The Best Of All Possible Worlds


So you’ve come up with a cool plot, you’ve created some characters that readers will really empathise with, and now you’re ready to put it all together in a location of your imagination. Edgar Rice Burroughs had his Barsoom, J.R.R. Tolkien had his Middle-Earth, H.P. Lovecraft had his Innsmouth and J.K. Rowling had her Hogwarts. So just how do you go about creating a believable milieu with its own history, culture and politics? A panel of world-builders will tell you how it’s done…
PANELLISTS: Hal Duncan, Robin Hobb, Ellen Kushner, Patrick Rothfuss, Adrian TchaikovskyWorld Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013

This was probably my favourite panel, partly because it’s one of my favourite elements of writing. But world-building covers a huge number of aspects, including geography, politics, magic, religion, cultures, economy, history, myth, music, architecture, biology, etc etc etc. So where do you start?

Well, Tolkien started with language because he was an enthusiastic linguist. As the panel said, adding languages without some working knowledge of the mechanics of linguistics can be very risky. In fact, getting deep into specifics of any aspect of world-building can be risky as somewhere amongst your reader base there’s probably an expert who can be relied upon to write to you explaining how you got it wrong. There isn’t time to learn enough about everything to do it perfectly so the advice is to focus on what you are a geek about yourself. Patrick Rothfuss starts with coinage, for example, and Robin Hobb starts with biology. A lot of that initial background work never makes it into the book but that’s fine – it’s about getting the setting right and then letting the story unfold. The old old story of Resist the Urge to Explain. The final word on this, though, was not to get too hung up on accuracy – the important thing is that it’s interesting.

There was a debate about starting with setting vs starting with characters. The first approach is to build the world and let the plot and characters evolve organically from the structures and restrictions that present themselves. The second is to start with the characters, which determines things such as family unit, status and class system, trade (which leads into economy), faith and religion, and so on. The world forms around the character, rather than the character being produced by the world. The panel didn’t go into the question of how the two approaches differ in their end result, which I think is quite an interesting one and might come back to on my own account later.

Rothfuss was careful to stress that most world-building the readers see is an illusion. There tends to be a spectrum of world builder types, from set designers (the world looks solid where you can see it but there’s no depth) to model train set builders (rabbit-hole levels of detail). Writers can create an impression of a full and detailed world without actually knowing that much. World building is a partnership. The writer provides an example of living in the place via their characters, and the reader supplies the depth for themselves. It’s the magic of storytelling, using hints and the occasional detail to trigger the reader’s building of whole cloth.

Providing details must be done with an eye to the plot, however. They are generally viewed as signposts directing the reader’s attention to what’s important. Don’t raise red herring expectations – the usual Chekhov’s Gun principle. Also, be careful not to over-explain what the narrator character would find ordinary – the character would only notice something that they consider to be unusual, and that acceptance/notice balance tells the reader a huge amount about both the character and the culture without the writer having to go into tedious explanations. This is called perceptual sculpting, and getting it wrong creates huge cognitive dissonance for readers.

Creating fantasy cultures is more complex than geography, because the writer brings their own innate assumptions with them and some of those are pretty awful. The examples given were sexism, ownership of land, jingoism, sexual taboo, curse words (which often demonstrate sexism and sexual taboo), and racism/religious superiority. Fantasy cultures tell you a lot about the culture of the writer, usually without meaning to, and it takes a lot of introspection to get away from that. The writer must take their own world-view apart and examine it carefully. They also have to do the same with history – fantasy cultures are not bound by historical accuracy, or what the writer thinks is historical accuracy. What trips you up in world-building is not what you don’t know, but what you don’t know you don’t know. I’ve touched on this before but it’s a pervasive problem.

Magic systems are of course a major part of world-building in the fantasy genre. The panel divided magic systems into two kinds – ‘scientific’ and ‘poetic’. Any sufficiently reliable magic is technology, or science. If you want magic to remain magical, it’s either a rare talent, requires great skill or isn’t reliable. The two approaches will give completely different feels to both the world and the reader’s perception of it. Compare Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Apt magic (something everyone possess when they come of age, which differs only by race) to Robin Hobb’s Skill (rare and requires lots of training). Hobb also said that there should be something in every chapter which reminds the reader this is a fantasy, not our world. Keep immersing them deeper and deeper.

My other instrument is a broadsword

My other instrument is a broadsword

Finally, the panel looked at words. As Hal Duncan said, words can destroy the dream – ‘Mozart the Barbarian’ tends to break the suspension of disbelief. Idioms, proverbs and expletives have to be specific to and reflect the values of your world. Words and phrases that have their basis in modern culture, sports or religion must be cleared out. You can use some words to invoke an idea from our world that adds depth to the fantasy culture (in my case, I use ‘citizen’ to invoke the feel of Revolutionary French culture and politics) but you can’t do it in a way that bursts the bubble of world creation.

The one point that the panel didn’t mention which I have found to be hugely helpful in world building is to get people to play in it. Roleplay is a fantastic tool and other people’s brains are great resources for generating history, myth and a myriad of details. Better yet, because they’re coming from multiple brains, they will naturally have a much more diverse feel than if the writer is the only one thinking stuff up. The religion for my last set of books was almost entirely generated by a group of friends roleplaying with my initial setting and coming up with an incredible story of church schisms and martyrdom. At a guess, Scott Lynch has done something similar – the glimpses of history in his Gentlemen Bastards series have echoes of old roleplay campaigns providing world-building details. As Rothfuss said, world-building is a partnership, and there’s a lot to be said for starting that dialogue before you even put pen to paper.

I saved the best for last – that’s my final write-up from the Brighton World Fantasy Convention. I hope the posts captured at least some of the interest I had in listening to the originals. If you want to read more, there’s videos of some of them at the bottom of this post  by Lynda E. Rucker, as well as links to still more write-ups. For those who are States-based (or crazy-keen), the 2014 World Fantasy Convention has been announced for November 6-9 in Washington D.C. If, whilst you’re there, you could put a good word in with the organisers to bring it back to Blighty some time soon, that’d be greatly appreciated.

PS: Geek points to the first person who can name the author of the title quote, and provide the full quote.

4 responses »

  1. I like that point Rothfuss made about the illusion. Letting the readers fill in the gaps can get them more engaged as well as making you seem smarter, and allows them to see your world in a way that suits what they want.
    ‘Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ – damned if I can remember who said it – it’s not from Utopia is it?

  2. It’s actually very old! I’m not sure who’s being quoted though. Liebnez said it first, but Voltaire’s using it to take the piss out of Leibnez saying it is more famous.

    I know Voltaire’s quote is “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” which is just great. Liebnez is the one above.

  3. Pingback: Perceptual Sculpting | everwalker

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