Monday, May 4, 2009

World Building: Geography

As you can read in the first post of this blog, I'm developing a new story. It's somewhere in the range of steampunk, fantasy, SF, or a combination of all three. Still working through it all. Unlike writing crime fiction here on Earth, I have discovered the obvious: in my fictional world, I'm responsible for creating everything.

When the first inkling of the idea for this story came to me, I considered the magical world to be an alternate Earth. Thus, basic geography was set, more or less. If a person was in Florida when he did whatever he did to fall into the magical world, the 'magical' Florida would be roughly the same. Except there may be sea creatures no human from our world had ever laid eyes on.

Now, to some people, that's probably a cop-out and, to be honest, I kind of agree. But, seeing as how this is my first trip across to the fantastical side of things, I'm giving myself a break. I've already started rearranging the geography of my magical world to suit my needs.

For those readers out there, do you prefer an entirely new magical/fantasy land in your readings, a new place that you can explore and discover new things?

I can't help but wonder if the answer to that question is largely yes. Moreover, I can't help but wonder if that is the reason so many fantasy novels are doorstoppers. I'll admit that there is nothing like becoming completely engrossed in a world of fiction. It's like nothing else. But does world building--and the inclusion of every single detail an author has created--necessary in a book?

Take the Harry Potter books for example (currently, until I read more fantasy book, still my prime example for things I'll be discussing): The first two-three books were pretty short. Rowling gave the reader (and Harry) just enough information to keep him moving. As the saga progressed, the books got thicker as more and more of the wizarding world was laid bare. Rowling probably had all the details of the Potter wizarding world in her head when she started but didn't think book #1 needed all that detail. She let the story of Harry suck in us readers and then give us more and more details. I found out that, once I cared for Harry and his friends, I wanted to know more and more details. But, by that time, I was already preoccupied with the story and the characters.

That is the tact I'm striving for with this new work. Am I alone with thoughts such as these?


  1. World building is one of the truest pleasures of writing fantasy. Blame it on my roots as a player of D&D, but taking the time to come up with mounds of info on the geography and culture of your world is great fun.

  2. "Middle Earth" style "Sword & Sorcery" lies dead last on my interest list as to which kind of book I'll be looking for. The very reason for this is how much world building goes into the narrative.

    In my mind, the best of any genre knows when to take advantage of the "generic flavor" of a genre, utilizing all that has come before for all they are worth and then knows when to "season to taste" with particular details that are native only to the story/world being consumed by the author.

    This way I can get right into it making all the assumptions I want too as the reader, only later will I come to a realization that some of the world this story is set in IS unique and its being dolled out to me piece by piece as the story/books progress.

    I think Steampunk will lend it self nicely to this style of world building...

  3. Honestly, it doesn't matter to me if a world is similar to our own (such as an alternate Earth) or an entirely new place. What matters is that I believe it. This doesn't mean that you need 500 pages of world building in the story. You should be able to convey the necessary elements without resorting to excessive word or info dumping. but that's me.

  4. Agree with the others above that info-dumping kills any story stone-dead, especially if it comes at the start. I prefer to get interested in characters and their conflict and then when I'm hooked I'm prepared to read some world-building, but only if it's done in a natural way that's relevant to the story.

    Fantasy more than any genre should hold to the maxim that a writer knows ten times more about their world than what appears on paper. Sadly too many books think everything the author has worked out about the world should appear in the book to get it up to the required decology size.

  5. Like many things, I think it comes down to the skill of the writer. A good writer can feed you 50% story and 50% encyclopedic index and you enjoy it all. A bad writer makes you groan and roll your eyes every single time he trots out one of his Tolkien stereotypes. Historical fiction usually requires as much world building, and yet it feels so much more natural to me, probably because the root in actual history lessens the cheese factor.

    But then, sometimes I read a book just for cheese.

  6. "Info dumps" get skipped real quick when I come across them. Like another commenter, Middle Earth types of worlds don't do much for me. I guess I crave originality now that I've got a few hundred fantasy novels (read) under my belt. The world should be original and intriguing, but really should come second to the characters, or maybe even third behind the characters and the plot.

  7. Doug - I think it's fun too. I'm just wondering if it's all necessary.

    Caine - I like that idea of using 'generic' tropes to buttress up a story. An elf is an elf unless you're making changes to an elf in which case extra world-building is required.

    S.M.D. - Believability is the one thing that's been holding me back. I keep struggling with 'real world' ways to explain certain ideas I have about this new world. I'm to the point now where I'll make certain decisions about the world and then give it justification and move on, hoping the reader believes it because the characters certainly do.

    Ian - Info dumping. I remember some Michael Crichton books where, when I turned the page and saw wall-to-wall prose text with no dialogue, I knew a lecture was about to start. I usually skimmed or skipped those pages. Thanks for the maxim. I'll start learning.

    Terrence - Tolkienesque stereotypes is one of the things I hope to avoid. I have to admit that, as I'm building this world and I haven't been reading SF/F books in a long time, I'm hoping to latch onto something new. Granted, what I may latch onto is some idea some author wrote about five years ago and I'm just reinventing the wheel. Such is the curse of being behind in my reading. And I'm glad there's someone else out there who loves cheese!

    Scott M. - "Original in intriguing". I'm hoping to achieve both or, at least, the intriguing part. What's driving me is this: if Charles Dickens wrote a fantasy, what would it be like? I love the interconnected nature of his books and I am inspired to try my hand at it. BTW, visited your site and I've bookmarked it. Very nice.

  8. As a reader, I prefer to only know as much as I need to know-- if geographically there was an ice age that shaped the coastline into the spitting image of the profile of Julie Andrews, I don't care, unless there is something in the book that happens that I, as the reader, will not understand unless I know that 4o millions years ago there was an ice age that shaped the coastline into the spitting image of the profile of Julie Andrews.

    As a writer, I like to know more than the reader at all times. So, there was an ice age that shaped the coastline into the spitting image of the profile of Julie Andrews, so what; it's there, I know it, if it ever is necessarily needed in the plot, I'll say so, otherwise, I'll keep it in my sleeve until it's needed, if it's ever needed. This, of course, requires copious note-taking and memorization, but it's worth it, if you're trying to figure out a plot point and, in the story, you realize HEY, there was an ice age that shaped the coastline into the spitting image of the profile of Julie Andrews, and that fits in with X plot PERFECTLY (which is for me more common than one might think; remember, all of this information is coming out of your head, so it's reasonable to think that seemingly unconnected strains of thought and creativity would link up at one point or another, since they all came from the same place in the onset).

  9. I think, at a minimum, analogous terms or phrases are sufficient to convey a wealth of information about your magical world to the reader.

    For instance, and by this I offer a crude example, "Were I to reveal my true nature to these creatures, they would count me a mere Merlin's apprentice from an Arthurian dimension."

    On the other hand, don't cheat yourself out of creating as much magical world as you need to immerse yourself in the character you're writing. Such discourse is not necessarily viable for the reader, but you should express as much of that Dickensian detail that is your current bent.

    On the third hand (this is fantasy, right?), choices are the crux of any story, for the character as well as the author. Share what's critical to the storytelling, but I would encourage you to seek out interesting ways to drop in details about the magical world.

    Rowling did it with Muggle and magical newspaper articles, identifying hierarchies/structures in magical society (mudbloods, the Ministry, etc.), and the odd phrase about what Ron's brother was doing in Norway with ridgebacks. That last example gave us information about Ron, but also informed us about the scope and type of magical work being done elsewhere, not to mention a bit of foreshadowing.

    Moore did something similar with "Watchmen." All of those various documents and articles between chapters was brilliant, and it reminded me immediately of the multi-narrative, multi-correspondence method Stoker used to tell "Dracula."

    How the readers get the information is up to you. Pages of prose with prismatic ponderances of the magical world's sunset will put any of us to sleep. Still, I like me some alien/magical food descriptions and characters that slither or trundle (nods to Doug).

  10. As Ron (Liberace) Weasley said, "I wish my brother George was here."

  11. With a parallel world or a similar world I can see Florida being almost the same with a few exceptions that would make the difference stand out for shock value. String theory and metaphysical corridors can be whatever the author dreams up because it's all theory anyway.