Welcome to Barren Island – wait, no. Today I'm trying my hand at a different kind of interview, so bear with me.
Harriet Goodchild is a former Barren Islands exile (you can read about her chosen five books here) whose debut novel After the Ruin has just been released in paperback and ebook by Hadley Rille Books. Two collections of short stories associated with the book, Tales from the Later Lands and An End and a Beginning, are also available in ebook format.
You may be wondering what's wrong with that. Surely having a beard is part of the very definition of a dwarf, just as being tall and ethereally beautiful is part of what defines an elf. But what I'm getting at with 'all dwarfs have beards' is one of the more unrealistic and frankly dangerous fantasy clichés: the notion that the members of any non-human race may be principally characterised by their homogeneity.
In fact, it's not the physical details that worry me. Every species has certain key physical characteristics: humans walk on two legs, eagles fly, dragons breathe fire. So as far as I'm concerned, the dwarfs can keep their beards. But with these physical details tend to come a host of behavioural and psychological characteristics that are much harder to swallow when applied to the species as a whole: all dragons are wise, all elves are brilliant archers, all dwarfs love their beer. And fantasy writers don't stop there. Some even generalise about their own species (does 'all humans are short-sighted aggressive destroyers of the natural environment' sound familiar?).
Part of the problem seems to be a confusion between cultural and personality traits. Different human cultures have different traditions, beliefs and moral structures, so it's reasonable to assume that different sentient species would too. The framework through which a dragon views the world, for instance, is going to be very different from that of a human. But cultural standards are not the same as individual characteristics. The point about cultural standards is that the individuals who share them can examine them, question them and deviate from them to a greater or lesser extent. Giving an entire species a shared personality trait, on the other hand, assumes that everyone who is subject to the same cultural and environmental influences will end up the same kind of person – and that's where authors go wrong.
It's perfectly plausible that all members of a religion might salute the sun each evening to ensure it rises the next day. It's not so plausible that all those members would be identical in their level of belief in such a ritual. Successful worldbuilding requires a careful examination and understanding of which features of a race or species are cultural, and therefore may justifiably be applied across the entire group, and which are individual and therefore can't. As I said at the beginning, not doing this is dangerous. Why? Because it leads to lazy characterisation based on stereotyping and generalisation. And just as we wouldn't (or shouldn't) accept this for different human groups, we shouldn't accept it for different fantasy races.
I’m a rational sort of person, on the whole. I don’t believe in luck – or certainly not the idea that a spoken phrase or a particular gesture can somehow affect what’s going to happen to me. Yet I find myself referring casually to it all the time. ‘With any luck we’ll get there before dark.’ ‘Fingers crossed it won’t rain.’ ‘Touch wood it will all be OK.’ And it’s not just me. I’m surrounded by a nation of people who swear by their lucky pants and their four-leaf clovers. We pick up pennies, salute lone magpies, and follow our own little rituals before an important match or a public appearance. Most of us probably don’t believe in what we’re doing, not really. But we do it anyway, partly out of habit and partly because, well, you never know.
Superstition in one form or another is common to every culture and belief system. It’s part of human nature to look for associations between things; the ability to make a connection between cause and effect is vital in the fight for survival. And the flip side of that is a tendency to see cause and effect where there is none. We ignore those events that don’t fit our model of the world, and remember those that reinforce it. Of course making wishes on birthday candles works. When I was ten I wished for a puppy and I got one. And if I hadn’t had my lucky mascot in my pocket I never would have passed my exams. The one time I forgot to bring it, the question paper was really hard. It’s the same mental structure that turns coincidence into fate and randomness into ‘everything happens for a reason’. Making sense of the world, even where there’s no sense to be made, is hard-wired into our brains.
So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, two things. One, folklore and superstition are a wonderfully rich source of inspiration for fantasy books set fully or partly in the real world. What if this particular belief was true? What if this children’s rhyme had meaning? What if this old tradition had a hidden purpose? Lots of enjoyable novels have drawn on our folk heritage in this way, from Mike Shevdon’s Sixty-One Nails to Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret, and I’m sure there are more out there waiting to be written.
Two, if you’re building your own fantasy world then a rich system of belief, lore and superstition can really help to bring it alive. And it’s important to remember that all superstitions have a logical reason behind them, even if it’s so lost in time that the people themselves don’t remember what it is. For instance, the phrase ‘touch wood’ probably comes from the pagan belief that spirits inhabited every tree and could be summoned or deterred by knocking on the trunk. But it may relate to the Christian cross, or to a ship’s mast, or simply to a children’s game*. ‘Fingers crossed’ again may be Christian or pre-Christian in origin (or both – it seems likely that as with so many things, the older belief systems were subsumed by and incorporated into the new). Black cats derive their negative associations from the Middle Ages belief in witchcraft. And so on. Fantasy superstitions with this kind of historical background can tell your reader a lot about your world.
Bear in mind, too, that in a world where some form of magic exists, certain superstitions may not be superstitions at all. Maybe a particular gesture or set of words really does keep you safe in battle. Or maybe it used to work, but has become so corrupted over time that it no longer does what it’s meant to – or does something completely different. It’s often the case that snippets of knowledge trickle from those who have access to them to those who don’t, frequently in a distorted or misleading form. Thus it’s probable that ‘lucky’ gestures or phrases used by people with no magical ability at all will have their origins in genuinely effective magic. Now that’s a plot point waiting to happen.
So there you have it. Get working on your superstitions, and I’ll see you next week. In the meantime, don’t walk under any ladders …
* The word ‘simply’ is misleading here. Children’s games are often steeped in folklore. But that’s another story.
The first rule of worldbuilding
Looking back over the long and glorious history of my blog (i.e. the past four months), I realised that I haven't talked much about fantasy writing specifically. As a fantasy writer myself, that seems a little remiss of me. And since there's one aspect of writing that's more relevant to fantasy (and its hi-tech cousin, sci-fi) than any other genre, I thought that would be the best place to start.
For those of you who don't know, worldbuilding is simply the process of creating and filling in the details of the world that a book's characters inhabit. In most genres that's fairly simple, because the world in question is our own. In some genres – horror, for instance – it requires the addition of an extra layer that isn't part of our everyday reality (werewolves or vampires or whatever it happens to be). And in fantasy, it's the foundation of the entire novel.
So let's go back to basics. What is the most important thing to bear in mind when creating a fantasy world? What is the number one consideration? What, in fact, is the first rule of worldbuilding?
Well, for a start, it isn't You do not talk about worldbuilding. Otherwise this would be a pretty short discussion. Nor, contrary to what some seem to think, is it You load up your world with all the coolest weapons and monsters you can think of, chuck in an impossibly muscular hero and see what happens. And it certainly isn't You take the plot and dialogue patterns of LOTR, add a couple of swearwords to make it gritty and label it 'The next big epic everyone's talking about!!'. No, if I had to pick one rule, one principle to follow when creating a fantasy world, it would be this:
Everything has to be logical.
Though that may seem like a second-rate Spock quotation, it's actually very important. If a world has internal consistency then it's possible to believe anything that's written about it – and belief, above all things, is what writers want to instill in their readers (if only for the duration of the book). If you were reading a thriller and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the gun floated out of the villain's hand, allowing the heroine to knock him out, you'd feel pretty cheated. It would break the laws of physics, of causality, of probability: all laws that we know exist and operate in the world around us. Of course, most of the time this isn't even an issue, because thriller writers don't have to think about the laws of the world they're writing in; they grew up with them, and so the logic comes naturally. But when you add a layer of worldbuilding to the narrative, that's when it can all start to go wrong.
I say that, but the problem seems to be far less common in sci-fi than in fantasy. Sci-fi writers have to be rigorous, because the things they invent have to be plausible technologies. OK, no-one reading a sci-fi novel today is ever going to know whether the author's vision of 2312 was correct, but it has to at least be possible based on what we know now. Most sci-fi writers are aware of that, and they put a lot of effort into making their systems coherent and consistent. So why in the name of Arthur C. Clarke do so many fantasy writers lose all sense of logic as soon as they pick up their quills?
I've heard people say they don't like fantasy because 'it's unrealistic' or 'anything can happen'. But the point is, it shouldn't. When you're building a fantasy world, every single detail has profound consequences. Decide your system of magic requires fresh-laid eggs to work, and you can't suddenly change your mind when the hero finds himself in a desperate situation with not a chicken in sight. And because you're inventing the world from scratch, the issue goes even deeper. OK, so you've got a city in the middle of the barren desert plains; that's fine, but you'd better have a damn good answer to the question of why they didn't build it a few miles to the south where there's a handy water supply, or a few miles to the north where it would have been elevated above the surrounding terrain. And no, before you ask, because it's cooler that way is not a valid reason.
So, if I had to give one piece of advice to the fledgling writer about to take their first steps down the worldbuilding path, it would be this: please, please think everything through first. Yes, you can be as inventive and as creative as you like; yes, you can have mile-high cities and magic based on rainbows; but above all things, your world must have its own logic – and stick to it.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Choose an aspect of your world (if it's a standard fantasy trope, so much the better). For instance, say swords are the main weapon. Now ask yourself a series of questions. Is steel common? Is it cheap? Who can afford it? Who produces it? If there's magic in your world, why don't people use that as a weapon instead? How come gunpowder hasn't been discovered yet? Do people walk around armed as a matter of course? What effect does that have on the level of crime? And so on. Once you've finished, you'll have solidified the logic behind that area of your narrative, and maybe created some useful social/historical/economic background to draw on as well.
A horse by any other name …
Hi guys, and many thanks for your kind wishes last week. I’m pleased to report that I have now defeated the evil cold virus and am ready to set out once more on my journey through the fierce and unforgiving lands of Fantasy. And what better way to do it than on horseback? Never mind that I’ve only ridden a horse once in my life, and that was when I was about twelve. I mean, how hard can it be? You just stick a saddle on it and away you go, right? After all, everyone else is doing it.
See, the horse is to fantasy what the gondola is to Venice or the hoverboard is to Back to the Future II: the only real way to get around. Visit a fantasy world at random and you have at least a 95 percent chance of encountering a horse. Which may seem odd, given how inventive worldbuilders can be in other areas: magic systems, for instance, or social hierarchies, or any creatures that are dangerous rather than functional. The number of variations I’ve seen on your basic dragon could fill an encyclopaedia. Yet a horse is always a horse. Why?
One reason is probably the bicycle effect. Writers tend to treat horses rather like bicycles: they’re a convenient device to get a character from A to B, but other than that they’re not relevant to the plot.* You wouldn’t stop in the middle of a children’s book to explain exactly what kind of bike Jimmy is using to get away from the local bully; likewise, you wouldn’t stop in the middle of a fantasy to describe the horse Jimi is using to flee from the giant fire-breathing lizard. In short, there’s no point in wasting invention on something that’s essentially part of the scenery.** Readers aren’t interested in how the hero gets around. They’re more interested in the peril that’s bearing down on him as we speak.
A second and more fundamental reason is that there are two schools of thought when it comes to naming things in fantasy. One says, ‘Ohmigosh it’s all unfamiliar and exciting and mystical, so I’d better call everything by some obscure-sounding name to make sure my readers know this is, like, another world. A horse? No! Call it a mynnor. And check out these awesome calatznis I’m wearing.’ To which the other replies, ‘We all know it’s a horse, OK? It looks like a horse. It behaves like a horse. It certainly smells like a horse. So stop making up random combinations on your keyboard.’ And in most cases, it’s the pragmatic side that wins.
See, if we really are dealing with another world – that is, it’s completely separate from our own, without being an alternative history or involving inter-world travel – then its inhabitants clearly aren’t going to speak English or Russian or Hindi. Everything we read on the page has essentially been translated from another language anyway. So why call a horse a mynnor if a tree is still a tree? Because in fact, if you think about it logically, a fantasy horse isn’t really a horse at all. How can it be? Nothing in such a fantasy world can possibly be related genetically to anything we have here.
Basically ‘horse’ is just a shorthand, a way of referring to the animal that fills the horse-shaped gap in that particular world. And unless the author has a worthwhile and valid reason for giving it scales and six legs – which is going to necessitate a whole rethink of the evolutionary system in that world and throws up other problems as a result, like why the other ‘mammals’ don’t have six legs too if that’s such a smart survival move – it’s going to be pretty darn similar to our horses.
For me, that’s a good enough reason to call a horse a horse.
* That is, of course, apart from all those horse-loving plains-dwelling societies that seem to proliferate in a certain type of fantasy. But let’s not even go there.
** This is probably also why fantasy characters eat so much stew.