Thursday, October 23, 2014

Supporting Characters As Part Of The World Building Process

This is a follow-up of sorts to the last post, where I mentioned a glitched quest in an RPG I was playing a few days ago. The problem was reconciling the nature of the character, with the type and circumstances of the quest he gave me.

This is something that I have seen in novels. Especially in fantasy novels. And it is a real weak point in a book in my opinion, because the supporting characters of a book are just as much a part of the world that the protagonist inhabits as the landscape, and the monsters, and the magic system. Perhaps even more so.

I have read books where a simple village shopkeeper speaks like a university professor. Not just in using proper grammar. I mean, he knows about esoteric subjects, and he speaks with authority on obscure matters of philosophy. This is bad world building. An author needs to think about the context.

If you need to have the protagonist, for whatever reason, get some critical information revealed through exposition like that it isn't that much more work to introduce a wandering holy man, or a university expedition, that stops for the night at the village inn and gets into a conversation with the hero. Filling a simple, rural peasant's head full of information that he wouldn't need or want makes no sense. Even if you postulate that the typical fantasy society produces universal literacy.

Which is another issue. How many fantasy books are there out there where everyone, I mean *everyone* in a (relatively primitive) society can read? Even in the US, with a fairly decent public school system, well up into the 19th century many people were still illiterate. When I encounter a scene with some herald posting a proclamation in the town square, and all of the commoners crowding around to read it, I snort in derision.

There is a reason that they were called proclamations. Because they were proclaimed. In other words, they were read out loud. Because originally, nobody but the priesthood and a few of the upper end nobles could read at all. And even the nobles weren't very good at it. At least in Europe. This wasn't necessarily the case in the Middle East or the Far East, but most of the fantasy published in the US is set in quasi-European worlds.

It just doesn't make any sense, and it hampers immersion, when the supporting characters and the background characters act and think and know things that they should never do. Like a local lord calling up his sturdy peasant tenants to repel an evil invasion of orcs, or whatever. And every man shows up wearing leather armor and a sword.

Please. They would show up wearing their toughest working clothes, maybe a leather apron if they had one, and they would be carrying longbows, knives, meat cleavers, a few falchions among the more well-to-do yeomen, woodcutting axes, and hunting spears. Nary a sword to be seen among the lowlifes.

Them suckers were expensive as hell. They took forever to make, required the skill of a master weapon smith, and also required a distressing amount of high-quality steel. In a medieval environment, mining was conducted by the straightforward process of digging a hole and sending men down into it on their hands and knees with sacks. They filled the sack and dragged it back out. Rinse and repeat. High quality ore was at a premium.

Movie scenes of men working in a wide open quarry are misleading. That might have happened in an area where they were mining limestone, or digging out building stones, or some other mineral that was present in the form of a massive unit. But a mineral that consisted of a relatively thin layer, overlain by an entire hill, before the invention of gunpowder or pneumatic drills, was a different story.

It doesn't take much. A few minutes of careful thought and a quick google search would cover most of these. That's not too much trouble, is it?

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