For the uninitiated, Sanderson’s Law (technically, Sanderson’s First Law of Magic) is:
An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
Brandon Sanderson wrote this law to help new writers come up with satisfying magical systems. But I think it’s applicable beyond magic. A recent experience has taught me that it’s especially applicable to fantasy cultures.
I recently read Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss, a book that falls into one of my favourite fantasy sub-genres: hopeless siege tales.
Sunset Mantle is what’s called secondary world fantasy; it takes place in a world that doesn’t share a common history or culture (or even necessarily biosphere) with our own. Game of Thrones is secondary world fantasy, while Harry Potter is primary world fantasy (because it takes place in a different version of our world, which we chauvinistically call the “primary” one).
Secondary world fantasy gives writers a lot more freedom to play around with cultures and create interesting set-pieces when cultures collide. If you want to write a book where the Roman Empire fights a total war against the Chinese Empire, you’re going to have to put in a master’s thesis worth of work to explain how that came about (if you don’t want to be eviscerated by pedants on the internet). In a secondary world, you can very easily have a thinly veiled stand-in for Rome right next to a thinly veiled analogue of China. Give readers some familiar sounding names and culture touchstones and they’ll figure out what’s going on right away, without you having to put in effort to make it plausible in our world.
When you don’t use subtle cues, like names or cultural touchstones (for example: imperial exams and eunuchs for China, gladiatorial fights and the cursus honorum for Rome), you risk leaving your readers adrift.
Many of the key plot points in Sunset Mantle hinge on obscure rules in an invented culture/religion that doesn’t bear much resemblance to any that I’m familiar with. It has strong guest rights, like many steppes cultures; it has strong charity obligations and monotheistic strictures, like several historical strands of Christianity; it has a strong caste system and rules of ritual purity, like Hinduism; and it has a strong warrior ethos, complete with battle rage and rules for dealing with it, similar to common depictions of Norse cultures.
These actually fit together surprising well! Reiss pulled off an entertaining book. But I think many of the plot points fell flat because they were almost impossible to anticipate. The lack of any sort of consistent real-world analogue to the invented culture meant that I never really had an intuition of what it would demand in a given situation. This meant that all of the problems in the story that were solved via obscure points of culture weren’t at all satisfying to me. There was build up, but then no excitement during the resolution. This was common enough that several chunks of the story didn’t really work for me.
Here’s one example:
“But what,” asked Lemist, “is a congregation? The Ayarith school teaches that it is ten men, and the ancient school of Baern says seven. But among the Irimin school there is a tradition that even three men, if they are drawn in together into the same act, by the same person, that is a congregation, and a man who has led three men into the same wicked act shall be put to death by the axe, and also his family shall bear the sin.” All the crowd in the church was silent. Perhaps there were some who did not know against whom this study of law was aimed, but they knew better than to ask questions, when they saw the frozen faces of those who heard what was being said. (Reiss, Alter S.. Sunset Mantle (pp. 92-93). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.)
This means protagonist Cete’s enemy erred greatly by sending three men to kill him and had better cut it out if he doesn’t want to be executed. It’s a cool resolution to a plot point – or would be if it hadn’t taken me utterly by surprise. As it is, it felt kind of like a cheap trick to get the author out of a hole he’d written himself into, like the dreaded deux ex machina – god from the machine – that ancient playwrights used to resolve conflicts they otherwise couldn’t.
(This is the point where I note that it is much harder to write than it is to criticize. This blog post is about something I noticed, not necessarily something I could do better.)
I’ve read other books that do a much better job of using sudden points of culture to resolve conflict in a satisfying manner. Lois McMaster Bujold (I will always be recommending her books) strikes me as particularly apt. When it comes time for a key character of hers to make a lateral career move into a job we’ve never heard of before, it feels satisfying because the job is directly in line with legal principles for the society that she laid out six books earlier.
The job is that of Imperial Auditor – a high powered investigator who reports directly to the emperor and has sweeping powers – and it’s introduced when protagonist Miles loses his combat career in Memory. The principles I think it is based on are articulated in the novella Mountains of Mourning: “the spirit was to be preferred over the letter, truth over technicalities. Precedent was held subordinate to the judgment of the man on the spot”.
Imperial Auditors are given broad discretion to resolve problems as they see fit. The main rule is: make sure the emperor would approve. We later see Miles using the awesome authority of this office to make sure a widow gets the pension she deserves. The letter of the law wasn’t on her side, but the spirit was, and Miles, as the Auditor on the spot, was empowered to make the spirit speak louder than the letter.
Wandering around my bookshelves, I was able to grab a couple more examples of satisfying resolutions to conflicts that hinged on guessable cultural traits:
- In Dune, Fremen settle challenges to leadership via combat. Paul Maud'dib spends several years as their de facto leader, while another man, Stilgar, holds the actual title. This situation is considered culturally untenable and Paul is expected to fight Stilgar so that he can lead properly. Paul is able to avoid this unwanted fight to the death (he likes Stilgar) by appealing to the only thing Fremen value more than their leadership traditions: their well-established pragmatism. He says that killing Stilgar before the final battle would be little better than cutting off his own arm right before it. If Frank Herbert hadn't mentioned the extreme pragmatism of the Fremen (to the point that they render down their dead for water) several times, this might have felt like a cop-out.
- In The Chronicles of the Kencyrath, it looks like convoluted politics will force protagonist Jame out of the military academy of Tentir. But it's mentioned several times that the NCOs who run the place have their own streak of honour that allows them to subvert their traditionally required oaths to their lords. When Jame redeems a stain on the Tentir's collective honour, this oath to the college gives them an opening to keep her there and keep their oaths to their lords. If PC Hodgell hadn't spent so long building up the internal culture of Tentir, this might have felt forced.
It’s hard to figure out where good foreshadowing ends and good cultural creation begins, but I do think there is one simple thing an author can do to make culture a satisfying source of plot resolution: make a culture simple enough to stereotype, at least at first.
If the other inhabitants of a fantasy world are telling off-colour jokes about this culture, what do they say? A good example of this done explicitly comes from Mass Effect: “Q: How do you tell when a Turian is out of ammo? A: He switches to the stick up his ass as a backup weapon.”
(Even if you’ve never played Mass Effect, you now know something about Turians.)
At the same time as I started writing this, I started re-reading PC Hodgell’s The Chronicles of the Kencyrath, which provided a handy example of someone doing everything right. The first three things we learn about the eponymous Kencyr are:
- They heal very quickly
- They dislike their God
- Their honour code is strict enough that lying is a deadly crime and calling some a liar a deathly insult
There are eight more books in which we learn all about the subtleties of their culture and religion. But within the first thirty pages, we have enough information that we can start making predictions about how they’ll react to things and what’s culturally important.
When Marc, a solidly dependable Kencyr who is working as a guard and bound by Kencyr cultural laws to loyally serve his employer lets the rather more eccentric Jame escape from a crime scene, we instantly know that him choosing her over his word is a big deal. And indeed, while he helps her escape, he also immediately tries to kill himself. Jame is only able to talk him out of it by explaining that she hadn’t broken any laws there. It was already established that in the city of Tai-Tastigon, only those who physically touch stolen property are in legal jeopardy. Jame never touched the stolen goods, she was just on the scene. Marc didn’t actually break his oath and so decides to keep living.
God Stalk is not a long book, so that fact that PC Hodgell was able to set all of this up and have it feel both exciting in the moment and satisfying in the resolution is quite remarkable. It’s a testament to what effective cultural distillation, plus a few choice tidbits of extra information can do for a plot.
If you don’t come up with a similar distillation and convey it to your readers quickly, there will be a period where you can’t use culture as a satisfying source of plot resolution. It’s probably no coincidence that I noticed this in Sunset Mantle, which is a long(-ish) novella. Unlike Hodgell, Reiss isn’t able to develop a culture in such a limited space, perhaps because his culture has fewer obvious touchstones.
Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic can be your friend here too. As he stated it, the law is:
The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can't do is more interesting than what it can.
Similarly, the taboos and strictures of a culture are much more interesting than what it permits. Had Reiss built up a quick sketch of complicated rules around commanding and preaching (with maybe a reference that there could be surprisingly little theological difference between military command and being behind a pulpit), the rule about leading a congregation astray would have fit neatly into place with what else we knew of the culture.
Having tight constraints imposed by culture doesn’t just allow for plot resolution. It also allows for plot generation. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles gets caught up in a seemingly unwinnable conflict because he gave his word; several hundred pages earlier Bujold establishes that breaking a word is, to a Barrayaran, roughly equivalent to sundering your soul.
It is perhaps no accident that the only thing we learn initially about the Kencyr that isn’t a descriptive fact (like their healing and their fraught theological state) is that honour binds them and can break them. This constraint, that all Kencyr characters must be honourable, does a lot of work driving the plot.
This then would be my advice: when you wish to invent a fantasy culture, start simple, with a few stereotypes that everyone else in the world can be expected to know. Make sure at least one of them is an interesting constraint on behaviour. Then add in depth that people can get to know gradually. When you’re using the culture as a plot device, make sure to stick to the simple stereotypes or whatever other information you’ve directly given your reader. If you do this, you’ll develop rich cultures that drive interesting conflicts and you’ll be able to use cultural rules to consistently resolve conflict in a way that will feel satisfying to your readers.