by Wanderer Werewolf
©2009 Wanderer Werewolf

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   In fiction of any stripe, it can be difficult to properly distinguish the various races within the limits of your format. In games, you’re working in several-hour spoken performances; in fiction, you’re limited by page count. Few indeed are the readers who want a multi-page discussion of a race’s æsthetics shoved into the middle of their paperback. Because of this, it’s best to keep art and its works on the sidelines, so as not to distract or detract from the action. Although, as Michael Dorn could tell you, sometimes these references can take on a life of their own…
   We’ll take the arts singly: Music first, then Literature, before rounding off with the Graphic Arts. Again, these will mostly be flavor in your campaign, but remember: Klingon Opera started as a throwaway gag on Star Trek: The Next Generation. And whatever the art-form, one must always strive to make it A Good Fit to the rest of the story and setting.


   Music, in some respects, can typify a race or location. Piano-accordions typify Italian music; Great Bagpipes, the Scottish; uillean pipes, the Irish. But because of this variety, it’s very hard to do much with fictional music that hasn’t been done in reality, and stealing (at least when blatant) can distract the reader or player by jarring his suspension of disbelief.
   The simplest (and thus most common) way around this is to… well, to blatantly steal. Klingon Opera, for instance, is almost directly derived from ‘ordinary’ opera, while Leonard Nimoy himself wrote the Vulcan tunes heard on the Original Series. But when you steal well, and appropriately, the readers and players will generally give you a pass. Klingons, with their warrior-centered culture and rowdy ways, make a good fit for opera’s overblown emotions and declaractions of love, death, and honor. Vulcans made a good fit for Nimoy’s intricate, wordless lyre tunes, with complexity and little emotion. (It helps to decide on a parallel, so you can steal consistently. Haven’t we all used Celtic tunes for elves?)
   The second (and much harder) option is to describe the music while leaving it unheard. This is less visceral, but much shorter; the problem is coming up with new descriptions all the time, and trying not to re-use old ones. If you describe both Dwarven and Orcish music as ‘guttural’, there’s bound to be some confusion. Even so, if you can handle the variety and memorization, go for it; you’ll be able to describe modes and types of music that don’t exist in the real world.
   In stealing or describing, however, keep in mind the first rule: A Good Fit. While it might be funny to have elves singing Wagner and dwarves dancing jigs, playing against type is only funny a few times. To draw a furry parallel, social species such as wolves should have multi-part songs, while solitary species like bears wouldn’t have much opportunity for them. (Cats can go either way.)
   Two important notes on species music, though:

  1. Don’t lock yourself into a single type of music. Klingon Opera got only a few mentions over four series (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and Enterprise) because it was, pardon the pun, a ‘one-note’ affair. Yet we know from the same series that Klingons also have love poetry, death chants, and battle songs. As much as you avoid “It was raining on Mongo that day”, you should also avoid locking down an entire race to a single type of music.
  2. Don’t forget to make it relevant to the species. This not only harks back to our senses discussion some columns back (elephants would have a great bass line, but only they could hear it), but also to matters of culture; the French are famed for songs about love and sex, the Germans are famed for marches, the Spanish are famed for dances and the Italians are famed for opera. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing else, but only that these are the most famous types of music from those areas. This can, of course, cause humor when stereotype meets fact…
       Of course there are Elven marches! You don’t think we sing about flowers and trees when we march off to war, do you?”
       “What do you mean, ‘Since when do Dwarves write love songs?’”
       And remember the wolves’ multi-part songs? Notice I didn’t mention harmony; wolf packs practice a discordant fugue style in reality, to make them sound louder and bigger by creating more notes.

   Finally, don’t forget that just about every culture has music, even when they don’t have much else. No matter how primitive, every culture has discovered rhythm and tone and used them for their own purposes. Admittedly, your players might not enjoy that gnollish tune so much when they find out the words translate as “Take one human, skin and bone/Roast on fire ’til he’s done…” but that’s music for you. (If you think I’m kidding, check out the words to the French national anthem, La Marseillaise: “Against us from the tyrant/The bloodstained banner is raised/The bloodstained banner is raised!/Fight their ferocious soldiers!/They come to slit our throats/And those of our sons and companions!”)


   Because it requires writing and leisure time, only the Big Three of fantasy races ever get much literature attributed to them. Most other races are busy with hunting, fishing and raiding settlements, after all.
   But just because it mostly shows up in modern and science-fiction settings is no reason to ignore it. Remember, literature started as tales told around a campfire, and those crop up in every species with an imagination. Orcs and gnolls might not write it down, but they likely have creation myths, legends, and hero stories. (Much like Native American hero stories, however, they’re not for every audience. Just as the Cherokee tend not to talk about how they beat the Shawnee within the hearing of any Chickasaw (who were involved as well), humans probably won’t appreciate the story of Bone-eater, the gnoll who ate an entire village by himself.)
   The first rule of fictional fiction (hello, recursiveness) is to center it around the interests of the writing culture. French fiction centers around love, romance, sex and the lives of the beautiful. German fiction centers around society, loyalty and bravery. Japanese fiction centers around society, loyalty and obedience. (American fiction is something of a catch-all, by comparison: We write about everything.) This isn’t to say they’re about nothing else; Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame had beautiful architecture (Hugo’s trademark) and a study of social injustice. But love (Quasimodo) and sex (Frollo) were still center stage. Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera has the lament of the lower class, a love story (of sorts) and a near-hanging… but society, loyalty and bravery are still the focus.
   That’s right: Theatre is also a form of literature. After all, the Booger Dances of the Southwest are blatant references to the ancient raids on Indian villages by white settlers, and there’s no arguing they’re theatrical in nature. (The ‘Booger’ has a white face, a fat belly, and a long beard and moustache. He kills the braves, steals and rapes the women, and destroys the village. As the Indians have been known to put it, “When you do it, it’s called a ‘victory’. When someone else does it, it’s called a ‘massacre’.” Reporting bias is nothing new.)
   The funny part of it is, this also applies to comedy: A society’s deepest interests greatly affect their humor. In the first written version of Beauty and the Beast, the French authoress makes a mildly ribald joke with regard to the Beast undergoing the then-fashionable “wedding night shaving”, and how many barbers it would take. In the German Tailor of Kopenick (more famous to American audiences as The Inspector General, starring Danny Kaye), the German near-awe of the military and the goverment is openly mocked. And Americans… well, our humor centers on everybody else. The classic American play, Our American Cousin, by Tom Taylor, was performed when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated; it mercilessly skewers British stereotypes, from Lord Dundreaery (a lisping, slightly insane aristocrat) to a whole corps of Cockney servants, dropping their ‘aitches’ left and right. The American comes out on top, yes… but even he comes in for some skewering as a Vermont Yankee.
   That brings us to the two rules of imaginary literature:

  1. Remember the interests of the intended public.
  2. Keep in mind the structure.

   The first rule is an old one: Compare the Gospel of Mark (published for Roman readers) with Matthew (published for Jewish readers) and Luke (written in the Greek style by a physician). Mark shows off the miracles and uses flowery language; Matthew shows off the parables and sayings; Luke focuses on healings.
   For non-human races, this means keeping in mind what they like. The doglike Cani of the World Tree RPG possess a highly-structured society; they have stories about conficting loyalties, devotion to one’s pack, and rising and falling in status. The insect-like Herethroy of the same setting have a strict, caste-structured society; their plays and stories are about love across caste lines, obedience to society’s rules, and the fate of the out-caste. And that’s before you get into scent cues and tail postures… like facial expressions, you don’t have to have them in writing, but they do help.
   The second rule is about as old, if not older. Most European literature is built around an act structure, a series of discrete sections; you can readily divide most books and plays into First Act, Second Act, and Third Act. (In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for example, the first act ends after Bilbo leaves the inn with the dwarves; the second act, after they escape from the halls of the Elven King; and the third act, with the big battle. The rest is epilogue.)
   American literature, by contrast, often doesn’t observe the act structure as strictly. Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is hard to divide up without drawing arbitrary lines in the middle of chapters, while Spider Robinson is episodic. Mark Twain, by comparison, gives lip service to the act structure… but his acts are of wildly varying lengths.
   In fantasy, this means to keep it short as a rule. Ancient books couldn’t get too long without being divided up into volumes, and those tended to be ‘work to order’ for a patron. Work for the masses would be going on scrap paper, so kept short… unless it was a play or other such performance. (This may vary depending on the outlook of the race. Since elves live for centuries, they may consider a long book—well, ‘long’ by the standards of short-lived humans—to be ‘light reading’.) If it’s oral, look for repetition and alliteration, any tools to make it easier to remember. Oral histories are passed down through centuries; any excess is smoothed away by the passage of time, and any clumsy parts get rewritten to make it easier on the bard. There’s a reason we have collections of dirty limericks from the Renaissance, folks…
   In modern and science fiction, structure is less of a limit; with data chips, movies, and recordings, structure becomes a type instead. ‘Adjust’ the act structure to your idea of how the race would use it, and don’t be afraid to experiment… as long as you remain consistent.

Graphic Arts

   This is where things get interesting, yes. The same sort of general focus that shows up in literature is present in almost all of the graphic arts. People draw what interests them, sculpt what interests them. (I know two gay furry artists that draw almost nothing but muscular male characters, so it’s not like I’m making this up as I go along.) In fact, any image or concept that can appear in literature can appear in the graphic arts. There’s a reason a picture is worth a thousand words, you know.
   Where race and society come in is the scale and subject matter. Italy, for example, focuses tightly on sculpture, and has since the Renaissance; France prefers intimate paintings, and has a fondness for miniatures. Germany, by contrast, tends toward the monumental in sculpture and art; Durer’s woodcuts were impressive in detail, and modern German works still tend to the large end of the range. (Dietrick Klinge, whose works were exhibited in Grand Rapids, MI last year, is a fair example; his work tends to the life-size bronze of 4-5 feet tall.)
   Science fiction, with more outlandish materials than fantasy, can be fascinating in this regard. Niven’s Known Space setting features the Kdatlyno, a race that sees by sonar; their sculptures aren’t much to look at, but touching them is another story! Not to mention the Trinocs, a three-eyed race whose paintings are… well… a bit unsettling to two-eyed sentients. (Airsick bags available by the entrance for those too sensitive to visual stimuli.)
   The best rule, again, is a Good Fit: Dwarves carve stone, so sculpture is likely to be high on their art priorities. Elves, with traditional woodland dwellings, would favor tapestry and painting, using the materials around them. The Cani from World Tree ‘paint’ with scent as much as with pigment. Gnolls could have fur-painting, orcs could have tattoos… it all depends on what seems to fit the culture as you understand it.
   Now that we’ve reached the end of these guidelines…what can all of this do for you?

   The truly artistic among you may be considering creating your own music, literature and art for your works. To this I say:
   Go for it! Seriously—if you want to try your hand at gnollish folktunes, Elven ballads or the blues stylings of genetically-engineered wolves, go right ahead. Write your Elvish epic, your Vulcan play. I can’t tell you how to do it in this column, but you likely don’t need my help if you’re already thinking about it. Just be prepared for it to get away from you even faster and harder than the works they never hear—not that being popular is a bad thing, right?

   Next time, I’ll have a look at cultures and how they’re represented in fiction and reality. Including that ever-popular stock character, the Intellectual Prig. (They’re very popular… to laugh at.) Until next time!

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