World building is a really important part of story construction. So - how d'you do it?
In the next few blog posts, I'll be looking at this question from a few different perspectives. I have TWO - yes, people, TWO - published authors guest blogging about their personal experiences of constructing worlds, starting with Laura Perry next week, talking about her new book, JAGUAR SKY.
Perry is a non-fiction author, but JAGUAR SKY is fictional novel set in Belize. Perry will be discussing how to world-build in real life, and the research involved in using a contemporary setting.
Later, Ken Magee, author of DARK TIDINGS, where magic meets the internet, will be talking about building fantasy worlds that merge with the modern day.
I've got a mix of worlds in my stories. The world of the Faustine Chronicles is high fantasy, but uses a mix of cultures and mythologies to create the setting and shape the characters.
"Cantium" is, of course, the Roman name for Kent, England. It was originally called the kingdoms of Cantium, and I fell in love with the name. I quickly realised, as I sculpted the world of Cantium and its capital, Brising, that I wanted it to be a mixture of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It's a fusion of the two, and I drew upon my own experiences of Athens and Rome (mainly Athens!) to create the atmosphere of the city.
The problem is, when you start borrowing from cultures and their mythos, you are also limiting yourself by establishing parameters of behaviour, social convention and mentalities, all of which are shaped by environment, political systems, history and the evolution of that culture. When you start saying, "They believe this," and "they have this attitude towards that", you have to then create a reason for this to have happened. The reader doesn't need to know why, but you do. That's the only way to keep things consistent.
Cantium has temples, villas, a caste system based on hair colour (I don't know why I decided this) and the people think that they are superior to most other nations because they used to have an Empire. That allows them to live in denial about the current state of their economy, which is pretty poor. Because of the way their proud history is presented, they still think they are more or less untouchable. This is not true. Having a king who is somewhat in denial and not of very sound mind does not help, either.
For example, the crux of the novel is the raid on Brising where Elsa, the main character, is taken as a slave.
How were the warships able to enter the harbour?
Why did this not provoke a war between Cantium and Jamtland?
The answer to this is that Cantium has a joke of a navy, and its army is terrible. They used to be a formidable power, but they are now very weak. That is going to have a knock-on effect on the economy. So therefore, my main character is (a) dirt poor and (b) works her butt off. It also means that she can be taken in the raid, and no one really cares very much.
How can the Jamtish be sure of Cantium's financial state?
They must have sent someone to find out. Presumably an ambassador, and they must also have a spy network. This means that the political systems and processes of international diplomacy are taking shape. The reader doesn't need to know this, either. But you do - even if it's just a throwaway line to set the scene for the reader.
I have a whole intricate political system and web of factions and alliances figured out for both courts, but the reader will never ever need to know any of it. But it all started with the above three questions, and my very brief brainstorms and sketching out of ideas.
However, for some unknown reason, traces of Dickensian London crept into Brising, and I ended up with a place with Pratchett-esque universities that had started to gradually admit women, and I'm still not even sure if that works or not. Even in fantasy, there's only so much messing about you can do with cultures and societies and keep it believable.
Jamtland is the name of a real place - it's a Swedish region. The Jamtish, of course, are almost completely based on Viking and Goth culture. One of my huge problems with modern fantasy set in these sorts of cultures is that the status of women in these societies tend to be confused with "equality" in a Twenty-First Century sense, which is also applied to gender and sexuality, race, and all sorts of inappropriate things. I started reading a book about werewolves set in a Viking world, where the warleader of a raiding band reflected on the pain of childbirth and thought how much stronger women were than men.
I stopped reading.
That's not the story I'm interested in telling. Very few people in fantasy, except for the obvious exception of George R R Martin, and even then I've heard people (genuinely) call his books "the sanitised version" of a Medieval setting - give a voice to the ones who, throughout history, faded from memory because they just got on with it, and played the hand they were dealt.
There were (and are) millions of people in the world without voices, all with their own individual hopes and dreams and feelings and traumas and joys and experiences, some forced into situations, some accepting them, and most of them just getting the hell on with it. These include countless women and young girls, never feeling anything for their spouse other than revulsion, popping out legitimate children for a whole plethora of reasons.
In my actual work I study Thirteenth Century gentry families, and I do wonder about some of the wives and daughters my research covers. I'm not actually writing about any of them other than their strategical benefits and how advantageous their dowries were to their in-laws. But I do wonder, when I find them a little later on married to someone else with a teenage son by their first (now dead) husband, whether anyone even cared what they thought about it, or whether they were attracted to their husbands (or even to men at all) and the fact that we will never actually know anything about them. They left no personal records, and government records do not show you much, other than what gifts or grants they received, or where they travelled, or which part of the country they lived in.
I'm not a gender historian, for the simple fact that I really don't care about the "plight" of Medieval women, to be honest. But I do know some really good historians who do, and who have produced some excellent studies. However, I'm very interested in fictionalising the voices who will never be heard, and see what happens when they get onto a page.
The problem is, as distasteful and horrific as that is to modern-day sensibilities, if you've chosen to write about a culture that acts in a certain way, then you have to be prepared to tackle its mentalities, too. If you're going to develop your fantasy society and get it moving along the path to something better and more enlightened, it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a freedom fighter armed with some impressive rhetoric.
Remember your political systems?
Just because the good guy with the sword kills the bad guy with a sword doesn't mean a damn thing.
The good hero is walking into a maze of courtly factions, heirs to the throne with their own agendas, and various skilled politicians and master-manipulators who have stayed afloat throughout the regime by being excellent middle-men. It really doesn't matter how bad the antagonist is... look at the parameters you have created by establishing the society. Now look at a comparable situation in any given time period. Why? Because people are people, and fiction has to make sense. Real life hardly ever does, but readers won't buy into the randomness of life if it's written down as a novel. So, take a look at how people really react in certain situations, and how events really happened following big, dramatic events! Then make sure it follows the rules of cause and effect, and give it some kind of narrative that ties into your story.
You may find that the only logical option is for the hero to cut his losses and change sides, or to be executed as a traitor, or to be exiled, or to become a Machiavellian figure with finely-honed survival skills s/he would have balked at using at the start of the story. This is a case of the environment that you have constructed shaping the character and having a hand in the story's outcome.
That's why all my characters evolved so dramatically from one version of my story to another. It's also why I realised very quickly when writing the very first draft of the plot that killing the antagonist would not make any difference. It couldn't be your standard classic sword-and-sorcery where the good guy gets rid of the bad guy and everyone cheers. Fortunately, most fantasies have moved away from the cut-and-dried endings and are playing about with consequences. It's the consequences that make things interesting.
On the other hand, if the characters and story arc has come first, then your world has to take shape within those parameters, and not the other way around... As you edit and revise your story, however, they will start to inform each other.
Jamtland became Jamtland purely because I based Kristof on Vlad the Impaler, the real life Wallachian (not Transylvanian!!) prince. This meant that it had to be a little like Romania, and I wanted him to berserk in battle, which led me to a Viking warrior culture. However, the Impaler's psychology had to develop too, and I needed a lot of strong environmental factors to help shape that. Of course, if these factors shaped Kristof, they had to have had a similar effect on others, too. So what about the other characters who were native to this country? What about their experiences? How and why did they turn out differently to Kristof, and to what extent is that nature or nurture?
... The hardest thing I ever had to write was Kristof's back story. I tried to cut it. I tried to turn him into the Impaler a different way. It didn't work. Kristof, like Vlad, has an obsession with that particular form of execution because of what happened to him as a child. And that meant that I had to borrow the "bad bits" of the cultures I was stealing from, as well as the "cool" bits. And that had a knock-on effect that impacted all the other characters, too, because they had either (in the case of Hardrada/Oléta) had a hand in creating that society and perpetuating that culture, or had been immersed in it since birth.
I guess that's one of the keys to world building, though.
You have to be brave and follow through, or be prepared to change everything because of the addition/omission of small details.
You have to put a lot of effort into the research, and then do something original and creative with what you find.
You have to keep in mind cause and effect at all times, and try to create a realistic sense of the society WITHOUT succumbing to the dreaded info-dump. I fail with this all the time. :(
I'm looking forward to Laura and Ken's posts in the next few weeks, to see what the pros make of this topic!
Excited? Yeah you are. ;)
I'm going to leave you on that note, with a bit more of possibly the best Viking Metal band ever.