Tuesday, October 23, 2007

World Building

If you are at all familiar with fantasy literature, then you know what it means to be a world builder. Some authors decide to be builders — Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Anne McGaffrey — while others may not — Neil Gaiman, Ann Rice, and J.K. Rowlings. Since all of these authors project a fantastical metaphysics, a strange and unique world, then the term world building must imply something more.

It basically means creating a complete and convincing alternate universe. Notice I didn't say merely alternate reality, but alternate universe. Turning a taxicab driver into a warlock does not an alternate universe make. Instead, try creating Middle Earth, populating it with all sorts of species of men and animals, creating distinct languages for some of them, writing poetry in those languages, writing a history of all the peoples in that world, and so on. If you have ever seen The Silmarillion, you will know that Tolkien took world building to the maximum.

I have enjoyed more than a few alternate universes in my day, but I never expected to create one myself. In fact, at one time I meant not to. It seemed to me that so much indulgence in fantastic details must be motivated by love of fantasy for fantasy's sake. Well, as Bilbo Baggins might tell you, some things don't turn out the way we expect them to. I'm now world building. Here's what happened.

I aim to write a novel that begins during the Spanish Inquisition. However, I don't want to write about the actual Spanish Inquisition. Doing so would require historical writing, which doesn't interest me at all. I simply want the cultural backdrop for my story to be about mixing religion and politics, not to mention race/family and state — in other words, tribalism — in all cultures in all times, and I'd like to do so without spending the next ten years of my life researching details about old, dead Catholics.

Fantasy to the rescue.

So I dream up this fascinating cultural situation for My Hero. Then I begin to figure out what motivates specific characters. I ask myself, "Why did this guy get this responsibility? Where did he come from? Why do these other guys hate him so much? Are they related? What would a guy like him do about it?" And so on. Next thing I know, I'm saying, "This guy came from a marriage of these two important people. Then he and his brother had a falling out. One went this way and became like this, while the other went this other way and became like that." And so on. My alternate world begins to gain history, language, and certain metaphysical properties that distinguish men from men and provide context for motives. As you can see, I'm world building.

The bottom line is: If you want to create a complex plot in a fantastic setting, and you expect to project anything close to verisimilitude, then you're going to have to spend some time creating that universe. A few casual touches here and there isn't going to do it, at least not for my taste.

It's not as if I plan to pull a Tolkien — not even close, as if I even could. There will be no special languages in my world, and no Silmarrilion, but I do expect my story to have depth, else the characters won't.

As an added plus, I'm finding that quite a few plot points arise from exploring these fantastic spaces.

Though I'm not using the following guide myself, here's a sample of just how far some writers will go to create a world, for whatever reason: Fantasy Worldbuilding Questionnaire, created by author Patricia Wrede.


Jennifer Snow said...

I do a lot of this sort of thing when I write, but I really detest worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. There's versimilitude, and then there's just making things up because you can. If it doesn't matter that your imaginary made-up characters eat Gorpa beans which come from the Iblithid plant and are harvested in the Water Days of the Green Season, I don't want to hear about it. Get a life.

I don't even like it when Victor Hugo pulls this stunt in his books, and he was writing about things that ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

Toiler said...

I like Gorpa beans.