GUEST POST: Worldporn versus Worldbuilding by Robert Jackson Bennett

“Worldbuilding” is usually the hot commodity in fantasy and science fiction. When someone says they love a fantasy or science fiction book, that word almost always pops up as a reason why. If you don’t have solid worldbuilding, odds are people won’t warm to your book.

In other words, in fantasy and science fiction, worldbuilding is a zero sum game. You’ve got to have it to be successful.

But what goes into successful worldbuilding? What’s the difference between making up a world and writing about it? I know I don’t have all the answers, but from writing my first secondary world fantasy, City of Stairs, I have a few personal rules for making a secondary world work on the page.

Rule One: It’s Got to Do Something

Worldbuilding is almost always elaborate, and the more elaborate and immersive and rich, the better. Your world needs to be complicated, thoughtful, clever, and believable.

But when it comes to the page, first and foremost, it’s got to be functional.

Let’s say you’re writing your story about the Young Naïve Adolescent with a Strange Gift who comes to the Big Magical City. Let’s say your protagonist swings by the Magic Academy, and receives extensive instruction on the history and rules of magic in this world, and its relation with all the noble families in the region.

Here’s the question you need to ask: what does this scene do for the plot? What does it do for the characters? Is this elaborate for elaborateness’s sake, or does it do something?

For example, does the Magic Academy show back up in the story? Will the rules of magic or the history of the noble families have any sort of implications or consequences to the plot? Does the main character react to these rules in any kind of way, or do they just sit there passively, having information dumped into their heads?

This is the big danger of worldbuilding: it can turn into worldporn, fantastical voyeurism. Plenty of genre novels feature scenes set in places where nothing is really happening: it’s just cool to look at this elaborate, fantastical place. (For big offenders in the medium of film, Tim Burton and, more recently, Terry Gilliam tend to commit this crime pretty frequently.)

But that’s not compelling on the page. It’s not good storytelling. If you’re describing the intricate, ancient armor of some holy warrior, I expect it to mean something. Let’s say the armor is beaten, worn down, and it’s made of an ancient kind of magic metal that nobody knows how to fix anymore. That says a lot about the current status of the holy order that wears the armor, so this might be worth keeping. It’s not worth keeping if this holy warrior is just in one scene and never shows up again in the story.

Worldbuilding is about figuring out what’s background and foreground. Stuff that only shows up once is almost always, by default, background, and should be treated as such. Don’t focus the reader’s attention on something if it’s not worth it. That’s energy that they don’t have.

Rule Two: Suggest More

One of the things that makes good worldbuilding work is the idea of a world happening beyond what you’re seeing on the page. The scenes of the world don’t suddenly come into existence right before the protagonist walks into them, like lilypads appearing under their feet as they cross a pond: these places have been there for a long time, and likely will be there long after the heroes depart.

So you need to make it clear that this world exists beyond the action of the plot. This doesn’t mean you need to describe the entirety of the world beyond the plot: you can artfully mention the nature of lawmaking or finances in this world without describing tort reform or how a bill becomes a law.

The key here is to suggest, not to tell. To tell means informing the reader what is out there; to suggest means informing them what could be out there. One is terrifically more stimulating for the mind than the other.

This is, again, a matter of background and foreground. Imagine driving through a city here on Earth: do you need to drive down every single street to understand it? No. You just need to go through a main thoroughfare to get the general idea of it. You know there’s more, and you’re curious about it, but you don’t have to see it.

So think of the main thoroughfares through your own work, places where characters can look out on the world and get an idea of it. But don’t send them down every street.

Rule Three: Worldbuilding has to be Thematically Resonant

This is the final and toughest rule, because not everyone thinks about theme and ambiance when writing a story (let alone reading one).

But it’s important to the worlds themselves. There needs to be an overarching narrative to a world’s story, because the world is a character just as much as the hero. Look at Middle Earth, from Tolkien, a world of lost paradise, of departed magic, of beauty fading from the world as it changes. Everything from the Ents to Galadriel to Minas Tirith reflects this sense of melancholy loss.

But now let’s look at the world of Adventure Time, a world that couldn’t seem more dissimilar. This works a little differently, as sometimes the show is more than willing to do something crazy for the sake of doing it, but the overall pervasive feeling of AT’s world is one of buried past trauma: the world is post-apocalyptic, with characters like the Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, and Marceline all featuring stories of tragedies and traumas that betray their whimsical appearances and demeanor. Even Jake the Dog has a weird, foreboding origin story now, and the Lich always lurks in the background, an avatar of death that threatens everything. This is a broken place that seems to have embraced sugarcoated glee for now as a response to its trauma – though episodes that glimpse in the future let us know this won’t last forever. One day, it suggests, the Lich might win.

And I’d say the theme of my own book, City of Stairs, is one of lost history: one country had gods, and used their blessings and miracles to dominate the world. When one slave colony overthrew them and successfully killed the gods, all the miracles that sustained the world suddenly vanished. The world is not only broken, but its “glorious” past is utterly inaccessible: no one really knows or understands how reality worked before the gods died.

This theme of lost history is pervasive throughout City of Stairs. Fragments of miracles still exist and function, but no one can understand them. Whole sections of cities and nations literally vanished – perhaps gone, or lost in some inaccessible sub-reality. But every piece of worldbuilding I included in the book is informed by this feature of the world. This is its nature, and this is how things work.

So try to think of the nature or theme of your world as you write it. Is your world one of never ending conflict? Never ending rebirth? Fading glory? Technological revolution? Whatever you choose, this should act as the source from which you draw all of your world’s fabric. The scenes you write might explore different aspects of this theme, or look at it in different ways, but it needs to be harmonious with the overarching narrative of your world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT is the author of American Elsewhere, The Troupe, The Company Man, and Mr. Shivers. His books have been awarded the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson, and the Philip K. Dick Citation of Excellence. His latest book, City of Stairs, is (and this is Brian talking here) jaw-droppingly good. He lives in Austin with his wife and son. Check out his brand new website, then go order the book!

 

Just Keeping Going; or What Does the Balrog Do All Day?

It’s not at all clear how Durin’s Bane, the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, spends his days. Lurking, evidently. Possibly gnashing his teeth, if he has teeth. Maybe playing Skyrim on a console he’s got stashed way down deep beneath the Misty Mountains.  Certainly the dwarves provide periodic entertainment, and once the orcs arrive, he has someone to hang out with. Lively conversation seems unlikely, but one can imagine some really epic drum circles. Whatever the case, he’s clearly pretty excited for the change of pace when Gandalf and company show up.

The interesting thing about the Balrog, however, is that he is only incidental to the central story. It’s slightly surprising that in a tale about the struggle to defeat Sauron, one of the most badass characters we encounter has almost nothing to do with Sauron… and he’s not alone.

Two of the other most memorable creatures – the Watcher in the Waters and Shelob – are also autonomous evils. About Shelob, for instance, the massive spider encountered by Sam and Frodo, we’re told, “But still she was there, who was there before Sauron […] and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness.” She’s not even an independent contractor in the misery business. She’s a total loose canon.

This is not a complaint. I don’t think these monsters are a flaw in the book, but it’s worth asking why they’re there, worth considering what a fantasy novel (or any novel) gains from the inclusion of malevolent creatures and forces beyond the scope of the central conflict. After all, it would be a trivial edit to loop them into Sauron’s ambit of evil, a matter of few tweaked sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most.

It’s tempting to suggest that the ancillary monsters are there just to keep things exciting. Strolling the Mines of Moria without the Balrog would be comparable to visiting the great pyramids or the Mayan ziggurats; the place is gorgeous, certainly, and possessed of a certain archaeological and architectural interest, but tromping around in the dark for days isn’t the sort of thing to make your blood pound in your ears.

SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH

Or we could point out that, though not allied with Sauron, Shelob and the Balrog do help to move the plot forward. It’s hardly possible to have Gandalf the Gray return as Gandalf the White without his trial and death at the hands (claws?) of the Balrog. But then, Gandalf’s transformation could be accomplished just as readily if Durin’s Bane were, in fact, one of Sauron’s henchmen.

So what’s with the random monsters? What’s to be gained from the splintered nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings? Well, everything actually.

The fact that there are foes and forces beyond Sauron himself suggests something crucial about the nature of Middle Earth and the struggle of the main characters. If everything centered on Sauron and his funky jewelry, any victory for good would constitute absolute victory. The inclusion of Shelob and the Balrog, however, suggest a more complicated universe, one that is more inimical to goodness than we might at first suspect.

Even the defeat of Sauron, we realize, will not purge Middle Earth of darkness, horror, or evil; Shelob, though injured and dripping ichor, is not dead at the story’s end. What’s more, our encounter with these few horrors intimates still other malevolent forces waiting undiscovered in forests and caves, mountains and rivers. Evil is not the creation of Sauron, nor will it be defeated with him.

It is the enduring nature of this evil, in part, that makes the ending of The Lord of the Rings so bittersweet. Victory can only ever be temporary, contingent. Somewhere unseen the universe is birthing something awful. Good can never ultimately prevail; the best it can hope is to endure.

This fact, of course, has ramifications for the characters and their struggles. Frodo and Sam succeed, in large part, because their heroism is the heroism of endurance. Boromir, on the other hand, is chock-full of the heroism of battle, but he lacks the ability to keep going, to keep faith and hope in a world brimming with horror. He would be well suited to a high-stakes, winner-takes-all battle, but there is no such battle, no such conclusive victory possible. Boromir is capable of dying in a bright blaze of glory, but he’s not up to the task of living, of persevering, in a world that seems beyond the reach of absolute redemption.

Our world, like Tolkien’s, is filled with Balrogs and Shelobs, and in our world, as in Tolkien’s, the pursuit of the good is often just that: a pursuit, not an end. Heroism doesn’t lie in victory – there is always another dragon or spider lurking – but in just keeping going.

The Leaping and the Cowering

With just one week until the release of The Emperor’s Blades, I alternate between leaping joyously through the sunshine in slow motion and cowering in the corner shitting my pants. Sometimes I manage to feed myself. One thing I haven’t been doing a lot of is writing articles for this site, mainly because I’m busy writing articles for every single other site on the internet. So that you know I haven’t bee allowed out of my writing cage, I’m attaching links to two of the more recent pieces.

Giant Hawks and Mountain Bikes: An exploration of the links between Adventure Race training and the writing of epic fantasy. If you’re unfamiliar with Adventure Racing (as just about everyone in the world is), you can get a little glimpse of the bizarre sufferings involved from this post.

Defeating the Crapster: For a long time, I thought tactics and strategy were the same thing, both vaguely synonymous with “sneaky plans to be used in board games, marriage, or war.” Turns out (as it often does) that I was wrong. This post takes a look at the differences, and the relevance of strategic thinking to the writing of fantasy (or, indeed, any genre).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my cowering.

 

Birches or Bastards; The Dilemma of the Fantasy Mapmaker

I have a map problem. To illustrate: when my wife and I were in the process of buying our house, she spent a lot of time looking at and mulling over such petty inessentials as the boiler and the roof. For some reason she seemed concerned about whether or not the windows were double-glazed, and boy was she ever curious about the foundation. What was I doing? I had a map, a forty-year-old surveyor’s map of the property, that used as boundary markers things like “large cherry tree” and “granite outcrop.” While my wife was exploring such trivialities as the whether not the thousand gallon propane tank was rusted through, or how much of the siding was rotted, I was doing the important work way the hell out in the woods, hunting down the gnarled birch that marked the southeast corner of the plot.

“Do you actually need to see the birch tree?” she asked patiently.

“Do you need to see the roof?” I shot back.

It seemed like a reasonable argument in the heat of the moment.

I’ve since mapped a big chunk of the forest, charting out the trails and streams, beaver dams and swamps. Of course, the firewood doesn’t always get stacked, and I’m pretty sure there’s something I was supposed to do with the septic system in July, but that’s the price you pay if you’re determined to find out where the old stone wall finally ends.

Maps purport to be objective. “Here,” they claim, “is the mountain. Here is the lake.” This alleged objectivity is as beguiling as it is false. You’re pretty much hosed just for trying to represent a three-dimensional surface in two dimensions, and then there are all the other choices. What to include? What to leave off? Birches? Beaches? Bird Habitats? Bars? Bingo Halls? Bulldozer Repair Centers? Bastards?

Of course, the details you include depend on the map’s purpose – you need one map to invade Belgium, another if you’re just there to enjoy the beer – and our purposes are dizzyingly varied. There are plenty of maps of Nevada, but they don’t all show the missile silos. For just a taste of the baffling range, check out Frank Jacobs’s blog on strange and wonderful maps. (I’m particularly fond on the post on zombie maps).

But then, even if you know what the hell you want out of your map, the land and the things on it are constantly changing. The road we live on is delightful in summer, but vaguely suicidal in mud season. I have a map of Mongolia that marks the “major highways” in red. They look, from the map, like eight-lane interstates. I have been on them. They are dirt tracks, and they move every year, because today’s dirt track is next year’s stream. Those confident red lines are impressionistic, at best.

So, a) What good are maps, and b) What in the hell does all of this have to do with fantasy?

Well, I just saw the map to my novel, The Emperor’s Blades, a gorgeous piece of work by Isaac Stewart, and I pretty much fell off my chair. This is it, right here.

The Annurian Empire and Beyond

The Annurian Empire and Beyond

 

Even better, you can read a really cool account of how he made it, an account that reminded me just why I love these creations.

It’s because maps are fantasy.

They are a second world that we invent to lay over our own world, a hope, a fear, a fiction, an approximation, always a distortion, but at their best, a revealing distortion, one that shows us important truths through the deliberate twisting of reality. And, like any fantasy, they are stories, stories of the land they purport to represent, of the people who live on and use that land, and even of the map-maker herself, the one who decides to put in the beavers but leave out the diners. Finally, they are an invitation. The error and bias ineluctably woven into them whispers to us to go out – into the woods or the city, onto the ocean or below it – to check, to see for ourselves.

And by the way – I still haven’t found that fucking birch tree.

The Lounging and the Bon-bons

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted recently. I can hear you all muttering, “He’s lounging in the November Vermont sun eating bon-bons.” Well, I am. But I’ve also been writing articles about fantasy — they’ve just been ending up in other places. For those of you who are curious, here’s a recap:

The Problem with Prophecy: On the role of prophecy and the troubles it presents. Ruminations on the irritating oracle at Delphi, the book of Revelation, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Also, a raging discussion in the comments section.

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Gods are all over the place in fantasy, but it’s tricky to do them well. I take a look at a few different approaches here, with discussion of ass trumpets and brain eaters along the way.

Asymmetrical Ass-Kicking: On real life heroism and what it can teach us about the writing of fantasy. If you don’t know the name Miyamoto Musashi, you don’t know about one of the most bad-ass real-life people ever to wield a sword (or two). Myke Cole was generous enough to post this over on his blog, which is filled with great content. If you head over there, it’s well worth spending some time looking around.

Finally and most exciting, the first seven chapters of The Emperor’s Blades are now up for your reading pleasure. You can check them out on tor.com, here. Feel free to let me know what you think, either on this blog, or in the comments below the chapters themselves. If you like what you find, please consider pre-ordering the book here. It’s cheaper than waiting for the publication date, and it helps me out a lot!

As always, thanks so much for reading, chatting, and generally loving fantasy. Now, back to my bon-bons.