Necronomicon Aesthetica: Guns, Germs, Spells, Ancestral Swords and Steel

TREMBLE I SAID
BEHOLD AND TREMBLE

The Mad Missourian, Ben Wheeler returns!

A tome of terror and nightmare beyond your reckoning! IT IS THE NECRONOMICON AESTHETICA . Bound in the twisted and flayed flesh of critics and penned with the blood-tear ink of underpaid and overworked artists, this book will be the end-all and be-all of entertaining fiction analysis. This is not to be an explicit guide to a paint by numbers towards something poor, generic and, Lord forgive me for saying this, derivative. This is a guide to promoting excellence of story telling, to look at, disagree with or consult like a road map where you already know the way, but you want to make sure.

Read ON brave delver of the darkest literary arts!

Slip in, dear reader, in the dark dreams and memories of your own mind. You see, as if in a vision, you walk down the aisles of the damnable universities. Madmen shout from sidewalks and insane women in straight jackets run amok. You wouldn’t have it any other way. A stabbing is worth the price of a few more drops of the ambrosia that Scrofula gives out.

What man is Scrofula? Ignoring his fly-head, of course. That was a curse from a fairy, should go away aaaannnnyyyyy day now. Tall, thin and imposing, yet unbelievably mad and demanding, his knowledge cannot be denied. How many times have you seen him exsanguinate students who misuse a simile or beat horse to death in story as a poorly timed gag on the merits of Communism. “Yes, very *buzz* funny Mr. Simkins, but NOT FUNNY ENOUGH.” And then he would lift the screaming unworthy high and crack him open like a cold beer and drink him for the rest of the class.

Ah, what a memory. That mentality of life and death really stuck it to you that writing terrible books was unacceptable and those who enable bad writing should be drunk to death by a fly-headed literature teacher at a local, affordable community college.

For one lesson, this is what he told you, the last surviving member of the class. “Now my dear… eh… I can’t remember your name. eh… you must be careful about what weapons and fighting styles you give your characters…

Every story has a series of weapons, fighting styles and reasons for death that are congruent to the setting and plot. Medieval Peasants shouldn’t die to laser weapons, unless the story is an alien invasion of 13th century France. A 1930s grunt opposing a noir detective should be shot, not beheaded with a long sword, unless the fight is in a history museum, and the detective has no other choice. A man of the future can die to a laser sword, but unless there is a clear reason to use a ‘slug thrower’, gunpowder weapons should probably be avoided. A wizard who can be shot by a nine-millimeter is not much of a wizard at all.

Gunpowder is one of those inventions that changes everything it’s used in. Gunpowder revolutionized and changed war. Gunpowder made fireworks possible. Gunpowder kills medieval ideas on combat. This includes things like dragons, fairies, basilisks, minotaurs, some golems, rocs, cockatrices – which are the same things as basilisks but a different breed, really – chimeras, sphinxes… and so on. A world made with gunpowder must have reasons gunpowder just doesn’t wipe everyone who can’t use it out. Dragons have to have heavier plate or minotaurs impenetrable skin or whatever ridiculous ideas you have to make your world… ugh… unique or … HORK… SPECIAL. Your world has to change to gunpowder. The weapon becomes a part of the setting as much as something the characters use for it. As such, it’s a dangerous, double edged tool that can go against you or for you dependent on the skill at which you use it.

A badass space marine breaching a pirate cruiser with his trusty antique slug thrower is interesting… until you realize he’s just poking holes in every bulkhead and venting the precious O2 to space. It’s an awesome scene, just about every time, but there are costs and restrictions to it. How much ammo can the man carry? Can he carry only a few clips or magazines or whatever? Does he need a pouch for shells? Having a specific weapon, limiting your ammo, then acting like the ammo is unlimited until the dramatic moment is DRAMATIC… but it’ll anger anyone who knows how many bullets are in a clip and has counted how many bad guys have extraneous nostrils. No, while it can be explained, best to treat it carefully, than wantonly. Perhaps have the space marine start with a laser weapon, then move to his trusty, but limited side arm. YOU don’t want people to question why he isn’t using it from the beginning, after all.

When you commit to gunpowder, you commit to certain rules of engagement and scenes that may or may not change how it works with your plot. Your space marine or noir detective won’t change much at all, it’s very natural to that setting. But your fantasy world you’re working so hard on world building? You’re writing around gunpowder, not writing WITH gunpowder, nearly every time. Dragons with their scale-mail should be weak to piercing weapons shot at incredible speeds towards them. Dragons work only until the peasants figure out anti-aircraft guns, yes? Then it adds questions of weight and diet for those dragons… and WINGSPAN, delicate wings that are so large as to be unmissable…

Well, you say magic protects them. I say magic can be used to pierce their shields. Any world that arbitrarily doesn’t have magic that can pierce the in world shields isn’t a magic system worth reading about. Why this and not that, after all? Can’t I create a shield around the bullet and fire it towards the dragon? If amulets and magic rings exist, I can certainly enchant bullets! Fireballs hitting the armory, you say? Well that only works if the armory is reachable by fire and the wizards get past my own wizard shields, you see? It BROADENS your system, forces you to think around it. Gunpowder and wizards don’t mix for the simple reason that whatever the wizard does to protect himself can be countered by our hero having another wizard enchant his bullets as before! Any time a reader can say “Why doesn’t he just…” when it comes to these mechanics is a failure on your part to keep the disbelief suspended. Saying it’s expensive merely limits the amount of shot, NOT the actual creation of it. A single bullet is dramatic when you want to kill a werewolf, but a blunderbuss full of silverware from your mother will do damage by the simple weakness of silver, and so on. A reader isn’t going to keep reading if he can’t believe any of it!

Magic systems were already covered in class, pupil. You should know how to make a self-contained system of rules and regulations for both physics and the ethereal plains. Basically, if a magic system doesn’t have answers for both the mundane and the glorious, then it more akin to demon summoning or a religious miracle than actual magic. Some will is changing the result. Magic is the science of the supernatural, not some random whimsy made up by pink haired bimbos. Like our own physics, magics should stick to fairly universal and standard rules across all parts of it, so that at no point should some thing truly random happen just as at no point should gravity fail us and fling us into space. What’s more, if something should exist, it’s counter should exist as well, and not just fire and ice, pupil, but things like I mentioned earlier, an enchanted bullet that can pierce shields and so on. If a wizard has made it, another wizard has tried to murder someone with it and a third wizard has countered it. Every time. The thing about rules is that anyone can use them, even if it’s restricted to bloodlines. As the saying goes, if there are two guys left on the planet, one of them will try to bludgeon the other to death at the best opportunity. For kicks, mostly.

Similar to magic is science. It’s not like I understand it anyway, so it might as well be. All I know that it’s mostly a proper application of fire and various ground up rocks a geologist has licked for some forsaken reason. Now, I’m being sarcastic here. Science is far less understandable that most magic systems. This is a problem for many writers since they cannot get their heads out of their expansive butts long enough to correlate the two or create something vague enough that they can make it work. One can say that Uranium makes the Atom Bomb, but it’s a far different thing than understanding how Uranium makes the Atom Bomb, you understand? A reader doesn’t care why the eye of newt is important, it’s part of the set dressing. A witch is supposed to throw one into everything. Making a gag about ‘flavor’ is humorous and delightful to the reader if given proper gravitas. But Atom Bombs? Uranium? Those are quasi-known qualities. We can Goothex how to make an Atom Bomb, not that I recommend it. View on your magic tablet thing how it works. I’m sure you’d find a hundred videos detailing every minutiae.

Even if, given the need, a reader could not repair their explosion powered vehicle or change the viewscreen on his magic tablet or even forge a crowbar in a furnace, certain expectations are there because every reader will take their world with them. They wish to escape to a fantasy world, but, without a good reason, violating our worlds laws in a realm where our physics laws reign supreme… well that’s just bad writing. There should be a reality to your stories the reader can understand, or accept the new rules of. It’s why many stories have a ‘hidden world’ it’s easier to make the reader accept the new rules. However, if gravity still tugs us down, it should do the same to your protagonist and so on.

With Germs and other genetic plagues or weapons, it is the same as above. We might understand that one breeds the desired traits into the microscopic bugs, but beyond that is a mystery to everyone who hasn’t studied it in greater depth. My sister, Vitiligo, is a doctor and the two of us have many wonderful conversations about the guts of naga and the back bones of Valkyries and the skin problems of minotaurs and so on. I may know more than you, pupil, but Vitiligo knows still more, so it behooves me to work with her to create better and deeper worlds. So for germs, do the research, don’t just copy some other author who did it before you and probably better than you ever could. Germ warfare is long-term, indiscriminate and should lead to large death tolls. It could lead to zombies, but zombies are a tired vehicle for conflict. Besides, the people are more interesting.

Now every writer usually has a phase where the main character finds an ancestral sword and uses it to vanquish villains. Now, done properly, this is an ‘eternal’ trope. The heirloom blade never dulls in the minds of readers and writers alike. It is excellent, valued and always comforting, yet an top-tier vehicle for violent conflict resolution. What a fun diversion to take the sword back from the giant who has it or sneak it back from a castle. What delight when the hero clashes once more with the villain and every bit of character development to grow worthy of a fabled blade is paying off! Done well, an ancestral blade gives an ‘edge’ to your hero and makes him part of a chain and not just a stand alone man.

Done poorly it can seem trite or obvious, but is not game breakingly offensive, usually. Subverted, the ancestral blade is worthless or, worst than that, has an annoying personality. ‘Hi I’m a fairy with an annoying voice and dumb speech patterns who lives in your sword for no reason.’ how… disgusting! It’s a blade that stabs people, it shouldn’t have an innocent personality. Do you know how MESSED UP THAT IS, pupil? To have an innocent sword, teach it death is evil, then stab people with it! I don’t care how funny it sounds, it’s just not right! It’s not entertaining, it’s horrific! The ancestral blade is a beefy trope and is padded to take punishment, but it can go wrong if the writer decides to be a clever clogs or super cute with it.

We still have a few minutes, so we’ll talk about steel and iron. Iron against fairies is a classic staple of literature and Damascus steel is fabled in our own world. Using either as a short hand for some goal is a valuable tool, provided, like with ancestral swords, you show respect to the source material and to the rules of the setting. Iron hurting fairies works, but can be over powered and force the writer to contrive that the iron is lost before it unravels the plot. The same with materials, Damascus steel, meteor iron and other awesome metals can be a great spice to any plot, but overpowered main character hurts tension and can cause the reader to assume the character will make it out of whatever trouble they’re in. This won’t keep them interested in the story. Over many books, the writer will become lazy and use it as a shortcut, or just ignore other parts of the world it depends on, since the writer hopes the readers are lazy too. And they are, but in different ways to writers. If a certain sword/steel/whatever is needed to slay a dragon, then it should be as hard to get as the dragon is hard to kill. It should feel like it’s worth something, and the conflict to get it is now justified with the meteor in the dwarven blacksmith’s hands.

Ah, the sound of the screams of the un-tenured damned means class is over for now. I expect you to show up again the next class period, where I will discuss… SETTINGS… I expect a willing, attentive pupil.

And then Scrofula shrunk into a cube and then sat there. You left after five minutes of being cube. It was PARTICULARLY odd.