Three weeks ago, when I began this series of posts on Worldbuilding (first installment here, second installment here) one of our regular readers — Razziecat — offered (as usual) a terrific comment (thanks, Razz!). In it, she quoted the wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold, who once said, “The world comes into being as the story passes through it.” This is one of those things I wish I had said first, because it is so simply and elegantly stated, and because it is so very true. And so in today’s continuation of the Worldbuilding series, I am going to focus on the ways in which I incorporate my worldbuilding into the actual writing of my books and stories.
Bujold’s statement about worldbuilding actually works on several levels. It is true (at least for me) that for all the work I do ahead of time developing maps, writing up histories, creating religions and customs and mythologies, etc., my worlds don’t start to feel real to me until I sit down and begin to write. At that point, as my characters begin to interact and my narrative starts to unfold, the world is transformed from a bunch of features on a chart and a few bullet points in a notebook, to something with depth and soul, something that stimulates the senses. In other words, it becomes a living, breathing place. In both of my previous posts in this series, I emphasized the fact that worldbuilding is an organic process, one in which one aspect of the worldbuilding sparks ideas in another — naming features on a map, for instance, can prompt ideas for the land’s history or about the religion and legends that inform the culture. Well, that synergy extends to the writing of the book. As I place my characters in the world and allow them to come to life, their relationship with the landscape, with the history, with the magic, with the gods, with the economy, etc. deepens the worldbuilding I’ve already done, and sometimes prompts new ideas.
But at a more fundamental level, I find that when I’ve done my worldbuilding well, the actual writing — the prose itself — reflects elements of the setting. A few years ago I posted about curses, pointing out that just as so many of the curses in our own society are tied to religion or other aspects of our culture, so fantasy-world curses should reflect the mythologies and beliefs of the worlds we create. So should the adages characters use. For example, there is a saying in the Southlands, where for centuries the yellow-eyed Qirsi and dark-eyed Eandi have been at war, and merchants of both races trade with everyone: “Commerce cares nothing for the color of a man’s eyes.” Even more than that, the imagery and metaphors we use in our descriptive passages should also be rooted in our settings. Remember that all the writing we do ought to be anchored in point of view, and since our characters are citizens of our worlds, their thoughts should be born of that world. Here is a passage from The Horsemen’s Gambit that illustrates the point.
There were bodies. Hundreds of bodies. They lined the street, arrayed neatly in rows, as if they had gathered to watch a parade. Every corpse was Qirsi, every one of them dressed in a white robe, so that they looked like sleeping wraiths. Tirnya felt that she should have been terrified, but there was nothing gruesome about the dead, nothing to give any indication of what had killed them. Yes, sleeping wraiths. That’s what they were.
And the city! Looking away from the bodies, Tirnya lost herself in reverie at the beauty of that city. Buildings constructed of red and pink stone — river stone, they called it; her father had told her that much. Lofty spires from the sanctuary soared upwards, seeming to pierce that blue like blades; the low jumble of houses, some stone, some wood, sprawled at the feet of the God’s shrine, like supplicants bowing before a prelate; the gentle curve of the city walls, punctuated at regular intervals by arched gates. She had never seen a city so lovely.
“It is yours,” the falcon said. “If you want it.” The bird wheeled above her, angling its wings, twisting its tail slightly, its flight as effortless as thought. “But there is a cost.”
She didn’t care. This was Deraqor! Her city! Her family’s ancestral home! The Onjaefs belonged here. How pleased her father would be when he learned that she had taken it back. But she knew she had to ask, that the falcon expected it of her. And this was a dream, with a logic of its own.
“What cost? Tell me, and I’ll pay it.”
The bird wheeled a second time, tucked in its wings to dive, pulling up just above her and hovering there. “Look!” it said, the cry both sharp and mournful.
Tirnya lowered her gaze once more.
Bodies; even more than there had been. But not dressed in white anymore, not neatly arrayed, not only Qirsi. Bodies everywhere. Hacked, broken, brutalized. Severed limbs, spilled innards, and so much blood. More blood than Tirnya had known existed, coursing through the streets like the Silverwater in flood, running over her feet, soaking through the leather of her boots. She took a great breath, opened her mouth to scream.
And woke, her eyes fluttering open.
Sleeping wraiths, blades piercing the sky, supplicants bowing before a prelate, the Silverwater in flood. These are not images from our world, nor should they be. We are not in our world; we’re in Tirnya’s world, just as we’re in her mind. The imagery has to be hers.
My point is this: Worldbuilding is an ongoing process, one that is interwoven with the creation of narrative and character. It doesn’t stop when we begin to write our books; and it’s not something we do merely to fill in gaps as we write. Rather, it shapes our descriptions, our action, our character development, our plotting, our dialog, our prose. At its best, fantasy transports us to new, magical places. Creating a foundation for our world with all that prep work I talked about in the previous posts makes possible that act of creative transportation. But it only happens when our readers are completely immersed in the worlds we’ve constructed, and that demands constant reinforcement in our writing.
Of course, the tricky part in all of this is finding a way to convey worldbuidling information and imagery without overwhelming our readers or resorting to the dreaded data dump. Faith’s recent posts on data dumps have been terrific, and I have no desire to step on her toes. But I will briefly describe the steps I take to avoid data dumps in my own work. First, give only as much information as the reader needs at any given moment. Our impulse is to explain everything up front, to make certain that the reader understands all that they will need to know as the narrative unfolds. There are several problems with this approach: 1) it stalls a story’s momentum; 2) it overwhelms the reader with too much information; 3) it almost always feels forced and unnatural. Instead, I try to give out the needed information in small doses — the legendary info-drips, as opposed to info-dumps.
Second, present the information unobtrusively. Weave it into dialog and descriptions. In the passage I used above, you actually learn a lot about Deraqor, though it doesn’t read like a data dump. It’s the ancestral home of the Onjaef family (Tirnya’s family). It was taken from the Onjaefs,, probably by the Qirsi, probably in a war. We even know what it looks like. Do we know everything about it? Not at all. But we know enough for this scene to make sense, and really that’s all that matters. We’ll get more information as it becomes necessary. In fact, from a narrative perspective, that’s a better way to handle it, because some of that crucial, as-yet-undisclosed information will have more impact later in the series.
Finally, stay true to voice and point of view. Present the necessary data as the character would, and only tell your readers what your point of view characters can and should know. Yes, this might make the reader work a little harder for the information. It might even mean that your readers have to play catch-up for a few pages. That’s all right, as long as you don’t frustrate them, or hammer them with major plot points that are not explained satisfactorily. Better to remain in your character’s voice and give the information slowly, than to step out of it and drop all the data at once.
All right, I’ll stop there, because this is pretty long already. Let’s talk about putting our worldbuilding into prose. Do you have a VERY short passage (50-100 words; no more) you’d like to share, one in which you do a good job of weaving your setting into your writing?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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