Being a Brit I like tea. I realise that doesn’t always follow, but in my case it does. Good strong tea in fact, drunk from a china mug. Here in the UK we have a name for good, hot, strong tea; ‘Builders’ Tea’ we call it. I guess it’s named after the burly bricklaying brutes who generally like their tea that way.
Equally, its name could well come from the belief that tea helped fuel Britain to build an empire – in fact the largest empire the world has ever seen, and one upon which the sun never set. Okay, it has now but that’s another story. So, not just builders’ tea but ‘empire builders’ tea’.
That got me to thinking. You see, I’m writing a book. I won’t waffle on about it here as I’ve already done so in a previous post and anyone interested in the resulting wafflings may find them below under the heading ‘Fifty Years in the Making’. Suffice to say my tale is a fantasy one set in an imaginary world of my own creation. So, in my case the beverage normally perched on the edge of my desk while I’m crafting the said work may also be considered to be ‘empire builders’ tea’.
But what of those empires that are created by authors, like me, who’s overly-fertile imaginations prompt them to write speculative fiction? And what are the ground rules in fashioning such realms, if indeed rules exist?
Familiarity Breeds Constraints
First of all I guess the point I wish to make in this post is that world-building is fun. The rules within contemporary or historical fiction, which dictate the need to adhere to recognised settings with elements that are factual, familiar and well understood don’t exist in speculative, fantasy work. That said, rather than an ‘all gloves off’ approach, there remains a responsibility on the part of the author to observe certain principles. Yes, the world can be – and should be – strange and fantastic, but not so much so that the reader can’t relate to it. There needs to be similarities; echoes of a more familiar environment.
It will be these likenesses that allow the reader to connect with the characters in the tale. For example, how much more will the reader engage in the plight of a hero who’s chased by nightmarish demons through a familiar landscape of, say, an oakwood or shopping mall, rather than an abstract, imaginary setting in which there are no familiar landmarks to give the reader a ‘grounding’? So, while there’s the freedom to spin a new setting, there remains a need to retain a recognisable world-view in which to weave the tale.
Some Laws Are Not There to be Broken
Fantasy world-building instils God-like powers on the author of such worlds. But, as Spider Man was to discover, with great power comes great responsibility. Aside from the need to create a whole new landscape with its own unique terrain, climate and ecology, the author must also colonise it with suitable inhabitants. The resulting population requires fundamentals such as social classes, cultural differences, politics and so on. As you can see, despite the freedom imparted by a clean-palate approach, there remains a need to adhere to basic laws and to maintain constancy.
These invented societies must operate within a credible environment in which the basic rules of cause and effect and the known laws of nature remain absolutely constant. Different they may be but never spasmodic. If these basic tenets are distorted simply to suit the direction of the tale or the author’s convenience, the reader feels cheated and rightfully so.
World-Building is Fun
This is something I’ve been aware of since my Dungeons and Dragons days. Due to my role as Dungeon Master – the D&D term for arbitrator – it was my responsibility to create the environment in which the players could (through their heroic alter-egos) engage with the created world and perform the tasks, conduct the quests or carry out any one of a million other roles required of them within the game. While the actual game-time was always enjoyable, the creation process prior to that had been no less fun.
So then, if I had to summarise those things vital to a satisfactory fantasy environment, whether it be within a role-playing game or a story, it would be ‘fantastic’ and ‘consistent’. Fantastic in order to stimulate the imaginations of readers, and consistent as anything less would be offensive to readers’ sensibilities as well as being a cop-out on the author’s part.