How To Use Your World
Fair warning: the next series of blog posts is going to be ass backward. Namely, I’m going to be talking about using the world you’ve built, then talking about worldbuilding. Confusing? Sure. But I write these things on the fly based on what’s on my mind in a particular week.
This week, I’m in the home stretch of reading Mainspring by Jay Lake. The thing about Mainspring is that it isn’t a bad book, it just isn’t a good book; and its sin is failure to make use of the amazing world that Lake created.
Allow me to illustrate, because this will inform the rest of the article:
In Mainspring, we are introduced to the Clockwork Earth, a Victorian era steampunk setting with the requisite Britishness and airships. The thing that makes this world stand out though is that the solar system (and possible the universe) is actually a gigantic clockwork orrery with the sun as a lamp at the center and Earth rolling along a brass track via a huge gear-work mountain spanning the equator. This Equatorial Wall is a nearly impassable divider between the Northern Earth where Queen Victoria battles the Chinese in the sport of empire-building, and the Southern Earth where magic and nature reign.
This leaves us with some amazing set pieces to explore: A world where the question of God is a definitive ‘yes’, for one. Plus, Victoria-held American and Caribbean colonies guarded by a fleet of rustic airships, an ecology based around 6000-foot mountains at the equator where the air doesn’t thin and cool as dramatically as in real life, full of unique creatures, and a world beyond with exotic and exciting magic.
Is your fantasy-mouth watering at digging into this world?
Well too bad. Lake, after drawing out such an exciting realm of possibility, saddles the reader with a viewpoint character who I will charitably describe as bereft of curiosity. He gets dragged from plot point to plot point, one exotic local after another, and never cares to investigate any further than he’s literally forced to. Every ten pages of Mainspring reads like a pitch for the best fantasy book you’d ever want to read—but you don’t get to read those books; you’ve just got Mainspring, constantly taunting you with bits and pieces of genius but never, ever paying it off.
And granted, there are a lot of ‘world tour’ plots you’ll find in books, but most of those books use a lot of interesting bits to focus on one big, interesting bit (more on that later). Mainspring and it’s utterly apathetic main character never pay that promise off.
Which is why this article exists: to show writers and explain to readers what should be going on under the surface of every great effort of world building—because just building the world is just the beginning. After that, you need:
Characters Who Live in the World
I don’t mean to insult your intelligence, but not everyone that reads these things are as smart and attractive as you are, so let me point out the obvious: I’m not talking about having characters who exist and draw breath in the world you’ve created. What I’m talking about is having characters who are actually part of the world and exhibit signs of having lived in that kind of world their entire lives.
For example, in The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson has characters who take the coming of the massive kill-storms that plague the world kick up as a given and plan their lives accordingly. No one acts surprised by them or ignore them: those things are just part of their life.
In the Xanth novels by Piers Anthony, no one bats an eye about the fact that their world runs on wordplay and terrible puns. That’s just how life is for them. They don’t need to adapt or cope, they’ve always lived like that.
This attitude in the characters lends even ridiculous (Xanth) or completely alien (WoK) worlds a level of verisimilitude that most readers won’t even notice is in play until they start to analyze things.
And this isn’t to say that there’s no place for naive newcomers; no, they make excellent audience surrogates and handy justifications for exposition. It’s just that if you want the world to be believable, you need some people in your world who believe it and understand it in the same way someone who lived there would. Otherwise, it’s mostly just a Wackyland scenario.
I can’t explain Wackyland. You’ll just have to watch this.
Where Mainspring lost its way in this respect is that Hethor, the aforementioned main character with no curiosity, is pretty much the only character given more than a cursory look thus far. We’re shown other, far more interesting characters who really do seem to live n the world, such as the librarian who sets him on his path and a man who is hinted to be a spymaster, but they are quickly left behind.
Meanwhile, Hethor is largely ignorant of the world he inhabits and seems determined to keep it that way. Even when he does take note of interesting parts of the world, he does it’s from afar. And it’s even more rare when he engages in:
This links back to characters living in the world, but it’s more hamfisted and therefore, much more fun in some ways.
Instead of telling us about features of the world, have you characters talk about them. It might seem academic, but you would be surprised how many writers (including yours truly) have to battle against expo-dumps of facts the reader can easily glean just from in character conversations.
And example from my Ere setting seems in order here:
‘Rizen is the breadbasket of the Western continent. With a lot incidence of spirit beasts and being shielded by mountains to the west and north that keep the entire region well irrigated, Rizen is prime farming territory and produce a larger variety of food and plant/animal derived goods than any other place on Ere. The abundance of alchemical ingredients that are among its exports also fosters a large community of alchemists.’
To a writer or a DM trying to run a game in the setting, that’s really very interesting. To a reader who picked up a book because of the wizard fights and dragons? Not so much.
However, if they read this:
“This? This is Cylla wine. Very expensive. I have it imported from Rizen. It’s the same place I buy the chemical grenades I arm my soldiers with.”
They get the gist of the same information but they digest it better. In fact, you can even get away with a character just spouting that first paragraph if they have a believable motivation; wanting the impress a visitor to Rizen, for example.
If you follow that path, however, there better be a damn good reason for it to be in the story. No one likes it when a writer is just showing off that they did work. All those little bits and bobs need to actually do something; be it adding to the plot (see below), flavoring the conversation, or establishing character. If you read Rune Breaker, you’ll recognize this a lot in the character of Kaiel who, as a loreman in training, has this as his future job description.
But why does this trick work simply by putting words into a character’s mouth? Simple human nature. We anthropomorphize everything and use that as a basis of forming empathy for it. A character in a book is more ‘human’ than the prose and therefore, more ‘important’. Hearing a character talk about these things just makes it more real than having the author telling us.
And while your characters are talking about the world, why not start using:
Setting as Set
This goes hand in hand with having your characters inhabit their world: the world you created can’t just be viewed from afar. The characters have to move in it, interact with it, and be effected by it.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve only ever watched the movie, but I assume it also occurs in the print version of The Princess Bride, that the characters don’t just see and talk about the Cliffs of Insanity or the Fire Swamp. No, the climbs the cliffs and the endure the three dangers of the swamp, even using one danger of the swamp to avoid another.
Anything that hurts non-bunny rodents is fine with me.
And this is important because even though one would imagine that just hearing about these things would spark something in the reader’s imagination, the truth is that none of it really matters until we see it in action. Sure, some things can go commented on, but unseen, but you have to pay off the promise of the premise at some point and let the audience experience some of the interesting points of your world from time to time.
Again, we got back to Mainspring and the hindrance to all enjoyment that is Hethor. This character, the audience’s viewpoint in the Clockwork Earth, spends most of his time either watching or listening; never doing. And frankly, it began to frustrate me, especially when he witnesses no fewer than five massive earthquakes meant to symbolize a dying world from the distant safety of airships.
We the audience, because our eye on the world is duct taped the Hethor, and Hethor never gets involved in anything, never really get a real sense of the danger and majesty of these things, or any of the other exotic locals that Hethor also passively watches because we never get to watch characters take part in them.
As similar, smaller scale version of this happened to me while reading Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows. While that book otherwise does a great job with this, there is a moment on a sea voyage where Alec, the main character sees some sort of sea monster in the water. We, the audience know it’s not a whale because there was mention of dolphins earlier, but not only is the creature only given a name (and no description) but it never shows up or is mentioned again, leaving me intensely frustrated.
Some people might not understand why that particular instance was a problem, but let me explain: From a writer’s perspective, I know that things like that are usually not just random bullshit. I assume the Flewelling knows what that thing is and what it can do and what it looks like. But she teased me with is existence then refused to tell me. It’s like when you’re a kid and someone keeps telling you they know a secret, but they never tell you what it is.
And with absolutely no segue:
Adapt the Plot to Your World
I can’t lay any fault in this aspect at Mainspring’s feet. The nature of the world is the plot after all and the plot couldn’t even happen on a world that wasn’t the Clockwork Earth. Which is odd, because it actually feels like the story has this problem.
Said problem begins with the fact that many writers, self included, actually have a ton of stories stuck in our heads. You know how Stephen King (I misspelled his name in another blog post and feel like such a mook for it) is so prolific? It’s not because he’s some super plot having guy (creativity!), it’s because he’s got maybe a slightly above average number of stories in his head for a dedicated writer, and he writes all of them down. All. Of. Them.
Coming up with plots is easy. Coming up with a character (not a specific character, just ‘a’ character) is easy. Worlds are hard. They’re not just hard, but hard work (which is why I’m doing this article first, thank you very much). That’s why Stephen King invented New England, after all.
Even if you’re just using the modern world and writing largely contemporary genres, there’s a lot to be done there. So who could blame you if you just sort of graft one of your plots to it and pound on it a little to make it fit?
Everyone. That’s who. Don’t do that.
This practice, which I blame for the general suckiness of many sequels, is a major culprit in those situations where plot and world fail to mesh. The result is usually a plot that chugs along without either budgeting time for the characters to take part in the world (thus fulfilling the first two tips up there), or incorporating the realities of the world into itself.
If you’ve ever seen a story that seems to take great pains making sure that the normal rules of the world don’t work in a specific set of circumstances that necessitate the plot or allow the plot to resolve, I would put good money on this being the reason.
Works based on pre-existing properties are rife with this, be they licensed or fan works.
In comics, the Spider-man story One More Day has this as one of its many, many failings. The entire tales is built upon the assumption that Spidey, who at the time was a member of the Avengers, couldn’t find anyone who could save his aunt’s life from a gunshot wound. This meant that in a world where super-science, magic and mutant healing powers—plus actual, factual reality warping—exist, Spider-man was somehow unable to find a cure for being shot in such a way that you can survive for days in a hospital.
Some might call that a plot hole, and it is, but it’s a plot hole induced by the plot not being written with the world in mind.
But going back to Mainspring, I’m saving some back for the review on Goodreads (Did I mention Rune Breaker is on Goodreads now? Because some awesome person added it. I’d appreciate if you went over and reviewed it.), but the real problem of the book was more that Hethor was a squib and the plot was running on rails.
With Lake making a mad dash to get from point A to point B, I can understand why he didn’t give his world the looking over it deserved. I’m to understand that the two sequels, Escapement and Pinion are much better in that respect. But I have to wonder if it would have killed him to have tried…
Playing with the Toys You’ve Created
On this blog I talk a lot about the absolute power writers hold over their worlds. The term I use is ‘Acts of Creation’, because that’s what it is: we create things wholesale out of nothing and in the realm of imagination, they’re just as real as the keyboard beneath my fingers right now.
So why is it that once we’ve made these things, so many of us put those creations on the shelf with a sign that says ‘look, but don’t touch’?
That seems like a waste to me. If you have interesting concepts and you’re already showing it to your readers, why not put them to work?
In another article, I talked about how the book Ghost Ocean wasted characters who had very interesting back stories and abilities, but who never got to come into play in the story. Now I suppose, given that it’s Book 1 of a trilogy, I can’t really say this of Mainspring, but given what I have read, it does this to entire cities.
As I mentioned, Hethor flies past more exotic locations than Phineas Fogg, only he never, ever deigns to try and get a closer look. But even if he did take a closer look, it wouldn’t matter all that much unless that look meant something.
How do you avoid this in your own works?
Use the plot and have the plot involve parts of the world. Is there a unique culture in play in a given town/city/nation? Have the character have to deal with it for meaningful reasons to advance the plot. Is your magic system cool? Make the eccentricities of it important to the battle with a threshold guardian. Got strange and original races? Make one a main character or part of the cast.
One of the reasons I keep flogging Brandon Sanderson is that he is a master of this. His worlds breathe and the reason they do is because the nature of the world in every one of his stories is important to the story itself. They are stories that could not be told n the way they are told in any other setting and that makes them interesting and endearing.
Honestly, just think of the greats in spec-fic: Lord of the Rings, Dragonriders of Pern, Star Trek, Honor Harrington, everything by Asimov; what do they have in common? Plots that exist in symbiosis with the setting in a harmonious fusion.
So when you start working on worldbuilding, one of the first things you need to keep in mind is what you’re putting into it that you want to use in stories. It will make writing easier later, and it will do a great service to your readers.
And that’s it for this week, poppets. Next week, I might start in on actual world-building articles, or something new—who knows? That’s the beauty of posting these online: you’ll eventually just be able to pick a tag or category and read them as a group.
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