Scott has been kind (or rash) enough to allow me the C slot for the A-Z blog tour, which will today stand for Crescent, the world on which the majority of my fantasy novel Endless takes place. But mainly I’ll be using it as an excuse to ramble on about world building.
The topic’s too huge (uh, world-sized) to cover comprehensively in a blog post, but I will attempt to provide a few pointers for writers, and an insight into the strange brain of a fantasy author for readers. Failing that, there’s at least some references to man-eating predators and two-headed troglodytes.
I’ll start – as any decent world builder should – with research and planning.
If you’re creating a world with a human or human-like population, then the central source of inspiration and information is obvious: Earth. We live on an incredibly diverse planet, with just about every climate and creature imaginable, a great deal of which can be more alien than Signourney Weaver’s CV. (There’s a ‘mind-control’ fungus spore in the Brazilian rainforest that infects the brains of ants, hikes them up a tree to an ideal spot, then bursts out of their zombified little heads to spread a new batch of spores. Earth is a science fiction horror.)
For Endless, I knew an important section of the book would take place on a desert called the Black Sea. The idea was for a bleak and daunting landscape with sudden shocks of alien colour. The Danakil Desert in east Africa was a perfect starting point; it’s one of the hottest and most inhospitable places on the planet, and also one of the most exotic with its luminous sulphur lakes and active volcanoes. In Danakil the Afar people mine salt; in the Black Sea I have tribes fighting over a magical mineral called Spirit. The two deserts differ in many other respects, but that initial research gave me a reliable – and plausible – foundation on which to build.
And that reliability is crucial. World building, like any other element of writing, requires that the reader trust the writer knows what he or she’s wittering on about. The world has to be believable enough for the reader to become immersed – or at the least, not be snagged on some dubious detail when they should be getting lost in the characters and plot. I’d always advise potential world builders to stick to the general laws of physics, relativity, chemistry, 42, what have you. It not only makes it easier for readers to orientate themselves, but also means when you break those rules – using magic, for example – it’s all the more conspicuous and exciting.
If a particularly ambitious world builder changes something fundamental – doubling gravity, non-carbon-based life, different atmospheric gases, multiple suns – then they have to be prepared for the avalanche of research and scientific prognostication coming their way. This is where fantasy starts crossing over into sci-fi, and authors’ heads tend towards explosion. (A geologist, astrophysicist, and evolutionary biologist walk into a bar… and are immediately kidnapped by a writer and placed in his basement, being so invaluable to his new ten-book Martian saga. Don’t worry, they’ll get signed copies of the novels later to make up.)
With Crescent I preferred an Earth-like world to fit its human population, which handily lowered the chances of giving myself a brain aneurism (and possible jail time for abducting scientists). Just as handily, less can be more when it comes to involving readers in a fictional world. An enjoyable position whilst reading is to have one foot in the known, one in the other. A minor twist on the commonplace – i.e. Earth – can be enough to achieve this. On Crescent the days and years are longer, flora and fauna are familiar yet alien, the sky seems normal enough until a Spirit storm hangs black and unnatural in it… oh and there’s humans with supernatural powers and creatures made of liquid light, just in case you were feeling too comfortable.
The physical world will always take a backseat when compared to characters and story, but its influence should remain pervasive. After all, it shaped every life form on the surface, and this should always be kept in mind when designing its civilisations. A desert people are much more likely to be hardy and pragmatic than those spoilt brats in the lush valley over the mountains – unless you throw an abundant precious resource the former’s way, and a few packs of man-eating predators and a natural disaster or two the latter’s. (World building is fun, huh?) The trick is to avoid clichés whilst creating societies that are credible and interesting.
Which brings us back to that reliability thing. A world builder needs to know not just every nook and cranny in his fictional globe but the reason every nook and cranny is there in the first place. Why is that land a barren desert? Why is that lake purple? Why has that bird evolved lasers shooting from its eyes? (Some are harder to validate than others.)
95% of this painstaking detail will never be directly referenced in the final novel (and the temptation to do so should be avoided – readers want a story, not a geological or anthropological thought experiment). But it’ll seep through in other ways, both intentional and subconscious: in how the characters think about and interact with the world, in their ideologies and concerns and possessions, in the consistency of the landscapes and societies around them. If readers are convinced by the world, imaginations will roam and fill in details by themselves. Future scraps of detail in the story will then serve to reinforce or elaborate upon these impressions – or contradict them, if the writer wants to rattle a few comfort zones.
So how much of a world needs to be mapped out, given a story’s action might take place only on one small corner? (A figurative corner, that is; cubic worlds are another of those avalanche-y changes.) The answer is as much as possible. Even within the quasi-medieval setting that most fantasy novels use, most common folk would have heard tales of the lava-spewing volcanoes of the southern islands, or the two-headed, green-tongued troglodytes of the north (remember characters can be unreliable, even if the author can’t). It comes back to immersion again; the more references – best done in casual, natural dialogue or internal thoughts – the more the world will start feeling as vast and uncontainable as it should, with the action really taking place on just one corner.
(I’ll go ahead and contradict myself now by reassuring world-builders that you’ll never be able to map out every lake and road and troglodyte of your beautiful world; if you can, it’s not large enough.)
To construct a world that feels genuine, the breadth and depth of its geography needs to be matched by its cultural history. The people weren’t just zapped instantly to towns and cities on the planet (unless they were), there’s been generations of wars, rebellions, plagues and natural disasters, an ever evolving canon of myths, customs, superstitions and religions, a litany of hatreds and loves and strife and that weird sexual practice briefly popular in the 148th year of Queen Flod the Curious.
Think of the cultural weight when you step into India. Its complications and contradictions: the poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, colonial past, ancient religions, rich tradition and burgeoning modernity, the sheer overwhelming diversity and commonality of life. This is what a country should feel like. (Again, writing that immensity is impossible. Instead have it as the looming shadow behind your characters; in the passing glance of your protagonist at a rusting statue, or at a palace flanked by beggars.)
World building, as I might have conveyed by now, can be a daunting task. I filled five notebooks and broke two cafetières whilst writing Endless. I’m sure each writer has his or her own methods of attempting to contain the uncontainable, whether it’s scrawling a map on the wall, writing a glossary, or even creating their own world’s Wiki. But I don’t doubt all share one equally thrilling and terrifying aspect of world building: how one detail always leads to another, which leads to another, and another, in an unending series of tributaries. (For example, calendar systems to seasons to orbital periods to solar systems to moons to tides to boats to trade routes to languages to naming conventions to common curses to social etiquette to customs to laws to governments to kings and queens.) Every time a writer decides to create a world, a stationary shop gets its wings.
On which wordy note I should probably call time on this blog post. Again, thanks to Scott and Indie Book Blog for giving me the space. If any readers have questions on the planetary amount of info I’ve failed to mention (I like to think I’ve covered one small corner in the world of world building), then feel free to ask in the comments.
Matt Bone lives and writes in Bath, UK, where he is steadily working through the city's supply of caffeine. He has degrees in both Astrophysics and English Literature, supporting his ambition to be entirely unemployable.
Endless is his debut novel, and the first in the Crescent fantasy series.
After an inexplicable catastrophe on Earth, John is left to live out a solitary existence. Around him the streets are desolate and unchanging - yet he cannot escape the feeling of being hunted. Are his debilitating headaches and the glimpses of an impossible, living light symptoms of what happened to everyone else, or does the universe have something else in mind?
John's fate is entwined with Crescent, a world teeming with life both human and supernatural, where Spirit storms rack the skies and rumours of a terrible army in the north have the great nations in unrest. A world where John could rediscover the bonds of life and love - and where he could lose everything again.
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