Fate Aspects – Stealing Story-Telling Tools from an RPG

Fate-Core-CoverEvoking place isn’t always easy in fiction. You can get hung up on the details at the expense of the overall image, or not show enough to make the place distinctive. Based on the recommendation of another writer, I’ve been thinking about how to use tools from the Fate roleplaying game to do this better.

Fate is a tabletop role-playing game, like Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS, except that it’s very different from those two. It turns the game into an act of collaborative storytelling, with more description and cooperation in place of the turn-taking adventures and numbers-based mechanics of many RPGs.

Fate is built around aspects – words and phrases that describe characters, places, objects, and events. A character might have aspects such as “Owes Jo his life” or “Master swordsman”, and if they can show how these are relevant to the story they gain an advantage. Similarly, places can have aspects, things like “noisy”, “dilapidated”, or “owned by the Triad”, just two or three aspects that get to the essence of the place.

I’m starting to use this as a way of thinking about places in stories. If when I’m first defining a place I decide that its aspects are “made of ancient oak” and “full of tribbles”, that tells me a lot without a great deal of planning. I can then use descriptive details to evoke those aspects, and as long as I don’t contradict myself in the details, I’m likely to create a place that is evocative but not bogged down in minutiae. The aspects also give me something to go back to whenever I need to add a new detail. Doors are made of more ancient wood, and the nails holding them together must be equally old, rust spreading from them to stain the wood. When a character opens a previously unexplored cupboard, tribbles will probably fall out. Maybe dead tribbles that have been left in that ancient space too long. If there are insects here, maybe they’re oak-boring worms or fleas living on tribbles.

I’m not saying that this is the ultimate solution to getting setting right, but for now it’s helping me.

Aspects: luxurious, deserted, secret naughty stains - it's all connected.
Aspects: luxurious, deserted, secret naughty stains – it’s all connected.

5 Reasons to Use Real Places in Fantasy

I recently ghost wrote a fantasy story set in a real British city. As I sat googling buildings and street maps instead of making them up – my usual approach to fantasy – it got me thinking about why using real places can be useful in otherwise unreal genres.

1. Inspiration

Welcome to Nrwich, A Fine City, as the sign says. Photo by fernando butcher via Flickr creative commons
Welcome to Norwich, A Fine City, as the sign says.
Photo by fernando butcher via Flickr creative commons

Like reading about history, society or science, spending time learning about a place can inspire interesting things to put into your story. My story ‘Cousin Isaac is Missing‘ gained its geographical details from my own knowledge of Norwich, and while that might seem a small thing in a flash story, I wouldn’t even have thought to write that story if I hadn’t grown up there.

2. Authenticity

Something doesn't look quite real. Photo by normanack via Flickr creative commons
Something doesn’t look quite real.
Photo by normanack via Flickr creative commons

Those details that provide inspiration can also add to the sense of reality and authenticity in a story. Even in fantasy, we want the places we write about to feel real to the readers, and that’s easier to do if they’re actually real.

3. Consistency

Wait, this wall was made of bricks two chapters ago.
Wait, this wall was made of bricks two chapters ago.

If you aren’t consistent then readers will notice. In an invented world you’re likely to remember or make a note of the important details. But will you remember the colour of the gates to the castle? Because if you get that mixed up, a reader will notice. Whereas if you’re looking at a photo of a real place, you won’t make that mistake.


4. People Like to Read About Familiar Places

Look, I can see my house from here!
Look, I can see my house from here!

What’s that you say, that’s a stupid reason? Science fiction and fantasy readers want to read about imaginary worlds?

Well, yes, they do. But they also pay attention to their own surroundings. If a story in the news is about your home town you’re more likely to read it. If a novel features the obscure village where you spent your gap year herding wildebeests, you’re going to be curious about the way it’s portrayed.

We like familiar things, and we like to see them transformed. Make somebody’s home town magical, and that could turn them into one of your readers.

5. Rounding Out the Setting

Boss, why do we have to keep imagining that wall?
Boss, why do we have to keep imagining that wall?

When writing a fictional setting, the only details that exist for readers are the ones you put on the page. If the place is real, then readers who’ve heard of it, or better still been there, will fill in blanks from their own knowledge. Like authenticity and consistency, this makes the place seem more real, and can absorb the reader more thoroughly in your world.

What Are the Drawbacks?

I’ve talked about the advantages, but what are the drawbacks of using a real place? Let me know in the comments.

And if you’d like to read some work where the real and the unreal cross over, my short collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is free as a Kindle ebook all this week.