Let me start by wishing all of you a happy 2013 filled with challenges, successes, and new creative endeavors. I also want to comment on something Misty said last week — the whole “whatever you do on New Year’s Day is what you’ll do throughout the year” thing. I spent New Year’s Day dealing with a mild case of food poisoning, so I’m really hoping that Misty’s got that one wrong. Nothing personal, Darlin’; I just have other plans for 2013.
I usually use my first post of the year to write about goals for the coming months — things I want to accomplish, improve upon, etc. But it seems to me that my last several of these New Year’s posts have been pretty much the same. So let me just say for the record that I plan to work hard this year; that I plan to promote the second Thieftaker book, Thieves’ Quarry (to be released by Tor in July) with every ounce of energy I can muster; that I will do my best to make the next installment in the series, City of Shades, which I am just about to start writing, as good as it can be; and that I will also be devoting time to a few other projects and maybe even making my first forays into self-publishing.
Finally, I plan to try a few new things here at MW, beginning with today’s post. I’ve been thinking that it might be interesting to try a new series of posts throughout the year — “Creative Intersections” — that will combine seemingly disparate concepts we’ve worked on previously, hopefully in innovative ways that will get us all thinking fresh about old issues. And I thought I would start with a piece that builds on the series of Worldbuilding posts with which I closed out 2012 (first, second, third).
In discussing worldbuilding and data dumps in the final post, I mentioned that when we present worldbuilding information it is crucial that we remain true to character voice and point of view. And so that’s the intersection I’d like to focus on now: Worldbuilding and Point of View.
One of the questions that comes up again and again in dealing with worldbuilding is how do we present necessary information — background, history, religions, politics, myths, etc. — in ways that not only avoid data dumps but also feel natural, unforced, free of contrivance. And part of the answer lies in remaining true to character point of view. I’m not going to go back over the rudiments of POV; you can find those in some of the previous POV posts. But just as a reminder, point of view is the character perspective from which we relate our narratives, the voice with which we establish plot, setting, and everything else of importance to our readers.
So, in what way does point of view help us decide when and how to mete out worldbuilding information? Well, we’re not just telling a story through the eyes of a character (or several characters); we are, in effect, inside the minds of our point of view characters. We are relating their thoughts, their emotions, their priorities. And if we find ourselves giving out information about the world that has no direct bearing on our POV character’s needs or emotions or thoughts in that precise moment, we are no longer being true to the character.
For instance, say our female warrior POV character has just been attacked by hordes of machete wielding giant hamsters, and she pulls out her sword to defend herself. This is probably not the time to tell readers that her sword once belonged to her Grandpa Yipyap and is a curved Frlk’blechen blade, forged in the fires of the Frlk’blechen Lava Swamps out of special purple-hued metal mined in the high mountains of WhizzyDoodleLand. The sword might be all of those things and more. But she wouldn’t be thinking about that just now. Later, when she’s polishing the blade, wiping away the giant hamster blood and noticing a new notch near the hilt, we can tell our readers all we want about the sword, about the Lava Swamps, about the crazed gerbil tribes that inhabit the high mountains, and about beloved Grandpa Yipyap (assuming that the information is going to be vital to readers’ understanding of the novel at some point in the later chapters). But in that moment, all she cares about — and, thus, all our readers should care about — is how she is going to carve up the oversized rodents.
On the other hand, when our POV character is traveling on horseback (or giant-hamsterback) crossing a part of the landscape that plays an important part in the history of our land, that might be a very good time to reflect on some crucial background. In other words, context is key. As we are writing from the point of view of our lead character or characters, we should put ourselves in their shoes. We should consider what might be going through their minds. Not what is convenient for them to ponder from our perspective as the author, but what is likely to be occupying their thoughts. POV is an exercise in empathy, in feeling what our characters are feeling, thinking what they are thinking. And that sense of empathy should dictate what elements of our world they are conveying to our readers at any given time.
In the same way, if our POV character and her best friend are talking about the political situation in Frlk’blechen, they should do so in terms that assume basic knowledge of that situation. They would not remind each other of things that they ought to know as sentient members of society. If our POV character’s name is, say, Faith, and her best friend is, say, Misty, we would not want Faith saying, “Boy, Misty, I sure am relieved to know that the two predominant political parties in our bicameral national legislature managed to reach a budgetary agreement to avoid the automatic cuts and tax hikes set to take effect just a few days ago.” Rather, we would have her say, “Well, thank God Congressional Democrats and Republicans got their crap together long enough to avoid the fiscal cliff.”
Will our readers know exactly what that means? Probably not immediately. But as the conversation continues in this vein, they will pick up the salient facts, and we will not have to sacrifice verisimilitude, or narrative flow, or good dialog to get the information across.
When we think about things in our daily lives, we rarely pause to explain them to ourselves. When we have conversations, we don’t usually give our companions civics lessons (or if we do, we wind up spending a lot of time wondering why we’re always alone . . .). Our characters shouldn’t do these things either. Yes, it is important that our readers understand our worlds. But the truth is that our characters are our windows to those worlds. Without explaining things — just by living in the world, interacting with it, experiencing its sights, sounds, smells, etc. — they communicate lots about the setting to our readers. And they do so naturally, without the awkward moments that come from telling readers too much.
So there it is: the first of my “Creative Intersections” posts. What questions do you have about POV and worldbuilding? And what future “Intersections” would you like to read about?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net