Orosynthe devlog: References are important, even in fantasy

Hello everyone! I hope you’re having a nice August so far. Personally I’ll be working through all of it and won’t stop until next year (the joys of freelance life!) but I already had some rest a few months ago, so I’m not complaining. 😉 Also, for now I have more than enough free time to work on creative stuff and update this blog, which makes me happy! So let’s go.

In last week’s entry I talked a bit about my “new-old” project, Orosynthe, and how I’m tackling its development process. I also showed you some early mockups and a logo concept.

Today I wanted to talk about the next main step in the project’s roadmap: gathering references and documentation. This is something I had never (and I mean never) done in any previous project, and even though it’s still very basic preliminary work and I will need to gather even more references in the future, it’s kept me occupied for a few weeks. I’ll try to explain how important references are and why I decided to use them so extensively this time, when I never had done so before.

I was already planning to talk about documentation today, but coincidentally this week I found a very interesting Twitter thread on this topic (I quote-tweeted it here), which made me think a bit more about the relationship between reality and fiction.

I’ve always enjoyed fiction with fantastical elements, be it magic, supernatural creatures, superheroes, monsters, imaginary settings, etc. Like most people, I used to think that fantasy meant “entirely made up, original” in a very strict sense: that is, I thought that it all came from the imagination of the creators. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that, actually, fantasy (and all fiction in general) isn’t created from nothing, but instead remixed from what we, as humans, have experienced in the real world. It took me even longer to put two and two together and start using references for my own art, and even longer to decide to use references not just for drawing certain body positions or pieces of clothing, but for crucial character- and world-building stuff.

References are important, I think, because we learn by imitation and by observation. We learn language because others speak it around us. We understand concepts because we link them to specific things in the real world, and they slowly populate our minds and provide the world around us with meaning. For example, nobody would’ve ever imagined a centaur if they didn’t first know what a horse was, right? I mean, the concept of “centaur” isn’t entirely original and separate from the real world: instead, it derives meaning from it, it extends it and reconstructs it somehow in our imaginations, while still being based on something real. That’s what I mean.

I’ve spent many years trying to build “entirely original” characters and worlds and coming up with concepts and designs that, in the end, were just echoes of myself and my very limited understanding of the world (and, also, much less “entirely original” than I would’ve liked, to be honest). This romantic (as in from Romanticism) way of thinking feels freeing at first, but in the end I think it has the opposite effect: it limits you, because you feel like you have to “be better” than reality and other works of art, instead of learning from them, and in turn everything you make is kind of naïve, like you’re trying to reinvent the wheel all the time and it never turns out quite right. To create, we need materials. Reality and art are the clay that we use to create even more art, if that makes sense.

Look, if you want to create fictional worlds, you don’t have to be an architect: you can unashamedly steal ideas from real buildings and urban plannings. You don’t have to be an expert on anatomy: you can use models or trace pictures. You don’t need to be an excellent judge of character or a psychologist: you can read on it. You’re allowed to take shortcuts. In fact you should take all the shortcuts, all the time, since you will spend all of your life trying to keep up with the shortcuts anyway and you’ll never get to the end of them. You understand what I mean? There’s no shame in relying on others, or imitating stuff that already exists. In fact, that’s what we should all be doing.

(Disclaimer: what I’m defending here isn’t plagiarism. That topic warrants a few blog entries all of its own, but for the sake of discussion, I’m referring to a legal and moral use of references here.)

I don’t know. Some artists prefer to create in a more “isolated” manner (after they soak up a lot of references may I add, nothing comes from nothing) and it’s perfectly valid, but I’ve come to realize that it just doesn’t work like that for me. I need material to work with, something to reorder, to remix, to think about. I need little bits of reality here and there, like a puzzle, to make my worlds and characters richer.

So that’s why I’ve chosen to use so many references for, like, everything in my current project, even if it’s fantasy. It doesn’t have to be accurate by any means, but references from historical buildings or civilizations, for example, are an excellent source of ideas. In the end, if you want to create a facsimile of real people and real places (aka fiction), the best way is just to just… base it on real people and real places? Surprising, I know. Who would’ve thought.

Well, that got very deep very fast! Haha. I think I’ll wrap this up here for today. Thank you very much for reading, and until the next time.

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