World-Building – Belief Systems

Belief systems are part of the anthropologist’s triad – culture, language, myth (belief). These three are so intertwined I can’t imagine studying one without drawing deeply of the others. Our personal library contains ~300 books on different belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems. If you count ebooks, the number goes over 1,000 volumes (and note my bias there).

But what about using belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems as part of your world-building?

Margaret Atwood postulates a radical cultural change brought on by an exaggerated belief system in The Handmaid’s Tale, and that culture’s language evolves to sustain the belief system. Probably the best known blend of culture, language, and belief system is in Tolkien’s Trilogy. Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series does an excellent job of blending these elements, but it’s all predicated on Helliconia’s weather (and perhaps you’ll appreciate how intertwined everything is when one builds a world from scratch).

Create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.

But again and to me, it comes down to “create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.”

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World-Building – Weather

I’ve yet to encounter a created world that does not make use of climate and weather directly or indirectly.

That includes this one. Consider the history of earth and the interdependencies between life and climate become obvious (I hope). Read anything by Brian Fagan and you’ll get a taste of those interdependencies beautifully written.

Examples from Fiction
Climate/weather directly affecting the story and and done well, Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series. Directly and done fairly well, any mythical apocalypse or creation epic. Directly and poorly, Medea: Harlan’s World. The first time I became aware of weather/climate/environment/meteorology as a crucial story element was in H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon; the Selenites’ civilization literally stops due to an eclipse.

Every mythology I’ve read has weather as either a deity or an elemental. Some cultures use climate as one of the “great makers.” Northern aboriginals include Ice as an elemental force. Some eastern cultures include Metal (usually some form of iron) as an elemental force.

All of these can act for or against humans, however, and that’s key. Consider weather/climate as part of a story’s setting and every Man v Nature story takes a bow. The Perfect Storm, White Squall and many of the movies listed here wouldn’t be worth seeing without the weather’s role (many of them aren’t worth seeing, period).

And again, weather/climate isn’t playing an active role in these stories (at least the one’s I’ve seen or read). It is there to help or thwart the protagonist(s) from succeeding.

Specific to weather/climate/environment as a story’s setting, if setting isn’t important – and I can’t imagine it not being important. Perhaps I have a different concept of “setting” – then mention it as little as possible, or only mention the aspects of that setting that are necessary to the story. Katherine Mansfield is a master of putting only the necessary setting elements on stage.

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Writing Something Horrifying in Three Steps

[A different version of this appeared on Timothy Bateson’s blog in Oct 2019.]

Psychologists and philosophers debate “horror” as a concept. Authors have it much easier. They want to make their readers uncomfortable, nervous. They want to give readers chills. They want readers to turn on all the lights, to check locks on the doors, to tuck their feet up under themselves so nothing can grab them from below, to check under the bed before getting under the covers, to look in their closets, to look at their loved ones suspiciously.

Most people, reading the above, will travel a psycho-emotive path from casual interest to mild anxiety. The psycho-emotive path occurs in the above due to progressive word choice – easier, uncomfortable, nervous, chills – followed by a series of recognizable anxiety behaviors – turn on lights, check locks, tuck feet, check under the bed, look in closets – and then we have the capper, the threat of personal betrayal – looking at their loved ones suspiciously.

Readers shouldn’t be able to recognize their growing anxiety. If they do, they’re paying attention to themselves, not the story, meaning the story isn’t fully engaging them. You want your readers concerned about what happens next in the story, not that they’re uncomfortable reading it.

Build Discomfort Slowly

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The Kite

[A previous version of this story can be found at Shane and Tyler]

The Kite

I parked in the lot adjacent to the hillside field, its slight slope gently amplifying winds and making it easier to get kites aloft. Everybody used the park. The city built ballfields and a playground on the other side of the parking lot and a big gazebo in the middle of the field. A friend caught one of my kites’ lines in the gazebo’s roof once and it took some good flying to set it free.

I could hear the cheers and catcalls from people in the ballfields — must have been some exciting games going on — and laughter and chatter from families on the playground. People must have parked on the far side of the ballfields because the hillside lot was practically empty.

An empty parking lot is one of the things I look for, a good sign, it means the field will be open, plenty of room to run out my lines and fly a kite or two between the gazebo and the street. A good wind rustled the trees high up, their tops dusting the sky. I’d already chosen my SkyDancer — a half moon, rainbow kite with two one-hundred foot long rainbow colored tails — as the kite to fly. I walked down the field carrying it, its tails, lines and two ground pegs in my hands.

A man and boy had a little area set up on my right, between the gazebo and the parking lot. Not a problem, still plenty of room. A t-ball stand stood beside them, a whiffle ball rested on top, a broad, plastic yellow bat and several more balls lay on the ground next to it. The boy, a toddler based on his size, slightly awkward movements and shrieks of joy, threw the balls back and forth to no one. He’d throw one, go get it and throw it back to where he started then repeat the process over and over again.

The man knelt on the ground, his eyes focused and his hands busy. It looked like he was rigging up a single line delta. I thought that a small, single-line delta would be more work than it would be worth — general kiting rule: the smaller the kite, the stronger the wind — but said nothing. I had the day off and wanted some time to myself.

They got their delta up. Then down. Then not quite up, then definitely down. Then down and down and still down.

But the man wouldn’t give up. He’d get the kite up and he’d hold the line with the boy and let the boy take the line and the kite would come down and he’d go to work sending it back up.

And on one attempt, the boy called out, “I love you, Daddy!” and the man called back, “I love you, too, Son!”

I’d just finished driving my ground pegs into the earth and had walked out my lines, my SkyDancer still in its pack along with its tails, and something told me to offer them my Big Sled. The Big Sled is actually a fairly small, black, red, and white parafoil kite. I got it long ago. A local kite store was going out of business, I got there their last day, there wasn’t much left and I refused to go home empty handed. It’s more a kid’s kite than something an adult would fly, but I have close to one-hundred kites, kites for all levels of skill, all sizes of flyers, all types of wind and I love all kites. One more would round out the bunch so I got it.

I went back to my car and got out the Big Sled.

The father was kneeling again, the delta in front of him as he adjusted the harness. I walked towards him. “Sir, excuse me, sir?”

He looked up.

I unfurled the kite. “This’ll be much easier to fly. It’ll catch the wind better and ride high on top of the wind.”

He was hesitant. “That looks like a professional kite.”

I laughed. “I’d never call myself a professional.”

He offered me his hand. “I’m Shane.” He had broad, flat palms. Thick fingers, calloused. A welcoming grip. A practical smile, open and evaluating at the same time. More laugh lines than frowns and deep brown eyes that took in all of you without leaving your face. He stood wide and solid with hair the color of his eyes and ruffling in the wind where it stuck out from under his green baseball cap. I took him to be a skilled laborer, someone both comfortable with himself and with tools in his hands, someone to whom making was automatic, without thought. He didn’t smell of resins or wires. Doors and walls, I decided. Not cars, there was no grease or grime under his nails or etched in his palms and a whiff of wood welcomed me as he moved. Not tanned, so a finish carpenter, someone who works inside, not someone who frames and builds houses. Someone who uses his blades as a painter uses his brushes.

“That’s Tyler. Say hello, Tyler.”

Tyler, a cherub as only little boys can be cherubs, called out “Hello!” Thin but healthy, both well and goodly fed, with clear eyes and a trust because he’s a little boy and everyone should love him, because that’s all he’s known is love of family and friends and, it seemed, a mirror that would grow into his father’s easy good looks.

He stood beside us comfortably, neither anxious nor wary, following his father’s focus on my hands, watching me stringing the line, his eyes full of joy and his father’s smile echoed on his toddler’s face.

I attached the line and handed Shane the line hoop. “It’s going to have a little pull, so hold the line with Tyler. Let him get a feel for how much pull it’ll have so he can brace himself for it.”

The father looked me in the eye, confused.

“Enjoy yourself. Have a good time.”

I went back to the SkyDancer and lines, strung it up and, as is my habit, talked to the kite and the wind. They rewarded me with some great flying and LineSong — the wind pulls the kite, the lines tighten, the wind vibrates the string like a bow crossing a violin. You hear the lines sing.

LineSong. It’s the wind letting you know it’s having fun, too, me thinks.

I flew for about an hour, maybe a little less. Every now and again I’d hear Shane and Tyler laugh from the other side of the gazebo. I’d glance every so often and see the Big Sled high in the sky, swooping and swirling as the winds whirled it about.

I told the SkyDancer and Wind, “One more flight, girl. Come on down when you’re ready and we can pack up and go home.”

We had one more glorious flight. Some people had gathered so I had the SkyDancer live up to its name and perform a little ballet. The wind, as promised, grew tired, which was fine because I was, too. I brought the SkyDancer down and began untacking the lines.

Shane and Tyler came up to me. Shane had the kite against his chest, the line hoop and line in hand. “Thank you, Joseph. That was great. Tyler and I really appreciate your letting us fly your kite.”

“Did you have a good time, Tyler? Did you have fun?”


I smiled at Tyler. “Keep the kite. It’s a gift.”

Shane shook his head. “We can’t do that.”

“You and Tyler gave me a gift when I walked onto this field.”

“We did?”

“Tyler called out ‘I love you, Dad,’ and you called back, ‘I love you, too, Son.’ That’s a gift. Please. Take the kite as my thank you for that gift.”

Shane slowly shook his head, not quite believing. “Are you sure?”

I stood. “Yes, and here’s the catch.”

He pulled his head back a bit.

“Whenever you and Tyler don’t want to fly kites any more, or when you think it’s time, you pass it on to the next father and son, you give it to them as a gift because they gave something to you as a gift.”

Shane nodded slowly. “Okay. We can do that.”

“Pass it on. Pay it forward. That’s how it works.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much for this gift.”

“Thank you. Have a good day. Have a good life.”

They walked away and stopped. Tyler started running towards me and Shane called him back. They huddled for a moment then both came up to me. “Tyler has something for you.”

Tyler ran up to me and gave me a big hug. “Thank you for the kite, Joseph!”

I put my arms around him, held his precious little body next to mine. “Oh, thank you, Tyler. You’re the man, Tyler, you’re the man!”

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Why this Were here, now?

[This post oriignally appeared on Timothy Bateson’s blog, mid Oct 2019]

Let’s say someone wants to write about werewolves but nothing they’re coming up with fits “werewolf.” Probably they’re putting the hearse before the horse. Their interest is on the were, not the were’s purpose in the story.

Let the “were” serve the story’s purpose. Don’t make it the story’s purpose.

Werecreatures are nothing new. Cave drawings frequently depict humanimals. Study any culture’s mythology and one wonders who wasn’t a werecreature. The concept of versipellics as evil is relatively new compared to human recorded history (about 800 years v 35,000 years).

A significant aspect of versipellic history is that skin-changing was a spiritual exercise, not a magical exercise. This spiritual aspect remains today in the concept of shapeshifting as evil. The Malleus Maleficarum provided details about all such “magickal” practices but the reason to hunt down practitioners was political; practitioners threatened the power and authority of Mother Church. What do you do when you’re a religious authority and you want to get rid of the opposition? You label it evil, demonic, satanic. You’ll find much the same propagandic reasoning in today’s political speeches. The US was The Great Satan to Ruhollah (Ayatollah) Khomeini. Reagan called Soviet Russia “The Evil Empire,” and Trump’s rhetoric…well, let’s not go there.

Culture makes a difference. Judeo-Christian teaching is that versipellics are evil; God and the Angels never change shape. Satan and the Fallen Angels do (they don’t want you to know who they are). Read religious dogma from other cultures and versipellism is good or evil depending on why it’s being done. It’s the individual’s reason for shapeshifting, not the fact that they can shapeshift, that determines the morality of the transmutation.

Modern scifi/fantasy may have versipellism caused by any number of reasons. Hank McCoy (Marvel’s Beast, genetic) owes much of existence to versipellism, as does Bruce Banner (The Hulk, radiation). Superheroes as a group owe a nod to versipellism; they have two identities, two personalities, one wears the skin of everyday clothing, the other the skin of their superhero costume, and like any good werewolf, the needs of each identity are at odds with the other. Only recently have superheroes walked among non-supers openly (The Incredibles, The Incredibles 2, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark procliaming from the podium “I am IronMan,” Amazon’s “The Boys”).
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