Writing Fantasy: The Problem of Lineage

“I have encountered a vergence in the Force . . . a boy. His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorian.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“The Force is strong in my family.”  -Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I’ve ever seen in a life form. It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship.” -Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The examples of the problem are countless, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying to count them anyway. Whether it comes from destiny or something about who your dad was, we know this much; in fantasy fiction, it really fucking matters who your parents were. Your real parents, at least. Your powers are something you are born with. Sure, maybe you need training, maybe you need an eccentric mentor type to help you hone your talent, but that all comes later, typically after you inherit your ancestor’s cool weapon.

We could be talking about Star Wars, like with the above quotes. Or maybe we’re talking about Aragorn and the Lord of the Rings. Or with a bit of stretching, we could include any superhero whose powers are the result of their inborn biology as opposed to what they might have constructed in a cave, with a box of scraps.

In fact, because there are so many examples and variations on this theme, we’re going to narrow it down to Star Wars, not simply because Star Wars (and more specifically, the prequels) are the most egregious offender, but because there is such a clearly defined timeline that explains the problem. Even though I’m talking specifically about the Force and the Jedi here, these are themes that can be found in almost any fantasy story that has some kind of magical power and a specific group of people that can wield that power. So you could substitute “magic” and “mages” here, if you really wanted.

We begin with the original trilogy. Despite all the references to Luke’s destiny as a Jedi, because his father was a Jedi, by the time we get to Yoda, we see someone who doesn’t seem to give a shit who your dad was. If you want to be a Jedi, get off your ass and work on it. You better have the deepest commitment and the most serious mind if you want to make it through Jedi training, or your ass isn’t levitating anything.

Sure, there’s still privilege here in the story as presented. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. But why not? Maybe you don’t have the natural patience to sit still long enough to let a green elf lecture you while inhaling swamp gas. Or maybe you couldn’t afford to take a top-of-the-line military starship and fly off to some random swamp planet to meet the right teacher because you have to ride the space-bus every day. Maybe you don’t believe in hokey religions and ancient weapons, so the whole thing is just a waste of time.

Regardless of the barriers that might keep you from Jedi training that exist mentally, physically, or practically, at this point, the metaphor is still clear; if you really want to become a space wizard, you can. It’s going to be hard as hell. You could fail and die, or turn into an evil tyrant instead. But you can still try. It doesn’t matter what your blood type is. It doesn’t matter who your dad is. The Force is everything, even in the trees and rocks.

And then it turns out that none of that is accurate, because while it is true that the Force is super-cool and it’s all things and we’re all luminous beings, it’s also true that you won’t have a chance in hell at graduating from Jedi school unless you won the genetic lottery the moment you were born. A single check of your blood type (so to speak) determines whether you can be a space wizard . . . or, you know, something else. Maybe a queen, if you’re lucky enough to live on a planet with a democratically elected monarchy system.

Sorry, the Force isn’t for you. You don’t have the right blood for it. Even though the number of little organisms in your blood isn’t actually the source of the power, it’s still the bridge, the gateway, but ff you don’t have it, you never will. If you do have it, you can start working hard on developing it.

The parallels to fantasy fiction’s love of the aristocracy should become apparent here, if they aren’t already. The special people get all the best perks because they were born special. Again, and again, we see this theme.

You could argue that this accurately reflects real life and I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about what opportunities are open to you and which ones are closed. Even before we consider anything else about me, the fact that I was born straight, white, and male meant that I had fewer barriers starting out than other people.

But my feeling is that it’s not the role of fantasy fiction to tell us how the world is, but how it should be. We don’t live in a world where good always triumphs over evil . . . but we should. Our fantasies tell us a lot about what we value, what we consider to be important. And so we come to the actual core problem: our Jedi fantasy started telling us that we believed anyone could become a hero, but shifted into telling us that only special people can be heroes.

We learn from stories. In particular, we learn about what’s important because we intuit what people want to tell stories about. Overcoming evil is more important than making breakfast in the grand scheme of things, so we usually focus our grand narratives there. And at one point in time, Star Wars knew this.

Participants: George Lucas, Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian
Location: Park Way House
Note: Many of the ideas here are conceptual only and should not be considered canon in the Star Wars saga.
Lawrence Kasadan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everyone can do it.
Kasadan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

That’s the solution. It’s the direction that I went with in my books, although I hadn’t read this transcript at the time. If you make the magic powers a skill that someone can learn, you reinforce the idea that what you do matters more than who your parents are.

In Dinomancer, I intentionally keep it vague on whether or not I think of the ability to wield the Geas is a supernatural power or not. Where does it come from? What powers it? Right now, I’m not saying (gotta save material for future world building).

What I do explore is the relatively egalitarian nature of the skill itself; it really is true that anyone can learn it, just like anyone can learn French. But just like learning French, just because anyone can learn it doesn’t mean the deck isn’t still stacked in some people’s favor more than others.

Obviously, the easiest way to learn French is to be French. Barring that, going to France and living there for a while probably works. Barring that, taking a class or having a French teacher. Barring that? Maybe a book or something; at this point, you have fewer advantages working for you, so most people don’t really try. Sure, there’s the occasional self-starter who really manages to pull it off, but most of us don’t.

Anyone can train to be a dinomancer, which is my current working title and term for the protagonists until I can come up with something better. As discussed in the aristocracy post, this creates a form of social mobility, in that anyone can learn the skills needed to become a dinomancer, and the skills are so valuable that you’re guaranteed adoption into a noble House if you can master it. In theory, anyone can raise his or her station. All it takes is a bit of hard work, can-do attitude, and know-how . . .

Oh, and you need to be willing to stand in front of a bull tyrannosaurus as it charges toward you while all you do is hold out your hand and think really hard to make it not want to eat you and somehow believe that this will work even while your instincts are screaming at you to run away.

And the mortality rate for learning the skill is about 50%, but this risk isn’t evenly distributed. It’s lower if you’re a highborn, considerably higher if you’re lowborn.

Highborn will train for this challenge their entire lives. You can’t take your title or be considered a true member of your noble family unless you’re a trained dinomancer. Those highborn kids that don’t or can’t learn might remain comfortable all their lives as their parents care for them, but they won’t inherit any land, titles, or power ever, so if they don’t want to end up out in the cold one day, they best get to work.

Fortunately, there are plenty of trainers available for these highborn kids to help them prepare. Most families specialize in breeding one particularly powerful species, such as a Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus, but many smaller, less dangerous dinosaurs are common enough to be used for early training. From the time they can walk, these kids will grow up around dinosaurs, learning to interact with them, care for them, and everything else they’ll need once it’s time to learn the skill. They’re given every possible advantage to help them succeed.

The lowborn kids . . . are not. Any lowborn can send a child for dinomancer training to the noble family that rules over them. In point of fact, anyone of any age can go to learn, but culturally, it’s just better economic sense to send your little tykes off when they’re young so that if/when they fail, you’ve only invested six years into raising them instead of sixteen. You’re playing a numbers game when you’re lowborn; all you need is one kid to survive long enough to graduate, then they’ll have enough resources to care for you. You don’t get to become noble yourself, obviously, but most former lowborn provide enough for their families to lift them into a pseudo-middle class. Not all do, but it’s common enough.

Unlike the highborn, lowborn don’t have to send kids for training. There are plenty who don’t, since there’s no social expectation for them to do so. Lowborn kids can grow up and live lowborn lives. But the rewards are great enough that for most lowborn families, it’s worth risking a few sons or daughters.

The system isn’t fair. The powerful hoard their resources to ensure their own progeny retain their grip on power. We’re not creating a perfect world here, after all; we still need enough problems so there are things for our heroes to overcome. But the important distinction is that the core philosophy of the world itself is coded as “anyone can learn” instead of “you must have the right blood to learn.”

The elite of this world twisted things to serve their own interests. If someone more enlightened came along and wanted to open a dinomancer public school, there’s nothing inherent in the setting that would stop them. In contract, you don’t get to be a public school Jedi if you’re not born for it. Don’t even try.

How we construct our pretend worlds says a lot about us. My hope is that we’ll continue to see fantasy settings that trend in this direction. You can still make magic and magical powers rare and special without making them restricted to the genetically gifted. I still love magic and hidden places and lost arts. I just hope we see more things like the Jedi as envisioned in 1981 (“it’s like yoga”), instead of 1999 (“microscopic organisms living in your blood”).

Thoughts on Writing Fantasy

I really like the fantasy genre. Out of all the interests in my life, I think it’s my love for fantasy that’s had the biggest influence. My mom reading me the Hobbit is one of my earliest and most influential memories. It was a fantasy video game that got me into writing stories of my own, which set me on the path where writing became a thing I wanted to do. It’s even how I ended up meeting my wife; I mentioned that I was running a Dungeons & Dragons game, she asked to join and that was how it all started for us.

I’ll note that every time I say fantasy here, I really mean the entire fantasy genre, not just the idea of thinking about pretend stuff, but “fantasy genre” is tiresome to type out.

Anyway, fantasy is important to me. It’s something I look forward to sharing with my son when he’s older, even though I’m emotionally preparing myself for the possibility that someday he’ll want a football and a pair of skis instead of a Crown Royal bag filled with dice.

My first major writing project was a novel I started when I was about fourteen(ish). It mostly stands as a testament to how much I was enthralled with R. A. Salvatore at the time; you’ve got fifteen page long swordfights, for example. There’s also a romance plotline that reflects how the largest influence on my understanding of romance was the Star Wars movies, and not in a good way.

After that book, I sketched out some ideas for a sequel and a prequel. The sequel actually ended up getting pretty far in a first draft (I think around 60,000 words) but eventually I lost steam and the years started to pile up without much progress. In 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo and in 2009, I wrote my first successful NaNo project, 50,000 words which eventually became the novel Unrepentantwhich you can read right here on this very website if you so desire. In fact, I had so much energy going through November 2008 that I kept writing every day even after the month was over and eventually ended up with a 120,000 word first draft.

Unfortunately, after that first shot of adrenaline, I think NaNoWriMo started to become more of a distraction than a help. I spent 2010 writing and rewriting Unrepentant and I was making pretty good progress, but then November rolled around and it was time to start another NaNo novel. The rules strongly encourage you to start a new novel instead of working on an existing project to give yourself the creative freedom to write quickly, so I started a prequel called the Fey Queen. I worked on that long enough to win the month, then it was back to Unrepentant. That was 2010. In 2011, I started a sequel to Unrepentant called Angel’s Descent. For some reason, perhaps a holdover from my first ventures into writing, I really had a thing for the writing pattern of novel > prequel > sequel.

You can see the pattern that started to emerge. I would spend most of the year working off and on, only to start a new project each November. After my three forays in an urban fantasy-esque romance, I tried cyberpunk, then a frankly bizarre attempt at a murder mystery, then back to cyberpunk for a sequel. Each of these hit 50,000 words for the NaNo goal, but then I would shelve them because each one would require extensive work to go from a NaNo draft to something resembling an actual draft. I think I planned to build up this pile of half-done jobs, pick the ones I liked best, then finish and polish those up.

By the time Unrepentant was in a draft I considered decent, I realized it had been almost eight years since I’d started working on it and frankly, I didn’t really know why I still was. The religious nature of a story about fallen angels, the devil, the Apocalypse; that’s interesting, but it’s also not really me. I don’t have much to say on religious themes much these days. I was just working on the story because that’s what I’d put so much time into working on.

And man, if I didn’t think I had much to say about a religious-themed urban fantasy, I don’t know what the hell I was doing trying cyberpunk or murder mystery, even if it was “murder mystery, but with snakes!”

I think that’s what made me realize it was time to come back home to writing fantasy. It’s what I spend the most time thinking about and frankly, it’s where I have the most to say in terms of story and world. And that’s how we got to Dinomancer, which is as you might have guessed, “fantasy, but with dinosaurs.” Because I love dinosaurs and I know a lot about them, and when I started this one, I didn’t know the late Victor Milan was going to do his own dinosaur fantasy series (I’ve avoided reading it to avoid cross pollination of ideas). But even after learning about it, I figured dinosaur fantasy is large enough to have more than one (or two, or five, or whatever) novels about it.

One thing that was great about working on a fantasy world for my novel was that I could talk to my wife about my ideas in a way that I couldn’t when it came to our D&D campaign, since she was a player in that campaign and I didn’t want to spoil the stories. A lot of those discussions got me thinking about some Big Concept ideas that ended up going into the framework of my dinosaur story, and some of which I think are pretty interesting.

One of the most influential blog posts I ever read was also the one I wanted more than anything to refute. In 2011, author David Brin wrote a post called Pining for Feudalism that basically set my mind on fire. Brin presents an argument against many of the classic fantasy tropes; really, more of a denunciation against all of Romanticism, which of course is where the modern fantasy genre is firmly situated. Chief among his complaints are the tropes of “hidden knowledge” as represented by wizards and elves, and the glorification of aristocracy.

And damn it, you know . . . Brin’s right. There’s a lot in the fantasy genre that’s, well . . . problematic. Try explaining to someone who’s even the tiniest bit woke why the drow mythos isn’t horribly racist; to wit, the evil elves are banished beneath the earth and cursed with dark skin, to reflect their dark hearts (even though living in a lightless world should have made them lily-white albinos). You can still tell great stories with these tropes and dark elves remain some of my favorite stories to this day . . . but there’s baggage there.

And while it’s tempting to just say, eh, fuck it, the whole genre’s busted, toss it out, science fiction is better anyway, I’m not willing to go that far. For me, this felt like an opportunity, even though it would take a while for the seeds to germinate. When I came back to the idea that I wanted to do a fantasy novel, I thought a lot about some of Brin’s objections and what I wanted to say about the issues.

Eventually, I settled on two “Big Concepts” that I wanted to explore, and while there are many others (such as the aforementioned racism), these were two that inspired me to realize I had something to say.

The “Glorification of Aristocracy” Problem: fantasy is filled with kings and lords and knights and other people who derive their power from their lineage. The restoration of the monarchy is typically seen as a good thing, or even the only way to bring about a golden age. Basically, the idea is that lineage is what makes heroes heroic and feudalism is awesome.

There are precious few democracies in fantasy fiction, but plenty of “rightful kings” who should rule, who deserve to rule, and often them not ruling leads to widespread disaster. But even if the story isn’t a “Return of the King” scenario, the nobles are frequently the best, brightest, and most interesting people.

Most of us like to pretend we’d be part of this group; we fantasize (hah) about which House we’d be in Game of Thrones. There are very few stories that glorify the struggle of the commoner, or even talk about it most of the time.

The “Magical Inheritance” Problem: The Jedi and their midichlorians, which are “the tiny microscopic organisms living in your blood that communicate the will of the Force.” Or how about “Yer a wizard, Harry.”

Most protagonists in fantasy are born with some special attribute derived from who their parents were. The Jedi and the wizards of Harry Potter are the most obvious examples, but there are many, and while this isn’t limited to the fantasy genre, I think fantasy is the most brazen about celebrating it.

Basically, even though your special powers might require study or effort to develop, you were fundamentally born with traits that others don’t have and if you didn’t inherit whatever “the gift” is, there’s nothing you can do about it. In Star Wars, you can’t just study the Force to become a Jedi, you have to be born “Force Sensitive.” It doesn’t matter how much of a heroic journey Han Solo had, he’s never going to pick up a lightsaber.

In Harry Potter, although children born to normal parents can learn magic, you can also be a squib, which is someone who was born to wizards but cannot use magic no matter how much they study.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I approached the first problem, “Glorification of Aristocracy” in writing the world of Dinomancer.

In Case You’re Wondering What It Feels Like

I reached my NaNoWriMo goal on Monday: 50,000 words in 30 days (well, technically 27 days). What does that feel like? At this point, it’s more a relief than anything else. I did celebrate reaching my goal by opening the 12 year old single malt scotch and drank a glass with my wife, but only because I decided to save the 21 year single malt for when the manuscript is actually done.

Because that’s the weird thing about NaNo projects, at least for me; 50,000 words has never, ever conincided with me reaching “the end.” For the only NaNo that actually went on to become a finished manuscript, 50,000 words was roughly the midway point.

Which means that there isn’t really a feeling of being done. You turn in your word count, get the neat little validation thingy from the website, which I do like quite a bit because I’m a gamer and gamers are conditioned to perform repetitive actions to raise bars. This aspect of my personality is why YNAB worked on my finances and Fitbit was working for my fitness level (at least, it was working until the damn band broke and I stopped wearing it).

So here I am, done with my big goal, my winning streak extended by another year (up to eight wins in a row now) and then, with all that said and done, you get back to work. Because there’s still a lot more story to tell and a hell of a lot of rewriting for this one.

NaNoWriMo Denouement

I meant to type this up a few days ago, but after thirty straight days of solid butt-in-chair time for the latest NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the unfamiliar), it just felt really good to not write for a few days. But now that I’ve let my brain slack off for a bit, it’s time to get back to work, because even though another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, the book is nowhere near finished.

To be honest, I’ve never actually finished a book in the 50,000 words it takes to win a NaNo.

Which is why I have a hard drive filled with half-completed novels, along with one completed novel, which is, incidentally, the novel you can read right here on this very website, if you are so inclined.

So how did NaNo 2015 go for me? Really well! Let’s take a look at the stats (because I love stats).


I love the NaNo stats page. As a gamer, I’m conditioned to see stats, numbers, and bars, and then do the actions necessary to fill them. This is why YNAB got my personal finances in order when no amount of New Year’s Resolution budget-attempts ever managed to stick for more than a week or two. It’s all about dem bars.

NaNo 2015 was easily my steadiest year ever. There were only two days where I didn’t hit the word goal; the first was Friday the 13th and that was due to have a Friday the 13th party with a bunch of friends and the second was Thanksgiving. I’m pleased to note that even on those days, I still managed to get some writing done.

The other thing that I’m really happy about is the quality of the writing this year. I did a lot more outlining, note-taking, and brainstorming when I wasn’t writing, so I never put myself in that “fuck it, now what, I dunno, something explodes” mode. That’s a great NaNo technique and I don’t discount its usefulness, but there’s a cost associated with it that you have to pay later. If your plot goes down the wrong track because of a “shit-now-what” decision, it can create a tremendous amount of work later to try and fix. This is precisely what derailed my 2013 NaNo book The Snake Detective. I was really unhappy with a decision I made to get unstuck. Even though it got me to 50k for that year, I ended up with only about 20,000 words that were usable. Eventually, my interest in the project faded during the attempted rewrite and I moved on to other things.

But let’s go back to this year! 2015’s NaNo is Dinomancer and I feel really good about it. The writing went well, as I mentioned, but more than that, I feel really inspired about this world. It’s my attempt to do something new with the fantasy genre, beyond the usual elves, wizards, dragons, medieval European fare. So instead, we have a world of dinosaur riders locked in a vicious battle for survival and they have a vaguely Roman flair. Also, there are intelligent, talking velociraptors. Well, they’re not really velociraptors, because “real” raptors were about the size of a turkey, but this is the description that creates the right image in your head.

If you’re a dinosaur geek like me and want to know what they actually are, they’re a highly evolved form of Troodon.

And this is why I’m excited; not just for the win, although it feels great to keep that winning streak going. I’m excited because this story feels exciting to me. One of the problems I’ve had for a while is, after writing a book about fallen angels and the Apocalypse, I didn’t really have a lot of enthusiasm for my own subject. I didn’t feel like I was doing or saying anything new about them.

But dinosaurs? This is shit that I read about for fun, because I never really “grew out” of my dinosaur phase when I was a kid. I love reading about new theropods. I love the ongoing scientific discussion about the new depiction of Spinosaurus. My dinosaurs are covered in feathers because that’s what the science is telling us, and it’s my secret goal to make the idea of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex cool and scary. I want talk about this stuff with people. I want to think about it when I’m not working on it. That’s something I haven’t felt for a while now. It’s a great feeling.

Work on Dinomancer continues. My personal goal is to be finished with the first draft by May 1st. I’ve scaled back my daily writing goal, because 1667 words a day every day does demand a tremendous amount of effort and focus. I’m not sure I could keep up that pace much longer than thirty days. But 500 words a day, as a baseline? That’s easily doable and it’s something I can do well and still generate a strong story.

So that’s where I’m at now. I have 50,000 words of a new novel that I’m really proud of, a story I want to finish, and a story that I want to publish. I feel like I’m doing something new in this space; there are a few books out there about fantasy dinosaur riders, but not many, and I think it’s a ripe area to explore. Even if it isn’t, I’m having so much fun with it that I don’t think I can stop.

And that’s why, even though NaNoWriMo 2015 is my seventh straight win, I feel like this year’s effort might just turn out to be the most important and most rewarding yet.