HEAD, HEART & SINEW
This post was originally written for SchoolZone.com.
The building of worlds… now there’s a big topic for class! But like most things, the creation of a fantasy world has its rules, its dos and don’ts. If we boil all of those down there are, I think, three simple principles of good world-creation, principles worth teaching because they apply to much of creative writing. As we are talking about bringing worlds to life, it might be helpful to think of these principles as head, heart and sinew. Let me explain….
The creation of worlds is so often mentioned in the context of fantasy that you might believe that we fantasy writers are the only ones who do it. But when you think about it, most fictional writing involves world-building. Take for instance one of the most factual genres, historical fiction. Here the author must transport their reader to an entirely different era in which the norms of everyday life have fallen away and been replaced by alien objects, buildings, customs, language and society. The reader must be lifted from the here and now to the there and then and crucially, that transportation will only be successful if the world is plausible, if it contains enough real detail that it is no longer faded and distant but vivid and immediate. Hence the historical author’s painstaking research, their immersion in the things and writings of the period, their careful insertion of details that make us BELIEVE.
Real details underpin fantasy worlds too. The wondrous places that fantasy writers would take you to will only feel real if they contain a measure of the familiar, a pinch of the real and a healthy scattering of the plausible. Think of the Englishness of the Hobbits and the Shire, the politics of the great traction cities in Mortal Engines, the boarding school tropes of Hogwarts, the Oxford-like settings in His Dark Materials.
These familiar things provide the firm ground from which to launch our flight of fancy: they lead us by the hand from what we have experienced and what we know to the things of our dreams. By the way, this is of course the particular power of ‘portal fantasy’ – fantasy that quite literally takes us from the real to the fantastical world via some kind of magical portal, such as Narnia’s wardrobe or Harry Potter’s platform 9 3/4 or my own bell between worlds. Here the journey is intended to be even more irresistible because the real is a key part of the story – and most importantly, we are shown how it relates to the world of wonders.
So, direct borrowings from reality are not lazy, they are essential. They give the fantasy world its heft. Its muscle and sinew.
But any fantasy world also needs to make sense, to stand scrutiny. That can be tricky because we are not working with things that have been tested in the real world. Our inventions, whether they be, say, Fizzletrip-Transporters or Tribes of Grace and Sorrow or Ravel Runes are entirely made up, so we have to make sure that they won’t fall apart when they are exposed to the hurly burly of a good plot.
So for the most part, fantasy writing swaps research time for design time: time used to fill in as much detail as is necessary to make an idea feel substantial, until it is robust enough to be trusted. This is not writing time, this is a fun bit of the creative process that takes place before the story begins, or perhaps happens alongside it. And the more time that the writer puts into honing these ideas, the richer the fantasy world will be, and the more the reader will trust it. Some of the grandest examples are of course the peoples, histories and languages of Middle Earth or A Game of Thrones, but think also of Quidditch in Harry Potter or dust in His Dark Materials. Prod at them as you will, they just won’t fall down.
So if a scattering of reality provides the muscle and sinew of our world, you might say that the design provides the head – the part that convinces our skeptical, picky, analytical brain that these wonders could really be true.
But there’s a pitfall here too. Just as in other forms of fiction it is easy to be guilty of a ‘research dump’ -dropping so many facts into the story that it slows the whole thing down – it is easy to slip into a design dump. After all, when you have spent so much time devising a rich and fascinating set of ideas it can be tempting to show them in all their glory! But too much detail will get in the way of the story, and in the end, the story is why the reader is there. If they have to work too hard to get at the plot, they may lose heart. So no matter how wonderful the design, the writer has to be prepared to feather it in, apply it in light strokes: show as much of it as serves the story and no more.
And talking about heart, the heart of a fantasy world is the same as in any fiction: it is in the characters. It is through the characters that the world will truly come to life, and so they mustn’t be crowded out by grand creations, histories or overly-complex revelations. They must remain the focus.
Vivid characters cast life and light wherever they go. They take the reader right up close to the magical things of the world, and they show the reader how they feel, taste and smell. More than that, they are a guide through all these wonders, a companion. When we see something astonishing or jaw-dropping we instinctively turn to see our companion’s reaction, to share the wonder. So it is with the main characters in fantasy: they are at our shoulder and we see their wonderment, hear their surprise, feel the pounding of their heart. And that electricity between reader and character is ultimately how the world is shocked into life.
So, there you have it, a world brought to life: head, heart and sinew. It may be a simplistic way of seeing it, I know, but for me these are the essentials. If a writer – or one of your students – can say that they have created a world with head, heart and sinew, they will truly have brought it to life.
And then? Then it is ready for the story to begin…