I would like to welcome fantasy writer Helen Lowe. Her second novel, The Gathering of the Lost, is recently released by Orbit Books, and I’m pleased to be able to highlight Helen, her books, and her thoughts on world building.
Below the guest post you will find a joint giveaway. You need only comment to enter.
Building Fantastic Worlds—“It’s A Mystery”
By Helen Lowe
Over the past few weeks, at various stops on The Gathering of the Lost blog tour, I have discussed a number of facets of the story, including environment, war, romance, history, adventure and writing strong women characters. Yet all these aspects could equally well apply to any writing genre, from contemporary realism to crime to historical fiction. The element that really distinguishes FSF, especially when a story departs from this-world-as-we-know-it, is world building.
But how do compelling and intriguing worlds come about—the ones where arguably the world is as much a character as any of the personalities that appear within the story. Logic suggests there ought to be a formula, one any aspiring world builder can follow so that adding two and two will result in—hey presto—a fantastic world. Right?
Rather than an enthusiastic and positive “yes,” my initial response is more cautious. There are certainly ingredients that distinguish the worlds that have really seized my imagination. For example, an extreme physical environment dominates Ursula Le Guin’s Winter in “The Left Hand of Darkness,” as it does Frank Herbert’s Arrakis (“Dune”) and Robin Hobb’s Rain Wilds (The Live Ships series and now the Rain Wilds Chronicles.) But before we can go “extreme physical environment: check,” we have to consider worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The landscapes are reasonably diverse, but not extreme, yet Middle Earth has retained its place in our collective imagination for nearly sixty years.
When thinking about what makes the world stand out, I find myself coming back to Tolkien’s layering of myth and history in Middle Earth, which results in a sense of continuity beyond the present adventure. I also return to the strong association of “culture” with each new landscape: hobbits and the Shire; the differing elven cultures of Rivendell, Lothlorien, and Mirkwood; the dwarves of Moria and ents of Fangorn, the human societies of Rohan and those of Gondor. At one level many of these groups comprise separate species, but they are also distinct cultures; the way they both shape their world, and are shaped by it, reflects those distinctions.
Culture plays a vital role in defining Le Guin’s Winter and Hobb’s Rain Wilds, too, as does the historical and legendary continuum on Dune. So—a distinctive or extreme physical setting with a layering of myth and history, and/or culture. Perhaps some building blocks for creating fantastic worlds are emerging here.
But although the latter elements also form part of Catherynne M Valente’s Palimpsest, and to a lesser extent China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, they pale beside the sheer imaginative creativity of both worlds: the piling of the bizarre onto the weird or downright whacky. Another building block, right—only now the author has to juggle physical extremes with those of the fantastical and it would be very easy to drop any or all of the balls. Easier still if one begins to consider Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass worlds, which are based around playing cards and chess, or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Thailand where it is the vision of technological and bio-engineered genetic change that defines the world and compels the reader’s attention.
So how do the disparate elements that may—but don’t necessarily all, or always—comprise FSF world building get pulled together to create the worlds that absorb our attention and colonise our imaginations?
My short answer, culled from the film “Shakespeare In Love”, is: “It’s a mystery.” Because the actual answer seems nebulous and probably unsatisfactory—that the essential ingredient is a spark that leaps from the writer’s imagination, to the writing on the page or screen, and from there to the reader. In fact there is no formula able to guarantee that the necessary spark can and will be struck.
In terms of the “how to” employed by different authors, I suspect there are as many approaches as there are writers. Some will plan and design extensively in advance, while others allow the world, like the characters, to evolve as they write. My own world building is a mix of the instantaneous, the unexpected vision of a world or character that leaps into being, followed by the evolutionary—where the world unfolds, a little like a map unrolling, as the characters encounter it.
In terms of The Wall of Night world the first concept began long ago with a vision of a twilit, wind blasted environment garrisoned by keeps illuminated with inner light. Yet as to what lay inside the vast strongholds like the abandoned Old Keep of Winds—that knowledge only came when the storytelling began and the first characters actually went there. The world building evolved through their experiences: what each character saw, heard, smelt, touched—and was also touched by—and tasted, as well as her or his curiosity or need to learn what they did not already know.
Yet surely—you may argue—the world already exists outside the characters’ experience of it, in the author’s mind for example. And to an extent it does, in my case because of that first vision of the Wall of Night. Conversely though, the southern realms of Haarth, which come to the fore in “The Gathering Of The Lost” (The Wall of Night Book Two), and the romance of the road that stretches “from Ij to Ishnapur” evolved through the unfolding story, not via prior planning. Ursula Le Guin, in “Steering the Craft,” talks of the creative process in terms of ‘pulling ideas out of the air’—so perhaps the world of Haarth was there in the ether all along, waiting to be discovered. But after that initial flash of discovery, I had to begin the process of writing in order to explore its realms, cultures and frontiers.
I am forced to conclude that world building does contain an element of mystery. I can check all the boxes—yet still that vital spark may not be there. It occurs to me though, that I do not look on any aspect of storytelling as box checking. So perhaps that is the vital spark: whether manifesting in an instant or evolving over time, the worlds that I pull from the air have colour, texture and depth. In the moment they appear they are real. And although by no means assured, that sense of reality is the key to ensuring a world is also real on the page—and may become real for the reader as well.
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer, and the current Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. She has won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for both Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009, and The Heir of Night (The Wall of Night Book One) in 2011. The Heir of Night has also recently been shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog, on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground, and occasionally on SF Signal. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we. [In the Twitter handle, the 0 is a zero, not an ‘o’]
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The draw will close on May 1 at 12 midnight (Hawaii time) with the result posted here the next day. The draw to be made by Random Number Integer.