The panel on fantasy worldbuilding at ICFA was packed, every chair taken, people standing in the back, etc. I ended up sitting on the floor at the foot of the panelists’ table. It was well worth it! What I present here is a partial transcript of the conversation and I emphasize PARTIAL because I can only capture maybe half of what is actually said. I assure you if there are non-sequiturs or nonsense in what follows it is my fault in omission/transcription and not in what was said, which was highly intelligent, coherent, and thought-provoking.
Moderator, A.P. Canavan: Welcome to the annual fantasy panel where we try to get academics and writers in polite conversation with each other. Barring that we try for as much bloodshed as possible! (audience laughter)
Sarah Pinborough (BBC, The Dead House, Dog-Faced Gods)
Steven Erikson (Forge of Darkness),
Kameron Hurley (Gods War, Mirror Empire, etc)
Audrey Taylor (academic, Building Worlds- book on Patricia McKillip)
Mod: Our topic today is fantasy setting, worldbuilding and believability. From faerie to whole planets who have alternative ecosystems, etc. How can a world be both fantastic and realistic? What language can we use to describe fantasy settings?
Audrey: I am the academic on the panel, so I might have a radically different take on this than the authors. I am looking at worldbuilding as a holistic thing: it is more than setting, it is how characters interact with their landscape, what bits are going into the story, and how are they all integrated to make a world. So that’s how I’m coming at it, which may be different from an author. I’m trying to stay away from value judgements like “is it realistic.”
Kameron: David Hartwell was one of my writing instructors and he said “Kameron, you write so well you can make people believe utter nonsense and this can get you far!” If you are convincing and people read the book and say this author knows that they are talking about, then the reader will believe you. If your grammar is solid and the voice is compelling they will go with it. A lot of people throw one-off things in without thinking it through and what rabbit hole it might take them down. I will go anywhere with a writer who seems to have the skill to take me there.
Sarah: I think that any fiction is worldbuilding in itself. Even in a contemporary story you are creating that world. I am the least experienced world builder on this panel. But especially with straight fantasy in particular you already have the audience on your side. They are prepared to suspend their disbelief. Bad writing is bad no matter what genre you’re in. It may be that fantasy struggles with so many tropes that have been used so many times they may be bored with them. How do you bring a fresh approach?
Steven: I always think in terms of what you carry over from this world into the world you’re building. That’s the litmus test for me. Quite often a world is transposed. A time in our history like medieval Europe which is then dropped into a setting with magic and dragons. I check on these things because if you’re going to take a historical setting and transpose it you have to think through this because magic is going to change everything. Quite often that doesn’t happen. What you see is the patriarchy, the barbarians in the north, etc without recognizing that magic would change everything. I think it’s more useful to sever the ties with our world completely. What are the assumptions we make about our culture and why should they rise up again in this new iteration?
Sarah: You mean the dying children. There wouldn’t have been much story if they were dead. The Death House.
Moderator: You do create a fictive world there. It’s all about creating a fictive reality that people will believe.
Sarah: People actually kept saying they wanted to know more about the world and the world building and I didn’t want to say more. Like I didn’t say this is my iPhone, it came from Apple. It’s just part of my world. People can tweet from space using it! I can’t even tweet from London sometimes. (audience laughter) But really I think it’s about getting the characters right and the world is there to support that process.
Kameron: I believe in that iPhone principle. People want to know about the world in Gods War but it’s very close third person and the character wouldn’t be thinking about the GPS or whatever. If the character reacts to something like it’s normal, the reader knows that’s normal and if they react like something is abnormal, then you know that.
Sarah: That’s exactly it. (Speaking of abnormal) If someone asked me to explain the American political system I’d need tequila and Google and still not understand it. People don’t understand our own world. It’s important that you understand the immediate world of your character without explaining everything beyond that.
Mod: Steven, how did you use magic to create an egalitarian feminist society?
Steve: I thought if you’re bringing magic into this universe, what are the effects on a society or a culture. Well, how does the magic manifest? The decision was to create a system based on discipline so it’s accessible to anyone. If you allow magic for anyone through discipline, then you cannot impose a gender-based hierarchy of power, because anyone can get power. And if the healing is efficacious then the medieval necessity of women to produce ten children to have two survive, then the pressure is off in the parenting roles that people take. Also you can have an implicit threat in any person, not only men. That opens up women to have any role in that society.
Audrey: So, one of the things you were talking about in terms of making it realistic was about making normal things weird and weird things normal. Starting with Tolkien, he talked about everything is fresh, you enjoy them anew through fantasy. Things that are normal become strange and the strange becomes normal. You’ve got an iPhone and you’re totally used to it, but then in a story maybe you think isn’t it weird I have this pocket computer that is more powerful than what they took to the moon? You don’t have to know the WHOLE real world to know it’s there. Like I know Indonesia exists, you have to know it’s out there but you don’t have to know every piece. You can leave gaps on purpose, there can be gaps that the reader fills in, but even in our reality we have those gaps.
Kameron: Knowing what to leave out is just as important as knowing what to leave in. You figure out what people can fill in sometimes. Like if it’s medieval fantasy but there’s matriarchal polyamory they’re like WHAT? And there are five genders! WHAT?! If you bring people into something so different from what they expect, sometimes you have to give them getting used to seeing things gradually. Like I introduce the concept of a third gender in one book, in the next book we get the pronoun, and the next one we get some characters who are that third gender, et cetera.
Sarah: Often I know far more about the world than will ever get onto the page. When I did Dog-Faced Gods, the opening of that book was a COBRA meeting right after some bombings and I put bang-bang-bang all these quick conversations about it where I didn’t expect the reader to keep up. I had done tons or research I wanted to put it all in, I had like ten pages about it. But then I ended up taking a lot out.
Steven Everyone here has a worldview that doesn’t necessarily mesh with everyone else’s. One sees a deer and wants to paint it and anther wants to shoot it. There is a hollowness in worldbuilding. Your character’s point of view can be false. You create a world that everything apparently lives in, but there is nothing at the center.
Audrey: Different authors start in different places. Tolkien famously started with languages. Some start with an alien world. As an academic I try to avoid that because I can’t go to every writer and ask, so what order did you go in…
Mod: If only we had a conference where you could ask them! (audience laughter)
Audrey: But I know people can’t always verbalize their internal processes! But a good starting point is that people differ and their descriptions would differ as well. Then about tropes, discarding or following tropes or having a surprise, readers go into a fantasy book with a dragon on the front and they expect it to be a dragon but maybe it’s actually a person or a construct or…
Kamoeron: Or they just put it on the cover to sell books! (audience laughter)
Audrey: But yes, there’s a moment of surprise or fun or horror—different versions of “that’s not what I was expecting!”
Sarah: I read Railhead and was chairing a panel with the author so I thought I should read it. And I thought there is too much world here. I had to put it down and then pick it up later. Maybe it’s better for kids who are so curious about the world but for me it was too much world in the beginning.
Kameron: We call that “the gauntlet.” If you can get through the gauntlet you’ll be fine. But there are hardcore fantasy readers who love going through that gauntlet. But there are those who don’t want to wade through the gauntlet.
Mod: How important is the style of narration in creating a believable world? You’ve all talked about the subjective knowledge of the character but is subjective narration the way to do it?
Sarah: Depends on the story you’re telling…?
Kameron: Omniscient narration isn’t done as much. We’re not liking it as readers. Even first person present is being used a lot now because it’s immersive. I’m not seeing as much omniscient narration as there used to be. I did a short story recently and it was really hard! Trying to go back to doing omniscient that framing for me was very different.
Sarah: I think with multiple viewpoint books you get more third person. But you can get a better sense of the world that way. But it makes a difference what story you’re telling. Multiple narrators third person is good if you want different angles on the world.
Audrey: From a critical perspective, not just the narrator but how you’re presented to the world is important and frames things differently. So if you’re coming in (referencing Farah Mendelsohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy) and if you’re going WITH someone into the fantasy world from there then they can explain it. But if you’re on the shoulder of someone going into a fantasy world they’re unfamiliar with, that makes a difference in how you’re framing it and how the reader approaches the story.
Steven: It’s one of the main reasons why a lot of fantasy novels started with a child is because you’re pulled into that world through their eyes.
Mod: Steven, a lot of your characters are lowborn people in world that have princes and kings and so on. Daredevil and Jessica Jones were superheroes but they had more the everyday lives of characters than you have in Superman who is godlike. It’s a style of narration.
Steven: These people have a limited world. That’s a nice connection with the average reader who feels limited in their ability to produce effects on a grand scale. With that limited point of view is one mechanic for establishing sympathy. But because it’s a limited world, it’s a manageable one where you don’t have to explain massive history because the character doesn’t know it. They maybe have some stories they tell but you don’t find out how the stories piece together until later.
Sarah: And then you don’t write yourself into a corner in book five. (audience laughter)
Mod: Not like you changed the gender of a character in your second book, Steven.
Steven: Oh shut up. (more laughter)
Audrey: So I have to be careful when I talk about worldbuilding to separate the story from the story world. The world makes the story possible but isn’t the story itself. ALL these pieces of story and setting and character link into each other, and how well those links are forged might be what makes a difference. How those links are made could add depth. If this character acts this way because their land has a particular history, that impacts the character even if the character doesn’t consciously think about it every day. I don’t want to make a value judgment about the realism, but let’s say the depth of the story.
Sarah: It would be a really bad book if it didn’t. I will make a value judgment: if the character acts like they’re from Orlando but they’re from Mars it’s a bad book.
Audrey: I sort of have Twilight in my head and you think there’s no shades there: it’s not oh this person trips and they’re from Arizona and so people from Arizona trip. But that’s not true.
Steven: That’s how we live in our world: we build the world around us. I’ve never trusted worldbuilding through my entire series. That kind of objective “history” that “everyone” believes doesn’t exist.
Audrey: Right. There’s a different between the past and history. We can’t ever really know the fact of the past.
Kameron: There’s the theory that consciousness is storytelling and the moment we start to form memories is our ability to form stories. I like that idea of the hollow world: we create this shared story reality that is different to different people. That dress is not the same color to all people. [Referencing the white/gold or blue dress that broke the Internet.] We’re all constructing the story of the world around us and all of those come together into a kind of shared reality.
Audrey: It’s weird to me that worldbuilding hasn’t been talked about so much critically before since it’s happening in ALL fiction not just fantasy. I love blowing my students’ minds with notions like what if my color red and your color red isn’t the same. They have their own narratives about their lives but what if it’s false? What if you think your this sort of person but you’re actually this other way? How are people constructing their lives and what are they focused on?
Kameron: American politics is like that. I say “Dad you know Obama is really a moderate” and his head explodes “What!? That socialist!” etc. We are literally living in different worlds.
Mod: I actually want to know from the writers, though, how did you start? Did you start with character or setting or what?
Audrey: Wait, can I say something in my defense? Can I live it down? If an author feels like discussing their process of world building with me I would like to hear about it! But as a critic it’s not my primary goal.
Mod: All right. Sarah?
Sarah: I can’t remember. I honestly can’t remember.
Mod: Not any of them?
Sarah: It’s really like once a book’s done, it’s gone from my mind.
Mod: Well, do you scribble down notes?
Sarah: I tend to grab things from news articles and write down questions. But the first idea from the book is so far removed from the book you end up writing. Even the main concept will send up completely different. I’ll think I want to write about a serial killer, and then be like oh, they have this quirk–and then in the end it will be about a person with that quirk who isn’t a serial killer at all. I’m fascinated by damaged people and how we’re all lying to ourselves all the time. I’m really curious about our lack of honesty, and what we hide, and our childhoods shaping us.
Steven: What I want to talk about is the curious origins of the worldbuilding. What archeology is is a reconstruction of the past based on very, very few physical remains. So that’s worldbuiding. You can be on prairies or on lakes and peel back the landscape try to imagine, where was the river, post-ice age, etc. You are constantly building the world in your imagination, and you think where would I have wanted to live? And you go and stick a shovel in the ground in that spot, and invariably you find a site.
Kameron: Someone recently asked me this on Twitter. People assume I make the world first, but I don’t. I build it as I go along. I wrote the first sentence of Gods War (the one about the protagonist selling her womb between point A and point B) and thought, whoa! who is this character and how would that happen! I write a quick first draft and then I layer each draft more and more as I go. I start with the people and then a society and what sort of a world would create these people? That’s where I start.
From there, Audrey mentioned Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home which is described as an “archaeology of the future” and then we went into audience questions and I couldn’t keep up typing anymore, but there were tons of great, interesting, meaty insights about everything from maps to nations at war.