Developing Fictional Worlds: The Nits are All you Have

As you may know, my most popular blog entry (still) is the one entitled Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe: A Example of Poor World-building.  Every month or two, someone new discovers this post and feels they must take me to task for nit-picking because of my elaborate examination of the cultural and industrial implications of this particular garment.  Hey, I’m always glad when folks are reading, and when they care enough to respond to something I wrote.  But this past week, I got such a comment just after I had done a workshop for the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop (a six week bootcamp for science fiction, fantasy and horror, where I was pleased to attend back in 1997).

My talk at Odyssey was entitled “Making it Real.”  It’s not the first time I’ve given the talk, but I keep coming back to this topic because it is critical to the creator of fictional worlds to be able to reveal them clearly to the reader.  The more real the details of your world, the more believable will be the events that happen there, and the characters who make them happen.  I realized, in thinking about this talk and about this latest comment criticizing me for nit-picking, that really, when you are creating a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.

Some fascinating objects--what are they?  what are they used for?  what do they reveal about the people who made them or used them?

Some fascinating objects–what are they? what are they used for? what do they reveal about the people who made them or used them?

If you wanted to write a book in New York City, you could make a couple of vague references to subways, skyscrapers and bagel joints, and probably most readers would be satisfied.  They will be filling in the details from what they already know about that place, and about modern cities in general (although half of them will be picturing Toronto, which stands in for NYC in many television programs).  But if you want to create a world people have never seen before (including re-creating another time), then you must not only generate the landscape for that world–the geography, the climate, the plant and animal life–but you must find ways to reveal it with care, and with an economy of language or image.  What you show on the screen, in the frame, or on the page is what the reader will see and understand about that world.

The creator provides the key elements, and allows the reader to fill in the rest–there just isn’t time in the space of a book or novel to fill in everything, and it would get pretty boring if you did (this is one criticism of many fantasy novels, actually, that they go too far in pinning down details of setting and history that the reader isn’t engaged with.  Instead, you must be extremely deliberate about what you show, and, ideally, you try to make each of those images speak to multiple layers of the world:  the climate, the local culture, the availability of luxury goods, the status of this character, the level of technology.

Every individual item you depict, whether it is the king’s Golden Hall, the janitor’s key-ring, or the shaman’s head-dress reveals a wealth of information about the world you are creating. If you are not making deliberate choices about those items, then the world the reader imagines is not the same one you have in mind.  Sometimes, you can use these disconnects to build in a sense of mystery, as when Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman, in an apparently medieval setting, finds a blue “gem” the reader will eventually understand is a fragment of a solar panel.

If the author gets sloppy with details, including items outside the purview of the world, with unavailable materials or processes, or sending confusing signals about what they mean, the reader will begin to distrust the author, and the entire enterprise–founded on a willing suspension of disbelief, begins to crumble like the cheap facade it is.  These details that don’t fit, that fail to build a coherent world, are like dangling threads that will draw the eye and the mind–drawing them away from the story you want to tell.

When you are building a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in essays, fantasy, fiction, history, medieval technology, research, Uncategorized, worldbuilding, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Developing Fictional Worlds: The Nits are All you Have

  1. Very true! I also get frustrated enough to ditch a fantasy book if its details are mismatched enough to be nonsensical.

    The most memorable one for me was a book describing some camels stirring up dust with their “hooves” — which is technically correct, since camels are ungulates, but it’s an imprecise way to describe a camel’s big, soft feet to a reader. It would be like saying that people “stirred up dust with their toenails” as they walked. I wasn’t particularly interested in the story, anyway, and that niggling detail was— well, I guess it was the last straw on the camel’s back. I wondered for a bit whether these were Special Fantasy Camels with horse-like hooves, but the ultimate effect was the same: my suspension of disbelief was destroyed.

    • Thanks for reading!
      It’s important to order the Special Fantasy Camel ™ in advance for any given work to make sure it has the features you require–but they remain less popular than the Special Fantasy Horse ™ which can gallop for days under any conditions without eating.
      But seriously, Marianne Moore has an “Ars Poetica” which ends on the lines “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” If you can get readers to believe in your toads, or camels, they will much more readily accept the imagined elements of the world.

  2. Jay Dee says:

    I agree. I’m developing a world, and I’ve gone through all the calculations to make this world scientifically believable. I also researched to make sure I didn’t have it orbiting a short-lived star. Thanks to having a degree in astronomy, that wasn’t a problem. The biological aspects are more difficult for me, as they can be far more complex. But it’s fun to do.

    • That sounds like an interesting process. I know some authors who have devised their own constellations for secondary worlds, including the order of progression and keeping track of them throughout the simulated year of the book to make sure they are consistent with planetary rotation. When I was working on my submission for The Dark Crystal author quest, someone’s astronomer-nephew (IIRC) had developed the charts for tracking the multiple suns of that peculiar world.

      For my Chinese set fantasy epic, I used software to simulate the view of the sky my characters would have had to make sure certain astronomical phenomena were visible as I claimed.

      Part of the fun, and the danger, for the fantasist, as you’ve discovered, is you may be an expert in one area, but you have to learn many new skills in order to present a complete world.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Jay Dee says:

        You reminded me of one thing I should do. Find out which constellation the sun would be in from the point of view of my fictional world. It would be quite easy, though. Exact opposite side of the sky from that star’s location. I must figure it out.

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