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Monday, March 19, 2012

Creating Fiction with Michael Matson


Creating a Convincing Fictional World


Contemporary and historical authors have a distinct advantage: The settings in which their stories take place are either all around us, or they were all around us. Either way, they are a known quantity by the reader. Everybody knows what a car is, a telephone, a castle, a Roman Legion. But once you move into the realms of fantasy or science fiction, those known
quantities quickly begin to disappear.
What is a “flyer,” for instance? That’s a pilot, right? Somebody who flies?
How about “teleport? ” That’s to move instantly from one place to another, right? Yeah okay, but
how? Are we talking by magical means, biological means, technological means? Or maybe we’re talking about those funny quarks—subatomic particles that physicists love to play with?
Once a writer moves out of the realm of the known and into the subjective realm of fantasy or science fiction, defining the world in a way that doesn’t clutter up the story or sound silly (unless you’re writing satire) becomes a major challenge. There are advantages to taking up the challenge. A good fictional world can become a playground for examining issues that are just
too politically charged to be tackled, even at a fictional level, in a real setting. Too, some readers read to get away from Earth with its never ending twenty-four hour news cycle and endless lists of unsolvable problems.
The question is, just how do you create a convincing fictional world? First, let’s look at what every good fictional world needs:
• First, it has to be internally consistent. If there’s no oil in your fictional world, then don’t
have the coachman greasing the carriage wheels. Your more astute readers will notice, believe me.
• Second, it needs a good history. We all have a cultural history, a community history, a family history, and a personal history. The last two are part of every story, regardless of genre. But the first two have to be created when setting your stories in a fictional world. And those first two affect the latter two profoundly!
• Finally, it needs to be spiritually grounded to create a moral compass. Just why is “right” right
and “wrong” wrong in this fictional world?
Some world builders seem to forget that once you leave our world, with our moral values, right and wrong and everything that spins out from those values lose that anchor as well. Or they treat the subject superficially, which glares out at the reader like a great neon sign. Trite answers to profound moral or spiritual conundrums can ruin a good story in two sentences flat.
Now, you don’t have to start pushing ideas through that short list for very long to see that meeting all those requirements in a convincing way can be rather daunting. Consider my first example: What happens if you create a fictional world with no oil?
How do those carriage wheels get greased? For that matter, how do the grain mills keep
their gears lubricated? No grain mills means no flour means no food. Hmm… Okay, if there’s no oil how are the rooms lit? Candle wax is a petroleum product, so there will be no wax candles on a world where there is no oil. Maybe there are lots of bees, so bees wax is affordable by the masses. Maybe there are more sperm whales, so spermaceti is cheap and abundant. Is it morally right to kill the whales for their oil on this world? Uh oh! Now we’re down to the third item, which will eventually lead us back up to the second, because whether it’s morally right or
wrong to kill sperm whales on this fictional world, and under what circumstances, will have propagated out into the larger society in very big and very small ways. It will affect industry and economics, and it will affect politics and the power games between nations (or potentates). This means, even if it doesn’t touch directly on the plot of your story, it’s still there, a running
undercurrent in the background.
Here’s an example of what we did on our fictional world of Menelon. There is oil and gas, and there are sperm whales. But the elder peoples—the elves and dwarves, who are world builders in our fictional universe—have had a profound effect on how humanity views the world in which it
lives, and so how it utilizes its natural resources and treats its environment. The effect of those elder concepts can be traced as far back as the proto-human creation myths and are now inculcated into the global collective consciousness.
This isn’t to say everyone abides by those values. How boring would that be? Without opposites there would be no tension, no cultural drama, and no moral challenges.
This brings me to a final point about the last item. Whether you want a very simplistic world of moral opposites like those J.K. Rowling and George Lucas created, or something far more subtle and loaded with shades of gray like the World of Menelon, creating deep and meaningful mythologies is essential to having a believable world. Mythology is the magic key to developing a
believable world history. The two are inextricably entwined, and the deeper you dive into one the deeper you’ll find yourself having to go into the other. Your readers may never directly see it. It may have nothing at all to do with your proposed plot. But they will notice the absence in a hundred subtle ways if you don’t use the magic key. So don’t be afraid. Dive in. When you get out
the other end, you’ll find you have a world with a rich and enduring history that is, itself a character in the story.
That is exactly what you want! It’s exactly why you do that work. So that you have a rich and vibrant fictional world worthy of being a character in your story. So that it can inform your societies and the people who live in them. So that it can inform your main characters, be the basis of their wisdom, and determine how they respond to challenges you put in their path. When your characters are a part of their world, not ours, when it all makes perfect sense and is perfectly believable to your readers, then they’ll slip right through the words on the page and into your world without even realizing they’ve done so. Soon, they’ll be diving into one of your books because it feels so good to go to that far away, and yet oh so comfortable and familiar
place. That’s a fictional world done right.
(Oh, and for the record: On Menelon a “flyer” is an industrial mage who has been trained to use his or her minor magical talent to fly.)
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Best wishes,
~Author Jennifer Labelle~

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