Friday, 1 August 2008

World building for beginners - N M Browne

In the beginning there was Tolkein and he really did world building: language, geography, history, the lot. I think he is probably the model for the kind of writer who devises a complete world before putting pen to paper, the kind of writer who has notebooks full of background material. I get the impression that JK Rowling did much the same thing with her class lists and drawings. I know many people for whom the pleasure of building a world certainly equals that of writing the story.
Well, I can’t do it. I just can’t. I open a notebook and the most I can come up with is a bad drawing/doodle and a shopping list. Even if my brain would let me, I suspect that trying to build a world from scratch would set off my (long dormant) perfectionist streak and I would be immobilised by ignorance. What happens to tides if you have two moons? How would plants photosynthesise when the sun grew dim?
There is another way. It isn’t a better way, but it is an alternate way. It is called making it up as you go along.
I don’t know much about how this word works but I know what it feels like to be here, so in writing about other worlds I focus on what it feels like to be there. Then I work out why things are as they are. In my mind’s eye I see a woman in a painted wooden mask by a dung fire, a glowing silver boy in a ditch watching a baby-faced bird, a soaring golden dragon in a blue sky. Why? What? How? I write the story to find out.
Everything should connect: everything has to have a credible explanation. If someone wears silk in a climate that wouldn’t support silk worms they have to belong to some kind of trading culture. If a woman burns dung on her fire and lives by a forest there has to be a reason why she doesn’t burn the trees. Each new world building detail sets into motion a domino effect; repercussions crash through the fabric of the story. It is quite fun.
I still get immobilised by ignorance, but at least I don’t have to know everything up front, only those things that affect my story directly.
World building in this ad hoc way is a bit like a developing a picture. Everything in the foreground has to be in sharp focus; the further away it is the less well defined it appears. My characters leaving the city of Lunnzia, the known world of my imagining, walk into a landscape that does not yet have form. I don’t know what lies beyond the borders of the Island of the Gifted and unless my characters escape them I’ll never find out.
Like I said, this isn’t the only way of world building, but it is a way, one that allows the words to keep flowing and the ideas to keep developing as the story and the world take shape together.


Nick Green said...

Your method sounds like a vastly preferable way; to let the world support the story, rather than the reverse. Otherwise you risk merely taking a reader on an elaborate tour through a landscape that doesn't really do much other than coldly impress with its detail. I admire authors who can really get every detail right up-front, but admiration isn't the same as love.

Mind you, I think Tolkien did it more 'your way' in actual fact. It's evident from early drafts that he was making up TLOTR as he went along; and the world of Middle Earth had been made up over his lifetime through another work of fiction, The Silmarillion. True, he had all those languages he invented, but everything else I suspect happened organically, much as you describe. Frank Herbert, now there's a pedantic world engineer...

Lee said...

I actually prefer a few questions and anomalies and ambiguities, even in the final version - gives the reader something to worry over.

tooty nolan said...

I build my worlds by throwing in little asides that force me to be creative. I'll put in something like "As everyone knows, there's not a self-respecting hamster alive who doesn't have a rhubarb tree at the bottom of their garden".It's ridiculous, but it keeps me trammelled: The rules of the world take shape. Works for me. Or maybe it doesn't: I guess I'd have to leave that decision to my precious few readers.
Tooty Nolan