I was delighted to see that the 2012 LA Times Festival of Books was offering an author panel discussion on world building. World building is the process of creating an imaginary world, and is something all fiction authors do to one extent or another. For reality-based fiction, that world is already fairly well defined by what actually happens or happened in the real world during a particular time period. In such novels, it’s important for the author to get the world facts right so a glaring error doesn’t pull the reader out of the story. For the kinds of alternative worlds found in fantasy and science fiction, world building becomes far more complex. In fantasy and scifi novels, the created world must be consistent for the same reason. Inconsistencies can pull the reader right out of the story and destroy the carefully constructed universe/world in which the story takes place.
This panel discussion was moderated by Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Yu is also the recipient of a National Book Award for his collection, Third Class Superhero.
The panelists for this discussion are all masters at creating new worlds:
Lev Grossman is an international bestselling author who is well known for his series that includes The Magicians and The Magician King. To read our review of The Magician King, click here.
John Scalzi has authored a number of bestselling novels including Old Man’s War, which was a Hugo Award finalist; Agent to the Stars; The Android’s Dream; and Ghost Brigades. He won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 2006. His latest novel is The Lost Colony. His newest book, Redshirts, will be released shortly.
Frank Beddor was the film producer for There’s Something About Mary. He’s also a professional screenwriter as well as a bestselling author. He’s well known for his series, The Looking Glass Wars, as well as other novels and graphic novels. Beddor’s trilogy, The Looking Glass Wars, has a weird path. Beddor also manages Atomatic Publishing and Automatic Gaming, which tie in with The Looking Glass Wars.
All three authors have media projects in the works, based on their novels. All three believe fans self-select for ongoing worlds.
(For all of these panel discussion articles: If you’re interested in a book, just click on the book cover to get it from an online bookseller.)
Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren’t black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.
Lev Grossman isn’t sure if people know he has a degree in Literature from Harvard. Being a bit shy and introverted, he has no elevator pitch for his novels but he feels Dean Fog’s speech in The Magicians gives expository information about magical thinking that’s appropriate.
Grossman believes a world is not fiction. Fiction is a story that moves. Fiction can never stop. A world is a static thing. Dungeons & Dragons is a good example of a world. Your world can never take over the story, i.e., it can never be such that the story collapses under it’s weight.
C.S. Lewis wrote using a story-driven world. It didn’t matter to him if something fit into the world he had created if that thing was needed for the story.
Grossman isn’t sure the author always knows more about the world than the fans do. Each person reading a book, brings their own experience to the book, so each reader reads a different book. In essence, they hold a mirror up to the world in a book of their unique time and place. The fans take the world the author built and add their own reality to it through their interpretations of that world.
Grossman is currently working on the third book in the Magicians series, which he believes might be the last one. Its tentative title is The Magician’s Land. He’s also working on a new novel, which is very unlike the Magicians series.
Here’s an excerpt from the Barnes & Noble synopsis of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi:
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce—and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
John Scalzi is a consultant to Stargate Universe in addition to writing his blog, Whatever, and various books. His blog existed before his novels, and his readers react to it as yet another world. Many blogs build worlds as much as novels do, depending on the type of blog. People get a perception of who he is from his novels and his blog. His policy is “I’m not responsible for the fantasy version of me that you have in your head.”
Scalzi’s elevator pitch for Old Man’s War is “Starship troopers with old guys.” Scalzi believes he builds a world and then runs the story through that world. He disagrees with Lev Grossman in that he believes world building is a form of fiction because it’s created out of the imagination. An author can build a world that’s very detailed but then find out he has no story to run through that world, which is a huge problem.
An example of an incredibly complex world is the one Tolkien created. Although Tolkien’s stories ran through that world, it was so detailed in its definition that it limited what could happen in the world. In that case, the world drove the stories. For that reason, the films were much better than the books because the stories moved so much better in the films. In contrast, story-driven worlds are far more evolutionary as the books in a series are created.
The kind of world created depends on the author. Some authors feel the need to micromanage all of the details. Scalzi only describes something if he’s forced to do so. He wants to let readers fill in the gaps and make the story their own, and believes doing that hooks good, creative readers.
Fan fiction is created because readers are so addicted to the characters that they crave more faster than they are getting it from the author. Authors can only write so fast. Some authors have a real problem with fan fiction but Scalzi loves it. There are times, however, when fan fiction is contrary to the world the author created. Authors are canonical world builders. Fans are supplemental world builders. The author always knows more about that world than appears in the books to-date.
A good example was when J.K. Rowling let drop in an interview that Dumbledore was gay. The fans went nuts all over the Internet, arguing about whether it was true or not. Well, of course it was true. It was her world; she created it. It hadn’t been in the books because she had already stated that the magician’s union was against homosexuality, so she felt Dumbledore should be closeted. Bottom Line: If she said Dumbledore was gay, then he was – end of story.
Scalzi has Red Shirts coming out very soon. He already has the book cover, which is displayed on his web site, and tour dates lined up. He also has two more projects that will be announced within the next two months but he wouldn’t tell us what those are because he didn’t want to spoil the surprise.
You know the myth…A little girl named Alice tumbled down a rabbit hole and proceeded to have a charming adventure in the delightful, made-up world of Wonderland…
Now discover the truth! Alyss Heart, heir to the Wonderland throne, was forced to flee through the Pool of Tears after a bloody coup staged by her murderous aunt Redd. Lost and alone in Victorian London, Alyss is befriended by an aspiring author to whom she tells the surreal, violent, heartbreaking story of her young life. Alyss had trusted Lewis Carroll to tell the truth so that someone, somewhere would find her and bring her home. But Carroll had gotten it all wrong. He even misspelled her name! If not for Royal Bodyguard Hatter Madigan’s nonstop search to locate the lost princess, Alyss may have become just another society woman sipping tea in a too-tight bodice instead of returning to Wonderland to fight Redd for her rightful place as the Queen of Hearts.
Frank Beddor has a 60 second elevator pitch of The Looking Glass Wars that had us all in stitches…so much so that I couldn’t write for laughing. He believes the world an author creates has to be biological so that it can continue to change. He turned the real world on its head and then modified it as needed for The Looking Glass Wars. He also believes that authors need to minimize world descriptions, except as relevant.
It’s important for authors to realize that any illustrations in a novel, or on its book cover, also become part of the world building process.
When Beddor began The Looking Glass Wars, he knew it would be a trilogy but he had no idea what Books #2 & #3 would look like. He only knew what the world of Book #1 contained. The other books grew biologically as he wrote them, filling in more of the world as they progressed.
The timeline for Beddor’s novels is the real world matched up with fantasy events. Out of the world in those novels, he’s created a game space for readers to hang out in between book publication dates. In turn the readers have created worlds out of that game space and have thereby extended the world in the novels. He wishes he could write faster. Fans want to stay in this world. It’s a double-edged sword for him.
Beddor is working on a prequel to The Looking Glass Wars. He has also written a murder mystery set in a high school.