On diversity in fiction, part 2: Case study

In this second part of my brief exploration of diversity in media, I put my money where my mouth is, examining my own works as proof that I live up to my own standard. For each of my “major” settings (which have—or will have—multiple books), I look at the characters through the lens of the diverse, and I explain why I made the choices I did.

Obviously, as this post concerns deep introspection of my writing, it will have spoilers. If you want to read any of the works I describe, check out my Patreon for more information.

Otherworld

Otherworld is my most developed setting. Its premise is that a team of archaeologists take their students to Mexico on a dig in the summer of 2019. They uncover a lost pyramid deep in the middle of nowhere, and it is conveniently aligned so that a hole in the domed top allows the sun to shine directly down on the summer solstice. After a storm drives them away, a subset of the dig team returns to watch the astronomical event, and they are transported to another planet populated by the descendants of a group of Paleo-Indians who left the Americas near the end of the Ice Age. The following 22 stories (so far!) describe the world, its inhabitants, and the unique challenges it creates for the protagonists.

The dig is organized by an American university (Arizona, to be specific) in modern times. Thus, it is diverse out of necessity: political pressure ensures that women are well-represented. Thus, of the 11 who travel to the Otherworld, 5 are women. Two are non-white. Ramón is a Mexican freshman who was offered a place on the team in exchange for being an extra translator. Damonte, I’ll admit, did begin in my mind as the “token black character”. But then, as I delved deeper into the story, I reimagined him as aware of that. He cultivated the image, if only because he thought it was funny when he didn’t act like he “should”.

In a way, Otherworld shows both sides of what I’ve been saying. The diversity is by force, but within the context of the story; for me, it developed mostly naturally. The characters from Earth are normal people. They live in our world. Ashley is a feminist, and she comes out as bi in the sixth story (Situational Awareness). But that’s not because I was pressured by the LGBT community, or because a producer told me I had to include a non-straight character. No, I thought that was the best direction to go. And while she does let it begin to overpower her thoughts, that’s her reaction to finally being among people who let her express her true self.

On the other side of the galaxy, things are a bit different. The Otherworld’s people are not like us, except insofar as they are human. They have different views, and much of the conflict comes from this kind of cultural impedance mismatch. The natives are descended from indigenous Americans of millennia ago, long before the Conquest. They see race in a different light. Those who look the most unlike themselves (Jeff, Ayla, Jenn, and, to a lesser extent, Sara) are viewed as something else. As the natives only have their own histories for guidance, they interpret blond and red hair on white skin the only way they know how, which becomes another main source of trouble.

Nocturne

Nocturne continues to by, in my opinion, the best novel I’ve ever written. I do have ideas for a sequel or two, but those won’t come for a few years. Until then, I only have a single book to extrapolate from, but here goes.

Basically, Nocturne is an allegory for race relations in the US in 2016. That was the backdrop for its writing, and it was largely my intent from the start. The story’s kingdom of Velin is home to three races: the fairly normal skyborn; the almost Aryan dayborn; and the pale-skinned, black-haired nightborn. These subdivisions, however, are not hereditary. In that, they more closely match other intrinsic factors such as orientation. The nightborn are most reviled, owing to their inherent magical abilities of stealth and secrecy.

The protagonist of the story, Shade, is unique in possessing both the abilities and appearance of the nightborn, but also the magics of the dayborn, all of which are associated with light, life, and heat. Thus, he is a kind of fulcrum character, a center point on the spectrum, and his mission is one of moderation. He wants to stop the endless strife of the races by showing that they can unite. (This, by the way, mirrors my own belief in the folly of partisan polarization.)

Beyond his realm, however, others exist, and these offer more “traditional” concepts of race. The southern land of Duravi, for instance, is well-known to Shade’s people; it’s a kind of Africa analogue. Distant Fernicia is a fairly generic Orient mostly based on China. The Northlands are home to, in essence, Vikings. But none of these play much of a role.

Nor do sex and gender. Velin is mostly blind to those by design—I wanted to focus most on the race aspect. So Kellis, the secondary protagonist, is a female police investigator, and she is not special for that. She is treated no differently, for good or ill, than her male counterparts. Others she meets do remark that she is a woman, because that’s what they see, but even the most radical feminist shouldn’t find fault in my portrayal of her. Her worst sin might be using a dinner date to lure a suspect into an interrogation.

Endless Forms

The Endless Forms series is my paranormal detective thriller playground. It’s got Bigfoot, werewolves, and all sorts of unnatural phenomena. (The second entry, the forthcoming The Beast Within, even has an oblique reference to Otherworld, one of the few times I’ve done that.) Our star here is Cam Weir, who just so happens to be a straight, white man from just outside Atlanta.

Nothing about the premise requires that. Indeed, for the first half of the initial novel, The Shape of Things, he’s almost the only white character in evidence. Investigating the paranormal in Atlanta requires being in Atlanta, and the inner city is very diverse. It was when I spent a summer night in 1996 riding around as my mom tried to find an all-night tattoo parlor (don’t ask), and everything I’ve seen points to it only becoming more so in the decades since.

Thus, I see Endless Forms as a good illustration of what I mean by “natural” diversity, at least as far as race is concerned. Cam’s white, but his neighbor Darrell isn’t, and neither really cares. They’ll joke about it, but that’s as far as it goes, because they’re friends. The psychic he goes to for advice has a mixed ancestry he can’t place (Cajun and Caribbean, mostly), but that’s his problem, and he doesn’t hold it against her. If anything, the biggest culture clash comes from this Southern boy traveling to Boston.

Men and women alike see the spooky ghosts and other creatures Cam hunts. The friends he meets on his Bigfoot chase are all men, but that’s because they’re bros. It happens. Other applications of diversity haven’t come up yet, but I’ll take them as they come.

Orphans of the Stars

My child-focused sci-fi/space opera series Orphans of the Stars again follows this rule. Sixteen young people are stranded on a ship, and 9 of them are boys. Random samples can be like that. Most are white or Asian, while one is of Middle Eastern descent, but the story takes place about 500 years in the future, where race just isn’t that big a deal. (That’s basically what I was referring to in the last post: space colonies in this setting, while still horrendously expensive, are cheap enough that a sufficiently motivated group can create their own.)

Issues of sexuality are also background information, but that comes from the characters. They’re children. With only a few exceptions, they’re not even that old. (Their ages range from 9-16 at the start of the story.) Some of them have all the hormonal problems of teens, but it just isn’t important for them, not when survival is at stake. Whether you like that boy on the bridge or the girl down in engineering doesn’t matter much when you just learned your parents are dead. Hanna, the oldest and most mature of the girls onboard the ship, is bicurious, but that’s about as far as the story needs to go.

Then again, these are children. The difference between boys and girls is stark in their eyes. As their eyes are the ones through which the story unfolds, that means I write about their feelings on the matter—Tori, for instance, has an irrational dislike of boys, and she lets that show. But they all recognize the difficult situation they face, so such distinctions naturally fade into the background. Nobody is chauvinist enough to say Mika, a 14-year-old girl, isn’t fit to be an engineer. And if the command crew is largely male, that’s only because they were the ones who took the seats. Except for those just mentioned, most of the girls are younger, or they just don’t like being in space to begin with.

Occupation Trilogy

The Occupation Trilogy is a newer, more epic fantasy series I’ve been working on this year. The first novel, Shadows Before the Sun, is about two-thirds done, so I’ll probably release it sometime in 2019. But I can already say a little about the world from a diversity standpoint.

Mostly, the premise is thus: a colonial power similar to 18th-century Britain has taken over a distant land, and some of the locals are not too happy about it. A generation ago, the kingdom of Laurea invaded their home; the war of conquest lasted six years. They imposed their politics, government, religion, and very way of life on the natives of Ihnet. Most of all, they outlawed magic, because the religious teachings of Laurea forbid it.

This, then, has all the hallmarks of colonialism, and you probably know what that means for diversity. The series has two main races, the invaders and the natives. They view the world through different lenses. Ihnet’s women fought with magic alongside the men; Laurea sees the martial solely as the domain of men. Racial politics are vital to the story, and I choose each character’s race (and ancestry, as there are many of mixed descent) with care.

But this isn’t a series meant to make progressives happy. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and not all of them are guys. Men are overrepresented among the characters of Laurea, but that is because of the nature of colonization: many are ex-soldiers who settled down in this new land, took native brides (not always willingly), and started their lives anew.

On the contrary, the Occupation Trilogy mostly concerns itself with the very real factors of society. Whose side are you on? Are you with us, or against us? Both the occupying force of Laurea and the resistance of Ihnet believe there can be no middle ground, no compromise. All other problems are secondary to that, though this may change as the series progresses.

Others

My other works either aren’t as fleshed out, or just don’t offer the same depth of worldbuilding. Thus, I’ll treat them here in much less detail.

  • Hidden Hills: This series, beginning with Lair of the Wizards, is set in a generic quasi-Renaissance fantasy land. As it is fairly small in scope at present, issues of diversity aren’t really important to the narrative. The culture is late feudal, so the treatment and disposition of women can come up, but really not.

  • The Linear Cycle: This one’s post-apocalyptic. One of the premises of the genre is that the traditional divisions of society break down out of necessity. Other than that, there’s not a lot of room to delve into such matters, if only because the action is first and foremost.

  • Heirs of Divinity: One of these days, I’ll release this one. Until then, know that it’s set in 1737, and I endeavored to make that time as realistic as possible. It’s a little more liberal than the real thing, but the story otherwise follows real history, with all its attendant foibles, wherever it can.

  • Gateway: This one starts with The Soulstone Sorcerer, which I’ll put out next year. It’s a typical RPG fantasy world combined with modern Colorado. Much like Otherworld, the diversity comes from the Earth characters, while the secondary world follows its own rules.

  • Before I Wake, Fallen, Modern Minds: These don’t have enough characterization to even worry about diversity. In most cases, the characters of any specific story are just about interchangeable.

Conclusion

In this post, I hope I have explained my reasoning, my argument for a more natural sort of diversity in fiction. In every case, I strive to write what feels right. I don’t set out to solve the world’s problems, or empower a generation, or anything of the sort. My characters, I believe, should be those who best fit the story, the world, they inhabit. Whether or not that matches another person’s idea of diversity never plays into my decision. The story is bigger than me, bigger than my prejudices. I would like to believe that others feel the same about both my works and their own.

On diversity in fiction, part 1: Opinions

No matter where you go in the world today, diversity is a word on everyone’s lips. Love it or hate it, the concept has, thanks to a particularly vocal segment of society, become a fact of modern life. And that has spilled over into fiction of all sorts. After all, stories are ever a reflection of an author’s worldview, so it stands to reason that something so prominent finds its way into anything we write.

In this two-part post, I’d like to offer my opinions on diversity as it pertains to fiction in various sorts of media. That includes the written word, video games, movies, television, and even theater. Anywhere a story must be written, it seems that the writer must take diversity into account, and I feel there are right and wrong ways to go about that.

For this part, I merely want to speak what I believe. In the following entry, which I will post next week, I will then look at my own efforts as a kind of case study for what I feel to be the most appropriate method of dealing with the concept.

Definitions

First off, let me define what I mean by diversity. In this context, I refer to people, or rather characters, who show visible differences in what might be termed intrinsic factors. These are the divisions we’re most familiar with, the ones most evident in appearance or association, and those that are hardest—if not entirely impossible—to change. Race, sex, religion, national origin, culture, and sexual orientation are some of the most common. (Gender, as it exists in a social context, has become a bit more involved, but it works essentially the same way for our purposes here.)

Nothing in a fictional work should, in my opinion, give a reader, viewer, or player the impression that the author sees those who vary from the norm in a negative light. (Unless, of course, that is the true purpose of the work, as in extremist literature of all sorts.) The purpose of fiction is to create a story. Thus, the best authors leave their biases at the door, so to speak.

The fictional world—the secondary world, as some call it—can have its own biases, and those may be different from our primary world. In that case, it is the writer’s responsibility to explain those differences, those biases, in a way the is both entertaining and enlightening. If there is to be a message, then let it stand on its own merit. That goes for diversity as well as its lack.

The use of force

And this, I feel, is where so much modern media has gone astray. Too often, we see authors and screenwriters “force” diversity where it detracts from the story being told. As Hollywood has become far too fond of reboots and reimaginings, we can watch this unfold on a daily basis. In only the past year, I’ve seen reboots and story concepts that, for diversity’s sake, promise to change a character’s race (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), sex (the oft-rumored “female James Bond”), gender (Supergirl), and orientation (Star Trek).

My question is a simple one, yet one that would likely lead to my firing if I worked at one of these studios: who wins? If the object is to show that women/people of color/LGBT/whoever can be protagonists, then shoving them into roles defined by someone who is one of straight, white, or male can only be considered a failure. If your argument is that marginalized groups deserve their own heroes, then make them some heroes. Don’t try to remold preexisting heroes into a more diverse image for the sake of diversity. That, to use a term these people like, is no different from cultural appropriation.

The problem, as I see it, boils down to polarization. One side wants to see more diversity, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve that goal. But those who don’t seek diversity in and of itself are then pushed to the other side, lumped in with white supremacists, homophobes, etc., for no reason other than they are not sufficiently progressive. Conversely, they then become shunned by those same elements for being too progressive. And the gap only continues to widen.

A better approach

Instead of this increasing bifurcation of society, I think a far better approach, at least regarding the creation of fiction, can be had by writing in a natural, organic fashion. Instead of forcing diversity, keeping quotas of minorities and the like, look at the story as a whole, the world it creates.

For fiction set in the real world of the present, this is almost too easy. We have demographics at our fingertips, so it’s not too hard to make a story that is both diverse and true to life. Historical fiction needs a little bit more work, but some common sense can tell you that it’d be silly for, say, Thor or Achilles to be black, or Guan Yu to be white. (Sexuality, especially in ancient times, is a whole different ballgame, particularly once you leave the familiar Christian West.)

Constructed worlds bring their own rules. In fantasy, you can make a case for just about anything. The men of Middle-Earth are white, if only because they are explicitly contrasted with the southern Haradrim. Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series has a race of “savages” that, upon further inspection, are not African in appearance, but…ginger. Female warriors abound in literature—Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) is the example most pertinent for TV audiences. Non-heterosexual relationships aren’t at all uncommon. And a good author lets all that fade into the background unless it’s absolutely pivotal to the story.

That doesn’t even get into the possibility that other races might have differing notions of what constitutes diversity, or different intrinsic factors. One can easily imagine polyamorous elves, matriarchal orcs, or shapeshifters to whom the very concepts of race and gender are nonsensical. A fictional world with multiple races and sub-races might have an incredibly complex system of lineage and rights, but equally plausible is the idea that diversity plays by different rules. If there are beast-men living in the next country over, then why are we so worried about skin color?

Science fiction set in the future brings its own baggage. Although I do love The Expanse (except for the very depressing Persepolis Rising), this is a case where I feel it breaks the rule of organic diversity. As far as I can tell, seven books have produced one stable, monogamous, straight couple for a major character: Duarte, the current villain! Race is also hopelessly muddled (one of the series’ main points, to be fair), and the whole thing sometimes comes off as an experiment in throwing as many diversity-friendly adjectives as possible into a character. “Oh,” I can imagine the authors saying, “we don’t have a half-Asian transgender character yet. Let’s get right on that.”

In the future, we can imagine the boundaries of the present falling down. But it’s no less a stretch to imagine them rising back up. As humanity expands its reach—and especially if it expands into space—communities might become more monolithic, rather than more diverse. If anyone can found a space colony, why wouldn’t a group experiment with a “pure” society? Human nature tends towards mild xenophobia. We like being with people who look like us, talk like us, believe the way we do. That’s why we’ve created echo chambers on the Internet, and it’s why you shouldn’t feel bad positing, say, a Nazi colony on Mars. (Now, I wouldn’t want to read about that, much less write about it, but you do you.) On the other hand, liberalism, multiculturalism, and globalism are on the upswing right now, and projecting that into the future seems like the safer bet.

Conclusion

Whatever your genre, whatever your medium, diversity should not be a goal in itself. Instead, natural storytelling should create diversity where it is needed, where it is expected. New York City and San Francisco today don’t have the same demographics as 13th-century London or 1st-century Palestine. Rather than attempt to check all the boxes, think about what characters would be where. Put them where they belong, rather than where society wants them to be.

Now, if the purpose of the story is to tell of a character or group’s struggle against adversity because of their intrinsic properties, then that’s okay. Slaves in the antebellum South are going to be black, no question. Medieval women will have a harder time than their modern counterparts, and a story focusing on them can certainly have a higher female:male ratio. A story that focuses on the X% doesn’t have to follow statistics.

Really, a story for the general populace doesn’t, either. Diversity is fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a master spy who happens to be a woman. There’s no reason why a superhero can’t be black, or trans, or whatever descriptor you want to give them. But you shouldn’t tout that as an accomplishment. Because it’s not.

It’s just who they are.

From the memory vault: Atlanta 2012

Growing up, I never really “got” gaming, not in the RPG sense. That only started to click in my head once I began looking into D&D and other games like it, which wasn’t until the early to mid 2000s. The first time I bought an RPG book was in 2006: d20 Modern. I saw it at the bookstore, thought it looked interesting (it had stats for modern weapons, among other things), and had the extra money, so why not? Although I didn’t buy it there; I instead ordered it from Amazon, because that was quite a bit cheaper, and not nearly as socially awkward.

It’s hard to believe that this happened when I was 22, and I’m now closing in on 35. It’s even harder to believe that the first idea I had for a campaign of my own, inspired by what I read in the d20 Modern handbook, is set in a time closer to then than now.

I’m bored and not very inspired, so that’s what this post is for. This is my chance to throw out an idea that came to me before I ever started writing fiction. I called it “Atlanta 2012”, and you’re about to see why.

The premise

Back in those halcyon days of 2006, we didn’t have to worry about the polarization of discourse, or social media privacy, or ISIS, or anything like that. We had the political turmoil of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of course, and the violations of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, but nothing like today. Thus, such troubles hadn’t seeped down into fiction yet, or into the mind of a young man whose head was already too full.

One thing that did interest me then was all the hubbub about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. If you’ll recall, the world didn’t end in December 2012, but far too many people thought it did, because they couldn’t fathom the idea of a calendar running out. Never mind that we were only a few years removed from the Y2K hysteria, which boiled down to the exact same problem. No, they were convinced the apocalypse was coming, and that the Mayans knew it down to the day.

The d20 Modern system, for those who don’t know, was an attempt at making a present-day adaptation of 3rd Edition D&D. (This was before 4E and Pathfinder, when everyone was making supplements, thanks to the OGL.) It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was pretty close. I don’t remember all the specifics now, but some that stick out are the wealth system—skill checks instead of tracking currency—and the horribly low damage that most guns did. If I did a game set in the present now, I’d probably use GURPS or something like that, but I was young, and I didn’t have the same resources at my disposal. This was what I had to work with.

These two threads tie in together, because they form the two sides of my campaign idea. The setting would be 2012, starting a few months before the presumed doomsday. I chose Atlanta as the “base” city because it was close enough that I knew a little about it, but far enough away that it wouldn’t be obvious I was doing a “hometown” RPG. Plus, it’s big, really big. There’s a lot of places to hide, a lot of gaps where stories can go. (For the same reason, I’ve used it as the main character’s effective base camp in my Endless Forms paranormal novel series.) The six years between play time and game time would give my players—my brother and a couple of my stepdad’s nephews were who I originally intended, as I would be the GM—the chance to play as either upgraded versions of themselves or fictitious contemporaries. And such a short time gap meant that technology wouldn’t change too much…except that I didn’t predict Facebook and ubiquitous smartphones, but you can’t win ’em all.

So, the game would take place in Atlanta, starting mere months before the end of the world. And that would be the first big storyline. My imagination had the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalyptic event, culminating in a trip into the jungles of Guatamala and the Yucatan. Since you can’t very well stop time, the big day would come and go, so Act I was a bit of a forced Bad Ending. But my idea was that the players wouldn’t know that yet. The effects would only show up later.

In the d20 Modern handbook, there are a few setting sketches. The authors never went into any great detail, because they expected you to buy worldbooks to fill those in. (I don’t think they ever wrote them, though.) Basically, you had a generic “real world” setting, one where psionic stuff was prevalent, and “Urban Arcana”. That last was the key, because it was described as not much more than “D&D in our world”. You could have orcs on a subway, or trolls walking down Peachtree (or Broadway, but I was using Atlanta, remember). You could have magic, even. There weren’t fixed ways of using it, but the leveling system of 3E meant that your modern-day hero could take a wizard level if he wanted—and if you had the book—and there’s your spells.

Putting it all together, that was the outline I devised. Part 1 was a detective mystery, with the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalypse, then coming into contact with a shadowy organization that wanted to bring it about. Then, when the designated day arrived, Bad Things would happen. The superficial victory hides the greater threat emerging: magic, fantasy, mythology. The world would slowly open up to the supernatural, in all its myriad forms. The latter half of the campaign, then, is all about that. I don’t go in for horror, but I thought I might be able to mix it in a little, especially when the players first confronted something obviously inhuman. My plans never got to mind flayers and beholders and the like, but that’s because I eventually gave up on the whole thing.

In a sense, however, I didn’t. A lot of what made Atlanta 2012 actually went into Endless Forms. The same city is the focus. Instead of a team of investigators, I’ve just got one, but he is still investigating. There’s no overt magic, but supernatural creatures lurk everywhere. So, while I did abandon the RPG campaign, the story seed went into hibernation, sprouting a decade later. Funny how that works.

The Shape of Things: Postmortem

A while back, I did a postmortem piece about my novel Nocturne. Well, it’s been awhile, and now I’ve got another book out. This one is The Shape of Things, and it’s another story that I feel needs a bit of explanation. Or venting, if you prefer. Either way, here are my thoughts, and beware of spoilers.

The seed

Every good story grows from a seed. So do the bad ones, like mine. In this case, the idea that spawned The Shape of Things came from my aunt. She’s a loyal reader, and she’s been there pretty much since the beginning of my writing not-quite-career. Most of all, she listens, and she responds with positive feedback and constructive criticism. (When she can get past “when’s the next one coming out?” and “what happens next?”, at least.) While I’m writing, I’m mostly in my own little world, insulated from everything around me. Great for focus, not so good for creating stories that appeal to, you know, other people.

Anyway, I was talking with my aunt one day, and she said something to the effect of, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for your next book.” Now, I’m not usually one for submissions, but there is nothing in this world more important to me than my family, so I’ll always give them a shot. And that’s what I did. She pitched the idea: What if all those monsters like Bigfoot are really people, but they change into the monsters?

At the time, I was thinking that, yeah, it might work. I put it in the queue along with a few of my own ideas, but I kept it in the back of my head. As I said, this is family we’re talking about here. And I did think it had potential. Couldn’t be much worse than some of the things I come up with, right?

The more I considered it, the bigger it became in my mind. I’ll gladly admit that the Dresden Files books are a huge influence on this one, and that series was very prominent in my thoughts as I ran through a few scenarios that might work out for my own paranormal story. I didn’t want exactly that, of course. No, mine has more in common with Sanctuary or Warehouse 13 or shows like those. We’re not dealing with actual magic, just the paranormal.

On a lighter note, since my aunt was the one who gave me the inspiration for The Shape of Things, she got a kind of cameo role. In fact, she’s basically the one who keeps the main story moving. And I made sure to give her character some of the same mannerisms and quirks. (She hates even the mention of zombies, for example. You wouldn’t believe the grumbling when I had her read Either Side of Night!)

The process

I didn’t want this to be fantasy. I wanted a story firmly grounded in the real world, but with the knowledge that our world might not be quite as real as we want to believe. Thus, the setting is here and now. Not so much a “mythic” America, but modern America, just with extra monsters.

The key here is the nature of the monster. In The Shape of Things (and the series that has spawned from it), the creatures themselves don’t exist per se. Oh, they’re there, but it’s much more of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Some people have this…thing inside them. They don’t necessarily know it until something draws it out. Usually, that’s a traumatic, life-changing, and possibly humiliating experience. In general, the idea is that something challenges their notion of their own humanity, which becomes the cause of their transformation into a being other than human. The forms they take are varied, and they don’t always align perfectly with our familiar monsters of legend, but there can be some similarities. (As for why this is happening, and why it’s happening so much in the present, I’m getting to that in the sequel, The Beast Within, which I’m currently writing.)

The novel itself is about 94,000 words, so not all that long. Call it tight, because there’s not much extraneous information in there. I started it at the beginning of May 2017, and the first draft was done on June 13. But here’s where it gets interesting. Writing Chapter 7 (of 16, plus a prologue and epilogue), I got bored. Seriously bored, and just plain tired of writing. So I stopped for about a week, long enough to switch over to another story I’d been working on. That was the first time in about 4 years that I’ve ever felt that way about a book. I won’t say it was my proudest moment. (It happened again in November, when I was working on The Soulstone Sorcerer, but I pushed through that. And I still hate myself for it.)

Despite that hiccup, I do think the book turned out good. Better than I thought when I finished it, definitely. I hope you’ll feel the same, but I’ve got more to say before I go.

The setting

As I mentioned above, The Shape of Things is set in our world. It’s not a fantasy version of it, but the real thing, just slightly dramatized. The protagonist, Cam, lives in Georgia, because I wanted him to be Southern, though far enough away from where I live that I could plausibly say he isn’t supposed to be me. He’s a little younger, maybe a bit smarter, and definitely a lot more successful, but he’s still a good old Southern boy at heart. And he’s mostly normal, apart from his odd hobby of hunting the paranormal for hire.

Cam is a skeptic, though. Not necessarily in the religious sense, but when it comes to the things he’s searching for. His default assumption is that whoever called him must be mistaken, because he knows these things aren’t real. Everybody sees ghosts, and every one of them, he believes, has some other explanation. And he feels the same about aliens, crop circles, demons, Sasquatch, and whatever else you can think of.

When the monsters really do show up, that puts him out of his league, and suddenly I found myself writing a horror thriller. Not at all what I expected, but I had some fun with it. A lot of his “backstory” sightings are based on things that actually happened to me, my family, or people I know. Others are references, but also from my personal experience. A group of “demons” in Marietta are actually Smite cosplayers, because my brother played that game constantly while I was writing. My mother really was scared by a hanger rattling from the air coming out of the vent under it. As this series progresses, I plan on adding in more of these, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m doing it.

The conflict

Cam doesn’t really have to fight his monsters. He barely even chases them. Instead, this book is about the hunt. It’s about him learning the truth of the world, then conquering the fears that knowledge creates. And it’s about solving problems. He absolutely has to run from some of the creatures he finds, but there aren’t opposing forces trying to stop him. (Maybe not yet…)

In that sense, the monsters fill the role of villain, such as it is, but in the same way they would in a horror movie. I don’t mind that. I’m not great at writing fight scenes or cloak-and-dagger trickery. The Shape of Things is more about a man against a force of nature, that’s all. Sometimes, that even comes out literally, but it’s more often the nature of the beast.

The end

I wrapped up the novel fairly neatly. There aren’t a lot of loose ends left to pick up. Instead, the biggest question remaining is what happens next. Where do we go from here? Cam solves the case. He saves a man from a monster—the monster that man had become.

This was never going to be a standalone work. I knew that from the start. So the future of the series hinges on that part of the ending. The world is stranger than we think, and Cam now knows this. He’s seen it with his own eyes. Now, he has to learn just how strange it can be, and that is where we go. Future installments are going to look into that core mystery, even as they continue to follow our humble hunter on his investigations. Some of those close to him may be affected, but one thing is certain: his life will never be the same.

Otherworld talk 8

And so it ends. Well, the first season, at least. I’ll be revisiting the Otherworld for some time to come. But today, in the aftermath of Long Road’s End, let’s see how far we’ve come, and maybe where we’ll be going.

Trajectories

Each of the 7 main characters of the story grew. They learned, they improved—or so they like to think. The experience of the Otherworld was life-changing in most cases. In a few, it was instead life-affirming, but the principle is the same. After eighty days of living in a different world, a different culture, each takes something away.

Amy was the first character we saw, all the way back in Chapter 1 of Out of the Past. She spent most of her first morning in the Otherworld hiding in a corner, and she often had to be dragged or cajoled into helping with the overarching mission of survival. But that all changed with her first visit to the village of Alwan. The tiny town fit her like a glove, to the point where she learned to love her strange surroundings, and she most definitely went out on a high note. Now, she wants nothing more than to go back.

Jeff doesn’t have to go back; he’s already there. That’s a complete turnaround from the timid, nerdy linguist having nightmares of being left behind, but he’s got a very good reason. Okay, two reasons, the second being that he’s a young man who’s been snared by a borderline nymphomaniac. At least he realizes that much, and he does remember his goal in the coming months: to learn everything he can about the locals and their history, so the next group won’t have to go in blind.

Jenn doesn’t want to stay in the Otherworld, but she doesn’t mind visiting every year—but only if she’s in charge. Her biggest discoveries about herself were that yearning to be a leader and her faith. Put the two together, and she’s the most like the last group of people to find a whole new world full of Indians. But she did prove herself, and she wants the chance to do so again. Whether that’s as a leader, explorer, or missionary, she doesn’t really care.

Ryan was his own sort of leader. He had the charisma Jenn lacked, and he used that to immerse himself more in the local culture. That, in essence, was his plan all along, but he was really the only one out of the group who could pull it off. Maybe he spent two months on a summer construction job, but he feels those were productive months. Even his injury didn’t stop him; in reality, it gave him a new respect for the abilities of the natives. And now he sees the Otherworld as an opportunity to prove himself to, well, himself.

Lee, of course, had the most dramatic time of it. He sprained his ankle while falling into a lake, got married to a thief, saw her get abducted, rescued her, and made an enemy in his new home. His most important aspect remains his race—he’s the closest to the locals of anyone—but he spun that into an advantage. Now, he’s among people like those he always to meet, and he’s becoming one of them. In a way, his story is almost done, but those around him will have their tales to tell.

Alex started out as the geek of the squad, and so he remains. But he was able to take that and run with it, because the natives don’t see him as a nerd, but a wise, intelligent man. A teacher. One of them hopes to see him as much more, which leaves him baffled, but his experience in the Otherworld is all about learning and teaching. It may not be his kind of adventure, and he went through a rough middle portion of the journey. Since that didn’t kill him, he hopes it will make him stronger. It certainly made him thinner.

Ashley, last of our original seven, began her stay in the Otherworld as the feminist outraged at being stuck in a society dominated by men. She made friends—almost all women—because that’s how she is. And her specialty was sociology, so she felt it her duty to learn as much about the local culture as possible. That brought about her two most surprising revelations. For the native culture does, in its own way, like women just as much as men…and so does she. For Ashley, the hardest part will be dealing with these discoveries without letting them consume her.

Still to come

The remaining four members of the expedition didn’t get as much screen time, but they’re not forgotten, and that leads us into the plan for the future. There will be a Season 2. Right now, it’s titled Return to the Otherworld, though that may change.

Before that, however, I have a series of 6 shorter novellas, A Bridge Between Worlds. These cover the intervening time, because, if you’ll recall, there’s still nine months to go before the next time anybody can go through the gateway in Mexico. I didn’t want to pick things up then, as I’m not really a fan of skipping ahead like that, so this was my solution.

First up is “The Code Breaker”, centered around Lee and Nimiesa as they deal with troubles in their home and their potentially growing family. This one builds on some of the storylines first introduced in Episodes 7 and 8, as well as setting the stage for the rest of the “bridge” stories and Season 2.

That’s followed by “The Red Magician”, which, as you may expect, is Ayla’s story; Niel, the native student first met in Episode 6, has a supporting role as he tries to figure her out while she’s figuring out how best to bring science to a world that doesn’t really want it.

Next up is “The Control Variable”. This one’s a bit out of place, as it’s set on Earth. Following Amy and Alex, it’s almost a bit of a travelogue. They’re coming to terms with their journey, but also going around the country in search of the other Altea sites. Do they find them? You’ll see.

Fourth on the list is “The Dark Continent”, which only has a single point of view: Damonte. Except for that brief interlude at the end of Episode 8, he’s been missing for quite a while now. This is his story, almost completely apart from the others, and it’s our first real chance to get into his mind. As it turns out, that place can be darker than his skin, as he’s haunted by his last real encounter with the rest of the expedition.

Following that is “The Lessons Learned”. That one is Jeff’s story, as he delves into the history of the natives, hoping to find references to the even older Altea. But it’s also a story for Irai, because she has a tale to tell. Her chapters are a marked contrast to, say, Nimiesa’s; though they’re essentially in the same situation (in love with an Earthling), they treat it in two very different ways.

And last we come to “The Candle’s Flame”. The final bridge between Seasons 1 and 2 remains set in Mexico, following the other interplanetary couple: Ramón and Etanya. He brought her back with him for a reason, and this story is that reason. It’s also the only one of the set where it’s the native who’s the main character, but there’s a good reason for that: she’s the one out of place. She’s learning about a whole new world, and doesn’t that sound familiar?

This set of stories will come out through 2018. Hopefully, they’ll tide you over until I can finish Season 2. I’m hard at work on that, though, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey of mine. It’s had its highs and lows, its ups and downs, but I like to think I’ve created something great. No, I want to think I’m still creating it, because there are many more stories to be told in the Otherworld.

Otherworld talk 7

If the previous episode, Situational Awareness, was the high point of Chronicles of the Otherworld, sometimes I think its followup, A Peace Shattered, is the lowest. I don’t know why, honestly. It just doesn’t seem to stack up. It comes between two of my favorite parts, but it doesn’t compare to either of them. Maybe you feel differently, though. Anyway, let’s talk.

Shattered

First off, I will freely admit that I had a hard time coming up with a plot for this one. All along, Chronicles was intended to be 8 parts, each with 8 chapters. It was a formula. And after I finished up Situational Awareness, I saw how to plan out the ending. But I had nothing to cover the weeks in between.

Thus was born the kidnapping sequence. It’s not my best, but I think it does an okay job of filling the gap. It’s plausible, and the actors involved might conceive of such a scheme. It ties up a loose end (Olof, from Episodes 5 & 6) while setting out another (Elgaan, who will be a thorn in Lee’s side for a while). It also brings together a few disparate parts of the expedition, connecting Ryan, Lee, Jenn, and Amy.

The natives don’t have a real police force. They don’t have a dedicated investigator to help solve the mystery of the disappearing doctor. That fits neatly into Jenn’s idea of herself as a vigilante (Episodes 4 & 6). On the other hand, Lee spends much of the time frustrated by a cultural difference: he isn’t allowed to participate in the investigation or interrogation, as he’s considered too partial.

There’s a lot of barely restrained rage on his part, a sharp contrast to the easygoing Lee of the first six episodes. And maybe contrast is what I was going for in this one, because a lot of characters end up acting different. But this is an emergency. One of their own has been taken, so they have to get serious.

Discovery

The second subplot for this episode is the quick dig, with the bizarre trio of Alex, Jeff, and Ayla going back to the site of their arrival to find some answers. Well, they don’t find all of them, but they do get the big one: the timeline.

From the beginning, I imagined the Otherworld as a place first visited before the Ice Age. The Altea, whoever they were—even I don’t know yet—came from Earth, emigrating permanently once the glaciers started melting. True victims of climate change, if you will. They were technologically advanced, compared both to their Neolithic neighbors and the modern inhabitants of America, but they died out long ago, when their second world began to suffer the fate of their first. (This one comes into play a bit later.) The site in Mexico was not their only gateway between worlds, but it’s the only one in friendly territory, you might say.

We saw some evidence of advancement back in Episode 4, the first time our intrepid heroes began nosing around the site’s underground. Here we get even more, as well as ironclad proof of the timeline. That was an idea I had long before I started writing this episode. If the Otherworld can have some animals otherwise extinct (American horses, northern peccaries and tapirs, etc.), then why not others? Why not one of the most famous Ice Age extinctions of all? And that plants the seed in the characters’ minds, too: if these are here, what else is?

So the archaeological dig without any archaeologists finds two things that completely rewrite history. That’s the bombshell of the series, even more than the very existence of the Otherworld. But I like to think I played it well. The Altea didn’t guide Paleo-Indians or their Otherworld cousins. None of the native creations of the Americas belong to them, with the exception of the sites like Tamaulipas. And it’s mostly the same on the other side. By the time the Mayans came around, the Altea were nothing more than dust; by the time the expedition arrives in the Otherworld, they’re only remembered as legends.

Setup

After this, there’s only one episode left in the season. The finale, if you will, and it takes a bit of a different approach. So will I, in these talks, so I’m going to talk a bit about it now. First off, it uses a bit of a different structure. Because so many things are going on, it doesn’t follow the usual “POV rotation”. Instead, the first six chapters whip around, each following a single day of the story and changing focus as needed. Alex, Jenn, and Amy get a higher proportion of the attention, but that’s because they have more to do. Chapter 7 is even more different, as it’s made up of seven scenes, one for each character. And the final chapter of the season is an epilogue: five scenes, one each for the four expedition members who never got a chance to speak, and the last for their honorary twelfth member.

I’ll talk more about the happenings of Episode 8, titled Long Road’s End, after it’s out. But I’ll gladly say that it was a fun, enjoyable experience. It was a pleasure to write, unlike this one, where I sometimes felt like quitting. It’s a good thing I didn’t, as I hope you’ll see soon.

Otherworld talk 6

The latest part of Chronicles of the Otherworld came out the other day over at my Patreon. For those who are counting, that’s Episode 6, Situational Awareness, and it’s probably my overall favorite. For once, I felt like everything just…clicked. The two main plots meshed well, the characters all had a role to play, the overall story advanced, and I even had some good action scenes buried in there. I won’t say it’s perfect (nothing I write ever is), but I do believe this is the jewel of the series.

Relationships are a big part of Chronicles, and I’m not just talking about romantic and sexual relationships. No, the primary focus of the entire series is how the expedition members react with each other and the natives of the Otherworld. It may have started out as nothing more than a worldbuilding playground, but this story very quickly became a character drama. So let’s talk about that today.

Friends and enemies

Living among a people for two and a half months (it’s not quite that far yet, but it soon will be), it’s only natural that a group of intelligent, outgoing—except for Alex—and open young people are going to make friends. In the beginning, that was impossible, thanks to the language barrier, but now, later in the story, they have grown more comfortable in the Otherworld. Every one of the primary characters has at least one friend from the natives. Some, like Ashley and Ryan, have many more.

The indigenous people of the Otherworld are, well, people, so that’s why this is possible. It’s only natural. Indeed, I intended it that way from the start. Maybe not the exact faces that would fill the “friend” roles, but they were supposed to be making friends all along.

Their existing friendships also strengthen due to their shared experience. Ryan and Ramón, for instance, got to know each other in the original dig, and they only grow closer as the weeks progress. By the end of it, there is some strain starting to show, but they’re such good friends that at least one native sees them as like brothers. Amy and Sara are another example, as they were best friends before they left home; eighty days of living and working together, of relying almost wholly on one another, will leave them in much the same situation. (Although they do have one glaring difference, as you’ll come to learn.)

On the other side of the coin, not everybody is always friendly. Few are outright hostile from the start, a situation I feel is realistic. Yes, the Otherworld has its malcontents, and even racists, but the members of the expedition need time to earn even their ire. The Kaldea (Episode 5) have cultural reasons to be unfriendly; we’ll see more about that later on. This episode’s bandit leader Olof is a special case even for them, though.

Mostly, the reason there aren’t more enemies is simple expedience on my part. The main conflicts are environmental and personal in nature. There simply isn’t that much room for eleven (or more) enemies. Jenn has a nemesis now, and Lee is in the process of picking one up. Alex and Ayla hate each other…for the most part. And who knows what Damonte will get into in his solo adventure.

Natural urges

So that’s it for friends, but some characters have become somewhat more than friends. That was nowhere near part of the original plan, I’ll admit. At the start, I never intended the series to become so sexualized, but there it is. I justify this by saying that these are college students, young adults, and they’ve been placed in a stressful situation where they completely lack adult supervision. It’s only natural that some of them will give in to their baser instincts.

Ayla does it as stress relief; as we’ll see later on, she figures that, hey, nothing else works, so why not give it a shot? Lee was basically tricked into it, but it turns out that he doesn’t really mind. Jeff essentially thinks he’s won the lottery, and Amy—well, we’ll get to that soon enough.

In sharp contrast, Ryan turns down all such offers (mostly off-screen). Jenn, as you saw in this episode, is happy being friends with Bryn instead. Alex assumes his first time with Ayla is also his last (he’s wrong), and Ramón holds up his Catholic upbringing as a shield. It’s not that they aren’t tempted. They certainly are, as the culture they find themselves in simply doesn’t have the same sorts of taboos as ours. It’s a lot more open, a lot less restrained. But they refuse to indulge for their own reasons.

The natives pick up on all of this. After all, they’re not stupid. But they also see these newcomers (with a few exceptions) as the semi-mythical Altea. As Ashley explains in this past week’s episode: what poor, lonely woman wouldn’t want to improve her lot by getting together with what she sees as a demigod? It’s much different for the native men, a topic we’ll see picked up in Season 2, but many of the relationships that spring up stem from this.

And that was something I intended. Maybe I didn’t expect to take things this far, but…they did, and it works. Especially in this part. Next up is Episode 7, a case where I think much the opposite. I’ll see you then.

On rhythm and flow

What makes good prose? I wish I knew, because then I’d be rich. But I think it’s largely one of those subjective things, something different for different people. Still, I believe there are some constants. We can easily point to something and say, “That’s bad.” In most cases, what’s “bad” won’t even be up for debate. Defining “good”, on the other hand, is tricky, but let’s see what we can do.

Setup work

I don’t claim to be a great writer. I’m good at best, probably closer to mediocre. I do, however, think I write above-average prose. By that, I mean the actual words themselves, the sentence and paragraph structure. The skeletal structure of a book, if you will, where the story itself is the meat and flesh.

Good prose is in the eye of the beholder, so it may sound a bit biased for me to say that my prose is good. It’s a bit of the Dunning-Kruger effect: people tend to see themselves as better than they really are. But hear me out.

I recently read The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson. Now, Sanderson is one of my favorite authors, and he’s practically a legend when it comes to writing quantity, but this book really left something to be desired in the prose department. It’s a great story, although it comes off the rails a bit towards the end, and the worldbuilding is (as always for this author) top-notch.

Yet as I read it, I found myself wincing more than once at the prose. It’s clunky, jarring, and I can’t blame that all on necessity. See, I believe there is a time and place even for poor grammar. (Usually, that works best in dialogue, and I’m not afraid to write, for example, “me and him” when that’s what a character would likely say.) But this went beyond that. For a fairly long stretch in the prologue, it was like the author forgot how to use pronouns. Sentences were written in such a way as to be confusing, ambiguous. The whole thing read like something I would have written in school.

For the first time in the five years I’ve been serious about my writing, I couldn’t not compare a professional creation to my own, and I found the pro wanting. It was an odd feeling, though not one of pride. I’m most certainly not saying I’m a better writer than Brandon Sanderson. But I do find it strange how big this particular difference in quality was. Remember, I’m a self-published author. I can’t afford a dedicated editor. And yet I couldn’t help but think I was doing better.

Like a river

It took some time, but I finally figured out where this all came from. And that goes back to what I feel is one of the hallmarks of my writing style. I don’t go in for convoluted phrasing, a vast vocabulary, or anything like that. No, I place the greatest emphasis on flow.

Flow, as I define it (I’m not even sure it’s a real thing, much less something with an actual definition), is a kind of phrase-level rhythm. Writing flows if one phrase or sentence leads naturally and seamlessly into the next. For me, good flow realizes as an almost hypnotic quality. If I lose track of time while reading, then here’s a story with good flow. Story, characters, and worldbuilding all matter more, of course, but I find it easier to lose myself in a river of prose than jagged phrasal peaks.

Part of good flow is about making connections. That’s why I use a lot of compound and complex sentences for exposition, with dependent clauses and conjunctions everywhere. I also tend to digress, resulting in probably too many dashes, but even those fit in the flow, and I think a dashed-off (or parenthesized) phrase is better than an extra sentence that distracts from the main point I’m making.

Literary devices like alliteration and parallelism, both of which I use heavily, fit into the flow almost without even trying. Alliteration and assonance, for example, are like a pounding beat. Done properly, they don’t interrupt the flow, but enhance it. Similarly, parallelism has its own repetition, which I find to work a bit like a feedback loop: the flow only grows stronger until it’s finally released.

Changing the beat

Once I’ve set the flow for a story, changing up the rhythm has an immediate effect. The desired effect, at that. Short, clipped sentences indicate action, tension. Long, meandering thoughts are for introspection and reflection. And so on from there. That’s more of a general thing, but it’s a more noticeable shift when I’ve spent so long working on a flowing narrative.

But I still keep the elements of the flow, even when the beat changes. A key to good writing, I think, is nailing down when to change your narrator’s “voice”. It’s like when I write child characters, or the native characters in my Otherworld setting. There, although the flow itself remains, its nature changes. That provides a dramatic shift purely out of contrast, so you know that this character has a different way of thinking, of looking at the world. Maybe a child won’t go in for long stretches of pure thought—they’d get distracted halfway through—but they’ll have other ways of keeping this virtual beat.

By doing things this way, I’ve even made some parts of the editing process easier. I know when to rewrite a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or utterance if it stands out by virtue of its lack of flow. Like a wrong note or botched line, poor prose becomes obvious by its poor fit. Smoothing out those rough edges leaves me with something coherent, connected. Maybe not good, but I didn’t claim I was that.

Opinions

All this is my own opinion. It’s not even an educated opinion, either, as I’ve never taken a formal writing class. Instead, I come by my opinions through thought, reasoning, and study. I can point to a work I’ve read and tell you how I feel about its prose, even if I may not use proper terminology to do so.

Of course, my opinion may not be the right one. It probably isn’t the right one for you. Still, I encourage you to consider what I’m saying. Think about how your own writing flows. Good prose, I have found, feels like floating down a river, or drifting at sea, or even just falling asleep. On the other hand, poor prose constantly jerks me awake, out of the moment and into reality. Maybe your feelings are different, but you won’t know until you find them.

Otherworld talk 5

The second half of Chronicles of the Otherworld has begun. You might say it’s all downhill from here, except…well, it’s really not. We haven’t hit the highest notes of this song quite yet. But we have seen a new episode released (The Bonds Between Us), so that’s a good excuse for a new chat about this setting from the man who created it. This time around, I want to take a deeper look at the “local” culture of the Otherworld, the Virissea. Personally, I feel they’re one of my greatest creations. To think, they started off as nothing more than a background element for their language.

The language

That one’s not even an exaggeration. As I’ve said numerous times, the initial seed for the Otherworld series came when Stargate Universe was canceled. Nobody was doing good “exploration” sci-fi anymore, or even exploration fantasy. (Monarchies of God is a great series in that vein, by the way.) Now, that’s not to say I thought I could do better, but I knew I could do better than nothing. Since nothing was what I had, how could I lose?

More importantly, though, the Otherworld setting started out as a kind of language playground. The details of the native tongue (as well as quite a few others in the setting) predate most other notes by months. And the one I called “Virisai” was first on the list.

As languages go, it’s nothing remarkable, and I intended that from the very start. This isn’t an alien language, because these aren’t aliens. That goes hand-in-hand with the “alternate timeline” setup. And yet I didn’t really want a typical Amerind language, because a lot of those are horrendously complex. There’s no way a bunch of college students could become anywhere near fluent in one of those in less than three months. But, I figured, since I had so much “alternative” time to work with, I could plausibly say that this is a whole new language family, as well, one that didn’t follow its brethren in development. In other words, it branched off too early to pick up some of the more convoluted aspects of American indigenous languages.

Beyond that, the language is fairly straightforward. It has a few hangups, a few unexpected complexities, and I’ve found ways to work some of those into the narrative. (Mostly, this comes in Jeff’s chapters, as he’s the linguist, though Amy occasionally notes one.) But I do intend it to be a “natural” constructed language. It’s meant to be spoken, written, read. In fact, I do have a translated Babel Text lying around somewhere, and I’ve considered doing other works when I have the free time.

The culture

The culture of the Virissea, like their language, shares that “same but different” quality. These people may look like your typical Native American, but they are certainly not American. They don’t fit the realities or the stereotypes. They’re there own thing, and most of the culture shock is about dealing with that other thing.

For those in the midst of the story, I’ve intentionally designed the culture to be not outrageously dissimilar from anything on Earth. The local Virissea are monotheistic, for instance, though there’s a strong hint of ancestor worship in there, too, and a fairly complex mythology regarding the otherworldly Altea, who supposedly helped to create the world after their own was destroyed in some previous cataclysm. As they looked different from the Virissea, those members of the expedition who look the most outlandish are seen instead as these mythical people: Jeff, Jenn, Ayla, Sara. Lee and Ramón, by contrast, get treated as some kind of prodigal sons, while Damonte is something else entirely.

Other parts of the culture likewise follow this trend. These people don’t have human sacrifices, but they do have some strange taboos and rituals. They may not play the Mayan ball game, but they’ve got one of their own. Their science isn’t nearly as advanced as ours, so advanced technology is seen as magic instead (following Clarke’s Third Law), but that’s okay, because they already have a mythos full of magic. They just fit computers and solar panels into that, and go on about their day.

That, I think, is my primary goal with this culture. Too often, we assume that modern Americans meeting a more “primitive” people will be treated as either gods or devils because of our technology, attire, beliefs, and general otherness. And to be fair, some members of the expedition get the godly treatment, but they don’t intentionally play to it—with one notable exception.

But there can be a third road, where we’re neither demonized nor canonized. Think about it. If you’ve never seen a tablet computer before, but you get told stories every week of a legendary hero who carried around a magic spellbook, it’s not that great a leap to equate the two. Either one is so far beyond you that it’s almost required by Occam’s Razor. But that doesn’t mean the guy carrying that tablet is a god, not when you’re also taught that there’s only one of those.

In other words, no matter how different the Virissea are, they’re still people. Humans. They have a civilization, a culture, and they’re desperately trying to fit these newcomers into their world without breaking too much. In other words, exactly what I would want to do if presented with a representative of an advanced alien race.

The others

And that makes a good segue into matters of race. For the Otherworld, the subject is a bit tricky. Everyone in it (except for our intrepid heroes) descends from the original inhabitants of the Americas. Yet some of them are…different. I’ll leave the whys for later, because I think the simple idea is enough to get started.

I did intend on having multiple human subspecies in the Otherworld from the start. (That is totally not me ripping off The Dagger and the Coin, except when it is.) And I even made them fit the classic fantasy stereotypes. The Lyssea, who show up again in this episode, are a reinterpretation of elves. The Kaldea beating down Ayla’s door fill the “dwarf” role. Even last episode’s Arassea work, as they started off in my head as vaguely orc-like. That’s not to say these races are their fantasy inspirations. Oh, no. But it’s a perfect excuse for some people—particularly a certain character very drawn to fantasy literature—to see them as such.

All told, there are ten total races in the Otherworld, if you count the Altea. (And if you don’t count the modern Earthlings of the expedition.) Some of them can interbreed; some of them would rather not. Each has its own culture, language, and outlook, and I use that to set up quite a few interesting plotlines. The Arassea slavery angle, for one, or the Kaldea and their cabal-like protection of their technology. On top of that, there are racial tensions, and even some outright racism. Why? Because the Otherworld is not a utopia. It’s imperfect, just like ours, and part of the story’s development is peeling back those layers to find the imperfections.

The upcoming

That’s all for this installment, but the chronicles will keep coming. Next up is Situational Awareness, which is my favorite episode of the first season. I loved writing it, I love reading it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do. Until then, have fun in either world, and be sure to look at my other stories.

Otherworld talk 4

At this halfway point in the first Otherworld season, I’d like to take a look at the storylines I’ve created, because some of them are, in my all-too-critical opinion, actually pretty decent.

The first

The main story, of course, is the accidental expedition to the Otherworld. That one hangs over everything, as it will throughout the remainder of the season. And this story brings with it a lot of others. It puts the focus on survival, adaptation, integration. It’s a story not only of exploration, but culture shock and the simple sense that, hey, we’re somewhere else. These characters are farther from home than they ever thought about going, and most of them aren’t exactly ready for something like that.

In a way, the “student dig” setup helps lead into that. For some, even leaving the country of their birth was hard, not to mention leaving the whole planet. Others were used to travel, or they’re used to the outdoors, and so it’s not quite as difficult for them. That creates a bit of friction, especially once you factor in the different personalities involved. Jenn, for instance, is always preaching safety and care (except when she’s involved), while Ryan continuously argues for more freedom and a deeper integration with the alien society. Amy has never really been away from home before—if you count college as “home”—while Lee’s was broken long ago. Everyone gets to cope with the reality of the situation in his or her own way, and the POV sequence, I think, allows a good look at that struggle through most eyes.

Alien life

Once the characters can accept the mess they’re in, mere survival is forgotten. They’ve already succeeded at that, so it’s time to move on. Being curious young men and women, it’s only natural that they immerse themselves in the world they’ve discovered. It’s not like the Spanish, where they deliberately set out in search of gold and glory. No, this was an accident. Some want nothing more than to get home as soon as possible, but the rest are perfectly willing to explore this strange place. Episode 3, for example, is all about that exploration.

But the Otherworld is much, much bigger than a couple of towns and villages. In Episode 4, as readers of the series have now learned, there’s a visit to a larger city in store. That change of scenery brings with it a chance to see a new side of the inhabitants of the world, and we’ll get to return to that a bit later on. As the story progresses (especially once we get past this first season), the Otherworld begins to open up. The characters find themselves in more locations, and each of those locations has its own unique perspective. They all fit into the story in different ways, and that was a very interesting part of the worldbuilding.

Action and suspense

It wouldn’t be a TV-style drama without action sequences and suspense. We see a bit of that in Episode 4, particularly Chapter 6. (No spoilers here, but I’ll gladly admit that the aftermath of that character death always strikes a chord within me. And I wrote it!) Later on, we’ll get a lot more. That’s not because I felt the need to fulfill a quota, so don’t think that. No, it’s just that the story seemed to be going in that direction.

Well, except for the action bits of Episode 7. That one was more because I couldn’t think of anything else to write, and I needed something to fill the last two or three weeks of in-story time.

Coping with reality

Ultimately, all the “side” plots, whether action, study, suspense, or simply learning to live within the strictures of the Otherworld, boil down to one: getting through the day.

For all of the main characters in the expedition, this whole journey ends up being a life-changing experience. Through the eighty days of the Otherworld, they grow, they change, sometimes in ways even they didn’t expect. In some cases, it’s like they become more of what they already were. For others, it’s a more fundamental change in attitude. A couple of them will even do a complete 180 on some of their opinions.

That was one of my goals with this series. I wanted to create a vibrant, living world, but I also wanted to make characters that would fit it. They can’t do that if they’re stuck being the same old people. No, they have to evolve, too. Sometimes, they evolve in ways I never anticipated—Ashley is the main one here, as you’ll see later on. Others (like Alex) mostly follow the trajectories I’d always envisioned. However it works, I’d like to believe that I succeeded in my goal of creating three-dimensional characters that act and react and grow and change like real people.

All along, that was what I wanted most, and there were many times that I asked myself what I would do in a particular situation. Knowing that, I could better guide my writing. As I have grown more comfortable with the characters, however, I find that I don’t need to ask myself that anymore. No, now I can ask what they would do, and I’d call that mission accomplished.

Keep it going

We’re halfway done with Season 1, but that’s nothing. We’ve still got four more of these little chat sessions to go, and then we can start looking at the postseason. Oh, and Season 2. As of this writing (about a month and a half before its posting date), I just finished a draft for the second episode of that. So don’t quit on me now. Unlike TV, this one isn’t getting canceled right as it’s getting good.