Tag Archives: World Building

Self-consistency and Maintaining the Fourth Wall

When many, if not most, readers enter a fictional world, they want to stay there until they’re ready to leave. For us writers, that means having to avoid doing anything that pulls the reader out of our world. Failing in this task may make it difficult for a given reader to buy into our creation. They may set it down and move onto something else. If this happens, we’ve lost them.

Any aspect of storytelling is vulnerable to this. Someone breaking out of character, the introduction of a deus ex machina, and even poor handling of point-of-view are all good ways of infuriating readers, and rightly so: they are violations of an unspoken trust with our readers that the stories we are telling them are self-consistent.

Setting is an aspect of storytelling which is particularly vulnerable to this kind of violation, especially in genres where setting is important, such as in fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction (by setting, I mean all things related to world-building, such as culture, dress, geography, the laws of physics or magic, etc.). Read enough reviews in any of those genres and you will see that one of the widest criticisms is that the author described some event that could not or would not have happened in that context, and thus the reader was pulled out of the story. There’s a good reason for why this can be such a problem for a writer: setting, by its very nature, consists of a vast number of interrelated concretes. Consider the difference between a character arc and a city, full of people, buildings, roads, belief systems, cultures, and so on, and you should see what I mean. It’s very possible (and necessary) to track the shape of a particular character’s arc, but far more complicated to track the goings-on of every person and thing in a city. There are many ways we can forget a detail that affects the story later on, and thus cause one of those reader-losing violations.

Of course, simply not knowing how an aspect of your world works can also do this. Many of our readers are smart enough to know that you can’t ride a horse at a gallop while swinging a fifty-pound sword for five hours straight. As most writers should by now know, doing some research solves most of these problems.

But there’s another related issue that can be a little subtler, and it relates purely to a world’s self-consistency. Unless you’re writing an alternate history or time travel yarn, your Imperial Roman soldier isn’t going to call his wife on his cell phone, since cell phones didn’t exist back then. An obvious example, but things get a little trickier when you’re writing in a purely secondary (or, purely imagined) world.

I once wrote an epic fantasy story in which one of my characters was exhausted, and was described as feeling as if he had just run a marathon. While it seemed pretty innocuous to me at the time, someone in my writing group couldn’t buy into it, because the word “marathon” is named for the run of Greek soldier Pheidippides during the Battle of Marathon. And since such an event never occurred in my world, he argued, how would the concept of a marathon in the normal sense even arise?

Hearing his criticism was a bit of a wake-up call for me, and now I sometimes find myself watching out for the same thing with books that I read (as much as I’d rather just sit back and enjoy them). Of course, in my hierarchy of priorities, I’m going to put a satisfying plot over catching myself using the word “marathon,” but I still keep an eye out for something like that slipping in. Whether or not you’re that meticulous about your world’s etymology, rest assured that some of your readers will be.

* For another interesting post on the topic of word choice, check out the earlier post by Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, if you haven’t already.

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.