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Building a World
What does it take to build a world? Rebecca Levene found that there's much more to it than castles and place names.
I took my degree in social anthropology, for reasons that now escape me. "Well," I thought when I graduated, "this will certainly be no use whatsoever come the zombie apocalypse. Or indeed at any other time in my life."
Crash cut to four years ago, when I began writing Smiler's Fair, the first book of what will one day be a four-volume epic fantasy series. Like all books of its genre, it’s set in another world, a wholly imagined one. Some writers spend a very long time before they begin their novel planning out the intricate details of their world - its history, its politics, its religions, its fashions, its foods, its languages. But I was impatient to begin. I knew my characters and I had a sense of my story; wasn’t that what really mattered?
Yes and no, as it turned out. Two thirds of the way through the story I began to feel a strange… whiteness at the edges of my writing, a blank nothing where there should be a living world. Every scene felt as if it was taking place on a stage, props and backdrops close to hand but nothing beyond them. Every village was an island in a sea of vagueness. And my characters had histories and thoughts, but they lacked something crucial, something I gradually came to realise was culture.
Aha, you might be thinking – as in fact did I. This is where that social anthropology degree will finally prove its worth. And it sort of did. I stopped writing the book and began working on that document beloved of epic fantasy writers: the world bible.
Not all fantasy worlds are created equal. I read David Eddings’ Belgariad as a teenager and love it still, its rampant sexism notwithstanding. But his idea of culture seemed to stop and start at ‘Tolnedrans are money-grubbing and Chereks like sailing and drinking.’ It was racial essentialism at its worst and exactly the kind of regressive social politics that still shame-facedly loiter in the darker corners of the genre and from which I hoped to move away.
Because that’s the thing about culture: it isn’t just what you wear or what you eat or who you worship.
So how about Tolkein, who started the whole game? He created his own language, but let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be doing that. My devotion to duty only goes so far and there are few things more embarrassing than an author’s gobbledygook if they haven’t created a genuine language. Next thing you know I’d be writing poetry in my made-up language, and then I’d have to shoot myself.
Fortunately the genre contains far better and more realistically imitable examples. George R. R. Martin, of course, wrote the land of Westeros with such conviction that you feel as if you’ve been on – a truly dreadful – holiday there. The unjustly neglected Geraldine Harris created a continent in her Seven Citadels series and peopled it with nations distinct, believable and fascinating. She gave us barbarian hordes at the gate in her first book and then took us to the land of the barbarians in her fourth and showed us how they saw the world and just why they behaved as they did. If I could, I wanted to make my land as compelling as hers.
So for every country and people I set out to describe their history – both the ‘real’ story and the version they themselves told. It felt like a lot of wasted effort. It was a lot of wasted effort. For the Kingdom of Ashnesland – central to the novel – I wrote myself a potted biography of every monarch to rule for the last 500 years.
Would that information be appearing in the book? Not unless I wanted to bore my readers to tears, no. But it helped, it really did, to know it. I could drop little references in now and again and know that they weren’t just random gumf; they were real. An invented kind of real, sure, but coherent and meaningful. The villages and forts of my world now had roads between them. My ruins weren’t just artfully arranged boulders - they were the remains of actual places.
But that bloody social anthropology degree. I couldn’t stop there. Because that’s the thing about culture: it isn’t just what you wear or what you eat or who you worship. It’s everything. "You bastard," I wrote one of my characters saying, a man called Dae Hyo from a tribe of pastoral nomads.
"No, wait," I thought. "Is that an insult to him? Does this tribe actually have any concept of bastardy?" My world bible didn’t tell me, so I added marriage rituals and inheritance rules to my description of that society, and then to every other one, just in case. "Damn her," Dae Hyo said later and that stopped me too. These aren’t a people who believe in hell, so where would Dae Hyo be damning her to? Religious details followed.
But how much detail? Their religion, I decided, posits a heavenly extended family served by a bureaucracy of the people’s elevated ancestors. I named and figured out the areas of influence for each of their principal gods – but should I list the minor ones too? What about the ancestors themselves? And why stop there? What’s the tribe’s life expectancy, their daily food intake, their cosmology? Do they practise matrilateral cross-cousin marriage? And on, and on, and on.
There’s a wonderful Jorge Luis Borges story – well, all his stories are great, but this is one I often thought of when I was studying anthropology. It’s called On Exactitude in Science and it’s only a paragraph long. It describes a country so fond of cartography that it created a map of the world on a 1:1 scale. Fragments of the map, the story tells us, are still to be found here and there sheltering beggars and animals.
Description has to condense and it has to simplify, otherwise it’s no use to man or beast, except perhaps as a rain shelter. And there was, which I was in danger of forgetting, an actual book to write. So my world bible currently stands at 33,000 words, a 1:10 scale map. I’m going to try my hardest to retain that proportion.
I suppose, in a way, I have become an anthropologist again. The founding principle of the discipline is participant observation: living among those whose culture you’d like to come to know. And I’ve been living with my characters and in their world, or they’ve been living in me, for quite a long time now – with the world bible my not-so-scholarly monograph on their culture.
Still, I’m not entirely sure my tutors would be proud of me.
Rebecca Levene, for Waterstones.com/blog