Today’s discussion hearkens back to some of the very first posts we added to the blog: those on world creation. Good speculative fiction must spring from a substantial, thorough, and usually logical imagination that can see to the end of things. Without that all important element, it cannot hope to succeed.
Speculative fiction is much different from the purely story (or character) driven sort, and it requires a much more expansive imagination and the ability to think deeply. That means, of course, that the proper combination of elements is more difficult to attain, making really good speculative authors a somewhat rare commodity. Many can imitate it, very few can do it right from the ground up.
Story-driven fiction is often minimalist in nature, since there is no particular need to consider anything that does not directly relate to or support some specific plot point. As a result, like a Hollywood movie set, the world and circumstances around the story need be only facades. No one, not even the author, has any particular reason to look below the surface. That can work, if the plot and characters are engaging enough to divert our attention from what is around them. Like a good magician, a master of this sort of writing keeps you so focused on what he or she wants you to see that you don’t have the opportunity to look at anything else long enough to be bothered by the fact that the story is taking place in a stereotypical French cafe, for instance, as opposed to a real location.
The setting around the story only becomes a problem, usually, when there is something so abnormal about it that it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. If that happens, it jars the reader by calling attention to something that should be easily overlooked. So, in that sense, good story-driven fiction is most effective when the world around it is as generic as it can be. Anything that draws attention away from the plot in this sort of writing obviously defeats the purpose of it.
Of course, it should also be clear why so many fantasy and science fiction fans prefer a more purely speculative approach. Most of us love our genres because, frankly, we feel like we belong in (or at least would like to visit) other worlds. We want a good story, sure, but even more we want to feel like the world is real and that we could go there. A brilliant example of this is Tolkien’s Middle Earth, of course. I would venture to say that most of us who have read the books see a world there that transcends the story of the One Ring. We are riveted by its telling, but on an even deeper level, we can see ourselves living there–whiling away the days in front of Bag End, waiting on an adventure; drawing our swords on the Pelennor Fields; wandering under the mallorn trees of Lothlorien.
I’m not knocking story-driven fiction, of course, but I am saying that it does have its practical limitations. From my experience it seems to work well with shorter works–short stories and movies–as opposed to books of significant length. In longer books, it becomes difficult for the author to maintain a story consistently intense enough that it calls all attention away from the shallowness of the surroundings. If the reader is once allowed to wander off the path and see the cardboard facade, they will suddenly realize what they are surrounded with, and the story loses credibility. Some authors can improve upon this by thinking through one or two layers below the surface, but that often leads to potential confusion and contradiction when imaginations get mixed accidentally. Good speculative fiction has less trouble with that because it takes care of much of that work up front and it places a premium on consistency.
But when we embark on such a quest, we should not do so lightly. True world creation, done properly, is no mean feat. Just think of the world around you. You could spend an entire lifetime studying the history and culture of a single nation without ever reaching the bottom of either. The level of detail that is necessary to truly and fully create a world is something that we humans can only approximate. We need to make sure that we think things through well enough and consistently enough that the average reader who steps in will see something more than a facade. That is difficult and taxing for anyone. And even the best of us will fall short at some point or other: Such as Tolkien himself did in the case of the multiple Glorfindels.*
Of course, I can’t even begin to introduce all the minute levels of detail you need to take into account when creating a world at the tail end of a post, but you’ll find that many of us here at LHP have addressed those issues in some detail over the past few years. If you’re interested, look up the category here, and maybe bookmark it. You’ll find quite a bit of content that I hope is worth your time.
*Tolkien recycled a name from the Silmarillion backstory–Glorfindel was the elf who battled the chief Balrog to his death in the destruction of Gondolin, and who then later reappeared in the Fellowship of the Ring, apparently brought back to life. Since some sources claim that the elves didn’t reuse names, some little ink has been spilled trying to explain how this could be possible. I think the answer is simple–Tolkien recycled a name without giving “proper” thought to consistency.
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