Please welcome author Jack Reyn. His guest post on world building has me thoroughly captivated. Thanks, Jack!
The importance of world building
Many years ago, I had an argument with a friend of mine who was a precocious reader of literary fiction. He’d read almost everything – but never a word of any kind of fantasy, science fiction, or anything “speculative”. One day I asked him why.
“I’m just not interested,” he said. “Books like that have to spend ages setting up the world. It gets in the way of the story and the characters.”
At the time, I thought this was an odd response. Hadn’t he missed the whole point of science fiction, fantasy, and allied genres? The delight of discovering the world in which they’re set is part of what they’re about.
Over the years I’ve come to realise that this applies to pretty much all fiction. Discussions of the structure of fiction often revolve around the relative importance of plot and character. Do you devise the plot first and then create characters to follow it? Or do you think up the characters first and let them drive the plot? Well, as a lover of speculative fiction of all kinds, perhaps I’m biased – but I want to make a case for the equal importance of the world.
What do I mean by “world”? A book is, after all, nothing but words on a page or a screen. But those words allow the reader to imagine a setting for the action and the characters that the book describes. A “world” is partly the place, but it’s also the culture and the rules that govern that place.
Think, for example, of the greatest of all world-builders, J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings certainly has characters and it has a plot, but those aren’t what have captivated most of its readers. They love the world! They love, in particular, the depth and detail of that world, from the descriptions of the landscape to its different races to its languages and history, all of which Tolkien had worked out in private before even conceiving the story. The joy of the book is the joy of losing yourself in that world; that’s why fantasy novels typically come in multi-volume epics. And note how Tolkien’s world is more than just a series of maps. It’s also a set of rules that govern what goes on in those maps – rules about the behaviour of good creatures and evil ones, their relative strengths, cultural standards of behaviour, relations between races and nations, and so on. These are what generate the characters and the plot.
Or take a very different fantasy novel: China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which reads like Charles Dickens had a drunken night out with Mervyn Peake and Neil Gaiman and tried to write up their ideas with a massive hangover. I could hardly tell you who the characters were or what they did, but I can remember that incredible setting as if I’d been there, a nightmarish London from another dimension full of impossible creatures and absurd architecture. The setting, and the atmosphere it generates, is everything.
So in stories like these, the world is central – not only as part of the point of the book, but as a driver for the other elements. The plot and the characters are, to a large extent, derivative of the world. It’s worth pointing out that classic fantasy needn’t be like this. A counter-example that comes to my mind is Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, where the main characters and the (generally appalling) things that happen to them are foremost, and the world in which they live is, for the most part, a rather generic fantasy realm that wouldn’t be very memorable in its own right. Tolkien cared most about languages, elves, and trees, and created a world to suit; the characters that appear there are almost incidental. Goodkind, by contrast, cares about his characters, what happens to them, and the political themes that emerge, and the world is really just a place for those things to exist in. (Which isn’t to denigrate Goodkind, merely to say that he takes a different approach.)
Well, perhaps worlds are, usually, critical to fantasy and science fiction. That’s obvious. But what about other kinds of fiction? I’d say that here, too, worlds are much more central than we usually think. Take a classic such as Wuthering Heights. There’s nothing speculative there (well, apart from the occasional ghost) – we are firmly in the real world of the Yorkshire moors. But notice two things about this setting. First, it’s not actually realistic. We’re expected to believe that two deeply unpleasant families exist in these two houses, interacting and intermarrying with each other in increasingly complicated ways, with almost no contact at all with the outside world. No policeman ever knocks on the door of Wuthering Heights to investigate the dark doings within, a point that was made by critics upon its first publication. We hear of distant locations such as Liverpool, but they exist to these characters only by hearsay. When characters leave the world, as when Heathcliff disappears to go travelling, they literally vanish. The only outsider is the supposed narrator, Lockwood, who doesn’t understand a thing about it; he might as well be an alien from another planet. This is a fantasy world – a micro-world of one valley – that mimics the real world, but is certainly not identical with it.
The second point is more subtle, but it’s just as important. The world of Wuthering Heights isn’t just a small location; it’s a set of rules that govern what happens in that location. People in this world don’t behave the way real people do. Compare it to another example that’s very different on the surface: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, one of the best Batman stories ever written. Moore later talked the book down, on the grounds that it was only about Batman and the Joker – two characters utterly unlike any real person who ever lived. But precisely the same thing could be said of Heathcliff, who acts not entirely unlike Moore’s Joker. Batman stories are set in a world that is unlike our own not only geographically but psychologically – people do things differently there. The same thing applies to Wuthering Heights, if not quite so flamboyantly. But in both cases we accept it, because we agree that when we open the book we’re entering a fictional world where the familiar rules don’t quite apply.
Think of the master of another genre, Agatha Christie. Here again we can see that, contrary to first impressions, we are reading fantasy novels, because different rules apply. In the real world, people do not commit such elaborately disguised series of murders, and are not found out by detectives relying solely on psychologically-based inductions. If Poirot were a character in a genuinely realistic novel, he’d be useless, since his methods wouldn’t work on real people; and he’d be unnecessary, since criminals aren’t really caught that way. That, too, is why there has never been a real-life Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that Conan Doyle describes Holmes’ methods clearly enough for anyone to try to emulate them. They work in the world of the story, where people are predictable enough and the range of possible explanations for any given phenomenon is small enough for a brilliant person to deduce the truth. But they don’t work in the real world, which is far too big, too messy, and too unpredictable for Holmes’ “deductions” (they are not really deductions, but inferences to the best explanation) to be at all reliable. Notice how moving Holmes to a different setting – such as modern London, in the BBC’s Sherlock series – requires moving the rules of his world with him. Holmes might not ride in a hansom cab any more, but his world still follows the same rules as it always did. It’s the same world after all, even with all those mobile phones and nicotine patches.
And of course, part of the enjoyment of the mystery genre is choosing to accept that these are the rules we will play by, and entering into the imagined world that they govern – just as, when we read a fantasy epic or a space opera, we accept the existence of magic or faster-than-light travel. More than that, by choosing to create a world of this kind, with these rules, the author not only determines what kind of story it’s going to be, but constrains what kind of plot and what kinds of characters she can create. Once again, the world is fundamental.
What if the rules that govern the story aren’t fictional at all? A realistic novel, which describes things that really could happen in the real world, is still necessarily limited in scope. It takes us to a particular place, at a particular time. James Joyce’s Ulysses gives us a plot that celebrates its mudanity, but one that is also conscious of its specificity: these are the events of a particular day, on a particular date in a particular place. The rules that govern this world are identical the rules that govern our own, but only some of them. It’s a slice of life, not the whole pie.
And worlds like this aren’t confined to fiction. Historical writing, too, requires world-creation. Think of the marvellous opening lines of John Julian Norwich’s extraordinary history of Byzantium:
“In the beginning was the word – surely one of the most magically resonant place-names in all history. Even if its Empire had never existed, even had there been no W. B. Yeats to celebrate it, even had it remained what it was at the outset – a modest Greek settlement at the furthest extremity of the European continent, without pretensions or ambitions – Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, of brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, of sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense.”
Now there’s a world as evocative as anything Tolkien created. But it’s not just about atmosphere. With those lines, Norwich tells us something about the rules that govern the world he’s going to describe: about the place, the sort of people who inhabit it, and their concerns. And in the pages that follow, he constructs that world. The writing of history isn’t simply the objective retelling of facts. The historian must select which facts to retell, and how to explain them. In so doing, the historian decides how to present her characters and which of their stories to tell, and how to explain the events she describes. That is world creation, not simply world description.
I’d like to finish my plea for the importance of world-building with a final question and example. Can a world determine everything? Can one create a world so richly imagined and detailed in its rules that plots and characters emerge naturally from it, just as – literary theorists tell us – plots can emerge wholly from characters? Well, perhaps. The closest thing to this that I know of is not a literary work at all, but the cult indie video game Dwarf Fortress. Enough has been written about this eccentric game elsewhere to need little more here. I’ll just say that Dwarf Fortress sets out to simulate a whole world. When you run it, the first thing it does is to create – randomly – a fantasy world: not just the map and geographical features, but its whole history, including the rise and fall of civilisations and the actions and movements of thousands of individual historical characters. Think of it as an unendingly varying Silmarillion generator. When it’s finished, you can read about the new world’s history in a sort of encyclopaedia, and you can enter it yourself either as a solitary wandering hero or (the most common way of playing) as the overseer of a group of dwarves trying to carve out a new civilisation. While you do so, the world continues to live and develop around you. The developer’s explicit aim is to create a program capable of generating a world in such detail – with rules covering not merely the laws of physics but the detailed anatomical and psychological characteristics of every individual in it – that stories will spontaneously emerge, both from the generated world itself and from the player’s interaction with it.
Now I should warn you that although Dwarf Fortress is free to download and perfectly playable, it’s still at an early stage (about 40% complete after nearly a decade of development) and its primitive graphics and brutal user interface, as well as the absurdly complex world they mask, make for a notoriously difficult learning curve. But it’s generated some wonderful stories. Take the tale of Bronzemurder, as an example of the sort of things that happen in it. And then try the epic story of Glazedcoast. It takes a while to get going, but it’s worth it. The combination of the detailed history and mechanics of the game with the distinctively austere style with which it describes them, as well as the player’s own imagination, creates both memorable characters and great plotlines.
I hope I’ve made a case for paying a little more attention to the worlds that lie behind imaginative writing, both fiction and non-fiction, both speculative and other genres. The world plays a crucial role in driving the characters and the plot. But to my mind, its importance goes beyond that. Why do we read fiction (or history) at all? There are many reasons. One is to escape from the real world. It’s clear how world-building in fiction helps us to do that. But another is to understand the real world more clearly. Imaginatively entering a different world may help us to do that, too. That different world may be a slice of the real world, which shines a spotlight on it and helps us to understand a little more; or it may be a fictional world, one which teaches us about reality precisely in the ways it differs from it; or again it may be an exaggeration of some aspect of the real world that draws attention to something we may have missed. Because even when we’re not reading, we still imaginatively create and inhabit worlds of our own, which reflect our perception of the real world. Anything that gets us out of our own worlds, and into another, will expand our horizons – and that, ultimately, is the purpose of all writing.
About the Author:
Jack Reyn is the pen name of an academic at a leading British university, specialising in the study of religion. The author of a number of books on religious history and philosophy, he has recently published his first novel, Imago – a thriller set in an alternate history where Christianity never conquered the west. Find out more at www.jackreyn.com Imago is available at Amazon.