Saturday, September 13, 2008

on Worldbuilding, or, a question from another Writer

a Gentle Reader was kind enough to leave this question as a comment on one of my recent posts.

I'm interested in writing fantasy myself, but what has me freezing in my tracks is creating a world...a whole world...the Gods must have felt something like the panic I feel when I think of it. Okay so I don't need to create a whole world, just a country to begin with, but still its a scary thought and one that has me struggling to even begin. So if I may ask a question, how did you go about creating a realistic world for your characters to live in?

ah, world-building. depending on your outlook, it can be your greatest pleasure about the art and craft of fiction, or your greatest chore. what's interesting to me about this question, i think, is that the answer doesn't just apply to fantasy or sf, though writers of less colorfully imaginative fiction may not be quite as attuned to the care required to create Believable Worlds.

sometimes this is referred to as Setting, and while not as acknowledged as universally important as Character or Plot, it is nonetheless sufficiently integral to the creation of effective fiction to warrant its own Writers' Digest book.

however, even sf can rely on the Known Science of our own world in terms of groun-rules, short-cuts and What the Reader Knows. in fantasy, you get to make it all up, which is, as so many things are, both blessing and curse.

so where do *I* start, gentle reader? for me, fantasy isn't just a chance to make up cool stories about magical beings who have enormous powers, heroic adventures and mythical sex. i see fantasy is a chance to play with the world views of the characters who live inside the story, a chance to examine a different way not just of living, but of understanding How Things Work. if i lived in a world where jesus had never died, i wonder, what would that world be?

because i grew up steeped in three things - literature, judeo-christian mythology and irish folk music - a great part of the shaping my worlds begins with these three things - what are their stories? what do they believe? and what does their music sound like? for me, the easiest way to any kind of reasonable answer lies in the world's other Mythologies.

the world-view of the celts, for example, was very different from that which we commonly share today. by adopting it in the silver books, i was able to make subtle shifts in such things as motivations that perhaps don't seem very large when first confronted, but which, over the unfolding of the story, adds up to the feeling for the Reader that he or she is defintiely not anywhere near kansas any more.

for example, in silver's edge, when nessa goes into Faerie to save her father from the sidhe, she doesn't go to save his LIFE. she goes to save his SPIRIT, so that he may be free to travel back and forth from the human world to the summerlands. she EXPECTS him to die soon after his return to the mortal world, in fact, because it is well known that being in Faerie and then returning can kill you. but trapped in Faerie, dougal's spirit would be lost to those who loved him forever. this shift in motivation, subtle though it may be, not only shapes nessa and her world, but also illustrates another point of view quite different from the one this culture seems to promulgate: living in the same youthful body forever would constitute paradise.

so my advice to you would be to immerse yourself in mythology - to read as widely as you can about as many mythologies as you can absorb. find the one that tickles your soul, that leaps large on the canvas of your mind. then take your plot and characters and see how they might fit on the foundation of that frame.

the characters in my silver books do not believe everything the ancient celts believed. the mythology that supports the world of the silver books is mine, woven out of the strands of ancient ireland, but sprinkled through with quite a bit of Other Stufff, too. just as an aside, one of the criticisms sometimes levelled at the books by those earnest amateur scholars i call Strict Constructionists, is that the mythology in the book is NOT "real" celtic mythology. "this isn't the way it really happened," bemoaned one particularly offended purist.

to them, i'd like to say: of course it isn't. i made it up all up. that's why it's called fantasy.

and furthermore, the war must end. blessed be.

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