The Bones of the World

It’s both fitting and amusing that Jen’s most recent post was about deadlines, as I am absolutely beyond the deadline in getting this done. Sometimes we’re all terrible at time management, even us chiding editor-types. But I’m here now, and I’m finally blogging about immersive worlds.

There’s nothing better than diving into a new book and finding yourself in a beautifully crafted world. The best stories are so immersive that your hands clench the pages, your head bows and you’re lucky if you remember to draw breath. You can sit like this for hours, consuming (not literally, or maybe literally – it’s your imagination) the flora and fauna of a new planet or wading deep through the storied life of the protagonist’s forebears. Losing one’s self in the hierarchies of different societies and the intricacies of new cultures that span centuries is a great way to use an afternoon, or the hours before your alarm at dawn.

At Book Expo Australia earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending the Fantasy Worlds panel to listen to Tracy Joyce, Patricia Leslie and R.B. Clague. While the conversation was wide-ranging, all three authors agreed that making things relateable was a fundamental part of good world-building in order for the work to be engaging. This is crucial, regardless of how many different technologies or magical elements a sci-fi or fantasy world may have, the reader still needs to be given a bridge from their everyday to the book. This relativity is then a foundation from which to draw the reader further in to the book.

Another aspect that the authors discussed was that the details in the world need to make sense, or else readers will turn right off. Now, a fantasy world may not necessarily align with our own rules of reason and logic, but where it does diverge, it needs to so in a way can be explained or at the very least excused under artistic license. For Tracy, in the creation of the world of Altaica, research was crucial. She would research cultures and technologies that might share some values or aspects of the cultures that exist in the fantasy world she was building. Most of this research doesn’t go directly into the book, but it allows the author to approach the good stuff that actually makes it into the final cut in an informed way. This gives fantasy fiction an element of truth, so that the reader can say “Yeah, that makes sense” and then want to know more.

In much the same way that authors should have that research as a basis, they also need to give the reader a structure. I’ve always found that my favourite fantasy authors have done this incredibly well, such as David and Leigh Eddings and Sara Douglass. I love the way in which they place their stories into these beautifully designed worlds. I’m a bit mad about this stuff and so I particularly enjoyed The Rivan Codex, which details this process for The Belgariad and The Mallorean series. I’d recommend it to anyone else who loves thinking or reading about how fantasy worlds are made.

One thing I particularly appreciate when I’m reading a new fantasy or sci-fi book is when the author lays out the bones of the world. Not in a boring way of course, where it’s just a list of where things are and why, but as part of the opening of the narrative. It gives me a place to perch and observe the structures that are driving or supporting the story.

Once these structures are eked out, I find that my imagination can be funnelled through them and directed to the important places and colours and people. This is a crucial part of making the world accessible to a reader, and it needs to be accessible or else they won’t ever really visualise it. Once I can imagine it, then I can start in on questioning it. Is it topsy turvy or earth-like and why? Has everything gone pear-shaped for some inexplicable and possibly metaphorical reason? These are things I want to know.

On a related but tangential finishing note, the other thing that I’ve always found to be particularly immersive is character development. Now this is a no-brainer, characters need to be interesting, in order to draw the reader in. Rounded characters that are full of depth, but not fully on display are the goal here. These characters must interest the reader, but the reader doesn’t necessarily have to like these characters. This is standard stuff, but please don’t forget, it as good characters will do more to make a book immersive than anything else. Again, harkening back to Eddings, the character of Silk (also know as Prince Kheldar of Drasnia, Radek of Boktor, Ambar of Kotu etc.) is a wonderful character that is interesting and fun, and importantly is very nearly real. He’s not even the protagonist and yet the reader is able to understand and relate to him, cunning and rat-like and loveable as he is. Frankly, Silk is the best (put that on the record!).

Oh and Happy All Hallow’s Eve!