World Building: Hexwood

At the core of the idea of a Weird Western is the desire to translate a specific period of time and its attendant cultural norms into something comprehensible to modern audiences. That’s a challenge all historical fiction faces but by switching in fantasy elements you can both simplify the process and slip in direct analogs to the present day. I find these kinds of mental challenges fun and engaging and I’ve written about my approach to world building before so I thought I would share a few takes from the Weird Western I’ve been working on. 

Hexwood: Dust and Ashes started as a germ of an idea three years ago. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a gold rush but, instead of gold, I wanted people digging for magic. The initial pieces of the world fell into place quickly. The geography had the shape of the world of the late 1800s and the story would be set in what we know as North America but with different political boundaries. The culture would be dependent on digging up magic rocks to continue functioning. On top of the usual dangers of the Old West the ecosystem would be rife with supernatural monsters and killer trees. And there would be flying trains. 

The flying trains were very important. 

As is typical when I am working on the early stages of a story I found old ideas, some abandoned, some that I had intended to use in other ways, some that I intend to use again in much the same way, all falling into place as I solidified my ideas. Many ideas I had got cut and set aside for another time. And, in time, I had a complete tale to tell and a world to tell it in. While I can’t get too deep into all the things added and cut I thought I’d share a bit of my thought process as I addressed these issues in the hopes it will entertain you, and perhaps help you build a world of your own. 

Here are how a few of the ideas in Hexwood developed. 

Sulfurite 

The world of Hexwood started with the idea of magic rocks. Well, truthfully it started with the name but the first element of the story I thought of was magic rocks. I liked the idea of miners delving deep for the essence of magic but, as I began to flesh out the idea, I quickly had to decide what kind of magic I wanted them to dig for. That was a bit of a problem. 

A lot of things went out the window immediately. It couldn’t be fairy tale magic, which is mostly about transformations, illusions and curses. Those things are too immaterial to dig out of the ground. It also couldn’t be things like the magic of stars or lightning or the deep oceans. The stars and storms aren’t things you can find underground and the ocean, while terrible and mysterious, has its magical qualities whether it is underground or not. That basically left the elements of earth and fire or the powers of the Underworld. 

The Underworld is overdone, so it went off the list. 

That left earth and fire. After some deliberation I chose fire, in part because I thought it would be interesting to experiment with a mythos similar to that of Dark Souls. I won’t delve too deep into those ideas because the idea of setting Hexwood in a world after an Age of Fire got scrapped very early but it did push me to the core idea of most magic in Hexwood, which was Fire itself. 

Yes, I decided early on that the simple act of something burning would be an expression of magic and when that magic was used on metals you would get a basic effect. Silver shape itself like a living creature, tin would push away from the source of heat, aluminum would counteract gravity, and so on. To make using magic in this way practical people stored the magic of fire in a special kind of rock called sulfurite. With the basics of what I came to call volcanic magic in place, and the name of my magic rocks decided, it was time to move on. How did I build a West to put them in? 

Dolmenfall 

In my mind the first hurdle to creating a world that paralleled the Old West was the influence of the American Civil War. While the Gold Rush started in 1849 and marks the start of the Old West in many reckonings most Westerns are set after the Civil War and incorporate the resulting changes to weapons, warfare and culture into their narratives. If I wanted to evoke the West properly there needed to be a similar defining event not too far in Hexwood’s past. 

I’m not sure where the idea for Dolmenfall originally came from but I do know what I was avoiding when I decided on it. My goal with Dolmenfall was to create a devastating internal conflict in Columbia (the nation where Hexwood is located) without referring to slavery or race. Far too much time is spent in culture today dwelling on these topics, I wanted something different and fresh. But in order to really evoke the same kind of tensions as the Civil War it needed to have elements that provoked strong distrust on both sides, as well as a clear potential for power imbalances that needed to be reckoned with but ultimately wasn’t until violence forced the issue. 

After some thought I decided that the theme of this conflict should be Old versus New. In many ways the Civil War was also a conflict of old and new ways, with slavery being one of humanity’s oldest institutions and America’s economic and cultural ideas of freedom still one of the newest ideas in culture and governance. But again, to avoid making this too on the nose, I chose to make it a conflict between old magic and new. Mark Pendleton, the protagonist of the story, worked best if he fought on the losing side and so he wound up a representative of old magic. 

Sulfurite is a lot like coal, it’s something you dig out of the ground that makes fire. Granted, sulfurite is rechargeable and basically functions as a battery that holds fire rather than electricity but the general principle is actually not that different than coal and thus I’d been thinking of volcanic magic as a very industrial flavor of magic. New, a little untrustworthy but very powerful. Thus it didn’t make sense for Mark to use volcanic magic, or at least not exclusively, so he had to use a different flavor of magic that was preindustrial and at least somewhat philosophically opposed to mechanization. When developing my main character I decided I wanted his magic to feel more ecclesiastical, so Mark got incense and a dowsing rod. I knew he’d need more than that but the later changes to Mark’s magic powers had more to do with his character than the world building, and with two plant based magics as a starting place – Mark specifically burns mandrake roots to use his central power and dowsing rods are wooden – I found myself thinking of him as a druid. That perfectly fit the bill for a system of old magic that would oppose a more “industrial” magic so I settled on the “Civil War” conflict in the setting being a conflict between druidic and volcanic magics rather than a war over economies and slavery. 

With druids in the mix my mind immediately went to Stonehenge. Now that monument predates known druidic traditions but what I really needed was something that would emphasize the Anglo nature of the druidic tradition and Stonehenge is a truly iconic English megalith. So I made stone circles like Stonehenge an integral part of the druidic tradition. Mark trained at one, called Moraine Henge, fought to protect it during the Columbian Civil War (not a name that stuck), and watched it destroyed when his side lost. The individual stone formations – dolmen – were smashed and the druidic tradition ended, at least for a time. The only thing left was to give the conflict a name – or better yet, two. The American Civil War actually has two names, after all (the other is the War of Northern Aggression, and yes some people still refer to it as such) and each illustrates how one side thought of the conflict. So in Hexwood you may hear some people refer to the Lakeshire War – a reference to where the war was fought, certainly, but also the people blamed for starting the conflict. Other people refer to the war by its outcome – Dolmenfall, a reference to the destruction of a treasured and irreplaceable cultural touchstone. 

Raging Skies, Burning Stone and Arthur Phoenixborn 

For the last five or six years the idea of doing something with the mythology of King Arthur has percolated in the back of my mind. Ideas ran from the Once and Future King returning to aid modern day Britain, as the legends promised, to a clash between the Knights of the Round Table and other equally legendary figures, such as Greek heroes or Taoist Immortals. Nothing ever came of any of those ideas. 

So when I was trying to ground Mark’s druidic traditions back into a larger cultural context King Arthur came to mind quite naturally. It took a little massaging but I managed to work disparate parts of various Arthurian story ideas I had tinkered with into a unified system and installed it as the mythical framework for the nation of Avalon, the England of Mark’s world, replacing the increasingly incongruous Dark Souls style mythos. It also let me establish a cultural throughline that would otherwise have been very difficult to explain. 

You see, the English cultural heritage that underpins American culture, including the Old West, is distinctly Christian in nature, trading on ideas about Kings submitting to laws, mercy as a component of justice, and the imperfect nature of man that only the Western Christian tradition has ever seriously tried to put into practice. What’s interesting about Arthur is that much of his mythos seems to be an attempt to assimilate those Christian ideas into the culture of the old Angles, with Arthur himself serving as a clear Messianic figure. 

My original intent with importing Arthur into the world of Hexwood was just to give the nation of Avalon a suitably mystical feeling origin. But once I realized I needed to ground the philosophies of Avalon and Columbia in something substantial in order for them to ring true Avalon’s First and Forever King started to take on more significance. He died and came back, gaining the title of Pheonixborn (replacing our Arthur’s title of Pendragon, which sounded too much like Pendleton for me to use). He united the druids and founded the Knights of the Stone Circle to place their powers at the service of the people, rather than the other way around. And he picked up two guardian deities, the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, to emphasize the idea that even the King himself should submit to authority, law and other abstract truths in order to build a stronger nation. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a coherent religion it does go a long way to fleshing out the philosophical underpinnings of the world outside the town of Hexwood, where Mark and his friends live. 

And there you have it. These were the first three major steps in fleshing out a world around my simply story about magic rocks. It barely scratches the surface of all the different things I tinkered with while building Hexwood‘s world and I’m sure more things will be added and subtracted in the days to come. But hopefully you enjoyed this little glance into the process and how just one idea can quickly spiral out into many layers of complexity if you just think about it for a bit. 

What? You wanted to read a story in that world? Well, Hexwood is a comic, you see. It’s not quite done with production although I can share the cover art with you here: 

But I don’t plan on publishing the script here. Still. Maybe we can work something out. Come back next week. You may be pleasantly surprised. 

Genrely Speaking: Weird Western

Boy oh boy we have not done this in a while. Long time readers know that genres are a thing that fascinate me, they are at once an attempt to codify stories and make discussing them easier and, at the same time, somewhat arbitrary groupings that carry different connotations among different people. For whatever reason the standards, exceptions and idiosyncrasies of genre classification entice me to think about stories through new lenses as I try and narrow down exactly what defines a story and its thematic content. Now all genres are broad categories and they tend to spawn a bunch of subgenres that narrow the scope to an extent, which for the purpose of Genrely Speaking are counted as regular genres rather than some beast of their own. A subgenre is almost narrow enough to be a useful tool for analysis rather than just a section in the library. 

That is, when it’s not just two genres pasted one on top of the other. 

Enter: The Weird Western. 

As the name implies this genre is built on a base of the Western. It has all the open horizons, independent lives and harsh consequences as that genre but it layers something… extra on top of that. That extra usually comes in the form of some kind of Space Opera or Low Fantasy (or, on rare occasions, some other Fantasy genre). On the one hand a Space Western can serve as a look at technology or social trends when they’re boiled down to just one or a handful of people surviving in harsh places. On the other a Fantasy Western takes many of the superstitions and traditions of the West and makes them real, living forces that the protagonists have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Given the many facets this broad genre can take I’m going to confine “weird western” to the realm of the second half of the blend, the Western with Low Fantasy, and refer to the first half as a Space Western. Note that this doesn’t rule out the Weird Space Western for the truly ambitious writer (see: Jack Irons, the Steel Cowboy.) Given this context, what are the pillars of the Weird Western? 

  1. Personification of the forces of change. This can take many forms, from clashes between Native American and European figures of myth to the personifications of railways directing expansion west to some kind of magical disaster driving people across the plains, some form of the supernatural will be involved in humanity’s move westward. This is true even if the Weird Western is set in some fictional world with no historical ties to the United States. One interpretation of this theme that I found particularly interesting was Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, where zombies started slowly overrunning the West in a metaphor for the creeping dehumanization of mechanization. 
  2. Magic as a treasure to acquire. The West was a place where people grabbed for a great many things. Land, water, livestock, transportation and precious metals to name a few. While all of those things still hold value in most Weird Westerns most of the players in the story are more interested in magic, which serves as a stand in that simplifies and streamlines the many different conflicts of a traditional Western into something a modern audience can easily understand. As modern culture has moved away from the kinds of work that defined the Old West fights over pasture or farm land and the relentless expansion of the railways have lost some of their immediate impact. Many Americans today don’t even own their own property, much less property that they use to sustain themselves. They are more used to wealth and prosperity in the abstract, in terms of bank balance, investment and the like. Magic in a Weird Western typically serves as an analogy to these more familiar landmarks of prosperity and survival and frames the characters’ desires in a format modern readers instantly resonate with. 
  3. A focus on outsiders. While the Western has always had its love for characters from ‘outside’ communities, from the traveling gunfighter to the displaced veteran, they still tend to focus heavily on specific communities. High Noon, Shane and Tombstone all feature very, very local stories with mostly local casts adding maybe one or two outsiders to provide prospective or an audience vantage point. This makes the narrative a bit more grounded and lends the tale an air of believability (roving gunslingers were by far the exception in the West, after all). In Weird Westerns outsiders are often a much bigger part of the narrative, with large numbers of them roving the West in search of the things that make them powerful and effective. Or, on the flip side, the story may feature people who have been displaced from a quiet town or camp and forced into bigger, more mystical environments that they must then learn to survive in. This lends the Weird Western Genre a tendency to build casts of hunter gatherers, rather than farmers or miners. If not balanced properly it can undercut the Western feel of a story (see the novel A Few Souls More for an example of this). 

What are the weaknesses of the Weird Western? It combines two genres that have a limited appeal. The most popular flavors of fantasy are some kind of Modern or Urban Fantasy and High or Epic Fantasy while Western is a genre few people pay much attention to at all. The tropes and archetypes that define the genre just aren’t as immediate and appealing to most people as they used to be. 

The genre also runs a serious risk of doing too much to really excel at any one thing. Most Weird Westerns try to blend a magic system or two with building a realistic supernatural West, strong characters, historical events and real world cultures. They also need a good plot, the ability to write dialog that is at once snappy and somewhat archaic and a sense of the bittersweet nature of a vanishing frontier. The author needs to do all of these things while balancing them so neither half of the Weird/West balance overwhelms the other. It’s a hard genre to do well and not a lot of people will be excited even if you execute perfectly. 

What are the strengths of the Weird Western? Like many forms of fantasy it gives us the ability to examine difficult questions at a bit of a remove. But more than that, when done right it taps into a section of myth that is powerful and currently quite fresh and new to the modern mind. The West is also one of the best settings to juxtapose modern knowledge and understanding with the conflicts of might and right, civilization and nature. Many of the conflicts we face today are the same as were fought in the West, and with the supernatural to personify the clashing forces there’s much you can say quickly and easily in the Weird West. 

The biggest struggle in the Weird West is building a world that will hold both the supernatural and mundane human portions of the narrative. The West was a very specific place and time, as I’ve mentioned before, and you have to be careful how you introduce anything new to it if you wish to keep the defining elements of the Western present. It’s fun, for sure, but also a tricky challenge. There may be something to talk about there. Hm… maybe we’ll take a crack at that next week.