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Worldbuilding: Thinking Inside The Box

LAND OF THE WESTERN by Paolo BarbieriThe idea of worldbuilding is familiar to any fantasy writer, and goes with the genre like pointy ears go with elves. There are writers like Tolkien who go all out in creating incredibly detailed worlds with their own history, myths and songs. Equally, there are those like Joe Abercrombie who prefer to focus more on the story and the characters. It comes down to you as a writer, whether you’re the sort of person who enjoys creating your own fantasy world with all its nuances and tiny trees marked on a map, or whether you simply want to get to grips with the story.

For now I’ll assume you’re interested in the idea – at least enough to read this article. So I’ll ask you a question, have you ever thought about why we worldbuild? Is it because fantasy writers are all born with a God complex? Maybe we’re so bored with reality that we feel the need to create something more interesting? Or do we just like the creative act of designing characters, people and places? The foremost reason for when you’re writing a novel tends to be that worldbuilding helps the author. It can help them figure out details, plan the next plot development or site of a grand battle, even tell the writer what the weather should be like at their hero’s next stop.

Indiana Jones - Leap of FaithAnd like that invisible bridge in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade it’s both an opportunity and potential pitfall. Worldbuilding can help bring a greater sense of realism and plausibility to your work, but if done poorly it can jar the reader from their suspension of disbelief and open the writer up to calls of, “well that would never happen, because –”.

I received a newsletter from ProFantasy a while back – it’s a company that sells various kinds of mapmaking software that can be very useful in designing your world. Now the software is worth a look in its own right, but what caught my attention was the article “Where Cities Grow,” written on the placement of cities. It was a detailed explanation of logical city placement based on factors like access to water, road intersections and other contributing factors. It took into account real world experiences and logistical issues like access to trade materials and the presence of natural resources to determine the position of towns and cities as well as what life would be like in each.

Images from ProFantasy and originally from Pär Lindström

Images from ProFantasy and originally from Pär Lindström

This is the kind of information that could be vital to a writer as they try to create a plausible world. Just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean that things can just happen or be glossed over – there has to be an element of logical coherency in how the world works. If you can show the reader that the world your characters inhabit is a living, vibrant place that functions like a real world then the novel will have much more depth and be more believable.

Magic Scrolls by Tsabo6And I’m not just talking about the “world” aspect of worldbuilding. Information like the “Where Cities Grow” article can be used in other parts of the narrative. Writers can use specialist knowledge to enhance many aspects of their work and help immerse the reader in the story. If your central character is a soldier in an army, read up on military history and what life was like on the march, then let it inform your work. If your character is a thief, check out the history and mechanics of lock-picking so you can make sure the character doesn’t try to pick a pin and tumbler lock without a torsion wrench.

I was writing a scene with an assassin armed with a crossbow who was lying in wait in a covered wagon. The target would approach, and the assassin would cock the crossbow and take him out. I wanted it to be accurate, so I researched crossbows and found a couple of issues with the scene. My assassin was waiting with the bolt loose along the top of the weapon (obviously, as keeping a quarrel locked for a long time would wear out the spring). This meant he would have to draw the bolt back and lock it in place. The problem is that it can take a draw strength of about 150 lb or more. From some instructional videos I saw that most people needed to place the weapon on the floor to brace it and pull back. It certainly couldn’t be done from the position my assassin was in. However, if the crossbow had a crank mechanism it would be possible to keep the scene as it was, and could also add an element of tension as my character slowly drew the bolt back. Depending on whether the crank was silent or not, it might alert the target.

River Crossing by Jake-LabzThis is one way that real world data can inform and even dictate the narrative. To go back to the army on the march – perhaps they need to cross a river, but maybe your world’s climate/season that’s established would mean the water is too high to ford. The soldiers must build rafts or a temporary bridge to get across. It could serve as a good reason if you need the army delayed, and it helps to flesh out the world you have created, showing realistic problems occurring that have to be dealt with in a logical fashion.

There are different degrees you can take this too; the reader may not have to know what kind of sailor’s knots the soldiers use to tie the rafts together. Unless it affects the plot – perhaps a raft were to come apart because someone used the wrong knot, perhaps it was intentional, a murder attempt on a cruel officer maybe? It could have been poor quality wood that caused it to break apart, where did the wood come from, were there trees nearby?

River Village by Matt GaserThis way of thinking through actions and events in advance can be very useful in making the world more realistic and drawing the reader into the narrative. Now there is the need for balance and keeping the details subtle so your novel doesn’t read like a mismatched collection of how-to manuals. But if you can make the reader really believe in your world with all the attention to detail and by creating a sense of plausibility then the quality of the writing can increase by orders of magnitude.

One could argue this practice may not suit all types of fantasy novel given the great variety of worlds that are on offer where magic trumps physics. Still, the writer can use the same idea when figuring out their world, even if it’s nothing like ours. Terry Pratchett said that you can have flying pigs, but you need to take into account the effects on local birdlife, as well as the need for people to carry stout umbrellas at all times. This is more than just a funny statement, it is the exact representation of the mindset an author needs.

Above Clouds by yokadzYes you may have flying castles made of crystal, but how would they get supplies? Do they come in on flying carpets, or are they brought to the ground beneath it and transported up? These things can’t be researched like my crossbow questions, but they can form a kind of thought experiment. You might simply choose to slip in a line about a character watching the latest food shipment delivered by dragon and solve it that way. The point is, if you show the reader you have thought through your world and done everything you can to make it a functioning place, they will be more inclined to lose themselves within it.

So whatever world you’re designing, think hard about the reasons for everything in it, think about how it all works. Oh and bring an umbrella if you go out, the pigs are migrating this time of year.

Title image by Paolo Barbieri.


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