World building

Adrian Tchaikovsky recently wrote an interesting piece about world building for Fantasy Book Critic, in which he challenged a sort of snobbery that exists against the art of world building. It’s a good piece, and got me thinking about what world building involves, and how we can perhaps look at it in a more sophisticated way.

When we talk about world building in science fiction and fantasy, we’re usually talking about the work the author does in creating the setting for their book. Whether it’s extrapolating technology, detailing magic systems, or scrawling a map across your office wall, it’s creating the background to the story. It’s fun and creative and immensely satisfying, and if you’re not careful it can eat up all your writing time. It’s the author let their imagination run wild.

But is this really just a genre thing? When F Scott Fitzgerald invented West Egg, filling it with wild parties and houses such as Gatsby’s, wasn’t that an act of world building? When Hardy dreamed of Wessex, fictionalising its towns and countryside, wasn’t he building his own world? Casterbridge might be based on Dorchester, but for all the blue plaques on the walls of Dorchester, there is no real Casterbridge.

Seriously, Dorchester, he didn't live there. Because he wasn't real. (photo courtesy of Elliot Brown via Flickr creative commons attribution licence)
Seriously, Dorchester, he didn’t live there. Because he wasn’t real.
(photo courtesy of Elliot Brown via Flickr creative commons attribution licence)

When looked at that way, fantasy world building is an extension of something all writers do, and the disdain in which some people hold it seems even more absurd. Sure, getting caught up in it at the expense of actually writing is a problem, but if it’s a problem you’re having fun with then is that all bad?

But here’s what I really wanted to get at. Whether you’re writing The Great Gtasby or Empire in Black and Gold, world building is actually two separate activities. There’s building the world in the author’s head (and notebooks, and wikis, and office walls). But after that comes building it in the reader’s head, getting that world across.

While the first stage of world building is an act of imagination, the second is an act of craft, using writerly skills to portray the world so well that the reader can reconstruct it from your words. In a sense, the reader is the world builder here, but the writer is the one giving them the materials to build it from. That’s an incredibly challenging thing to do, the more so if the world is very different from our own. It involves a different set of skills from what we usually talk about when we say world building, but it’s just as vital to the process. And if this part doesn’t work, then all that building in the author’s mind will just go to waste.

Better understanding world building leaves us better equipped to defend it as a part of writing, and to do it well ourselves. If we accept the critical depiction of it as something only fantasy authors do, and something that’s separate from the actual writing, then we’re already conceding half the argument, and limiting our own understanding. Like most things, the better we understand it, the better off we are.

What do you think? Do you enjoy world building, as an author, as a reader, as a way to pass the time? What examples of world building do you particularly like? Leave a comment, let the world know.

My favourite books – a lazy Friday post

It’s been a busy week. My level of brain function is currently somewhere between a large, sleepy dog and a pot of yoghurt. But I am determined to get on a regular schedule for this blog, so today I’m going for the first, and laziest, idea that came into my head – my all time favourite books, and why.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

This book made me do something no other book has – when I got to the end, I went straight back to the beginning and started again. It was that damn compelling. There’s a combination of intriguing characters, an intense setting that combines the familiar and the unfamiliar, and of course the flowing, elegant prose. Fitzgerald manages to be both poetic and minimalist, putting in beautiful imagery but never slowing the story down. It’s an impeccable example of a deceptively straightforward story beautifully told.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Heller’s story follows men from the air force bomber crews caught up in the madness, the terror, and sometimes the tedium of the American military machine during World War Two. It’s the opposite of Gatsby. It’s crazy and rambling and full of weird details. Events are presented in ways that fracture chronology but heighten the drama and emotion. It’s both funny and bleak, neither focussing on nor ignoring the horrors of war, and it isn’t afraid to show the absurdity that abounds even in such a serious situation. The characters are wildly over the top, perfectly sane people driven to acts of madness by their circumstances, and I love every one of them.

The Saga of the Exiles by Julian May

A four book series that combines epic fantasy with sci-fi in a thrilling story of power, freedom, and the search for purpose. It’s got everything – action, adventure, intrigue, and moments of calm contemplation. There are sworddIt explores issues of religion and human destiny without laying it on too thick. The plot is complex and compelling, and shows how, with well developed characters, a story doesn’t need to chose between being character or plot focused – the one will drive the other. I seldom read a book more than once, especially one that 400+ pages, but I’ve read this series three times.

And you?

What are your favourite books? Give me some recommendations below. Let me know what your favourites are and why. Even if it’s a book that others dismiss, what makes you passionate about it?