A squirrel victorious: what we can learn from Pokemon World Championships 2014

Here’s an unabashed statement from a 29-year-old woman: I love Pokemon. The series was with me in my formative years, it’s indirectly influenced my Stories of Aligare, and I still love it today. Pokemon’s strongest theme is that a champion can come from anywhere: if some kid from Podunk, Nowhere works hard and believes in their chosen Pokemon partners, they can become the very best there ever was.

Well, this past weekend’s Pokemon World Championship provided another inspiring tale of a surprising victor. Sejun Park won the Championship thanks to his unusual flagship Pokemon, a Pachirisu. This is the tale of a cute little rodent who outmaneuvered giants.

It's 1 foot tall, weighs 8 pounds, and it can make your gigantic dragons look like chumps.

It’s 1 foot tall, weighs 8 pounds, and it can make your ferocious dragons look like chumps.

If you’re not familiar with the mechanics of Pokemon, you might be surprised by the level of strategy involved in top-tier competition. Pokemon is often thought of as a mere children’s franchise. But young children aren’t very interested in the games’s details and unseen workings. They tend to brute-force their way through every challenge, paying little attention to strategy, only interested in seeing their cool monsters do cool stuff. Whereas in the hands of a tactics-conscious older person, Pokemon’s 18 elemental types, 188 Abilities and 609 moves can become a complex version of chess. Double and triple battles add another layer to the challenge — since each trainer’s 2 or 3 active Pokemon are able to assist each other, as well as hurt each other with friendly fire.

But if you ask me, world-class competition suffers under its own … well, competitiveness. Everyone seems to use the same 10 or 15 Pokemon and the same handful of moves. It’s once again a matter of who can dish out the most brute force. Predicting your opponent’s next move is a vital part of the game — and prediction becomes easy when everyone is following some alleged “only” way to win. That’s part of why Park’s Pachirisu was so effective.

If no one is using Pachirisu competitively, no one knows off the top of their heads how to take it down. Opponents seemed to underestimate that little squirrel’s defensive stats and assume that she couldn’t take a hit. But she could. She weathered high-powered attacks, then paralyzed and redirected opposing Pokemon to keep her own battle partner safe from harm. (See a more complete strategy rundown here at Kotaku.com)

Park’s victory with Pachirisu is an underdog story, to be sure. The world loves an underdog victory. If you need proof of that, just watch Park’s final tournament match and listen to the crowd cheer when Pachirisu hits the field. But this unusual tournament win fills me with excitement because it’s more proof that following bandwagons isn’t the only way.

“That’s easily the most impressive part of Sejun’s entire [competitive Pokemon] career, for me, is that he has never compromised. He has always played his own game, and sometimes that looks weird to us.”

-Evan Latt, Pokemon World Championship commentator

In a video game or in real life, we can all take paths that make others ask us, “Why would you bother doing that?” And those strange paths might just be super-effective.

 


Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?

If you read online reviews of fantasy books, you tend to see a lot of comments about “typical fantasy”. Reviewers have mixed opinions about some of mainstream fantasy’s most well-known fixtures — such as elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs, and the combination thereof.

Something like this! (Image cobbled together from OpenClipArt.org images.)

Something like this! (Image cobbled together from OpenClipArt.org images. I won’t lie: the cutting and pasting was fun.)

Fantasy has existed since humans first started telling stories. Legends, monsters and epic adventure stories were around long before paperbacks were ever printed. But J. R. R. Tolkien’s works came along and codified the Western fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings set a precident in the entertainment market and made the general public aware of fantasy as something other than assorted fairy tales. Naturally, other people were inspired by Tolkien’s vision of elves, dwarves and noble quests (or they were at least interested in ripping them off to make money). When movies and video games came along, those media were also happy to adopt the ideas of humanoid races waging wars to save the world.

Over the last 70-ish years, we’ve seen many slight variations on Tolkien’s worldbuilding. A lot of people are unaware that fantasy is anything but some sword-wielding medieval guys battling to save the world. Maybe those people read a few poorly-crafted Tolkien knockoffs with cardboard characters, and decided that all fantasy stories are the same. But fantasy is a form of speculative fiction. Shouldn’t it speculate? Shouldn’t it grow, and break new ground, and explore new ideas?

Sure, it should. And new niches can and do emerge. Just look at how urban fantasy and paranormal romance are their own recognized, defined categories now. And how China Miéville is strongly associated with the New Weird concept of fantasy, which has similarities to urban sci-fi.

But fantasy literature naturally has its roots in the past. Fantasy embodies legends, mythology and traditional ways. Fantasy takes us back to simpler times when the world couldn’t be fully understood: that’s generally what distinguishes fantasy from science fiction. So the settings, struggles and creatures of fantasy are often things we recognize and know off by heart — even though they’re not even real. Maybe the reuse of elves and dwarves is just a kind of nostalgia. Like visiting old friends, or rereading Shakespeare’s classics.

A reprinted version of Beowulf, one of the most prominent stories in Anglo-Saxon history and one of Tolkien's sources of inspirations.

A reprinted version of Beowulf, one of the most prominent stories in Anglo-Saxon history and one of Tolkien’s sources of inspiration.

Sometimes people compliment my Stories of Aligare by saying that they’re not like “the usual” fantasy stories — as though it’s still rare to find a fantasy book that doesn’t crib all its ideas and furnishings from Mr. Tolkien. I mean, I do appreciate the thought that my magical secondary world is pleasingly different. Scraping out a new niche is exactly what I’m trying to do. But it always makes me sad that fantasy literature has this well-worn cliché haunting its image.

It’s one thing if modern writers choose to tell classically styled stories of men, elves and dwarves. I think we should be innovating more than that, but that’s just my opinion and I’m sure plenty of readers disagree. Maybe the problem is the very fact that fantasy is getting so many subgenres? If a story doesn’t have a clearly demarkated category like “romance involving a supernatural being”, it often falls into the catch-all category called Fantasy: General. And what do we think of when we imagine a general fantasy story? Yep, probably something like Middle Earth. (And we probably don’t remember all of Tolkien’s hard work and craftsmanship, which is a whole other bucket of unfortunateness.)

I wonder what the next few decades will bring. What’s going to happen when werewolves, vampires and Harry Potter are considered old archetypes? Will Lord of the Rings fade from influence, or only become more tightly tied into our ideas of mystical worlds? Personally, I’m just going to keep looking for new twists. It’s great to have roots, and fine to be inspired by classics, but fantasy still has a lot of space to grow into.

There’s more reading materal coming out every day, from independents and dark horses of all varieties. And fantasy can touch on any subject we can imagine. In my lifetime, I hope to see the idea of a “usual fantasy story” cease to mean anything.

Related articles:

Origin of the term “adventurer” (heidicvlach.com)

What do dragons represent to us? (heidicvlach.com)

Writing gods I don’t believe in: how atheism gets along with fantasy (heidicvlach.com)


Coffee at night: weird customs in society

The other day, I was working a dinner shift at my restaurant day job. One of my tables was a group of immigrant folks celebrating their first anniversary living in Canada. And as I cleared their dinner plates, I asked what I always ask customers: “Would you like anything else? Coffee or tea?” These folks paused and, giving me an odd look, asked why they’d want coffee at nearly 10 PM.

 

Which is a good point. I mean, offering a stimulating, caffienated drink at nighttime? Am I trying to keep them awake all night? I winced chucklingly and said, “Uh. You’ve probably noticed that Canadians drink a lot of coffee.”

johnny_automatic_coffee_couple

If you’ve never been to northern Ontario, Canada, let me tell you that coffee is a vital part of life. In some areas of my city, “throw a rock and you’ll hit a coffee shop” isn’t an exaggeration. People walk around with big paper cups of takeout coffee at all hours of the day and night. We use terminology like double-double or four-by-four to describe how much cream and sugar a particular cup of coffee has in it. You’d think that Canada grows coffee beans but no, we definitely don’t. Importing coffee and drinking it all the time is just a habit that has taken hold in our local culture.

 

Maybe it’s an extension of how hot beverages work well as a friendly, welcoming gesture? Coffee can be easily tailored to a guest’s tastes, served boiling hot or chilled over ice; with no cream or lots of it; with no sugar or several heaping spoonfuls; with non-dairy milks or calorie-free sweeteners. Canadians have a reputation for their friendly melting-pot culture and coffee suits it well. But that’s the only real reasoning I can think of. As those new immigrant customers pointed out, sometimes the most mundane customs will defy all rational explanation.

 

It makes me think of fictional worldbuilding, and the standards we hold fantasy worlds to — or even historical stories based in our true past. It’s easy to read a book and say, “That’s a dumb custom. Why would the characters do that? Don’t they notice that it makes no sense?” It’s easy to look at a fictional custom that doesn’t make sense and accuse the author of poor worldbuilding. But I go to my day job and offer people caffeine right before their bedtime, so I’m apparently not one to talk. Societies grow in strange ways sometimes.

 

Related articles:

Teas and tisanes: What’s in a name? (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Food culture of Aligare (Part 2: Daily meals) (heidicvlach.com)

Milk consumption in fantasy worlds (heidicvlach.com)


Working personal issues into my writing

Fiction writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never been asked that  — not in that exact phrasing, anyway. But I do read about the creative processes of others. Sometimes, authors are inspired by some great tragedy in their lives, or an experience that shook them and changed their outlook, or a decision they regret. Fiction becomes a means of exploring and resolving their own life experience.

It’s a perfectly legitimate place to begin a story.  Life is senseless sometimes; a well-structured story can bring closure. A writer already controls what the characters do and how they feel about their deeds, so why not have those characters act out a scenario the author would like a second chance at? Emotional connection can make for a powerful piece of fiction, indeed.

puppeteer

And it makes me wonder if I’ve ever done that. Are the Stories of Aligare rife with my own pain and insecurity?

I’m confident they’re not. When I write my original fiction, I’m specifically trying to build something outside myself. I’m imagining a world where people can have fur or feathers or antennae, and where they don’t even know what war is.  I want my characters to have their own reactions to events, not some pre-determined outcome I impose on them. And I’ve never thought of a bad experience I had and decided to dress it up in fictional characters. (Or, well, I’ve considered it and decided that the resulting story would probably suck.)

A big part of my creative drive is my wish to change the adult fantasy genre, to raise awareness that anthropomorphic characters are not just cutesy talking puppets, or humans with animal parts tacked on. For a purpose like that, I don’t think it’d make sense for my own experience to be the primary drive of the story. I’m a human, you see. I might not like it much, when I watch the news and see the atrocities humans commit on a regular basis, but I’m still a Homo sapiens in my DNA and in my socially conditioned mind. I wouldn’t feel right taking things that happened to me and other humans and just pushing them onto aemets, korvi or ferrin. I’d rather figure out what their issues are, and explore those past hurts and tragedies.

Sometimes the personal issues of Aligare folk are very similar to human issues: I imagine that sentient beings’ problems often run parallel to each other. But being parallel doesn’t mean they’re the same.

 

Related articles:

    ◦ Aligare’s lucky numbers and their basis in lore (heidicvlach.com)

    ◦ Flashback post: What maturity means(heidicvlach.com)

    ◦ Aligare’s Mandragora, the Legend Creature of stories (heidicvlach.com)


Social attitudes toward other people’s loose hairs

Y’know what I’ve always found weird? That people get so deeply alarmed at finding a human hair in their food.

I mean, sure, it’s a sanitary problem if a restaurant’s employees are routinely shedding hair into the food. Not a sanitary problem that’s likely to kill anyone — as opposed to, say, storing food at an temperature that fosters bacterial growth — but it’s still a problem. Even though we’re living creatures who make mistakes sometimes and it’s easy enough for one stray hair to fall off someone’s head. Personally, I don’t fly off the handle and summon a manager if I find someone else’s hair. I just pick it out. I’m probably getting all kinds of human skin particles in the air I’m breathing, so why place extraordinary importance on this one human cast-off I’ve just happened to notice?

But I’m definitely in the minority in my society. I know that. Hair is thought of as beautiful and attractive when it’s attached to a human’s head, but remove the hair from its human and it instantly becomes an object of revulsion. At my restaurant workplace, we routinely get customers who discover one of their own hairs in the food and angrily complain to the management, wanting a new meal prepared. (No, seriously. Just a few days ago, a customer with long, curly red hair found a long, curly red hair in her food and lodged a complaint. None of the staff present that day had hair even remotely similar to hers.)

It’s part of first-world North American culture, I guess. We take hygiene very seriously, and many of us are privileged enough to throw food away just because one hair off a stranger’s head has touched it.

It makes me wonder how my Aligare folk would react to finding someone else’s sheddings in their food. Since 3 species of people live closely together, there’d be a wider variety of sheddings to be found.

"Waiter, there's some dragon in my soup!"

“Waiter, there’s some dragon in my soup!”

But whether Aligare folk find weasel fur, dragon feathers or betweenkind’s waxy hair, I can’t imagine they’d get in a flap about it. They don’t have germ theory, and they’re used to a much more rustic style of living than first-world humans are. Worst-case scenario, a particularly fastidious Aligare person would pick out the offending hair and the spoonful of food surrounding it. It wouldn’t be a reason to reject the food or make the cook feel badly.  More relaxed personalities would probably crack a joke while picking the hair out — particularly if they’ve found a korvi feather, since korvi do sometimes trade their own moult feathers. “Hey, friend! I’ve found something of yours! Are you paying me and letting me eat your food?”

It’s just one tiny aspect of culture. Even on Earth, different cultures have widely varying opinions on whether trace amounts of hair and saliva are something to worry about. But one thing’s for sure: I doubt germophobes read much high fantasy.

Related articles:

Forgetting about plumbing: why the worldbuilding details matter (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Conflict in reality and fiction: must we fight? (heidicvlach.com)

Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? (heidicvlach.com)


Flashback post: What maturity means

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on November 26th, 2012.

There’s a problem with the way we categorize things — a problem I’ve struggled with for a long time now. Movies, books and video games are called “mature” when they have violence and/or sex in them. The horrors of war and the depths of sexuality are clearly not appropriate for small children, therefore they’re meant for adults.

Simple enough. But this distinction is often misconstrued — so that some people think if a work doesn’t have inappropriate content for children, it can’t possibly be meant for adults. If a work doesn’t have R-rated violence and sex, it must be boring Teletubby stuff.

There are a lot of factors at work here. Our marketing-driven world wants there to be clear lines between children’s entertainment and adult entertainment. And we have increasingly short attention spans in this day and age, so the public probably wants punchier content. And American culture strongly associates some forms (e.g. non-human characters, or colourful animated art) with children’s entertainment. Media is expected to fit into categories — and one of those category divisions is mature/not mature.

But what is maturity, really? The word has many connotations. It might mean mere physical maturity — so a pubescent 13-year-old could be called mature. Moreso if he plays “mature” video games about shooting Nazi soldiers, or watches a “mature” movie with a sex scene in it. That kid is probably fixated on violence and boobies at least partly because he’s grasping at adult concepts, thinking that by association, he’ll be less child-like.

C.S. Lewis had a thought on this subject that I’ve always liked:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

He didn’t use the word “mature”, but I think his point is the same. Insisting on some arbitrary type of “adult” content is the most childish thing a person can do. A truly mature person recognises that they like what they like and no one else gets a say in it. I mean, an adult can watch Barney the dinosaur if they damn well please. The show wasn’t intended for anyone over the age of 5, but if a 40-year-old sees something pleasing about the show, why not watch? Maybe they find it relaxing after a stressful day of work.

Because mature people are also discerning. They’re the quietly confident ones with taste and insight. They’re the polar opposite of the “mature” things that would traumatize a child. Revelling in fighting and sex isn’t necessarily a mature thing to do. Heck, it’s not even a psychologically balanced thing to do. I think that’s the real measure of an adult: the ability to look past flashy novelty and appreciate the nuances of things.

Just look at Harry Potter. The series was a surprise hit with adults, probably because that story of a destined boy had a lot of interesting detail that a kid would take for granted. The story has worldbuilding and social commentary. There were racial tensions, and elaborate cover-ups, and characters struggling to do the right thing. Just because the main character was a kid didn’t mean the saga lacked maturity. But some people are still ashamed to be seen reading those “kids’ books” in public. Part of the problem is probably the stylized cover art.

This isn't photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

This isn’t photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

Another part is probably the recent trendiness of dark, grim fantasy — under the belief that happiness, justice and noble ideals are somehow less suitable for adults than murder and rape. The people who think Harry Potter is exclusively for children probably don’t have a problem reading Game of Thrones on the bus.

This maturity connundrum is something I encounter a lot with my writing career. I have non-human characters full of peaceful intent, so many people draw a conclusion of, “Oh, so it’s a children’s book full of cute little woodland animals?” There isn’t a lot of precident for what I do, so I navigate a minefield of cultural assumptions. As for the covers, I’m careful not to include any of my Aligare characters in the cover designs. If I made the cover look edgy enough to counter the “cute animal people”, I’d contradict the peace, understanding and actual maturity I’m trying to convey inside that cover.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer's intense action thriller.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer’s intense action thriller.

Fortunately, every parent I’ve met has been wise enough to ask me if my work is actually appropriate for their elementary-school-aged kids. Not really, I tell them. Remedy doesn’t have gory battles or overt sex, but it does have some pretty graphic medical drama. Watching a character struggle to breathe isn’t glamorous or pleasant.

More importantly, I think a certain amount of maturity is needed to understand Peregrine, an older man with long-term responsibilities and a moral quandary. I can’t imagine that a kid under a certain age could grasp why Peregrine is unhappy at the beginning of the story, or why he tries to push his best friend Tillian out of his life. To empathize with people very different from oneself, maturity is needed. I’ve had a report that one particularly advanced 12-year-old reader enjoyed Remedy — which is cool, I guess, but I still found it surprising.

So I guess what I’m saying is that maturity is simple, and yet it’s not. And an actual mature adult should be able to handle that.

Related articles:

My favourite dialogue from Render (A story of Aligare) (heidicvlach.com)

Moodiness: A part of real life, not fiction (heidicvlach.com)

Trying to write colourfully (heidicvlach.com)


Origin of the term “adventurer”

When I write, I spend a lot of time cross-referencing the subtler meanings of words. Mostly with the Macbook’s dictionary/thesaurus function, which gives a nice rundown of a word’s linguistic and social origins. Sometimes a word’s connotations surprise me — like when I found that adventurer can be a term of disapproval.

Adventurer comes from the French term adventurier, meaning “venture upon”. It originally meant “gambler”, but became associated with mercenary soldiers, swashbucklers and all manner of wandering rogues who got into shady situations.

pirate-clipart

Nowadays, when we think of adventure, we tend to think of some rousing quest with a positive motivation. We think of going out, seeing the world and having an exhilarating experience. Maybe an experience that changes you for the better. Adventure is the term that’s supposed to entice you toward a book or a video game — because why wouldn’t we want to hang out with an adventurous person? They’re the cool ones.

 

Does this mean we English-speakers are more open-minded than we used to be? Maybe less concerned with keeping our heads down and not causing a scene? Maybe less afraid of the unconventional? Or maybe travel is just less dangerous than it used to be in colonial times. The shady gambling aspect of adventure isn’t so strong in a world where casual tourists can hop on a plane and take a guided tour of another country. Maybe we miss the glamorous aspect of risking one’s life to break new ground — although centuries ago, travel certainly wasn’t a glamorous process for the people partaking in it. We just like to imagine it that way.

 

I can’t imagine disapproving of adventurers. But then, I’m always looking for the next unusual thing to get my fingerprints all over, so of course I think we should take chances and see new sights. It’s good to know where the term adventurer came from, even if it’s like finding old skeletons.

 

Related articles:

Moodiness: a part of real life, not fiction (heidicvlach.com)

The worldbuilding of my favourite game series, Pikmin (heidicvlach.com)

Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi (heidicvlach.com)


Moodiness: a part of real life, not fiction

businesswoman_-_angry

Clipart from Clipartheaven.com

 

The other day at my waitressing day job, I approached two customers to take their order. The man smiled and answered my greeting questions, but the woman snapped that they had been waiting 20 minutes for me to serve them. This was untrue — since I knew for a fact their table had been empty 10 minutes ago — but a waitress is wise not to argue this sort of thing. I shut my mouth and hurried to bring bread and salad.

 

I figured there were two likely diagnoses for the woman’s behaviour:

1) She was one of those people who thinks serving staff are inferior human beings.

2) She was just cranky because she was hungry.

It turned out to be the second option, fortunately for me. By the time the woman was halfway finished her chicken pasta entreé, she was chatty and smiling just like her dinner companion. She even apologized to me for her earlier unpleasantness.

 

And I forgave her, both outwardly and inwardly. Because, I mean, I’ve been there. Feeling inordinately witchy because it’s been an hour too many since I ate anything and my instincts are telling me to kill something for dinner. Part of being a person is that we’re complex creatures and we sometimes struggle to handle the smallest of problems.

 

But it doesn’t work that way for fictional characters, does it?

 

Fictional people are just as complex as we are — that’s the case for well-written fictional people, anyway. But fiction carries a burden of meaning. Stories are supposed to have patterns and significance. If a character in a novel snaps at her undeserving waitress/assistant/servant, it’s far more likely that the author is showing us what a nasty person the character is (or how crummy the servant life is). If the character apologizes to the servant, it’ll probably be to demonstrate how she’s grown as a person. Sure, she could just have a low blood sugar moment and snap with no real consequence. But if it’s not foreshadowing some greater loss of control, well, what’s the point of that scene? It’s not contributing to the story’s greater message (unless that message is “life is senseless and often cruel”).

 

I guess it’s part of the way reality is stranger than fiction. We want our fictional characters to be real, but not as real as we are. Because we get plenty of real life every day we live, thanks — and too much aimless reality would clutter up a fantastic tale.


Flashback post: How I used light and dark magic in the Aligare world

If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you! This was originally posted on December 8th, 2012.

About a decade ago, a teenaged Heidi C. Vlach began writing her first fantasy novel.

It looked like this. Kidding, kidding! I was wearing pants.

What I wrote was a clumsy precursor to the Aligare world, where the high gods Light and Dark had a terrible, eons-long feud ending with Dark being imprisoned in the earth. It caused Dark to go berserk and inadvertently transmit its madness to all other darkcasting creatures. The main characters knew that Dark wasn’t inherently evil, but that the world had been critically unbalanced somehow. So the story was a Ragtag Fantasy Quest against a Powerful Dark Lord, except that this particular Dark Lord didn’t need to be defeated so much as snapped out of a really vicious panic attack.

Even in that early stage of my writing career, I knew I wanted magic elements that opposed each other. Light and dark, obviously enough. But I didn’t want to use the classical fantasy versions of light versus dark. You know, where light represents all things good, pure and truthful, while darkness means evil corrupted lies and lust. That’s an incredibly simplistic way of viewing the world, and it doesn’t hold up to questioning. Murder is okay when a good person does it? Not because of the murder’s circumstances, but because the person doing the deed has an innately good soul or something? Good luck making that premise morally coherent.

There is some logical basis for the idea that light is good. This Earth needs light to feed all our food plants. Humans need sunlight for our basic physical and mental health, and we also rely heavily on our eyesight, so we’re vulnerable when it’s dark. We’re just generally more comfortable in a well-lit area. Light even makes a good dramatic device, since we can wield a light-shedding object to drive the shadows away. Why not assign light to our heros and warriors? Why not assign darkness to everything we consider an enemy?

angeldemon

But the dark isn’t all bad. I mean, we sleep in the dark, and sleep is usually a time of peace and restoration. If anything, darkness isn’t evil so much as a lack of information — but ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to hate. Light versus dark has the same troubling undertones as saying that all orcs are born evil. And too much light can be harmful  — like when it causes sunburn or blindness.

So for the Aligare world, I tried to make light and dark oppose each other without being cliched or preachy. Light magic became brightcasting and the god Light was renamed Bright– a minor semantic difference, but I still think it’s a step away from any hoary Warriors Of Light ideas. And darkcasting opposes brightcasting, but not because it’s bad. The elements are more like positive and negative blood types. (Speaking of good-and-bad nomenclature, why are half of all blood types implied to be somehow bad?)

And Aligare brightcasting and darkcasting both have the capacity to heal. Since sunlight can nurture growth and darkness can aid rest, it made sense to me that both elements can help a creature recover. In Remedy, villages receiving medical supplies need to be given bright and dark healing stones. Going back to the blood type analogy, healers need to be aware of all the casting types their patient uses; using brightcasting healing on someone who knows darkcasting — or vice versa — can do more harm than good.

But it’s overall better that people can learn bright or dark, whichever element works for them. Folk who spend a lot of time in, say, shadowy dense forests would have a much easier time using darkcasting than brightcasting. Even in simple light stones used to illuminate the surroundings, darkcasting stones are sometimes favoured because the light is less harsh. Yes, for the sake of balance, I thought dark light should be an actual possible concept. It looks sort of like ultraviolet/”black light”, just without the effect of making stuff glow.

mazda-blacklight-2

But the most important point is that Aligare folk don’t see darkness or shadow as innately bad things. Like anything in life, darkness can be good or bad depending on the situation. I need to be careful of this while writing — and in rough drafts, I catch myself accidentally describing ominous situations as “dark” or “black”. Nope, I think. That’s human perception, not aemet or korvi or ferrin.

This is just one of the concepts I write about because I want to see it more often. Dark powers are sometimes used for good in our fantasy media, but they’re not often portrayed as a genuinely neutral force. So it’s something I’m still working on.


The Greatbloom: Aligare’s creation legend

greatbloom

 

Every culture has a creation story, some folklore attempt to explain why we have earth and sky and life. Aligare folk have the legend of the Greatbloom. You might have seen it already in the Aligare lore section of this site but here it is again:

Before all things, there was no land and no sky, not enough light to see by and no waft of air to sense with. All things churned together. It was silent, like a held breath. And then, life came to that place. It crashed through all things, more brilliant than lightning and more fluid than water, to strike one mote of soil and one mote of air. From that burned spot, the Greatbloom crept out. It was a tiny vine, pale white but as alive as any person. Without so much as a seed hull to protect it, the Greatbloom rooted itself on the life-struck earth and breathed in the life-struck air — and it grew and grew.

After forty-eight years had passed, the Greatbloom was soon a towering plant casting an endless shadow over the land. And then, it opened a magnificent flower, so it had a face to turn toward everything around it. The earth was bare and dusty. The air was devoid, stirred by no wind. Sensing how badly the land wanted for life, the Greatbloom gathered its strength into seeds of every type and element. Once its seeds were scattered, the Greatbloom wilted and died. Over the forty-eight years its stalk took to break down, its elemental seeds blossomed and filled the land richly with life.

The gods arrived to watch those seeds send out first roots. They saw what that lone Greatbloom plant had done, and they gathered around its dry, brown stem. They had never seen such potential in all the empty tracts they had crossed. Great Bright and Dark, with Verdana, Fyrian, Ambri and Okeos beside them, agreed to tend to these things the Greatbloom brought to life. And with all life adopted by god guardians, it was nurtured, and it has been thriving ever since.

The details change a bit depending on who’s telling the story. Korvi folk sometimes say the Greatbloom produced both seeds and eggs, because they don’t think fire-elemental creatures would come from a seed. Some folk feel that the Greatbloom’s seed wasn’t created by a lightning-like bolt of life energy: they think the seed itself was there from the beginning, as a dense packet of all the mortal life energy there is. But whatever the story’s specifics, the Greatbloom is broadly known and considered to be the origin of everything in Aligare.

 

I didn’t actually develop this creation legend until Remedy was nearly complete. I wanted to make sure that the people’s legends are a reflection of their everyday lives and beliefs. That’s why the Greatbloom sacrifices itself to fill a greater need. That’s why the gods are outsiders who are impressed by the Greatbloom’s efforts, and willing to adopt the land and protect it. Aligare society values cooperation and kindness, and it feels that the families we choose are just as valid as families tied by blood. For aemets, korvi and ferrin, these values are a constant truth.