Worlds Within Worlds – Part One: Creating Texts for Secondary Worlds
The stories of H. P. Lovecraft are filled with references to all kinds of bizarre, ancient books, some fictional, some real: Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, Trithemius’ Poligraphia, Giambattista Porta’s De Furtivis Literarum Notis, and Kluber’s Kryptographik, just to name a few. These are a mix of grimoires, obscure histories, and cryptographic works, but the effect is that you feel like there’s a canon in Lovecraft’s world.
When your stories revolve around forbidden knowledge and terrifying secrets, coming up with obscure or hidden books is just another part of your worldbuilding, like a world map, and Lovecraft does it better than anyone.
I had Lovecraft in mind a few months ago, when I was writing a short fantasy story about a mage coming face-to-face with the author of an infamous necromantic book, which I titled the Nokizi. I realized that it would help if I knew what exactly made the Nokizi so infamous, so I started to write out the book itself, chapter by chapter. As I revised it and restructured it, I realized that writing in-world texts offers an anchor for characters, readers, and authors—when everyone is working off the same information, there’s a sense of immersion and verisimilitude that this world could exist. You can write up as much lore as you want for your own personal file, but once you put it in a fictional text, you’ve made it concrete. From there, you can start weaving it into stories.
So let’s talk about how to do it.
CREATING THE NOKIZI
First things first: I think narrative fiction should always be the main focus of a fantasy writer. Worldbuilding is incredibly fun for people (like me) who love to learn minutiae like the average rainfall in the Amazon basin or the mathematical patterns in brainwaves, but the goal should always be to create an immersive story in the end. The Nokizi was meant to make my stories richer by being a kind of reference doc for necromancy, as well as serving as an exercise to get into the head of its author, who was a character in my stories. Worldbuilding is a means to an end.
So what did my world look like? I took inspiration from the film Princess Mononoke and the Muromachi period, which took place somewhere between 1336 and 1573 in Japan (the title Nokizi was inspired by the Hagakure, a Japanese treatise on samurai code). The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was another big influence on my world, and the books you could find and read in-game, especially the necromantic texts like Arkay The Enemy and N’Gasta, Kvata, Kvakis! became templates for the kind of in-world texts I wanted to create—I liked the idea that these texts were being circulated and read among black magicians, sort of like underground ‘zines or newspapers.
From there, I imagined a sort of secret, scholarly community of necromancers who had their own schisms and internal drama and started plotting out the Nokizi as a manifesto, something radical and new that would upset and divide the necromantic community. I always imagined my world’s necromancers being less focused on raising the dead and more concerned with attaining immortality, and I liked the idea of using body modification, astral projection, or even constructing pocket-dimensions to do it.
It was helpful to write an anti-establishment text because it meant I had to give its author, Old No-Eyes, something to critique and rail against. It also helped to create a little dynamic in the fictional necromantic community, one where Old No-Eyes is the outsider and the ‘auspicious masters’ are the centers of popular prestige and respect—it created an in-world backstory for the creation of the Nokizi.
I even included an outside commentator in the book who claims that the Nokizi is not just a scholarly work, it’s an attempt at revenge. Old No-Eyes spends the entire manuscript tearing down all the great masters of immortality for rejecting him and teasing his own novel path to immortality, ultimately leaving his secrets encoded in the last chapter. But anyone who decodes the final chapter of the book (enciphered in hexadecimal) realizes that this has all been an elaborate tease to get back at the people who laughed him out of their world. As a final touch, the title, translated, is supposed to mean “No Eyes”—a reference to the author’s moniker and his paradoxical thinking that it’s only the people with no eyes who truly see what’s there.
ZEN BUDDHISM, FRACTALS, AND IMMORTALITY
One of the passages that inspired the content of the Nokizi came from the mathematician Cantor, in communication with the famous mathematician Leibniz:
I am so in favor of the actual infinite that instead of admitting that Nature abhors it, as is commonly said, I hold that Nature makes frequent use of it everywhere, in order to show more effectively the perfections of its Author. Thus I believe that there is no part of matter which is not, I do not say divisible, but actually divided; and consequently the least particle ought to be considered as a world full of an infinity of different creatures.
I’ve been fascinated with fractals for the past several years, including the pattern that bears Cantor’s name, the Cantor Set, which is included in the Nokizi. Fractals represent a lot of things to Old No-Eyes: paradoxes, expressions of eternity, and parables for transcendence. Interesting enough, Zen Buddhism is also concerned with paradoxes, eternity, and transcendence. Old No-Eyes’ anecdotes, especially having to do with the fictional character Igokiki, are inspired by Zen koans and stories. No-Eyes himself is based partly on the Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, who was radical, iconoclastic, and eccentric—No-Eyes’ interview with the White Architect, as told in the Nokizi, is based off of Bodhidharma’s famous meeting with the Emperor of China.
Zen and fractals provided the raw material for the necromantic content of the book, and anyone who’s familiar with the topics can see where I’ve borrowed things. Even for fantasy, the real world is a constant source of inspiration and ideas, but more importantly, it gives a good jumping-off point for creating something uniquely yours.
WEAVING THE NOKIZI INTO A STORY
When I finally finished the Nokizi, it was longer than the short story that inspired it, which I titled Old No-Eyes—the Nokizi was 5400 words, and the story was 4900. But it had been worth it: I had a much clearer idea of who Old No-Eyes was and the kind of world he dealt in, readers told me that they really enjoyed the passages quoted from the Nokizi, and the story itself was able to take advantage of all the little ins and outs of the book to create a sense of depth and immersion.
So that’s the story behind the Nokizi. Next, let’s walk through how to create your own in-world text.
WRITE OUT AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
First things first, let’s reaffirm that the purpose of writing these in-world texts is to help write better stories, unless you’re only interested in creating lore for the fun of it, or you’re a graphomaniac like Mark Z. Danielewski, and you want to want to spend your time typing up your own House of Leaves. With that in mind, it’s okay if you don’t write the full text. A table of contents, a general outline, and abstracts for most of the chapters should be enough, but for the chapters or passages that deal with especially relevant information, you should take special care in writing them out as fully and meticulously as possible.
The more you actually write out, the more you’re able to canonize things—I’ll talk about this more later, but when you write a book, you inevitably start drawing on aspects of your world’s history, culture, and people. In the end, writing more out means getting a better grip on your world and giving yourself a strong base for your stories, especially if you’re writing multiple stories in the same world.
For the Nokizi, I had a relatively short text, a manifesto, which meant I could write out all of it in the space of three for four weeks. I started with the purpose (Old No-Eyes is trying to persuade people that he’s a new master of immortality), thought about the audience I was writing for (necromancers and scholars), thought about my author (a bitter, insane outcast with a twisted sense of humor), and the topics I needed to cover. The first chapter is all about how the necromantic community is a decadent, corrupt mess, the second chapter outlines what makes it so corrupt, the third and fourth chapters outline Old No-Eyes new philosophy, with one chapter on mathematics and the self, respectively. Chapter five is the encoded portion, and just has some short text and diagrams.
ALWAYS WRITE FOR TWO AUDIENCES
When you’re writing in-world texts, you need to remember that your job is to write for two simultaneous audiences: the reader and the text’s intended audience. I’ve noticed that a lot of in-world texts, especially in D&D and fantasy games, follow a pattern: they pack a lot of exposition into a small space and try to retroactively balance it with some flavoring. If you’ve ever played a video game with audio logs, you’re familiar with this style of in-world writing: it’s transactional, exposition-heavy, and written primarily with the reader in mind, with information content first and its context second. The best in-world texts balance the two.
In my experience, readers like sorting the ‘signal’ from a bit of ‘noise’– when you have to make sense out of a passage and sort the relevant info from the chaff, it’s like being a detective. “Noise” can be any text that doesn’t have a direct bearing on exposition, like an introduction, a reference to a different topic, or the thoughts of the author. At its best, “noise” text creates immersion by mimicking the motions authors go through when writing a real text. From there, strategically weaving in relevant info is the key.
In the Nokizi, some of the “fluff” or “noise” I included were the parables Old No-Eyes has at the beginning of each chapter, which help to ease the reader into more complex topics later in the chapter, like logical paradoxes or the concept of the ‘self’. Instead of laying bare No-Eyes’ conception of immortality and selfhood immediately, I took my time and made the presentation seem more natural for an in-world reader, letting the plot-relevant info occur organically. I also made sure that the relevant info was grouped together in little blocks, so it could be easily quoted by characters later on. Taking time and space to seem like a real text, rather than a ham-handed piece of exposition, ends up making the parts you reference feel more real.
PAY ATTENTION TO STYLE, MEDIUM, AND MODE
When you’re writing in-world texts, consider all the constraints and characteristics your text’s medium gives you—philosophical treatises, history books, magical textbooks, and memoirs all have defining characteristics and approaches to information. The closer you imitate how real-world texts operate, the more effective and immersive your text will be.
I did a lot of reading before I wrote the Nokizi: everything from a PhD thesis on Hegel’s dialectic to Don Quixote to Zen koans to contemporary book on Kabbalah. When you move between these different types of reading material, you notice how the authors’ modes of writing changes to fit the subject and medium: philosophy treatises by Hegel and Kant are incredibly opaque, technical, and aimed at initiates, historical accounts like Bulfinch’s Mythology and Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages are both academic and readable (with some authorial voice and opinions woven in), and manifestos like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future play on a lot of rhetorical strategies like the tripartite pathos, logos, and ethos model to persuade a hostile or skeptical reader to fight the established order.
The Nokizi is meant to be a short manifesto, not an encyclopedic tome, so it was manageable to write in full. It’s only got five chapters, plus an introduction and commentaries. Each chapter explores a different facet of Old No-Eyes’ philosophy on immortality, and each one builds upon the last. The book’s structure is based loosely on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which is similar to the four points of refutation in rhetoric: you state the problem, you state the root causes of the problem, you state that there is a solution, and then you outline the solution. Since this is a manifesto, persuading people is at the heart of its structure.
Take a look around at other ancient texts, and you’ll realize that each one has its idiosyncrasies and interesting features: the Christian Bible has a mix of parables, letters, and prophecies, the Bardo Thodol’s structure moves through the stages of death with each chapter, and the Iliad’s warrior poetry has a ton of features like heroic epithets, patterns of repetition, and deep dives into individual warrior’s histories.
INCLUDE REFERENCES TO OTHER BOOKS, EVENTS, AND PEOPLE
This is where worldbuilders get into trouble. Unless you’re writing a firsthand account, like the Book of Mazarbul in Fellowship of the Ring (“…drums, drums in the deep”), your in-world text is probably going to need to reference sources and information that’s not included or fully explained in it. Lovecraft is able to pull this off in his mythos by 1) using a lot of real-world texts, like Kluber’s Kryptographik, 2) leaving a lot of information pulled from other sources purposefully vague, and 3) basing almost every story around discovering more information about his world. But in a fantasy story where two mages are, say, looking for a book on the history of a lost city, it’s hard to escape the enduring reality of scholarship through the ages: citing sources.
Think of non-fiction books as being a piece of a giant puzzle that stretches across time and geography. Every author borrows knowledge from every other author, filling in the gaps. This is helpful for worldbuilders in two ways: you get to introduce new concepts and spheres of knowledge your book’s author might not be an expert in (like archaeology or different philosophies), and you get a chance to build up a sense of depth and verisimilitude by creating a canon and historical context. You can use abridged versions of texts (as outlined previously) to do rough sketches of your growing canon of books, but the real issue is grounding each text in your world’s history—you need to sketch out a rough timeline of events and years, so you have a chronology.
For the Nokizi, I had a very rough outline of my world’s history, which spans about 2500 years. I had a general idea of what happened century by century and how necromancy developed, so I created a couple books to reference: The Book of the Ferry-man, The Seven-Rung Ladder, the Corpus Illuminata, and an unnamed text written by a necromancer called the Mahdi. Each book or writer is talked about generally, with Old No-Eyes summing up a lot of their main ideas as if he’s speaking to a reader who’s already familiar with them. Just enough information is given about each to make sense in context, and quotations are usually just a few sentences. That’s all you need to present to the reader—everything else lies below the surface, in your archives and worldbuilding docs.
Again, if you want to see a story that takes all this to its logical extreme, go get a copy of House of Leaves and start trying to count the footnotes, endnotes, citations, and notes from the editor. It’s maddening, and Danielewski does it on purpose.
If you want to read the full text of the Nokizi, you can read it in five parts, starting here. If you’re interested in reading Old No-Eyes, the short story the Nokizi is featured in, it’s currently out for submission, but you can tweet Christopher @DeadmanMu or send him an email at email@example.com if you want to read it on Medium.