Some questions

Answered some questions for Mark Penman for his dissertation. Some excerpts here will have to suffice for the Only Thing I’ve added to this blog in over a month.

Q-In the about section of your site you say that the website is a home to comics about your world Overside. Was that the intention evolve as you wrote Rice-Boy?
When I started Rice Boy I didn’t have much of a conception of the overall world, and I didn’t think I would do anything else with it. But going through that story, and kind of assuming a deep history was there and playing with it, led me to start thinking of the world as something bigger than one story: a sort of aesthetic, metaphorical tool I could use in other stories. And now I’ve done a lot of stuff in this setting, but even then I’m kind of rebuilding it each time: starting with an outline of the world and its history as I’ve set it up, and tweaking the details and the overall aesthetic to work better with the particular story I’m telling.
Q-Your stories include very well defined cultures and religions. Do you draw much inspiration from cultures of our world?
I definitely do; I try to get ideas from wherever I can take them. Often this means being inspired by somebody else’s fantasy culture, setting, or idea, and then following that into the real-world historical inspirations for it. But yeah I’m very interested in how culture and religion and mythology work, and the roles they play in human life. Vattu is sort of about that, and about how these elements work to build a person’s sense of identity.
Q-How much consideration do you put into the art and symbolisms of the cultures you create? Would you say that the artworks of a culture are important in defining the look of their settlements and fashions?
I do think a lot about the art and architectural styles of different cultures I’m making. Particularly in Vattu, there will be several different cultures that I need to keep distinct and clear. This, to me, is usually a question of emphasis: how can I stylize the visual style of this culture to isolate and emphasize the central ideas that I want to communicate about it? This includes representational art, buildings, furniture, clothing, everything. I’ve just gotten to the part in Vattu where they get to the city Sahta. There is a definite “Sahtan style” which emphasizes austerity, sturdiness, boldness, and spare, geometric ornamentation. I think you can see this in much of the design of the place.
Q-Your stories often centre on conflicts, be it between characters or from environmental influences or disasters. Do you see conflict as an important part of creating a world or would you say that it only aids storytelling?
Here is the secret: worldbuilding is just a convoluted sort of storytelling. There’s a tendency to look at it as actually literally building a world, but I think a more valuable approach is to look at it as developing a tool for storytelling. You aren’t making a static, detailed substrate to put stories on top of; you’re making a dynamic setting which is part of the story itself.

Tags: evan dahm

Show and Tell: Embassytown

By Evan Dahm.

Read the rest of the Show and Tell series here. Read the introduction to the series here.

Just finished Embassytown, China Miéville’s newest novel. It’s pretty significantly different from Perdido Street Station (about which I’ve written another Show and Tell article here) and The Scar, the only others of Miéville’s books I’ve read, and is another great example of solid worldbuilding. I promise this is the last I’ll be raving about how great this guy’s work is for a while; I’ve been on a kick…

As usual I’ll try to avoid spoilers! But the way in which the details of the setting are conveyed is a very important part of the book, so it will be impossible to avoid spoilers!

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Show and Tell in Game of Thrones, Way of Kings.

By Evan Dahm.

George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings both take place in settings with seasons that work very differently from reality. With that convenient point of comparison, let’s look at how the two books go about introducing this item to the reader.

A Game of Thrones:

"You are a young man, Tyrion," Mormont said. "How many winters have you seen?"

He shrugged. “Eight, nine. I misremember.”

"And all of them short."

"As you say, my lord." He had been born in the dead of winter, a terrible cruel one that the maesters said had lasted near three years, but Tyrion’s first memories were of spring.

"When I was a boy, it was said that a long summer always meant a long winter to come. This summer has lasted nine years, Tyrion, and a tenth will soon be upon us. Think on that.”

"When I was a boy,” Tyrion replied, “my wet nurse told me that one day, if men were good, the gods would give the world a summer without ending. Perhaps we’ve been better than we thought, and the Great Summer is finally at hand.” He grinned.

The Way of Kings:

"The others cry at night," she said. "But you don’t."

"Why cry?" he said, leaning his head back against the bars. "What would it change?"

"I don’t know. Why do men cry?”

He smiled, closing his eyes. “Ask the Almighty why men cry, little spren. Not me.” His forehead dripped with sweat from the Eastern humidity, and it stung as it seeped into his wound. Hopefully, they’d have some weeks of spring again soon. Weather and seasons were unpredictable. You never knew how long they would go on, though typically each would last a few weeks.

The wagon rolled on …

I am hesitant to put forth or support ANY absolute rules in storytelling or art, but I think it is obvious that Martin’s introduction of this variance in setting is elegant, story-embedded, and clear, while Sanderson’s is clunky, distracting, and unsubtle.

In the first excerpt, we get a huge amount of information about the setting’s seasons: they last varying amounts of time. They are thought to be predictable by maesters, but there’s contention on that point. Nine years is considered a very long time for a summer to last. The characters of Tyrion and Mormont and their relationship are developed throughout this conversation, as is a bit of more textural, background stuff regarding cultural ideas surrounding the seasons. This is all within the text of the story and within the events of the story. We are taught this information without really even being taught it.

In the second excerpt, we are given a brief aside explaining outright how seasons work. The characters are not really seen to interact with this information, and it’s not as “embedded” in the text as the previous excerpt, making it seem less relevant to what’s going on in the story, and therefore much more easily forgotten by the reader, and much less conducive to immersion in the story. This is an attempt to teach the reader an important fact about the setting, but it’s an attempt made so straightforwardly and overtly that it is far less successful than Martin’s.

This is a point I’ve been trying to make: no matter how gorgeous, elaborate, and inspiring your SETTING is (and Sanderson’s is definitely all of those things!), it all really comes down to how it is CONVEYED.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

Google’s logo was changed today for Jorge Luis Borges' birthday. He is one of my favorite writers and has a story which might be of interest to worldbuilders, called Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The entire text is online here (y en el español original aquí), but if you are rather inclined to buy a book of his short stories, not a single one will disappoint.

Daniel Everett on Endangered Languages

By Evan Dahm.

Just watched this video. Not directly worldbuilding-related, but this is an excellent 90-minute talk on linguistics and worldviews. Keeping in mind the variation in human experience and understandings of the world is of vital importance if you’re trying to make up cultures of your own. And the philosophical underpinnings of a language, of which Everett gives several examples, are as important as the nuts-and-bolts of grammar, phonetic structure, etc. MORE important, probably, from a storytelling perspective.

Epic Fantasy panel

SDCC last weekend had a panel called “Putting the ‘Epic’ in ‘Epic Fantasy.’” Tor.com and io9.com put up some summaries. Here’s an excerpt relevant to the topic at hand:

Michael Spradlin: This is the chicken or the egg question – when you are writing, is it the world that is then populated, or the character that populates the world?

George R. R. Martin: Both are valid. Tolkien began with world building, but his characters are what we remember as much as anything else; Strider, Gandalf, and Samwise will always be with us. The story begins and ends with the character. I try the world building, but I don’t think I’m as good. I got a letter about the languages in my books once, with one person asking if I could send him the syntax and vocabulary for the Dothraki language. I’ve invented seven words of the language, and I’ll make an eighth when I need to (the language was fleshed out for the HBO series). The world isn’t as fleshed out as Tolkien’s world.

With A Song of Ice and Fire, I started with a vision of a scene of wolf pups with their mother dying in the snow. I didn’t know where it was going, but when I finished writing that chapter I had an idea for the second for the second chapter, and at the end of 50-60 pages I figured I needed to start drawings maps.

Kevin J. Anderson (Terra Incognita): When I write, I’m building a world, developing the cultures and the economics and the religions and so on. You need people to do the interesting parts of the cultures, so you get the characters and they move the plot forward.

Peter Orullian (The Unremembered): Both. I start with characters. I love drawing maps and world building, but I take away characters. That’s where most of my energy lies. Having a large scale is one of the best ways to define epic fantasy – it is not a bar brawl, but nations warring against each other. It resonates when a father holds his dead son on a battlefield though. The battle is great, but when I can write down what is heartbreaking for the individual is what matters most to me.

Also included in io9’s summary are some of the writers’ responses to categorization of their work as “epic,” which I love— there are few words more overused and misapplied. I would love to hear a recording of the whole thing!

Show and Tell: Perdido Street Station

Above: painting from the UK edition cover by Edward Miller.

By Evan Dahm.

This one has been a very long time coming. Perdido Street Station is the first of China Miéville’s books set in Bas-Lag, and I really loved it and can’t recommend it enough. I’ve avoided plot-related spoilers in this article, BUT I have revealed many significant details of the setting which might lessen the impact of their revelation in a reading of the book. Keep that in mind.

I recently finished The Scar, which is the sort-of sequel to this book, and which forms an interesting point of comparison in terms of worldbuilding. So hopefully I can get an article on that out soon! ALSO did you see this bit of fanart I did for Perdido Street Station a few months ago?

Rest of the huge article behind the cut.

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Show and Tell: A Game of Thrones

An excerpt from a map of Westeros in the book.

By Evan Dahm.

I haven’t written one of these in a while! A Game of Thrones is the first book in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. I’m on the second book, but this post deals mostly with the first, and I’ve made an effort to avoid major spoilers, and YOU SHOULD TOO in the comments. I might have a few relevant things to say at a later date about the HBO adaptation, which just ended.

What it is. Most of A Game of Thrones takes place in a continent called Westeros, and jumps between a few places and interconnected storylines there and in another continent to the east. Westeros is based in large part on medieval Europe, and presents a varied landscape stretching from far South to “the Wall” in the extreme North. There’s a dense political backdrop involving the histories of several competing Houses, and the union of Seven Kingdoms, etc… The politics and history of the setting are central to the story.

There are knights, castles, and a hundred other tropes that seem now to belong as much to modern fantasy as to actual medieval Europe. The setting of Westeros isn’t unprecedented as far as fantasy goes, but that’s perfectly fine because the physical stuff of the setting isn’t the star here. But there are some striking and gorgeous places in the story: the Wall, the Eyrie, and the city of King’s Landing all struck me as unique… Building a setting around a single striking, dramatic physical feature is something Martin does well. In this way the places become visually iconic and memorable, which, even in prose, is important when there’s so many of them to keep track of.

The fundamental element of what makes this setting unique, of course, is how seasons work. Winter and Summer here can last for years or decades and are difficult to predict. This is a really basic, enormous idea, and it’s handled very intelligently, with all of its implications and repercussions dealt with. All of the setting stems from or relates to this core idea; it lends to a conceptual tightness that I just love.

How it is conveyed. This book and series is focused more singlemindedly on its characters and its story than is most fantasy literature. It’s about families competing for political power, and the people caught in the middle of those struggles. The world is present, consistent, and believable, but little time is spent showing it to us.

Descriptions of places are concise and essential. To me, this seems to lend a kind of reality to the places that is fundamentally different from the thorough, wordy descriptions of Tolkien et al: we see the settings of A Game of Thrones through the eyes of its characters, and no more time is spent dwelling on their specifics than the characters would themselves dwell on them. The story pushes the reader along so smoothly and consistently that the setting starts to feel real for the very reason that it isn’t focused upon. I hope that’s clear, anyway. This lack of overt explanation, and the brutality and unpredictability of the story, suggest an unusual reality… It’s presented like historical fiction, almost.

We glean an understanding of the peculiarities of the setting subtly around the edges of the narrative, through the familiarity with which the characters deal with them and know them. Also, the sheer size of this series allows for the reader’s understanding of these elements to come gradually, over the course of thousands of pages. There might be a tradeoff here, though: it would be difficult to work this way with a setting more fundamentally strange or unprecedented.

Making the Flutelands

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.

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A Response to Responses

By Evan Dahm.

Some excellent stuff was submitted in response to the prompt, thanks very much everybody! I am surprised and pleased. I didn’t publish everything to the blog, mostly out of concerns of staying on-topic, and redundancy on top of what’s already been said. Feel free to continue submitting things you have to say in response to the article indefinitely; it’s obviously pretty fertile ground, and I think cuts to the heart of a lot of concerns involving place-making.

My response to what’s been said:

Basically every submission that I’ve published makes mention of the INFODUMP: that inelegant block of text explaining this or that element of the setting, which has plagued genre fiction for decades. I’m inclined to agree with Angela that this kind of thing is at the core of what’s frustrating Harrison: super-developed background information presented encyclopedically, with little or no regard for its utility in the story. Yes, that is certainly the ”clomping foot of nerdism.”

It is worth noting that the infodump is a problem in PROSE in particular, and that prose is basically what Harrison’s talking about. Something that also came up repeatedly was a mention of visual narrative media, and how it works with the problem of conveying massive amounts of background information. This has come up in the Worldbuilding panels I’ve run (I’ve brought it up, usually, because it’s fascinating to me and one of the things I love most about comics). You guys have summed this up pretty clearly. Angela:

You can leave details in fashion and architecture that say a lot about a culture without getting bogged down by descriptive paragraphs.

And Ryan:

…any story told in a visual medium requires that its creator convey information easily withheld in prose, whether that information is a landscape, or a character’s body language – a necessity counterbalanced by the fact that it is much easier to convey that information without causing the narrative to drag (through showing, rather than telling, naturally).

But visual narrative media aren’t immune to the problem, and prose is not stuck with it, obviously. There are several points on which I think I would absolutely agree with Harrison, and you might too:

The narrative is the most important thing. It is more important than the setting, and the setting must work for it. I fully understand the satisfaction and joy in inventing every aspect of a place and making it real, but that is a PERSONAL facet to all of this. Whether the setting is developed thoroughly or not, the story is the narrow lens through which all of this is seen, and perhaps the only lens through which it should be seen.