Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?
Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding, Genevieve Cogman, James Barclay
I’ve talked about world building before. It’s one of my favourite parts of storytelling. This panel covered a fair amount of familiar ground. I’ll recount most of it but I won’t go into in depth discussion because I’ll just end up repeating myself. Also, for the most part the panellists didn’t offer tips so much as a list of questions the writer needs to ask themselves.
Will your world be similar to something the reader is already familiar with – either based on an existing culture, or an AU version of history? Or will it be something completely new?
When setting up a culture, all the details should interconnect. It needs to be internally consistent. Remember that every detail will have ramifications on the rest. For example, the language in Germany and Japan fosters a culture of listening, because their grammar structure means sentences don’t make sense until the end.
Scarcity of resources is very important, and the work-arounds of your cultures to this scarcity is what makes the world different. Scarce resources impacts trade, economy, social structure and status, international relations, and so on. As one panellist said:
Writing fantasy worlds is about logistics.
Also, and this is a point Dr. Nick made in our panel later, don’t muck about with physics. If you’re going to break natural laws, break one, make it explicit, explain it, think about the ramifications, and then leave it alone.
The world as a character
Creating worlds is not that different from creating characters, and they are intrinsically linked as the characters should be a product of their environment. Similarly, both should have some kind of growth arc, especially if the plot focuses on momentous events.
One of the panellists suggested that your plot is an inevitable consequence of your world and character building. The world influences the character, the character reacts to the world, and that’s your plot. I’m not wholly on board with this idea, as it smacks a little of the plot progression also being inevitable and therefore predictable. It also raised questions in my mind about character agency and free will.
Place names is a good way to give character/flavour/insight to the local culture. It tells a lot about what people consider to be important or notable, without having to actually spell it out. One of the most valuable skills in epic fantasy, according to the panel, is learning how to transmit information without explaining it. It’s all about implication and evocation.
Think about clever, different and powerful ways to impact information, in a way readers don’t realise they’re being told about history or economics. Preferably a way that also advances the plot. For example, Stephanie Saulter had to explain that there was an economic slump in her culture, leading to a shortage of jobs, so she set a scene in a job centre where people were literally fighting over work.
To map or not to map?
The panel diverted into quite a long discussion about the value of providing maps for the reader. Several of them were quite strongly against publishing maps, on the basis that it locks the writer down into inflexibility. As Saulter (I think) said:
The author reserves the right to have a better idea.
One panellist suggested that, if a map is provided, people can just look at it. If there’s no map, the reader has to visualise the journey and that means they are immediately more intimately engaged with the fictional landscape.
On the other hand, maps can help avoid unnecessary exposition. When the characters need to get from Point A to Point B, they don’t need to have a clunky discussion about where Point B is or how to get there. The reader can just look at the map.
If you’re using a real place as your setting, make sure you use a map as a writing resource. If you get details wrong, knowledgeable readers will notice and immediately switch off.
And, one final point on the subject of providing maps for your readers: remember that maps can be in-character inaccurate! If you can have an unreliable narrator (of which, more on that in a few weeks), there’s no reason why you can’t have unreliable resources.
Next week: the development and role of SF&F.