Category Archives: World-building

As the Years Go By

I recently had the pleasure of finishing my reading of Brandon Sanderson’s latest Mistborn novel: The Alloy of Law.  It was fantastic, full of his snappiest dialogue to date, hilarious self referential jokes and a plot that moved forward with the stunning pace of a bullet train.  Taking place some hundreds of years after the conclusion of the original Mistborn trilogy, the world and setting had completely changed, and yet it was at once instantly familiar.

In fact, while the main and supporting characters were thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly hilarious with all of their requisite Sanderson corniness and wit, I found myself mostly intrigued with the setting itself.  I was stunned to realize: the setting of this book was just as much a character to me as Wax and Wayne and the rest of the cast.  What made that so?

I think, for me, it was the progress, the change and development to the setting since last time I had visited Scadrial in the original Mistborn trilogy.  Without throwing out too many spoilers, within the three hundred or so years between books technology had begun to modernize.  Trains now race through the city and branch out through the unsettled “Roughs”, criminal and lawman alike have dropped their blades and taken up potent firearms, main characters from the original story have faded into myth, legend and theology.  As I said, I found a new sense of conflict and development in the actual world building behind the story.  It had become a living, breathing character.

I tried to pin down how, exactly, Mr. Sanderson was able to achieve this, and I think it boils down to the most obvious aspect: the passage of time.  In a lot of fantasy stories and series, it is sometimes surprising how little time actually passes.  For example, in The Wheel of Time, after twelve exhaustive books, I’m pretty sure only 2-3 years have passed.   Sure, the setting might be growing and changing based on the actions of the characters, but profound change in technology, government and lifestyle usually takes decades, even centuries.

That is why after three hundred years or so “off screen” I was fascinated by my second trip to Mistborn‘s Scadrial, and I’m really interested in finding more stories or series in which time and generations can pass, and the setting is able to develop as a prominent character.  Another one I can think of off the top of my head is Kevin J. Anderson’s Terra Incognita series.  The stories move at a blistering pace and sometimes years pass a decade at a time.  The landscape and inhabiting cultures are scoured by war and the vast scope of the story really gives room for the world itself to develop.

Fictional Holidays

Christmas tree
Christmas Tree

With the holiday season passing us, I think it is a good time to look around us and figure out how we can put this in a fiction world. Looking at our own holidays is a great way to help world-build and create believable celebrations in your own world. A well designed world that includes holidays may also provide a look into the history and cultures that exist in the world.

Looking at Christmas, we can see different elements coming from different cultures with different priorities, the two that jump to the front being religion and harvest. Religion has been with us since the first cognizant person witnessed the first lightning storm or felt his first earthquake. To their primitive culture, such acts could only be accomplished via a supreme being. It’s not surprising then that many of the holidays surround the worship or appeasement of a god. Even the name holidays comes from Holy Days.

The date is centered around the Winter Solstace, or December 21st. The Norse celebrated Yule, which focused on the return of the sun. If you watched the sun in the sky, each day it would drop lower and lower as the days got shorter. On solstice, the sun would stop its movement and start rising as the days got longer. To celebrate, they would get large logs and light them on fire and feast until the flames went out. The Norse believed that each spark from these Yule logs, which could burn for around 12 days, symbolized a new life that would be born in the forthcoming year.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of Agriculture. Since farming and agriculture paused for the passing of winter, it provided time for celebration and feasts. Saturnalia also centered on the rebirth of the sun and the hopes of a good new year. One big part of the celebration was the day of Gift-giving on December 23rd. On this day, people gathered to give gifts to friends, family, and patrons.

Finally, with the coming of Christianity, many of these celebrations were converted in an effort to bring more people into the religion. As society progressed and became industrialized, the rebirth of the sun and the worry about growing crops for the next year subsided. Despite this, the history and concerns of our people in the past is still evident in how we celebrate now.

Looking back at fiction, you can put these same ideas into your holidays. If the people of your world never had to worry about food or the loss of the sun, then having them celebrate a Christmas like celebration wouldn’t make sense. Also, in a world where Gods are not only worshiped but actively walk and affect the lives of their followers, certain requirements may be demanded upon them. Think of how these requirements would change through the years. Perhaps a past god required one thing and was replaced with the current god who actively protested the celebrations. How would this effect the world and those living in it?

Even if you don’t tell the world of all the history, it can help give ideas and really give color to the world. If nothing else, it will give you, the author, a deeper understanding of your world and the people who live there. And that can only help improve a novel.

What Art Can Do for Us

Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques-Louis David

It happens to everyone; sometimes, life disappoints us. We can do our best to mitigate disappointment, and we can even achieve a great amount of success in that regard, but at some point, something’s going to come up that wrecks our day.

Indeed, it appears to be a rather prevalent issue these days (the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this post, though I assure you, I do have an opinion on the topic), so much that people unquestioningly equate cynicism with realism. If you have any doubts about this, listen to a politician.

But this phenomenon extends beyond our day-to-day lives to the field of art, and in particular, of literature. In fantasy (the genre with which I am the most familiar), there has even sprung a new sub-genre dedicated to cynicism called “gritty fantasy,” comprised of anti-heroes and more anti-heroes. Those who have helped popularize this sub-genre have done so by acclaiming its supposed authenticity of character motivation and general realism amidst a fantasy backdrop.

Some of the authors in this sub-genre are quite good and a few I buy the day their books come out. More often, though, especially on those wrecked days, I’ll have to take a break from this kind of book and read something that I know will end happily ever after. Why? Because I have enough problems of my own, thank you very much, and it just isn’t worth it to wallow in some character’s misery. In a way, I think it’s (somewhat unsurprisingly, given the nature of these books) tragic that this grittier type of story has come to prominence because it probably contributes to the general malaise that people feel.

So what happened to the stories peopled with characters you can cheer for and want to emulate, stories led by heroes who save the day and vanquish evil in the final act? Many of its critics (who currently outnumber its champions) think this type of story is unbelievable and unsophisticated, that its characters aren’t “flawed” enough. It seems this type of story has fallen out of vogue in recent years, though there are still its practitioners and fans, and I doubt that either will go away. At the end of the day, these are always the stories I gravitate toward. These are the stories that remind me that today can be a good day, so long as I do my best.

Some stories show us how the world is. Some show is how it can be, whether good or bad. Still others show us how it ought to be, and give us the inspiration and the emotional fuel we need to make it that way, to become the heroes of our own stories and live the lives that we want to live.

As artists we have a choice. We can either fall in line with the trends of today, and I’m sure many of you will disagree with me and argue that this is the better path (if you do, please comment. I enjoy a good discussion). Or we can show our readers characters who do not yet exist, but can, doing things considered impossible, yet succeeding.

And who knows? We might just end up saving the world by the time the final page is turned.

Historical Mythology: Don’t worldbuild without it

In preparation for the next volume of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve been rereading the series so far, and it struck me how much the historical mythology he has created helps his world live and breath. It made me want to write this post about how important historical mythology is in creating a fully realized world.

Now, when I say historical mythology, I’m not necessarily talking about religion or explanations of the natural world. What I’m talking about is the how people use history to explain the here and now. It’s the mythologizing of real historical events and people. It’s putting a spin on what happened to come up with a why and a how that serves the present.

We all know that it’s as important to know what happened before a story began as it is to know where the story is told. No story takes place in a vacuum. There has to be a “before” if there is a “now.” How deep you go into that history depends, of course, on what genre you’re writing. A Paranormal Romance will give history less weight than an Epic Fantasy.

But knowing knowing the history is only part of the process. The other is how that history becomes part of a person or places mythology. Historical mythology is one of the building blocks of backstory that I think people forget. Very often we treat what we write as truth, and the reader will read it as truth. In that epic fantasy you’re writing, you might have an extensive historical time-line of what really happened. But people don’t remember history as what really happened. We remember history by being told about it from others, and as the old adage says, “History is written by the victors.” Historical mythology is how that real history is remembered over time, and it applies to the world, such as with wars and social changes, but also to the personal, such as with what happened to a father and son that caused them to stop speaking.

One of the truly interesting thing that happens when you start looking at history from a mythology standpoint, is that you see how it can change depending on the point of view. Using Martin as an example, one of the more important moments in recent history is the war that made Robert Baratheon a king. This war was sparked by Prince Rhaegar Targaryan running off with Lyanna Stark. A Stark would say that they went to war because Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, but a Targaryan would argue that the two were in love. Ask someone not of either family, and the whole issue might have been just an excuse to dethrone Rhaegar’s completely insane father. One makes the war about vengeance, another love, the third justice. In this way, the mythology aspect simplifies the incident and gives it meaning. Over time these varying points of view will perpetuate, merge, and come in conflict with each other. We can already sense the impending conflict when the last of the Starks finally meets up with the last of the Targaryans.

In a way, this sort of humanizes the world. It makes the history of the people and places as frail and faulty as the people who live with it. I don’t know about you, but I’m still reading Martin to find out if any of the points of view above are what really happened.

So, when you’re writing that personal story, whether it takes place in an epic world or down the street, think not only of the real history, but how that history can be simplified, misunderstood, or all out mangled. Then, look at how that altered version affects the characters you’re writing about. Not only can this make for great conflict when the various versions meet up, but it gives the world you’re creating a more realistic, human scope.