World Building for Fantasy Fans and Authors by M.D.Presley THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
Besides being an excellent incentive to read a lot of climate fiction and consider how these books represent climate change, the project is also an opportunity to look at other aspects of genre fiction and writing in general. I have already seen many different kinds of imagined future worlds and also noted how my other genre of research interest – crime fiction – makes its own worldbuilding demands.
So with that in mind, I came to M.D. Presley’s World Building for Fantasy Fans and Authors, keen to consider its relevance both within and beyond the bounds of fantasy.
As Farah Mendlesohn noted in Rhetorics of Fantasy “…all literature builds worlds but some genres are more honest about it than others.” Authors in speculative fiction, such as sci-fi and fantasy, face both more challenges and more opportunities than most other genres. They have to not only imagine brave new worlds but also render them credible and accessible to the reader. Along the way, they hope to entertain but can also offer some incidental insights on our own world. For example, Carl Freedman writing about China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy work notes that “the freedom and flexibility offered by arealistic modes of fiction have enabled Mieville to produce one of the most searchingly materialist meditations on socialist revolution.”
However, within the iceberg model of fantasy authorship, much of the authorial intent and world foundations are either deliberately hidden or elided from the reader’s view. Like most of us driving a car, readers want to know that the world (or car) works without being bombarded with the engineering minutiae of its functioning. In more earthbound settings authors can sometimes be a little too eager to share the burden of their research with the reader, for example Victor Hugo writing in tedious depth about the architecture of the Parisien sewers in Les Miserables or Herman Melville devoting pages to every mechanical aspect of whaling in Moby Dick. In fantasy there is an understandable pressure to share every loving detail of your handcrafted world, but that way leads to the nightmare of tedious exposition and irrelevancies that commit the cardinal sin of advancing neither plot nor character.
All of which is by way of saying Presley’s excellent work is more a handbook for authors (at any stage of their career) than for readers. But then again, what are readers but embryonic authors!
Presley draws impressively on relevant work experience in the film industry, managing a team of screenplay analysts, and looking at what makes stories in those contexts work. However, he also quotes from a wide range of sources in what makes this quite an academic and authoritative text. Presley also affirms early on that the ultimate philosophy of the book is “tools not rules” as explained in a quote from Terry Pratchett, “that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ‘em.”
Presley notes that “created worlds must adhere to the same standards as reality to be considered credible” – that is to say there must be a certain verisimilitude that allows the reader to enjoy an immersive reading experience in a fully realised secondary or re-imagined world. However, he notes that all readers bring their own areas of experience to their reading and what breaks immersion for some will not for others. His own experience with jewellery ruined a key scene in Game of Thrones for him due to his knowledge that a campfire would never be hot enough to melt gold. He cites another example of a gun expert, perfectly content with animated dead strolling the streets in The Walking Dead, but baulking at the characters’ misuse of assault rifles such that would have run out of ammunition long ago. I empathised for, as a science teacher with an interest in naval history, my own immersion kryptonite is absurd science or unfeasible seamanship.
Presley illustrates his arguments with references to some well-known fantasy and speculative tales, such as the worlds (universes) of Star Wars, Tolkien, Harry Potter, or the Last Airbender, and clarifies the useful, for me, idea of the “fantasy conceit.” What is/are the particular breaches of terra-facto (our real world environment) that make this world “fantastic” (or as Todorov might put it ”uncanny”).
He tackles such issues as smeerps – namely in delivering what readers want “something novel that is equally familiar…something new we can relate to” how far do you import details, reinvent them, or rename them? If you have a long floppy eared hopping creature do you call it a smeerp or do you admit it’s a rabbit? Authors must make their own decisions about how to logically, consistently and unobtrusively diverge from our world. Peter Newman in the world of The Deathless invented a five legged dogkin creature that was part beast-of burden, part guard-animal. But an excess of such world details can clutter and obscure the story, like the time I nearly got carried away ordering far too many “feature” tiles to break up the pattern in a bathroom wall.
Presley also addresses the issue of species and races and highlighting an increasing contemporary recognition that our genre is growing up. He notes that “…the generalisation of races within fantasy bears a striking similarity to racism in the real world.” And at times when the dehumanisation of others for being other is resurgent in some quarters, it is incumbent on responsible authorship to call bullshit. In Perdido Street Station and the whole Bas-lag world, China Mieville delivers races and species and indeed hybrid “remade” people that are all so much richer and more distinct in their character and their nuance than mere biological difference. Contemporary speculative fiction authors seem to be more aware at avoiding stereotypes than Tolkien was writing in a different age of his men and elves and orcs.
I was particularly struck by the hierarchy Presley suggests to building a world beginning with geography and working down from there through matters of biology, physics/magic to culture. History is the consequence of humanity’s interaction with geography, from gathering resources to establishing trade routes to squabbling over borders. So too geography should shape the fantasy story.
Overall this is entertainingly written, very well researched and usefully illustrated by example and experience. Furthermore, for those who wish to pursue the subject further there are a list of references and links to other works, lectures and internet posts by authors such as N.K. Jemisin and Brandon Sanderson. All in all a valuable reference to all who are or would be authoring in the fantasy domain.