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.
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