By Evan Dahm.
I recently finished the first book of my huge fantasy-adventure-psuedohistorical-drama-biography comic Vattu, so here are some thoughts on how I put together the setting which is central to that first book. I’m going to avoid spoilers, which puts me at a disadvantage, but we’ll see how it goes.
The first book of Vattu is about a tribe of creatures called (externally) Fluters, and the place they live in, which is called (also externally) the Flutelands. One of my goals in putting together this part of the story was to clearly convey the culture, lifestyle, and context of this tribe, in a way that is subtle and doesn’t conflict with the events of the story… as if it’s from the point of view of the culture itself. I was doing all of the background development for the Flutelands as I wrote the story itself, with each feeding into the other. I do most of my writing in a program called Scrivener, which allows me to switch quickly between sections of a file designated for Story Stuff and Worldbuilding Stuff. The Overside stories are so dependent upon their setting (and the setting is so invented) that this has become a natural way of writing for me. To an extent, and bearing in mind that the story is central, I think it’s important to follow self-indulgent worldbuilding ratholes to their conclusion: maybe working out the specifics of a setting’s food chain, or history, or geography will yield something relevant to the story?
There are a few basic “themes” of the design the Flutelands and the Fluters, and these theses are meant to help me accomplish what I want with the story. I’ll enumerate them, but my thinking at the time wasn’t quite so specific:
1) The Fluters and the Flutelands are inextricably linked.
This is the most important theme, and the one that informed most of my thinking. The Fluters have always been here, and their culture is tied fundamentally to this place. They are an extension of the Flutelands. Their whole notion of the world and cosmology is based on this place. Their ‘religion’ deals with a personified understanding of the river Ata, which is the source, literally and mythologically, of their life and all around them. They don’t think the world extends beyond their land.
The fact that we see this from the point of view of the Fluters themselves helps a reader’s understanding of all this, I think… particularly with their notion that “this is the whole world and we are inextricably a part of it,” because it’s all we see. The reader has no other point of view to take than that of the Fluters. The cosmology and ritual of the Fluters is developed more thoroughly than I ever had occasion to show in the comic, but that development (maybe) lends to a sense of consistency and depth to what is shown. The river Ata is a simple focal point of the whole cultural understanding of the place, and even a casual reading will show the Fluters’ connection to the river, and suggest the further cosmology. The use of “upriver” and “downriver” in the place of “north” and “south” emphasize their connection to this place, and only this place.
Hunters are seen hunting, and everything the Fluters possess is made from what’s around them. I worked this out pretty thoroughly, but there’s a few things that should stand out to the reader to suggest the rest: the flutes are made of bone (the horns of the Torgut/buffalo things, in fact), the Fluters wear furs, dyed leather, feathers… I tried to stick to an overall aesthetic that emphasized this: earth tones, nothing straight, sturdy, or square, etc.
2) The Flutelands are aesthetically simple.
Beyond the Fluters themselves, I wanted the Flutelands to be visually simple and easy to understand. I want the setting to come across from a Fluter point of view, and I want the reader to fall into an understanding of it, and not have to struggle. Not all settings should be as simple as the Flutelands, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking your audience to work to understand what’s happening… but in this case my goal was ease of entry.
My approach here is pretty self-evident… grass, sky, and river are clear, graphic colors. There’s not a lot going on, visually, outside of the Fluters and their camp. A clear, unified aesthetic for the place is established, and it’s important for how much it’s contrasted by certain elements that show up later…
3) Migration and rhythm.
In dialogue, this is pretty well emphasized, but beyond that I think my suggestions of this theme might be a little too subtle. That is probably ok, though.
A year in the Flutelands is effectively divided into two seasons, and the difference in color palette between them is extreme and clear.
The concerns of when to migrate and how far the buffalo-animals have migrated are central to the Fluter’s lives… we see the tribe migrating, and we see the hunters going out after the Torgut, which are themselves migrating…
4) An ecological network of which the Fluters are a part.
In the background for this one I worked out a lot of details of the wildlife of the Flutelands that haven’t made it to the comic. It was most important that we see a few animals, get a suggestion of how their parts are used by the Fluters themselves, and suggest a position for the Fluters inside that network. We see them hunting, and we see them hunted.
This is all simplified, and suggests a more organized approach than the one I actually took to making this place. In the end I generated an large amount of material that didn’t show up in the final product… but it’s hard to know at the start what will show up in the final product, and a large part of suggesting to the readers that there is a world with real unseen depth beyond the comic is to have created some of that depth.