Three Modern Fantasy Authors on the Art of World Building

Over the past month or so I’ve encountered several interviews with top-notch authors of fantasy fiction about world building. They don’t romanticize the process, but neither do they treat it as drudgery. They unpack its complexities, show what an art form it is, and give examples of the difficult choices involved. I thought I’d share a few quotes, which I hope you sci-fi and fantasy readers out there find as illuminating as I do.

Scott Lynch

The first quote is from Scott Lynch, author of the critically-acclaimed The Lies of Locke Lamora, a fantastic read from which I’ve stolen tons of ideas about clever thieves. In August 2017, an interviewer at WorldCon 75 asked, “What do you like best and worst about creating new worlds, and what do you think is the base requirement for a world to feel organic and real?” Here’s how he replied:

I obviously love doing it. The difficulty is… there are two major points of difficulty. First off, giving yourself permission not to tell every damn thing. It’s a very difficult skill to acquire. It takes years to basically decide, how much can I get away with? The real question in worldbuilding is not how much can I dump on the page, but how much can I get away with not actually telling people? Because the alternative is to get this inelegant info-dumpy writing style, in which everyone who is meeting everyone else is taking extra time in their dialogue to explain what they’re doing.

“As an author, I find that doing these interviews, which my publisher helps arrange with newspapers, which you guys work for…”

“As you know, Bob, yes, we are in a room on a planet, which is orbiting the sun.” [laughter]

Like I was saying on a panel earlier, people repeat things. They tell each other the same stories over and over. They use the same tidbits in interviews over and over, wink wink, nudge nudge. We don’t constantly explain, “The chair you’re sitting in was made from wood and plastic, and these things blah, blah, blah,” unless you’re a fucking crazy person. Okay, maybe there are some crazy people out there that do that sort of thing, but it’s not symptomatic of mental health. But that’s what you end up with in a lot of stories, when characters inelegantly – with the best of intentions – explain the world to people who already live in it. There’s a really fine art to providing just enough clues for the reader to get the point without overwhelming the story and the people inside it. That’s what I really enjoy.

The other thing is the realization that everything is worldbuilding. Worldbuilding has this negative connotation as sort of this homework that you have to do beforehand. Like, “If you want to enjoy this book, first here’s the glossary and then here’s the map and then let’s tell you this, and here’s the backstory about who killed such-and-such and who fucked such-and-such and who wanted to kill such-and-such and who wanted to fuck such-and-such, all the way back to the first such-and-such 3 billion years ago.” [laughter]

Everything in a story is worldbuilding in the same way that everything about us is worldbuilding. Every piece of technology we are carrying, every piece of clothing we’re wearing, the passports in our pockets, the contents of our wallets, that weird thing that you’ve got on that strap around your neck and what it does [ed: he is referring to the photographer’s camera] and why you’re carrying it and why we’re in this building, the languages on the signs… all of these things are clues as to where we come from, where we are, etc. And so it is with the fictional characters on the page. What they wear, what they eat, what they drink, what they value, what they want, this is all worldbuilding and it goes on until the last page of the story. It’s not all just, “Here’s the map and here’s your 50 pages of fucking background research. Memorize this so you can have fun with the story.” There are ways to make it more elegant and more intrinsic to the story, and I do this because it is more satisfying as a writer. You’ve got to be enjoying yourself while you’re doing this, otherwise you’re just doing hack work.

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Lev Grossman

The next comes from novelist Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians trilogy (now a TV series), in an interview with a Vox critic in February 2018. There are several quotes here worth sharing. First, Grossman points out that it’s very hard to do anything new with world-building—and in fact that can be sort of liberating because you have an opportunity to renovate worlds that were not that well developed in the first place.

As soon as you mention that maybe, say, there’s elves and dwarves in a world, people know a lot about that world. They know that there are deep, sylvan forests with skinny, tall good looking people in them. And there are mountains, with deep mines, with sturdy, bearded dwarves chipping away at them. Those worlds are already in our heads. They’re completely built. You can do new things with them, but you’re renovating. You’re not building from scratch. There is a pre-existing structure there.

So when I approached Fillory, in a way what I was doing was, really kind of updating Narnia. [C.S.] Lewis was a great world builder, but he was incredibly sloppy by modern standards. Narnia was not up to code. [Laughs.] He’d just slap things in there. If he wanted fauns, he’d put in fauns from Greek mythology, and then here comes Santa Claus! We’ve got Santa Claus in there too. Most people have feudal technology in Narnia. They’re fighting with swords. But Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine, which is a nice piece of Victorian era industrial technology. It doesn’t all add up and fit together.

Part of it was just, let’s take Narnia, but let’s take it maybe a little more seriously than Lewis did. Let’s try to imagine what the politics and economy and ecology of this world would really be. What would happen if you took a group of children and just plopped them down in this country, which is in the middle of an entrenched, decades old civil war, and these kids try to intervene in it. What would happen to them? Probably complicated, not good things.

I was taking Narnia, and I was trying to look at it the way that George R. R. Martin looks at Westeros — try to make it conform to contemporary ideas of how worlds work. And what you end up with is in some ways, a more textured, darker, more complicated version of Narnia. In some ways less sublime, less beautiful, more degraded, but in some other ways, more interesting. That was my approach: Take Narnia and just kind of renovate it.

Grossman also makes a super interesting point about the evolution of world-building, namely, how over the years systems of magic have gone from having mysterious, inexplicable origins to being more structural, rule-based, and logical.

Someone ought to do a dissertation where they figure out when this happened, because it is incredibly interesting. I can certainly remember reading Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time books. This was in the early ‘90s, and there was one point at which somebody asked the hero … “So what actually happens when you’re using magic to light a candle?” Or I think it’s extinguish a candle. And he says, “There’s this candle, there’s a lot of heat in it. So I just draw the heat out of it, and I have to put the heat somewhere, so I just put it into that mantlepiece over there, which absorbed the heat. It got a little bit hotter, but that’s all that happened. I moved the heat around.”

I remember having to put the book down and think, wow. So he just made magic obey, basically, the laws of thermodynamics. I found that incredibly fascinating. What if you moved things into slightly higher definition and forced things to be slightly more rule-based? It made the world feel slightly more real to me. Gandalf never worried about the laws of thermodynamics. Forget it! Gandalf never went to wizard school. He just was a wizard, and he just did spells when he felt like it, because he couldn’t be bothered with that stuff, which was fine back then.

I’m sure Robert Jordan was not the tipping point, but that’s when I personally tipped, and I realized, “What if you made these works look a little bit more like the real world? Would they feel realer?” And the answer for me was, they really did.

The late Ursula K. LeGuin, Earthsea was another example. The way she taught magic to her wizards on Roke and made them obey a kind of language-like system of rules was again, I suddenly realized, magic, it’s not science. It’s not physics. It’s not bound by laws in that way, but it is kind of rule-based. That felt real to me.

I’ll bet Dungeons & Dragons was a big influence there, because they took fantasy and they made up rules that it had to play by. I think that was a big influence on a lot of writers.

Now, what I’d love to see as a follow-up to this point is whether the systematization of magic actually has disenchanting effects. I personally find this to be the case: the more you can explain a thing, and the more controllable and predictable it is, the less a sense of otherworldliness it carries. This tension between mysterious, untamed magic and controlled, predictable magic (what you might call “respectable magic”) is one of the primary tensions in Susann Clarke’s delightful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which I’ve only partially read, though I have seen the television series). Maybe one day I’ll write a post on that.

N.K. Jemisin

Lastly I will turn to a recent interview (August 2018) with N.K. Jemisin, three-time Hugo award-winner author of The Broken Earth trilogy (which I also haven’t read—yet!). What’s cool about this one is that Jemisin takes the interviewer, Ezra Klein, through the basic steps of world building. She takes an “outside in” approach, starting with meta considerations like the type of planet in which events take place, the number of continents, and the proximity of each culture to the equator. Along the way, she explains the idea of “element x,” the unique aspect of the world that would be alien to us in the modern world (what she jokingly calls the “point of utter weirdness at which you’re not in Kansas anymore”). In the podcast, they come up with a race of humans who have prehensile tails and who live in cliffs at the edge of a desert.

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Jemisin then works down to micro considerations, which I found so cool and interesting to listen to. She covered syncretism, differentiation, cosmogony, and economy. Check it out:

So once we’re kind of into how the culture starts to develop, then we start talking about the ways in which that culture is sociologically different from our own. We start talking about syncretism, differentiation, cosmogony, economy. How did that culture get to be the way that it is. […] Syncretism is basically cultures building on what has come before. So you know, the fact that this culture has tails means that at some point, probably in their very distant ancestral past, they were used to living in a world with trees, or a world with things that tails were useful to climb. So maybe their culture, even though they’re now living in cliffs, maybe their culture still venerates trees. Maybe it still is built around the idea of what life in a forest is like. They’ve adapted but their culture is still going to have elements that are deprecated from the time they lived in forests. So maybe they still, oh I don’t know, maybe they still venerate walking very quietly, even though in a desert that kind of doesn’t matter. [laughs] But in a forest it would. […] Differentiation is one of the ways in which cultures develop kind of in rivalry or in interaction with other cultures, that is, they want to be different from those people over there next door. This is why in a lot of cases cultures that develop in the same environment next door to each other are so drastically different, because in a lot of cases they get their identity from, well, we ain’t like those people. […] Cosmogony, where do we come from, how their ideas about where we come from may have developed. Different cultures in our world looked up at the sky and were able to kind of cobble together, you know, how the planets worked and figure out sort of basic astronomy, and a lot of them used that to develop different mythologies.

Perhaps my favorite part, though, is what Jemisin had to say about the illogical nature of human societies. We live in complex environments and have complex motivations, and the world builder needs to be an astute observer of science and human nature in order to depict a world that reflects these complexities.

But when you’re talking about societies and how societies develop, you do have to understand that human societies are not logical. […] You have to understand the dynamics that dictate how we do things are not a simple matter of, hey, those people over there have a great idea, why don’t we borrow that or why don’t we talk to them and get their expertise? You’re dealing with power dynamics. You’re dealing with egos, you’re dealing with psychology and sociology all the aspects of human nature. And so it’s important to understand when you are doing world building, it’s important to understand the sciences. It’s important to understand both the physical sciences of how our world works, and the social sciences of how people work. Because, like I said, the world that your readers know best is our world, so you’ve got fantastic research before you, if you want to explore it, on how people in our world have done these exact same things. So there’s no reason to just make assumptions or pull things out of whole cloth. We’ve got the entirety of human history to draw from for examples of how people react when they see another culture doing something that might be a good idea. And frequently they dig in their heels and decide we’re not going to do it because that’s coming from those people over there, and they don’t know anything, and they’re stupid.

Jemisin and Klein go on to discuss things like power dynamics, racism, caste systems, standards of beauty, gender roles, and models of reality. It’s a fascinating discussion, and a very informative if you’re looking for a practical place to start the world-building process.

Do you have any links to interviews or articles of authors talking about world building? If so, let me know in the comments!