I’m reading two of Tad Williams books right now, and enjoying both very much. The first is The War of the Flowers, a one-volume epic fantasy with marvelous imagery and an appealing protagonist, just the sort of thing we’ve come to know and love from this author. The other is The Dirty Streets of Heaven, the first in Williams’s urban fantasy series starring Bobby Dollar, an angel who gets caught up in a battle between good and evil without knowing what the heck is going on. It reminds me of Dashiell Hammett, only with heavenly choirs and dastardly demons; there’s even a drop-dead gorgeous blonde. Tad’s dropped by to tell us a bit about how he approaches world-building.
I’ve been writing fantasy and science fiction (and every genre in between) for decades, and if there’s one thing that’s a common element in pretty much everything I do, it’s world-building.
But what makes it work? What lifts a world from being merely a background to being somewhere the reader desperately wants to visit, and sometimes even live in?
For me, the first step is always research. In the Bobby Dollar books, I’m writing about more or less the real world (it’s not exactly the same — my main city is invented, but based on the California suburbs where I grew up) and they also use very, very old ideas about Heaven and Hell, ideas most of us grew up on, whether we believed them or not. So first I had to separate out some of the things I THOUGHT I knew from what actually existed. Researching Hell and Satan, I found out that people didn’t really have much of an idea about either until well into the Middle Ages. (This was also a relief, since if I had to confute something that was common coin, I could just say, “Look it up. It’s not actually IN the Bible.”)
Another thing that always works is what I think of as the Keyhole Effect, although you could just as well use the old idea of one of those Easter eggs with a little diorama in it. In other words, the reader has to get glimpses of deep background to your world. You don’t have to show the entire world and all its history — show or describe too much and it gets boring — but when they do get a chance to look past the main story, they should see something of lands beyond — select glimpses of greater depth, greater history, greater vistas beyond the main story. And the good part is, you don’t have to invent every detail, just enough to have it seem real.
That’s because in ordinary life people (other than me — I’m notoriously bad about lecturing on things that interest me) seldom say, “And now we’re going down Famous Old Road, where a lot of important things happened, such as blah and blah and blah…” But if you name that thoroughfare Famous Battle Road, or Famous Citizen Road without going into much detail, you actually get more world-building mileage out of it. Because that’s how things work in the real world, and that’s something readers understand even when they don’t actually realize it consciously. Very seldom do people say, “It’s down in the Battery District, which is where they used to keep the cannons hundreds of years ago.” They just say, “It’s down in the Battery.”
And if you’re going to build an imaginary world, you need to understand something about the way real worlds work — which means more research. Lots of science and history. But don’t just make it dry and ordinary. If you’re working in our field, you’re creating the fantastical — things should sometimes be both more horrible and more wonderful than on our plain old vanilla everyday world. People who grew up on Tolkien didn’t just love Moria, and the Nazgul, they also wanted to visit (or even move to) Lothlorien and Rivendell. Yes, you want to build a solid foundation, a rational base that makes the reader feel, “Yeah, this could exist”, but you also want to give the reader a reason to remember your world long beyond the time they can remember all the ins and outs of the plot.
In the Bobby Dollar world, I have the extremes of Heaven and Hell to work with, and so I don’t have to struggle quite so hard to come up with the beautiful and the horrible extremes of place. But I can do my world-building with other things — in this case, How Does It Work? Because we’ve all heard of Heaven and Hell, but darn few writers have ever tried to show people how they might actually function. How do people get to Heaven? Why do they get sent to Hell? What’s punishment like? Salvation? These are less concrete things than whether the streets of Heaven are actually paved with gold, but they’re an important part of making the experience real.
So that’s what works for me — research, a decent knowledge of how real worlds work, and select glimpses of what doesn’t appear directly in the story, all leading to a feeling of untapped depths of geography and history behind the world as shown. Add to that a desire to push that new world beyond the prosaic and into the poetic, and you’ve probably made something interesting to readers.
How about you? What makes you want to jump into the world of a story and stay there for a good long while?