Monday, November 8, 2010
The Written World -- Elements of the Story, part 3
First of all, I apologize to all my readers for basically disappearing since November third. I'm still here, I promise! But what with school, life, and the fact that I'm miserably failing Nanowrimo, I have been quite busy. I also want to say that, like most of you have probably noticed, I'm not writing this series in any particular order. Instead, I'm just writing down points as they come to me. :D That's what you get for being an SOTP writer who still refuses to outline, even though she knows the benefits of outlining now and doesn't absolutely despise it anymore. :D
What we are discussing today is World Building. Every fantasy or science fiction writer knows that you can't have a story without these three elements: Characters, Plot, and a World to put both of those in. Themes usually slip in later (even though that was the first element I wrote about). The order of importance between these elements varies from writer to writer, but for me they usually line up like this: Character, Plot, World, Theme… or maybe Character, World, Plot, Theme. As you can see, the only two elements that are interchangeable for me are Plot and World. This is mostly because I am what is called a "Seat-of-the-pants" writer, and very rarely to I outline. Writing like that usually makes me care more for my Characters than my plot – at least until after the rough draft is written. Then I start to analyze plot and world – in either order – and only after that do I turn to theme.
When I do outline, however… and this is only every once in a while, just because that's how I am… the order usually changes to Plot, Character, World, Theme, or Plot, World, Character, Theme. Again, you might notice that it's the two middle elements that are interchangeable. I haven't discussed plot yet in this series, but I am working on putting something together for it.
Now, when I think of world building that is done well, my mind immediately skips to two of my favorite authors, both of whom write epic fantasy: Tolkien and Paolini. J. R. R. Tolkien is well known for the very complicated world, languages, and rules set forth in the Lord of the Rings. He was an absolute master of the writing craft and knew well how to handle his genre. But, as wonderful as Tolkien's work is, he is dead… a sad and true fact. And so today I'm going to turn to Tolkien's modern apprentice: Christopher Paolini.
When I get inspired to expand on my own world, I usually start by re-reading "Eldest" as a vague reference for world-building done well. Now granted, what plot there is in "Eldest" meanders pathetically, but the world Paolini created becomes vivid and sparkles. And even though the plot is dry, you can watch the characters grow into their world.
So the first thing I ask myself is, "What makes a believable world?"
A believable world has to feel tangible; it has to feel like you could touch it, walk into it, live in it, and become a part of it. If it doesn't feel like that, your reader is likely to feel unsatisfied with your book, especially if you're a science fiction or Fantasy writer, so it is very important to get your world created right.
Like with Characters, making a believable world usually involves using something familiar to base your made up world off of. Everyone knows what trees and grass looks like, that the sky is usually blue, and that the sun rises in the east, etcetera. Most of the time, when writing fantasy worlds, we leave those elements alone. That way the reader can overlook them and concentrate on the importance of, say, race, cultural aspects, and religion. Of course, it is possible to mess with these elements and change color and type, or to even make up something entirely new, but usually the sky is only a strange color in the middle of the day (like purple) if we're discussing science fiction and a different planet, or if we're describing a weird storm.
I mean, raise your hand if somewhere in your book you have green grass and a blue sky. *raises hand* Now raise your hand if your trees are purple and your grass is maroon. Anyone? *looks around*
This is why there are planets in most pieces of science fiction. Everyone knows that a planet is basically a humongous spherically shaped glob of rock or dirt. Life doesn't have to grow there, and in our reality it doesn't (as of yet). This is also well known. So, when writing a space story involving lots of gunfire and robots and spaceships and all that jazz, science fiction writer's usually throw in a planet or two to make the world somewhat familiar to the reader. Besides, planets give characters somewhere to go. Who would want to read a book where there was nothing but space? No place to land, no new world to explore, no excitement or adventure because there's seems to be no place for other creatures to live...
It's similar with dimensional jumps. Narnia is clearly not a planet in and of itself, but an entirely different dimension. Yet the snow is white there, just like it is here, and the animals look like the ones we have here too. Granted, most of them can talk, but we were able to accept this whimsical aspect simply because Lewis based his world off of ours – he made it a place of waterfalls and mountains, meadows and forests, seas and islands; we all know what those are. The fantastical elements were added only after the reader could recognize bits and pieces of the world in and of itself. And if there's a tree with gold and silver apples, we can accept that because we recognize the name of the fruit. The color is different, but at least we can put a picture with the name and get an idea of what the author meant.
Now that we've established this fact, what else must be put into our fantasy worlds to make them believable?
Well, the world would be boring without anyone to live in it, because then nothing would happen, so we must put characters in our world. And because we don't want them to all be generic, we will split the characters up into races (or "species") and give each a different cultural background. Most fantasy writers stick pretty close to the original fantasy species layout: that is, elves, dwarves, giants, fairies, etc… I tend to avoid writing anything about orcs since that was Tolkien's original idea, and I usually stay away from "Halflings" as well unless I specifically give that name to a certain type of mixed breed (like I did in "Eldrei"). Humans are also pretty common in a fantasy setting. You can always add other species if you want; just slip them in any old place – but make sure they have some sort of background to anchor them in that world. If you want to go all out, I would suggest taking a look at Donita K. Paul's "Dragon Keeper" books. In those books, all races except for the dragons were completely created from scratch: there are no humans, elves, dwarves, or any other generic species. It's awesome!
But what are characters without a cultural background?
This is where I start to have lots of fun. Some writers prefer the physical part of world building over cultural, but I tend to be the other way around. While I enjoy setting up scenery in my books, I'm one who loves to explore the legends and mythology of my races, figure out histories, set up languages, and discover the "truths" behind the "fiction" in my characters' worlds. I'm like this in the real world too: ancient cultures, legends, and mythology completely intrigue me. And if we're talking historical events that include sword play and armor, then count me in (though I'm not a huge fan on the more recent history involving complicated machines and gun fire).
The first step in setting up a culture for your characters is asking what happened to bring this race to where it is at the time the book starts. What does this race believe in? Do they believe in one God, or many? Do they have "churches" or "Temples" or "Cathedrals"? What holidays do they celebrate, why, and what are the holidays for? What is their original language, do they have different dialects, and in which area of the world is one dialect more prominent than another?
This is the type of world building I revel in, and it is this type of world building that Paolini used in "Eldest". In his second book, we start to get a good look at the world through the eyes of the dwarves, and then through the eyes of the elves. The elves are apparently the prominent race in the book, as Eregon spends most of his time in the forest of Elesmera learning to become a true Dragon Rider. Besides that, the elves were the race that first had war with the dragons, the first race to establish the dragon riders, and they are the race that every rider, no matter the type or history, begins to resemble after joining the Dragon Riders.
Both the dwarves and the elves have complicated backgrounds, histories, and beliefs. At the beginning of the book, when Eregon is offered a place in the dwarf king's clan and accepts the offer, we learn that the dwarfs believe if they are not buried in stone when they die, they will not go on to their version of "heaven" after death. Also, each dwarf has seven toes on each foot, and it was considered a myth that humans only had five toes until after Eregon proved that the dwarven "myth" was actually a fact. The dwarfs also have a strict religious background and a series of religious rituals they follow. The elves, on the other hand, don't believe in a deity of higher power at all, but do believe that a "higher calling" only has to do with oneself and that person's dedication and awareness to the world around them.
As a Christian, I question these beliefs in my characters, but knowing that our world is just as divided culturally as Paolini's world, I make myself take a closer look at the possibilities of different and conflicting cultural beliefs in my characters' world and time. My main character usually believes something similar to what I do, or else he/she learns to believe something like that towards the middle or end of the book. But what about my other characters, and the races they come from? I used to prefer not to mess around with multiple deities in cultural religion. However, I've found out since then that such a thing can be done well from a Christian perspective. For an example, let's turn to Jeffry Overstreet's books "The Auralia Strand". In book two of his series, titled "Cynder's Midnight", we learn that the character "Cynder" is from a city that doesn't believe in "The Keeper", a mythical dream creature who's allegorical perspective parallels with that of "God" or even Christ. (I don't know that I would go so far as to say the Keeper represents either one of those… there are enough differences that I would hesitate to put such a name on this creature. But there are also enough similarities to note the possibilities.) In Cynder's city, they worship their "Moon-spirits" as well as their own desires, and they are adamant with their religious rituals. Reading "Cynder's Midnight" was the first time I fully realized that a thing like this could be done well in a Christian book – that is to say that the religious beliefs didn't have to revolve around only "believing in God" and "Believing in the Devil", "being on the side of good" or "being on the side of evil". There are mixed beliefs in the real world, so why not in a fantasy setting as well?
I had, of course, read secular fantasy books where the author played with different religions and cultural backgrounds, but as much as I wanted my world to seem as real as all that, it wasn't until after reading this particular book that I understood the powerful impact such a thing could have in the Christian Speculative Fiction genre. Between Paolini, Tolkien, Overstreet, and Donita K. Paul, we have some pretty good examples of world building here, culturally, physically, and character-wise. The trick, however, is in applying these techniques to our own writings.
I'm going to end this post now, since it's starting to get pretty long (just reached over 2k). However, I'm seriously contemplating writing a second part to this particular element, so keep your eyes open for that. I hope what I did write didn't meander all over the place, and that this actually made sense in a way that can be used by any who read it. In the meantime, the very best advice I can give to authors who want to work on world building is to keep it "real" and always do your "research"… that is to say, look at other authors that you admire and who are successful in your genre, analyze what they did that worked, and see if you can't apply a few of the techniques they used in building your own worlds. Also, even if you base some things on other styles, cultures, and books, try to keep your world fresh and original. This is so important if you truly want to make a name for yourself in the literary world; otherwise, if others don't feel you are original enough, they may consider you a "rip-off", and that can damage your reputation in the writing world. However, to be completely honest, the only "rip-offs" I've ever met were completely new to fictional writing and have since grown into their own voices with ideas so original I am sometimes happily jealous of them (meaning that I love their work, and can only wish I had come up with the idea before they did. :D).
Until later, God bless and happy Writing,