Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest post from author Darby Harn

One of the great things I love about my November 2011 blog tour is that I've had the opportunity to meet people I otherwise might have never known. One such person is Darby Harn. Darby is the author of The Book of Elizabeth, a speculative novel concerning Queen Elizabeth I. He also has his own blog called The Phantom Planet. While exploring the blogosphere in search of places for my tour, Darby and I stumbled upon one another and we got to talking a little about world building. Below is a guest post from Darby concerning world building in fiction.

I love world building. I love immersing myself in worlds as real as my own.

I don’t like so much building the world building.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a critical and necessary function of all of my work, whether it’s my novel The Book of Elizabeth, or my work in progress, which takes place on a planet where night only comes once a year.

Everything must be invented. It all must make sense, within itself. Names of characters must sound consistent with each other, if all of a particular culture; that culture must have an identity that must come across as authentic.

Not everything must be explained. Where I may differ with some writers who specialize in world building is in the approach. I love The Lord of the Rings, for example; I wince at the addendums and encyclopedic background material on the histories of characters. My approach is this: give the reader the key to the encyclopedia. Make them the smiths of their own imaginations.

I’d like to expand on something I had been writing about recently on my blog – Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg Theory,’ and how it relates to genre fiction. As he said of it: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

In 'realistic fiction' (wow, I hate that term!), the reader is able to infer much of the hidden iceberg from their own life experience. Hemingway doesn’t need to stop to explain how a telephone works. In speculative fiction, the author more or less has to explain everything as there is often no frame of reference. So, how can you achieve this effect if you are building a world from scratch? George Lucas uses this approach in the original Star Wars trilogy – no such luck later on – to great effect. He explains virtually nothing. Show, don’t tell, to the extreme. Most of the Star Wares universe, prior to its ‘expansion,’ was left to our imaginations.

I don’t know about you, but I had a pretty big imagination as a kid. Still do. Your mission as a writer should be to create frames of reference that allow your speculative world to have hidden depth. One way to do this is through the use of casual asides - things that hint at dimension beyond what can be seen. Suggest. As I said before – give your readers the keys to encyclopedias they will create on their own. The future of digital fiction may lie here; already there are experiments in authors creating works that they then allow their readers to use as fodder for their own ‘fan-fiction,’ if the term even applies any more.

One thing you must do is build enough of a bridge for the reader to cross. You can't bring up something – decades of X-Men plot danglers, looking at you - and then let it hang out there to dry. Suggest something, sure, but give it enough form to be durable beyond your story. Don't introduce a dozen different plot threads and then never resolve them. Present your characters and their story. Drive them around. As you do, look down that street. See something interesting. Wish you could stop.

Or take the time to stop. Do what you feel works best for your story, within its confines. Endless investigation of every alley of your world isn't going to be satisfying either - at some point, something has to happen. You can never know everything about this world; leave your readers with the impression that even after a lifetime, they still will never fully know all they wish to of the one you created.


Charles Gramlich said...

I agree with that iceberg principle, although I'm not sure the writer necessarily has to know everything either.

Ty Johnston said...

Usually what I don't know, I can figure out in a matter of seconds. Every once in a while I'll even test myself and run silly questions about my fantasy world through my head. Stuff like, "Okay, what would Jorsican tribesmen have regularly eaten in the year 400 A.A.?" Even someone who has read all my fantasy works would have little clue as to what I'm talking about. The Jorsicans have barely been introduced as a race of men, and I've written nothing around the year 400.

But the answer is "fish."

If I can't figure it out, I can always make it up.

Darby said...

Charles, I agree the writer doesn't have to know everything. Hemingway took it to an extreme. Michael Piller, another influence in me, believed in zen writing. Basically the answer is out there somewhere in your subconscious. It's there and you will find it, when you need it.

That's where I come down more often than not. I open a door but don't always go through. I leave it open, in case I do later.