Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sock-Knockers: Worldbuilding

This is the second in the famous* series of sock-knockers posts. Because these books knocked my socks off, people. I am barefoot in my office.

Actually, I AM barefoot in my office. Hmmm.

Anyway, today I'm looking at the Very Difficult to Master art of worldbuilding--without a slug of backstory.

Worldbuilding is tough as it is. I've heard some historical writers say how easy fantasy must be: "You don't have to research! You get to make everything up!"

Well, yes. But you also have to make sure every little piece of that made-up world is consistent, and reasonable, and would actually work together. The people in this world need to interact with each other and with their world naturally, but in ways that are different from real-world interactions: because environment, knowledge, and experience radically affect behavior. And hardest of all, you as the author need to *show* the differences to the reader, explain how this world works and why it is the way it is, through a character who is so immersed in the world they don't notice the differences. Why should they? It's how they've always lived.

Enter the standard trope of writers everywhere, the "outsider" character. Time-traveler, immigrant, came in through a portal--like the reader, the outsider is new to the world and its people and can spot differences. Ask questions. Make gaffes and have the rules explained to them.

The outsider is useful. But kind of overused, maybe? Kind of *easy*? How much harder is it to write a story through the eyes of a character who is used to this world, to dribble the rules and worldview in slowly and naturally? It is harder. But it's stronger.

The other primary method of building a world for the reader is to dump backstory on them. Writers are getting pretty good now at waiting past the first couple of chapters, but there's a point where the paragraphs of backstory come, weaseled in there somehow. "This is why the world is the way it is..." Sometimes it's necessary. But again, it's kind of weak. There's got to be another way.

There is.

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping."
(under fair use)

That's the opening paragraph to THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. Oh, you've heard of it? Yes. It's extremely popular, and it should be.

This book has no cheats. It is completely immersive from Word 1, in a world very different from ours, from the point of view of a character born and bred in that world. There are no outsiders. There is, at least as far as I remember, no backstory. If there is it's maybe a sentence here or there. No swaths of explanations, just Katniss picking up and trying to deal with horrible, real circumstances. It's amazingly well done.

I think that lack of backstory absolutely works to the benefit of the pacing, too. The reader is busy trying to figure out what's going on, and by the time they do they're hooked, irreversibly.

Other readers? Am I right here?

Another book that handles worldbuilding Really Well is UGLIES, by Scott Westerfeld. We are thrown into Tally's world immediately, without any delay of explanation--and it works. I hung out in Tally's world for four books, and I didn't really want to leave.

But the most recent book that knocked my socks off with worldbuilding? Sorry, peeps, but most of you can't read it yet.

It's called NEAR WITCH, and it's by my good friend Victoria Schwab. If you liked HUNGER GAMES and UGLIES, and you love to be immersed in a world so real you can breathe it? Watch for Victoria.

What books have knocked your socks off with worldbuilding?

*famous in no one's mind, but it's a good, interest-building adjective, y?


Victoria Schwab said...

I definitely agree with your observations about Suzanne Collins; she really is a master of it.

I haven't read the UGLIES series, but I'll have to add it to my list.

And btw, bb, you just MADE MY DAY.

Linda G. said...

Why am I not surprised about V's book? :)

Susan Adrian said...

V: *grin* All true, bb.

Linda: I know, right?

Tiffany Schmidt said...

Can't wait to read V's book and agree 100% about the other two. It's especially lovely that those two ARE so effective because they both have such complex backstory to tell.

Belle said...

I haven't read Hunger Games yet (I know ... I do plan to), and I've got all four of the Uglies books on my shelf waiting for me. Really looking forward to them now. I'd have to say the book that's knocked my socks off with its worldbuilding lately is China MiƩville's The City and The City. It just blew me away, he made it so real.