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‘I actually started worldbuilding…’ by Sam Sykes

Today we are delighted to welcome one of our favourite authors Sam Sykes (also known as Samus Sykesimus on the Roman Gladiator circuit) to Fantasy-Faction. I don’t really need to tell you too much more about the author and his works, because he’s about to do it for me… enjoy!

Mortal-Tally-2So, I don’t know if anyone told you guys, but I have a new book out.

It’s called The Mortal Tally, the second book in the Bring Down Heaven series.  You might have read the first book, The City Stained Red.  This fine site did a review on it.  They seemed to like it a lot.

You might also have read my books from a previous series, The Aeons’ Gate.  If so, you might remember a few things about them: the story of brave (and not so brave) adventurers on a quest through weird and wild landscapes filled to the brim with savage humanoids and strange, alien monsters, also you might remember my occasionally writing long, screaming tweets about people who said I wasn’t good at worldbuilding.

I see what they meant, of course: The Aeons’ Gate took place far from the aspects we usually define quality worldbuilding by.  There were no civilizations whose social nuances we could navigate.  There were no economic impact studies we could formulate.  There were no poems or prophecies to sift through.  It was just six desperate adventurers trying to make a few coins while also trying not to die.

For a long time, I thought this was enough.  I railed and scoffed against worldbuilding as something too typical for me to spend much time on…

…and then I actually started worldbuilding and I found it was actually a lot of fun.

The City Stained Red (cover)There’s a lot of embedded tropes and practices in fantasy, as a genre, that don’t necessarily add a whole lot, but they’re so established that readers feel a little disappointed if they’re not there.  Hence, for The City Stained Red, I was both curious and excited to flesh out parts of the story that readers had previously thought were lacking and it was fun.  I got to add new races, new social mores, new stuff and I loved it.

I had thought I made my peace with worldbuilding, until I started The Mortal Tally.

At the end of The City Stained Red, Lenk and friends divided up as the city of Cier’Djaal was consumed in civil war.  Much of The Mortal Tally still takes place in the city, but a lot of it takes place in the wilds of the desert, atop the back of a giant creature plying its way through a dangerous river toward a forbidden jungle.

On the surface, this all sounds really neat: horrible creatures, forbidden areas, strange landscapes.  These are things we built fantasy on the backs of.  So I do wonder why we don’t always consider it to be “real” worldbuilding.

We tend to like the stuff that is measurable, definable.  We like to know how the system of government works and who’s in line to rule it next.  We like to know how the economy works and how it can be exploited.  We like to know how trade works and how the cities are situated and what languages they speak.  But we like these things to be established in the story prior to us reading them.

Sam-Sykes-ComicWe don’t have as much of a tolerance for the unknown: for discovering forgotten cities, for fighting ferocious monsters, for learning strange secrets alongside our heroes.  We don’t call that worldbuilding.

We call it “adventure.”

And I wonder when the two started being so distinct from each other.

In a lot of ways, the deeply embedded desire for worldbuilding might have robbed us of the desire for wonder, for mystery, for adventure.  We’re less interested in the things that aren’t measurable because we have a harder time seeing how they interact with the heroes.

There’s some argument there.  A conflict consisting of social machinations between two warring religious factions (which happens in The Mortal Tally) is arguably a meatier conflict than, say, a man fighting a giant monkey with a sword (which also happens in The Mortal Tally).  It’s not like the monkey can provide much motivation or opposing perspective to the hero that will make him question himself and grow.  But on the other hand, it is a fight with a giant monkey and you don’t really walk away from that unchanged.

Which is where I think worldbuilding and adventure find a sort of harmony.  They both provide different sets of circumstances for the characters to struggle against and grow under.

KvotheUltimately, for as cool as the economics of your world might be, we’re not really interested in them if they’re not making life harder for our hero (a la Kvothe).  And for as radical as the monster fights of your world might be, we’re not hugely interested in them if they don’t provide a stressful framework that challenges your character’s motivations and desires (a la Drizzt).

Ultimately, what I strived to do in The Mortal Tally is what I want to see in more books: worldbuilding with more mystery, adventure with more structure, a happy harmony of order and magic, wonder and the knowable, that I might forge together a happy hammer and use to beat the hell out of the heroes.

Happy reading!

Mortal-TallyAcclaimed author Sam Sykes returns with the second thrilling novel in his Bring Down Heaven series.

The heart of civilization bleeds.
 

Cier’Djaal, once the crowning glory of the civilized world, has gone from a city to a battlefield and a battlefield to a graveyard. Foreign armies clash relentlessly on streets laden with the bodies of innocents caught in the crossfire. Cultists and thieves wage shadow wars, tribal armies foment outside the city’s walls, and haughty aristocrats watch the world burn from on high.

Mortal-Tally-2As his companions struggle to keep the city from destroying itself, Lenk travels to the Forbidden East in search of the demon who caused it all. But even as he pursues Khoth-Kapira, dark whispers plague his thoughts. Khoth-Kapira promises him a world free of war where Lenk can put down his sword at last. And Lenk finds it hard not to listen.

When gods are deaf, demons will speak.

Click here for Sam’s blog, here for his Twitter and here for The Mortal Tally on Goodreads.

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Rating: 9.5/10 (11 votes cast)
'I actually started worldbuilding...' by Sam Sykes, 9.5 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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5 Comments

  1. Daniel says:

    I think a good fantasy author needs to do worldbuilding, action, intrigue, adventure, mystery, suspense, romance, and character as good as they can. Fantasy is a genre that is RICH in story, and all those elements contribute and shouldn’t be neglected. Okay, you can do fantastically at one or two, and be hailed as good. But a true master is not just good, but great, at pretty much all of them. Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are just three off-the-top-of-my-head masters at so much of writing, especially as they’re all amazing writers and fantastic at so many aspects. I think Anthony Ryan is amazing too, just remembered him for Blood Song (read Tower Lord, maybe not as great, but many second-in-trilogy fantasy books aren’t as amazing as their first volumes cause the writer’s saving the best for last… but then there’s also not-so-great firsts that do get improved upon, like say the awesome Jim Butcher). Fantasy’s a pretty great genre, but not every book is a great one. Still, there’s usually something good about most!

  2. Yora says:

    Yes please. Amen. Mystery and magic seem to be something that has very much fallen to the wayside in contemporary fantasy. Empires, politics, and arcane science seem to be the paradigm of the day. Which can be nice if you like it, but isn’t particularly fantastical. Why the love for encyclopedic worldbuilding? I have no idea.

    But in the end, the setting is only the stage on which the story takes place. The function of worldbuilding is to set up interesting situations and environments for entertaining and exciting events and interaction. The roleplaying game handbook “The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding” opens with the wonderful statement that the goal of the setting creator is not to provide an encyclopedia of background details, but to assemble a big pile of boxes of dynamite and hand them to Gamemasters who will then let their players loose on it. The same general idea also applies to worldbuilding for narrative fiction. It’s not so important what you have, but how it affecta what the characters in the story do and think.

    I believe the best worldbuilding is done not by building a world full of things you consider great and would love to see for real, but by creating a world that is tailored to create just the types of situations, moods, and conflicts that you want the story to be about.

  3. Leopold says:

    When one direction in fantasy becomes the rule instead of just representing a possibility, people may start seeing the others as inferior.

    Because all the websites saying “how to build you fantasy and science fiction world” is probably more fun to read than “how to write adventure”, they are more popular to write.

    Role playing games with all their rules, and fans connected in online communities dissecting every little element of a novel and its world and writing fanfiction about it has become normal too. It’s like they don’t want a story to go away and tries to drain every piece of it in hope of finding something more than can talk about.

    And in its own way, writing good about lost cities and being attacked by supernatural monsters is a little harder than building a world. You can fill out so much in a story with rules and worldbuilding that the actual action is just a part of it. Tolkien and Howard used two different methods. Tolkien worked years on his world, and Howard made up stories as he wrote them. Both approaches can be a fun read. Complex worldbuilding can be like a history book or encyclopedia, writing without the need of true action or characters. Adventure require its own set of skills. It is so much more free, and if the writer has enough imagination, can be like a TV-series with a new episode very week, making the world bigger and bigger.

    Lovecraft wrote adventures, but after his death, August Derleth tried to shoehorn all his creations into a system of gods and creatures. Lovecraft himself seems to have done something similar in At the Mountains of Madness, but in his own way. It is hard to make all the pieces fit together because Lovecraft didn’t write his stories like that, like perfect pieces of a bigger puzzle (but there is as known a also difference between short stories and novels. What works in a short story may not work in a longer story).

    For most people, inventing a world and magical systems is easier than populating it with characters and dialogue and stories. A mental exercise, using other areas of the brain than when writing the actual stories. Perhaps that’s also a reason, because so many can identify with the approach and do something similar on their own. A world that is not fully explained in every detail can feel a lot bigger than one that is because there is only focus on a very small part of it at any given time, making the rest of it unknown territory.
    Howard’s essay “the Hyborian Age,” was used as a guideline he had in the back of his head when writing his Conan stories, but he was otherwise free to write what he pleased.

    A comment on the web by David D. Levine says: “A successful climax is the culmination of every other element of the story. Every event, description, and character decision in the story contributes to it directly or indirectly; even a completely separate subplot helps to lead up to the main plot’s climax by reinforcing, echoing, or contrasting with the main plot.”
    That is very true. Long plotlines that go nowhere and is never solved can be frustrating. But sometimes adding a little extra information regarding the world, as in worldbuilding, or a small stop in an old temple where the characters must fight for their lives against some ancient demons, may not be directly relevant for the climax when all the threads finally meets. It is even possible it could be skipped without affecting the core of the story at all. Yet both ingredients, when well done, add something extra and makes the fictional world feel more real and alive. And if it gives the reader pleasure instead of thinking “oh no, another neverending irrelevant flashback from his/her boring past just to “flesh out” the character”, it is more than justified. Sometimes it is even required.

    One could say that the worldbuilding should serve the story and not the other way around. But Tolkien claimed he invented his world as a place to put his languages. If that’s true, it is another reminder that what really counts is the finished product, not how you got there. Only adding elements that are 100% relevant is a form of minimalism, and adding too much of what is irrelevant makes the story longer than it needs to be. But the right amount, like Buddha’s Middle Path, makes it richer and more colorful.

    Modern fantasy sometimes feels more like science fiction in its approach. Logic, systems, methods and the need to explain everything have become very dominant. No need to write a family tree or evolutionary past of every monster you meet. You don’t always need to know which people built all the ruins you see around you. I guess fantasy is worldbuilding in a sense, but the most important worldbuilding is the one that is created by writing the actual stories. That’s what a popular book is usually praised for, its story, not its worldbuilding. Not that a Dougal Dixon or Olaf Stapledon of fantasy couldn’t be interesting, but I’m not sure if that could be considered a real novel.

  4. Yora says:

    Tolkien seems to be the most misunderstood worldbuilder in the business. The idea that he spend decades on building a world before writing two stories set in it is just wrong. All the worldbuilding he did was not setting the stage for Lord of the Rings, but creating a big corpus of stories. It only happened that he kept the stories as piles of notes and drafts and when he came to write a big novel for publishing he decided to write another final chapter for this long series that would be in a publishable form.
    But I think as he saw it, Lord of the Rings was more of an epilogue to his stories, while all the Silmarilion material was the real heart of his work. It’s not background information in preparation for setting the stage for Lord of the Rings.

  5. Shadowkat says:

    Yes! I love how you mentioned that you can do both. So many people make it sound like you’re either a panster or a planner. You can always make a blending.

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