Thursday, December 11, 2008

When Someone Asks You if You're a God, You Say...


The Abigail keeps on telling me that I'm good at worldbuilding. I have, she says, a talent for creating compelling settings for my stories. After years of writing and listening to the Abigail praise me, I'm inclined to agree. So, I'm going to spend a little while talking about the fine art of setting creation.

Settings can be rough, at least in part because it's possible to pay too much attention to them. We've probably all read a book or a story where the author had a little too much to say about where the story was set and not enough to say about, for example, her characters or what happens to them. In a less extreme way, a good setting can make flat characters a little more obvious than they would be in a flatter setting. When the mountains have more character and a more interesting backstory than the hero, you know you have a problem.

At the same time (of course - when is it ever simple?) when your setting is flat, your whole story is flat. The setting is where your characters come from. Without a good setting, the same interesting traits that make them worth writing about render them out of place.

When I sit down to write a story set in a made-up world (and all stories - even the most rigorously researched historical fiction - are set in a made-up world, even if it's well researched but still imagined version of reality) I start by imagining the tensions that run the world. Imagine that the world is a huge engine powered by conflict. I want X, you want Y, and that makes the world go 'round.

While you're deciding this, keep in mind that every conflict has too sides. Making any one group the bad guy too often might send an unintended message. Besides, one-sided conflicts are boring. In the real world, you very rarely end up with characters who are all good or all bad. Lazy writing is alive and well in world building.

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You know what... this isn't really doing it for me. I'm having a hard time articulating what I mean by a well-written setting without sounding either preachy, pompous, or generally inane. How about I stop telling and show? Here are a few of my personal favorites from the several worlds I have created:

A Knight of the Land: The Ten Nations

Ah... aKotL, how you haunt me. In case you're only just tuning in, A Knight of the Land is the novel I finished just before Burning Zeppelin Experience started up again in October after it's abortive beginning in May.

The setting of A Knight of the Land is an area called the Ten Nations. To the east is a sea, to the south and west are impassable wildernesses, and to the north it eventually gets too cold to bother with. The Ten Nations are... well, ten nations with varied cultures and modes of government. I put a lot of work into little details: how they dress, what they make their homes out of, their attitudes towards gender, sex, and tattoos, and so on. I paid attention to geography and economics, so that nations that are close to each other and trade with each other are more alike than nations that have nothing to do with each other.

The central tension of A Knight of the Land the balance between nature and humanity (the world was once a golden garden, but this was made more complicated in the distant past when an ecological catastrophe nearly wiped it out). Symbolizing this tension is the relationship between the various nations and the titular Knights, ecowarriors empowered by a piece of the earth goddess (who was shattered by the aforementioned catastrophe), and the various nations, who respect the Knights of the Land and their mission to varying degrees. Of course, I shake things up by introducing at least one nation that lives in perfect harmony with the land and still hates the Knights. It's also important to note that "doesn't respect the Knights" or even "doesn't live in perfect harmony with the land" is never used as a shorthand (longhand?) for "bad guy." Even when one of the ten nations ends up finding and using one of the terrible old weapons - in this case, a crown that can drag magma up from below the earth and destroy entire cities - they aren't "bad." They're just trying to survive, like everyone else.

The Scourge: The Terran Trade Hegemony

One of my rare science fiction settings - and this one is definitely a setting, because the story component is so weak I have no idea how to fix it - the Scourge's setting is about desperation. It's a pretty bleak world, where a silicon-based life form that lives by eating your planet's crust and spreads by inducing your planet to self destruct has infected many worlds, including Earth. We have Faster-Than-Light travel, but not communication, which has produced a bit of a rough and tumble, wild west frontier feel, with rickety space ships transporting mail and messages from place to place. People can carry the microbe (which can go dormant, like a virus, when there isn't enough food) leading to quarantines of infected planets, which then become places of incredible poverty and deprivation (even though your average human cannot carry a sufficient quantity of the microbe to infect a planet with any degree of likelihood, just like if I infect you with a single cell of the AIDS virus, you'd probably never get sick). It's possible to have the microbe removed from your body, but nearly impossible to find passage off an infected world - the microbe eats through the metallic hulls of space ships with frightening speed.

Once your world is infected, you're in big trouble. The Terran Trade Hegemony demands high taxes in return for "treatments" - subterranean bombs full of nanomachines that find and destroy the silicon-based microbe - and they'll blow your planet up before they'll let it burst like an infected cell and infect the worlds around it. Unfortunately, the microbe mutates quickly, and each generation is hardier than the last. Earth itself is barely hanging on, but it is also the center for studying the microbe. Scientists who opt to travel there never leave.

Of course, all of this is against a backdrop of a widely spread humanity which has evolved, both through natural mutation and intentional self-modification, into a wide variety of forms. A conspiracy within the Terran Trade Hegemony plans to use the Scourge to wipe out worlds they judge no longer "sufficiently" human to take part in the beautiful future they imagine for humanity. In a world where some humans have extra arms, photosynthesizing skin, no need to sleep, weirdly-configured brains and aberrant personalities... you might think they have a point.

Useless Nick: the Brotherhood

Another science fiction setting (wow, at this rate you guys are going to think I write a lot of science fiction - two out of three ain't bad, as they say), this universe is still recovering from an interplanetary war between Earth and its loyal colonies - then ruled by an aggressive and aggressively rational republic - and the political and religious exiles it created over several hundred years of asshattery. The central tension is the culture of forgetting, as people try to let the past be the past and forget the horrors of war and the former regime (horrors that many people and their families stood aside and let happen) perpetrated fade away.

Against this backdrop, a somewhat bumblign lieutenant is assigned to a team whose mission is recover the lost self-aware space ships that the winners built to defeat the losers. Because these "behemoths" are seen as reminders of the war, there are many who would rather let them drift forever in various states of decay. Only the fact that some members of the government and the military have compassion for (or a sense of debt to) the self-aware ships, and the fact that the old earth government still exists, in exile on a handful of worlds, and would love to get their hands on them keeps the team funded, but they're still always on the edge of giving up. This is an aggressively human setting - no aliens allowed - about debt, compassion, and what it means to be human. I also actually wrote a short story in this world, and maybe I'll revisit it one day.

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I'm sorry that in the end, I couldn't provide a brilliant academic-yet-clever treatise on the building of worlds, but I hope you found what I did write both useful and entertaining.

And when someone asks you if you're a god, what do you say?

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  • Tell me of your worlds!
  • What issues have you encountered in worldbuilding. When have you made something really awesome, and when have you really screwed up?
  • Have you ever encountered the problem of paying too much attention to the world and not enough to the story? What did you do about it?


Scattercat said...

I find that fascinating; Angela herself is a good world-builder, but I am terrible at it. No, really, I'm just awful.

I find that one of the perils of world-building is that it's a bit like flypaper; you come in, hover for a bit enjoying the sweet smell, tell yourself you'll just land for a moment, really, that's all... and then it has you. Angela has several projects that have never even taken on much actual story-weight because she's spent months and years researching, reading, scouring real-Earth history for analogous situations, studying fragments of culture and tidbits of geography, and never actually STARTING anything.

For me, well, settings tend to evolve around a character or an event. Many of my stories are set in what amounts to the real world, with only a few crucial differences (like, for example, vengeful elemental gods, or strange old men who can teach you the magic you have inside yourself, or an infestation of quasi-corporeal shadow-cats.) I have almost never - not even when running roleplaying games - sat down and planned out a setting and all its nuances. I just can't think that way.


I do agree that the idea of the Scourge is an awesome setting... that doesn't have much in the way of a story to suggest. My advice would be to try to focus on the setting, since the bleakness of it is really the primary motivator. The way I'd go about it would be to start a story that is very personal, possibly a refugee on a planet, or even a stowaway discovered on a ship en route to elsewhere. (Maybe a bit of the "Cold Equations" vibe...) and let the characters illuminate the setting's details slowly, the way candlelight seems to slowly fill up a room.

(Hell, now I want to write that story. How are you about collaborations?)

Mark said...

I've never had a collaboration work out too well, but I'm up for trying. I'll contact you again when I get back from Costa Rica.