Public Domain World-Building

Linked to the artist's site.

(By Mikhail Rakhmatullin) Zombies for guilt free mayhem.

I was listening to a friend of mine, Eric Lang, chat about certain themes and IPs that seem tremendously resilient in the board-game industry. To loosly paraphrase he was impressed that despite a glut of games with Zombie and Cthluthu themes, new products using these ideas were able to fund and gather fan attention and seemed as popular as ever (if not moreso).

For a writer of genre fiction, especially Fantasy, world-building can be an important part of the process. I can really tell when an authors has invested time in creating a world that has a life beyond the story he or she is telling. A well-crafted world often has a sense of history and a feeling of events unfolding outside the narrative. Often these worlds are original creations of staggering detail, developed over years. The thought and craft that goes into such a world is worthy of a long series of articles. The world-builders reddit  and Fantasy-writers reddit are interesting places to check out to get a feel for how some people approach this. Some prominent masters of the genre, Tolkien and Martin leap to mind, are superb world-builders.

However, as Fantasy becomes a more prominent genre with a strong set of popular sub-genres, writers can actually draw upon the tropes of the genre itself, using an element their readers are already familiar with from other places in the genre. In shorter works, where detailed world-building might be unappreciated, using a familiar element can provide the writer with a sort of shortcut to creating a sense of greater detail. This, in itself, is another topic that could lead to a long discussion on jargon, archetypes and tropes, but I will save that for another day. These elements are extremely useful. Some of the most detailed and original seeming IPs out there begin as nothing more than interesting combinations of these familiar elements. A writer, especially a novice like myself, can use these elements to good effect when years of world-building are not in the cards.

Take Dwarves for an example. Dwarves are a fairly common fantasy trope. When I mention Dwarves to a fantasy reader a few images will immediately spring to mind. Short humanoids with elaborate beards, a penchant for mining and metal-craft, and a somewhat xenophobic attitude. By using the archetype I can bring all of these characteristics to mind very quickly and use those details for my own world, and making note of any key differences that might exist in my version. In my Domains of the Chosen series Dwarves follow the standard trope fairly closely. However, the Reckoning (a magical apocalypse) forced the surviving Dwarves to take shelter in the city of Krass and integrate with all of the other races. Thus they are more trusting of outsiders and often live above ground. In the years since the reckoning some Dwarves have made a conscious effort to reclaim their past, but all of that is done from within the framework of the empire. This creates a tension between Dwarven traditionalists and the more modern Dwarves who might appreciate their history just as much but don’t feel the need to go back to it. My Dwarves can also develop the Gift, allowing them to wield magic, which means some will end up as Gladiators.

Here are a few of the more common elements that can be woven in to just about any Fantasy world:

Zombies: I know people think Zombies are overdone, tapped out, etc. Yet, as I write this, World War Z, an adaptation that has many hardcore fans frowning has earned 500 mil at the box office. Zombies come in many flavours from shambling menace to sleek predatory runner to the fungus based “infected” of this years hit game “The Last of Us”. Commercially Zombies continue to grow. Of course, while most authors want a commercially viable product, they want to tell a cool, compelling story even more. Zombies offer a lot of options, here too. They fit in just about any setting, and work for epic stories as well as for small claustrophobic character pieces. Zombies can be used for apocalypses, sinister thrillers, and background window dressing. Being a totally made up it is easy for a writer to put their own twist on this element. I even have them show up in the arena in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale and later in Bloodlust: Will to Power, where they are seen to have their own set of fans. I have even seen a few comics where the main characters are Zombies,

Vampires & Werewolves: Vampires and to a lesser extent, werewolves are popular elements, and show up in many fantasy settings. They work equally well as villains, heroes, and anti-heroes and have a common set of folklore than can work with most stories. Their respective themes can fit in to most plot-lines. 

Steampunk: Steampunk isn’t huge, but it is picking up momentum. As a sub-genre it is diverse and interesting with dedicated fans and a heck of a lot of wicked cosplay. The default Victoriana background adds a nice touch to the early industrial mad science. Steampunk elements, especially the technology work well when incorporated lightly into other settings. World of Warcraft tinkering is a great example of this. 

Arthurian Fantasy: Other than mythology, Arthurian Fantasy is perhaps the most enduring of the popular public domain elements in western literature. Before Tolkien it was the default fantasy setting, with many excellent revisions and versions written out over the years. It has everything one could want from pastoral fantasy: huge castles, grim enemies, giants, dragons, fearless knights, quests, religion and magic. It also works quite well for dramatic stories, and even those with a grim, philosophical bent, like the last books of T.H White’s excellent retelling.

Three Kingdoms: A great example of a Public Domain element from outside of the western tradition: the era covered by the Romance of the Kingdoms has spawned numerous games, television series, and movies. A grand drama based of history and deep literary tradition with characters that are as iconic as Arthurian myth, I expect this one to grow more popular in the west as a setting and a style. The combination of war, philosophy, and the epic clash pf personalities is just too good to pass up.

Untapped resources: Here are a few examples of elements that I feel are underused.

Pirates, Musketeers/Duellists, and Vikings: These archetypal elements are all popular and interesting, but not nearly used often enough in modern fantasy. They have a great set of associations and themes. I’d kill to see more new pirate fantasy after The Scar and Red Seas Under Red Skies.

First Nations: This is huge set of untapped myth and legends, as well a cultures and languages. It is rife with the problems of cultural appropriation, but the native peoples of the Americas are a vast untapped well of ideas than could find their way into literature. I personally have a great admiration for the Mohawk, one the last great warrior societies and great defenders of early Canadian sovereignty.

A Mohawk Warrior from a war of 1812 Wargame.

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