Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fictional World Building in Action/Adventure Stories

When it comes to thriller and adventure fiction, such as pulps, having a cohesive, and "built" world is just as important as in a classical high fantasy novel, but obviously, the building of that world in the context of the story is going to be different. But how different? Let's go to some of today's most prolific and best pulp writers to find out.

How important is world building to an adventure story? If character is king for serial pulp fiction, then why even bother with a realized world?

Bill Craig: Setting aka world building can be very important.  Sabre and the River of Doom takes place high up the Amazon on the Rio Negro and it's headwaters.   A great deal of this area is still unexplored today.  And when the story was set back in 1935 it was even less explored, so I had to create a jungle and river with dangers that would be believable and still fantastic enough to excite the imagination.  Same thing with Freetrader Orion: Asteroid Raiders.  Space presents it's own special challenges.  I had to create the refinery Delta One where a good deal of the action takes place, and also the the station on Pluto where they escaped to before heading out to the Galactic Rim.

I.A. Watson: A king has to have a kingdom. A character has to have a context. The story needs a stage to play out on.

It's not always necessary to have a detailed fictional world. "30's Chicago" is a well established mythical location now, just as conveniently pre-populated with seedy waterfront bars and swell casinos as "the Wild West" has saloons, abandoned mines, and easy-to-rob bank vaults or "Victorian England" has Chinese laundries, hansom cabs, and pea-souper fogs. Sometimes those broad canvasses suffice.

However, a more unique world background is often required. It's an important element in historical, fantasy, and SF stories, because otherwise readers don't know what the rules are. if the hero doesn't have access to gunpowder then it needs to be established. If a warp-gate takes citizens to Sigma-Beta System in 2.1 nanoseconds and that's relevant to the narrative it needs to be made clear. It's especially important that the limitations of magic are defined, because otherwise the reader is left wondering why the wizard doesn't just defeat the dragon with a snap of his fingers.

The elements come together in writing: protagonist, other major characters, events they experience, setting, and minor players. Sometimes the background can almost be a character itself, offering as distinctive a flavour to a scene as the drunken Scots sidekick, the fussy interfering robot butler, or the blowsy whore with the heart of gold. The eternal storms rattling the haunted castle of Ravensgaard, the claustrophobic green gloom of the crippled submarine, the rioters beyond the gates demanding the head of the king, can permeate a whole story to make it powerful and unforgettable.

Or they can be a distraction. The author might be fascinated in the history of the unicorn riders and their 200 year migration across the Tansy Plains to Everholme, but unless it contributes to the plot or character develoment then its probably best left to an appendix.

One important reason for a well defined "world", especially for a series where different aspects of that world may be relevant in different stories, is to support suspension of disbelief. Readers are quick to spot anomalies and contradictions, or "facts" about back story that don't make sense. Once that's what the reader notices then suspension of disbelief is broken, and its hard to win it back. Conversely, when a reader nods as another aspect of the fictional world clicks into place and it all fits well, that reader becomes more invested in the back story and that much happier to see the characters interact with it. So done right, world-building prevents critical-reader dissociation and builds up serial-reader loyalty.

Mark Halegua: In my case all my characters, so far, exist in the pre-war 1930s in the US. Under those cases I don't have to build a world, it already "exists" or did exist, so I just have to fit my characters to that and try not to let current politics, economics, science, etc., get involved.

Obviously an infodump wouldn't fly in the tight, sparse world of pulp fiction. So just how do you build that world to your readers and still keep the tone of straightforward action writing?


Mark Halegua: I just keep to the world as it existed in the 30s.

I.A. Watson: There are all kinds of tricks.

Dialogue, especially jokey dialogue, is one way. If the characters pause and make fun of how the zoom-tube tunnel slugs always run late we learn something of the cast who are speaking, something about the world they live in, and we even feel a point of resonance with that strange world of theirs. We might not have had problems with zoom-tube slugs but we've all queued for late buses.

A mission briefing can sometimes do it. The Major stands in front of the agents, points his stick to the screen, and taps the image of the villain's island lair. 

 "Now pay attention, men. Here is Isla del Evil, thirty-seven miles southeast of the coast of Haiti. Seven square miles of minefielded hell, ever since Lord Sinistre came to power there seven years ago in the Flower Parade Coup..."

An odd line slipped in amongst the action, or a stray thought from the point of view character, can go a long way:

Slab checked his wristwatch. It was one of the old-fashioned clockwork kind, of course, without any energy source that the Delphotrons could detect with their worldwide scanner satellite grid. 8.57. "Almost time for the Slug-Lords' nightly holocaust," Slab thought.

Even the authorial voice can be used, if sparingly, by way of introduction: 

It was almost five years since the old king had died. In that time Prince Alain had trained daily in the Swordmasters' Hall, alongside nobles from Dy Aquitaine, Sleecross, Ververet, and even Far Elysia. He'd learned much about the politics and personalities across the Grand Continent, from the deep divide to the troubled fire hills. Learned Senden had taught him well the history behind the Faith Wars that had led to Alain's father being assassinated by the Scarlet Sect. Now, nearing his twentieth birthday, the young heir knew it was time for him to raise his banner in rebellion and reclaim what was rightfully his.

But this is best grounded with some intimate moment related to some less lofty concerns, so should be followed straight away by:  

Selani watched the prince mop the sweat from his armpits with his discarded combat tunic. "How goes the mighty revolution today, oh glorious leader?" she mocked, wrinkling her nose at his odour.

Bill Craig: Character observation can prevent the big info dump, and dialog can also pace things as the characters discuss what they observe.

How much do character and world interrelate in pulps? In other words, how important is the world of the Spider (for example) to his character? Would it change him to have him located elsewhere? Or, would Batman be a different person outside of Gotham?

Bill Craig: The Spider is a force to be reckoned with in whatever local he is in, much like The Shadow or Doc Savage.  The Batman has traveled outside Gotham many times as well.  The key as far as setting in pulp fiction is not so much the local, but the character and how they interact with their environment is what makes the action flow.

I.A. Watson: Sometimes its about origin. A character becomes so well suited to his background that without it he seems incomplete. Gotham is a good example of an environment matched with its hero. Superman in Gotham wouldn't have the same synchronicity; both character and setting would be vitiated. The Spider, less tied to one fictive location, requires only some urban setting to work best, and is allowed excursions into spy-filled mansion houses and smuggler-haunted sea caves.

Its not just physical location, though. Its also type of story, style of events that make the character and background mesh. Philip Marlowe solving a genteel cake theft at a  an English vicarage tea party might make an amusing novelty, but it wouldn't command the reader's emotions and attention in the way his regular cases might. A Batman story where real-world physics suddenly applied to his tangled cape and physical feats would be jarring and incongruous.

Some characters are products of their environment and others have their environment tailored to suit the needs of their personality or adventures. All those tough tecs and honest cops pounding the mean streets belong to the former group. Those alien worlds ruled by merciless tyrants and the magical schools tutoring callow but talented apprentices belong to the latter. This is only natural -- backstories are, as the word implies, part of the story, the backing for the events that are going to happen and for the motivation of the characters who will interact with those events.

Mark Halegua: Since all my characters are basically new, I need to build them up story by story. As to the world of other characters, while, for example, the Spider was bases in NC, he had adventures outside ot that, as did Batman outside of Gotham. In Batman's case Gotham was a major factor in his development (the recnt character, not the Golden Age/Silver Age one). The Spider would have developed anywhere.

My characters, so far Red Badge, Santa Claus, and Kirk Kinnison are in a midwestern city (RB) and an as yet unnamed East coast city. RB was definitely shaped by his locale. Kirk has travelled the world but is currently based in NYC.