Part of the Best and Worst Series
— in which theothercanary talks about her best and worst reads —
Often, new writers seem to think world-building only applies to science fiction and fantasy books. It’s assumed that if one is writing a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 2011, the world is already built–everyone knows what’s there, who’s there and how the world around them works, so what’s left to explain? But that way of thinking is fatally flawed. It leads to a story-world full of cliched characters and the unshakeable feeling that something is missing.
The solution: Build your world from scratch! But be careful. As this best and worst shows, t is not always easy to find the balance between just-enough and oh-my-god-another-page-full-of-descriptions-about-hills.
Best: Myst, The Book of Tiana by Rand Miller with David Wingrove
The the only reason I picked up any of the Myst books was my 13-year-old-self’s obsession with replacing the ‘i’ in words with ‘y.’ At the time, I didn’t even know that it was a wildly popular video game series. It was just a book with a pretty cover and a pretty name, and it absolutely blew my mind.
For those not familiar with the Myst series of games and books, the basic premise is as follows: There is a civilization of people—the D’ni—who live below ground in a maze of caverns. In order to survive, they have developed the ability to write worlds into existence. With the right ink and the right books, they can create a field of corn, the perfect world for livestock, or a vacation paradise. They travel through the books, stepping into the world of their imaginations.
All of that is so very fantastical that it is no surprise that it captured my malleable mind. But the thing is none of that awesome is present anywhere in the first 100 or so pages. Those pages are devoted to watching a bunch of men try to figure out how to dig through a bunch of rock.
Mining. That’s it.
And it was absolutely riveting.
I read the book over and over. It was the first time I had ever experienced that literary thrill, understanding that the author had managed to make drilling sound exciting, and wanting to understand how they had pulled it off. Looking back now, I can put actual words to the experience: it was my first time reading world-building.
The world of D’ni was at once familiar and foreign. Miller and Wingrove have a hefty task of trying to weave those two elements together while maintaining an air of mystery (haha, MYSTery), a place where the reader has to unravel the world, has to dig through the dense prose to find the heart of the civilization. They take two separate tacts to do this: follow a character who is always in the middle of the action and then follow a character who is an outsider learning it all for the first time.
The symbolism is wonderful as well. The people of D’ni create these perfect worlds while their own is crashing down around them. The same theme persists through the sequel books, Book of Artus and Book of D’ni, each building and reshaping what it means to be D’ni—and what it means to be human—not necessarily through the characters’ words, but through the worlds they write and chose to live in.
Worst: Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
I just discovered something today while researching this post. There is actually a subtitle to this book: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. If that doesn’t tell you what you’re in for, I don’t know what will.
I went through a phase in high school when I thought symbolism was so passé. I blame it on having to read The Great Gatsby and Tess of the d’Urbervilles back to back. And for those who have not read it, Tess’s symbolism makes The Great Gatsby’s look like subtle, barely-there suggestions of morality and themes.
Basic premise: Tess is a swell maiden, just looking to help her family out by reclaiming her family’s noble name of d’Urberville. It goes kinda okay until she is raped by her not-brother-cousin, Alec d’Urberville (oddly, no relation). Then shit goes south. And then, a dude named Angel shows up to save her.
That’s right. Angel. And not even the David-Boreanez-hot-vampire type of Angel. The dude totally dumps her when he finds out that she’s not pure (right after admitting that he had had an affair himself.) And eventually he comes back to save her but…well, let’s just say there is an execution at the end of the book and given how these sort of books go, you can bet the executed one isn’t a d’Urberville named Alec.
To add injury to insult, the prose in Tess of d’Urbervilles is so unbelievably dense. It is simply too much–overwrought characters in terrible situations that take place in locations laboriously over-described. Hardy goes on and on and on with thick-as-mud purple prose that it actually made his world seem less real than the world of D’ni. A feat considering Hardy was writing about 19th Century England.
If this article has a take away, it’s about the art of balance. Description is essential to world building. In Myst, pages were devoted to the manner in which certain pieces of excavating equipment worked, but it was couched in explanations of the civilization itself. For Tess, it was just a lot of description of scenery with wonderful adjectives with absolutely no life to the words.
As a writer, here is a truth: when you build a world, remember that it’s not about the trees. It’s about those who might sit under them.