A way with worlds: 34 – The Odds by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

A bit of news: Way With Worlds is being translated into German at Christian Spliess’s Page. Go and check it out!

And now, on with our regular column:

Three figures lurked in a dark alcove in Castle Cragmore.

They fit together like an strange puzzle: one was burly human with shoulders like rocks. Another was a slender elf, his face and body ethereal and thin. The third was a black-bearded dwarf with a body that reminded one of a clenched fist.

“I find this quite disturbing,” the human said elegantly. His accent was clipped and very prpper, with diction so sharp you could cut wood with it.

The dwarf rolled his eyes. “I swear, could you try to act like a barbarian, Guthar?”

“Hush,” The elf spat, waving his long-fingered hand at his short companion, “You met his mother. I can’t believe my sister is marrying you, Coalsbeard. Now, how do we get into this place?”

“I suggest,” whispered Guthar, “We apprehend those three fellows and take their uniforms.”

Elf, dwarf, and human focused on three guards. One was large, one thin, one quite short – perhaps even half-dwarven.

“Ah,” Coalsbeard rubbed his thick hands together, “Everyone expects people to knock out the guards and dress like them from legends, but no one actually checks, do they . . .”

OK, what seems odd about the above story?

We have an oddly matched couple of classic fantasy races – but we can accept that. There’s even an odd chemistry.
We have a cultured barbarian, but a hint as to why he’s cultured.
We have an elf marrying a dwarf – but the characters can accept it, so it must be OK.
We even acknowledge that the classic “take-the-guards’ uniforms” routine is old and tired.
But . . . what are the odds of finding three people with the same sizes of clothes as our heroes?

In this case, the writer had people against the odds – but then went and stomped all over believable probability. Odds are important in your world and thus in your stories – and easy to forget. Forgetting what is likely in your world is a quick way to make your writing unbelievable and your world irrelevant.

WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
You may even have the numbers in your worlds – population of a country, cost in gold coins to buy a horse, etc. But numbers reveal more than costs or fill a census.

Do you know the odds for events in your world? Even common ones?

Take a look at your setting and ask:

What is the chance a person will be of a particular race?
What percentage of people in your setting can read?
How many people in your setting are unemployed?
What is the distribution of genders in your setting?
Now you may not know the answers. You may not need to know. But if your stories touched on these issues they could be vital:

In a world of multiple races, the odds someone will be a race would affect how they may be viewed, their chance of being alone in a crowd, etc.
In a world with low literacy a literate person is valuable.
In a world with high unemployment there may be increased crime – and who says all your main characters have jobs?
In a radical distribution of genders, a culture’s attitude toward reproduction could be different than what we’re used to.

Knowing the chance for things to happen in your world is important to writing, because knowing probabilities gives pattern and meaning to your world. A character who is more powerful than average will be able to do more. A vehicle that is much faster than average may prove an advantage, or if its a rare technology, be the target of theft. A rare weapon will call attention to its wielder.

Knowing the odds also keeps you from piling on improbabilities as well as lets you give your readers a reference. When you note a feat is nearly impossible, the reader may be impressed and enthralled. When several of these impossible feats happen with no explanation, the reader is likely to be depressed and appalled.

Besides, if your characters are fighting against all odds, it’s nice to know what those odds are.

CHARACTERS’ IDEAS ABOUT THE ODDS:
How characters perceive the odds is another important element of knowing how common occurrences, actions, and appearances are.

I once was involved in a study entering data on a study of how humans perceived and reacted to odds. It was not strictly mathematical – people react to odds not by simple calculation but by assumption, by payoffs involved, by perception, and so forth.

Have you ever heard people talk about a particular group (one they were most likely biased against) and how much power they had – though this group was a tiny and disliked minority? Did you want to ask them how that was possible (or more impolitely if they knew how stupid they sounded). That’s a case of people not seeing the odds, but seeing their biases.

This produces an odd dichotomy in writing – you may well have a better idea of the odds of things happening, but your characters are likely not to be doing simple mathematical analyses of situations. You’ve got to figure out how they perceive and react to the odds as they see them.

So a bigoted fantasy dwarf may see elven conspiracy everywhere, even though there’s no elves for hundreds of miles. Someone may fear catching an exceedingly rare disease due to hypochondria, but have a nasty drug habit that’s sure to harm them because they need the high.

Of course, the actual odds may well catch up with such characters – and that can be a major part of your plot. In fact, its a classic element in stories that many characters, especially antagonists, keep dodging the odds, not thinking that they’ll eventually catch up with them. A hero may sacrifice himself knowing full well he’ll suffer because of the odds.

HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?
I usually find the answer to this question is “enough to write and feel comfortable with the world.” Yes, I’ve said it before in other columns – and I find it stands here to.

As for finding the odds – that’s up for hard work, contemplation, and research. You can probably make better guesses than you realize, but don’t go yanking ideas out of thin air with no backing.

Always write your research and findings down. There’s no excuse to keep your hard work stored in your head where it may get misfiled.

SUMMARY:
Know the basic and important odds of your world and how your characters perceive them – it will help you write more realistically and write your characters more realistically as well.

A Way with Worlds is hosted at fanfiction.net,lit.org, and sffworld.com.
A German translation is in the works at 
Christian Spliess’s Page
It is archived at the
 Way With Worlds archive.

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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