by Leonid Korogodski
One of the advantages of the speculative genres, such as science fiction and fantasy, is the author’s ability to place her characters in situations that are impossible to come across in real life. If done well, this can push the test of character to the extreme, revealing something new about our humanity. But it is also very easy to do badly. Without the strict constraints placed on the author’s imagination by reality, to strike gold in worldbuilding can be as hard as finding real gold in the mountains of California—especially these days, after it has been mined so thoroughly already.
To succeed in worldbuilding, the author should be mindful of three things: consistency, scope, and relevance. It helps to think of this in terms of how our brain constructs the image of the world in the mind’s eye—which also is, essentially, worldbuilding.
It is in the nature of our consciousness to make the world around us consistent. We are rarely aware of the fact that what we see, touch, smell—experience in any way—is the brain’s model of the world that’s only faithful to a degree. Sometimes, this model differs widely from the reality around us. But it is consistent always.
In a neurological condition called hemineglect, the afflicted person perceives just half the world—either one half (say, the right one) of the entire visual field or only one half of every object (as long as something is indentified by the brain as a single object). For example, she would only see the right half of the clock, from 12 to 6. But, remarkably, the patient doesn’t feel that anything is missing from her world. One woman with hemineglect complained she wasn’t given enough food in the hospital. It turned out that she only ate what was on the right half of her plate. A doctor taught her to turn the plate around once she was done eating. Lo and behold—more food magically appeared on the plate! She ate a half of that, then turned the plate again, and so on—like Achilles ever trying to catch up with the Zenon’s turtle. But she didn’t feel that there was anything in the world she couldn’t see.
Like water closing over a stone thrown in a lake, our consciousness “closes” over the gaps in our perception resulting from brain damage, trying to stitch together another seamless image of the world the best it can—anything, as long as it’s consistent. Otherwise, the mind would go insane.
So the author should be extra careful for her world to be internally consistent. The moment the reader catches a contradiction, the illusion of immersion in the story shatters, is replaced by the distinct feeling of artificiality.
It doesn’t even have to be an explicit logical contradiction. It suffices that the reader feels that something is not right. For example, if magic only offers advantages without exacting a price, then not only does it break the reader’s credibility but it risks boring her to death, because omnipotent characters just aren’t interesting.
The next major aspect of worldbuilding is its scope. In a story by the Strugatsky brothers, a man has an odd dream in which everyone he meets is clad only in some seemingly arbitrary articles of clothing—a hat and a bowtie, for example—and nothing else. This parade of semi-naked people continues until the man realizes that these are all fictional characters that were only described as having a particular hat and a bowtie, in our example.
Now, I don’t mean by this that the author must describe the world of the story in super-meticulous detail, lest she be plagued by such nightmares. Far from it. Rather, this scene illustrates the power of storytelling to convey a seemingly complete picture to the reader (who doesn’t stop to think, in the middle of her reading, of whether a given character is naked because no other clothing is mentioned) without having to describe everything.
The author writing about the realities of today’s life has it easier, because the reader is already familiar with the world and can automatically fill in the missing details to form a consistent image in her mind. The less familiar the world, the harder it is for the author. After all, if the reader must be made familiar with the world, she must believe that at least the author is. One must earn the reader’s trust. But how?
Here scope comes to the rescue of consistency. When building the world, make it as complete in your mind as you can. The more fantastic the world, the wider must the scope be: geography, geology, maybe even the movement of the planet relative to its star (or perhaps, the world is on a galactic scale, with planets scattered like tiny hamlets?), the climate, the flora, the fauna, the tribes or nations present in this world and their cultures, the races, the languages, the economy (what’s used as the money, for example?), the level of technology, the magic (if any), and so on—all of these aspects mutually influencing, and sometimes determining, each other to create a cohesive whole that makes sense.
But don’t describe it all! Perhaps just 5% of what you construct is ever mentioned in the story, maybe merely in passing. But if you let it all inform your writing, this tip of an iceberg will suggest a hidden shape beneath. If done right, the unspoken realities will speak through the characters’ actions. Then the reader will feel the rest of it, will sense that the author knows more about the world than she reveals—will “dress” its semi-naked shell. These hidden 95% of your worldbuilding will give your world more weight, establishing the sense of it being real.
But how to construct it all? Remember that, no matter how fantastic is the world, the story ultimately must be relevant to us, or else we won’t find it interesting. One way to build the world is to plant a seed—some aspect of the real world—from which to grow the divergent fruits.
It is not surprising that the Tolkienesque fantasy worlds (and Tolkien’s own world itself!) are so popular. The spirit of medieval Europe and the Celtic motifs are more familiar to the Western reader than an arbitrary smorgasbord of fantastic elements, because they (the motifs) tap into the mythic roots of the Western culture. However we may pretend not to notice it, myth runs deep in our blood, informing our entire culture.
But one can also base one’s world on other cultures. If you do your research right, if you capture that culture’s spirit, then the reader will readily accept whatever differences you impose on your world—and ask for more. In The Lions of al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay models his alternate world on the culture of medieval Spain before the Reconquista, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted peacefully for a few centuries—yet with their precarious way of life always subject to internal tensions and the threat of outside invasion. The three cultures in the story parallel the three cultures in the real world. Yet this conceit allows Kay to conjure situations that have never come to pass, bringing together characters whose real prototypes have never met nor even lived at the same time—in the process, learning more about our own world.
The fantasy genre is now burgeoning with the worlds based on a wide and ever growing variety of cultures, including Asian and African.
Another approach is to deviate but little from reality. In the “urban fantasy” subgenre, the stories are set in our world yet populated with supernatural creatures, like vampires. The Mundane Science Fiction movement has vowed in their manifesto not to use any science that is only hypothetical and/or unlikely, such as faster-than-light travel, mind uploads, and the like. The slipstream genre, that resides together with magic realism in the liminal gray area between mainstream and fantastic literature, prides itself on its carefully cultivated sense of dislocation—which, in order to work, must have a familiar setting to begin with.
And then, there is intentional inversion. It can be subtle, like in my own book Pink Noise: A Posthuman Tale that uses a posthuman world—the world of disembodied minds uploaded into a digital format—as a foil against which to measure our humanity. And it can be grotesque, like in the New Weird movement that subverts, on purpose, the romanticized ideals of traditional fantasy and science fiction.
Thank you to Leonid Korogodski for spending so much time with us this week!