November 9, 2011

Writing trips, Guest edition: World building by Rachel Forde

If you read my review of Last Born, by Rachel Forde, in this post here, you know one of the things I loved about her book was the unique setting, and how well developed it was. Since we were covering world building here in the Writing Tips section of the blog, I asked her to write us a post on the topic and she agreed to share in her views... Thanks so much, Rachel! So, without further ado, I leave you with an author's take on world building: 

"I am the author of Lastborn, the first book of the Sixth Cycle series, and Ron has graciously asked me to do a guest post on the subject of world-building.  This is a pretty essential skill to have if you're writing fantasy; you have to keep the suspension of disbelief going without frustrating your readers with silliness, something I struggled with when I tried to combine the typical Medieval epic fantasy-style plot with a nineteenth-century setting.  

In her review of Lastborn, Ron mentioned the importance of inner logic in character development, and I'd like to argue that the same is true when creating the world and societies that helped shape those characters.  The biggest problem I had combining an epic fantasy and a Victorian setting was integrating a world full of magic and myth with a world that had relegated those things to the dustbin of ancient superstition. 

There is a reason why you don't find much fantasy written in an industrial setting.  The Victorian era was defined by a rejection of the supernatural and an embrace of science and progress--in other words, it is not a very welcoming setting for sorceresses, unicorns, tree-folk and thunderbirds.  I had to find a way to capture that industrial, scientific spirit of the Epholans without making them dogmatic skeptics in denial of the world they've always been a part of.

I claimed Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."   This would be the Epholan way of rationalizing the mysterious creatures and events that didn't have a ready explanation.  Why the Epholans would feel the need to rationalize them at all, when the Makedans, Iolangans, Talans and other groups simply accept things for how they appear, has to do with their history (a subject for later books).  

This allows the Epholans to live alongside the supernatural, but also have an underlying discomfort toward it that makes them prefer their world of cities and railroads over the forest and its mysterious denizens.  After all, culture is always a product of context and history; the trick in storytelling is to make sure that you know that context and history.

I didn't get into this much with Lastborn.  I wanted to focus more on developing the characters, and I thought that information would be better suited to the second and third books.  Still, it's good information to have in the back of my mind.  Not all of your backstory information needs to make it into the book--if you're careful with your descriptions and dialogue, you can evoke that impression in the readers without page after page of exposition.

In the end, each culture and society in Lastborn has its own way of understanding the events around them.  Each gets some aspects wrong, and others right--much like in real life, and the characters will have to sort through the conflicting stories and mythologies to uncover the truth about what is happening to their world."


  1. Interesting post - thanks.

    Generally I have a low tolerance for any worldbuilding that's not driven by the story or important to the character POV. George Martin however somehow manages to sell me on vast amounts of worldbuilding, perhaps by making his history so connected to the present that it feels important. I read 'Scar Night' recently & the world there was just so unusual and interesting that I was ok with being fed large chunks of it on a regular basis. But as I said, generally I don't want pages of info on the book-world unless the author finds a way of making it vital to me.

  2. Hi Mark! Thanks for stopping by ;)

    I agree on the fact that when too much worldbuilding leaks through the story, the reading becomes difficult. However, I think that, while the reader doesn't need to go into lenghts of excruciating detail, the author needs to figure those details out to ensure that the final story works. Problem is, I believe, that once we, as writers, have gone to the great lengths of designing a history and a world, the urge to share is overwhelming! Which leads to the undesirable pages upon pages of info... But that's just my guess.

    That George Martin example is great, by the way: in A Song of Ice and Fire the past of the houses is so important to understand their reactions and their policies today that it's okay to know about it. I do skip the lists of who's who and who's in the service of who that come in the end, though, so... Perfect example about what might be good or too much.

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  4. Hi, Ron!

    What an interesting post! I think world-building is absolutely crucial to a work of fiction, but I agree with you and Mark -- it's not good for a writer to have pages and pages of exposition in order to try to make the world real and believable. It's the mark of a superb writer when a reader gets into their story or novel and feels totally comfortable with the made-up world, without having to slog through paragraphs or pages of tedious exposition!

    Three writers that immediately come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer. These are three of my very favorite writers! All three of them immediately bring their readers into their worlds without pages of exposition. In fact, in Tolkien's case, all the world-building really goes into THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH books.

    I could go on and on about these three!!! I LOVE THEM!!! They have mesmerized me with their very believable, very appealing worlds, as well as their wonderful characters!! And they've done it without boring me to tears.

    I'd also like to comment on Forde's assertion that the supernatural and the Victorian era don't exactly go together well. That's true, but interestingly, that's precisely what Cassandra Clare has done in her book, THE CLOCKWORK PRINCE. I can't wait to see how she managed to recondile the two worlds!

    Now on to your review of Rachel Forde's book!

    Thanks for this post! : )

    Maria @

  5. Hi Maria!

    Thanks a lot for your comments on this one!

    You know, Tolkien's Middle-Earth is such a solid world, it's like part of us now... I had never stopped to consider about his worldbuilding, the when or where it took place... Rowling does a good job of pulling you straight into the character's, though - and since Harry is as new to the magical society as the reader is, it's easy to explain things through him! I can't really comment on Meyer, myself (yes, I know, the heresy of not being able to finish Twilight...)

    The Clockwork Prince is on my TBR list. Well, actually, it's on my Wishlist - along with all the rest of her series! I'll be pumping that one up towards the first positions, though. I like Victorian!

    Thanks again for your comments!