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 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.

 

The Problem with Zombies

Put the shotguns and the crowbars down, zombie lovers. Like you, I love the genre, and have spent many a beer-fueled evening arguing over the plausibility of retrofitting a bus with chain-saw slots and snow plows in order to escape a press of rotting, stinking, writhing undead. My problem is not with the zombies or those brave souls who battle them. It’s not even with the writers of zombie stories and movies, who produce some of my favorite entertainment. It’s with those writers who occasionally mistake the narrative purpose and utility of their brain-dead creations.

Before we get going, a clarification: I’m going to be using the term “zombie” in its broadest possible sense. (This will irritate the purists, to whom I say: too bad, it’s my blog.) In this post, “zombie” will indicate any creature that is both mindless and malevolent. In this sense, we loop in the “forged” of Robin Hobb, the Vord and the “taken” of Jim Butcher, the Others of George R.R. Martin, and the generic storm troopers from Star Wars. We can debate until the cows come home about whether these various groups are actually as mindless as literal zombies, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to point out that they are 1) pretty bad and 2) entirely monochromatic in terms of their motivations and emotional range.

So what’s the trouble? Well, in the hands of skilled writers, nothing. Zombies can be tremendously useful and unsettling. I love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead, Assassin’s Apprentice and Game of Thrones. It’s vital, however, to understand what zombies are good for, and to do that, we need to take a look at the main instance in which they are useless.

To wit: zombies make shitty principal villains. Any movie or book in which a zombie is the main bad guy is in serious trouble from the get-go. Consider this simple thought experiment: replace Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine with anonymous storm troopers and see what happens to Star Wars. Replace Joffrey and Cersei Lanniser with “Others.” Either revision would geld the story. Good villains have to be able to think and feel. If it can’t think and feel, it can’t win or lose, and if it can’t win or lose, there’s no real satisfaction in hacking off its head and mounting it on a pitchfork over the mailbox, no matter how much ichor drips onto the junk mailings from Publisher’s Weekly.

Yes, smallpox was “defeated,” but as far as I know, the World Health Organization didn’t stand over the final virus, fists clenched, teeth bared, like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

“Aha!” the zombie-fanatic exclaims. “But what about zombie movies, asshole? You know – the ones with actual shambling, brain-eating zombies? Zombies are the antagonists in those movies, and those movies ROCK!”

Yes and no. Yes, Dawn of the Dead rocks, but no, zombies are not the antagonists. The zombies are not characters at all. They are the weather.

They are the weather in exactly the same way the storm in The Perfect Storm is the weather, and they serve an identical function: they make life harder for the cast of human characters, and in so doing they force all manner of interesting conflicts and compromises, fuck-ups and epiphanies to the surface. This is the first good use to which zombies can be put.

And we need not limit ourselves to storms and zombies. The weather could be comprised of deadly trees (The Happening, Day of the Triffids), deadly blobs (The Blob), deadly birds (The Birds), deadly trans-dimensional insects (The Mist), deadly dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), deadly cold (The Day after Tomorrow), deadly freaky underground worm things (Tremors), deadly water pressure (all submarine movies ever made), deadly viruses (Contagion, et. al.), deadly genetically-modified hyper-intelligent sharks (that movie where Samuel Jackson gets chomped in half).

I could go on, but I think the theme is clear: it’s the “deadly” that matters, not the noun that follows it. Yes, of course, the strategy and tactics differ; you don’t use the same tricks to survive a vengeful fungus that you might when trying to endure the precipitous onset of an ice age. When I say that the type of adversity doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that the sort of drama that ensues in this type of plot is fundamentally the same: people struggle with each other and themselves in order to overcome or survive “the weather.” This type of story (when told well) generally doesn’t culminate with the defeat of the tree/worm thing/hyper-intelligent shark but with human endurance (or, in the case of several of these stories) the failure to endure. In Twenty-Eight Days Later, the point isn’t to beat the zombies – you can’t defeat them any more than you could defeat The Perfect Storm – it is to weather them. The struggle happens between the human beings.

The second use of zombies (again, in my broad sense) is as a weapon. This is what happens in Star Wars, where the Emperor wields his imperial minions, or The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and Saruman wield their orcs. In this case, we don’t need intelligence or emotional range out of the zombies any more than we need intellectual subtlety out of the Kurgan’s sword (although the Kurgan’s sword does kick some serious ass) or Voldemort’s wand. What matters is the villain wielding the weapon and the way in which he/she/it wields it.

To come full circle, a story runs into trouble when a zombie or group of zombies is treated as the antagonist. “Good Guys and Gals Versus Zombies” tends to fail, plot-wise, because it’s the equivalent of “Good Guys and Gals Versus Lightning.” If the guys and gals are all truly good, if they have no psychological demons or bad eggs mixed into the group, then there’s not much to write about. They do their best and either the lightning gets them or it doesn’t.

Almost all writers understand this at some level, and so it’s rare to see a story without a viable antagonist at the outset. In zombie stories, there’s always a megalomaniac or sociopath mixed into the group, a petty tyrant or at least a garden-variety asshole (Garden-Variety Asshole would be a good name for something. Not, like, a child, but a band or an album.) against whom the protagonists must struggle while they’re trying to endure the zombies. So far, so good.

What often happens, however, is that the writer mistakes the zombies for the true antagonist. As a result, the humans start out with their real and interesting problems, problems that emotionally animate the story, that keep us reading, but then those problems are resolved prematurely. For the final pages/minutes we’re left with what can only be a cooking-cutter climax between good and zombie. The special effects people will do their damndest to keep us engaged, and I like seeing a field of zombies decimated by a helicopter blade as much as the next guy, but if that’s the final conflict, it’s just a matter of hacking up meat – and there’s a reason we don’t have a thriving market for stories about people in the chicken plants chopping up the dead birds.

Pompous Cocks; Idiom in Fantasy

Joe Abercrombie knows how to start a novel. Here’s the beginning of Best Served Cold (reproduced more fully on his website):

“‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’

“She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. ‘Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.’ She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. ‘But I’ll hear more.’

“He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. ‘Your hair is like to . . . a veil of shimmering sable!’

“‘You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.’

“‘Shit.’ He squinted up at the clouds. ‘Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!’

“‘I’ve got stones in my face, now?’

“‘Lips like rose petals?’

“She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. ‘That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.’”

Abercrombie is a smart writer, and this opening shows him playing with the linguistic ground of fantasy. Monza, of course, speaks contemporary English, while Benna, the purveyor of compliments here, is working in what we might call a classic fantasy idiom – a sort of bastard hodge-podge of what could pass (if we don’t listen very closely) as early modern English (half-remembered from a play we dozed through in eighth grade), complete with the overblown sensibility that afflicts poets in nearly every era.

Consider the following syntax: “Your hair is like to a veil…”

Like to…  It’s straight out of Shakespeare (“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…”) or Spenser (“My love is like to ice…”) or Wyatt (“Like to these unmeasurable mountains…”) Abercrombie is winking at us here, right at the novel’s outset. “Hey!” he seems to say. “Isn’t this how characters in fantasy novels are supposed to talk?”

Well, maybe.

If we go back (again) to Tolkien, we find a number of the characters employing a slightly elevated idiom. Aragorn, for instance: “Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay.” The inverted syntax is, of course, archaic.  We do not say, “Many bills there are that you have not paid.” Or, “Many beers I drank last night.” We tend to lead with the subject rather than the direct object. Other characters in Middle Earth, notably the dwarves and elves, also employ syntax that sounds unusual to our modern ears.

And yet, it is crucial to note that Tolkien isn’t just tossing around haphazard archaisms to give his tale a patina of age. In fact, plenty of his characters, especially the hobbits, speak perfectly contemporary English. Here’s Bilbo: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” Or Frodo: “It is no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad.”

Tolkien, as his fans know, was an Oxford professor of English Language and Literature. He was more than at home in English philology, and he uses the different linguistic registers in the Lord of the Rings intentionally, to suggest to the reader differences in culture, history, and character.

Of course, most fantasy novelists in the latter half of the twentieth century cut their teeth on Tolkien. Unfortunately, many of them paid more attention to the occasional archaic idiom of Aragorn or Galadriel, and brushed aside the plain-spoken modern English of Sam and Frodo. It makes a sort of sense, after all. Epic fantasy (traditionally) was set in a quasi-European medieval world (though we are, thank god, moving away from that as a given), the characters fought with quasi-European medieval weapons, and they spoke (what was supposed to be) a sort of quasi-European (meaning English for those of us who speak English) medieval language.

Thankfully, plenty of writers have eschewed this practice, aiming for a dusted-off and updated vernacular that allows their characters a little more convincing griminess.  Much as we love Aragorn, it’s tough to imagine him ever taking a shit. A major character in A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand, is killed while doing exactly that. Syntax and word choice, in other words, aren’t just an aesthetic matter; they impinge directly on the development of character, something at the heart of epic fantasy.

Of course, there are challenges involved in updating the idiom. Most of us read fantasy because we want something larger than life. The “larger” refers to swords and castles, of course, but also to the prose. There’s something wonderful in the alien majesty of Beowulf, or the Mahabharata, or the Sundiata, and it would be a shame to lose it entirely. The question is when to let it run, and when to rein it in. Thoughts?