September 21, 2011

Writing tips #4: World building

World building is something most people immediately link with fantasy settings, so writers outside the genre tend to breathe easier when the topic comes up.

Bad news: everyone needs to do their world building homework.

The inner coherency of your work will be one of the first things your readers will note, so please remember rule number one: that it isn’t real doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be realistic.

A common mistake is to believe that, because your story is about elves or vampires or werewolves or whatever, and these creatures are obviously not real, you can get away with them doing anything. You are partly right, because while we’re reading your story we’re willing to forget the sheer impossibility of the whole thing, but that doesn’t mean we’ll accept everything you throw our way at face value.

It means that we’ll accept a different logic. And yes, I’m talking suspension of disbelief here. And yes, this is the reason why world building is such a painful pain. Let me try to explain:

Even though we’re not conscious of it, every society has a time, a place and a reason. People right now don’t think the same way they did fifty years ago: for example, the development of science leads to a rapid changing world, and the lengthening of average lifetime gives us a longer time to experience said world, and thus people are more inquisitive, more aware of the rest of the world, more willing to try out new things and less inclined to just put up with their lot in life.

There’s a reason for nearly every behaviour, and your job is to find it, to make sure that your characters behave like they would in their time, in their place.

This goes both grand and small scale: whether you’re writing a homeless youngster in the middle of current New York or a historical Regency novel in London’s season, you should make sure that all characters are consistent with their environment. It’s difficult, and tedious, and it involves a lot of research, but I can’t even count the number of books that haven’t made it pass “ok read” because I felt like I was reading about an American cheerleader wearing a medieval gown (nothing wrong against American cheerleaders, it was just an example).

If just setting up the where and when the story happen in the real world is difficult, imagine what kind of effort comes in when you’re trying to write a whole new society: we don’t have to look back and see how it was, and why it was like that: we have to figure out what we want, and why it would be like that. Brush up on your history lessons, because the best way to do this is by parallelism: try to find a real model similar to what we want, study it, and then tweak it.

As usual, let me illustrate the situation with an example from my own work:

For my new fantasy world, I needed a kingdom dependant upon lots of baronies, and I needed conflict between those barons and the king. It is a pretty standard political landscape of European middle ages, but still: before I go on writing and making up the conflict, I should know how much power the barons have, and why.

I mean, why would the king agree to someone else ruling over his lands? Easy answer: because he can’t possibly keep an eye in all of his vast territories, of course! Well, yeah, but why would he give absolute freedom to a family, give them titles and time to build their own support base and to defy his ruling, when he can get exactly the same results through appointed officials, routinely changed every ten years or so? That’s what I’d do if I wanted to prevent a resistance growing up. So, why the king doesn’t think of it?

Perhaps it was because the lands were concessions to loyal families who fought a war on the king’s side. I like how that sounds, it’s logical. Next step: against whom did they fight? Who owned those lands prior to the current family? These questions are important because they settle up to what point the king’s hold on his kingdom is weak or not, and whether we have to worry about revenge or not. And ideally it will help us to define the conflict we wanted to create in the first place, to figure out where its roots are and how it might be solved.

I think you can see where I’m coming from, and why I firmly believe that no one would really enjoy building a whole world from scratch. It might seem fun, but the above example is about a single kingdom. After you have all the pieces in their right places, you still need to decide what happens with the surrounding kingdoms!

Or, to put the same concept in a fantasy context: vampires and werewolves hate each other. Why? Where does the conflict come from? Elves and humans, Dwarves and elves, Orcs and everyone else... you need reasons for these relationships, beyond the “because everybody knows that’s how it goes”.

The difference between an entertaining read and an unforgettable one lies, all too often, in these details. It often is the same line between accepting a cliché and making a cliché your own.

The task is daunting, isn’t it? And I’ve only talked about people and societies: I’ve left out the aspects of geography, climate, flora and fauna... but you, dear writer, you shouldn’t. When you’re drafting up your world, you should not sprinkle the paper with mountains and rivers and random cities – or, if really want to, okay... But do it knowingly! Though I would not ask you to write a treatise, keep in mind that the landscape is related to the climate, that animals are dependant on flora and that cities are where they are, and not sitting upon the next hill, for a reason.

And now that I’ve made your head spin with my babbling (not sure how much of this you already knew and incorporated to your writing... care to let me know in a comment?), now, let me deliver the killing line:

You know all those pages upon pages and sleepless nights spent over your research? No more an 1% will make into the manuscript. It shouldn’t. The reader doesn’t need to be bogged down with details, he just needs to know that those invisible details are consistent.

The bright side? After this post, the next one is bound to lift your mood, no matter what writing aspect it deals with.

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