The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.

Why the Witcher 3 is my Favorite Game

Why the Witcher 3 is my Favorite Game

It’s a hectic time in my life. I’m in a middle of a move, work is going through some major changes and the summer has been busy. I was in dire need of some comfort, so I started another play through of the Witcher 3, my favorite game of all time.

Considering all the praise lavished on Witcher 3 when it launched that might not seem like a controversial pick. But I’m a lifelong Zelda and JRPG guy. Before the Witcher 3 either Persona 4 or, the forever classic, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was my favorite game. I couldn’t even make it past the first hour of The Witcher 2, the combat was confusing and unintuitive and nothing about the world grabbed me. Even when I first started playing the Witcher 3 it took me sometime to get into it and care about the wolverine-esque Geralt of Rivia.

But then there was the side quest with the noon wraith and the well. It broke the standard ‘talk to person A, kill x number of things, return to persona A’ side quests I’ve been playing all my life. The Well quest was detailed, invoking both folklore and forensic science. There was a mystery, a tragedy to it. Other characters would mention the events around it, and not just as clues to where the quest was, but as something that was in their village’s shared history. The whole game was like that.

I’ve had hours long conversations with my roommate, a game developer, about the Witcher 3, trying to figure out what makes it so special to me. It’s very similar to a lot of other open world RPGs; there’s stats and inventory management, fast travel, a HUD, combat that becomes repetitive and easier the higher you level up. It’s definitely a video game, but when I’m playing it, it feels so much more immersive.

The Witcher 3 is like reading a book, like reading a book when you’re twelve and everything is exciting and powerfully engrossing. Yes, the bones that Project Red was working with, the Wicther Fantasy series, gave them a detailed and fascinating world. Yes, they polished the hell out of the thing. Yes, they picked a smart way to structure their story with the hunt for Ciri. All those things can make a good game, but a special one?

What is the secret ingredient behind it all? It’s difficult to say, and even after all that debating with my roommate and three play-throughs, I still don’t know exactly. Most people say it’s the complex side quests and while they are truly amazing, I feel like they are part of a bigger design maxim. A maxim that echoes from every detail in the game: ‘make it a real place.’

Almost everything in the Witcher 3 feels real and not a digital playground where I grind and fight bosses. Just look at the open world. Velen is a war torn no man’s land. Armies glare at each other from across the river, ghouls roam battlefields eating the dead, deserters become bandits and villages are full of refugees. As you get closer to Novigrad things quiet down as the war has yet to touch it.

Novigrad’s surroundings are idyllic, with rich farmers and estates and just as you would logically assume, the land around Novigard is safer than Velen. And yet you head towards Novigrad in the middle of the game and start out as a low level player in Velen. You move from danger to safety rather than the other way around.

It feels like world building rather than gameplay is driving the design. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t secrets and dangers around Novigard, but they make sense in the context of the world. The dangers are tucked away, more hidden. Gangs rather than bandits, drowners near water rather than ghouls and nekkers roaming where-ever. If it doesn’t make sense for an enemy type to be in a location based on their lore, they’re not going to be there, even if that enemy would present a greater challenge to the player.

The Witcher 3’s goal is ‘world first’ and it’s that design that makes the side quests branch and change and not have neat endings. They move like stories and not check lists. The world functions like a world and not an amusement park. Consequences are unforeseen, characters are complex with grounded motivations. You pick a point on the map and start moving, the winds howl, barren battlefields slowly give way to muddy swamps and the trappings of a video game disappear as the story grows lusher. Like an old paperback with a cracked spine, the Witcher 3 is a game I’ll always return to.

Nurlge’s Lesson

Nurlge’s Lesson

Fiction Friday’s back! But I’m taking a break from Ghets to share a little parody piece I wrote for a friend. The story is set in the Warhammer 40K universe, and involves the Chaos Space Marines, villains that are so evil and insane that I always have a hard time figuring out their motivation.

I hope you enjoy!

Photo is from my friend’s Warhammer 40K army


It was a beautiful day in Nurlge, the god of death and decay,’s garden. The pox walkers were a bloom with fresh tumors. Great Unclean ones were releasing sweet miasmas of putrid death, while the little nurglings were playing between rotting corpses and splashing in the bile which ran like water in Nurgle’s realm.

The great chaos god himself was playing with his new prize possessions a series of massive bronze bells. He rang each bell building to a crashing crescendo. After he finished he turned to Isha, the Eldar goddess of healing who he totally did not kidnap and asked.

“What do you think babe?”

Isha was lounging in her rusting cage and examining a new series of boils on her palm. “What?” She asked absentmindedly.

“Did you like the bells?” Nurgle said gesturing at the giant church bells. “That was a little song I wrote for you called, ‘Only You can cure my heart.’”

“Oh” Isha said with a long sigh, healing and smoothing out her skin. “They were a little tinny”

“Right,” Nurgle said frowning. He turned to his loyal Tally Man. “Tell the boys in the bell workshop they need to step it up on the next batch.”

“Yes my Lord,” The Tally man said dryly, jotting down a note in the large book he kept chained to him. “I will tell the lunatic cultist in our employe that they need to be more precise in their work.”

Nurgle nodded, “Thanks, Tally Man I can always count you.”

The Tally Man ignored the obvious pun and kept writing. “If you don’t mind me asking my lord, why are we making bells?”

Nurgle looked down at the Tally Man, “Why wouldn’t we?”

“Well my Lord,” The Tally Man began, “It’s just that you’re the chaos god of death and pestilence, I’m afraid I don’t see how the bells factor in.”

“Exactly Tally Man!” Nurgle said, “Chaos God. We’re crazy and sporadic!” Nurgle flayed his arms about, “We can’t be doing the same thing all the time, we got a change it up every now and then, and bells are my new thing, whole army is going to get them.”

Nurgle lent in, “But if anyone in the Imperium asks, just tell them we’ve always been into bells, got it?”

The Tally Man sighed, “Of course my Lord.” He returned to his book. “I can think of nothing more chaotic and out of the ordinary than adding bells to our forces as we continue to spread death and disease like we have for the last ten thousand years straight with absolutely no deviation whatsoever.”

Nurgle laughed, causing a swarm of flies to escape out his throat. “Now you’re getting it Tally man.”

Satisfied, Nurge was about to return to his bells when he saw one of his little plague marine buddies come running up.

“My Lord, my lord!” The Plague marine shouted, as he came to a halt before nurgle, coughing and panting.

“Hey what is it sport?” Nurgle said crouching down so he could converse with the damned.

“It’s Mortarion my lord, he–” The Plague Marine started, before coughing loudly, a wet, smacking sound echoing in his helmet.

“What was that?” Nurgle asked confused.

Mor-baron pe” The Plague Marine tilted his head confused, “Mby phounge, mby phounge bas botton”

Nurgle scratched his head, “Tally Man, you get what he’s saying?”

The Tally Man stepped forward and examined the Plague Marine. “It appears his tongue has rotten off my Lord.”

Nurgle groaned, “Oh for the love of me! Can someone grow this a kid tentacle in there or something? I don’t understand him at all.”

“I will see to it my lord.” The Tally Man said, “But while I do so, I think it’s best if you go see Mortarion, he has been…’acting up’, as of late.”

Nurgle nodded, “Good thinking,” He turned to Isha “Sorry honeypoo, Papa Nurgs has to go check on the kids,”

“Yeah, sure, whatever” Isha said ignoring Nurgle while she returned to her favorite hobby: filing down her cage bars.

Nurgle trotted through his garden leaving a barren trail of rot and death in his wake and stopped at Mortarion’s room. The door was closed and locked. A sign that read “NO DADs” with a crude drawing of a scowling Emperor and Nurgle was hung on it.

Nurgle sighed. He used to think the Emperor was a bad father, but that was before he had a primarch of his own. Raising kids was tough.

Nurgle knocked on the door, “Hey champ, heard you might be feeling kind of down?”

A muffled voice shouted, “Go away!”

Nurgle crouched next to the door. “Hey buddy, I’ll do that if that’s what you want, but maybe it’ll feel good to talk about it, huh?”

“You don’t want to talk, you just want me to go out and lead a Black Crusade against the Imperium.” Mortarion shouted between sniffles.

Nurgle felt his forehead, this again? “I just think you have all this potential and I’m worried you’re wasting it spending your time here in the Eye of Terror. The other chaos primarchs and their legions are out taking worlds and converting cultists to their gods.”

“That’s all you care about!” Mortarion shouted back, “Converts and corruption!”

“Oh Morty,” Nurgle said concerned, “You know that’s not true. I also care about death and pelistence, and you.”

“Then why did you give me fly wings?” Mortarion said, “All the other primarchs get cool raven wings or bat wings. I look like a dweeb.”

“Who called you a dweeb?” Nurgle said getting upset “Was it Angron? I’ll go over to Khorne’s place right now. That red faced bully has had it coming for a long time.”

“That’s not the point dad!” Mortarion said.

Nurgle took a deep breath, calming himself. “You’re right, you’re right. Now what’s so wrong with fly wings? Flies are our thing! You know with the rot and death and all that? I even got Plague bearers riding them. The fly wings mark you as my chosen, lean into the theme a little, son.”

“Oh yeah Dad? what about the bells? How did they fit into your ‘theme’” Mortarion spit back.

Nurgle groaned, “What does everyone have against the bells?”

“They’re stupid. Your whole crusade against the Imperium is stupid!” Mortarion said

“Hey now, watch it” Nurgle said pointing a finger at Mortarion’s door. “I brought you into this Eye of Terror turning you into an undying, zombie space marine and I can take you out!”

“Whatever, it’s not like you’re my real dad.” Mortarion said with a huff.

Nurgle bit his lip. He wasn’t the chaos god of anger, he needed to relax, “You’re right Morty, I’m not your real Dad. The emperor made you because…I’m not really sure, but he wanted you to lead, be a little version of himself. I don’t want that Morty, I just want you to be happy.” Nurgle lent closer to the door and said calmly, “Now what has really got you down? I know it’s not the fly wings.”

There was a pause, followed by some more sniffling. “I just don’t know what the point is Dad. I’ve been doing this for ten thousand years, the Imperium is never going to fall. Every time I win I eventually have to release a virus bomb and retreat. I just feel so numb, like what’s the point?”

Nurgle nodded, “That’s a tough one, son.” He scratched his chin. “But you know, I get it. I’m the god of death, of entropy. Everything ends, that’s just the way it is. Even the Death Guard will eventually die…and not come back as zombie space marines. The war we’re fighting, the Imperium, it will all end at some point.”

“But just because something ends, doesn’t mean it isn’t precious. I might celebrate the death of things, but even I know their real value is in the moment. Let go of the weight of ten thousand years Morty, even a primarch can’t bear that legacy. Besides its not ten thousand years of defeat to me, it’s ten thousand years of experiences, of joy and pain…mostly pain, of comradery and love…kind of. It’s the journey that makes the trip worth it, not the destination. You have to find what you enjoy about this undead life and live it.”

Mortarion didn’t say anything for a long while. “But Dad, what about you, what about all of this? The garden, the marines, the war, don’t you want to win?”

Nurgle gave a soft chuckle. “Son, didn’t you hear me? Everything dies, well maybe not the necorn or eldar? It’s confusing, but most everything dies. So I’ve already won! Hell, you and the Death Guard could stay in the garden for the next ten thousand years and I’d still be coming out on top. The other chaos gods would be dong the killing for me, or the Imperium would, they kill a lot of people on their own–they’re actually not that great either.”

“But the reason I give you sanctuary here is because I believe in you Morty. I only want what’s best for you. I just think maybe killing the Imperium will give you closure.” Nurgle smirked, “And hey, I even here Guilliman’s back, don’t you hate him? Wouldn’t fighting him be fun?”

Mortarion thought about it. “I guess I could try hating him.”

“That’s the spirit!” Nurgle said, “Now why don’t you come out here and give your Papa Nurgle a big old hug.”

“Okay!” Mortarion said.

The Primarch’s door unlocked and Mortarion embraced his chaos god, knowing that he was a wiser and richer space marine for listening to his dad (who was the embodiment of death, and renewal, but mostly death, and renewal only in a reanimator, zombie sense of the word.)

The End.

How to Write a Fight Scene

How to Write a Fight Scene

Fights, like sex, can be some of the hardest scenes to write. They’re always in danger of getting bog down in detail, or they’re the subject of comically obtuse metaphors, or are just plain confusing and the reader has no idea what’s happening. I’m still trying to master fight scenes myself, but here are some techniques I used to make them fast pace and exciting.

The Blow by Blow

This is the most common type of fight scene. It’s best used for duels or fights that take a while and don’t require too many participants. In the ‘Blow by Blow’ the writer is acting like the announcer of a boxing match, giving an account of every swing and block.

Blow by Blow scenes are the easiest scenes to do, but they can very quickly devolve into tedium. Visual media has print beat when it comes to these types of fights. What’s more exciting: watching the final battle in a Marvel movie or hearing your friend describe it? Writing can be very immersive and give us things we can’t experience in film. The taste of sweat, the thoughts of the duelist, the feeling in their shoulders.

Also try not to linger when doing a blow by blow scene. If a character does something fast like a jab, don’t drag out the description. If something happens quickly keep the description quick. Remember that you are dealing with more than just the five senses, you have movement too, you want your writing to convey the speed, and flexibility of the action.

The Abstraction

Writing isn’t a visual media so every fight scene, even the most technical blow by blow, is an abstraction. But what I mean by abstraction is focusing less on creating a fight scene at all, but rather focusing on the feeling, the motion, the way someone fights. Abstractions are best used for big battles, were everything is confusing, and you can use little details to build a sense of dread, or when a hero is fighting a bunch of henchman and dispatching them quickly or even if you want to introduce a threat.

Abstraction can be hard to describe so here’s an example of what I’m talking about from my novel Ghets:

Reez was like a wildfire, cutting and burning and consuming, with each swing she grew hotter, with each cut she grew madder. She blazed through her enemies, on them quicker than they could react, could think, she was an explosion in the middle of their ranks.

The whole thing is more a metaphor than fight. I don’t tell how Reez was defeating anyone, just trying to convey a beserker like style. I tend to prefer writing abstractions for my fight scenes. The feeling of what’s going on is more important than the than physical moves of the actors involved. But abstractions do have their short comings. They’re always in danger of becoming too abstract, the metaphor running away from any sense what’s actually happening. They’re also not great at conflict.

When I say conflict, I mean the push and pull of the fight. In the scene above I focused on Reez, the people she was fighting weren’t important. But most fight scenes, be they duels or battles, are a contest between two parties. What makes them interesting and dynamic are the ways that those parties try get ahead or around their opponent. Present a problem for each fighter to overcome or try to out think.

Don’t show the fight

There’s one final strategy for fight scenes and that’s not to even bother with them. In the greatest action movie of all time, Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max runs off to take out the ‘Bullet Farmer’. We don’t know what he does to defeat the Bullet Farmer. We just see him run off, and then come back after an explosion. He’s covered in blood and carrying a bunch of stolen weapons.

The scene is wonderfully bad ass, but we never see what Max actually did. Instead we only have the aftermath and the other characters’ reactions to Max. This makes Max seem tough. He did something so cool we can’t even imagine it. It’s the same principle as the old horror movie conceit that the monster is scarier when you don’t see it. Describing the devastation or aftermath of a fight can make your character seem more competent or powerful than going in detail on the fight itself. It’s also easier for the reader to follow.

On a similar note, try treating some of your fight scenes like comics. Rather than doing a true blow by blow think of the best parts, the most thrilling. Only describe those, like the panels of a comic book. Don’t worry about the connective tissue linking the panels too much, just describe the scene like it’s all in slow motion. One or two cool moments is all anyone remembers about a good fight anyway.

Now that you’ve got some techniques, give them a shot, experiment! Let me know what works for you! Go fight!

Dear Beta-Reader

Dear Beta-Reader

I’ve been writing a lot about my novel Ghets recently and that’s because I’ve finished draft II! I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally ready to be shared. I put out the call for beta-readers and sent the novel to friends, family and acquaintances. The novel is far from complete at this point. I need to collect all the critiques and edits from my beta-readers and use them to sharpen the book into draft III. After draft III I’ll either be lucky enough to have an agent and publisher or I’ll need to hire an editor for draft IV and then finally publish the thing myself.

I know it’s a lot. So, let’s not get ahead ourselves. For this post I’m sharing the letter I sent out to beta-readers to thank them and let them know what I’m looking for. You might find it helpful, if you’re thinking about using beta-readers for your own project. Also I’ll never say no to people reading Ghets so if you’ve checked out the chapters I’ve posted and want to be a beta-reader too, let me know!


Dear Beta-Reader,

First, I want to thank you so, so, so, much for taking the time to read my novel. I know it’s long and it’s asking a lot of you. But just by reading this book and giving your critiques, edits and insights you are helping to shape this story. Books, like all creative works, are collaborative, the storyteller reacting to listener, feeding off their energy and emotion. It’s like a dialogue. And like all dialogues it helps to know what we’re discussing.

In truth, I will take any edits you have to offer, but please don’t overextend yourself trying to correct every spelling, wrong word or grammar mistake. There are a lot of them and I will hunt them down with the help of an editor during the next draft.

What I’m looking for right now are ‘big picture’ reactions. What about the story worked for you? What about the story didn’t? Where was the writing confusing, where you couldn’t tell what was going on? Were there any characters that felt unnecessary? And most of all, were there repetitive chapters or sections, or chapters that you felt didn’t add anything? This book is on the long side and I would love to be able to trim it down.

I will take any critiques you have to offer. If you couldn’t finish the book because of the time commitment, that’s fine! Just tell me what you thought of what you could read. Same is true if you dropped this book because the grammar was so bad, or because the general writing was awful, or because the story isn’t your thing. You don’t need to finish it to give me your thoughts. And please, be honest! I won’t be upset. In college I had my writing torn apart by my ex-girlfriend and her new ‘poet’ boyfriend during creative writing club. If I can survive that and still want to write, I can survive anything.

Once again thank you so much!

Why an Orc?

Why an Orc?

As I wrote last post there are problem with Orcs. But despite those problems I still wanted to include orcs in my fantasy world and even make my protagonist one. Orcs are fun! Their dumb and violent tendencies can make them mischievous, even endearing if presented in a certain light. And as the ‘evil minion’ race of hundreds of fantasy novels orcs feel like the underdogs. Maybe they’re just misunderstood? Maybe what is so often seen as barbaric in orcs is just a different point of view?

Like any longstanding antagonist orcs have gone through several revisions and become heroes. Stan Nicholls novel Orcs: First Blood, tells a story of human orc warfare from the orcs’ point of view, taking a traditional band of orc warriors and making them the protagonists. Terry Pratchett’s orcs are near extinct and suffering from a case of bad propaganda. And then there’s the Warcraft games.

Warcraft started out with a traditional Tolkien set up. There was an evil army of orcs vs. an alliance of humans, dwarves and elves. The first two Warcraft games had the orcs invading from a dark portal led by evil wizards and hell bent on conquering and killing everything in sight. But with the third Warcraft game Blizzard (the game studio behind the Warcraft series) decided to do something different.

Blizzard deconstructed its orcs and the very idea of orcs as the ‘barbarian other’. They took inspiration from what happened to historical ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ peoples after they were conquered. The orcs of Warcraft III start off enslaved or kept on hemmed in reservations. Their story becomes a fight for freedom and once they achieve that freedom they desire to go back to their traditional ways. The orcs are still violent, a warrior culture, but one that is more complex and less aggressive than the conquers they used to be. They even finally defeat the demon overlords that led them astray in the first place.

The orcs of Warcraft moved from mindless evil to at worse worthy antagonists, all while keeping the things people loved about them. They’re still big and green and mean. They still have pointy armor and say funny made up words like ‘zug-zug’, but they’re given their own needs and desires. They now do stuff outside of fighting.

When coming up with my own orcs I took inspiration from Warcraft, as well as Wahammer, Tolkien and all the others. The orcs of Ghets like to fight, drink and eat meat. They have green skin (as well as purple, orange, and pretty much any color). They’re a proud warrior society, that fights in ‘hordes’. And they’re the underdogs, despised by both Aphetrria the land of Order, and Neradoom the land of Chaos. But in Ghets, the orc’s ruling body, the ‘Okkore’ is the closest thing there is to a medieval UN.

The orcs of Ghets were created by the god Kor to act as border guards, to prevent Aphetrria and Neradoom from killing each other. They take their mandate seriously, and even went so far as to conquer both lands to put an end to the millennia long war. It didn’t work, and by the time the novel begins the Orcs are trying to learn from their past mistakes.

I don’t spend too much time with the Okkore in Ghets, I’ve got more planned there for another novel. Reez is the orc that readers get to know the best, since she’s the lead. Reez is all the stuff I love about orcs with none of the baggage. She’s a carefree adventurer that’s always cursing in funny made up words: guck, gunking guckers. She loves to fight and get into trouble, but she’s not mean or even mercenary in her thinking or actions. She’s clever without being condescending and most of all she doesn’t take herself seriously.

Reez would find the abject barbarism of orcs like those in the Shadow of Mordor series to be comically over the top. Like the people she comes from, Reez is down to earth, an orc that’s good at fighting, but is into other things than just conquest and plunder. She’s got her bones in the old greenskin trope, but she’s grown out of them into her own character. I really like spending time with her and I hope you will too!

 

The Problem with Orcs

The Problem with Orcs

When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.

Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.

Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.

Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.

Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.

In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs are all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?

The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.

In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.

And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.

But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?