Monday, September 6, 2010

Worldbuilding vs "Nerdism" (nerdism, seriously?)

Larry, over at OF Blog of the Fallen, is a bit of a literary elitist. That's a compliment, Larry. I read his blog because he represents that end of the scale, and he reminds me of some of the overly bright folks I used to socialize with.

This morning he resurrected an old argument from 2007, which you can see and research here.

It's a lovely discussion, and me only one cup of coffee into the day. You see, I am absolutely the fan of "world building" (i.e., secondary world creation) and it is an inherent aspect of my work-in-progress. Yes, I have maps, and languages and gods and tigers, oh my!

Why? Because I'm a nerd? Maybe. Anyway, here's something from an old Larry post that caught my eye...

Sounds more like a weak and twisted version of studying history, without the desire of those that do study history to apply that knowledge toward a greater understanding of ourselves. ~
Larry, 2007

Let's talk about that. I'll be the first to admit that history wasn't a strong subject while I was in school, all that bloody memorization of dates didn't work for me.

Yes, the appeal of Tolkien's Middle Earth, of tabletop gaming, of online gaming was the immersion into a secondary world that I could know and understand and participate in on some level. That cracked the egg, if you will, into giving me more interest in human history. The enjoyment gained from that level of immersion allowed me to step up to historical fiction, in books and movies.

For example, yes, "300" was not really historically accurate, but damn it was fun to watch. After that, reading Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield was far more enjoyable (and slightly more accurate). It didn't feel like I was back in high school, slipping notes to the hot spanish girl in the mini skirt while pretending to pay attention, while the teacher droned on and on.

After reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, I looked up some material on the War of the Roses, and the Hundred Years War, from which the fiction is influenced.

Isn't that the point of fiction? To draw relevance in a way that is spectacular, if not inherently more digestible by virtue of it being fiction? Storytelling, from an ancestry of the oral tradition to our modern day usage has always served a dual function of entertainment and communication.

Good worldbuilding will not only immerse, it will inspire. Humans just aren't that original, and you aren't going to find a political or military event in all of fiction that hasn't been documented somewhere.

So what if it's 300 Dwarves against 100k Goblins beneath a mountain somewhere? Maybe that'll make you think of the Spartans, and next thing you know you're exploring your Greek roots.

Some immersion will be pure escapism, and that's fine. Who are we to judge what the individual reader gets from a story?

What is it that a story should achieve, exactly? Good prose gives appreciation for the beauty of language. Good dialogue allows the opportunity to savor the human condition in the exchange of words, whether they be witty, humorous, profound or provocative. Good characterization and growth allows the reader to relate, to understand, to empathize in order to gain a greater understanding of the self.

There is no story without setting - so why not make the setting incredible, educational, inspirational? How many castles, swords, mountains, valleys and oceans do you have to read about before you find the urge to explore your own world?

All of this is very nerdy, hmm? Maybe it is (but nerdism, as a phrase, makes me giggle). So what, I'm a nerd. You don't break 150k words on any sort of writing unless you are, methinks.

I don't think that info dumps are helpful, as that's a reminder of why school was sometimes boring. I believe in the power of prose, the magic of language, and I think dialogue should be true to the characters, and the characters should be true to themselves. The story is what matters, and the story should take you somewhere, and bring you back. Communicate and entertain.

I do have an agenda in my own writing, my own secondary world creation and perhaps it is jaded by the role my education has had on me; I suspect that's not only natural, but redundant as a statement.

I'm fascinated by ancient cultures, and how they were honed by their geography, their challenges, the geology of the land itself. My story(-ies) takes place in a secondary world with parallels to cultures that never did meet in our history, and yes my (secondary) purpose is to show how much humans were affected by where they ended up, and what they had to endure.

Why? Why not? If setting is going to be created anyway for the purpose of weaving a tale, why not make it something valuable in and of itself? So long as I don't overpower the narrative with my shiny creation, what's the problem, exactly? It's not making me a bad person for studying Neolithic cultures, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, the Roman Empire, the Incas, et al.

If the passion I've found in the discovery of the secrets of the earth, from people to plants to animals to geology can translate to my readers, to a desire for them to find their own place in the Universe, then I consider I've gone above and beyond in my role as a writer.


  1. Where to begin? I did read both your thoughts and Larry's on this subject, and although I think you summed up his thoughts succinctly with that quote, it was not even the most incendiary of his comments. What I thought was more inflaming was the comment that secondary world fiction is something to be viewed pejoratively.

    I do not disagree with his assertion that the story matters above all else. No setting, no matter how imaginative or fantastic, can make a badly written story good. However, to view all fiction that has strongly fleshed out secondary worlds with a pejorative preconception is needlessly myopic. This ignores the wonderful tradition within classical and contemporary fiction for richly realized settings that become almost as integral to the story as the characters that populate it.

    While I will admit that good stories can be written in settings that are largely forgettable, at least for myself, the stories that stand out the most are the ones that I'm able to visualize in vivid detail. J.K. Rowlings's beautifully imaginative Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. J.R.R. Tolkien's pastoral Middle Earth. Stephen King's apocalyptic Mid-World. Each of these secondary worlds is unique and powerful in its ability to immerse the readers in their respective fictional universes. They almost become characters in themselves.

    As for the topic of world creation itself, I think that a writer should take inspiration from whatever sources he or she chooses. However, the benefits from deriving inspiration from history are manifold.

    One thing that I think is an absolute requirement of any fantasy or science fiction universe is that its rules and mechanics must be explained in any instance where it deviates from a reader's reality. We can accept any number of things, but much like Douglas Adams's Arthur Dent, we don't know that the act of making tea is a potentially fatal act until it is explicitly outlined.

    The nice thing about settings that draw reference from the social sciences is that it helps bridge this gap a bit. It makes the readers who are familiar with the historical material and the context feel like they have a Cliff's Notes and a shared connection with the author, and even in the ones who are not, it will inspire curiosity. I agree with you in that this can only be a good thing.

    Excellent post, Bill.

  2. Yea, Larry got a bit aggressive, but I used that quote so as not to take the other things out of context.

    And, believe me, I get what he's saying. I've read plenty of fictions where there's pages and pages of description. Lovely as the prose may or may not have been, it deadens the novel.

    For myself, the walls are filled with notes, my Hulu history is filled with documentaries, and I have pages and pages of scribbles and outlines - but, in the story itself, I limit descriptions to a paragraph at a time, maybe two.

    The rest of the time, I insert the characters into the setting and let them do whatever they're doing.

    It is a temptation to go pages and pages on the veldt, or in the mountains, or the volcano and related seismic events, but that's something I can always add later, if it's even needed.

    Likewise, I can go pages and pages on the tribes that the characters make contact with, but again, if it's not entirely relevant, it's something I can look at later.

    I do think we're agreed on this, and I see no harm - in fact, I've read plenty of reviews lauding the accomplishment - in the setting as a character of its own.

    Having said that, I did get a little weighted down in the complexity of The Malazan Empire of Steven Erikson, as an example, and I think it's possible to have an immersive setting without burdening the reader.

    Lastly, I think it's entirely laughable to coin the phrase 'nerdism' when the discussion is about books - is not the review a more adult translation of a book report? Does it get much more "nerdy" than to talk about books? "Nerdism" in this context is the pot calling the kettle black - if anyone actually thinks the world sees the difference between a nerd and a scholar. ;-)


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