Fantasy “Behind The Scenes” Tour – Stop #1
“World Building: It’s Not Just About Drawing A Map” by Stephen Pearl
In writing any kind of narrative the world it takes place in is of paramount importance. Even writing in what is meant to be the real world requires that the author do world building in as much as there are many worlds within our real world. I’ll address that later. What follows is a brief overview of the elements I feel are important for world building and how they are illustrated by my available works.
First, my world / universe must be a place that the action I want to play out can logically occur. This seems obvious but it is all too easy to try to place a story in a world that really doesn’t support it.
Taking my tinker books, Tinker’s Plague and Tinker’s Sea, as examples, these stories cannot be told in anything but a post-apoplectic world. I require a world where high technology exists but is only available to the few. There must be a smattering of failed technology, and limited resources for dealing with the problems presented. In Tinker’s Plague this made the quarantine hard to enforce and set up the situation that led to my central conflict. In Tinker’s Sea I needed the antagonists to have a nuclear submarine, but had to supply a rational for why they hadn’t been hunted down and neutralized already.
The world must fit with the story told within it. If I tried to tell the story of Tinker’s Plague in let’s say the present day, logic flaws would occur such as why wouldn’t the CDC descend on mass. Where are the news crews making everything public? Why don’t they mobilize the military to keep order? The shortages of a post-apocalyptic world are vital to my telling of the story and in fact set up the backdrop the story hinges upon. One obvious thing that being in a post-apocalyptic world allowed for was the isolation of my protagonists which really ups the dramatic tension.
In Tinker’s Sea I had to add a political element that springs from the cold war going on between the two technologically advanced nation states to enhance the reason for their failure to use their advanced military systems to neutralize the pirates. This came in the form of a treaty that limited the scale of military equipment that the nations could deploy on the great lakes. A treaty like this again rises logically from the world I created.
Thus the first rule is; “Follow the logic of your world.”
The world must be internally consistent.
In Slaves of Love, I have a high-tech, urban society set about a hundred years from now. This has several implications, for one the cities have largely been converted into “Towers”. These structures reach kilometers into the air. The suburbs, or low towns, form what can be called the wrong side of the tracks. To make the towers I had to advance materials technology, thus poly-carbonates, super-strong, log chains of carbon molecules, are used for many things we use steel for today. This also means that space launch technology has advanced with super-light, super-strong, space shuttles. It is a hundred years in the future so gasoline is a bad memory; instead, people drive electric cars. Using electric cars meant that I had to have recharge stations reminiscent of parking meters at each parking space because of the poor mass to power storage ratio of batteries when compared to chemical fuels. The pressure differential between the bottom and the top of these kilometers high towers will result in hurricane force winds. It makes sense to harness these to supply power. This is but one consequence of people living in these towers that has to be examined to keep the book’s internal logic. The answers to these problems echo out into the world in general.
In Horn of the Kraken the Norse apocalypse, Ragnarok, has come about. From the writings passed down to us we know that Ragnarok has several ages the first of which is marked by Fimbulwinter, a time where the sun and moon have been eaten by the cosmic wolves and all is arctic cold and dark. Now the logical consequences of this cannot be ignored. Torches, candle lanterns, fires all sources of light and warmth are vitally important. It also means that any light makes you visible from a long way off and a lack of light makes you invisible and practically blind. Food production has all but stopped. Another matter of vital importance is that waste removal systems that rely of flowing water no longer function. Thus if I wanted to use flowing water in the book I had to supply a rational or violate consistency. I couldn’t have light when I wanted it without explaining why. I had to stay consistent to a dark and icy world. It was often a pain to do so, but those limitations forced me, well my charters, to be innovative. Another factor that added to the book in this way was the technology was from 936 CE, and I had to stay consistent to that.
The idea is to look at the elements you put into the world and think of how they would affect that world, not just in the ways that are convenient to your story. This will make your world seem real and may even present you with some interesting elements to use in the book that you hadn’t thought of before.
The people in the world must reflect their world. No one lives in a vacuum. We are all affected by the society we live in, the things we grew up with, and the things we deal with every day.
In Nukekubi, my paranormal detective story, I have a structured, urban society, ours, where rationalism has largely eroded a belief in magic. This results in Ray, my wizard, having to have a day job. Most people not believing in magic forces the practitioners of magic to be circumspect. Imagine going to your boss and saying, “I need a few days off so I can hunt a Japanese goblin that is scaring people to death.” Getting canned might be the least of your troubles. The logic of a world, where magic is only slightly more demonstrative than ours, is that mystics are as closeted as they are in our own world. Keeping this kind of secret will influence a character.
Another aspect of this is that there are simply things your characters can’t talk to people at large about. This will create friction in interpersonal relationships. The sense of being an outsider looking in is likely to make the character a little judgmental when looking at the rest of society.
An additional consequence of this sociological denial is that your character has a way they can strike out at people, and not risk retaliation. What does it say about your character’s moral nature that they don’t?
In Worlds Apart I have a wizard from a parallel earth with different physical laws who has brought a limited store of magic from his world with him to ours. How he interacts with the world around him dominos out even though he tries to be circumspect. Any time a character adds an element to the world you need to ask yourself how far the ripples from these actions will reach. If a wizard flaps his gums in Derbyshire England will it cause a hurricane in Miami?
What you need to do is think about how things have influenced you and extrapolate how the elements of your world will influence your character. Will they rebel, conform, not care? The world your characters live in is as much a part of them as their hands and feet, so be careful how you sculpt it.
My final point is to remember there are many worlds in your world.
In The Hollow Curse, my two leads experience a series of past lives. To make the story work my characters need to believe in reincarnation. They also should be people pre-inclined to recalling past lives so I made than practicing Druids.
Some of you are probably scratching your heads and saying, ‘what’s a Druid?’ others are thinking, “weren’t they killed off?” The answers are that they are the Priests of the Celtic Religion, and there are still several Druidic churches and societies in operation today. This is the point, they are a world within our world that many people have no contact with. Have the modern Druids been affected by the modern world? Definitely, who’s going to pass up indoor plumbing? Do they form a world within the world with its own unique influences that will affect the characters? Definitely. You have to look at the sub-worlds that your character moves through and how they influence them.
A character may move between several sub-worlds in a book. In The Hollow Curse, Alysia is part of the worlds of a university graduate student, a Druid or Dryad, a term some use for a Druidic Priestess, a jogger, and a budding police consultant. All of these sub-worlds will influence her although she may be their only crossover point, and she may keep them all very distinct.
Another great source of conflict is to have a person slip and apply the norms of one sub-world they live in to another sub-world that they live in. If you want to see the result of this just look at a high school kid who is into science and sports. If he slips up and describes the flight of a baseball referencing the laws of physics how well is he received by the other jocks? It can range from good-natured teasing to downright hatred and ostracism.
So at another level of world building, you must be aware of the sub-worlds that inhabit your story and allow the pertinent ones to leak in and influence your character. No one completely turns themselves on and off when they move between these sub-worlds and conflicts between the various worlds your character inhabits can add spice to the book or even be the central theme of the book.
The idea of all this is that world building should be as important as character and plot to your story. In a sense, your world should be a major character present in every scene affecting every action, influencing, but never overshadowing, the other aspects of the story.
Thank you very much for reading.