe the various types of people and/or creatures they see, that’s fluff. It helps us understand the world better, but you could still tell the story perfectly well without it.
“Nonessential” doesn’t mean that it should be cut; fluff is often the most fun and memorable parts of the story. But in terms of worldbuilding, it’s the icing on the cake. You still need a delicious cake underneath it. You can’t just serve your readers a bowl of icing and expect them to be satisfied.
Moreover, while creating fluff is fun, the more of it you include, the more likely you are to introduce something that creates an inconsistency or plot hole. Even if they only appear in one scene, these details exist all the time within your world and influence it, and it’s your increasingly-complex job to make sure they make sense with all the other details. If they don’t, your readers will spot it. For instance, Tolkien’s giant eagles immediately raised the question “Why don’t they just fly the eagles to Mount Doom?”, the fluff detail that launched a thousand online arguments.
Good worldbuilding isn’t excessive information beyond the limits of the story.
Here I’m talking, not about fluff, but about the bigger stuff: Countries and their locations, geographical features, social structure, magic systems, and other features that aren’t just window dressing.
When you brainstorm this kind of stuff, you inevitably come up with some amount of information that doesn’t make it into the story. Maybe you had to cut that scene; maybe it just never came up. That’s fine. In fact, it’s a sign that you’ve put a lot of work into the worldbuilding. But at the end of the day, the quality of your book is based on what’s actually in your book. If you know your world’s crop-rotation schedules or the names of the past 500 kings, that doesn’t make your book the slightest bit better unless those somehow make it into the story in a meaningful way.
My first completed novel included an entire continent, complete with cultures and politics, that not only was never visited by the characters in the story, but never had been visited by anyone in their entire civilization. It was a complete waste of time. If your entire story takes place in one village, that’s all you need. There’s more on this point in my followup post.
Good worldbuilding isn’t internal consistency.
Internal consistency is a requirement for any story, regardless of genre. If the bank is across the street from the library in chapter three, the bank had better be across from the library in chapter twenty. But while consistency is necessary to good worldbuilding, it is not sufficient. No one recommends a book to their friends because of the accuracy of its bank locations. Indeed, if the world is compelling enough, readers are willing to forgive quite a lot of inconsistency.
At this point it may seem like I’ve ruled out everything. Good worldbuilding isn’t based on the amount or kind of detail or even on keeping your ideas straight. So what is good worldbuilding? It’s surprisingly simple.
Good worldbuilding is when the story could not take place anywhere else.
Good worldbuilding is so intimately intertwined with the characters, plot, and themes of the story that it can’t be extracted. The characters in such a story are products of their environment; they could not have existed in any other world, and if they did, they’d be completely different people. The plot is dependent on the nature of the world (and, depending on the story, the world may be dependent on the resolution of the plot). And what we see of the world serves to underline the themes of the story.
A basic test is: Could your story be moved to a different setting (say, Middle-Earth or Westeros, or even the present-day world if it doesn’t already take place there) without having to completely overhaul everything? If so, your worldbuilding is almost certainly too simplistic. As an example, imagine trying to transplant Star Wars into another universe—the Dune universe, for instance. You could dispense with rancors and tauntauns easily enough, but in order to tell a coherent story, you’d have to import not only Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but the entire concept of the Force, the Jedi, the Sith, and the Empire; essentially the entire universe. It’s just not feasible.
This principle isn’t limited to speculative fiction, by the way. Good contemporaries are also imbued with a strong sense of place. For instance, No Place to Fall by Jaye Robin Brown has a distinctive Appalachian small-town setting that informs the characters and the story. You couldn’t possibly tell the same story in, say, New York City.
This is a stringent standard to hold yourself to, and most readers won’t care. But it’s worth it to create a world that isn’t just a big pile of details or a way to make the plot work, but a realistic and holistic place that truly brings your story to life.
LEGO image and map are mine. Frosting image is from Wikimedia Commons. No Place to Fall is property of Jaye Robin Brown. Kim Possible and Star Wars are property of Disney, but what isn’t these days.
Archetypes are ubiquitous, yet misunderstood. All writers innately know how to use archetypes, yet many don’t realize that’s what they’re doing and don’t understand how they fit into literature as a whole. So let’s have a conversation about archetypes: What they are, what they aren’t, and how to use them.
Archetypes, in literature, are universal elements that show up over and over in various cultures across the world and throughout time. It can be any type of story element: A character (eg, the evil overlord), a plot (eg, the coming-of-age story), a symbol (eg, the forbidden fruit), and so on. Technical definitions of what archetypes are and how they work get complex and contentious, so I’ll keep it simple: If you can immediately name half a dozen drastically different works that use the same element, you’re looking at an archetype.
The most common misconception about archetypes is that they’re clichés. They are not. A cliché is a storytelling device that gets overused until everyone is tired of it. An archetype is a storytelling device that people never get tired of, no matter how often it’s used. For instance, a dragon kidnapping a princess is a cliché, so much so that for decades now we’ve expected any story along those lines to have a twist, such as the dragon kidnapping the prince and the princess needing to rescue him. But the dragon and the princess themselves are not clichés, because they are elements that we enjoy seeing in stories again and again*.
Many people think that, because they’re common and easy to use, archetypes are therefore bad and a sign of weak writing. It’s true that they are often used by beginners and weak writers and that they appear more often in the genres that the establishment considers less reputable (fantasy, romance), but there’s an important distinction between “things that bad writers do” and “bad writing.” After all, bad writers usually copy good writers.
Conversely, there’s the Jungian school of thought that archetypes tap into something universal deep in the human psyche and resonate with people in a way no other story can. This line of argument says that all characters and plots should be based on archetypes and that, the farther away they stray from well-established story types, the weaker they’ll be. I think this is also nonsense. An archetype is one type of character or plot that we know from experience works well, but there can be any number of less well-trodden ways to write a story that will resonate just as strongly or more so. Archetypes should never become rules to limit people.
Archetypes are like recipes. Some people always use recipes when they cook. Other cooks prefer to freestyle. Neither method is better; it’s entirely a matter of preference. Beginners and people who aren’t good at cooking are best advised to stick with a recipe, but it would be ludicrous to conclude that recipes make bad food or that really good cooks don’t use recipes. On the other hand, the fact that good recipes make delicious food doesn’t mean you need a recipe to make good food, and lots of excellent cooks never use a recipe.
I myself tend to be a freestyler, both when cooking and when writing. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with archetypes. They’re a fundamental storytelling tool that has been used, at one time or another, by practically every writer, and whether you prefer to use them or not, understanding archetypes is essential to being a writer.
*Okay, I don’t like the princess, but the question of problematic archetypes is a different conversation.
First image is (left to right) Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Orcus from Dungeons and Dragons (4th edition), the Horned King from The Black Cauldron, and the Lich King from World of Warcraft. Second image is The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. Third image is from Wikimedia Commons.
I don’t like princess stories.
I don’t like princess stories even if the princesses kick ass, even if they reject their princessy obligations and just want to lead normal lives, even if they’re gorgeously well-rounded characters with staggeringly complex psychological profiles. The issue is not the execution. The issue is the premise.
My problem with princesses is this: When we tell stories about princesses, we imply that the stories of ordinary girls aren’t worth telling.
Consider the dustup about Marvel’s lack of Black Widow merchandise, which included replacing Black Widow with Captain America or Iron Man in toys based on Black Widow’s movie scenes. Disney, who owns Marvel, provided the justification that they don’t need to market superheroes to girls because the Disney Princesses already have the girls’ market on a lockdown. Presumably this is also the reason they will have released 8 movies starring blond guys named Chris* before giving us a single female superhero movie (Captain Marvel) in 2018.
One can argue that princesses and superheroes are equally unrealistic fantasies, but let’s look more carefully. Marvel’s superheroes come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are gods or billionaires, but others are dweeby high-school students or 98-pound weaklings the army wouldn’t take. Characters like Spider-Man and Captain America suggest that anyone with the right character could become a superhero (given the right spider bit or supersoldier serum). But princesses are princesses by right of birth–there’s no corresponding common narrative that anyone can become a princess**.
So where are the stories about dweeby high-school girls, or any kind of regular girl who isn’t royalty? In the Disney canon, which I’ll stick with because the Mouse is always an easy target, there aren’t many.
If we look at animated non-anthology films from the studio’s inception until the end of the Disney Renaissance (1937-1999, ending there because Pixar films subsequently muddle up the accounting), there are 29 films, 16 starring male characters, 8 starring female characters, and 5 costarring both male and female characters (eg, Lady and the Tramp). Of the films led by male characters or by both male and female characters, only two, The Sword in the Stone and The Lion King, are about royalty. The other protagonists come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from street urchins to inanimate objects. Of the female-led films, five out of eight either start or end the film as princesses, six if you count Pocahontas, a chief’s daughter. Fully half of the female-led movies are about royalty, a vanishingly small percentage of the population even within the movies’ settings.
There are also differences between Disney movies about male royalty and Disney movies about female royalty. Both The Lion King and The Sword in the Stone are thematically about what it means to rule and what makes a good king. Large portions of both films are devoted to older mentors giving the young princes the skills and knowledge they will need when they take the throne.
On the other hand, there is no Disney princess movie about what it means to be a good queen; Disney princesses rarely become queens. Instead, becoming (or reclaiming one’s title as) a princess is usually a goal or reward for the protagonist, and often simply a trait given to the leading man as a shorthand way to make him a good catch. Moreover, until contemporary Disney gave us Tangled and Frozen, most princess stories followed very similar romance-based arcs. Both these factors suggest that the preponderance of princesses is not a matter of careful thought, but rather the result of ingrained assumptions.
There are a couple of examples where a commoner becomes a princess, but these only entered the canon in the 90’s with Belle. More common are the princesses or aristocratic girls who are reduced to poverty, thus maintaining the narrative that they have an inherent right to the title. This is a feature of nearly every iteration of Cinderella, the implication being that poor servant girls whose fathers weren’t aristocrats don’t have any right to expect their lives to get better, not even by magical means.
The reason we need to expand our vocabulary of female-led stories beyond princesses is not that there’s anything wrong with pretty dresses, castles, or even marrying princes. The reason is that princess stories create a narrative that girls have to be from privileged backgrounds in order to be the hero. And that’s one story we can afford to stop telling.
*Chris Evans (3 movies), Chris Helmsworth (3 movies), and Chris Pratt (2 movies).
**Except for Sara Crewe. We love you, Sara.
So if you follow me on Twitter, you may have picked up some vague hints that I kinda liked Mad Max: Fury Road. And you may have guessed that I would have something to say about Imperator Furiosa. Well, you’re wrong. I’m going to talk about Nux.
Nux is the film’s most unexpected character. While Furiosa is unusual and well executed, she still belongs to a recognizable archetype. Nux does not. Spoilers follow.
The opening sequence is fairly standard. Max gets captured by and tries to escape from a horde of warboys. The warboys seem like typical movie mooks: Identical, unthinking, and expendable, decked out with scary makeup. But we soon see that Fury Road‘s treatment of the warboys is anything but typical. When Furiosa veers her truck off the road to make her escape, a warboy from her entourage thumps on the window and asks what she’s doing. It’s a throwaway moment, but in contrast to so many armies of mooks that do nothing but mindlessly attack, it’s refreshing to see one behave like a normal human being by noticing when something out of the ordinary happens and wondering if anything is wrong.
And the warboys are normal human beings. They aren’t clones, zombies, robots, or mutants. While they fight for Immortan Joe with suicidal devotion, they aren’t mindless. We discover this in the next scene, when Nux is introduced. He’s a half-dead warboy being pumped full of Max’s blood to keep himself alive. When Immortan Joe discovers that his “wives” have run away with Furiosa, he rallies the warboys and the chase is on. Nux asks his friend what’s going on and, when he finds out, he begs and negotiates to go along, even though his friend thinks he’s too sick.
What an unusual scene. It’s as if the battle for Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers began with all the orcs marching towards the fortress, then cut to a couple of orcs back at the camp talking about what they hope to accomplish in the battle. In this exchange, Nux demonstrates a range of humanizing emotions: Excitement, disappointment, frustration, and most of all, a desperate, childlike desire for affirmation from Immortan Joe, despite all evidence that he’ll never receive it. He already demonstrates complexity far beyond the cardboard cutouts from so many movies.
The warboys die in great numbers, like mooks in any action film. But Fury Road supplies them with a motivation — and it’s a deeply understandable and sympathetic one. Genetically impure, warboys are doomed to short, painful lives. They want to be remembered and they want their brief existence to have meaning, but in Immortan Joe’s Citadel, the only way to do that is through a spectacular death in battle, after which they are promised entry into a glorious Valhalla. When a warboy sprays chrome on his face and yells “Witness me!” before a suicide attack, he doesn’t see himself as disposable cannon fodder, but as a warrior fulfilling his destiny.
For Nux, however, that’s only the start of his journey. He repeatedly attempts attacks that should have left him dead, but instead he finds himself in the hands of the people he was trying to kill, having failed humiliatingly at his one life purpose. The wife who finds him, Capable, could have easily killed him, but instead she shows him something he’s never experienced before: Compassion. She introduces him to the idea that his life might have purpose beyond a violent death, setting him on a new path that carries him through the remainder of the movie.
Nux’s character arc is a rebuttal to the idea of toxic masculinity. Raised to be a warboy, he spent his whole life saturated in a culture that glorified violence, but embracing that culture only lead to death, and it immediately rejected him when he failed to live up to its expectations. It’s the women who see him as having value beyond his utility in combat. Once freed of the restraints of toxic masculinity, he proves to be helpful, resourceful, and self-sacrificial.
There’s an interesting counterpoint between the character arcs of Nux and the wives. The wives are kept in a very helpless “feminine” state, and once they escape, they must learn survival skills to hold their own in a dangerous world. Conversely, Nux begins the movie as a very “masculine” character, and in order to find his place in the world, he needs to learn gentleness and vulnerability.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph of feminist storytelling for far deeper reasons than simply because it has a tough female protagonist. It’s feminist because of the plurality of ways its characters relate to or deviate from traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine. And central to that is Nux, who shows that growing from a boy to a man takes more than a fast car and a pile of guns.
Star Wars is such a genre-codifying franchise that sometimes it’s hard to remember that it had its own influences. In fact, Star Wars drew heavily from many sources. When compared with them, some of its most famous moments turn out to be directly copied from its predecessors. Conversely, elements we now take for granted turn out to be striking departures from formula that deconstruct the earlier works — none more so than Princess Leia.
Star Wars’ main influence was early 20th century pulp, franchises like Buck Rogers and John Carter. The interplanetary action-adventure of Star Wars is immediately recognizable in these earlier works, complete with spaceships, ray guns, and aliens. The iconic Star Wars title crawl is based on the nearly-identical title crawl from the Flash Gordon serial.
Pulp is loads of fun and well worth checking out now that large amounts of it have entered the public domain. But before Star Wars, this genre had largely been abandoned. Science fiction literature had moved away from pure escapism toward deeper ideas and harder science, and in film, it was the realm of the B movie. Star Wars brought soft sci-fi adventure roaring back into the mainstream. Delightfully, the snake would eat its own tail as old pulp franchises enjoyed a revival — this time emulating Star Wars.
But back to Leia. Even for the time, pulp was never what you’d call progressive. A typical pulp heroine, like John Carter’s Dejah Thoris pictured below, was beautiful, emotional, scantily clad, and prone to being kidnapped. Some were fighters, like Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers, but their fighting skills were rarely used and inevitably they, too, needed to be rescued. They rarely, if ever, had their own goals or motivations outside of their relationships with the heroes.
Leia’s introduction in A New Hope is typical. A princess has been captured and the heroes must rescue her. But the instant Luke meets her, the formula goes out the window. Instead of acting grateful and emotional, she greets Luke with a snarky one-liner. Quickly realizing that her new companions don’t have an escape plan, she immediately takes command of the group. This makes sense; she’s a princess and a diplomat, so in a group comprised of a farm boy, a smuggler, two droids, a Wookiee, and her, she’s the natural leader. Besides, she’s the one with the goal: Stealing the plans for the Death Star was her plan, and throughout the second act, Han’s and Luke’s goals are subordinate to hers, not vice versa.
Throughout the series, Leia proves herself to be smart, resourceful, a gifted leader, and a crack shot with a blaster. (When she shoots, she hits a higher percentage of the time than Luke or Han. Go ahead and count.) None of these traits are informed; we actively see all of them. Never shying away from danger, she plays an active role in various missions, even shrugging off a wound during the battle for Endor. She takes crap from no one and gets a large portion of the most memorable lines. In contrast to the fainting damsels of pulp, Leia is unflinching and defiant when she faces her enemies.
Leia’s adversarial relationship with Han is somewhat reminiscent of the relationships in pulp stories, whose lead pairs often did a lot of fighting and making up (a necessity for maintaining a relationship arc over the course of a long series). But in those stories, the woman was nearly always in the wrong, getting angry over the mildest of perceived slights and leaving the hero baffled. As often as not, she would storm off or make some other rash choice and end up captured, allowing the hero to get back in her good graces by rescuing her. In contrast, Han and Leia’s bickering is a natural result of their equally bullheaded personalities. Leia certainly never bursts into tears or gets in trouble as a result.
But let’s address what you’re all thinking about: The slave Leia outfit. This is another direct homage to pulp, where such outfits were common, such as the one below from Flash Gordon. (In fairness to pulp, sexualized outfits were not universal; Wilma Deering, as a soldier, wore a sensible uniform similar to those worn by the male characters. In fact, Wilma probably deserves more credit than I’ve given her. But I digress.) The image of a half-naked female character chained at the feet (or tail) of a villain would be right at home in a pulp movie.
But the context differs. How did Leia get there? She wasn’t kidnapped so a male character could rescue her. Quite the opposite: She was captured while attempting to rescue a male character. And who saves her? She saves herself! Not only does she kill Jabba the Hutt unarmed and unaided, she does it with her own chain, turning the tool of her oppression into the tool of her victory.
To be clear, none of this means that Star Wars is a feminist or exceptionally progressive franchise, because it really, really isn’t. But Leia is a progressive character who consistently takes the patriarchal tropes of her origins and turns them on their heads. Her presence in such an important work set the standard that sci-fi heroines would be tough and capable, not flighty and helpless. For forty years now she has been inspiring girls, and I hope she continues to do so.