WORLD BUILDING 101
I’ve agreed to ‘compere’ a session entitled ‘World Building’ at the up-coming ‘Futura’ conference in Wolverhamption (15th June; I'll be joined on the panel by Kim Lakin-Smith and Janet Edwards) so I thought it would be an idea to think of the questions I could pose to the panellists … and, of course, my own answers to them.
So this, I guess, is Rod Rees’ ‘World Building 101’.
In writing fiction there are five elements – plot, theme, characters, style and setting – but in Science Fiction and Fantasy SETTING looms very large indeed. SF and Fantasy tales invariably need a bespoke world to serve as the stage on which the story plays out (actually I’m hard pushed to think of a SF/Fantasy book that hasn’t a setting unique to itself … ‘Flowers for Algernon’, perhaps?). The examples are legion: Orwell’s Oceania; Herbert’s Arrakis, Prachett’s Discworld; Tolkien’s Middle Earth, my own Demi-Monde. From this it’s obvious that World Building is a skill every SF/Fantasy writer needs in his or her tool box.
But as I know from bitter experience World Building isn’t easy so let’s look at the KEY INGREDIENTS that a New World must have or as I call it, the CONSISTENCY CRAMPS.
1. Your New World must be suitable for purpose. Remember this is the stage your characters will perform on and it must provide some – hopefully not all – of the pressures, dilemmas and threats your heroes must struggle with and triumph over. I say not all because it’s easy to lose yourself in world-building and to forget that it is, when all said and done, just a stage … it’s not a substitute for character interaction and dynamics. Think of your New World as another lead character and you won’t go far wrong. Personally I also like to reference my New Worlds with aspects of the Real World … it gives the readers an anchor against all the creative madness you have squalling around them.
2. Your New World must allow the reader to suspend disbelief. To do this your New World must be coherent and, above all, consistent. There is nothing more aggravating for a reader to invest his time entering and exploring a New World only to find that the writer couldn’t be arsed to remember it’s intricacies and foibles, or WORSE has to keep playing that dreaded surprise get-out-of-jail illogic card to get his hero out of a corner he or she has been written into. And to do this needs PLANNING (see point #3 below).
3. Your New World must be planned. Okay, so there’s a school of thought that the best way to develop a New World is just to dive right in and wing it. My view is that this is bollocks. At the very least the writer must understand the spatial co-ordinates of his New World – how all the elements (countries/planets/Zones of Frightfulness whatever) fit together – and for this you need a MAP! I’m not talking here of a supreme example of cartography, but at least a sketch of where everything fits (a piece of advice: if you want said map to feature in your published book don’t make it too complex – the Demi-Monde map suffers from this and is waaaaaaaay too small). Next up are the physical aspects of your New World (the physics/magic that applies there, the weather, geography, environment, biology, astronomy, zoology and so on … the stuff I hate doing) which make the New World believable. Sure these physical aspects might be fantastic but if they’re consistent, have a coherent logic and your characters believe in them then there’s no problem. Finally, we come to the interesting bit, the cultural/political/religious mores of the inhabitants populating your New World and who your characters have to interact with. I spend most time on these as they have the greatest impact on my protagonists. All-in-all New World building is a lot of work but if you want to suspend disbelief, the suspension starts here.Okay, so you’ve spent days/weeks/months/years constructing your New World and the temptation to ram all this effort into the first chapter of your magnum opus as one huge info-dump is almost irresistible. BUT you must resist, you must resist the RASH OF THE INFO-DUMP.
The old adage in fiction writing is show don’t tell (only if you’re a genius like Orwell are you permitted to ignore this maxim). So your aim must be to let the reader discover the New World in a natural, unforced sort of way with information coming their way via the observations and actions of your characters. Seduction rather than rape and all that. The solution I came up with for the Demi-Monde was two-fold. First I pinched an idea used by Frank Herbert in ‘Dune’ and had mini-info-dumps in the form of extracts for manuals etc. at the beginning of each chapter and, secondly, I put all of my hard work on display in the Demi-Monde web site.We come now to the URGE OF NEW LANGUAGE-ITIS which must, at all costs be controlled. Not
many of us are philologists like Tolkien so the subject of a writer developing a new language/vocabulary/series of terminologies to be used in their New World is (to me, anyway) a thorny one. My experience is that publishers (and a great many readers) HATE anything that smacks of a new language so the policy I’ve adopted is to use new words only when they convey new meanings. Unfortunately as the Demi-Monde was my first series I didn’t heed this warning and I thought to spice things up by using punning words rendered camel-case style (HimPerialism, ImPuritanism et al) and the kicking that I got from some (thankfully a minority) of readers was profound. So be VERY careful before you introduce a new language. And please be especially careful in naming your protagonists: if I see one more name rendered as Hzzzhgsdhyfi or something equally silly I think I’ll hurl chunks. Multiple ‘Zs’ do not an exotic name make.
Right, now we’re onto the CURSE OF THE CLICHÉ. There are a lot of SF/Fantasy writers out there all busily constructing worlds, some of them very, very similar. I mean, if I see one more story set in a faux-mediaeval world beset by wizards and witches, or a US High School plagued by vampires, murder will be done. Come on, kids, you can do better than that. Think outta the box!Okay, nearly over. We now come to the CONDESCENDING ADVICE bit. If I was asked what I had learnt from building the Demi-Monde it would be:
1. Once you’ve built a world you must abide by the restrictions you’ve imposed on it (nothing unsuspends disbelief faster than inconsistency) and that means having a reference (please make notes otherwise you’ll be continually flipping back thru your manuscript checking whether the vampire-infested Blood Lands are to the north or south of the werewolf-dominated Pack Lands or some such unproductive shit. And
2. The world must be real to the characters you have living, working, struggling inside it. You may think it’s weird as hell to have variable gravity or time that flows at different rates during the day but to your characters living in this New World, that’s the way it is. Don’t have them saying ‘Gosh, that’s a surprise,’ every time you lay something odd on your reader.That’s it. I hope it helps! Enjoy your building.