March 28, 2011

sims medieval and fantasy writing

I pre-ordered Sims Medieval ages ago, and just got it in this weekend. I spent all of yesterday – and I mean from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm – playing Watcher over my kingdom. The game is fantastic. It took all of my expectations, which were really high, and surpassed them tenfold. If you are a lover of RPGs and Sims, then you should buy it… right now. Warning: you will get addicted.

But as I guided my promiscuous knight through the bedchambers of the king, and watched as friendships died due to the bard’s philandering ways, I thought about fantasy writing. Yes, I always go back to writing. It’s amazing that video games do this to me.

With Sims Medieval, the player is the Watcher, synonymous with God. You guide your heroes on quests and watch as chaos rises and as order returns. At the very essence, you dictate what the characters do, what quests they go on, who they woo, and whether they are greedy or chivalrous. Just like a writer builds their characters. As writers, we make the characters go on quests, we dictate who their love interest will be, and we define their characteristics from the very beginning. Sims Medieval captures that faithfully. But even more so, the characters are alive. When I’m guiding the bard instead of the physician, the other characters go on about their business, eating, sleeping, and attending their duties without my assistance. Can the same be said about the characters in books? It seems that most beginning writers concentrate solely on the main character, and maybe two or three others. Any character outside of this importance sphere just stops existing when they are no longer part of the action at hand. They live to serve the purpose of the main characters. As a result of realizing this, I’m going to make it my duty to involve secondary and even tertiary characters in their own plots, their own stories, even if those stories never make it to the page. I think this will keep non-main characters from feeling like flat, cardboard cutouts, and who knows, someday, I might tell their story.

This brings me to another realization while playing Sims Medieval. In most – nearly all – fantasy set stories, the main character is someone of great importance, or they amount to someone of great importance: a missing heir, a prince, a great warrior, a king, vanquisher of the dark lord, etc. The story boasts of an ordinary character, when in all reality, the character is everything but. Yes, I think the most fun characters to play as in Sims Medieval are the knight, king, and spy, just as the most fun characters to write are the ones who accomplish great deeds. They have the most power, the most influence. Their quests tend toward epic traditions. But what about the bard, the blacksmith, the physician, the merchant, or the priest? They have stories too, sometimes more exciting stories, of secret lovers, supplying the foolish adventurers with weapons, fighting the plague through medicine, sitting behind the counter as gold lines their pockets, or failing to convert unbelievers. They may not save the kingdom, or they may, and they may not do anything of note as far as history books go, but they lived too. They lived, and breathed, and they had their own quests throughout life, so why not honor them? Why not tell their stories? When is the last time you read a traditional fantasy novel that didn’t involve princes, dark lords, or mysterious orphans? When is the last time you read a fantasy story that didn’t deal with a war or a conspiracy or a prophecy? I don’t think I have ever read such a story. Please, point them out to me.

I love writing traditional fantasy, but it’s true that the genre has fallen into a regurgitation of tropes, turning them into clichés. I think it’s time the truly ordinary got a bit of page time. No mysterious orphans or prophecies or dark lords… just ordinary people. I want to read about an innkeeper’s son, a court physician, a bard, a servant in the royal court, a medieval housewife… etc. Because, just as they are in Sims Medieval, these characters have stories, even if they aren’t as grandiose as that of an orphan turned king who vanquishes the dark lord (in a figurative sense, nearly all fantasy type stories follow this pattern). Stand up for the common man.

And seriously, point me out to traditional fantasy novels that don’t have the usual tropes. I want to read them.


  1. Love this post! I'm not a gamer, but my son is. Is this in any way like Runescape or WoW?

    What I liked best about your post is the idea that we need to make sure our secondaries have lives that continue off screen. I think this is one aspect that made JK Rowling's world so rich -- so many of her characters had their own thing going, apart from Harry.

  2. Very nice post.
    I'm not a fan of Sims, I play Guild 2, Settlers VI, etc. but I'm seriously considering giving this one a try, because of the medieval thing. And I like the idea about the innkeeper's son, the court's physician etc., except that they have to achieve something more than their ordinary life towards the end of a story.

    Have fun with the game :)

  3. You make a lot of good points in this post. I have always adored books that flesh out the secondary characters. I like to know their desires, fears and ordinary happenings. It adds so many different layers to the novel. I have no recommendations for you right now, but I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for a fantasy that will do away with cliches and bring in some new element that discusses the "ordinary."

    Great post!

  4. Good points there. I like Sims Medieval too... and yes, the stories of ordinary people could be fun to read for a change.

    Tolkien's Lord of the Rings might count - Frodo was never a king, knight or anything like that - just a simple little hobbit. And he stays that way, just like his uncle (whose story is told in the Hobbit).

    The Riftwar saga that has a Blacksmith and a Merchant as main heroes... even though the blacksmith's mother insists that his father is a prince, it's nothing but annoyance (and a possible danger) to him. Once the story goes on, it doesn't matter at all and hardly bares a mention. The merchant serves as secondary character at first, but gets his own story later.

    And there's another long story starting with Assassin's Apprentice - the main character is a son of a prince who grows up in the stables, and is truly more of a servant. The title tells what he really is taken in for...

    Or a story about greek deities brought to modern day like Percy Jackson? Being a son of a god is not special if most of your friends have godly parents, too...

    1. You're spot on with a lot of those suggestions :)
      I think that's why I loved The Hobbit so much. Bilbo didn't want to go on an adventure, but he was thrown into it because of Gandalf's manipulating and his own need to be a good host to guests. :P

      I'll have to check out the Riftwar Saga. I've heard about it, but I haven't read it yet. Same with Assassin's Apprentice.

      Thanks for the comment. :)