Adventures in Novelling: Worldbuilding

5310797124_810e65c51e_oI am not a patient person.

I give up on most computer games I try to play as soon as I get hard. I regularly re-read books and notice lines I missed entirely first time around because I was skim-reading. Editing is hard to me because it takes so much effort to focus on my own words, when I know what I meant to say.

A lot of writers of fantasy and science fiction talk about the prep work they do, they time spent researching and making notes and drawing maps and coming up with lore. I… don’t really do that. I don’t have the patience. I dive straight in and make things up as I go along.

Sometimes this results in magic. Sometimes it results in continuity errors. Sometimes it results in… well, one of my novels has three separate alternate worlds referred to as ‘the witching hour’, ‘the other world’ and ‘the land of fairy’ and I’m still not 100% on what the difference is. But I can use them each in a sentence, which for a first draft is the important thing.

The upside of this is, I’m very good at writing first drafts. I also know writers who spent so much time on research and map-making that they never seem to get to actually putting pen to paper.

I used to have that problem – a lot of my writing projects as a child were in actuality world building projects, with everything from drawing characters and animals to endless mapmaking to occasionally branching into lovingly constructed cardboard sculptures.

So, let’s talk about my current novel. While I’ve been working on the world of The Green and the Gathering Tide for a long time (a very long time) there’s a lot of parts of it I’m still unclear on because for most of that time, I didn’t think about them because they were boring to me.

When I finally did begin to put down an actual alternate history I ran into problems right away and ultimately had to throw most of my work out. The problem was sheer laziness. I’m not a patient person. I just slapped an extra island onto the British Isles. It doesn’t work like that!

The magic system and the fantasy material more widely I have fleshed out fully but I’m still a little hazy on how it meshes with real history – because I do want it to mesh with real history.

I just recently watched Lindsay Ellis’s video essay Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding, about the Netflix original movie Bright. Bright is set in a high fantasy world based on twenty-first century LA. The worldbuilding is, according to Ellie, not good.

Ellis describes Bright’s worldbuilding as ‘refrigerator magnet worldbuilding’: the world of Bright isn’t a fleshed out fantasy world at all. It’s just the real world, with fantasy elements stuck on top like fridge magnets.

It’s a form of bad worldbuilding I’m aware of but haven’t seen described so bluntly before. It’s something I worry about a lot in my own writing, because while I do want to write fantasy, I do also want to write about world. I’m not trying, in this novel, to create a fully immersive alternate world (not yet, anyhow).

But ‘unless otherwise stated, everything is the same’ will only go so far. At some point I’m going to have to think very seriously about the impact naturally occurring portals to other universes would have on world history. I’m going to have to think about where Wizards fit into the history of the Christian church(es). I’m going to have to think properly about non-human people and how that works.

For now I’m content having fun, laying down the bones of my plot, and exploring my characters. But a first draft can only take me so far. When it comes to my second draft – if it comes to a second draft – I’m going to have to be very patient.

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