Monday, September 15, 2008

World Building

You know you're a writer when you know exactly what a "MG 63k SF" is. Love those abbrev.

Anyway, I found this article a really great one that inspired a lot of thought about the genres in general.

The article makes a good point about world building (among other things; I think I might use that article to make a series of posts...) Anyway, to the quote:
What specifically draws me to science fiction/fantasy is the integrity of the imagined world and its fundamental principles. ... Each establishes coherent, consistent worlds that work according to immutable laws.
I'd also add that it is necessary for fantasy/SF to not get too caught up in its own world. Personally, I think a story is enhanced more when the world is there, fully formed, but still in the background. World building is like makeup: too little makes you look old, too much make you look cheap. However, if you can wear makeup so naturally that it just looks like your face (only better), then you're gold: likewise, if you can write in worldbuilding that is so naturally a part of the story that you don't notice it, but it's there, well, then you're a good writer.

Take Tolkein. God, please take him, I can't stand him. I know he's a brilliant writer and the founder of modern fantasy literature and whee. But I find him mind-numbingly boring. (Please, put down your pitchfork and torch.) The man made a world so complete that there is a fully functional elf language in it.

My eyes cannot roll inside my head enough for you to fully grasp the sheer imbecility I find in this endeavor.

Who cares if you have a fully functional elf language in your book? It's a languge for elves. Fictional elves. The only people who care are the cousins of the guys speaking Klingon.

If your writing has enough in it to let nerds decifer your elf language, then you've got more world than story. That's Tolkein's problem: he's got more descriptions of mountains and sparkling rivers and elf language and dear Lord, the snow, the snow! ...anyway, there's much more of the background than the play, if you know what I mean. I read the books when the movies came out--and after seeing the epic battle in the end of the last movie, I was disappointed that the characters in the book actually took (about a hundred pages) longer to get to the battle than to actually fight it.

Conversely, a story that subtley weaves in the background of a world into the plot makes the world not only more real, but the story itself better. For this, I refer to the brilliant Joss Whedon's television series Firefly and movie Serenity. And, ironically enough (because I just thought of it literally this second as I was typing it), the world of Serenity has it's own language: a mish-mash of slang and Chinese. If you're nerd enough (like me) to watch the commentaries on the DVDs, then you'll know that Whedon originally sat down and thought logically about where language would be in hundreds of years--his logic was that the two super-powers of the world would be America and China, and developed a language that combined the two, with a few invented words thrown into the process.

Did I know this when I first saw the show/movie? No. I just thought it was cool that there were these words in the show that obviously meant the language had progressed from out time. I might not know what they all meant, but I picked up on context clues. The words made the world more real--it was more as if I were there, instead of on my sofa with my dog in my lap.

Whedon put just as much work in his language as Tolkein did in his--Whedon even hired Chinese linguists to make sure the words worked in the context of the language. But Tolkein failed because there was more language, more world building, than there was story and character. Whedon places more importance on story and character and uses language and world building as an accessory--and it works.

PS: Working on worldbuilding? Patricia Wrede has a good site for that.


PJ Hoover said...

I had a hard time getting through The Two Towers and Return of the King when I was younger. I reread them after the movies and they still were slow. But, yeah, some world building.

Does this mean you don't know Klingon?

Keri Mikulski said...

Interesting post. I'm always amazed by SF and F author's imaginations.

Unknown said...

Klingon is definitely out the door for me, PJ!

Keri--I agree--when a SF/F author create a whole new complete world, I just think that is brilliant.