The Art of the Invisible, the Beauty of the Complete

One of the ways in which I try to keep an active writing life is by meeting with other writers in the real world. We don’t spend much time writing when we meet, but it’s a nice way to remember that there are people behind those mysterious blog posts, short stories, poems and discussions that I get embroiled in online.

One of my friends is a guy who’s been working on fantasy stories. He’s very passionate about writing, and very dedicated to fantasy. But he despairs at his chance of publishing traditionally, because he perceives that he writes fantasy that’s too untraditional for the publishing world.

When I incredulously but politely inquired as to the thought behind his reasonings, he gave me a number of answers. Some were good, some were bad, and one stuck in my mind. “I don’t do world building,” he told me loftily. “I do action, and characters, and people.”

This statement intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, this guy writes in a fantasy, otherworldly setting. So if his world is poorly constructed, it’s gonna show. Doesn’t he want his work to be the best it can? Secondly, revealing the world is kind of like revealing exposition. It should be done a little at a time, at points of relevance, so that by the end of the story we have a complete picture without any boring word dumps. Does he think that the people in his story have to bum around with someone like Tom Bombadil for fifty pages or so in order for a publisher to give him the green light?

Ah, Tom Bombadil. People either love you for the world you reveal, or hate you for impeding the story.

Of course, Tolkien is the Grand Maestro of worldbuilding. But we don’t have to be like him. We don’t have to invent loads of different languages, stories, races and religions that never show up in the completed work. Even George R.R. Martin didn’t do more than write key phrases of his languages. HBO hired a linguist to work the rest of them out.

In October 2012 I wrote another post on worldbuilding, detailing the sorts of things that we often forget but which make the world we write in so much richer. My friend is clearly of the opinion that the world doesn’t matter. How true is that?

My first reaction to his statement was that it was preposterous. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it –

Yep. Still preposterous.

If you’re a fantasy author who writes about people in a world different to our own, then you’ve already started to build a world. The magical rules they follow imply a different kind of physics. The social rules they follow imply their traditions, their politics, and to some extent their history. Even using vague monetary denominations such as copper, silver and gold pieces implies mining practices and the social value of these metals.

As fantasy authors we ask readers to accept our new world rules. So we’d better know what they are ourselves. If it helps, we can think of our world as yet another character that needs development.

Whenever I come to an understanding of how something works in my world, I write it down. Let’s take the money example. Is it metal money? How do they get it? Do they make coins from it, or do they use pieces by weight (such as the anglo method of clipping pieces off an armband)? If people use paper or other kinds of money, how is it printed/made? How can they ensure that no one will counterfeit it?

How much of that information gets used in a piece? Almost none. But if you mention the mines down south, or the Grand Treasury, that’s all you need to hint that those procedures are in place and that you’ve thought about them. It enriches the world without shoving the worldbuilding aspect under a reader’s nose.

All authors look upon certain writing chores as unfavorable. Sometimes you just have to buck up and do it. Worldbuilding is one of those times.

Otherwise, urban fantasy could use a refit from all those sparkly vampires.

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The World is Not Enough: Worldbuilding in preparation for Nanowrimo

Alan Lee's rendition of Tolkien's land.

Everyone talks about the importance of ‘making your world believable.’ It’s a big issue in fantasy fiction, especially in the genre of high fantasy in which so much can be ripped off from other people. But while I have read a lot of posts saying, ‘be sure to make your world believable!’ I haven’t seen so many that say, ‘This is how you make your world believable.’

An example: a few years ago I was attending the fantastic Eastercon in London. Eastercon is a huge science fiction and fantasy convention which features famous novelists (George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have all been guests of honour there), and consists of panels, workshops, endless games, book signings and all the things you’d expect at the con of your dreams. When I last attended, there was a late night panel on exactly this topic – how to make a believable fantasy world. So I went to check it out.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The panel consisted of four or five authors who, in reality, spoke about very little. One guy who wrote historical fantasy said, ‘make sure that your history is accurate.’ Gee, really? Another self-published woman spent most of the hour complaining that tween fansĀ  didn’t think her vampires sparkled enough. Which is definitely a topic worth talking about, but a little off-subject. At the end of the hour, I didn’t have any new tips. The general consensus of the panel was, ‘historical writers, make sure your world is accurate. Everyone else…make it multidimensional.’ Okay, but again, how?

Since I’ll be working in a high fantasy setting for Nanowrimo, I want to make sure two things happen: firstly, that my fantasy world should not be a lesser copy of Tolkien, Martin or others. Secondly, my work should seem believable.

Here is a list of things I plan to keep in mind when creating my fantasy world:

  1. How does the government work? Who’s helping the king run things? Is there even a king? Or maybe a queen? Government gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, so this is important to think about.
  2. How does the class system work? What do the lower classes think of the higher, and the higher of the lower? Who’s in which class? This is particularly important for me since my main characters will face this issue often.
  3. What is considered normal? Customs differ from region to region in our world, so it goes without saying that they should be totally different in another.
  4. How does the economy work? This is one of those things with which you could go into great detail, or little. I’m no big economist and I don’t think that a lot of high fantasy writers. Putting in a banking or monetary system will make a world seem just a little more convincing.
  5. How does technology interact with the world? With the rise of steampunk this is becoming an increasingly important question.
  6. How do the other creatures of the world come into play? We’re all used to elves and dwarves and orc-like things. If we want them to stand out from the crowd, we’ll have to develop them.
  7. What do the cities look like? We can take inspiration from London, Dubai, Beijing, ancient Rome, Paris underground, the steppes of Mongolia – or all of them. City planning can give a unique feel to something.
  8. How’s the environment doing? Fun fact: the ancient Romans are still at the top of the chart in terms of polluters. Aside from that, what is the environment actually like? How is it different from the environment of all those other books?
  9. What are the fashions? Laugh if you want, but fashion dictates the look of a lot of things. Not just fashionable clothing, but fashionable architecture, fashionable music, fashionable art, and so on.

Naturally, one of the hardest parts is weaving this into a narrative without just setting it all down as an info dump.

This list is a bit slapdash, full of things I pulled off the top of my head. There are, of course, a lot more things to talk about. The list could go on and on, but I feel that this post should not. If you have something you think should be on the list, put it down in the comments. I’ll be thanking you profusely throughout November. Maybe we can get a nice set of questions together that help build that elusive, well-rounded, completely knockoff-free world that we’re all looking for.