Part of world building is explaining how the world got the way it is. Really good authors manage to work this in slowly after simply presenting the world as-is – I never feel like Iain Banks has to explain the civilization of Culture to me. I play a bit of catch-up, but never so much that I’m lost. Ideally, the author gives you enough that you still want a little bit more.
In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, we are very clearly in a post-meltdown United States, but we never find out how the “Rusties” collapsed – if it was disease or nuclear holocaust, or excessive garbage in the air suddenly coming down all at once. Holly Black’s White Cat presents an alternate history U.S. in which a certain number of people are able to curse others. They’re out in the open, but subject to legislation (a la the X-Men in Marvel Comics). Suzanne Collins, Janni Lee Simner, and Catherine Fisher also all posit civilization-ending traumas. In The Hunger Games, the result is a technologically advanced kind of feudalism. Simner’s The Bones of Faerie takes place after a cataclysm between the world of faerie and the world of us – all events previous to the war a generation ago being called generically “Before.” Fisher’s Incarceron disallows advanced technology through a more or less rigorously enforced Protocol that keeps everyone sort of seventeenth-century-ish and happily WMD-Free.
The advantage of the catastrophe is that the author can ground her characters in this world and in a future defined by the technology (or in Simner’s case, by the magic) that’s left over. There are advances and there are setbacks.
My set up is that we are in our world and we are now. Kiersten White does the same thing with Paranormalcy. The Wachowski brothers did it with The Matrix. Authors taking this route have to explain how normal folks going about their daily lives don’t see everything around them. The Matrix explains that we’re living an illusion, and once you break out of the illusion you see how the machines have us trapped. Hell, the Terminator franchise does the same thing by dressing up its cyborg killers to look like humans. In Paranormalcy, our heroine Evie in fact works for the organization tasked with keeping track of the paranormal critters running around – werewolves, vampire, hags, et cetera and so on. But people themselves don’t do magic. Joss Whedon’s Buffyverse has an uneasy truce with the knowledge – Buffy’s high school class acknowledges how often she’s saved people from dying, but everything starts over a bit once she goes to college.
I have my magic-employing folks keep a low profile out of self-interest. The group that uses talismans (positively: Method workers; pejoratively: artificers) don’t gather in large numbers because the last time they did that, in the Middle Ages, every single last one of them got killed. The Black Plague may have killed 1/3 of Europe’s population in general, but it killed 100% of the workers. The group that makes deals (known to themselves as contractors; known to Method workers as shamans) go a bit bonkers over time, so they have trouble knowing whom to trust. Neither group, I’ve decided will be or can be monolithic. Neither one can take over the world. Those aren’t going to be my stakes.
What I do have to figure out is how they keep themselves secret. How mermaids and toad-things and ouroboros really appear. Why there aren’t vampires or werewolves. How everyone talks to one another, and how they’ve advanced along with our own civilization.
And I’ve got to figure out how to explain it so that it makes you want to turn the page.
Everyone calls it “world-building,” the set up by which your world functions. In thrillers, there’s a typically a little bit of license taken, for example, because the world, like life, is a bit more boring in reality than a thriller demands. For example, I just re-watched the under-known Ronin (1998) with its oddly quiet script and star-studded cast, and there’s this car chase. We’ve all seen this car chase – whether it was this movie, one of the Bourne films, or anything shot in San Francisco. To watch a thriller on the screen suggests that car chases are rampant in life – can you imagine the headlines or the news reports given the number of cars that pile up during The Blues Brothers epic scene? To read a thriller suggests that serial killers lurk in every neighborhood, you just don’t know which one.
Car chases, vampires, serial killers, and prophecies are the narrative staples that we work by, and writers seem as enchanted as readers do, given the overwhelming number of them in our literature. (I’ve just finished Kiersten White‘s Supernaturally, in which she treats vampires much like Joss Whedon – deadly, but much more run-of-the-mill dangers than special or spectacular).
I’m trying to avoid the obvious staples. Here are some of my rules.
In the first group, everyone can do magic. If you’ve got enough imagination, persistence, and drive, you can empower a talisman. Once you make your first, a teacher will show up to guide you through the other two so’s you don’t kill yourself.
In the second group, only special people can do magic by making contracts and giving part of themselves to the creatures or forces outside themselves.
The first group shares their knowledge, albeit subtly, and investigates like scientists. Their work is dangerous and slightly unstable. They focus their work through three talismans: the lens that makes things happen (like a wand, but nobody chooses a wand); the translator for analyzing and understanding; and the receptacle, for storing knowledge and organizing their thoughts. The longer the talismans are around, the stronger they become. It’s very rare that all three survive the death of their creators.
The second group is more secretive, more about oral tradition, and tends to go a bit crazy. On the other hand, they know what they’re doing more than the first group does.
The two camps have a history of conflict, if not instigated then certainly kept strong by the second group.
The world that the two camps come from is ours, twenty-first century, so I don’t have to create a culture – I just have to figure out how people who do magic of whatever sort live side by side with the rest of us.
What do you say? Is the premise of the world interesting? What else would you want to know?