MIND MELD: Lessons Learned From Master World-Builders
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Shared Worlds, the annual teen writing camp, is once again approaching. (July 17-30, 2011 at Wofford College — space is still available for interested teens!) In an effort to support these future writers, we asked this week’s panelists about world-building:
Here’s what they said…
I hardly know what this means. I used to draw a rough map if the story was a ‘journey’ adventure and made up the rest as needed for the story. My worlds are always inner (unconscious) worlds made manifest. I just learned to tap and shape that unconscious. I’ve never really understood ‘world building’ and it seems to derive from D&D etc. about which I know almost nothing.
I honestly believe this is what Howard was doing and what Leiber was doing. I grew up reading Freud and Jung (as it were) and I respond well to plots about people creating their own worlds in their minds. When writing s&s I made my landscapes and weather conditions fit the mood of the characters in straight Romantic tradition. Everything is co-opted into narrative and to a lesser extent character development. Realism or quasi-realism wasn’t what I was attracted to in s&s and it’s what I rejected in fantasy/sf. It became a convention to suspend disbelief by making the invented world as ‘believable’ as possible. I preferred mine to be as supportive of the story as possible and not bother to suspend disbelief because my readers already knew what they were reading and why. You don’t have to persuade someone who has picked up a fantasy book that it is ‘real’. What they want is a good story and characters, some good marvels, and maybe a bit to think about.
Tolkein, obviously, was one of the first modern fantasy writers to create a real immersive secondary fantasy world. One of the things that made his world seem so real is that you catch glimpses of other stories that aren’t explained in the book. I learned that lesson from him.
Brandon Sanderson is one of our more modern masters. The Mistborn books are set in a truly unique fantasy landscape. And that’s not saying anything about Elantris or the Stormlight archive.
Frank Herbert was a brilliant worldbuilder, too. In some ways I think he might have been more a worldbuilder than a novelist. He would build a world, tell a story in it, then move on and create another world that held another story. My lesson from him? If you want to move on and leave your world behind to tell other stories, do it. He was pressured into writing the later Dune books, though I think it went against his nature. And I think it really shows.
Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’s Servant of the Empire series. Tris was the first series I read that really impressed upon me how successful fantasy could be when based on a non-western culture. Until that moment I had read only high fantasy of the Tolkinian style medieval-based type. This series taught me many lessons, not the least of which was that studying the political infrastructures and societies of many different ancient cultures could provide foundations for exotic and usual fantasy worlds, and also for alien lands in sci-fi.
The world is not flat. The world is variable: David Eddings, The Belgariad
Eddings has a good sense of geography: terrain, weather, seasons and distance. I still recall two characters mentioning that a relative, who was many miles west, was probably still sleeping since the sun had not risen there yet. Enter into your own created world with the thoroughness of a real-world explorer. Examine the maps, assess the climate, calculate how far is a day’s travel by foot, horse, steam train or jet, as is appropriate. And if your plot spans more than one hemisphere, remember that midnight doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone.
The world contains people, who are also variable: Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
If I had a dollar for every fictional world that even semi-accurately represented the human demographics of the real world I’d have … oh, well. Moving along. Le Guin doesn’t make that mistake with Earthsea. Pale humans at the poles shading to dark humans at the equator – it’s practically a law of radiation, barring large-scale colonisation by one group or a bizarre and convenient mutation of all.
The people have languages, which tend to be variable: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Not fair, you say, to take the pet project of a linguist as an example of worldbuilding. Well, consider it the ideal rather than the norm. I can only believe in monolingual worlds if they are settled by one group that maintains excellent, longstanding communication networks between and within all countries, thus allowing a common speech to resist evolution into different dialects, creoles and languages. Science fiction worlds have a far better excuse than fantasy ones in this regard.
Variability is sometimes inexplicable and often absurd: Terry Pratchett, the novels of Discworld
I don’t know of any writers who understand all of this world, so why try to explain everything in a made-up world? Embrace the absurdity and work with it. The trials of an honest policeman in a corrupt city are the same from New York to Hong Kong to Ankh Morpork. It’s the policeman that’s important; the dragons and such are just local colour. You might create a world that’s an impeccably constructed marvel of design, but don’t let it outshine your characters. Even if you know exactly how everything works, preserve a little mystery.
World building is one of my weak spots (there’s a reason all my novels take place in the “real” world, or alternate version thereof), so I’m always on the lookout for authors who can help me with this. One of the things I look for as a reader: stories whose worlds are so immersive that I stop questioning the world. When the world-building becomes invisible, I stop noticing all the bells and whistles and just live there, right along with the characters. I tend to like evocative world-builders — the ones that make me feel like I’m living in their worlds, through the emotions and imagery — rather than the concrete ones who have maps and language glossaries.
It’s important to remember — world-building happens no matter what you’re writing about. Modern mysteries, historical, contemporary romance, as well as far-future science fiction and epic fantasy, all engage in world-building at some level. It’s how you immerse your reader in the story. My own picks for master world-builders:
- Iain M. Banks: The sheer, gozno, gee-whiz-wow of the Culture books should, by all rational sense, take them out of the realm of reasonable, acceptable world building. They’re just too crazy. But I buy it all, no questions asked. Banks writes with a confidence that leaves me thinking, Well of course a sentient self-aware ship would call itself Congenital Optimist or Fate Amenable to Change. Of course this person would want to stay awake while a new body is being grown for his decapitated head. It just makes sense. Somehow. What I’ve learned: Go big or go home.
- Robin McKinley: I want to live in Damar. McKinley’s writing is so fairy tale and dreamlike, it’s not an overt exercise in concrete world-building. In The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, we’re given a broad-strokes, watercolor picture of the world. But it’s a brilliant, evocative picture. McKinley draws on many identifiable influences — Tolkien, British colonial India, Lawrence of Arabia — and it’s those choices of details that appeal to my hindbrain, because I feel like I’ve read these stories before. Her worlds feel familiar, even though they’re imaginary. It’s only on a recent rereading of The Blue Sword that I realized how influenced McKinley is by Tolkien, and how much the Damarian City of the Hills feels like Gondor. It makes sense — Tolkien is also a master of evocative world-building. What I’ve learned: Love the world, and show that love in your writing.
- Steven Erikson: I’m a big fan of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like Banks, Erikson writes about his world, and the hundred thousand years of history and lore that includes, with so much confidence, that I can’t help but be carried along. I love that he doesn’t spend much time explaining all the different races, cultures, lore of the dragons, the history, the complicated magic system. He rolls it all out like a tapestry and expects the reader to see the big picture. I explore Erikson’s worlds through the characters, so my understanding comes through them. It means that since the characters don’t spend any time explaining things they all already know, I’m left as something of a fly on the wall, exploring the epic scope of the world through tiny eyes. But I love a writer who thinks I’m smart enough to figure things out. What I’ve learned: The characters have to believe the world, and feel like they’re really living there, before the reader will believe it.
- C.J. Cherryh: The Merchanter/Alliance books convince me that people really might live and work in space as a matter of course. These feel like some distant future’s historical fiction. The detail that got me: condensation dripping off the ceilings in the space station docks. I could smell the place, and hear the metallic sounds echoing down the corridor. This is gritty, working-class space opera, depicting the routine of station and ship-board life, which is completely alien to my own world, but somehow familiar. What I’ve learned: The devil is in the details. The right, select details. A few choice details are a million times better than describing every little thing.
I think you can watch The Wire and see true master world-building. The first season drops you into an alien world, with unfamiliar rituals, languages, and problems, and then slowly unpacks it all– criminals, police, politicians, newsrooms, schools–the broken social experiment of the city itself. Telling details pile up– everything from the vials crushed underfoot, to the beer cans hurled atop the police station, to the arcana of juking the stats. By the time you’re listening to Snoop complain about her nail gun and how it always craps out on her–and understanding every word–you realize that you’ve become completely immersed. You’re connected both to the story and the place. Every character and every scene illuminates Baltimore and its predicament, and makes it more real, more tangible, and more immediate. That’s master world-building.
I’d have to say Jane Gaskell, Sheri S Tepper, Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer and who could forget Tolkien?
I think what I learned from all of them is that effective world-building doesn’t need everything to be huge and original and fantastical. That you can bring your reader along with you far more willingly if you anchor them in your secondary world with talismans from the ‘real world’ first of all … then start bringing in the weird stuff.
Gaskell’s Atlan Saga, Tepper’s True Game series, Kelly Link’s The Faery Handbook (and just about everything else of hers), VanderMeer’s Ambergris books, and Tolkien’s building of Hobbiton, all start with little ordinary details of life that we recognise before they throw in something new and strange. Gaiman does it too with American Gods. Henry James said something along the lines that a ghost story needed to be connected with reality at a hundred points in order to convince the reader and I think this holds true for speculative fiction work.
I think my favorite worldbuilders are those who create realistic people and societies. I can swallow quite a few magical or scientific whoppers as long as I have that. I’m a huge fan of C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy, for example, because its magic acknowledges both social science and the physical/natural sciences. On Erna, a world settled by human colonists, magic is a natural force generated by the planet which responds to lifeforms’ needs. Not a problem for the local flora and fauna — they essentially get evolution on demand, rather than the geologically slow version seen on Earth. But since humans have a deeply conflicted subconscious that cannot be controlled, the colonists started getting slaughtered by essentially their own nightmares and imaginary creations. The only way they could save themselves was to impose rules on the whole mess — because if there’s one thing every human culture believes in to some degree, it’s magic. So declaring the natural Ernan force to be “magic” and treating it accordingly gave the humans a degree of control, at least in the short term.
So already we’ve got psychodynamic theory and anthropological awareness showing itself in Friedman’s worldbuilding. But on top of that she adds realistic sociology and psychology. In theory, slapping D&D rules on themselves should’ve forced the colonists into some kind of hellish quasi-medieval existence. Technologically, it did. But the people of Erna are still the descendants of spacefaring folk — probably Americans, although it’s not clear — and they never forgot that, so it’s very much a *quasi* medievalism. Friedman never lets the reader forget that the feudal trappings are just a veneer laid over an otherwise modern society. They experiment with an English-style nobility, and discard it just as easily once they realize the system creates dangerous concentrations of power and prestige. Women aren’t treated as chattel or inferior; they’ve clearly retained some ability to control reproduction, and they can step outside their culture’s gender roles if they like. So can men. While there’s a powerful Church, it rules not through the threat of hellfire or superstition, but the more rational threat of “if you don’t at least go through the motions, critters generated from your subconscious will eat your brain”. To be honest it’s not clear whether anyone in the story actually believes in God or any form of divinity; they believe in *belief*, since that manifests so easily on Erna — which makes perfect sense. And although the original colonists are romanticized by their descendants, Friedman makes it clear they hadn’t resolved all their own issues. Later in the series the protagonists find a separate human settlement whose people are significantly darker-skinned, which hints at an early racial division.
Friedman also includes several cases of desperate or deeply traumatized people making decisions that run counter to their own interests — because if nothing annoys me more, it’s fantasies in which everyone behaves with perfect logic and predictable self-interest. That doesn’t happen in the real world; why should it happen in fictional ones? But that doesn’t mean characters can just do things willy-nilly, either — there are observable patterns to human behavior, even at its most irrational. Friedman does a good job of adhering to these.
So this is the lesson I took from Coldfire: the so-called “soft” sciences are just as crucial to worldbuilding as the physical and natural sciences, and this applies equally to fantasy as well as science fiction. This is the literature of ideas, sure — but those ideas can and should include people, not just technology or magic.
Predictably enough, it was from J.R.R. Tolkien that I learned worlds can be built in the first place. I was eight years old when my mother bought me The Lord of the Rings for Christmas. She ended up getting two more copies from the library as I had to lock myself into the bathroom in order to read it without my older brothers wrestling it away from me. It was not long after that I first decided to try my hand at writing a novel, got as far as twenty sheets or so – and became hopelessly lost. It’s been years since I last read Tolkien, but whatever I may have come to think of his influence on speculative fiction, for me to open one of his books is to come home.
After Tolkien, from a number of authors better left unnamed, I learned how not to build a world: for example, to map it out at the start and then walk your characters methodically all over it, in what I like to call guide book fantasy. If you want to be a writer it can do you a world of good to read a bad book on occasion. It’s frustrating trying to become as good as the best of authors, much more so than trying to become better than the bad ones. Besides, there was very little fantasy available in Finnish while I was growing up, and I wasn’t interested in science fiction before my late teens.
From Gabriel Garcia Marquez I’ve learned that a world need not be any larger than an imaginary village in an almost real country; and from Salman Rushdie that it can be as large as a whole subcontinent in the real world. As an adolescent I used to read mainstream fiction set in India and dream of going there one day. Once I laid my hands on Midnight’s Children I could content myself with reading because I realized the real India could never live up to Rushdie’s magical one.
A quality shared by all my favourite world-builders — authors like William Gibson, Robert Holdstock and China Miéville — is an originality of vision, an ability to astonish me with their ideas time and again, and shake me out of my occasional cynical delusion that there’s nothing left that hasn’t already been written. Is originality something you can be taught, then? Probably not, but at least you can be inspired by others to aspire to it in your own work.
Finally, from Ursula K. Le Guin, whom it would be an understatement to call anything less than a universe-builder, I’ve learned that a world is at its best a thing organic and dynamic, with a life of its own. I sincerely hope that I can, someday, learn from Le Guin something of her ability to write with both beauty and respect about such horrors and sufferings which, unfortunately, are very universal but may seem almost unspeakable to an author less skilful and insightful. There’s a special kind of wisdom to all of Le Guin’s work that cannot be learned by reading and writing alone.
Worldbuilding is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, in conjunction with the Shared Worlds writing program. I think it’s useful to consider woldbuilding in two ways: first, how successful (i.e., how believable) is the secondary world? And second, how does this world impact the characters? (Because this is what I, as a reader, actually care about — immersive worlds are nothing unless populated by interesting people.) So for the first, I think we need to mention China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels, whose world is vivid, detailed, overbuilt, lurid, insane and totally works because it has an internal consistency; at the same time, it just sort of overwhelms the reader with its sheer audacity. (Yep, Cactus People. What are you gonna do about it?) The very strangeness of the world necessitates the descriptiveness and yet ensures that the reader will remain riveted. Because if the world is familiar (as in any generic pseudo-Medieval fantasy), there’s just no excuse in spending hundreds of pages explaining every little quirk of feudal economy.
Jeff VanderMeer, who has been involved with Shared Worlds from the very beginning, also has an elaborate secondary world (and a surrounding multi-media mythology.) He often uses his world as a backdrop to what could otherwise be regular literary novels, and the world itself becomes an extra layer, moving over the plot and casting a transparent yet colorful image over it, like sunlight passing through the stained glass. In his latest Ambergris book, Finch, you have your regular noir detective… who starts the book by investigating a possible murder of a fungus. Things get stranger from there.
In both of these examples, the worlds are really different from the familiar ones — and that, in my mind, justifies the excesses of description and detail. In a world that we do know and CAN conceive of, what matters is that how the lives of characters are affected. In those cases, best worldbuilding is little to no worldbuiling in the traditional sense. There are many fine examples of such books; the most recent one I read was Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine. It’s coming out in May, and I was fortunate enough to get an early look.
There’s very little description of the background in this book, and what is there is left vague. Instead the reality of the world is told indirectly, as it’s written (almost literally) on the skin of the characters. Consider this, from the beginning of the book:
The dancing girls come next. They are all muscle under their filmy skirts-they once were soldiers or factory workers, they pack and unpack as much rig as the tumblers-but the audience demands dancing girls, so they make do. [...] they uncover as much as they can of their skin (you have to cover the scars, of course).
You don’t need a gritty landscape description to grasp what is going on here, and the focus remains on the characters, who become the embodiment of the world.
As a character nut, my perspective on worldbuilding tends to be filtered through that lens; the worlds that come to life the most for me are those that seem realest in terms of their impact on characters. As a movie nut, worldbuilding often happens in fleeting glimpses between moments of dialogue; I think I tend to seek out that same style of worldbuilding in my fiction.
Obviously Tolkien is a master of worldbuilding, with approximately 80,000 pages of tertiary worldbuilding in addition to the actual novels, but he’s hardly alone in building a world so thoroughly that it could all be constructed wholesale by a god with some time on his hands. Not that it requires several tomes; Guy Gavriel Kay is an expert at making a single volume read with the breadth of a trilogy, especially in Tigana.
I also enjoy and admire authors who build worlds in glimpses, providing a world beyond what they have made explicit. Often these are more confined geographically (like Ekaterina Sedia’s city-bound The Alchemy of Stone), but occasionally this sense is also found in a wider geography and history, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness being a prime example, alongside Connie Willis’s Bellweather. More recently, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms bridged the gap between scope and depth, giving us a world that combined a deep exploration of identity in a world so wide even its gods came out to play.
And worldbuilding of this style isn’t only the realm of novels; the X-Men exist in a fully-realized world of their own (Genosha and the Savage Land are practically Google-mapped), and short stories like Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Last Worders” manage to build a haunting world in a few thousand words.
To build a world, every writer works with surface tension, the ongoing balance between the words and the reader that builds and sustains that fictional world. Christopher Marlowe does it masterfully in his plays, with language that tastes good to the mind as well as to the actor’s voice. John Crowley does it beautifully in Little, Big. Emily Dickinson does it with pointillist precision in her poems. Every writer makes a world to share and every writer has to make it real, whether its components are fantastic or everyday.
I originally came up with a different set of authors, but then realized I had focused on authors who build information-rich worlds: technical detail, history, linguistics. It didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t sure these were people I could say had influenced me. I ended up with the authors below because worldbuilding isn’t necessarily about sheer information weight: there are other qualities that make the worlds feel genuine and real.
I grew up reading Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. Her world is both delightful and scary; what looks cute on the surface turns out to be some of the darkest, most profound stuff I’ve read to this day. Jansson populates her world in asides and parentheses – whole species are glimpsed in a corner and then disappear. To me, her world is so vivid because of this completely unapologetic mix of mundane details, childlike humour, bizarre ideas and deep melancholy. It’s a world that both makes you feel at home and gives a sense of wonder. Jansson, I suppose, taught me that a solid world needs a mix of things that at first seem incompatible: silliness and sadness, everyday and horror.
I learned a lot about social structures and relationships from Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction. Her stuff was the first I read that gave thought to how people and psychology could be different in another world. What are the individuals like in a society where gender is an occasional phenomenon? How are their minds different from ours? I realized that it’s not enough to copy our own society, dress it in spiffy clothing and call it something else. All kinds of things could happen to your characters’ minds. It’s wonderful to find out what those things are.
I would also have to mention Neil Gaiman’s dreamworld of the Sandman graphic novels. His play with myth, archetypes and pop culture in the Dreaming affected me deeply as a teen. It made me feel like it wasn’t just a fantasy: this world belonged to me, too. I had had similar thoughts, vague ones, but reading Sandman made things click into place. What I took away from it was the idea that a world operates on a mythological level, too. There’s something lurking beneath the scaffolding, and it needs attention.
It’s probably obvious that CJ Cherryh was a large influence on my approach to world-building. I began reading her work in late high school and I was fascinated by her ability to convey subtle, realistic emotion and characterization amidst sometimes grandiose speculative vistas. That combination is what I strive for in my own work. World-building to me isn’t just about the pretty backgrounds and the cool locations. It’s not a travelogue. Whatever world I write in, I consider it another character and it should have the same sort of facets as any solid characterization. Her anthropological approach to her future (and fantasy) settings made me think of the history of my worlds/cultures outside of the confines of the pages or what was displayed. Whether her books showcased galactic cultures or dealt with a couple characters in a small Russian village, you got a sense of depth and longevity in both the people and the places, and how they informed one another through time.
I don’t think I encountered the term “world-building” until long after the point when I was already selling SF, so it’s always struck me as one of those hermetic, workshop-insider terms that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the actual process of writing.
Nor do I ever remember reading an SF novel, at any point in my life, and thinking “hey, great world-building going on here.” To me it smacks very much of the mindset that you must assemble your fictional universe from the atoms up – working out the orbits of your planets, the plate tectonics, the atmospheric chemistry, the irrigation, economics and sanitary plumbing of your invented society, in numbing detail, before you can get on with the trifling afterthought of actually doing fiction.
For me it doesn’t work like that, and I can’t imagine it works like that for many of the writers whose work means anything to me. In so far as world-building is meant to make an invented environment feel plausible, that plausibility is surely more effectively conveyed by the accumulated layering of depth and texture, the telling detail and the off-hand reference. That’s why Gene Wolfe’s Urth, or Herbert’s Arrakis, feel real to me: not,
I think, because either of them worked it all out beforehand.
I’d go so far as to say that if you’re impressed by the world-building, the world-building is too high up in the mix. And on that bomb-shell…
A number of writers helped me, as a young writer, understand that characterization *is* world-building, because, ultimately, any setting is seen through some character’s point of view-and all of the biological and environmental/cultural factors that go into that person’s experience will affect how they perceive the world. Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus particularly resonated with me, because of its three-pronged approach to building situation and setting. I also read a lot of heroic fantasy as a teenager, and I remember the grittiness and attention to physical detail of Glen Cook’s fiction helped-as did, frankly, the horrors of Frodo’s quest in Lord of the Rings. Also Patricia McKillip in her Hed series, for showing that a kind of delicacy of prose could support steel-strong world-building. Stepan Chapman, M. John Harrison, and Angela Carter, in very different ways, showed me, as a teen and adult, that world-building could be deliciously surreal-that dream-logic could prevail and pervade without everything seeming like a soulless hall of mirrors. The main thing, overall, that I learned would simply be that: there are a thousand ways to create a place and a thousand ways to portray it, but if you follow your characters, honestly and to the end, the place will become real around them.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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