Friday, March 28, 2008
Creating a New World
Ah...worldbuilding. Creating a fictional world is where most young authors fail. So, I though I'd post about how I build my worlds and how the process works.
First, what do you need to create a new world? You need the geography and a map. The geography will help to lay out the climate. It will also dictate the type of people who live in particular part of the climate--and the critters. You can't put a reptilian critter into a climate that is arctic, for example. After you've figured out the physical aspects of the world, it's time to populate it. As you're populating, you're laying the foundation for the cultural aspects of the people. A large city on the coast (which I personally would map if it was the central location for my story), for example, would be a conglomerate of many peoples. The emphasis in the city would be on trade. You'd have a financially prosperous merchant class, countless sailors, a fairly strong military presence in the city (guards) and probably a very seedy underground group of people who are a syndicate of thieves. Next, you'd build your political scenario--a scenario whose foundation consists of the make-up of citizens in this seaport city. Is it a monarchy? A republic? An oligarchy? A medieval style fantasy would probably be a monarchy, and any time you deal with a monarchy you'd have to known exactly how the ruler came to the throne. That means that the next thing you'd do is the history of the city. How long has the ruling house been in power? How did they get there? Did one of the monarch's ancestors found the city? If not, gig this ruling family come to power because of a civil war? You need dates--a timeline of events. Is there a constitution? What does it say? What is the official religion of the city? Which leads us to religion. Religion is, in my opinion, one of the more important aspects of fantasy. Is this a monotheism or a polytheism? is there a protector god of the city, like Athena was to Athens? If so, why? What kind of organization is there within the religion? Are there temples? Monasteries? How do people become priests or priestesses? Are they acolytes (novices) first? Are they 'called' by the god? Are they recruited by the senior clergy? What do they study? For how long? Are they celibate? What are the rituals of the temple? Are these rituals mystic?
That was just the preliminary work for ONE city in your world. Just one. If you have five or six locations that you use in your story, you need to do the same amount of work for each one. The goal when building a new world is simple: know the answer to any question someone else (agent, editor, reader) might ask. If someone asked you where the slum are of the city is, know the answer.
Second, it's time to build your characters. Character development is just as important as creating the world ... and it's an integral part of world building. This is what I do:
Let's say I've decided my main character is female. Since I always write about strong female protagonists, that part really isn't much of a decision. (hahaha--giggle break) So the first thing I do is decide upon her characteristics at the time of the story. Create a physical description and be specific. Tamsen, the main character in the Asphodel Cycle, is 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 128 pounds or so. She is slender, but extremely muscular. Her eyes are silver and so is her hair. She is fleetingly beautiful, a woman who inspires polarized opinions about her looks. Her personal charisma is such that, in the end, men are convinced that she is the loveliest creature they've ever seen. She is brilliant, with a logical mind and the ability to make decision quickly. She has a temper, the kind that rarely gets to the point of fury but once she's there you'd better run. She is 18 at the beginning of the story and ages a year in each successive book.
Now take that description and explain how each characteristic came to be, just as follows:
Tamsen is tall because both of her parents arre half-elf. Her father (and now I had to name him) Prosper de Asphodel is descended from the Elven royal family (name it) of Ka'antira, and the Ka'aantira are, to a man, tall, slender, and muscular. Prosper himself was almost 7 feet tall. Tamsen is muscular-not in the femlae bodybuilder sort of way but in the tai chi, yoga kind of way--because as she was growing up with her Elven kin, she had to learn archery, how to climb the trees and move through the forest canopy in order to escape the notice of enemies, and how to run for long distances without stopping--a daily workout from hell. Her eyes and hair are silver now, but they didn't used to be. Originally, she had long black hair and light blue eyes that were ringed with silver. When she fought a duel with an enemy sorcerer in the forest, she was knocked unconscious. While she was unconscious, the goddess (name her0 the Virgin Huntress came to her and offered her the opportunity to be the champion of the goddess. Tamsen agreed, and over the next few days while she was still unconscious, all of the color leeched from her hair and eyes until finally they turned a bright, almost iridescent silver. Tamsen unwittingly attracts the interest of several men. In particular, there were two (name them): Brial Ka'breona, a scout from the Elven Realm (name it) Leselle with a hatred of humans and sorcerers; and Anner de Ceolliune, a young Duke of the human realm(name it) of Ansienne. They both vie for her attentions, but her heart is lost fairly quickly to the taciturn, bad-tempered Brial. Anner spends the rest of his life as her best friend and brother in arms to Brial, but continues to nuture his love for Tamsen without comment or complaint. Tamsen, on the other hand, finds herself in the position of defnding her family lands and Leselle from the predatory army of her enemy (name him): her hated and despised uncle Gabril de Spesialle. Brother to Tamsen's mother, Spesialle loathes Elves. Upon discovering the true parentage of his sister, he travels to Asphodel and murders Tamsen's parents while she watches, hidden in the orchards. When Spesialle discovers that his niece is alive, he launches attacks on both the forest of Leselle and the county of Asphodel. Tamsen has to raise an army, one comprised of both humans and Elves. She must overcome their heriditary distrust of each other. Her success in doing so leads the men around her to respect her abilities and leadership, thus binding them to her in loyalty. They tend to overlook her temper, mostly because she loses it so rarely and when she does lose it it's for a very good reason. They watch as she uses too much of her magical power, weakening herself to the point that her body is completely debilitated. This, too, inspires them to look upon her in awe and to look to her for answers. In such a manner, she becomes the leader of a small but influential group of men--and she uses that group to insinuate herself in the highest levels of political power, despite her young age.
See how it layers itself? I use this process two or three times, the descriptions of the whys and wherefores not only devloping the idiosyncracies of the character, but giving me parts of the storyline to pursue. In this manner, your character development can also begin your outlining of the plot.
Finally, you have to create the central conflict of the story. Tamsen's conflict is with her uncle Spesialle. Because he's attacked the Elves, she becomes involved in Elven politics--and conscious of her royal status. Because he's destroyed the monarchy of Ansienne, she dives into their political turmoil as well. Because he throws his army at his enemies, she learns the ways of war and becomes a strategist out of necessity. Because he's a sorcerer with great power, she develops her own magic to unforeseen heights. She reacts to his moves, and in the process matures her only abilities in order to counter them. a confrontation between them is inevitable. Tamsen builds herself up to the point where she can confront him as his equal. It is her sole motivation initially, but she gradually grows to care about the problems of both the Elven Realm and the human world and seeks a way to reconcile them while healing them both.
Now we're done with the main character. That's great, right? Well now it's time to do the same for the rest of the major characters. Here again, you want to know the answer to any question someone else might ask BEFORE they ask it.
Actual question from a reader...and my answer:
"Hey Celina. Why does Tamsen have all of these older men who are experienced in war and politics looking to her for answers or instructions?"
"Well, because as she comes to terms with the fact that she is the sole heir to the Elven throne, she becomes more incisive. She's the unifying factor between the Elven and human realms; the only half-elf left in existence as far as anyone can tell. They look to her because she has great magical power. They look to her because if it weren't for her, there would be no chance of defeating Spesialle in his bid to take the throne of Ansienne and to annihilate the Elves."
Now just off of this exercise, we've developed a world and character with true complexities. After you're done, you have a world map, a history of the world, a central conflict in the present timeline of the story, characters that have intricate histories, motivations, and situations in life, and outlined political systems and religions. Now you're ready to take what you've created and write out the story that this work compels you to write.
The more development you put into your world building, the more credible and intersting your story will be. Pay attention to the details, down to what kind of shoes a secondary character is wearing or what the weather patterns will be over the course of six months. Those details are the piece de la reistance; they snatch up the words on paper and transform them into a new reality. That reality is what your readers will sink into as they read your story, and THAT is the goal of every writer.
When I'm building a world, it takes me several weeks. I built Asphodel in three weeks, working eight hours a day. My world building resides now in a file in my cabinet, a file with about 250 pages of information. Will I use all of it? Hell, no. BUT, I have it. I can pull things out of it at will. And, in the long run, if I answer every question put to me about my world, then I have won.
Work on your world building. Build it up to the point that you think you're actually writing a non-fiction history book. And don't be afraid to swipe from our own history--a notable historical event from Roman history can be transformed into a profound plot twist in your story. Research thoroughly. If you're writing about a war, you'd best know how the weapons work, how heavy a sword is, how a bow is made, what kinds of strategies have been effective in the past, how armor weighs upon a man swinging a 20 pound weapon, how far horses can travel in a day (and you'd better be sure to walk them, rest them, feed them, check their feet and pick out stones, and rub them down before covering them for the night).
The more you know about the elements in your world, the more realistic it will seem to your readers. Don't slack on this; don't leave it to chance and the undisciplined proddings of the muse. Because once your stage is set, the play depends upons the characters who strut and fret their moment.
Your audience will applaud. Trust me.