Creator of all!
Thank you for joining the Quills for this edition of our group post. Unfortunately, Kristie Keissling will not be joining us this time around, but we look forward to her prompt return.
Today we discuss world-building with this question: As writers, what rules do you follow (if any) of "things" your magic world can//cannot include, or the "words" your world can/cannot use?
First up, is Robin Lythgoe, author of As the Crow Flies. So, Robin, what say you?
On the surface, asking for a list of things or words my world can or cannot include sounds fairly straightforward. I am, after all, the Grand Architect. Who knew how complicated that job would be?
Read more here.
And for my part, I have a few things to say . . .
When I first started writing, I spent some time reading about what others had to say about the subject. I learned a couple of important things right up front: (1) no matter where you start, you’re in the middle—of something—so stop stalling and get started; and (2) there is nothing new under the sun, which means that even what we “create” is our manipulation of what we already know. I cannot, for example, create a new color. But, I can create the physical characteristics of new things, by changing up those things I (and my readers) already know. So, I decided I’d tell my story, my way. I didn’t intend for it to “fit” some kind of mold made by someone else. It is, after all, this idea that gives us such sub-fantasy genres as alternate history, anthropomorphic, court intrigue, futuristic, gaslamp, gritty, high, literary, new weird, portal, and so on, and so forth. (See http://bestfantasybooks.com/fantasy-genre.php for an interesting list of fantasy subgenres.) In my mind, all this is to say that in fantasy—anything goes.
There are those who expect fantasy tales to meet certain pre-set criteria. But I have my own concept of fantasy. I think the particular fantasy I am reading and the world in which it is set, is whatever the author says it is. In fact, I most appreciate those works that took concepts and things we know well—color, for example, in The Blinding Knife, by Brent Weeks, or metals, in The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson—and did something different with them. Each of these works was set in a world that is largely pre-industrial, but each also has its own unique social and legal structures, and systems of magic. These stories create new environments, but we care about them because/if we care about the people who inhabit them.
I chose to use a world that was largely pre-industrial. In such a world, “magic” essentially takes the place of what technology grants to us in our contemporary world, for communication and transportation, and the like. But my first interest was not in creating a world so strange and different as to require a back-of-the book dictionary that my readers would have to refer to in order to find their way through the story. Rather, my intention was, as one of my readers so eloquently put it: “ to “[part] the mists and introduce [my readers] to a flesh and blood human being.” He went on to say: “Reding doesn’t hide behind the conventions of the genre to give us a struggle in some never-never land.” Rather “she seems to be using the possibilities of fantasy as a metaphor for the deepest quest of all: a human being in search of herself.”
As to the language that “medieval” fantasy authors use, I confess, this is a difficult issue. Can one use the word “okay” since everyone knows what it means? Or must she use “all right”? What about “alright”? (Note that Dictionary.com says that the origin of “alright” dates back to only about 1893.) The trap in thinking that only certain words are acceptable, is that we don’t speak like those who lived in the pre-industrial worlds that came before us (as we understand them to have been). Moreover, most of our language (especially the American English language) has roots from a wide variety of places and times—and most often we are unaware of those roots. We use the words that we choose because they say what we mean. So, can an author of a medieval fantasy tale use the word “moxie” to describe someone with courage? Does it matter that the word came from a brand of soft drinks in the U.S. (which means it is a contemporary word)? How about “gumption” instead? The origin of that word is a bit older . . . Must the author determine the age and origin of every word before settling upon the use of it?
Or, consider the simple use of contractions. Without them the read is certainly more formal—and longer—and it is not quite as smooth or quick, particularly when it is read out loud. But did those who came before us speak in such a manner? Does it matter, since our tales aren’t about those who came before us?
How about colloquialisms? For example, today when we say “whatever,” we mean “fine, all right, get on with it.” But that’s what the word means. Can I not use it because it has become the fashion to use it in a flippant off-hand way? How about “whichever?” (I confess, I changed a reference from “whatever” to “whichever” because of my concern that others might find “whatever” to be an inappropriate use of a colloquialism. But, to my mind, all this is irrelevant. I don’t even pretend to know how medieval people spoke . . . (Also, for the record, I chose not to use “okay” or “moxie,” but I did use contractions.)
In short, I’ve not tried to do what others have done before. I didn’t try to stick to a “16th century” world, and then limit myself only to the things that existed in that world, or to the words or speech patterns that others might think were the norm in that era. On the other hand, I tried not to violently jar my reader out of the story through those things I used, or the language my characters spoke. I think that most fantasy sub-genres have come about because other authors also have determined that they did not want to be held down to some preconceived notion of what a fantasy tale is or should be . . . (And thank goodness for that!)