Thursday, 14 November 2013

Building your world: Virtual WFC 2013

Where does your world-building start? Which bits are your geek-fest and which do you gloss over with smoke and mirrors? And what kinds of cultural assumptions do you trail unwittingly behind you? Patrick Rothfuss, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Robin Hobb, Hal Duncan, and Ellen Kushner (moderator) discuss.

31 October - 3 November was the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, filled with very good writers saying interesting things to each other about writerly topics. For those who missed it, this series is your own virtual WFC 2013.
Your convention: After yesterday's art show, you went for dinner (very sensible), then back for the mass signing till 10, then to Bragelonne & Gollancz's party and Tor UK's 10th Anniversary Party, which you found just in time to hear Mitch Benn sing his last song, I'm Proud of the BBC. To bed in the wee hours (again) and when your alarm sings its orrible little morning song, you drag your eyes open just enough to peer at the programme, ready to make another executive decision to skip the 10am panels. Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ellen Kushner, Hal Duncan... Five damn good reasons to get out of bed. 

Where do you start with building your world? Rothfuss found that in the long shadow of Tolkien, he assumed it must begin with languages - but he's not a linguist. We can't take that as the model of how to work. Tolkien was a language geek; Rothfuss starts with his own form of geekery, which is currencies. "I'm that guy who wants to tell you all about his currency system," he says. "In the hallway. Here at the con." (He's not entirely joking. I don't think he's joking at all.) One of his meticulously invented currency systems barely even makes it into the Kingkiller Chronicle, with just one of its coins cropping up in each book. Inventing currencies is his hobby, but writing is his job, so he doesn't put in everything about the currencies, or he wouldn't be doing his job. Hobb points out that his money system's clarity gives a very clear value for different work and creates a strong sense of scale: we know what Kovthe's lamp is worth, because we've been counting every coin alongside him as he struggles to survive. ("He doesn't get a roomful of money," says Rothfuss, "even though he is an orphan.")
     Tchaikovsky begins with the setting, then everything grows from that, following its logical consequences. "So here's the world; who lives in it?" paraphrases Kushner.
     For Hobb, it always begins with a character. Her initial character creation is a largely unconscious process. From there, she moves to their family unit, which generates more of the character, and from that character (what they do, how they live) she keys into the economy, the system of government, the religion: how do they earn a living? Are they taxed? Who's in charge? What do they believe in? She quotes Von de Mackintyre: "There is no wrong way to write," and adds, "There's no wrong way to do this, either."
     The voice comes first, for Duncan: the setting is contained within that person's perspective. For him, the setting is a seat-of-the-pants process of discovery, making it up as he goes along, "world blazing" rather than "world building". "I don't care if it's right as long as it sounds good," he says. Kushner works similarly: she doesn't know much beyond what her characters see and know; she follows them around and finds out. "The big trick of the trade?" she says. "It's all smoke and mirrors, it's all illusion!"



Having established what different starting points each author has, Kushner asks what they're a geek about and what's their biggest "smoke and mirror" - the aspect of world-building that they don't know a lot about and aren't interested in but have to create.
     Duncan is a language geek, not for inventing his own languages but in extrapolating from the language itself. Hobb's thing is biology and a biological basis to magic. If she has dragons, for instance, then what's the life cycle of a dragon? What's the effect of introducing such a large predator? Does it have a sense of territory and, if so, how does that conflict with her human characters' territoriality? Are they hot-blooded or cold-blooded?
     Tchaikovsky is a science geek and insists on the underlying logic of his world. He's obsessive, so doesn't really have a "smoke and mirrors" bit that he sketches in roughly - he has to map out how it all works. He also uses clothes as an indication of culture. Rothfuss says he's similarly obsessive: he did decide to have only one language, but then needed to back that up by historical logic. How did they get that lingua franca? He looked at the example of the Romans and the spread of Latin, of what might have happened had the Roman empire continued, which gave him a sound basis.
     Most of the panel's been reluctant to confess to any "smoke and mirrors", but Duncan offers an example: his attitude to science is that he "can't be arsed". When it came to using terraforming, he did figure out how it worked, but in the actual novel, when a character asks, the other character replies, literally, "Smoke and mirrors." He avoids much description in favour of the telling detail.
     Rothfuss suggests there's a spectrum of writer world-builders, from the "false fronts of Hollywood sets" at the one end to the opposite extreme, "the deep rabbit hole of my madness". His approach is more like a model train builder's crazy level of detail, finessing right down to the tiny person diving into a pool. "It's a huge thing whether your world has cotton or not," he offers as example. That said, he does the smoke and mirrors on language, mostly, though he keeps track of their vocabulary and syntax, and "I don't care about clothes, so I just don't talk about what people wear."
     Our job as writers, says Kushner, is to make readers believe in this place. The magic happens when the brain and the eyeballs hit the page, and the reader supplies the rest. As a writer, she says to her readers, "I trust you and I think you come through for me."


These invented worlds still rest on our assumptions about how worlds work and the panel turns to the effects of their own culture on the worlds they invent.  We absorb our culture, like our language, at an early age, says Rothfuss, and it just seems so natural. The danger is sometimes that you bring in some implicit understandings - for example, that land is property and can be owned. Some of those assumptions are more pernicious: that women are dirty and sex is bad. Few people explicitly think that, but the way we swear and cuss shows our taboos and our fears. As a writing teacher, he used to hold a "favourite curse word day" and write everyone's favourite swear words on the board. Stepping back to look at them, they all proved pejorative of women, or sex, or women and sex. We don't consciously think we believe this, but that's the danger of unexamined cultural assumptions, which ooze out again. "The Hobbit," he says. "There's not a woman in the whole fucking book."
     Tchaikovsky chimes with what Rothfuss is saying. He has a pet hate of people defending this kind of sexism and critting less sexist writing by saying, "Well, historically..." That argument has two flaws. Firstly, this isn't history. It's an imaginary world and you're making it up. Secondly, the people saying that usually don't know their history. In the middle ages, for instance, women were more powerful than is usually believed and far more than feudalesque fantasy generally depicts.
     Hobb leaps in on this kind of inaccuracy born of what "everybody knows". Just because you've seen something on TV a thousand times, she says, doesn't mean it's right: check it! It's what you don't know you don't know that trips you up. Then you can decide how much of that you put in. If her characters are getting in a cart, they're not thinking about the suspension.
     The choice of which worldy details to include is subtle and freighted. As soon as you name a character, readers expect to meet the character again and for that character to affect the plot. Similarly, as soon as a character notices something about the world, two things happen. First, we expect that detail to matter in the plot. Second, we assume it's unusual. What characters pay attention to is unusual; what they ignore is normal. They should take for granted the features of their world. Rothfuss calls this perceptual sculpting and says, don't focus on what should be ordinary. (The noise from the hall next door has been growing steadily as the panel talks and now bursts out into saxophone music. Rothfuss rises, stomps in wizardly fashion towards the sliding door, and as he raises his hand, apparently uses his magical powers to bring silence.)


So what happens when you throw in magic? asks Kushner. You have this rich world you've built - and it's magic. For most of the panel, magic is a key stone of the world from the start. Tchaikovsky's characters rationalise most of his world's magic. The main "magic", the art, as it's called, is treated as everyday. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, says Hobb, and the corollary is equally true: sufficiently reliable magic is indistinguishable from technology. For it to remain magical, it must be rare, unreliable, costly, and so on, or it loses all mystique.


In the questions, I ask how the authors use or twist proverbs and idioms, when they're writing about their worlds - inspired by Rothfuss's own play with inventing idioms or creating new etymologies for idioms we have. The panel discuss weeding out anachronisms and move from there into figures of speech and other words which might be anachronistic. Before guns, no-one "fired" arrows - "to fire" is a gun-word; arrows were shot. But then can you describe something as "rubbery" if your world has no vulcanised rubber? Can a room be spartan if your world had no Sparta? You can't just let it slide, says Rothfuss; you have to choose, but you can't take it too far. After all, we're still writing in English.

Next event in the Virtual WFC: Are all the best genre books now Young Adult? With Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Susan Cooper, Will Hill, Garth Nix, and Delia Sherman.


The virtual conference is created from my own rapid scribblings at the panels and talks and paraphrased - all as accurate as possible, but if you take exception to anything or I've got any details wrong, contact me. Direct quotations are my transcription of someone's exact words as best as I can.

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