Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

Writing Religion

noaa_globe-oceansWell, Neal’s busy this weekend, so I’m afraid that you’re all going to have to contend with a couple of extra posts from me.  On Tuesday Paul wrote an excellent post about how he’s using Religion in his own world, G’desh, that inspired a fair amount of conversation. One of the questions raised in this conversation was whether we should be using religion in speculative fiction at all. There were two major concerns raised 1) the risk of creating offense to those whose religious beliefs might be similar to a religion that seems to be negatively represented, and 2) the fact that so much fantasy religion seems to be too close to Christianity. So, I want to give any newer writers sharing these concerns a few guidelines on how to write religion effectively in speculative fiction. However, first I do have to say that I find the second concern somewhat surprising. The vast majority of fantasy that I’ve read, from Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin to Ursula Leguin, Glenn Cook, David Eddings, and to a degree even J.R.R. Tolkien draw much more heavily on polytheistic religions (Greek, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian mythology) than on Christianity. While there are clear Christian ideas present in Tolkien’s writing, and C.S. Lewis is quite obviously attempting to write a Christian allegory, I can’t say that I’ve seen an overwhelming Christian influence in the high or dark fantasy Genres. So, if someone could provide some examples of this influence, I would be most appreciative. Now, a few guidelines when writing religion in speculative fiction:

-1) Religion exists: I know that some people try to take religion out of the world entirely, but this doesn’t generally work well. The reason for this is that it is human nature to believe in something. While the question of whether God exists can, and has been, argued ad infinitum, the simple fact that the Great Spaghetti Monster has worshippers should prove that, even if God doesn’t exist, we as a race want him to. At a fundamental level humans need something to base their lives on, and religion is simply the most accessible foundation available. Whether any particular religion is true is relatively unimportant for this point. It is simply easier for most people to believe that God or some set of gods exist that brought everything about than to live in a state of constant skepticism or attempt to formulate a rational metaphysical belief that is not founded on something… else. This is even true in the speech of modern Atheist scholars. Even though these scholars do not believe in any deity, and some even believe that they can prove that no such deity is reasonably possible, they talk about the universe as though it were a deific, intelligent, willful entity. So, in my humble opinion, an attempt to simply excise religion entirely isn’t realistic. It would be kind of like trying to write a world without math or without people.

658px-Belief_Venn_diagram.svg2) Write what you believe: I firmly believe that every story is and should be a teaching tool. So, be aware of what your fiction is teaching. I’m not saying that you sacrifice story for the sake of lesson, but your world should reflect your beliefs about the real world. When I read your story, it should teach me something about the world as a whole. So, when you are creating religions for your world, do it in a way that you can actually agree with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a theologian and get every detail exactly right, but if you believe in a naturalistic world filled with elemental spirits and creatures, why would you write a world in which a monotheistic God sent a savior to redeem the sins of man? In opposition, if you believe in a God who sent a savior to redeem the sins of men, why would you write a world with no concept of monotheism or redemption? Consider the work of Steven Erikson here: Erikson’s Malazan world is very humanistic. The gods were once men, and to some degree still are. Similarly, men can become gods, and men can kill gods. While Erikson’s religions are many and complex, as is religion in the real world, he makes it clear that man must save himself. In Erikson’s world a man is responsible for his own life, he cannot simply rely on some god to come and make everything better. One of the reasons that my own world of Avnul emphasizes the concept that the gods are above men, beyond them in every way and not reliant on them is that I disagree with the common humanistic arguments in modern fantasy and want to provide a counter to them.

Religions_4x53) Write something that reflects reality: How many religions can you name? Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Shintoism, Ba’hai, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Paganism, Norse Religion (yes, people actually still worship Odin and Thor), The Great Spaghetti Monster (yes, he has a few actual worshippers now), Tenrikyo… Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface! In the history of the world there have been hundreds of religions (at least), and if you break down all of the different cults, sects, etc, there have been thousands. They range from sensible to insane, from historically realistic to having no basis in evidence at all, from ancient to only a few years old, from believable to utterly and completely unbelievable. If you’ve written a world where there are only two or three religions then you’re missing the mark. You may decide to write a world where there is one true religion and hundreds of false religions. You may decide to write a world where all religions are false, or write a world where all religions are true (see above), but write something that actually reflects the way the world is.

map_4414) Write something that is fundamentally yours: Perhaps, like myself, you are a Christian. If you are going to write an allegory 1) make it obvious and 2) make it accurate. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I have serious problems with the concept of redemption presented in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The Christian religion is, in part, about the redemption of wicked men. However, in Lewis’ fiction all the wicked men die horribly and go to Tosh. If you are not trying to write an allegory, then make the religions in your world your own. Tolkien is an excellent example of this, as is Erikson. Both men write worlds that have clear elements of their own beliefs. If you read Tolkien (especially the Silmarillion) concepts of monotheism, angelic beings, creation, the fall, and redemption of the wicked are all very clear. However, Christianity does not exist in Tolkien’s world, nor does any direct cognate for Christianity. Similarly, as I mentioned above, Erikson’s world is distinctly humanist, but there are still real gods with real power.

When we write the ultimate goal, as Aristotle said, should be to both educate and entertain. Pay attention to what you’re teaching people and write a world that reflects the real world and allows you to say something real about that world, but that is also thoroughly your own creation. It’s a careful balance, but when struck well it’s what makes stories great.

Beat the Writer’s Block: Try Something New

Writer's block sucks.
Writer’s block sucks.

Writer’s block is a pain in the pen. I’ve been dealing with it for the past 4 months or so, and it’s rather aggravating. Of course, I think much of the block came from the stresses of teaching and grading papers and all that jazz this semester, but now I’m relaxed and on break and have absolutely no excuse. None of my usual techniques are working at this point, and I’m starting to feel somewhat stifled, creatively speaking. So I decided to branch out…and that’s what today’s post is about.

As most of you know, I’m a fiction writer. My work is almost exclusively short story-based, although I have tentatively ventured out into the world of novel writing on occasion. The point is, I write creative fiction and not much else. So my attempt at branching out is a very strange and somewhat terrifying one for me: I’m taking a poetry writing class. I’m not much of a poetry reader, to be quite honest; I love my epic poetry, some Shakespearean sonnets, and any poetry by J. R. R. Tolkien, but that’s about it. It just doesn’t appeal to me. As a result, I have trouble writing poetry. It’s so technical and feels very restricted sometimes, even in free verse. I’ve written a few poems, but they’re not very good and it’s an agonizingly painful process. But I signed up for this class anyway, because why not? Might as well try, since I’m having no luck with fiction at the moment. The class doesn’t start until January, but the professor sent out a massive list of things we have to do prior to the beginning of the course. And strangely enough, the pre-class work is already starting to erode the creative wall I’ve been trying to knock down for months. I’ve had to write some new pieces of poetry in different styles, and practice writing a poem out multiple times by hand, pausing to think about what each line means or could mean. It’s an interesting experience, and it’s forcing me to think in different creative ways than I’m used to. Mind you, my poetry still sucks, but I’m learning, as well as forcing my way past my writing issues. I’ve even gotten some short story ideas from working on this poetry stuff.  And this is even before the class actually starts! I’m excited.

Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever seen.
Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever seen.

Branching out doesn’t necessarily require a medium change. You don’t have to try writing a novel if you’re a poet, although I would recommend it. It’s ridiculously frustrating but quite helpful. Anyway, trying something new in your writing can be much simpler than that. If you write mostly in 3rd person, try writing a short story in 1st or even 2nd person. Worldbuilders, take a break from all that complicated detail, and work on a character piece. Free verse poets can try writing sonnets. I think y’all get the idea. When you hit a creative wall, change your writing up. Try something that you’re not comfortable with or that you just don’t like writing. It may be frustrating, but you will most likely learn things. Such detours should help you reorient your brain and hopefully push you past the writer’s block. And who knows? You may even find that you like the  new element of your writing.

Using Timelines in Background Writing

Many fantasy authors pay more attention to developing cultures than geography, and while the geography of a fictional world is often more important than we give credit, this is not entirely a bad thing. After all, relatively few people are going to notice if your rivers are going in the wrong directions, or if the land to water ratio of your world wouldn’t actually support life. On the other hand, shotguns in a culture that has barely mastered the making of glass are going to be fairly noticeable. When working on your world remember that creating the illusion of reality is more important than mirroring reality itself. There are a lot of things that you could do wrong (for instance putting a jungle plant in the desert) that won’t break most people out of the story. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention, do your research, or trust people’s ignorance to cover your egregious errors, but it does mean that a rich, believable culture is going to be more important to most readers than accurate geography.

What can I say? Korean is fun.
What can I say? Korean is fun.

That being said, timelines can be a useful tool for the development of your world. However, this doesn’t mean that a detailed timeline is necessary. Tolkien’s timeline, The Silmarillion, is massively extensive (it’s a book after-all). On the other hand, some authors (Glen Cook for example), seem to have only a general idea of the history of their world that develops as they write. Let me say here that Tolkien and Cook are two of my favorite authors, and (while I’m not privy to Cook’s writing notes) appear to have two completely different approaches to background writing.

Whenever you’re writing a new world a basic timeline is a must. However, a basic timeline only requires a general idea of what’s happened. For instance, a basic timeline might be as simple as:

1-2500: Origins of the World

2501-4300: The Age of Fire

4301-5250: The Martian Rule

5251-9000: The Age of Chaos

9001-14000: The Rise of Man

14001-14653: The Rule of Empires

I have no idea who this picture belongs to. If it's yours please let me know. I'd love to give you credit.
I have no idea who this picture belongs to. If it’s yours please let me know. I’d love to give you credit.

This basic timeline gives you a basic record of what has happened and how the history of the world has progressed. Each broad span of time is tagged with a title that will remind you of the general idea you had for that era. These eras can be filled in as necessary. For instance, if the first 60,000,000 years of your world is the collapse of gasses into a planetoid and the development of an atmosphere… well, you probably don’t need to fill in that era. Similarly, if for the next 30,000 years the world was ruled by jello people who built everything out of gelatin and left no discernible trace of their existence, you probably don’t need to fill in that era either. However, remember that worlds develop over time. The foundations of one culture can often affect the development of the next, and all those strange ruins you’re heroes love to explore had to come from somewhere.

How detailed your timeline is depends on a few of factors. 1) How much affect the era has on the history of your world: if your looking at an era that happened in the ancient history, you probably don’t need a year by year timeline, perhaps not even a century by century timeline. 2) How long the history of your world is: if your world is six billion years old your probably going to be looking at a lot of empty space in your time-line. On the other hand, if you world is only forty-five days old, you probably don’t want any blank spaced. 3) How serious your world is: the style of writing you do can have a large effect on the need for a detailed timeline. Stories that are intended to be comedic or tongue in cheek in nature generally have a lot more leeway for mistakes than stories that are very serious. This doesn’t mean that a detailed timeline won’t help your story (it always will), but you can get away with a lot more in comedy than in tragedy.

This certainly isn’t the last thing I’ll write about background writing, and probably not the last thing I’ll write about timelines, but I’ve learned better than to make promises about what’s coming next week. For now, work on your basic timeline, and then fill things in as needed.


Philosophy in Writing: Explicit vs. Implicit?

John-Ronald-Reuel-Tolkien-10-500x337There are two underlying approaches to writing anything with a philosophical basis or concept behind it. Regardless of everything else you do, you must choose to be either explicit or implicit in your writing. However, regardless of which you choose to adopt in your own writing, it is important to recognize and understand the importance of both styles and their respective advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to tell you which one is better for your personal writing; they can both be effective or ineffective equally, but personally, I find myself drawn more towards those writers whose philosophy takes on an implicit form, but that is just me.

Tolkien’s writings (particularly the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit) are prime examples of the subtle and intricate nature in which Tolkien conveys his philosophy. The connections between his stories and the ‘real world’ are obvious to the reader on a conceptual level, yet difficult to pinpoint in detail. This is precisely what it means to write the implicitly true; Tolkien believed that an implied truth was far more readily accepted by the common reader than an explicit one. He wanted to create a story which was true in its meaning, even if it is untrue in regards to the actual existence of the world and characters that he created. In this way it can be accurately said that all stories are true, even though some of them never happened, for all stories carry truths, both implicitly and explicitly. As to the question of which one is better or which one ought to be chosen for a particular story I am afraid that I cannot begin to answer that for you; yet to speak out of personal preference, I find writings with implicit morals to be much more fascinating because of their heavier reliance on the active engagement of the reader. Anyone who has any inkling of knowledge about Christianity can read the Chronicles of Narnia and make the connections, but without any clear knowledge of Tolkien or the Silmarillion it is easy to conceive of (in part because it happened prior to the publishing of the Silmarillion) someone reading the stories of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit without picking up on the subtle Christian truths woven throughout the story which I do not have the time to mention here. Tolkien’s ability to create a world so relatable to our own despite its vast differences is just one attestation to the power and importance of implicit philosophy.

jack13On the other side we have the explicit; perhaps the greatest examples of explicit truths are Aesop’s Fables. These short stories are famous for their practical applications and stated morals. Really any story with an obvious or stated moral to it can be considered explicit; it is the obvious connections to daily life that make it explicit. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are also explicit in their connections to general church theology. Aslan is obviously representative of God and his actions are clearly reminiscent of God’s actions in Christian theology. He dies to save a boy who betrayed Aslan and the boy’s family and was resurrected. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth does not have any clear correlation to Christian theology on the level that Narnia does and this is one of the reasons for which Tolkien, who as we mentioned before believed that implied truth was more powerful than its explicit counterparts, critiqued Lewis’ writings. He found the truths to be too obvious and too blatant compared to his much more subtle way of expressing similar underlying beliefs. Despite Tolkien’s harsh opinion, I do believe that the explicit is important as well, especially for younger audiences. A child is not going to pick up on the subtleties of Tolkien’s writings whereas they might find the lion Aslan to be a comforting reminder of what they learned in church, or what their parents taught them about right and wrong.

Philosophy in Writing: Recognizing the Author’s Intent


The latest from Neal Gibson:

In sticking with my earlier post I will be putting a lot of emphasis on Tolkien’s works during this series on the importance of philosophy in writing. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) I’m taking an entire course on the Philosophy of Tolkien this semester, and 2) Tolkien’s works provide a great source for examining the diverse nature of philosophy within writing and how we, the readers, interact with it.

I have titled this installment in my series ‘Recognizing the Author’s Intent’ because in my school career I have found this to be a particularly lost art. So much of what I learned in my Literature classes during high school focused almost exclusively on how I interpreted the author’s work as opposed to what the author intended to convey with his work, and while this is an important thing to consider, It seems that the author’s intent ought to reveal more about the philosophy of writing in a work than my interpretation would. The author’s intent reveals the author himself, in story format, to the reader, and to apply our own interpretation to their writing is like looking through a pair of polarized sunglasses with another pair of polarized sunglasses. If you turn the glasses just right you can still see roughly what the author saw, but if you aren’t careful you’ll miss the image completely.

So just how can we go about discovering the author’s intent? Well, in some cases it just is not possible because we do not know enough about the author. To follow the previous metaphor, we do not have access to their pair of sunglasses and so we are left entirely with our own interpretation. However, in the case of Tolkien, we have such vast amounts of his works in the writing that have been published by his son that we really can understand much of the intention behind his writings. We can see that behind everything he wrote about Middle Earth lies the central belief that implicit truth is more easily received and believed than explicit truth. To quote my professor, “Middle Earth is Christian in content, but not in chronology.”* That is, there is not a one to one correlation to anything within Christian doctrine in the world of Middle Earth; there is however, an overtly Christian message in its implied truths of the Fall and of Redemption, to name only two that come to mind.

custom silmarillion coverOf course, in everything we read we are going to bring some level of interpretation with us; this is simply inevitable. In most cases our interpretations will match closely with what the author intended; or at least that should be the goal of writing. There is a fine line between implicitly including an idea and masking it beyond recognition. Tolkien was a master of staying close to the line, but even he sometimes crossed it. Before the posthumous publication of the Silmarillion much of what the scholarly world thought of his philosophy was seen to be at least partially wrong and in need of revision in light of the vast amounts of information released within the pages of the Silmarillion. We can see from this example that the key to finding an author’s intent lies in knowing about the author. If you are reading a book by a Hindu you are probably not going to find any implicit Christian or Muslim themes within it. That does not mean that there is nothing that a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew can take from it, but if you stumbled across something that sounds like it could be Christian you should understand that you are interpreting what you are reading to match what you believe. You are twisting your sunglasses until you can see something that you are used to, even if it means also recognizing the differences between yourself and the author.

Interpretation is not a bad thing; do not misunderstand me on this. It is good to critically think and find applications of diverse ideas into your own ideology. I apologize for the nerdiness of the following statement, but to quote Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender, “It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it becomes rigid and stale.”** However it must be done respectfully. To ignore the author’s intent is to place an unrealistic amount of important on our own interpretive powers. As best as possible I would strive to find the line between author’s intent and our own interpretation and to walk that line with intellectual humility.

*Thomas Provenzola, PhD.
**Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 2, Episode 9: “Bitter Work”

Philosophy, What’s it Good For?


Today we have the first post from a new writer. Welcome Neal Gibson:

Philosophy? That’s just for people who have time to sit around and think. If you’re like me, this describes how a lot of people in your life think of philosophy, but there is so much more to it than that. Philosophy is part of nearly every aspect of our lives and one of the best ways this can be shown is through writing. How an author creates a world or a character or a scenario gives the informed reader a very clear picture of what message the author is trying to send; his philosophy of writing. It can be different for every book they write, but it is always there and it is something which any writer needs to take into account with their own works. I’m a student of philosophy so I am exposed to it much more than your average Joe; this helps me see the philosophies behind many classic novels and plays. To name just one example which I recently studied, Existentialism plays a robust role within the framework of writing primarily seen during the post-World War Two era and afterwards, although its early stages took root long before the war. As a philosophy, it can be seen perhaps most notably within the works Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Camus (although there are many others); and while Existentialism may be present as an overall philosophy behind their respective works, they each had their own personal philosophies of writing.

When I begin writing a story or a paper or really anything, I always sit down first and decide what my core ideas are going to be. If I’m writing a story I ponder how I want to portray good and evil, which characters are going to provide a moral compass, and what I want the reader to learn from the story (whether we like to admit it or not, every story we see or read teaches us something and some lessons are better for us than others). What underlying beliefs guide your characters? How will the main characters change throughout the story and what will cause these changes? These are both important questions to ask when dealing with the philosophy of a story because ideally, what you want to share with your readers is what they actually get out of reading your story.

This beautiful piece was done by LasloLF. His work can be found here.
This beautiful piece was done by LasloLF. His work can be found here.

Of course, I’ve mostly been focusing on characters so far, and yet a philosophy of writing can permeate into much more of any authors work. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth is filled with symbolism and metaphor which allude to the deeper beliefs he held about Christianity and the world during his time of writing. Sauron, the unseen evil, is spreading a cloud of literal and symbolic darkness over the world of man. Gandalf the White arrives with the morning sun to save the day at Helms Deep. Tolkien uses the Ents and the forests to personify nature, and, in a way, show that even nature itself fight against evil. Tolkien is showing that evil is not natural, it is not something that just happens, and it needs to be fought against. The sacrifices that Sam and Frodo and the others make to destroy the evil ring, and ultimately Sauron, show Tolkien’s belief that we, too, must be willing to make sacrifices in the daily struggle against evil in the world around us. Freedom, happiness, and peace are not given freely to everyone in the world, they must be fought for and achieved.

Aragorn was possibly one of the best portrayed characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Aragorn was possibly one of the best portrayed characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

These symbols provide a powerful tool for any author to use. In my experience, I tend to find an author’s choice of symbols within a given story to be the best marker for understanding their philosophy. Many authors use darkness to symbolize evil, and rightly so, but if an author chose to symbolize light as evil what might that say about his view of evil? Context is obviously important, but I would likely take it to show that evil likes to mask itself as something good or illuminating. Did not the Serpent tempt Eve in the garden with the fruit by explaining that it would illuminate the world for her; that she would become like God. Evil is rarely so overt as to be darkness: it often comes to us as a blinding light that gains our trust before it leads us over a cliff.


J.R.R. Tolkien is commonly considered the father of modern fantasy.
J.R.R. Tolkien is commonly considered the father of modern fantasy.

Tolkien was a master of symbolism within the realm of Middle Earth, virtually everything he created served as a symbol for something, and, in some cases, multiple places or characters represented different aspects of the same thing. For example: Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo all represent different aspects of the Christ. Gandalf had to die to stop evil from destroying mankind’s last hope and was reborn. Aragorn is the rightful heir of Gondor, the greatest of the kingdoms of Man, but he forsook his throne to become a lowly ranger, quietly defending the lands of mankind from enemies until the time has come at last for him to return as King. And of course there is Frodo who is chosen to be the bearer of the source of evil; the one ring. It is his job to take this burden, which man cannot bear, and destroy it for their sake, and he does so willingly, by his own choice, because he knows that there is no other way.

I have only briefly touched the many aspects of symbolism that manifest Tolkien’s philosophy of writing, but I hope that by showing some specific examples of his choice of symbols I have given you the tools for understanding how effective symbolism is for giving deep meaning to a story, appreciating many wonderful works in a new and exciting way, and applying symbolism to your own writing in a meaningful and thoughtful way to best express your philosophy of writing.

Creation Stories

So, now that you have been working on the writing challenges, I hope that some of you might be willing to try your hand at writing the history of a word all your own. Actually, I’m sure that a few of you have been writing for a while now, and have perhaps been trying to create a world, but you just aren’t sure where to begin. That is where I hope to help you. The next few posts are going to be looking at what it takes to write your own world into existence.

Let there be… a giant ying yang symbol… floating through the sky.. with a dragon… and a turtle… and a… what is that, a mermaid? Ok guys, this is getting ridiculous!

One of my favorite examples of someone writing a history of a world is the famous author and Linguist J.R.R. Tolkien. You want to talk about someone who wrote the history of his world just look to this man. Tolkien wrote several volumes of in depth and complete history of the world that we know as Middle Earth. Really, I could spend several blog posts writing about what he did, but I will get back to the topic at hand.

Now, please don’t think that I’m telling you that you have to go as deep as Tolkien, but if you want to then… Great!!!! It can take years to do that, and I’m sure this isn’t something that most of you want to dedicate that much time to do. I was a history major, so I love the idea. But… I’m sure you are thinking, “Ok… but what is the first step?” Well, if you don’t have a world or even if you do, then do have a creation story? Yes, every and I mean every civilization has a story about how they were created. Your world needs to be as real to you as the one of are living in.

So, how can you write a story if the world itself is just a two dimensional image in your mind. You, in a sense, are the over arcing god of your world. /you probably have a god/gods of your world, but you dictate what they do. So, how do you want the world to come into existence? Honestly one of my favorites is from Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis where Narnia was sung into existence. I mean how great is that? The god sang things into being! Be creative!

Two great authors!

There are so many different creation stories out there, use them to feed your imagination. Now, I know you are probably thinking, “I thought you were going to talk to us about the history of the world?” Well, I am this is part of the history. It might or might not play a part in the story itself, but many times characters tell bits and pieces of myths or legends within the story. These myths and legends come from the creation of your world, or the story of a hero that lived in another time. Now that I have you thinking about what you want to have your in your creation story, go sit down and start writing it. This is the foundation of the history of your world. Have fun with it, remember you are the one with the power. Bring it to life for everyone else to see. Also, remember that you will never get better at writing unless you start somewhere.

Must Reads

Enter here to tales of yore,

Everyone has their list of books that they think are amazing.  We tend to tell people that they must read these books, thus the title, must reads.  However, while there are a lot of great books out there, and a lot of books that are beneficial to read, there are relatively few books or authors that one ‘must read’.  Books/authors that one ‘must read’ are books/authors that have become foundational to a particular genre, or that have significantly changed that genre in some way.  So, I have compiled a list of ‘must reads’ for Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.  You will not that this list is relatively short (comparatively speaking) and at least a few books that you think should be on it, aren’t.  Again, these are books/authors that founded or significantly altered the genre.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov wrote numerous short stories and a number of novels.  However, he is best known for his Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov effectively founded the Science Fiction genre, and thus is definitely a must read.

J.R.R. Tolkien:  Tolkien was a prolific author, so prolific that books of his short stories and still be found and newly published by his descendants.  Best know for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is to fantasy what Asimov is to Science Fiction.

C.S. Lewis: While not as prolific a fiction author, nor as influential to the genre as Tolkien, Lewis’s work and relationship with Tolkien are both significant to the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is not the first person to come to mind when one thinks of sci-fi/fantasy.  His work primarily belongs to the genres of horror and mystery, but the influence of Poe’s writing is felt throughout the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and thus he is a must read for any fan.

H.P. Lovecraft: Like Poe, Lovecraft’s writing belongs primarily in the realm of horror.  However, Lovecraft’s influence is also felt throughout all three genres, and to truly understand any of them, one must be familiar with his work.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are all profoundly influential novels that have helped to shape the sci-fi genre in its entirety.  It is difficult to find a good sci-fi author (or film maker) who has not been influenced by Herbert’s work.

Of many man and dragons score,

Robert Heinlein: Like Herbert, Heinlein is a name that should be familiar to all sci-fi fans.  While Herbert dealt more with the philosophical, Heinlein’s fiction deals with practical and political concerns.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are suggested.

George Orwell: While there are many great dystopian authors, Orwell is arguably the most prolific and influential (thought both Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley rank only slightly lower).  Animal Farm and 1984 are suggested.

Sir Thomas More:  More’s novel Utopia (1516) is responsible for the great flood of dystopian fiction of the 20th century.  While the novel itself is not a must read, familiarity with its ideas is important.

George Macdonald: Macdonald was a significant influence on the work of both Tolkien and Lewis, and many consider Macdonald’s writing to be the first true fantasy written for adults.  Phantastes is recommended (although my favorites have always been The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdy, though these are written for children).

Robert E. Howard: Best known for Conan The Barbarian, and his many short stories involving this character.  It is argued that Howard introduced the first protagonist with a significantly different moral structure in fantasy.

Ursula K. Leguin: The Earthsea series is almost as foundational to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s work.

Terry Brooks: While his work is often as maligned as it is loved among fans of the fantasy genre, the Shannara series led a major change in the way that fantasy was published (if not the way that it was written) and opened doors for many other fantasy authors.

And of the living lands all covered in war.

Stephen R. Donaldson: Donaldson’s work in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever stood side by side with Brooks’ Shannara novels in reintroducing the fantasy genre to the American public.

Glen Cook:  While Brooks and Donaldson changed the way that fantasy was published, Cook changed the way that fantasy was written.  Before Cook the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about kings, princes, and maidens.  The tales tended to revolve around men and women of significant power and influence, who changed the world.  Cook’s The Black Company changed this focus.  Cook’s series looks at fantasy through the eyes of the soldier, the mercenary, and the peasant.  Instead of great heroes, Cook’s protagonists are men and women who’s primary goal is to stay alive, and to get home with all their parts intact.

Write What You… Part 3: Write What You Write

It's true, don't fight criticism - it's good for you.

So, we’ve talked about writing what you know (because, you know…you know it – 😉 I love bad puns), and writing what you are. The last step in finding your voice that I can help you with in making sure that what you write is yours.  One of the worst pieces of criticism that I have ever received was contained in the phrase, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way I would write the story.’ This was a reply that I got on a story I wrote a few years ago and sent out to several friends.  Don’t get me wrong, the story was not incredible, and will not see the light of publication without some significant revisions, so this is not me saying ‘my story was perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ However, you can only successfully write the way you write.  It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to write like anyone but you.  You can grow your writing, expand the scope and breadth of the way you write, but what you write is still going to be written the way you write it.  This really should be obvious, but for some reason most new authors (including myself) miss it – some for longer than others.  The reviewer who gave me this criticism did not provide anything that could help me to improve the story or improve my writing.  Instead the reviewer just said ‘you write the wrong way’ (for you editors and reviewers out there this is one of the worst things that you can say to an author.  Be critical, but keep your criticism constructive.  Remember that you’re job is to help the author make the story better.)

I use this example to say that the way you write is the way you write.  If you have a dry, sardonic style then don’t try to write something that is all fluffy bunnies…you’ll fail.  If you have a fluffy bunny style, then don’t try to write something that is dry and sardonic…again, you’ll fail.  This is not to say that an author can only write one style – some authors can only write one style, some authors can write many styles – but that you shouldn’t let someone else tell you that the way you write is wrong.  Authors have many different styles, and they all have readers that appreciate that style.  J.R.R. Tolkien was very straightforward in his writing, Steven Erikson is much more verbose.  Glen Cook’s writing is simple, gritty, and…I think chewy is a good word to describe it, but don’t ask me exactly what I mean by that because I’m not sure that I can explain.  David Eddings, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Hehehehe...your shoes are mine..hehehe.

There is no wrong style of writing (however you might need to develop more skill in the mechanics of your writing), you can be dry, wet, short, circular, verbose, gritty, happy, sarcastic, etc.  The key is that it is yours.  Remember that you can’t write like anyone else.  For the longest time I wanted to be able to write like H.P. Lovecraft, or like Stephen King, or even like my friend Melissa (who writes for Lantern Hollow Press), because they are writers that I admire, and they can all do things with their writing that I can’t. However, I can’t write like them any more than they can write like me.  Any one of them might be a better writer than I am, but none of them writes in a better style than I do.  This is because style is not better or worse, just different.

Listen to your reviewers, your friends, and your editors.  They can give you some great advice that will really improve your writing.  Let them help you grow and develop the way you write, but don’t let them convince you that the way you write is bad.  Don’t let them change the way you write.  It’s a fine line, and sometimes it’s hard for people on both sides to tell the difference, but you need to figure out where this line is for you, and then you need to live on it.  Take as much criticism as you can, it will make you better, but you have to know when to accept something, and when to shove it off to the side.