Tag Archives: world building

Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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When I went to the cinema to see this film I was left deeply uncertain as to whether I had liked the film or not. I tried a couple of times to write a review back then, but I just couldn’t put into words what had bothered me about the film. When I re-watched it the other week I figured out what it was I don’t like.

I don’t like the title.

It’s a strange thing to have bothered me, but the reason is very much because the title places emphasis on Valerian, when the film itself is centred around both Valerian and Laureline. And why does the film centre on two protagonists? Because the comic book ‘Valerian and Laureline’, which the film has been adapted from, does so.

My problem stems from the fact that Laureline is likeable, whereas Valerian, while he certainly has his heart in the right place, is a bit dubious in his attitude at times. I don’t think it helps that there is no chemistry at all between these two characters; the actors didn’t make me believe that these are two people in love. In lust, on Valerian’s part certainly, but not in love. Skewing the emphasis from one character when it was really about two bugs me, especially because it is skewed towards the man, when in truth I much prefer Laureline.

That little quibble aside though, it is actually a really good film. The story slows down in places and goes off tangent from the main plot, but it does keep going, and it does get to a satisfying conclusion in the end. Generally as a writer I judge a film on the plot and the characters, and while they could have been better in this film, the film makes up for it because of another important factor that is crucial for science fiction to work properly. The storyworld.

The settings in this film from a lost paradise, to the market in another dimension to the City of a Thousand Planets which itself gave a multitude of different environments kept my attention on the screen. It is an imaginative extravaganza and I love this film for doing that.

Admittedly, saying that makes me a hypocrite. Generally I bash films for using their special effects to wow me. However, because they did have a decent and fairly original story to entice me in as well (makers of Avatar take note), it sits better with me that they used green screen to create a very different world from many I have seen on screen before. In many cases the setting was relevant to the plot as well, so it wasn’t like the filmmakers were boosting ‘look what we can do’ without reason.

The plot might slow down in places and the title is a bit deceiving in who the main character is, but this is a fun action packed science fiction film set in a very futuristic world, and in terms of utilising imagination, it definitely wins points for that. The overall message from the plot is certainly to be commended. (Slight spoiler – it is about forgiveness.)

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Book Review – Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe’ by Gaston Dorren

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I fell in love with linguistics when I was studying for my A-levels. I might have ended up as a historian but I still love reading up on linguistics and exploring the topic every now and then. When Gaston Dorren’s ‘Lingo – A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe’ came out I was over the moon as it is the perfect little book for anyone who loves languages but has little time to dedicate themselves to the subject properly.

The premise of the book is an exploration of the majority of the languages used in Europe and exploring an interesting little quirk of each. The book is absolutely jam-packed with fascinating information. The book is great for dipping in and out or sitting with for a long period of time completely engrossed. I certainly enjoyed continuing the reading from my commute to my sofa with a good cup of tea.

The thing I learnt from this book overall is the sheer diversity of languages spoken on our small continent. I loved this as a writer, especially a one who creates fantasy worlds, because I hadn’t realised until I read this book just how limiting I had been in creating languages for my world. While I don’t dig deep into the nitty gritty and actually create words and grammar, I do generally hint at the different languages and their names. I’d already grasped the idea that in the majority what is referred to is the standardised language and that there are regional differences that most are un-aware of, what I hadn’t clued up on is that for the size of the world I am planning on creating I hadn’t created anywhere near enough diversity.

This is a lovely little book full of fascinating facts about Europe’s languages which will interest even complete novices and is a vital resource for writer’s planning on building fantasy story-worlds.

The Key to a Great Story – Micro/Macro World Interaction

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One of the critical things to understand with my Micro/Macro theory is to understand how the Micro world of your characters interacts with the Macro world, but also how it interacts with other micro-worlds.

I said that that a micro-world belongs to one specific character; each and everyone of your characters has their own micro world. You need to understand each of the your different characters micro-worlds interact with other characters.

Are they a couple that live together, therefore influencing each other’s spaces? Are they colleagues that share a communal kitchen and one is cleaner than another? Are they brother and sister with separate spaces within the house that is there own territory that gets invaded by their sibling? Are they visiting a friend’s home for the first time and have been invited into a new environment that they have never encountered before?

All of these are examples of how various characters own micro-worlds overlap and interact, and potentially cause tension or create stronger bonds. These are just examples of common interactions that happen in everyday life.

All micro-worlds though are subject to potential change from the macro-world. Many great stories come from aspects of the macro world having a sudden effect on the micro-world of your characters.

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  • Katniss Everdeen is surviving in District 12 until she is taken from her home to the Capital to compete in the Hunger Games. Her interactions with Effie Trinket create great contrast between two characters whose micro-worlds and the attitude to the macro-world are different. With Cinna though, who has the same upbringing as Effie, but has more sympathy with Katniss, the interactions are completely different because he doesn’t conform to the cultural normality of the Hunger Games.
  • The discovery by the Rebel Alliance of the the building of the Death Star, leads to a series of events that destroys Luke Skywalker’s home and family and prompts him on his journey to beginning a Jedi.

In TV series like Doctor Who and Star Trek, the micro world of the characters remains fairly consistent, but the wider macro-world changes in each story, which is where the interest is generated from.

  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation the micro-world of the USS Enterprise D remains consistent throughout the majority of the series. In one episode, ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, after an encounter with a time travel anomaly the macro-world of the Star Trek universe changes; they are still at war with the Klingons. The ship of exploration transforms around the characters, into a fully armed battleship. The episode is one of the most compelling ever made and is a great example of how the change within the macro world has an effect on the normal micro-world your characters inhabit.

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  • In Doctor Who, the TARDIS is one of the consistent sets (subject to the occasional redecoration) and the homes the companions leave behind. This was especially true of Rose Tyler in Series 1 and 2 of the reboots. Her world consisted of just her and her Mum in their little council flat. For Clara Oswald, her micro-worlds have included the imagined world inside a Dalek’s head, a Victorian Public House and Upper Class home, and the modern day London she lives him which changes from being a lodger, to a teacher. Some of the stories in Doctor Who are set in these micro-worlds, but in the majority the characters are taken from what they know into the unknown.

These are just a few well known examples about Micro/Macro interaction, but one of the best ways to learn how to build a world around your characters is to look at your own life, but also to look at all the great examples you have out there that you can learn from in order to start thinking about your own. When you do, the only limit you have is your own imagination.

The Key to a Great Story – Building a Macro World

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In contrast to the micro-world, the macro-world is a lot harder to construct especially if you build a new world from scratch. This is because you have to make choices about how your world works that you might not have realised you need to consider.

If you are writing a story based in the real world, then the macro world is already in place for you. All of our religions, cultures, governments, emergency services, transport connections and a million other things that make up our world are already in place for you. All you need to do is research and make sure that the larger wider world of your story is accurate to the extent that you need it to be mentioned.

If you build a fantasy, parallel, alternative or futuristic work, then you need to understand how your world works. You don’t need to know everything, but you do need to know what is relevant to your story. For example:

  • How does religion/mythology have an effect on your characters: In Game of Thrones there are several prominent religions that have an influence on the characters. Some at different times pray to different aspects of the Seven. The Red Priestess burns non-believers alive. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there are many references to the Valar; in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings though these are just part of myth to the majority of people, even though they are real.
  • How do your characters get from point A to point B: do they have cars, do they use horses, do they have to hitch a lift in a space ship?
  • How to various cultural attitudes effect your characters? Do your characters agree with the majority or do they felt like outsiders looking in. A good example of cultural attitude is towards women and how they are viewed; is it expected that all women are merely there to marry a man and raise children for him, without any consideration for that women’s own dreams and desires.

When yo have considered the basics then you need to consider the variations; are there differences in how people worship the gods; are there social differences in terms of transport, can the rich afford horses whereas the rest have to walk. Are their movements in your world trying to change the cultural norm.

In many ways building a macro-world from scratch can be very complicated. My best advice for you is to not panic. You need to have a very good idea of what your story is about, the basic plot, the basics characteristics of your characters, and an understanding of how the wider world might have an effect on your characters micro-world.

In terms of the logistics of building your macro-world don’t be frightened to spend a little bit of time building it, even if you don’t end up using it, if you have it there ready then you can easily add some depth to your story. Just don’t spend so long building a great world, that you don’t have a good plot and characters to interact with it.

The Key to a Great Story – Building a Micro-World

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I have a theory about creating story worlds, especially when you are like me and you create world from scratch, which I call the Micro/Macro theory. I’ve essentially based it loosely on the micro/macro economics theories, where I have borrowed the name of it from. There are two theories, the Micro-World and the Macro-World. In this post I will talk about building a Micro-World, and in the next the Macro-World. Then I will discuss the interaction between the two.

So basically, a micro-world belongs to one specific character and it includes all the settings that they interact with throughout your story. Starting very small this includes specific rooms, then the specific buildings that these rooms are located in and then the location of these buildings. Then the micro world also includes the connections between those specific buildings.

For example, on a typical weekday in my recent life I have been at my flat, I have been to work, I have visited my parents, and I have also been going to to a night class in a local library. My very recent micro world has essentially been my home, the office I work in, my parents home and the room in the library where my night class was held. And on top of that, my world also includes the train route from my home to work, the paths from my work to my night class, and the paths between my home and my parents’ home. If I was writing a story about all the main places that I was going to as a character, then those would be the small settings and the interconnections that I use to get from one to another.

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However, this is an incredibly simplistic model, because while this is a typical day, not everyday is the same. Some days I need to walk into the city centre to go to my favourite bookshop; some days I go to a large supermarket to get groceries and other days I’m in a smaller local convenience store picking up the odd item I need. Every now and then my world expands a little bit because I go to a new restaurant that I have never experienced before. Other days I’m in my usual cinema, but sometimes I go to the independent cinema because they show films multiplex’s don’t.

The individual micro-world of one specific character can be infinitely complex, it can change day on day. The thing is though, as an author you have control over your character’s micro-world. You chose for your character where the story is taking place. To make sure that your character’s micro-world doesn’t spiral out of control just involves a little bit of planning. When you write prose you have freedom to make your micro-world as complex as you like, just be aware that when you are building a world from scratch you are going to have to describe it to your audience. When you write scripts with the intention of them being made, then you might need to limit the number of locations you have just for costing reasons.

You also have to consider the amount of description of your settings that you need to give to the audience. When you use the real world most people would know what a 21st Century Coffee Shop looks like; most people could imagine a run-down little cafe out by the side of a motorway. You create a new world though, say like Hogwarts, then you are going to have to help your audience’s imagination a little bit. When you use historical settings, I always think accuracy is the best idea; they wouldn’t have an espresso machine in a medieval castle.

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So when plotting your story and dropping your characters into it, just remember what their little micro-world is like, and remember in most stories, most characters need to go to new places, so how does their micro-world expand beyond their normal lives.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Alternative

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The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Alternative

Alternative world types are loosely based on the real world, but aren’t the real world. Something about the alternative world is different from the real world. Steampunk fiction set in Victorian England is alternative. Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic is a good example of how the real world can be different with the inclusion of magic as normal in everyday life and how that has changed history.

The example above is a good one of how you can radically change the real world, by changing history but not changing it so much at it is unrecognisable as based on the real world. Her books are have elements of the history of the Napoleonic Wars, just with magic as part of everyday life and none of the famous people from history like Napoleon being involved. Her work is quite an extreme example of just how alternative you can go.

Most alternative world types simply simply have a few added elements that change the real world; this can be supernatural or it can be scientific.

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The addition of a supernatural element that isn’t myth, but is in fact reality is a really great way of creating an alternative world. The Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris and the TV series ‘True Blood’ shows a world where vampires, werewolves and fae exist, and the resulting changes and adaptations that humans make as they come to terms with this sudden change of myth to reality. Introducing just one of these elements can create an alternative world. Please, please I am begging, don’t make your vampires glittery.

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Changing some scientific elements though, can also create great alternative realities. One of my particular favourites is Stargate SG-1, which was based in the contemporary world but a one where interplanetary and even intergalactic travel was made easy with the discovery of ancient alien technology that spread human culture across the galaxy and opened up earth to the risk of being destroyed by powerful aliens who had once posed as various gods from across human history.

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Neither ‘True Blood’ or ‘Stargate SG-1’ were what I would call subtle in the changes. You can make one small change to history and have a massive impact on the world. One of the very best examples of a very subtle change to the real world is ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. The development of cloning humans doesn’t have much of an effect on the world, apart from to improve health and to create a steady supply of organs. It does however have a devastating effect on the clones themselves who are as human as us but are only seen as donors and can’t have a normal human life. This one subtle change to the world is sublime.

When creating an alternative world you can do as much or as little as you like to change the real world, the thing I think you need to remember is to do it well.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Futuristic

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There are two ways in which you can approach a Futuristic world type; you can base it on the real world but set in the future, or you can base it on a fantasy world, but incorporate futuristic elements into it that you don’t normally see in more traditional fantasy fictions.

Tackling the latter of those two first, you have got to be careful to distinguish between alternative world types and futuristic fantasy. Steampunk is usually alternative rather than futuristic because it is based on the real world but with changes. Take out the basis in reality entirely and you end up with a futuristic fantasy world. Essentially it is a fantasy type where you haven’t based it on history like Tolkien did, but more on science fiction elements and technology, like Star Wars. An example of mixing technology and magic can be found in the Rojan Dizon novels by Francis Knight, where the power source for technology is magic.

Then of course there are futuristic world types based on reality. From my experience, these usually fall into one of two categories; utopian or dystopian. Utopian creations where technology has bettered mankind and the world as we know it hasn’t been destroyed, but has been build upon and developed further can be found in creations like Star Trek. My favourite has to be the Robin Williams film ‘Bicentennial Man’. You get to see the world develop and grow for two hundred years, as a backdrop to a love story. It’s fantastic to see develop.

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Dystopian on the other hand is usually more common to see in fiction, especially at the minute in YA Fantasy books like The Hunger Games and Divergent. This are stories set in our real world, but in a future where not very much of what we would recognise as our world still exists and the world is imperfect. There is usually some form of corrupt power exploiting the masses that needs to be brought down via a rebellion.

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Science Fictions films and TV series use dystopian this a lot as well; a notable example that I enjoyed watching was the TV series ‘Defiance’. The town of Defiance is where St. Louis once was, as seen by the still standing St. Louis arch. The landscape of Earth though as been terra-formed a great deal by the arrival of the various Votan races who have settled on a now unrecognisable earth alongside the humans. What i liked about Defiance was the power play between the various factions as everyone struggles to survive. It wasn’t really about a revolution, it was about building a better world in cooperation with each other.

So when building a Futuristic world type, you do have a lot of options. You can make it based on reality or fantasy, and you can make it as perfect or as imperfect as you like. It depends on what you need for your story.