Changing Up the Plot Without Throwing Away the Story

I got 50,000 words into a draft of a novel and sort of slammed to a halt. Well, actually I slammed to a halt several times in the course of writing those words, too. There are questions about the story I’ve been avoiding for a long, long time, and I’ve realized I can’t proceed without answering them. My last talk with my writing coach shook some of this loose, and I feel much more capable of going forward now. Here’s the deal:

For better or worse, I chose to write a story where technologically-superior people from one civilization are shipwrecked on the home of a different, technologically inferior civilization, and the parallels with European colonization of the Americas have been dogging me the whole time.

To put it bluntly, and leaving aside the actual skin tones of my fantasy people: I don’t want to tell a story with any whiff of white people good, brown people bad.

There are lots of different ways I could have run that scenario instead (maybe the shipwrecked land on the shores of a more advanced civilization, a la When True Night Falls) but Joe helped me figure out how to skirt this without throwing away the whole story:

  1. Avoid making the indigenous people, or any one of them, the antagonist
  2. There has to be something inherent to the indigenous civilization that is key to succeeding in the challenge of the novel

Luckily, I already have (2) figured out. As for (1), when I was blocked months ago two ideas came together I came up with a third, antagonistic force that would assail the colonists and the indigenous people and require them to work together, but I’d considered that a thing to use in future books.

Instead, I can use it in this one, if I allude to it earlier and weave it into the story. That avoids having the indigenous people be “the bad guys”; instead, the colonists and the indigenous people have tensions and conflicts, but those must be set aside when this greater threat surfaces. This solves a large number of problems with the narrative, actually.

The next question is: who is this third, antagonistic force? I already had ideas for them, but, like I said, I was going to use them in later books, so hadn’t really fleshed it out. Well, the time of flesh is upon us1.

The civilization that’s sort of the “protagonist”, or that contains the protagonists, of my stories is relatively secular, at least in terms of political organization. It would be interesting to have a theocracy invade them… So now the question is, how and why do you get a theocracy and what would drive the invasion?

The dumb way to do this is a common problem when writing the “other” in your stories: make everyone a religious zealot. But a culture isn’t a “hive mind”, no matter how cynical you are about Facebook; the people in the civilization are individuals, and they participate in their culture, interact with it, in different ways.

So what’s a real-life analogue to a theocratic society engaging in a holy war? How about the Crusades? Even from the small amount of reading I’ve done, it’s clear the Christians and the Muslims were not two homogeneous masses driven by dogma to break lances on each other. The Crusades were perpetrated, and the Crusaders participated, for lots of different reasons, the same reasons people do anything.

Postulate: Wars happen because enormously-powerful interests are, uh, interested in them happening. Medieval society sure seems bloodthirsty in retrospect, but the vast bulk of people have always just wanted to live their lives in peace regardless of what century it is.

Even in the more-dictatorial societies that are typical in medieval-style fantasy fiction, just because you’re the king or empress doesn’t mean you can say, “Hey, you hundred-thousand people, I know you’re busy trying not to starve or die of the plague, but go pick up swords and die horribly hundreds of miles from home,” and your civilization will respond, “How high?”

This is perhaps even more true in such societies, because they didn’t tend to have standing armies (the economics just weren’t there), which means you really did have to give people incentives (which, sure, probably included religious dogma and the threat of execution) to get them to fight for you.

So all that being said, this theocratic civilization I’m inventing would probably only build an army and a navy and sail across the sea to make war on the heathens if they had a bunch of damned-compelling reasons to. Sure, the high priest might tell the people he has a message from God, and, depending on how your fiction is wired, he might have actually experienced something supernatural, this is fantasy after all…

But what seems more likely and more interesting to me is that there’s some kind of struggle in the government of this civilization that makes invading a foreign nation seem like an attractive idea. Maybe there’s an upstart political class that’s challenging the authority of the theocratic class, or vice-versa, and the way to keep the people in line is with a Crusade—good opportunity to extol the supremacy of God’s Chosen, and thereby keep the people excited about having the high priests rule over them—as long as you win, of course. It’s high-risk, high-reward. And the economic incentives of a crusade could get the political class to play along, too.

Does that sound cynical? Well, read about why the actual Crusades took place, and agree with me that the best fiction does not, even if it’s fantasy and dragons are casting spells on centaurs to appease a living volcano, divorce itself from human nature.

  1. Which sounds ike someting James Earl Jones said in the first Conan movie

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.