When it comes to WorldBuilding: the importance of plants in your story is paramount.
Yet, it s often overlooked, or at the very least given a marginal representation. Now, I do realize that in some instances, such as a story set in the deep throes of space or on an abandoned planet, or in dystopian genres, the existence of plants may be scarce. Does that mean, however, that they don’t exist? Surely, not. Ever heard the old saying, life always finds a way? Think about it, even in the deepest, darkest, depths of the ocean, there is still some sort of marine plant life. Even in the most arid of deserts, there is still plant life. Dude! Even Antarctica has them! They’re everywhere! So, why therefore, does most stories barely mention them at all?
Now before my comment section explodes, let me preface by saying, OBVIOUSLY, the whole darn story isn’t going to focus on the plants, that is just crazy talk…unless…they’re mutant, zombie, people-eating plants that move around on their roots. Then that (if you can do it convincingly) is pretty awesome! The point is, obviously, there are ways to write around the need for foliage but, it does add a level of realism to your story. I’m sick of reading stories set on spaceships and barren wastelands and so forth. Why not stories set in bogs, swamps, calderas, etc. I’ll deal with that topic more extensively in the future, but the point is, when it comes to building your own unique world, don’t forget about the most basic of elements. Greenery.
PLANTS AS SETTINGS
Ahhh….the classic, boring and ridiculously safe, forest trope. Never have I ever run across one that wasn’t contrived (<= yay! double negative!). Listen, just because a forest is included, doesn’t mean its a good one. Its so overdone, and badly used these days. Forest generally serve as an exit point. A lazy way the author can get their character out of trouble or as the scene of the boring (and also overused) hunting scenes. Like seriously? Are there nooo other places game can be? Sheesh!
Instead of the forest as mere exit point, why not make it a central figure in the story? There are so many fascinating ways to jazz up old Stumpy the Tree (dude! I’m totally thinking Steampunk Robin Hood here!). What’s more, go beyond the grain, why not make the forest itself a character? Be it haunted, be it possessed, be it whatever, just make it more than the overdone escape strategy.
So many interesting things could happen in forests, swamps, underwater mer-worlds that would affect everything from the clothing your characters wear, to the way they communicate. For example…just go with me on this ok…
EHEM! Sooo…you can totally have a forest dwelling race of people, right. Dude! Lets say they dwell in a bamboo forest (ch’ya!). Their clothing could be composed of animal skins (you know…for warmth) and coated on the outside with moss so they can camouflage with the greenery in their environment.
They can communicate with each other, not necessarily by words, but with certain ways they touch the bamboo to produce sounds (think drums in African and Native American cultures). OR! Or…they can produce sounds out of a hollowed out stalk of a bamboo and the tone, pitch, and frequency can convey different messages!
Ok…so I know its a little far fetched, but the point is still clear. The fact that they LIVE in a bamboo forest means they would have to depend on the plant for their survival and livelihood. It makes their world more interesting, more sensory and therefore, more believable.
PLANTS AS FOOD
Yo! Waddup with all the dang meat and broth in stories? Seriously? Its like authors forget that the vast majority of the food we consume is in fact, derived from a plant. Like duh! Think cereal, potatoes, corn (maize), beans, lentils, spinach, tomatoes, oatmeal, WHEAT, etc.
So why are most foods in books so dang, one dimensional? Now, if you are creating a fantasy world, obviously, you would want to incorporate your own foliage; but, the point to consider is that humans (if you’re writing about a carnivorous race of non-people…carry on) do not consume ONLY meat. Whew! Talk about you’re bathroom trip from hell. Imagine yourself not eating your roughage.
What happens to your butt a few hours later? Go ahead and think about it…I’ll wait. *sips my tea*
EXACTLY! Not a fun time. So, what on earth makes you think you character wouldn’t need the same? Believability, people. Believability.
Maybe this is just me, but you know what else I would love to see? I would love to see some food actually getting prepared. I mean, don’t bore me with every stupid little detail, but show me how the character would prepare a meal. How did it taste? Are they a good cook, hell do they have a green thumb for their kitchen garden? Show me!
PLANTS AS MEDICINE
And another thing! Plants are also medicinal. We take for granted that today, many of our drugs are synthetic, but back in the day (and still today)…they were strictly plant based. Every few years, the new wonder plant is discovered (Moringa any one?). I have a hard time believing a story where the protagonist falls deathly ill, one chapter, and by the next chapter they are miraculously better. Like…fa real tho? So, you’re just a super healing ninja, huh? Yeah…ok. *rolls eyes*. Fantasy writers, I’m looking at you. I see you, YA. Get back here Sci-Fi!
Oh, wait, did you think you got away, Sci-Fi? What? Just because you have some fancy tech at your disposal, you think you don’t need plants? So…when you crash land on a foreign planet and your provisions run down and the nearest ship is ten light-years away, and Johnny-boy, is deathly ill…what you gonna do? Let Johnny-boy die cause you’re too snooty to test out the local plant population? Gimme a break!
Call me silly, but I would love to see more medicinal uses of plants highlighted in fictional worlds. Make it about the character’s development and a new skill they have adopted and win/win.
PLANTS AS POISON
Also to think about, along the vein of medicinal purposes, plants are also poisonous. Have your character choke on poison ivy, wipe their butt with poison oak, or eat belladonna berries and watch the carnage unfold. At the very least, it could provide a healthy dose of comedy in an otherwise somber plot line. Cause, come on…who wouldn’t laugh at their friend who wiped their butt with poison oak…*raises hand*. LOL
Miscellaneous Uses for Plants
Besides the obvious as listed above, here a few other ways to think of using plants in your story.
In some cultures, the giving of particular plants are tokens of friendship, trust and well wishes. Back in the day…when a couple wed, they were given a plant. If the plant thrived in the household, it signified that the couple was happy and healthy in their relationship. If the plant began to whither it was a sign of friction in the household and if the plant died, it was a bad omen that so would the relationship.
Now, these old wives tales may not hold much merit in today’s modern, progressive society, but it is something to take into consideration. For example, even today the color of a particular flower signifies certain attributes. A red rose for example, signified love; a yellow rose, friendship; a white rose, purity or well wishes. Certain plants were considered good luck, such as the four leaf clover. Some were bad luck, such as certain nightshades. Some signified death and others promoted happiness and peace.
Plants can also be attributed to wealth. For example, a farmer with a large field of crop is considered infinitely better off than lets say the poor peasant’s backyard garden. Consider also, the merchant who sells fresh produce in a land stricken by blight. How much more would he be revered in that city? The Emperor of Rome’s laurel crown signified that he was much better off than the rest of his subjects.
Consider this for your story. How can certain plants be used to highlight or detract from a person’s worth. Is someone living in a bamboo hut more esteemed than the one living in a moss covered tent?
Uhhh….wine! Rum is made from fermented cane juice. DUDE! Moonshine was made from fermented potato by product, during prohibition. How can your society use plants to feed their consumption?
When you consider that most twigs that help start a fire and become tinder are actually a part of a plant, this is pretty self explanatory. Consider also that plant by products can also fuel man made machines. For example, used vegetable oil is now being used to power automobiles. How can you incorporate this into the tech of your story? Corn powered laser, anyone?
All in all, the uses of plants are too numerous to name here. There is just soooo much we can do with them. Its sad that our stories don’t incorporate more of them. But, you be the innovator and change that. Until then G-NATION…Genesys out!