Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Creation of a World

At 8, I came close to failing an English exam because one of the questions was too exciting. I diligently began by reading through the entire paper, but was immediately derailed by the final assignment:

“Write about the creation of a world.”

Aslan, creator of worlds, from C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. (Pauline Baynes)

Ideas exploded, ripping through my mind and spawning possibilities even as I tried to wrench my attention back to the other questions.

“What does the reader learn from Digory’s point of view?”
Would I gaze down on the world from space? 
“What does Aslan do to demonstrate his power?”
…Could I write from the perspective of the creator? 
“How does the passage convey a sense of wonder?”
…How am I going to convey a sense of wonder?

Because of this, my time ran out before I had finished the comprehension, and I never even started the essay. I am haunted by my academic failures, so it's significant that my poor performance on the exam has never troubled me as much as the fact that I never got to write about the creation of a world. Thus, the spirit of self-indulgence compels me to do so now, albeit not in a way that would have impressed my 8-year old self.

I am also compelled by the spirit of wanting to look like I haven't been slacking off, because to discuss this topic I have to reveal that I have been writing a science fiction novel, which should explain the infrequency of Well-Rendered posts of late. I won't discuss the specifics of the world I've been creating for obvious reasons, but I do have some things to say about the process of building it.

Polly and Digory ride the winged horse Fledge. (Pauline Baynes)
The first is that it's very important to keep an end goal in mind, because after a year of work, I still don't have anything that would be fun for another person to read. Even when the work is enjoyable, the sheer volume of it can be disheartening, so it helps to be able to visualise the end result. From the start, my goal has been to write a handful of specific scenes, and endow them with emotional resonance.

Because I like to make life difficult for myself, I've decided that the only possible way to do this is to spend all my free time building the world in which they can take place, and have meaning. This sounds like - and may well be - lunacy, but it's propelled me quite far already, so I'm not about to dismiss it on the grounds that its ludicrously inefficient. The idea originated on what I will smugly refer to as my "commute", a 40-minute walk through leafy south west London during which I keep myself entertained by inventing, replaying and refining fictional scenarios.

I do this out loud and have long since stopped bothering to wear an earpiece to disguise the fact that I'm talking to my imaginary friends, but it's a hard habit to break because I have had it for so long. I used to escape the tedium of my walk home from school by transporting myself to impossibly exciting scenarios such as the daring rescue of a sidekick from a heavily-guarded compound, the brilliant subversion of a villain's sadistic challenge, and the commandeering of a truck that would be subsequently driven over a crevasse, usually on fire.

Heroic Lara Croft rescues Samantha Nishimura from the Solarii Brotherhood.

I was invariably the hero of these adventures, and would slot my friends into supporting roles (you're welcome guys), but this meant that the stories were only exciting to me because of the relationships that I knew already existed between the protagonists. I couldn't write the scenes down and share them because everyone besides me lacked the knowledge about the characters that imbued the events with meaning.

However lurid the pyrotechnics, jeopardy means nothing in a work of fiction unless the reader cares about the outcome. Because coming up with reasons why those scenes might matter to anyone else was a lot harder than picturing myself as the coolest and most brilliant person imaginable, it wasn't until relatively recently that I gave serious thought as to how I might do so.

The point at which I did was simply that at which I had exhausted all other options: I had always been aware of my desire to write fiction, but had always found ways to dismiss it as being too self-indulgent, no way to make a living, and evidence that I had altogether too high an opinion of myself. Once I acknowledged that despite all those things being definitely true, I was never going to be happy unless I at least tried, the first thing I had to do was come up with a world in which the scenes I'd been writing on the way to work would have meaning.

Map of Middle-earth, via Kotaku.

As you can imagine, this was easier said than done. While I always knew there were elements of those scenes that were not of this world, I was unprepared for how much work it would take to create the world that they were from.

I initially tried setting the story in the "real" world, and having the science fiction elements intrude on, or lurk beneath the surface of real life, but that didn't work because the real world has an existing logic. The smallest change would send ripples through its social, economic and biological systems, and when I tried to write in this way, the story became about the impact of events on the world, rather than the emotional arcs of the characters. A more experienced writer would probably have been able to make it work, but I'm new to this, so to keep the focus where I wanted it, I had to start from the ground up.

I imagine creating a world around a story is a relatively common approach to fiction writing overall, but I'm not sure it's the default in science fiction, a genre in which the plot is often in service to the ideas that the author (and their readers) want to explore. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm trying to do the opposite, and am therefore wary of creating characters who are just mouthpieces for the world's factions.

Final Fantasy VII is so beloved because all its characters have personalities that transcend their plot function.

Although each of my characters is a product of their environment as much as any real person is, I'm less interested in that environment than in the experiences of those characters. I've therefore worked hard to create characters who, like real people, are not defined by their place in the world because they have idiosyncrasies, ambitions and desires which transcend it.

This approach has helped me avoid creating a cast of exposition fairies, but it carries the opposite risk. Just as characters designed to lead a reader through a world can become flat, two-dimensional tropes, so a world designed a facilitate the characters' emotional journeys can become nothing more than a stage. At worst, the world functions as a monorail, ferrying inert characters between highs. A world transparently created to enable the protagonist's eventual triumph might work well in a video game that offers players an empowerment fantasy (classic Tomb Raider is a good example, which I explored in this article), but in a novel, all it's going to do is reduce the stakes.

To be compelling, the characters' journeys must sometimes be at odds with the world, and - most importantly - they should be what drives the action. I want to avoid creating a world that works like a pinball machine, or one of those mesmerising automatic Mario Maker levels that ping the stationary hero through an eventful but ultimately jeopardy-free journey towards the flag.

To avoid this, I've had to make the world messy. Systems are flawed, governments improvise, some people circumvent the rules, and others just don't care about them. The characters think about their situations to varying degrees, but even the ones whose sense of self is intrinsically linked to their place in the world, and the factors keeping them there, are not defined by it.

I don't think I'm reinventing the wheel here, just making a practical choice about the best way to present the story that I want to tell. I've read wonderful science fiction novels that do what I'm trying to do, and plenty of equally wonderful ones that don't, and reading lots of each helps me keep my plan in perspective.

For example, in Mary Doria Russell's philosophical novel The Sparrow, a mission (in both senses of the word) to an alien world is the catalyst for the transformative spiritual journey of the protagonist. Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz and his seven crew mates forge quasi-familial bonds over wine and music in near-future Puerto Rico before the Arecibo Observatory receives the beguiling transmissions that summon the friends into space. The novel features two believable alien societies, but rather than being the focus of the narrative, the interplay between the peaceful Runa and the predatory Jana'ata exists so that Emilio may tragically misunderstand it, thrusting him into the crisis of faith which is the novel's true subject.

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow

In contrast, Aldous Huxley's classic Brave New World is, as the title suggests, about its world, not the individuals who populate it. It takes place in a society in which people are bred to fulfil a specific role, conditioned to accept their situation, and discouraged from introspection and critical thought by a cultural imperative to indulge in a soulless, hedonistic combination of drugs and promiscuous sex. All of the characters illustrate some facet of the system and are preoccupied with their place within it, because the purpose of the novel is to make its readers think about the human cost of such a society and, by extension, the implications of their own.

Much as I love reading science fiction that interrogates the real world and offers a hypothesis about the way it or our relationship with it might develop, I've chosen to write the kind that uses an imaginary scenario to explore human experience. Consequently, world-building feels like solving an engineering problem: I have an outcome I wish to achieve and limited resources - time, my own ability - with which to do it.

Real engineers cannot bend universal laws such as physics, and while it might seem like fiction writers are constrained only by their imaginations, that's not the case. Good science fiction and fantasy novels need to have a coherent set of rules that must remain consistent throughout the story. If an event needs to take place in order to move the story along or allow a certain scene to occur, it needs to do so within the confines of those rules.

Because my goal is to have my characters experience certain specific things, I frequently run into problems where I want my characters to do something that breaks a rule I thought I'd established. When this happens, I have to empty my tools onto the table, like the NASA scientists in that Apollo 13 clip, and figure out what I have to re-arrange in order to get the story to work. A lot of the time it involves dismantling a part of the world that I'd previously considered a solid foundation, thus destroying the structural integrity of another area of the narrative... and having to rewrite that, too.

In The LEGO Movie, protagonist Emmet's job involves destroying creations that don't follow the rules.

Getting the whole thing to work is a balancing act. I can't invest in a world with no internal logic, but there's no point going to the effort of making one at all unless I (and hopefully, some other people) care about the events that take place within it. If I focus for too long on the logic without checking in on the characters, they grow lazy and uninteresting. Every time I get something to work, I can only spend a few moments admiring my creation before scuttling round to the back to make sure something else hasn't fallen over.

Fortunately, the world and the story get slightly more stable every time I solve a problem (even if that solution is only temporary), so I'm not disheartened even though there is still a daunting amount of work ahead. I have my goal, I'm enjoying the process, and unlike the 8-year old trying to hit a mark scheme in order to prove that adult faith was not misplaced, I am not accountable to anyone other than myself.


  1. Sounds like all that hard work is going to be worth it in the end! The Sparrow sounds interesting, I'll have to check it out :)

    1. Thanks Henry! Definitely recommend The Sparrow, would not be exaggerating to say it's one of the best books I have ever read.