In this episode I discover my Dunari family tree, and ‘finally’ see some images of what this world is like beyond the bone wall.
The context segment deals with using art in world building.
And in the Strange but True, I learn the story of the Avigo Portrait, which is perhaps the strangest painting in the City of Bones.
How to create family background using art.
Understanding how art may be used in world building.
Each show will be summarised in letter form. These are the letters I would have written to my family and friends if I’d been able to do so at the time.
Reading time: 8 minutes.
Hello again from the wonderful World of Dunari.
A ghost cat named Number Seventeen arrived at my room today, produced a dozen expertly drawn portraits of people, and introduced them as my ancestors.
Each, she said, had come before me, spent the required time in Dunari, and returned home intact.
I didn’t know what to make of that.
But I soon realised that not only was she boosting my confidence by demonstrating how my ancestors had fared here, but she was also giving me a sense of place by showing how my family had been coming here for over two hundred years.
While I recognised some of the portraits from old family photographs—and I actually knew one of them, my Uncle Oisin—all of them looked different in these pictures. Heroic, almost.
Or at least warrior like with their beards and moustaches and proud, confident smiles.
I knew they were my ancestors because each had the unmistakable, pointy Keyes chin.
Uncle Oisin was the biggest surprise. While he’d been alive, he’d always shown me special attention. Whenever he’d visit, he’d have me on his knee half the time, telling me stories about places that I’d never managed to find in any book.
Back home, he’d been the kindly, old grand uncle.
Here, he resembled a general.
This cheered me. By giving me a background in Dunari, Number Seventeen had given me hope.
Number Seventeen said I needed to learn how to draw so I could document what I saw when I was out working for Ganhook. Turns out, anything like a camera is banned here on account of strange things happening when spirits are photographed.
Drawing is mandatory at school. And I needed to be able to draw Brogant things before I started school because all my classmates would want to know about my life there.
To encourage me to practice, Number Seventeen told me to draw what I saw in the window every morning. Considering the window was still as blurry as if I’d looked through Mum’s reading glasses, this wouldn’t be a problem. A few scribbles would do.
Then she said that, as my drawing skills sharpened, so the view through the window would sharpen. Sounded like a good deal to me.
But all this ‘art’ talk led to one obvious question. All the ghost cats who came to educate me had gained their specific knowledge of danger by dying due to that specific danger.
So, how had art killed Number Seventeen?
Maybe she’d fallen on a pencil. Maybe a sculpture had fallen on her. Or maybe she had mistaken white paint for milk, lapped it up, and choked.
I didn’t ask. Stein cat and her ghosts loved talking about themselves. Her ‘how I died’ story would emerge soon enough.
Which it did.
She had attempted an advanced level spell to improve a picture she had drawn. The spell made the picture came alive and kill her.
As crazy as that sounds, I’ve stopped questioning things like that. It’s easier to just believe they happened.
Besides, after seeing how bad she was at drawing, I understood why she’d want to improve it.
Not that I was any Van Gogh. My circles looked like eggs, and I still use my first self-portrait to scare off the cheekiest of Stein Cat’s ghosts.
And it wasn’t all about drawing the misty window. Number Seventeen gave me a book about Brogant, with pictures.
It was all a bit mad that my first real look beyond the compound walls was of a place thousands of kilometers away.
The book’s first pages showed drawings of water systems flowing between hundreds of humpy hills rising from a great plain. The humps were mounds of solid rock. Each mound had countless crevices, and each crevice was filled with super nutritional earth, deposited there when this area had been an ancient seabed.
Every crevice was used to grow produces. As a result, the mounds were called rock farms.
Each hump has an irrigation reservoir carved into it. These reservoirs also provided water to the farmers’ homesteads cut into the rock. As the dumb farm boy from Brogant, I was supposed to have lived in one of these homesteads.
For security reasons, no bridges, roads, towns, or cities were portrayed on any map.
Each grow mound was about a hundred metres high and crisscrossed with a monorail, along which small transport carts moved. There was no indication of what powered these cars, or the water barges that work the waterways.
I read about crop rotations systems, predator and pest control, and how the waterways were used for fish farming as well as transport.
Most fascinating were the plant nursery zones. Here, the seedlings were cultivated in vast arrays of metal trays raised on racks. The water was pumped up from a water basin one kilometer below the surface. According to the book, the water was thick with nutrition found nowhere else.
I had no idea how I was going to remember all this stuff—not to mention draw the images from the book.
But at least I was starting to see a bit of Dunari.
Number Seventeen showed my ancestors’ self-portraits to give me a sense of belonging based on my family’s status in Dunari.
When you’re creating your world, what status does your protagonist and their family hold?
How do they seek to maintain or increase their status?
How does your protagonist’s family art portray her current status? And how does it portray the roots of her current status?
Initially, when developing artistic elements to build out your world, stick with family. Focus on their background.
Is the family art valuable? What is the favourite artwork, and where is it displayed in the house? What does it portray? And why is it favoured? Are any family artworks hidden, lost or stolen? Are any of your ancestors cut out of the family tree and known through rumour instead of art?
Could their protagonist’s favourite artwork antagonise visitors?
And do these artworks tell the true story?
The victor of a great battle will commission paintings showing how they heroically they won that battle. Likewise with families. They will always portray themselves in a great light.
This isn’t necessarily the truth.
But it’s only human.
When I laid out all my ancestors’ portraits on the bed, they all looked suitably heroic. But Number Seventeen then told me some ‘truths’ about them which made them human and relatable.
I won’t repeat those ‘truths’ here. But nobody is as perfect as their portrait.
Knowing these ‘truths’ took some of the pressure off me to be as perfect as them.
To get ideas of how the arts can be used to build status and power, study the Italian Renaissance families. Check out the Medici. These were an Italian moneylending family. Money lending was frowned upon. So, the Medici partially built their status as respectable businesspeople by sponsoring the arts.
The Medici’s desire for respectability gave us some of the greatest art in history.
Could something like this work in your world, too.
To demonstrate family backstory, begin with portraiture. Example: maybe the first portrait of your great, great aunt portrays here as a young, hopeful woman. In midlife, however, her face is gaunt and dark.
What happened to cause this change?
And how could it affect your character today?
Number Seventeen’s art lesson was as much about me creating my ‘Dunari’ character, as it was about knowing my family backstory. Every character is shaped by their parents, grandparents, and ancestors to one degree or another.
Don’t worry if you can’t draw. We’re not all Van Gogh. Even if you’ve never held a pencil, get a sheet of paper, pretend it’s your canvas, and take notes on what your protagonist’s ancestor might resemble if you could draw them.
Ask yourself what does your protagonist want the world to know about her family?
Often, the most interesting things are the ‘skeletons in the closet’ that nobody in the family wants outsiders to know.
And if you want to get full on creative, why not hang these ‘artworks’ on your wall.
Yes, that’s mad. But everything about world building is a bit mad. That’s what makes it fun.
A couple of other mad things I learned from Number Seventeen.
- If you want to create a new, weird thing for your world, do a self-portrait or a picture of a friend. If you’re new to art, I’ll guarantee you this portrait will look like nothing ever seen before.
- Art is useful to describe your protagonist. Instead of using a clichéd ‘look in the mirror’ method of providing their appearance, have them comment about their portrait.
Just make sure that portrait was painted by a professional artist. Otherwise . . .
That’s all for now. Next time, I’ll write about illnesses in Dunari, and how I could have ‘inadvertently’ decimated Dunari when I passed through the gateway.
Bye for now.
Or as we say in Dunari, Dreavik!