Thursday, March 27, 2014

Building Fantasy Worlds in Fiction

For this week's writers roundtable, let's look at the idea of world building in fiction -- particularly in fantasy fiction this time. We'll explore world building in horror, pulp, and other genres in subsequent weeks, though, so don't worry. Your favorite genre is coming. But since world building is so important to the fantasy genre, let's start there.

How important is world building to a fantasy novel? What about fantasy short stories?

Jen Mulvihill: World building is not only important as a setting for your story but it also helps to shape and mold your character. A character becomes who and what they are by the world around them and their reactions to that world. If you put a character in an empty box that character is still going to react in someway to the empty box. Fantasy is all about world building because you are creating a place in most cases, that does not exist. You have to build the place in order to take the reader their and find out what and how the character(s) react, hence, creating a story.

Scott Sandridge: World building is very important, regardless of the genre. After all, if there's no overall world/setting for your characters to interact in, then there's not much story there because it'll all be happening in a static void.

Stephanie Osborn: Well, I'm just a tad bit out of genre here, in that I don't regularly write fantasy, but rather hard science fiction. A good bit of what has already been said is true across all genres, though. World building is important -- it is one of the things that lends reality to your story, possibly the biggest thing that lends reality to it. And it doesn't matter the story's length. But in a short story you do have to shorthand it a good bit. 

Logan Masterson: If your fantasy's set in a different world, it must be justified. The world must be an integral part of the story, or all the information it takes to set it up is really just wasted. Long or short form, the world and its features should almost be characters in their own right.

If the setting is more realistic, then it should either be set apart with telling details or interpreted with common threads. The best reason to use our own world in fantasy (call it urban if you like) is resonance.

Conversely, the best reason to build a strange new world is wonder, a sense of newness and possibility.

H. David Blalock: Good fantasy depends heavily on world building. The best architecture constructs a world of balance between opposing forces, with perhaps a referee influence in the middle to arbitrate or aggravate as the story requires. Stereotypes in fantasy literature are usually acceptable (sensitive to current real life issues) and archetypes make world-building skeletal structure more acceptable to the readers.

The traditional method in classic fantasy is the info-dump. Does that still work for modern readers or does it turn them away?

H. David Blalock: Modern readers don't seem to be as patient with the infodump as in the past. This is certainly a product of the visual media's current forays into the fantasy genre. On the other hand, much of what was previously needed to be included in an infodump is now very much more familiar due exactly to the visual media's influence.

K.S. Daniels: Infodumps suck. Period and no excuses. Sure you need to work the world building elements in early, say by the first three chapters, but make it relevant. Show it through a character interacting with this world (this also can be used to create tension!) Philip K Dick's Ubik does this perfectly.

Scott Sandridge: Infodump has always turned me away. Not even Tolkien bothered with infodump, just look at how richly detailed his world and history was when compared to how little of it is shown within the context of his stories minus the attached appendices (which was just added "fluff" for the fans).

Jen Mulvihill: I don't think readers like the info dump unless it is done in such a way that they don't feel like it's an info dump. For instance you would not start the story off info dumping the rather gradually introduce the information through clever conversation or scenes created around the character. 

Stephanie Osborn: Infodumps to me are not about world building, and to some extent are virtually impossible to eliminate in a hard SF story using extrapolations of cutting-edge theory. The majority of my readers are NOT going to be intimately familiar with M theory, and are NOT going to take the time to go look it up while still reading. I have to provide them at least an inkling of what it's about. That said, there are ways to introduce the material that somewhat disguises the infodump aspect. If the reference is a throwaway, an offhand comment, I don't even bother; the reader can pick up the necessaries in the context. Both in terms of world building and character establishment, there are certain shorthands that can be used to help establish the scene/character. There are those writers who say that some of these shorthands should never be used, but I disagree. For example, I do write dialect and accent into my characters where appropriate, though many writers consider that anathema. Why? That alone is a huge writer's shorthand to establishing the character. (E.g. you know right away that a guy with a Brooklyn accent did NOT grow up in California.) The same can be done -- within limits -- for an environment.

If you don't just info-dump, then how do you build a world for your readers?

Stephanie Osborn: The characters react to their environment, even if it is only subconsciously. These reactions are a shorthand to establishing it. Any reference to culture that creates, in the reader's mind, a similarity to an existing culture on Earth becomes a kind of shorthand to establishing the fictional culture. Look how readily Tolkien evokes Atlantis, or Norse/Viking culture, or Celtica, for example. No sooner do you as a reader draw the correlation between the Rohirrim and Viking/Norse culture, than you realize the Rohirrim will not be fighters to trifle with. Likewise in my Displaced Detective Series (okay -- shameless plug), if one of the characters refers to another as a "bloke," you know right away that said character is from a country with strong ties to Great Britain, even if not directly FROM the UK. If he says, "Good day to you," instead of "G'day," you've just eliminated Australia; et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseam. Now, that might seem like character building rather than world building, but it depends on the circumstances, because if this character is typical of his environment/culture, then you've just said a slew of things about that environment/culture. It all kind of blends into the whole.

H. David Blalock: Barring an infodump, usually allowing the main character to build his/her own backstory over the course of the first couple of chapters gives the reader enough information to become involved. Then, as needed, further information can be inserted as the character discovers it themselves.

Scott Sandridge: You build it one scene at a time, through dialogue, character interaction, (brief) descriptions of scenery, etc.

Jen Mulvihill: Slowly introduce your information, that way the reader feels like they have discovered something. Example: in The Lost Daughter of Easa, you don't find out all the information at one time about the Spider Witch but rather, learn a little bit about her throughout the book until near the end you finally get her full history and understand why she is doing what she is doing.

What are the pitfalls to avoid for beginning writers when laying out their new worlds for today's readers?

Scott Sandridge: Don't write a big 10-page long history lesson at the start of the story before you get to the actual start of the actual story.

Jen Mulvihill: Write what you know, read a lot, and finish the book. So many people tell me they are writing a novel but some have either never put pen to paper or they have been writing it for centuries. If you are going to do it, then do it, don't talk about it forever because that does not get the book written. Finish the book then ask now what? Don't put the carriage before the horse.

H. David Blalock: Problems to avoid for newer writers: unpronounceable names, unbelievable character interactions, lack of continuity in backstory versus plot... pretty much anything any writer of any genre might want to avoid.