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?
I appreciate the writers who give us the “telling detail” rather than large data-dumps about how a world works. I want to feel that I’ve been dropped into a town or city, not that I’m on the tour bus straight from the airport. (“To your left you will notice the large Aztec Temple, because remember, in our world, the Spaniards did not win that war.”)I want the writer to immerse me; this means sights, smells, sounds that are different, but introduced in a subtle fashion, from the viewpoint of the “native” characters.
This is a great little mini-course on world-building!
I agree — I want to feel like there’s a world to explore — more than the author is giving us. More than is necessary to follow the plot and characters. I want to feel like I could go over the next hill or to the next town and meet fascinating people who have stories that are just as interesting as the story I’m being told. I don’t want the world explained to me — I want to see how it works by watching how the characters live in it.
I prefer for the world (or at least part of the world) to be fantastical in some way, either because it’s a world that doesn’t exist now, or a world that couldn’t exist, or a world that at least couldn’t exist now with our level of technology. I want to be awed and filled with wonder — I want to explore places that are unfamiliar.
Because I lived on the Peninsula for about a decade, I’ve been having a lot of fun with The Dirty Streets of Heaven. For a while, I was trying to figure out if San Judas was Santa Clara renamed, but not quite. I like this world — not just the California part, but the part through the Zipper (readers: you’ll have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about there). There’s a real sense of place — which reminds me that one has to world build even if one is using our very own Earth as a template.
And, as a lawyer, I really like how the “judgment” part of the afterlife works. I know this is probably strange, but I’ve been conducting a trial for my own soul in my mind over the last few days, figuring out where I’d wind up. The book’s a bit prescient about the treatment of atheists, I think, given the Pope’s recent pronouncements that atheists who have led good lives have every chance of getting past the Pearly Gates. Very cool altogether. And if that’s how it works, I suspect I have a career in the afterlife waiting for me.
Really enjoyed the first book. Hope to win the second.
I enjoy reading books where the world is part of the story rather than just background.
Yeah, me too, Sandy. It’s a big part of my reading experience. As Tad points out, I want to be able to remember where I was, even if I don’t remember all the details of the plot. A couple of good examples off the top of my head: Dune and Mythago Wood. (And notice that the title of those books is the title of the “world.”)
I read the first book (and reviewed it with 5 stars)and although I appreciated very much the way in which the author did the world building and how he conveyed his ideas about that world to the reader there were two main reasons why I was so captivated by it.
The first was the narrative voice of Bobby. It was world weary and cynical and very funny – a lot like Harry Dresden but also very different (not a copy). I enjoyed experiencing the story with Bobby and am looking forward to meeting up with him again.
The second reason I enjoyed it so much was that Bobby was an adult, competent person. I am getting very tired of reading about people who have just come into their powers, especially if there is also a coming of age thing. I’m an adult who likes reading fantasy and sometimes I want to read about other adults too …
You mention that everyone wanted to go to Rivendell. No. Everyone I knew wanted to migrate to the Shire…
Worldbuilding is as critical as good characterization. And the previous poster was right, even our modern ‘normal’ world requires a bit of worldbuilding to allow the reader to immerse themselves.
Characters like Ankh-Morpork? I can smell and hear them, which is a good thing. Mostly ;-)
I think the best – or at least the most successful – worldbuilders (for me at least) are those who can balance familiar elements and alien ones to best effect. I often read novels from fantasists who seem terrified of departing too far from established history (and end up essentially giving me 12th century England with an eye-dropper quantity of magic), and I occasionally read others that go too far the other direction and toss sixteen new races at my skull while inventing their own philosophies, governmental structures, laws of physics, systems of magic, and exotic martial arts.
The latter is generally more ambitious and impressive than the former, but in the end I prefer the author who can walk the line between the two extremes, providing a good portion of the unusual to tantalize but allowing enough that is familiar to make the reader feel at home. Rivendell is one of my favourite settings in literature because it felt like something I could have dreamt myself and forgotten, or a whisper out of my ancestral memory perhaps.
Definitely think more writers need to heed Tad’s master-class advice here on world building. It can be so enjoyable, which is clear to see in many cases, for the writer, creating and describing worlds down to atomic level, they simply get carried away. But, as a reader, I don’t need to know that the sticky grain-swirls on the wooden fir logs, for instance, used to build the long-house, often secrete a golden syrupy sap, providing additional adhesive, enforcing a more rooted structure and, over the centuries, has kept the finished article intact. All I need to know is that the ancient wooden long-house remained solid. Too much detail equates to word skimming.
This is an illustration of how far we have come as readers. We now don’t need to be guided hand-in-hand over one craggy, moss infested stepping stone to another. From Osten Ard to the Otherland and on to Heaven and Hell, Tad is a proven master of world creation and just like all great creators, they know that the best way to ignite the birth of a picture can be done with just a single descriptive sentence, letting the readers imagination do the rest of the work.
There’s no better read when the author lets my brain decide what colour their raincoat is or how sweet they smell or even whether it’s raining or not. This is when I know I’m in the thrall of a true creative genius.
I’m a huge fan of the dropped phrase that implies a world beyond the one the characters inhabit–a world that pre-existed this one and will continue to exist beyond the characters (assuming of course they prevent the usual apocalypse). But for me, that isn’t enough. I also need a vivid, concrete, and detailed view of the world the characters move through. Give me enough detail so their world seems real, and I’m willing to buy that implied larger world. Give me a vague, abstract “city” or such, and those phrases just seem like cheap half-hearted attempts to create a world
I really enjoyed the first Bobby Dollar book. Such departure from what I expected in a Tad Williams story! I’m definitely eager for more.
Thanks for the insight into the background research – I was curious about that and would love to hear more details.
I’m reading book 2 now. I’m really enjoying this series. Thanks for this interesitng information. It will help me with my own writing!
Me, too — these books are fun. I love the world.
MD Adams, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of Happy Hour in Hell!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!