Worldbuilding: Designing a Creature

Having just finished writing the scene where this creature appears, I thought I ought to reblog it over here on the Taipei Writer’s Group blog.

JeremyTeG

Leading off from my last post about worldbuilding the little details, I thought I’d write briefly about creating creatures, which is one of my favorite aspects of worldbuilding for fantasy settings. In this post I will briefly discuss how I go about creating fantasy creatures, using this charming little guy as an example:

He's a cutie pie. what a cutie pie

That is a creature which I’ve called a “Fulminan Demon,” an extra-dimensional insectoid of moderate intelligence that can deliver a deadly electrical shock as lightning jumps between the tips of its moth-like antennae. I’ll admit that it isn’t a completely original creature, but I like it, and I think the final design in the drawing turned out well.

This particular creature–and this is fairly typical of my process–originated to fulfill a different worldbuilding need in one of my stories, and began as nothing more than a name. I wanted a character in one…

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Girls are People Too, ya dingus! — or, How Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me Empathy

JeremyTeG

As an early twenties male who has been writing fantasy and sci-fi since my early teenage years, I identified strongly with this blog post by Robert Jackson Bennett which I recently encountered through Twitter. The basic gist of it is that many male fantasy and sci-fi writers have a hard time writing female characters because it is possible for a young man to go through life without interacting with women as other human beings due to some serious flaws in our society, and how this hurts male writers by hemming them in and depriving them of opportunities to develop empathy.

(If you’re interested in reading an exploration of the problems inherent to the fact that young men can get through life without meaningful interactions with women, go ahead and read Robert Jackson Bennett’s post. I don’t think I could do a better job on that front than he has done…

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How Narrative Fiction can Enhance Music, and Vice Versa.

JeremyTeG

When I was younger, my parents tried their best to help me develop a musical life. I remember my first piano lesson with my father–around five or six years old, I would guess–and both the excitement preceding it, the first few enthusiastic practice sessions, and the eventual frustration with my parent’s well-meaning encouragement to practice every day, and for longer than five minutes. I was in music lessons–first piano, then violin, then acoustic guitar–until middle school, at which point I took up the bass guitar of my own volition in order to secure a coveted position in the middle school youth group band. In college, I was part of a short-lived “tiny guitar band” with a hall mate, him on the ukulele and me on the mandolin. But after freshman year I had more or less given up on music as a form of expression, shifting my attention instead to…

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What’s wrong with Present Tense?

Recently I’ve been working on a short story to submit to this quarter’s Writers of the Future contest. The story is a gothic fantasy, set in an alternate world which is dominated by flintlock weapons as well as faerie, divine, and demonic magic. I’ve actually written two stories set in this world, and I’ve been working on an outline for a novel with the same setting.

Overall, I like it a lot. But there is a wrinkle: For whatever reason, when I write in this world, I want to write in Present Tense.

I don’t even understand why. Honestly, for whatever reason, I just like the “sound” of the Present Tense within this world. For example: “In the Clandestine Market, one can buy all manner of hidden things” sounds better to me in the context of this story and world than “In the Clandestine Market, one could buy all manner of hidden things.” I just don’t like that “d” on the end of “could” for some reason. Also, writing in the present tense allows me to avoid the use of the word “had” and situations where I have to write “had had” which just drives me insane.This is a personal problem. “Has had” sounds better to me than “had had.” Writing the same word twice in a row scratches my fore-brain.

In an effort to understand why I might prefer the present tense, I have recently read a number of blogs and articles attempting to balance the pros and cons of present tense, and one blog post by an editor with experience working on speculative fiction claiming that some science fiction and fantasy editors have an unwritten rule to reject anything written in present tense. 

Well then.

I’ll concede that past tense is more conventional, and that present tense narration is a fairly modern development in story telling, but I challenge some of the claims made about present tense in some of the blogs I’ve linked to:

In present tense, you can’t manipulate duration!

Yes you can. Why not? Time isn’t a rigid experience in our everyday lives. One moment might seem to stretch into an eternity while another slips by quicker than we’d like. There’s no reason why this sort of experience can’t be reflected in a present tense story, especially if that present tense story is solidly locked within the perspective of a character.

Similarly,

In present tense, you can’t manipulate order of events!

I don’t see the problem here. Yes, it’s weird to read something written in the present tense that technically took place before something else which is also written in the present tense, and writing a story like that would be really difficult, and if done poorly patently absurd. But the nice thing about using present tense as a base is that you can actually create layers of time within your story by using other tenses.

For example: “John walks to the bar. Every day, the same route. Yesterday he ate a sandwich, the day before that a bowl of chowder, but he always drinks a scotch and water. He had enjoyed beer, once. But after the war he needed something stronger. So he walks to the bar, every day, the same route. Today, he thinks, I’ll have a steak.”

The actual order of events in that little snippet is: 1) John enjoyed beer, then 2) came back from the war and switched to scotch. At some point 3) he started walking to this bar every day. 4) Two days ago he ate a bowl of chowder. 5) Yesterday he ate a sandwich. 6) Currently he is walking to the bar and planning on having a steak.

Maybe I am misunderstanding this argument against the present tense, but to me it just seems silly. Yes, a novel which uses present tense exclusively might be locked into pressing forward with a rigid chronology. But when you have present tense as the base-line of your story, you’re free to dip back into the past tenses and introduce preceding events in any order.

I will admit that one thing past tense allows you to do which the present tense prevents is tell the reader that something will happen after the current time in the story. You can do this in past tense given that your narration allows for such a glimpse into later events (i.e. the story is constructed as a retelling of a sequence of past events). But in strict third person limited (think Game of Thrones), past tense or present, you can’t do this anyway unless your characters can see the future.

Next,

In the present tense, the details become more important/you can’t skip anything!

Why? Again, I don’t understand this. It seems to be based on an idea that the present tense makes some sort of contract with the reader that because we’re talking about something happening right now, in this moment, I’m going to give you a plethora of details and take you through every mundane moment of these characters lives. But I don’t think such a contract exists.

First of all, in daily life (which, just so we’re clear, happens in the present tense) there are details of our worlds which go unnoticed all the time. There’s a whole lot of clutter on my desk right now, but I’m not pausing between thoughts to take inventory of it.

I am more sympathetic to the idea that in present tense it’s a bit strange to leap forward in time from one scene to the next without going through the connective tissue. After all, beginning the story in present tense creates an impression that what is happening now is important, and this can create the illusion that the continuous now will be important as well. That is, if now is important, what happens right after now should be important too, right?

Maybe? When I’m writing in present tense it doesn’t feel weird for me to throw down a “#” sign, hit enter a couple times and start a new scene after a temporal jump. I read “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennet a few weeks ago and I remember a multitude of such temporal jumps, and none of them bothered me. Both “City of Stairs” and “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi change narrators from time to time, maintaining present tense all the while, and it didn’t bother me in the slightest while reading.

CityofStairs and WindupGirl

Two excellent speculative fiction novels written in the present tense. City of Stairs and The Windup Girl.

In the end, I’m still on the fence. I enjoy the sound of the present tense, and sometimes writing in it comes more naturally to me, but I also recognize that abiding by convention and sticking to past tense can make stories more accessible to a wider variety of readers.

What do you think? Is the present tense better than, worse than, or equivalent to the past tense? Am I missing something in my analysis of the points against present tense above? Are we all fools, and the only proper way to tell a story is in the second-person omniscient future tense? Share your thoughts in the comments below.