An Aspect of World Building

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Hello Gentle Readers!

I have finally gotten around to writing my second essay for lagrandil.com, a piece about using aspects for world-building and characterization.  I started this as a quick response to a question on LinkedIn, and it has grown into something long enough, and perhaps useful enough, that it is worth sharing.

Aspect-driven world building depends on a combination of characteristic phrases and Jungian archetypical criticism to develop a resonant and consistent ensemble of concepts, locations, and characters to support a dynamic story.

I do not know if other authors put the stories together in the same way that I do, but none of the concepts are entirely my own.  The concept of Aspects comes from the Fate role-playing system designed by Rob Donaghue and Fred Hicks.  When I apply it to stories I use Jungian archetypes that I learned in college under Dr. Carol Ann Russell of Bemidji State University, primarily from The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.  My other principle information source is a tiny book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them). by Jack Bickham.  The book is dated, and small, but Bickham is not, with sixty-five published novels, and people who run in my fantasy and sci-fi circles will recognize his literary descendent, Jim Butcher of Dresden files fame, who learned his theory from one of Bickham’s most successful students.  Dr.’s Larry Swain and Brian Donovan of Bemidji State also informed my idea of a hero’s classical and epic roles.  The model I present here amalgamates pieces from these excellent sources in difficult-to-cite ways, but I wanted to give credit where credit is due!

Since nearly every successful science fiction and fantasy author I know of is into role-playing games, and at least one of them is in the hall of fame for such matters, it is not as surprising as it might seem that I dip into the nerdy world of gaming for one of my mechanisms.  The aspect system from Fate uses a series of short phrases to define the principle ideas and conflicts of a world.  The idea of short phrases is nothing new, but I have found this organizational structure very helpful.

The first aspect or phrase is called a High Concept.  It is the definitive statement of being for a story, place, or character (more on what they call the Fate fractal system in a little bit).  So for my novel Shifting Gears, an urban fantasy which I wrote with this system, the system would look something like this:

High Concept: Half-Demon Super-Hero Teams
The next aspect is the trouble, the question of why things do not go smoothly, the key problem for the world.
Trouble: Endless Battle for Power and Survival

The semi-human super heroes are not all nice, and even fundamentally decent people can strive and fight for what they believe in.  So my heroes live in a world where secret battles constantly go on to protect, defend, or even prey upon the less powerful people.  For my protagonists it is a burden and a cost of freedom.  For my villains it is a raison d’etre.

Key details and flavor come with additional aspects.  Underneath the world I will write in whatever distinct and important details of the world theme that are going to show up in the story.  Simple settings do not require more than two or three, but a complicate world or a setting for detailed social intrigue or technological interactions may have may more.

Put together with the additional aspects, the world of Shifting Gears looks like this:

High Concept: Half-Demon Super-Hero Teams
Trouble: An Endless Shadow War for Power and Survival
High Technology and Ancient Magics|
No One is Beyond Redemption
Mighty and Strong to Serve
Demonic Origins and Dark Desires
Refuge at Boss-Man’s Farm

High Technology and Ancient Magics reflects the truth of super-hero stories, that magic and super-science amount to pretty much the same thing and they’re often involved in the conflict.  No One is Beyond Redemption reflects one of the two main Christian themes in the fictional world, that I wanted to use half-demon characters as examples of theme without turning it into a morality play.  Mighty and Strong to Serve is not specifically a Christian message, though it fits.  My heroes and others are going to use their strength to preserve as opposed to prey upon those less powerful.  That is simple comic book 101 stuff.  Demonic Origins and Dark Desires fulfills a classical requirement of the epic hero, that of a heroic flaw.  Since my mythology is going to use the Judeo-Christian idea of Nephilim to explain super-powers, I can make their own ancestry a source of conflict and character flaw (more on that in the Shadow section later).  Finally, more specifically, I have included an aspect to represent the protagonists, Boss-Man’s Farm.  This is the team the heroes fight for, the best and brightest.

Seven phrases to build my world.  Sometimes I have world-building that incorporates many more (I am working on a lost colony fiction that addresses post-colonialism in addition to industrial revolution and gender identity politics.  That story has about twenty aspects.) and other ideas are so firmly etched in my head that they only require two or three.  This example will serve.

Now that I have my world, I can use the aspects to create a protagonist.  Since protagonist ideas come to me before anything else in my pre-writing, I often use them to refine an idea I already have, but that is something of a chicken-and-egg argument.

The protagonist is the first character I build with the system.  He or she must have dramatic exaggeration.  I write genre fiction, where the main character must directly interact with the world around them, the more the better.  So I want to use them as a reflection of the aspects my world has, and then sharpen that reflection.  Some of those themes must be absolutely central to his identity (in this case the character is male) and others can be rejected, or turned into a more personal application.  It is possible for world aspects to be present in the negative, meaning they are conspicuously absent.  If I were to build a character weaving his way through corrupt politics of Byzantine corruption, I might make her the only honest representative in the Imperial Senate.

*It is worth noting here that if your world is dystopian, the protagonist step would build the primary villain of the piece, and you can place your own villain in the position of antagonist, since they would be working to overcome and change the world’s dark aspects.

Here is the build I put together for my principle protagonist, Adrian Campbell.

High Concept: Sarcastic Arc-Fallen Pusher (a type of power)
Trouble: Shadow war within and without
I’ve Been Everywhere, Man (in the first book this was Wild Child)
Ghosts of the Past
I Hate Werewolves
Have Sword, Will travel,
Bright and Shining Angel

I’ve got him linked into the Half-Demon Super Hero aspect.  He struggles with his darker nature internally and fights bad guys, which ties into Demonic Origins and Dark Desires.  His transformation in the last book from a werewolf into a were-angel links Bright and Shining Angel to the theme No One is Beyond Redemption.  And so forth (the sword uses ancient magic).

This makes sure that my hero is relative to my world and vice versa, and keeps my from writing irrelevant mash-ups like Accountants of Mars (though if you could make that work you deserve whatever money you might get).

Now to make the third leg in my story tripod, the bad guy.  Dipping into Jungian archetypes I construct my antagonists in terms of The Shadow archetype.  A Shadow is the primary opponent or threat in a scenario.  It is called the Shadow because it represents an aspect of the antagonist’s character that is present in the negative.  That is a fancy way of saying that our character has not yet reached that level (Luke is not a Jedi yet and Vader is) or the character has rejected that aspect of his being (Rouroni Kenshin the legendary assassin vows never to kill again but constantly runs into ruthless killers).

I fell in love with this concept the moment I came across it.  It conjoins two of the classic types of conflict (man versus man and man versus self) at the same time, because the exterior antagonist reflects an internal conflict.  Needless to say in genre fiction, before the protagonist can overcome their foe they must overcome their internal conflict.  This makes for solid, fundamentally relevant key decisions in the dark moments of the story, when the character digs deep and proves or discovers that they have surpassed the limits, or they have defeated the part of them that longs for the rejected aspect.

When I use Shadow archetypes to construct antagonists, the aspect system falls into place.  I can construct a decent foil for my hero, however thoughtless it may seem, by going down the aspect list and changing every other one or so.  That is a good starting point, but I may not like the order, or think that I could come up with better.

For Shifting Gears I chose a pair of antagonists for a reason.  Adrian is part of a team, and the evil duo would mirror the team aspect, and the paired protagonists together could Shadow much more of Adrian’s being.  Here are my bad guys, Adrian’s long-lost older brother (an evil assassin) and a super-powered human magic user (called Maniple because there is a significant portion of Legion inside him, and yes, history buffs, I fully deserve the groan you may be choking down).

My clearest example comes from a series in the design phase.  I have the pre-writing close at hand because it is at the pre-writing stage.  The protagonist is Gavin St. John, captain of the Astrid downloaded into nanites and moving around in host bodies as he tries to rebuild society.  The antagonist is Bright Claw, the artificial intelligence in a high-tech probe barbarians carry around in a scepter.

I am going down to list with these, but if I have done a good job with the aspects you should have a very clear idea of how these two foes will clash through their allies and minions as the book plays out, and all I did was invert every other aspect.

Bright Claw / Gavin St. John
Star Nation AI (Spacer) / Starship Captain’s Ghost (Spacer)
Bureaucrat / Leader
Seeks Hyperspace Artifcats / Seeks Hyperspace Artifacts
Inanimate / Animate
Spacefaring Education / Spacefaring Education
This World is full of Pawns / These people are my legacy.
Cultural Relativist / Cultural Relativist
I Have come to Conquer / Quest for Understanding
Obey Me!  I am more powerful! / Obey Me!  I am smarter and wiser!
Deaf to the Others’ Needs / Works well in teams
I will save my people! / I will save my people!
Our alchemical drives cannot bring the resources we need!  / Our technology cannot get my people home.
Most of our technology does not work here / Most of our technology does not work here
Perpetual Liar / Fundamentally Honest

So when I put together my nanite-ghost idea of Merlin, I get an opposite number who is roughly as smart, destructive instead of constructive, and though neither one is going to be swinging any swords, they will be playing a game of chess in the dark through the actions and perceptions of others.  Just looking at them I know that at some point my hero will be trapped in something they cannot overcome with might, and it will be up to Gavin to find a way out turn the tables of a trap on Bright Claw and save the party.  It may not be the final conflict of the story, but it should happen a couple of times through the story and culminate in one life-or-death moment.

The one-two-one approach does not give me a final product.  I may look at other pairings to see what I want to tweak, or ways I can cross a villain with a pair of bad guys, et cetera.  Even so it is a great way to start, a quick way to forge ahead in world-building.    If one aspect doesn’t work as a Shadow inversion I can make it equivalent and trade it out in a way I might not have originally thought to make opposed characters.

There are other characters, lesser villains called Threshold Guardians or Changelings who reveal more about the hero’s character through conflict.  There are allies who reveal what the character is about in how they relate to and reflect things.  The aspect system makes it quick and easy for me to triangulate these characters the same way I built Shadow antagonists.  If I had a swordsman hero who is quick-witted, I can give him a swordsman buddy who is thick witted.  The sidekick will emphasize that the antagonist is a swordsman as they fight side by side, and my hero will seem quick-witted compared to his friend.  The friend may be stronger, though, so that my hero is obviously weak enough that the bad guy is a physical threat.  It all plays into the theme and reflects on the aspects of the primary conflicts.

These characters have at least three aspects, one to define them, one to tie them to the antagonist, and one to distinguish them from the antagonist.  I get bonus points (by which I mean the character is more relevant) if the aspects also match up with the world’s themes.  The more important the character, the more I dig for ally aspects or shadow aspects linked to the main character.

Fred Hicks’ team refers to this as the Fate fractal, the idea that this system can be used for places and things as well as people.  Using Jungian archetypes lets me target them in interesting ways, and helps point out places to invest the time to build a character.  It also makes it easier to populate the world with bit characters, who might just have two aspects, their name and details, and the aspect of the world that they represent.

Taken together, I can build strong worlds quickly, refine them as the fractal system plays out, and my character building will already point me towards conflicts and scenes I know will have the potential to be relevant to character as well as plot.  The Jungian concepts of Shadow, Changeling, and Guardian help target my additional characterizations.  Classical epic criteria guide me making the principle antagonist (larger than life, touched by the gods, at least one heroic flaw or weakness…)  All the while I get to entertain myself with quick quips and phrases as bricks and mortar for my story’s foundations.  I have used the aspect system for my past three novels and I have never encountered a more useful system.  Since Heroic Jungian Genre Aspect Grid sounds too pretentious, I just call it my aspect system, and it has helped me with my two most successful books so far.

Thank you for your time!  Happy world building!

3 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Ad Faciem and commented:
    Amusingly, Bruce’s main blog has an element of correspondence to my side blog, and his side blog to my main blog. Here’s a good thumb of rules for generating settings and characters.

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