Monday Muse: World Building

Greetings, everyone! It’s Monday and you know what that means: MUSING! It’s time for me to write about something that has been on my mind. I grant you, it’s mostly been political things lately (celebration for Blatter being gone, the hilarity of Rick Perry thinking some glasses will make him an intellectual, the possibility of Jeb Bush *not* declaring in order to get around the US’s feeble campaign finance laws, etc), but I shan’t be writing about those things. My politics should be easily gleaned from my writing, but they have no place on a blog like this.

So, instead, I would like to talk about world building. Particularly fantasy world building because I am primarily a writer of fantasy (and because I am working on something like three different worlds right now). Science Fiction falls into this, too, as the opposite side of the same coin (and sometimes even more closely linked than that). Of course, all good writing takes place in a world that needs to be well thought out and meaningful, whether that be a high school in a small town or something as intricate as Middle Earth. But writing within our world is, of course, aided by the fact that…it’s our world. You don’t have to explain how cars or airplanes work, or the weather patterns or pretty much anything. It has to make sense, of course–you’re going to have to explain why a teeny tiny small town in the middle of nowhere has a ridiculous number of engineers–but still, a lot of the rules have already been written.

For fantasy, though…you’ve got to really think about what you’re doing. Your Medieval fantasy world probably isn’t going to have airplanes or feminism…unless you can explain how a world that has turned out Medieval WITH airplanes and feminism. The Medieval mind would have seen something like a great flying machine as magical and fantastical, and likely the product of evil (unless the big religious institution has it, in which case it’s a product of God’s majesty). Not to mention the lack of materials and, you know, a thorough knowledge of the physics required. What made the Medieval world the way it was is that absolute belief in God and the fact that He was the instrument of EVERY SINGLE THING. And feminism is, of course, a product of industrialization and the fact that women suddenly had a crap ton more time on their hands than they did before (and more education). So that’s right out. Remember that poor women had no time for that crap because they were too busy trying to live. As for rich women, let’s not forget how much of their life was shaped by the religious conviction that men were in charge because God said so and everyone had their place. A woman’s was to marry and have children. Further, women were kept largely ignorant in that time and feminism is a product of women getting more time AND more education.

That is not to say you can’t have a group of women who feel mistreated and unhappy with their lot in life, but you’ll have to be very careful about how you go about that because you have to deal with the men having all the power. Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, was so powerful and intelligent that she kept getting locked up by the men around her out of fear. Maybe there’s a group of women who do have power and are outside the structure of this society, but how does that work? Are they feared and maligned, and forced to fight for their survival? Do they create some sort of treaty? In a world that is tied to ours by its Medieval aspects, you’ve got to maintain what made the world Medieval. Just throwing some castles and knights in there isn’t enough. Or, at least, it’s not GOOD enough.

And airplanes? No. Maybe a da Vinci-type got his flying inventions working a few centuries early…but that’s about it. And a world with magic would involve explanations as to why they’re using that magic to create flying machines. Perhaps they’re limited to the absolute wealthiest members of society who use them a la private jets in an ostentatious show of their wealth and magical power. But they certainly wouldn’t be available to the lower classes. Hell, sumptuary laws limited people to what clothes they could buy.

Anyway, let’s move on. Something that a lot of people do is urban fantasy. It’s really hot right now. There are more books about half-demons, half-faeries, godlings, fallen angels, etc hunting things, or keeping the balance between magic and human worlds that I think I could build a book fort out of the first Fantasy shelf at Barnes and Noble alone. I blame that Supernatural show, really. But seriously…urban fantasy. You’ve got it somewhat easy, but also doubly hard. Why? Because you’ve got the comforts of our world to fall back on, but you’ve also got to explain the fantasy part and how it works or doesn’t work with the urban. Most writers do this by explaining that their magical societies must remain hidden, or choose to remain hidden, etc. But why? Why do they have to remain hidden? So many fantasy writers have a sort of unwritten rule: “Because that’s how it has to be.” Which is silly, unless of course no one actually knows why and they’ve just been doing it that way for so long, they’ve forgotten why (in which case, you’d better find out why and show it to the reader at some point). Is there a treaty between the human and non-human worlds agreeing to stay apart? Is it difficult to cross between the two and, for various reasons, only a few can do it? Are these creatures vulnerable to humans in some way, or perhaps the other way around? Hell, even something as simple as, “Why would I want anything to do with those animals?” might do. After all, the surest sign that there’s other intelligent life in the universe is that they haven’t made contact.

World building is all about the whys. It’s more than just throwing elves and dwarves into a world with castles and calling it a day. Think about George RR Martin’s world. Now, I’m not going to say that his world is free from cliches (unless the White Walkers aren’t totally evil, of course), but it follows its own logical consistencies. There is history there with consequences and people are at the mercy of the monstrous weather, as they should be. There are multiple religions, each with their fanatics and their apathetic followers. People are people, good and bad, with few being all of one or the other. But what Martin does the best is he leaves information out. His world seems so much bigger and more elaborately planned because people have forgotten so much, and we the readers know so little about it.

And then there’s the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, which is so huge and full of scope that I, who’ve read everything I can multiple times, still can’t fathom everything. The characters certainly can’t fathom everything. No one is spouting the history of the world in rhyming verse. Just the scale of it. And I’d say it’s even harder to find “true heroes” in this than it is Martin, who has a couple yet remaining. (This part really was just me telling you to read them. I’ll give you a Boozy Books on it if y’all want, but it certainly won’t be the most coherent as the plot isn’t particularly straightforward. With Martin, you get a sense that pretty much everything will eventually mean something and tie in somehow. With these…nope. Not at all. It really is just the story of this world and the people in it. Malazan: A Study in Fantastical Life.)

Along with why is how. HOW do these things happen in your world? How are things affecting one another, especially geography (including climate and ecology and whatnot)? Geography shapes just about everything. It shapes how life develops, how societies develop, and even how cultures develop. And unless your gods have a big presence in your world (which mine always do, admittedly), it’s certainly going to shape religion as such things are just an attempt to define and understand our relationship with our world. So basically, once you understand the HOWS and the WHYS, you’ve got yourself a pretty good world going on.

To bring it back to feminism. In a very simplified sense, of course, because…well, this is long already. HOW did feminism develop and WHY did it do so? How…well, women began to realize that they were expected to live by the rules of a society that did not then give them equal rights under those laws. Why did this happen? Because governments had become more representative as people began to have more agency. How did that happen? The industrial revolution. Why? More education because of the greater access to books (thank you, Johannes), as people moved ever more into cities and Feudalism broke down. Why did Feudalism break down? Ultimately because the Black Death had killed so many people, serfs were basically free to tell their masters to F off.

So…Feudalism ends with the serfs moving en masse into the cities. Once there, they begin to want more education. Gutenberg says, “Sure!” and invents the printing press, which allows for greater dissemination of information and access to education. More education means more people able to develop industry. More industry means more free time. The combination of these things leads to more representative government (the agency, the education, etc), which women (who now have more free time and more education) realize they have no part of, though they’re bound to follow the laws and pay the taxes in which they have no say. Et voila, the Suffrage movement and arguably the beginning of feminism.

My professors would be SO ANGRY WITH ME for daring to simplify feminism down to a direct line from the Black Death, but I don’t have time to get deeper and this is mostly about the HOWS and the WHYS. And cause and effect, but that’s part of the hows and whys, really. Things have to make sense. They have to progress logically and make sense. Your geography needs to feed into your societies, which then share a give and take with your culture. Your history needs to follow a path that, barring natural disasters, reflects the good and bad decisions of these societies. Remember evolution, too, and how your species will develop over time in conjunction with their environment. If you want your world to look a certain way now, you need to figure out HOW and WHY it got there, otherwise you’re going to read like a serious amateur and your world is going to take away from the enjoyment your reader gets from reading.

I’ve rambled far too long here today. You must forgive me. World building has taken over my life lately, and it occurred to me how many writers do things, “Just because,” or they don’t take the time to do research. There are way too many Middle Earth pastiches out there that don’t make sense because they don’t possess all that made Middle Earth special (the history and world building prowess of Tolkien). But seriously…if you’re into fantasy and you want to see what a world looks like in the hands of a master, read the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. I also recommend the Malazan Empire novels by Ian Esslemont (they created the world together), though I’d argue Erikson is the better storyteller. All sixteen books are out (yes, sixteen, with ten being for MBotF and six for the other) and I will enjoy reading them in chronological order.

You know what…I will do a Boozy Books on this. And it will include ALL THE LIQUOR. Or none of it…because you will need a clear head to enjoy this bad boy…

Still rambling. This Muse is done. I’m ending it.

See you Friday!



2 thoughts on “Monday Muse: World Building

  1. A lot of good points and an abridgement of big moments in history. As a world builder myself, I’ve also been looking at social studies like history and anthropology. For my case, I’ve a timeline for various stories to take place but some I write about more than others like a time period that instead of being like the Western European Medieval culture like you were explaining, I wanted something different like the medieval Islamic golden age or more like the Chinese Dynasties at the time. I also hope to differ my self from the current urban fantasy mode by having a world where the mundane and magical have been side by side since day one so less secret keeping (at least about magic).


    1. Oh, an Islamic world would be wonderful! Especially because of the give and take between men and women. Early Islamic societies (before the tribal patriarchies reasserted themselves) had a surprising amount of egalitarianism. Women could divorce their husband and maintain their own property, for example. And of course there’s the fact that it was the Islamic societies that saved the West’s knowledge following the fall of Rome and, in fact, were far more advanced in mathematics and science. Christian society liked to think of them as Godless Heathens, but it was Islamic society that was the advanced one. Fascinating stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

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