by Jeanette O'Hagan
|Mountain Moon Rise by Jeanette O'Hagan (c 2013)|
One Hundred Acre Woods, Never Land, Avonlea, Narnia, Hogwarts, Middlearth ... these are all places that have delighted countless children – and let’s admit it – adults, filling them with wonder and whimsy.
For me one of the joys of reading is being transported to another place and time. It might be across the universe in a FTL spaceship or a Blue Police box. It might be back in time to encounter ancient or not so ancient societies and cultures (Victorian, Medieval, Roman, Chinese or Incan) or perhaps to a strange technological or dystopic future. Or it might be the streets of New York or Sydney, the vast Australian Outback or the green hills of England. Books have whisked me away to all these places – and more, many more.
And, one of the joys of writing is in creating my own world.
In Maps of Fictional Worlds, Austin Kleon says ‘every tale has a setting, every tale creates a world in the reader’s mind’
I write fantasy and have the freedom to create my own world from the ground up, but all authors are world builders to a greater or lesser extent - Austen’s Pemberley, Elliot’s Middlemarch, Dickens’ Bleak House, Anne’s House of Dreams or Rose Dee’s Resolution Island. Realistic writers create houses, streets, neighbourhoods, cities. Historical writers recreate the past, populating it with a mixture of historical and fictional people. Science fiction writers imagine a possible future whether near or far or an alternative reality while fantasy writers allow their imaginations to roam.
As Neil Gaiman says ‘Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been.’ And sometimes it can show you the place you have lived your whole life with different eyes.
Even the most fantastical world draws inspiration from our world. And in that sense, writers walk in the steps of our own Maker who spoke the world into being. Somehow I find this thought both inspiring and very, very humbling.
What does it take to build a fictional world – apart from heaps of imagination? What things does the writer need to think about?
- The world is complex, dynamic and interactive. History, geography, ecology, societies all interact, are rarely monolithic and are usually in flux. Altering one thing can have significant effects with ongoing ramifications – as our own histories show with say, the introduction of prickly pear in Queensland in mid 18th century.
- The world needs to be consistent and coherent – even in a magical world, the magic has rules which the author establishes and must follow. Any exceptions need to be foreshadowed well before they are pulled out of the box to save the day.
- Think beyond the surface to how the world works – what infrastructure and economies support its societies, who does what, what motivates its characters, what are its conflicts and power struggles?
- Make maps, draw buildings, make notes, keep journals, collect images, facts, artefacts, mine history and other cultures for ideas, ask questions and daydream to your heart’s content.
- Describe not only what the world looks like – but its sounds, textures, smells, the ambiance, cadences and rhythms. Describe the big features but don’t forget the little things, the everyday things – what people eat, the little rituals and gestures.
- Beware of dumping huge slabs of description and information or going off on tangents. Ernest Hemingway proposes the ‘Iceberg Theory’ in which the author knows much more information about the setting and characters than he or she uses, as he says, ‘The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.’ And as Charlie Jane Anders indicates even small descriptive elements (Heinlein's‘the door dilated’) can convey a wealth of knowledge.
- Don’t allow the worldbuilding to overwhelm the plot or the characters. Use what is relevant to the story (to the plot but also to characterisation, mood etc). Incorporate it into your dialogue and action. Show the world from the perspective of the characters – as Malinda Lo says ‘of their lived experience of being in that place.’
- Some writers build their world in great detail before writing the first word of their story (a top down approach) while others plunge into the narrative with the details emerging from the story telling (a bottom up approach). A different slant to the planners versus pantsters debate. A potential problem with the first approach can be that the writer becomes so immersed in world building that they never actually start writing the story (Tolkien almost succumbed to this). In the second approach, where the rules and properties of the world are created on the fly, it can be hard to be consistent or one can suddenly find that a particular detail that seemed cool in chapter 2 or Book One causes all sorts of bother in chapter 35 or Book Three. I, like many writers, do a combination of both – perhaps establishing the big picture elements at the beginning and then painting in the smaller details as one writes. And one can always back track (as long as the earlier books are not yet published).
- Avoid stereotypes and clichés
- Don’t forget to have fun
‘If fiction begins in daydream ... it ends, if it is good fiction and we are good readers, by returning us to the world and to ourselves. It reconciles us with reality.’Robert Penn Warren
Fictional worlds, even fantasy ones, are reflections and refractions of our own world. They help us escape for a time into another place, they help us see our own world through other eyes but they also help us explore the meaning and contingencies of our own lives and selves.
What are your favourite fictional worlds? What have you learnt from your forays into their pages? Which ones would you most like to visit in ‘real life’ if that were possible? What do you enjoy – as a reader or as a writer - about world building?
Jeanette has practiced medicine and taught theology. She is currently caring for her children, enjoying post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad fantasy fiction series. She is actively involved in a caring Christian community.
You can find her at JennysThread.com,