Build Me a World

In every story or novel, every writer creates a world. This is as true of Tolstoy and Agatha Christie as it is of Heinlein and Tolkien. No story is set in the real real world. The writer must winnow, whittle, and practice more than a little legerdemain to convince readers that what we’re encountering on the page could actually take place.

Today’s question is, how much detail does a cleverly contrived world need? Probably more than you think. One of the massive difficulties that bedevil a great many aspiring writers is that they don’t know how to build believable worlds, or think that doing so isn’t important.

At one extreme, we have books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I would call this type of story dream-fantasy. Almost anything can happen, and nothing requires an explanation! Whimsy is king, and if any picayune attempts at realism obtrude, off with their heads!

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are borderline dream-fantasy. In some sense they’re much more concrete than Alice. Sergeant Angua has a keen nose, because she’s a werewolf, but when she transforms back into a human woman she’s naked, because wolves don’t wear clothes. Pratchett constantly plays with the boundary between dream and realism; that’s a big part of the fun of his novels. There are zombies, dwarves, trolls, vampires, witches, wizards, a talking dog, and much more; but reality is always trying to tug the flights of fancy down into the mud. Death’s granddaughter (her mother was adopted) is named Susan. That’s the gravitational pull of reality in a nutshell.

Nobody expects a Discworld book to be realistic, except when Pratchett feels like it. But most fantasy and science fiction writers don’t have the luxury of working within such a loose conceptual framework. For most of us, building a fictional world means convincing the reader that such a place, and the people in it, could actually exist, given the added element of fantasy or science fiction that has been stirred into the mix. No matter how bizarre your premise — time travel, elves, portals to other dimensions — once you’ve set out the premise, everything else pretty much has to be realistic.

Your premise will establish certain ground rules, and readers will expect you to adhere to those rules. And if there are people in your story (as will usually be the case), readers will want to understand those people’s thoughts and emotions within the framework of the allegedly real culture in which we live. Even Alice is believably a real girl. Setting aside the fact that she’s having conversations with animals, her thoughts and expectations are quite within the bounds of what little girls were like in the 19th century.

When the writer muddles it up, making some story elements concrete and realistic, perhaps to a gruesome extreme, while sailing blithely past other elements without pausing for a moment to bring them into focus, I for one rapidly become impatient. Dream-fantasy is a lovely thing, but it’s a limited sub-genre. Most fantasy writers are not writing, nor intending to write, dream-fantasy.

This is, I think, the grave defect in Roger Zelazny’s Amber epic, which I’ve been re-reading. There are real swords, real horses, real blood, real daggers and crossbows, real deaths, real wounds that take time to heal — and yet in other respects Amber itself is a tissue-thin absurdity. And not a fun absurdity; it’s just deficient.

I’m not talking about the fantasy elements themselves. I’m quite willing to give Zelazny free license (not that he needs a license from me) to concoct princes who live for centuries, who exhibit enormous physical strength, who can walk from one world in the multiverse to another using their mental powers or via specially prepared magical Tarot cards, and whose grandmother was a unicorn. That’s all just fine. It’s inventive, interesting, and entertaining to read about.

But consider Amber itself. Is it a world, or just a place? Even that is unknown. In any case, the jewel in Amber is a grand palace on a mountainside overlooking the sea. This is the place those nine princes (and four princesses) call home when they’re not off wandering. The palace has servants, including guards down in the dungeon. There must be stables somewhere, because there are horses, so there must be stable-boys to muck out the stables. Or so one would think.

There’s food on the table, though Zelazny’s idea of what princes eat is curiously stinted: The only foods mentioned are meat, bread, cheese, and wine. So where does the food come from? Where do the guards and other servants live? Is the palace surrounded by a city? Zelazny felt there was no need to fill in these details. And they’re not trivial. Amber, we’re told, is defended by a large navy, but we’re never shown any docks, nor any sail and rope makers. Do the sailors have families and children? How are the sailors being fed? Are there perhaps vast farmlands near Amber? Zelazny doesn’t tell us.

Some readers may be inclined to give him a free pass on such details. One might prefer to argue that what he has created is more a myth than a realistic novel. Those princes are like the gods of Olympus; they’re not flesh and blood. The difficulty with this idea is that they are flesh and blood. If you stab them, do they not bleed? And yet, food arrives on their plates by magic — magic that is unexplained and plainly of a different variety than the magic that forms the backbone of the story — food that springs forth from the author’s pen like Athena from the brow of Zeus, without the aid of farmers, farm wagons, or windmills to grind the grain.

Creating for your readers a world that seems real is a lot harder than building a house out of a pack of cards.

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