April 2018 ♦ Building Worlds

Over the past couple of months I’ve been “world building” for my new novel, which will be a low fantasy set on an alternate planet. In the process, I’ve run into some pretty interesting stuff online, leading down one thought-provoking rabbit hole after another. Since I’m relaunching my blog here, I thought it would be fun to start exploring a bit of this material, as well as the appeal of fantasy itself.

First, a disclaimer. I’m no expert. But, since you’re reading this, I’m guessing neither are you. Instead, we’re both just average people who like to let our imaginations off the leash from time to time. You can always read what experts have to say on these ideas and periodically I’ll provide links. However, in this blog, you won’t find scholarly well-respected exposition. Instead, I hope you’ll find ideas that provoke thought and imagination.

So…world building. If you’re a fan or writer of science fiction or fantasy, or a gamer, you already have an idea of what we mean by world building. When something takes place in a world that’s not our own, somebody had to build that world in their mind. They imagined something different, then explored the consequences of that difference.

My focus here is fantasy stories. What makes a story fantasy can be simple or all-encompassing. For example, suppose you have story set in our world except ghosts are commonplace. To create that story, the author would need to consider the implications of ghosts always hanging around. Go down that path a minute. Would ghosts know things living people didn’t? Would we treat people differently if we knew they might later haunt us? How would people keep secrets anymore? Would there be good ghosts and bad ones? What would motivate a ghost? If you wanted a ghost to do something for you, how would you persuade it?

The more you think about it, the more complicated the questions and answers become. And this is just a simple example! What if you have a planet where the same side always faces the sun, so half the world is always in light and half in darkness? (As an aside, this is called being “tidally locked.” Our moon is tidally locked with the Earth. Here’s a quick read from the University of Cambridge.) Now, suppose magic exists on this world, but only on the dark side. And, the further you get from the light/dark transition, the stronger the magic becomes. Try imagining that world. How would this affect culture and religion and the meaning of power? Of course, a lot would depend on the nature of the magic itself. What could magicians DO on that world and who would want them to do it?

The point is, world building is the process of imagining a world somehow different from our own and trying to ask and answer as many questions as possible about how that difference plays out. Fantasy and Science Fiction stories are called “speculative fiction” because they speculate about these different worlds, and we get to go along for the ride! We’ll dig into this a lot more in upcoming posts.

I want to close this entry by pointing you to one of my favorite collections of speculative fiction, Marvel Comic’s “What If?” series. In these comics, the “normal” world was the Marvel Universe of superheroes. Each issue, authors would come up with a single supposition to change that world, and then imagine (speculate!) how it would play out. Something about this just lit up my boyish imagination and I would eagerly read and re-read each issue I could get. “What if the Hulk had the Brain of Bruce Banner?” “What if Spiderman had Stopped the Burglar who Killed his Uncle?” And, yes, even, “What if the Fantastic Four were Bananas?” Really great, imaginative stuff and a lot of fun to read!

And that’s always true of good fantasy and science fiction. It lets us set our imagination loose. In the process, we see good and evil, heroism and cowardice, pain and pleasure in a different light. Hopefully this helps us understand and appreciate our own lives and our own world just a little better, while having a lot of fun along the way!

Be sure to check out great Marvel Comics “What If?” covers and concepts here!

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