Posts Tagged ‘RPG’

When I first heard that FFXV was going to break with franchise tradition by having an all-male central team, I was more than a little surprised. Final Fantasy has always been distinguished as much by its memorable – and central – female characters as by any other element; which is why, somewhat paradoxically, I never felt particularly angry about the switch, either. As a whole, video games are still male-dominated in a way that frequently sets my teeth on edge, but Final Fantasy has a strong line of credit with me: whatever my thoughts on the state of gaming as an industry – and while criticism of Square Enix’s decision in this context is nonetheless valid – I felt I could still attempt the game itself.

Thus far, at roughly eight hours in – which is, I’m aware, not very far at all – I’m enjoying myself immensely, though possibly not in a way that was intended. And in order to satisfactorily explain why that is, I first need to say a little about my history with the franchise.

The first Final Fantasy I ever played was VIII, which always made me something of an oddity among my friends: unlike everyone who started the series at VII or earlier, I had no established sense of how the combat system ought to work, and so took the VIII model, which was a widely-hated departure from canon, as my yardstick for the series. This meant I was not only frustrated by the traditional setup used in VII and IX, but irritated by the more cartoonish character designs. Which isn’t to say that I disliked either game, exactly: just that they were always less beloved to me than VIII and, later on, X and XII, whose advanced graphics and combat systems more closely resembled what VIII had been trying – with, admittedly, more ambition than success – to achieve.

Even now, XII remains my favourite Final Fantasy. The writing and voice acting were both incredible, and even though Vaan, rather than Ashe, was the POV character, I loved the departure from canon that made him a non-romantic participant in her narrative. By contrast, XIII was a clusterfuck, so much so that I quickly set it aside as unplayable: the writing was naff, the voice acting melodramatic (with the single exception of Sazh), the premise confused and the combat frustratingly garbled. I couldn’t understand how the best aspects of XII had been so thoroughly disregarded, and as such, I never bothered with the sequel, which makes XV the first new Final Fantasy I’ve played since 2010.

Aesthetically, then, XV is paying a great deal of homage to my favourite games in the series – VIII and XII – which predisposes me to love it. The opening premise of an invading empire and a missing heir to the throne is evocative of both Galbadia and Archadia, with Noctis’s early quest to recover lost weapons from ancient tombs running a close parallel to Ashe’s quest in XII. The fact that Noctis, Prompto, Ignis and Gladio spend the game driving around in a sports car might seem ridiculous on the surface, especially if you’ve got a preference for the airships of VII, IX and XII, but only if you’ve forgotten the convertibles and jeeps of VIII, where driving on the worldmap was also a feature, and where fancy cars were a staple of the more dramatic cutscenes.

In fact, there’s always been something of a roadtrip vibe to a lot of the Final Fantasy games, and not only in terms of the main party journeying thither and yon across multiple fictional worlds. The many flashbacks to Lord Braska’s pilgrimage in X show him broing it up with Auron and Jecht (to whom Gladio bears more than a superficial physical and vocal resemblance), while their decision to sphere-capture their adventures is a clear forerunner to Prompto’s photography. VIII didn’t lack for female characters, but the initial SEED test features a grumpily all-male party, with Squall, Zell and Seifer forced into a temporary alliance. Squall and Zell were always something of an odd pair, but delightfully so, and their dynamic has been revived – and, I’d argue, improved – in the byplay between Noctis and Prompto. Likewise, Ignis’s dry drawl and dryer expression are more than a little reminiscent of Balthier, though his dutiful priorities make him a closer equivalent to Auron and Basch.

In other words, the four protagonists of XV are themselves a homage to the male relationships of previous Final Fantasy games, and quite clearly so. Together, they interact much as you’d expect of a quartet of twentysomething men, joking and snarking at each other in equal measure. The writing and voice acting aren’t as good as XII, but they’re nowhere near the abysmal mess of XIII. I’d peg them as being on par with X: naff at times, but somehow endearingly so, and overall engaging. Granted, the background plot is complex – it helps to have watched the prequel movie, Kingsglaive, and there’s also an accompanying anime series – but part of what makes the quartet watchable is how clearly established their friendship is: we’re getting to know the characters by how they know each other.

As far as the gameplay and levelling systems go, I’ve got no complaints thus far. Even without being able to run through the full tutorial for fighting – my version kept glitching when it came to learning how to warp – I’ve still found it intuitive to use. It’s a dissimilar combat system to most FF games, in that it’s not turn-based, but neither is it as blindingly fast-paced or poorly-designed as the system used in XIII, and the ability to warp to targets makes for some engaging tactical options. It helps that I’ve just come off a huge Dragon Age: Inquisition jag: my preferred approach to combat in both games can best be described as “running in headfirst with a large sword and hitting things until they fall down,” with magic and projectile weapons left on auto until or unless I’m specifically forced to use them. Players who favour different tactics might have more complaints to level here, but for my purposes, it works just fine.

But what I’m really loving about XV is the extent to which – I assume unintentionally – it’s both hilarious and heavily queercoded.

I’ll deal with the latter first, because it’s arguably the more contentious point. Let me be clear: I’m not for one second giving Square Enix props for deliberately creating queer representation here, because I don’t think for a second that it’s what they actually meant to do – or at least, if they’re trying to muddle vaguely in that direction, then they haven’t had the guts to confirm it. Culturally, the lines we draw been homosocial and homosexual behaviour tend to be as historically arbitrary as they are fiercely policed, with any overlap subject to argument on both sides. But cultural differences is, I suspect, a large part of why XV reads the way it does: the game is originally Japanese, and in trying to cater to both Japanese and Western masculine ideals, Square Enix has wandered into what plays as a rather spectacularly queer compromise.

First and most obviously, there’s the wardrobe issue. Clearly, the all-black leather aesthetic is meant to look Manly and Cool and Deeply Heterosexual In A Traditionally Masculine Way, and if the designs were simple, functional and militaristic, then that would probably work, even given the youth and beauty of the characters (more of which shortly). But Final Fantasy, like a great many Japanese properties, is famous for its distinctive clothing designs, which means the characters look less like soldiers and more like scene kids en route to a metal concert. Specifically: Noctis and Prompto look like they shop at Hot Topic, Ignis is wearing Cuban heeled boots, driving gloves and seme glasses (seriously) and Gladio consistently looks like he’s posing for a Grindr photo. Like. I’m aware that he’s meant to be the most hypermasculine  straight male self-identification fantasy of the four, what with the scar and the tattoos and the devastatingly Japanese mullet, but generally speaking, ripped guys in open leather shirts and tight leather pants are more visually reminiscent of Mardi Gras than the military. I’m just saying.

The fact that you can customise their outfits (to a degree), and that picking a new wardrobe changes their stats, isn’t a new development: in fact, it’s something the franchise first introduced with dress spheres in the all-female X-2, which makes its presence in the all-male XV a subtly pleasing symmetry. And yet it runs up against a standard of masculine gaming: changing your armour is one thing, because armour is Manly, but changing your clothes – which, stat bonuses or not, is what we’re functionally talking about – is something else entirely. It’s a truly strange demarcation, because there are plenty of instances where video game characters change outfits of their own accord, in cutscenes or for plot-specific purposes, or where the change represents a specific, all-over upgrade. But the option to alter the appearance of male characters for largely aesthetic reasons – to change how they look to you, the player, in clothes that are recognisably modern and fashionable – is not, I suspect, a common feature of games aimed at heterosexual men, nor is the in-game implication of the characters toting around a bunch of fancy matching outfits a particularly straight-coded thing.

And, okay. Even though we queer folk often telegraph our identities through fashion, there’s a degree of reductive stereotype inherent in judging sexuality on the basis of clothing choice, and if that were the only issue here, I wouldn’t have brought it up. (Except, of course, to point out the truly delightful ridiculousness of watching four goth boys run around the countryside in full club gear, often while complaining about the temperature. It’s like they’re headed for Glastonbury with monsters.) But the queercoding of XV is a package deal: it’s not just the clothes, but the clothes in combination with the characters themselves, the dialogue they’re given, and the way the four of them occupy the game.

Specifically: Final Fantasy is a gaming franchise that’s well aware, historically speaking, of its very large female fanbase. Even though the majority of the games have male protagonists, they’ve traditionally been designed for a straight female gaze – and more, I would argue, a teenage female gaze, given that the characters are usually in their teens or very early twenties – in line with aesthetics more Japanese than Western. Former heroes like Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus and Vaan might be formidable warriors in-game, but they’re never beefed up: they’re overwhelmingly built lean, with much longer, more stylised hair than you typically see on masculine Western characters. They wear jewellery – often visible in their base character designs, and not just as a hidden accessory slot – and offhand, aside from various weird lines around Cloud crossdressing in VII, I can’t think of any real instances of sexism or misogyny from those characters that aren’t actively shut down. In fact, the number of female characters in the earlier games ensures that, in addition to any love interests, the leading men also have platonic female friends – something that’s still damnably unusual in most forms of media, let alone in video games.

All of which, thus far, holds true in XV, too: Princess Lunafreya, Noctis’s intended bride, is his childhood friend, as is Gladio’s sister, Iris. When the game begins, Noctis and his friends are travelling to meet Lunafreya before their (politically arranged) wedding; when everything goes awry because betrayal and empire, they’re forced to regroup and end up hanging out with Iris, who has escaped to the city of Lesallum. That’s where I’m up to so far, and what immediately stands out to me, as someone who spent a not inconsiderable portion of their adolescence and early twenties hanging around single straight guys, is the fact that the quartet barely ever talk about women at all. And the thing is, I can see why it’s been done! Final Fantasy has a heavy female fanbase, and in any case, they’re not the sort of games where the male soldiers sit around reminiscing about sexual conquests. But contextually, because of the way the game is presented – four friends driving and talking shit in real time, mocking each other, while initially on the way to see one of them married – the lack of talk about sex or romance of any kind is jarring.

Which isn’t to say the subject of women never comes up at all; it’s just that, when it does, the overwhelming impression is of dialogue written with a female audience in mind, but without any awareness of the queercoding implications of its delivery by these particular male characters. This means, for instance, that there’s a scene where the boys find a magazine article about Lunafreya’s wedding dress, and all of them start cooing about how beautiful it will be; Ignis notes that the dress is bespoke, designed by Vivienne Westwood, and Prompto starts enthusing about how pretty Lunafreya will look in it. In Hammerhead, the buxom mechanic Cindy, whose character design is clearly meant to please the straight male players, is someone who, in real life, you’d expect a bunch of straight boys on an ostensible stag trip to talk about. Except that they never do; and instead, the one time there’s a reference made to Gladio “chatting someone up,” it turns out to be a grumpily endearing scientist who wants you to go catch some frogs as penance for interrupting her research.

And then there’s Noctis taking a tour of Lestallum with Iris. Throughout this mini-quest, you’re given a set of binary conversational options to either encourage Iris in her enthusiasm for the town, or to disapprove. Then, at the end, she coyly suggests that being on the tour was almost like a date – an assertion you can either play off lightly, or outright deny: pointedly, there is no option to agree. If you deny, she laughs and says “you could at least play along for once,” suggesting that Iris knows Noctis isn’t interested in her and is willing to tease him about it – an odd thing to include, if you don’t want the audience to wonder about his preferences.

A little earlier in the game, Prompto asks Noctis what he ought to take more photos of: apart from declining, the only options are “me” (meaning Noctis), Ignis or Gladio. Again, there’s a gameworld logic to this – the photos are ultimately viewed by the player, who gets to pick which character they want to record the most – but in terms of the impact in setting, this is not an outstandingly heterosexual moment. Very possibly, there exists a group of straight bros whose designated photographer is happy asking, “Hey bro, which of our friends do you want to see more in pictures?” in an established No Homo way, and if so, more power to them. But if you want to find a context where that sort of exchange is an everyday thing, then look no further than the queer regions of Instagram. (Plus, it’s kind of conspicuous how often Prompto, when assessing the day’s photos, comments on how good Gladio the Perpetually Shirtless looks.)

And then there’s the occasional quirks of dialogue and voice acting: choices that, again, would be minor on their own, but which collectively become suggestive of something specific. Early on, Cor sends Gladio, Prompto and Ignis to make a distraction at a military blockade while he and Noctis sneak inside: the gambit is successful, and when the group reunites afterwards, Gladio says cheerfully, “The Niffs couldn’t keep their eyes off us!”. To which Ignis quips, in reference to Noctis and Cor’s arrival, “You spared us their attentions.” Offhand, I can think of about a dozen different ways to word that exchange that don’t remotely brush up against innuendo, and which are far more colloquially and contextually apt besides. The eyes/attentions combo is the kind of thing you’d expect a pair of femme fatales to say after seducing the guards and knocking them out in an action movie. (The fact that we don’t actually witness the initial distraction only adds to its ambiguity.) And yet, this is what they’ve gone with.

Other examples are smaller, but they all add up. Whenever you find new ingredients for Ignis to cook with, he stops to announce, with particular vocal flamboyance, that he’s just thought up a new recipe (exclamation mark!), and whips out a notebook to jot it down. (“I’ll taste test for ya,” Gladio says, in a playfully growling tone that always seems to have one eye on the bedroom.) And then there’s Prompto, who I’m inclined to think of as a confused bisexual puppy, whose voice turns dreamily fanboyish when discussing Cor’s exploits, and who gets just as excited on receiving Cor’s praise as he does at the prospect of seeing Lunafreya in her pretty wedding dress.

Put this all together, then, and what you have are a bunch of young men who are, by Western standards, more pretty than handsome, dressed in fashionable clothes and accessories that are more evocative of queer or queer-friendly subcultures than not, and who care enough about their appearance to have multiple outfits on hand at any given time. (You can, if you’re willing to sacrifice an accessory slot to aesthetics, buy hair gel for them to use.) These men are knowledgeable about fashion, have a platonic concern for the women they encounter, are constantly photographing one another for each other, have zero comments to make about the stupidly hot female mechanic unless they’re praising her competence, and whose idea of “chatting someone up” apparently means “talking to the grumpy frog lady about the local wildlife population”. This isn’t me leaping to conclusions, here: in the immortal words of Buffy Summers, I took a tiny step and there conclusions were.

All of which is a way of saying that, thus far, I’m delighted with Final Fantasy XV, though not in the ways I’d expected. The characters and setting are a homage to my favourite games in the series, and while I worried the absence of female characters would grate on me, our quartet of bumbling chocobros is stupidly endearing. At this point, Noctis is functionally useless as a prince: even when he’s recognised, the local yokels have no qualms about asking him to take their deliveries or run their errands, and while random sidequests are an RPG staple, they’re usually somewhat tailored to the protagonist’s perceived status. In FFXV, everything is rendered hilarious by the fact that Noctis is a prince, and is seen as a prince, and is still being asked to catch frogs in a swamp and grab shit from some random marketeer’s broken van.

(He’s also gloriously introverted: in dealing with people, his responses usually vary from monosyllabic to resigned disinterest, but when you come across a stray cat in need of feeding – a tiny sidequest that’s a deliberate throwback to Squall doing likewise in VIII – he talks to it at greater length and with more enthusiasm than he otherwise displays with anyone.)

As far as I’m concerned, FFXV is a magic road trip with a bunch of queer boys who have their wardrobes together, but not their shit. I can identify. And so, I suspect, can everyone else who’s fallen into the trashpile of this visually beautiful, thematically mishmash game. I honestly don’t care about the random anachronisms, like the fact that they’re carrying smartphones and fighting magic robots, but still using paper maps and newspapers, to say nothing of using a fucking dog as a messenger for vital correspondence through a warzone – or rather, I do care, but only because the clear discontinuity of it somehow plays as a feature instead of a bug. The entire thing ought to be ridiculous, and it kind of is, but pleasingly so, like a cat in a Halloween costume. The characters don’t take each other seriously, which frees the player up to do likewise – to laugh with them, rather than at them. And frankly, I’ll take that over XIII’s self-important melodrama any day of the week.

 

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Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

As a life-long afficionado of names, I can tell you off the top of my head that Alinta is an Aboriginal word for flame; that Byron means born by the cowsheds; and that J.M. Barrie invented the name Wendy because he wanted something ‘friendly’ to call his female lead. Even when writing short stories in primary school, I was convinced that my character names were crucial to who they were, and disagreed fiercely (though privately) with my teacher, who said that they could all be called Bob and it still wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Once I got my hands on a book of children’s names I found at home, I spent endless hours reading through and making lists of all my favourites – not for any children I might one day have, but to use as characters. Names I liked wented to heroines (and, occasionally, heroes). Names I didn’t, or which sounded ominous, went to villains. Inspired by Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – in which most of the horses had Aboriginal names – I procured an Aboriginal dictionary from my mother’s study and started my own story along similar lines, looking up words for things like stars, water, speed and various horse-related colours.

Now that I’m older, I still care just as deeply about what to call my characters. Even in RPG games, the thing that takes even longer than rolling stats – either in real life or through a game engine – is choosing a name. It has to match my avatar’s history, what they look like, who they are; and the thought of just calling them Stephanie and getting on with it rankles in a deep and resonant way. Because once you’ve named something, it stays named. And I’m ancient enough at heart to believe that there’s power in names. Roma gypsies have always thought so, and children in that culture are given three names: one private, and never told lightly; one commonly used among the clan; and one for everyone else, which is almost never used except on paper. Fantasy writers as diverse as Kate Elliot, Ursula K. le Guin and David Gemmell have all been fascinated by the concept of true names, and put it to appropriate use in their stories. But although most people might dismiss the idea out of hand, it’s worth having a look at the all-too-common disparity between the names we are given, and the things we are actually called.

For instance: my mother-in-law’s name is Margaret, but only as far as records are concerned. To everyone else, she is Janie. My niece’s name is Heather, but the family calls her Annie. Back in highschool, a friend’s boyfriend was introduced to everyone as Tain, which suited him, and it wasn’t until almost a year later that we realised it was short for Martin, which didn’t. At college, everyone had at least three names by which they were known, not in the least because we were asked to make them up and adopt them in Orientation Week. Those of us who already had familiar nicnames used them, and were consequently never known by our actual given names; everyone else had either a corruption of a first-or-last name, or something entirely random. One girl, called Lauren, asked to be known as Trucka, following the logic that Lauren abbreviated to Laurie, which sounded like lorrie, which is a kind of truck. But it stuck, and nobody ever called her anything else. Then there’s the Great Australian Tradition of oxymoronic names: fat blokes are Slim, short folk are Lofty, redheads are Blue, and so has it ever been, to the extent that an airline recognised globally for its distinctive red planes is called Virgin Blue. It’s multi-generational, even: two of my mother’s friends have been known as Chook and Vobbles since the sixties for reasons that are now completely forgotten, while there are people I know only by their online handles.

And in all this malarkey of names, I start to wonder: which are the ones with power? Which are, to borrow a term, merely safe and innocous use-names; and which are truly us? Juliet (or rather, Shakespeare) posited that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; which is true. But a rose by any other name would not be a rose; because the very nub of language is the point at which the word not only means, but is the thing. Think of Aztec pictograms, where each symbol stands for a whole word rather than a single letter. Then magnify the idea outwards. A word doesn’t just stand in place of an idea; it is the idea. Looked at this way, names don’t just mean us casually, merely as distinct from everyone else: they mean us specifically, behind the eyes and down to the bones, impossible to mistake.

The same idea is exhibited elsewhere in fantasy as the basis for spoken magic: the concept of a universal language, in which the word equals the thing to such an extent that speaking it aloud brings that thing into existence. For a real-world counterpart, one needs only look at the Bible: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God’ is undeniably rooted in the power of names, and it’s worth noting that Hebrew, to the Jews, was (and still is) seen as the language of Creation; God’s lingua franca.

Which brings us back to names, and the choosing of them. What with genetics, friends, cultural influences, free will and individual reactions to upbringing, there’s a good argument to say that apart from life, a name is the only lasting gift a parent can give (unless, of course, the child grows up to change their name by deedpole, a-la commedian Yahoo Serious or that bloke in the Sydney phonebook called Zaphod Beeblebrox). So why not make it a good one? Granted, not everyone agrees on what makes a fantastic name, and given my geekish tendencies, there’s a good chance that what I consider lovely might make the rest of the world flinch, but at the end of the day (to borrow a phrase abused to the point of ritual castigation by one forgettable Deputy Headmaster), it’s putting in thought that counts.

Or, to recall that much-thumbed book of children’s names, one could just read the notice that says, in bold print, not reccomended, placed with sensible good reason next to Jezebel (Hebrew), Lesbia (Greek) and Everhard (Old English).