After taking a break during the entire month of November for NaNoWriMo, I’m back with more notes from Brandon Sanderson’s fabulous BYU class on writing fantasy and science fiction. This was the first time I started NaNo and didn’t finish. Lessons learned include (as Chris Baty says in the book that started it all, No Plot? No Problem!) start something new for NaNo – if you try writing something you’ve already been working on, it’s too close to your heart, and you can’t set yourself free to write crap, so you end up being unable to write at the pace NaNo requires. Life got in the way this year, too, with a couple of trips, a move, and an unexpected hiatus after November 8th. But I’m not quitting!
Class #4: World Building
Follow up on last session
Practice – You don’t have to follow any of the approaches to plotting Sanderson talked about in the last class. Explore your own approaches by practicing. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to do unconsciously and naturally, freeing your conscious mind for higher level problems. The more you write, the easier it all becomes for you.
Making your story distinctive – If everything has been done before, why bother? Genres and cultures evolve and change. Readers want a mix of the original and the familiar. Plot is the hardest thing to be distinctive about while telling a good story, so that will be the familiar; your characters and setting will be original and reflect your own passions and specialized knowledge. When John Grisham started writing legal thrillers, he brought lawyers as characters to the familiar genre. Bring your own enthusiasm.
This is the place where you can be the most distinctive. Try to take a few steps forward; don’t build a world just like everyone else’s epic fantasy.
The iceberg – You show the tip of the iceberg in your book, but the reader needs to believe that the underwater part also exists. Your job is to extrapolate, be able to answer questions about the culture and setting, so the reader gets the sense that it’s real. You’re taking them to a different time and place, immersing them.
The iceberg includes the physical setting, which includes all the stuff that would be there if there were no people (flora and fauna, geography, weather, laws of physics or magic, etc.), and the cultural setting, which can include things like economy, religion, laws, government, caste system, gender roles, folklore, languages, music, fashion, technology, history, education, arts, etc. You could come up with many more. Magic is a special element in fantasy world building, and there’s a whole lecture on it later on.
Watch out for world building disease, where you spend so much time world building that you never get around to the story, and don’t dump the whole iceberg on your readers. Pick two or three things that really pop off the page. Be as original as you can with these, and extrapolate as far as you can go. These elements should be at the heart of at least one of the conflicts in your story. Be distinctive and interesting in these areas, and it can make your world feel more real than if you had a 100,000 word bible for it.
Building the iceberg
- Fake it: If you’re a discovery writer, you can write the tip of the iceberg in your first draft, then develop the underwater stuff, and weave it in when you rewrite, just enough so the underwater part is somewhat visible. You need to give the illusion that there’s an iceberg there – you don’t have to actually have it developed.
- Write it: You can write a 400,000-word encyclopedia of your world. Tolkien spent decades doing this, and the actors playing elves in the Peter Jackson movies actually wore elven underwear even though it never showed onscreen. Do it if you enjoy it. Caution, though: you don’t want to show the whole iceberg on the page (next session will have more on how to avoid this). Also, if you want to make money by writing, you can’t afford to spend 30 years inventing languages and mythologies for your world.
The reader’s learning curve
The learning curve determines how long it takes the reader to become expert in the world. Every book has a learning curve, whether fantasy or not – Moby Dick has a steep learning curve; Harry Potter has a shallow curve that eases you in, and steepens once you get your feet underneath you. You need to decide how steep you want it to be. For middle grade fantasy, for example, the curve needs to be pretty shallow.
One reason for the popularity of series in fantasy is the learning curve. Once the reader has invested the time to learn about the world, they want other stories so they can just enjoy the ride.
- Sprinkle in terms: Sprinkle in the occasional term as you go along, and let the reader pick up the meaning by context. Readers like to do this. Use terms that will be relevant to your characters and plot, so they become familiar. Give good payoffs on a couple of things so the reader feels rewarded for paying attention. Make the details not throwaway but relevant.
- Give hints: Dole out information in a careful way. Introduce things slowly, by context. The reader should get to know the character first, then learn what the character wants, and then see how the character fits into their larger place in the world. Watch out for maid and butler talk. This is old stage lingo and it’s when characters talk about something familiar to them in a way that makes them sound unfamiliar to it: “As you know, the master is away…” Don’t have characters discuss things they would already know about.
- Go deep on one thing: Take one little thing about the world, and go into depth with it to create the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Talk to other people about the little thing, see what 3 assumptions they’d make about it, and then in your next couple of chapters put in 4 things about it. This gives the reader confidence that you have the same depth on the whole world as you have about that one thing.
- Don’t confuse the reader with proper names: In the first few chapters, construct the story so you don’t have to drop a lot of proper names on the reader. The opening chapters should be more intimate with the character. For example, “She pulled against the wall, breathing heavily, as the bandit stomped past.” This lets the reader get to know the character in a tense moment.
- Only use a prologue if it serves a real purpose: If it establishes the tone, for example, it might be great. If the only reason for a prologue is to explain the world (an info dump), it will bore the reader.
- Start with character: Be sparse with the world details up front; focus on character instead. You can set the character up in a strange situation that lets you drop in some of the background (but only the stuff that’s integral to the scene).
- Consider using a Watson: One approach is to have a character who’s unfamiliar with the world. They can ask questions, and it also gives you a chance to reveal some things through points of tension and conflict between the Watson and the natives of the world. There are lots of examples, including Bilbo in The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
How much research should you do?
Sanderson tries to get himself 75% of the way there by reading up on the topic, and then writes as best he can. He then gives the draft to someone who really knows the topic and asks what he got wrong. He tries to get as close as he can in a reasonable amount of time, so he isn’t basing the story on really faulty premises.
Writing outside your own experience
Watch out for creating a straw man. Humans are great at combining things, not so great at imagining things that are brand new. You can take existing patterns and extrapolate for your book. The danger is when you create something that’s “not the Catholic church but exactly like the Catholic church and they’re all evil.” Don’t create a weak copy of something in our world; make something new, your own, tied into your created world, with a well rounded viewpoint.
If you’re writing the other – someone different from yourself – present their arguments, their way of life, in a way they’d present themselves. Every character shouldn’t be a copy of you, but write other people appropriately. Watch out for subtle sexism, racism, etc. in your writing. When you can notice it, it’s easier to overcome it. Sanderson gave an example from feminist theory to help explain this, but it applies equally to people who are different from the writer in other ways. Level 1 is woman as object; there aren’t many women, they aren’t relevant to the plot; they only exist to be moved around so manly men can do their manly things. Level 2 is woman as paragon; there’s only one of them, they’re awesome, can do everything, and their role is to come in and save the day – they have no character arc. Level 3 is woman as authority figure or straight man; there may be more of them but they still don’t have character arcs. Level 4 is woman as token, where you finally have a full, well realized character, with passions, dreams, quirks, and flaws, but there’s only one (the Smurfette principle).
Let your characters be real. You want each character to be important to the story that they are part of, have independence and agency over their destiny, allowed to be flawed. Force yourself to look critically at your “other” characters. If every one from X culture is a wisecracking person, or whatever, do some work to make them different from each other, and make them more real.
Why is this important and relevant? Engaging characters. The whole world isn’t inhabited by the same group. Everyone has made mistakes in writing “other” characters. It’s okay to realize that you’ve been racist or sexist in your writing, and fix it – you’ve fallen into the trap but you won’t in future.