I’ve always wondered how to start one of these things. What do you say? Oh... wait, I’ve already started. Oh well, so much or my big entrance.
So you may be wondering what this is about. “Why wold Graham write a column?” you ask, suspecting the worst. “And why is he turning it in to a second person story?” Ok I’ll stop... you see, I was thinking about this last night, about writing in general, and the idea of realistic worlds. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a little bit of fantasy in everything a writer writes, even if it’s the most down-to-earth, realistic story imaginable. Oh, you might reply that it’s obvious; of course there’s fantasy involved.
Not everyone knows it though.
Or perhaps they don’t think about it in quite the right way. You’ll understand in a moment, so bear with me...
Lets imagine, for a moment, the story of two people living in inner-city Manchester – we’ll call them William and Erica. Will lives in some apartments just behind the Bridgewater concert hall, walks his dog twice a day, eats at the dutch pancake house five minutes from the hall and likes to spend time sitting in the central library nearby, watching the trams pass through on their way to Eccles and reading books about ornithology.
Erica, meanwhile, lives in some flats a short distance away, just off Adelphi street in Salford, likes taking walks along the Irwell river and through Peel park, where she shoots squirrels and small birds with her air-gun (I’m making it up as I go, if you hadn’t noticed...).
Now, you could ask any Manchester resident about that and they’d say it was 100% authentic. They’d say every single thing in the lives of those two people was real. There’s just one problem; they don’t exist.
Oh the hall is real, the apartments, library, trams, river and park are all real, but in one significant way the remain totally unconnected in real life, whereas in the fantasy I’ve just created they are connected by Erica, William and his dog*.
Now I bet you’re wondering what my point is, exactly. Well I’ll tell you, now that I’ve bored you to tears. World Building is what I’m about today. The art of creating a believable world and then exploiting that for your story.
The paragraphs above are entirely believable (except perhaps the bit about the air-gun, which is my personal prejudices about Salford showing through), creating a world that could hold a potentially limitless number of stories. They just happen to coincidentally resemble a real place called Manchester, with its real library and dutch pancake house.
I’ve realised, the only way to make a world believable is to make it functional. To make a believable world, you have to implant the idea in the reader’s head that it can work. The best way to demonstrate this is to break the ‘rule’ a little.
Lets say that William, whilst walking the dog, often likes to take a side-trip along the Underground. Anyone who knows Manchester will say that there isn’t any underground reailway in the city, but that’s ok for now. As a concept, it still works, though it alters the history slightly, which is where the fantasy comes to the fore. Now, lets say that while in the Underground, William can pick any destination he likes from a board and travel straight there. Suddenly the world breaks, unreality sets in and the reader thinks “that’s impossible, isn’t it?” he’d be right, too...
It’s a very silly example, but there’s a point. You see, the world can be fixed again if you suggest earlier on that the world William inhabits is ‘somewhere in the future’, at a point where semi-personal underground transport vehicles might exist. Suddenly we’re in Manchester: 2098, William has a robot dog, the trams are antique tourist rides and Erica is allowed to shoot the robotic birds and squirrels with a government license. The world, what little there is of it, works again, after a fashion.
I realise I may seem to be rambling a little, but this is how my mind works.
Now, we get on to the meat of basic world-building. Reality is largely how you define it, but in order to make a functional world you need to remember the rule of C. Consistency, Continuity, Canon, Context and Cliché. The first four require a little effort, but as you work on one or two the others often adapt to fit it. Of the four, continuity is the most pliable in fiction, unless there is an established Canon of previous work, which tends to restrict your continuity to specific ‘routes’, but at the same time establishes a much firmer Context to work within. As you can probably imagine, Cliché is generally something to be avoided... although not always, which is why sooner or later I’ll be devoting more time to it.
So, the above example (again) lost consistency and context when the personal underground appeared, but the minute you alter the context by changing the date, consistency is returned.
And that’s it for now. I realise I'm cutting this short, but it doesn't do to talk too long on the first date, as it were. Next time I write, I’ll be expanding on the ideas I’ve rattled on about here and creating the seeds of a more fantastic world, and explaining continuity in more detail.
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