I’ve often mentioned to hopeful writers that doing something else with one’s life than just writing is often very useful for one’s writing. As a cogent and very interesting example, here’s debut novelist Rhiannon Held, talking about how the knowledge and experience gained in her day job made a material difference in how she crafted her new novel Silver.
Silver started with werewolf religion. What would it be like? That question created the spark of a character for me, a werewolf who had been injected with silver nitrate, so she hallucinated…or saw the spirit realm. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be absolutely ambiguous about whether what she saw was real or not, in the terms of the novel’s world. Readers seldom have incontrovertible proof of any religious force in their own lives, so why should the characters? With that character in my mind, I started creating the details of the religion and world that shaped her.
I’ve seen werewolves linked before to female lunar deities, or more generalized Gaia-like Earth-mother figures. I work as a professional archaeologist, so my academic training is in anthropology, and that sort of generality felt vacuous to me. To use the religion of my childhood upbringing as an example, that’s like saying Christianity is based on an omnipotent force who had a son. Period. What about Esther and Solomon and Moses and the disciples and burning bushes and turning into pillars of salt and threatening to cut babies in half? What about “love thy neighbor” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” So much of real religions lie in their stories, their parables, their prayers, their songs, their rituals. That’s what I set out to create for my werewolf culture.
As I went along, my academic training sneaked farther out of my hindbrain and started working on the other key aspect there: the culture. The werewolves wouldn’t just have religion, they’d have social etiquette and traditions and holidays and slang and games. There, I made another key choice that’s different from what I often see with urban fantasy creatures: I made my werewolves a species. They are only born, not turned. I made that choice for a very specific reason. Turned creatures such as vampires lend themselves more to metaphors about lifestyle choices, whether consensual or not, than cultures. That’s cool, but it’s been done, so I wanted to do something different. I wanted to offer a metaphor for people in non-dominant cultures. People like immigrants who are faced with a decision about how much to identify as part of the culture they were born into, and how much to identify with the culture they find themselves interacting with every day, as my werewolves do with humans.
Having my werewolves be a species also scratched a scientific itch for me in other ways. It bothers me in urban fantasy when the heroine happens to be the only female of her magical creature type. That’s no way to have a breeding population! Involuntary shifts to another form bothered me too. If you couldn’t hold back a shift when the mob was approaching, you and your genes would get pitchforked to death, leading to a clear evolutionary pressure for at least some control over shifting. I subjected all of my werewolf traits to the test of whether it would make sense for a species to survive when it worked that way.
Of course, working out all these details in abstract is one thing, but you have to consider how an audience will react to them. I once heard a costumer express this most succinctly. When discussing the historical accuracy of costumes in a movie, she said that sometimes you had to ask yourself: do you want your characters to look attractive to modern audiences, or do you want them to be completely accurate? You can substitute anything for “attractive”, whether it’s “villainous” or “cunning” or “naïve”. What she was getting at is that people’s modern assumptions will unconsciously influence them to read a different meaning into a historical costume than it might once have had. For my own uses, I expanded the concept to include a splash of “pick your battles”. You can counteract people’s unconscious assumptions with extensive work through the other avenues available to you, but you simply don’t have space or energy to accomplish that on every front.
If, for example, I’d wanted my werewolf characters to be sympathetic but I made their culture dismissive of human lives, I’d have had to work ten times as hard to show them as moral in other ways, to overcome the reader’s automatic reaction of “these people would kill me! I don’t like them!” I didn’t use that particular aspect for my werewolf culture, but I stumbled onto plenty of other aspects that made my first readers react differently to my characters than I’d intended. Then I had to choose whether to change that aspect or pick it as one of my battles where I worked against people’s unconscious assumptions.
So like the complexity of any real human group, my werewolf world-building started simple, but ended up expanding to many aspects of their lives and even biology. It’s my hope that that makes them feel even more real, and makes the metaphors they can provide for our own lives even more interesting.