A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that used the Left Behind novels as a worst-case example for remaining consistent to the rules you establish in your story (as they are the worst-case example for so many things). In the same post, I included what I consider to be a good example of remaining consistent to the rules you establish: the One Rose trilogy by Gail Dayton.
Having had a bit of time to think about it, it seems that the positive example and advice for internal consistency deserves a bit more attention, as does the One Rose Trilogy itself.
Part of what makes the One Rose Trilogy such a good example is that it’s a fantasy series. No other genre gives as much freedom for the author to set their own rules, which means no other genre demands such strict internal consistency.
Science fiction, especially space opera like Star Wars, comes close. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke said, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Personal abilities that would be indistinguishable from magic are handwaved as “psychic talents” or “mutant powers” – though of course, if you look at them too closely (say, by asking where the enormous amounts of energy for Cyclops’s eyebeams come from), they quickly become magic again. Still, as long as you make a deferential nod toward science, you can get away with just about anything.
But you must make that nod. You must at least pretend that what your characters are doing has a scientific basis. This is why I, personally, classify Star Wars as space fantasy instead of science fiction. The blatant mysticism of The Force takes it over the line.
Horror is another genre that often includes magic and the unnatural. But the whole point of those things in that genre is that they are unnatural – that they represent a frightening and disturbing rupture in the rules as we know them…which means that most of the world follows those rules.
But in Fantasy, the only rules are the rules you make. In The Lord of The Rings and The Fionavar Tapestry, elves can sail off in the same direction as humans but arrive in a completely different place. In the now-completed Dominic Deegan webcomic, magic is so commonplace and reliable that it has replaced medicine and telecommunications, while the locations of Heaven and Hell are discussed in the Planar Geography classroom. In the Exalted fantasy role-playing game by White Wolf, the world is both flat and much larger than the one we know, with elemental chaos gnawing at the edges. Heaven and Hell both exist and can be visited by characters, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with dead humans, being simply the home of the gods and the prison of the demons, respectively.
Given this infinite possibility – and, to be honest, the weirdness inherent in the fantasy genre itself – fantasy authors must be very disciplined if readers are to accept their stories as plausible. Not realistic, mind you. Realistic went out the window the first time someone cast a spell. Plausible.
People will accept a lot for the sake of enjoying a good story. They’ll accept giant, flying, fire-breathing reptiles. They’ll accept dead people who walk around and try to eat the living, despite not having functional digestive systems anymore. They’ll accept super-powerful aliens with a deathly allergy to the pieces of their own homeworld. They’ll accept a demon who forges a ring out of his own soul that allows him to control humans who’ve been given similar rings, transforming said humans into undead monsters in the process.
But for them to turn off their disbelief and accept a story – your story – on its own terms, they have to trust you. They have to believe that the story has its own logic, that it has rules and will follow them.
You can’t forget the big, obvious stuff, of course. If the demon put most of his soul into the ring, he can’t survive its destruction just because you want a sequel. The alien’s powers, once set, can’t be changed without a significant plot development – you can’t just keep adding powers whenever it would be mildly convenient (no, seriously, where the hell did that giant cellophane “S” in Superman II come from?). If all of the children disappeared from your story’s world less than two weeks ago, the news media is not going to focus on an obscure Romanian politician giving a speech at the UN and a meeting of international bankers.
Doing anything like that will take people right out of your story. It will remind people that none of this is real, and make them stop caring.
Your job is to make your readers care about your story, which means making it seem as real to them as possible. The key to this is consistency – following your rules – and detail.
The One Rose Trilogy has a difference from our world that is less fantastic, but more fundamental than most of the examples I’ve cited here. To wit: the nation of Adara, the primary setting of the novels, is a matriarchy.
Generally speaking, fictional matriarchies haven’t been based on anything actual women might need or want. Most, of course, have simply been men’s fantasies about what society would be like if men weren’t around or women were in charge (which often amount to the same thing, since those men couldn’t imagine the latter happening without the former). Science fiction films in the Fifties depicted “lost tribes” of women who had forgotten what love was in the absence of men, and yearned (though they didn’t know it) to be brought back to true civilization and become a proper helpmeet to the right man. The flip side of that particular coin were the ancient Greeks, who imagined the Amazons as barbaric pseudo-men, who tried to be more masculine than their neighbors. The most famous example of that is the story of the Amazons amputating their right breasts to improve their archery – something actual female archers seem to find unnecessary. Fast forward three thousand years, to the Wonder Woman comics, and the Amazons’ society is a utopia that is both more enlightened and more technologically advanced than “man’s world”.
Other fictional matriarchies are clearly intended as commentary on the patriarchy, making no sense at all as things in themselves. The one that sticks in my mind – I wish I could remember the name, or where I read it – is one where the men all wear makeup and dresses, where men who can’t have an orgasm from anal penetration are considered less than real men, and the men live in fear of roving gangs of women armed with strap-ons.
Then there are the fictional matriarchies that seem to have been just tossed in for flavor. Remember the Drow, the race of evil elves from Dungeons & Dragons who are distinguishable from other elves because their skin is black? Well, they’re also matriarchal. That’s right: the most evil society in most D&D-related settings, the one that has been known to teach new atrocities to major demons, and they’re the only major race where the women are definitively in charge.
Yeah, the whole Drow concept is just a barrel full of wrong.
In contrast, Dayton has built her matriarchy from the ground up. In our world, patriarchy was established because brute force was the source of power for so much of history. Once brute force had established power, the patriarchs set up the systems of wealth, tradition, religion and government so that they reinforced it. The matriarchs of The One Rose Trilogy have done the same.
Like patriarchy in our world, matriarchy was established in Adara thousands of years before the present day. The men still had their brute force, but this is a world where magic exists. More importantly, it’s hereditary, and far more common in women.
Every person born with magic is called a naitan (is the word related to “natal”, perhaps?), and each such person has one magical power. This power may be as simple as baking bread that will never go stale…or it can include such things as magical healing, telepathic communication, detecting lies, remote seeing, and throwing lightning bolts.
Understandably, in the ancient wars that created Adara as a nation, the groups with lots of naitani – 90% or so of whom are women, remember – were victorious.
(And by lots, I mean lots. Maybe 25% of the total population of Adara have some kind of magical power. It’s so commonplace and dependable that it’s replaced – or precluded the development of – many technologies.)
Once magic had established power, the matriarchs set up the systems of wealth, tradition, religion and government so that they reinforced it.
For example: it’s technically possible for a man to become Reinine (the ruler of Adara, head of both church and state), but it’s never happened and no one expects it to. The position is not hereditary, and is selected by the prinsipi (singular prinsep, rulers of the twenty-seven prinsipalities of Adara) and the prelates of the church.
Prinsep is a hereditary title, but rather than going to the first-born, the current prinsep chooses the one she feels is best suited for the job from among her children – and the chance of choosing one of her sons is slim to none. Men are all brute force and raw passions, completely unsuited to rule. If nothing else, the one prinsep we see in the process of choosing an heir chooses the daughter with magical ability. If other prinsipi do the same, that largely rules out their sons by default.
It’s never exactly made clear how one becomes a prelate in the church, but while it does seem to be the “family business” in some cases, it doesn’t seem to be hereditary in the same way a title of nobility would be. On the other hand, we never see a prelate who isn’t also a naitan (mostly magical healers)…which means that we never see one who isn’t a woman. In our world, that kind of imbalance is justified by doctrines of “male headship”, and the argument that God, who is obviously male, made men in his own image, with women created to be men’s helpmeets.
Neither of those seems to be in play in the Adaran church. Oh, God is definitely a woman, but She doesn’t seem to have made any actual rules against men serving in the priesthood. It’s just that men, being all brute force and passions, aren’t really suited for the job. Also, since magic is a gift of the One, it’s clear who She really favors, isn’t it?
(Note that this belief establishes naitani as an elite regardless of other class considerations. Naitani in the army are higher-ranked than they would otherwise be and receive special considerations; both reinines we see over the course of the series are naitani; plus see above re the prelates and the prinsipi.)
(Also note: while the Adarans’ monotheistic Goddess-worship seems common in other nations in the setting, they show what could be considered syncretism at best or cultural imperialism at worst when they encounter other belief systems. When encountering a polytheistic belief system, the protagonist identifies all of the gods as “aspects” of the One…except for the head of the pantheon, who happens to be a demon in disguise. No, really. It’s possessing the king.)
Generally speaking, women are the Generic Person of Adara, and thus the One Rose Trilogy. Everyone is a woman unless the narrative specifies otherwise, especially people of wealth or authority. The hard-as-nails general is a woman. The crusty riverboat captain is a woman. The courtier sent to fetch the protagonist for an audience with the reinine is a woman. Any Adaran would expect this, of course, but as a 21st-century American, I was often surprised when Dayton would ambush me with a feminine pronoun…which is, of course, the whole point. The stories are told primarily from the perspective of the protagonist, who is a resident of Adara, which means that women are the Generic Person to her.
The modern day of The One Rose Trilogy (tech level: late medieval/early renaissance. The Adaran military, confident in their magical supremacy, receives a terrible surprise when faced with an invasion force that uses cannon and muskets) is experiencing the first stirrings of a Men’s Rights Movement, but only that. One male character we meet has risen to the rank of lieutenant in the army, and is extraordinary for having done so. Having come from a region that was famous for its horses, he was a natural for the cavalry, but he was forced to take his commission in the infantry because the cavalry general refused to have any male officers in her army.
But then, she’s hardly the only one to make things difficult for her male subordinates. According to the protagonist, some officers apparently consider their commands to be their personal hunting reserves, and sexually-harassed men have little recourse. The male lieutenant above actually considered the protagonist to be one of his heroes before the events of the series even began, because she was well-known for treating men the same as women.
(The officers’ exploitation of their subordinates, along with the more consensual antics of characters lead and supporting, old and young, are enabled by something else necessary for a matriarchy, or even gender equality, to exist: effective birth control. The Adarans have contraceptive magic that’s at least as effective as our medical version. If that magic fails somehow, abortion is available upon request at any time “before the soul has taken root”. Adaran women are not slaves to their biology.)
(Another note on the topic of sex: homosexuality, and bigotry against it, are much less of an issue in Adara. In our world, anti-gay bigotry is built on a foundation of gender roles, and the need to enforce them. Now, while Adara clearly has gender roles, and rigid ones, they’re not the same ones as ours, and homosexuality doesn’t transgress them. For example, a man being penetrated by a penis, and thus being made “more like a woman”, isn’t horrifying to them. In fact, as in our world, there are those – such as Gail Dayton herself, one suspects – who consider it kinda hot. Similarly, a relationship consisting entirely of women doesn’t challenge the dominant gender roles by proving that women don’t need a man to function – it affirms them.)
Unfortunately, as always seems to be the case when an oppressed minority tries to rise above its former place, all are judged by the visible tokens. Another male character has risen to the unprecedentedly high rank of High Steward in the reinine’s court, but his actions while in office will surely be held against every man aspiring to high office for years to come.
Okay. That’s the subtle stuff. The page-by-page consistency that creates this world and makes you believe it. You may wonder why such small things matter. Individually, they probably don’t. But consider this: I believe I remember hearing, from some of the “making of” materials on the DVD’s, that the costume department for Lord of the Rings created undergarments for the robes Ian McKellen wore as Gandalf. I know I remember Liv Tyler mourning that the beautiful dress they created for Arwen to wear to Aragorn’s coronation was glimpsed only briefly and partially. Those are details that we didn’t even see. And yet their inclusion helped to create a world with depth and life that allowed us to believe in it more easily than, say, the shallow artificiality of The Dungeons and Dragons Movie. We felt their presence, even if we didn’t notice them.
Similarly, each of those details I’ve mentioned helps to create a milieu that allows you to accept the world that Gail Dayton has built, particularly the nation of Adara. And there comes a point where that belief, that acceptance, is tested: not far into the first book, we learn that instead of marrying into couples, Adarans form groups called iliasti, which consist of no less than four people, and no more than twelve (any combination of sexes).
If you were to read this in a book that put less effort into establishing its world, you would assume that this was just some erotic fantasy of the author’s (which, to be fair, it probably is), and had just been thrown in to give her some jollies as she imagined a world that she liked.
In other words, it would have seemed arbitrary, and you would suddenly take the books a lot less seriously.
But Dayton has carefully built up a world where everything is arranged to cater to the wants and needs of women. In our world, marriage started as a property arrangement whereby a man took a woman (as many women as he could afford, in the right cultures at the right times) to maintain his house and bear his children. In Adara, marriage is set up for the benefit of women. How so? Let me put it this way: I once spoke to a friend on the issue of children, and she said “I wouldn’t mind having children, if I could be the Dad.” Marriage in Adara is arranged so that a woman – all of the women in the ilias, really – can have children, and still pursue other callings, knowing that the members of the ilias who are suited for the task are raising the children.
Honestly, she makes it all seem very sensible.
So. A lot of words. It’s really easier to tear a bad book apart than to point out all the things that a good book does right. In the end, though, it can be more rewarding, talking about what to do instead of what not to. And if you’re looking for a good example of world-building, and the detail and consistency required to do it right, I can think of few better examples than Gail Dayton’s The One Rose Trilogy.
I can, however, think of one that equals it. Stay tuned next week for a little follow-up on this post, where I discuss Avatar: The Last Airbender.