Sunday, March 17, 2013

Building a World

The best fiction is like a pyramid mostly submerged in water; only the very top pokes above the page but it must give us the sense that we will find a solid, three-dimensional creation no matter how far down we dive to explore it. This is true whether you're writing about aliens with three genders and lavender tentacles, twelfth-century Scots clansmen in kilts, or just a bunch of kids hanging out behind a 7-11 in Cranford, NJ.

The question is, how far do you have to go to create that sense of reality, of faithfulness?

When it comes to research, no one could say I'm a shirker. My WIP is a fantasy novel based on Jewish folklore, so for years now I've been reading everything from the Biblical books of the Prophets, medieval wonder tales, the novels of Isaac Baashevitz Singer, Hasidic tales of the Holocaust, collected Jewish folk tales and Apochrypha, scholarly treatments of ancient Jewish magic and the like.

But now that I've gotten my characters to my fantasy world, I'm having trouble imagining myself there and I couldn't figure out why...until I read Jane Yolen's wonderful essay, Turtles All the Way Down (first published in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Isaac Asimov and published by St. Martins Press in 1991). The prolific Yolen, no slouch at building worlds herself, suggests that we base our fantasy worlds on landscapes we know intimately. "In fantasy, outer landscape reflects inner landscape…. If the place is real enough, then the fantasy creatures and characters--dragon or elf lord or one-eyed god or the devil himself--will stride across that landscape leaving footprints that sink down into the mud. And if those creatures are also compelling, having taken root in the old lore and been brought forward in literary time by the carefully observing author, those footprints in the mud can be taken out, dried, and mounted on the wall."

How do YOU make your writing come to life? How do you build a world?


  1. Ariel,
    I don't write fiction/fantasy, but in picture books, one of the things that's always fascinated me is the mechanics of how a writer slips into fantasy and then back to reality. Neat trick and difficult to do successfully.

  2. I'm not sure how to do it successfully, but I think you have to really believe in your world. And just like real life, it has to conform to it's rules and constraints. As to the outer landscape reflecting the inner, that should be true in most novels -- the conflict must be one that readers can relate to; the setting provides a framework through which characters move, stumble and grow.

  3. I think a lot of it is being willing to create the part that doesn't immediately go on the page, not to get too crazed about filling page counts. That's probably a lot harder to do when you're under contract.

  4. To date, I've never dabbled in fantasy. But that doesn't mean I never will. I think there are common elements in world building with contemporary fiction. You still must paint a setting picture. You still must engage the senses. And yes, you still need to know what to leave out!

  5. Really interesting question, Ariel! Jane Yolen's suggestion about basing our worlds on landscapes we know intimately makes a lot of sense to me. (Perhaps because my favorite fantasies often have a clear real world base...)