Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear on two more Wednesdays. This latest interview is
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.
Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?
For me, worldbuilding is a pleasure, indeed sometimes a guilty pleasure. I often end up worldbuilding way more than finally makes it into the book, and have to reluctantly prune out paragraphs of exposition that illuminate world details but serve no story purpose.
I think I like it because I have a deep interest in history, economics, military theory, and all the various things that go into worldbuilding. I read a lot of non-fiction, both for research and just for fun. So getting to do the worldbuilding on a new project is both a kind of puzzle — fitting pieces from different times or places together — and an opportunity to show off some of the cool stuff I’ve found. Whatever it is, I love doing it!
How important is worldbuilding in your stories? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?
There are definitely many approaches to worldbuilding, but for me, the most important thing is that the world support the story you’re trying to tell. The wonderful thing about fantasy is that because you get to tinker with the world design, you get to build a custom stage to show off the story and characters. That doesn’t mean making things too convenient for them, of course, and you need logic and self-consistency. But it means you can focus on the elements that are important by leaving other stuff out of the world.
For example, when I was first brainstorming the book that would become The Thousand Names, I knew I wanted it to be a military fantasy set at an 1800s level of technology, with an emphasis on realistic battles and tactics. While I wanted it to be a fantasy, knowing that I wanted to emulate real-life military situations helped me figure out the magic system. Magic couldn’t be too powerful, flashy, or common — battle-mages like those of Steven Erikson or Robert Jordan would completely change the nature of war. (As they in fact do in those series!) So magic in The Shadow Campaigns is rare, subtle, and personal; you can use it to fight ten soldiers, but not a hundred or a thousand.
Similarly, in The Forbidden Library, I knew I wanted magic to deal with the written word, with magic books and writing playing a big role. As a result, I decided to set the story in the 1930s, before technology like photocopiers and digital displays would have opened up a whole set of new questions.
Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?
It’s not a particularly coherent process, I must admit. First I think about the general kind of story I want to tell, and what implications that might have. Often I have something in mind as a historical parallel, or a combination of several things, so I think about how that’s going to fit and what parts of it might be changed. I try to get a handle on how magic or other differences from the real world are going to work, even if the characters don’t really understand it.
If a map is going to be important, I sketch it out at a very vague level, then drill down to a more detailed version in the places where the story actually visits. The need for this varies — I love maps, but they’re way more important in a military story like The Shadow Campaigns then in an urban fantasy story, say. Rather than total scientific accuracy in terrain, etc, I strive for a map that basically looks like maps of the real world at a glance.
Once I know who my characters are, I think about their societies and what we need to know about them. It’s easy to get carried away here and try to nail down every last detail, but for the most part you can figure out the general flavor and then make things up as you go along, not forgetting to take notes for consistency. But you’re going to need to know some large-scale stuff about social classes, gender roles, religions, languages, etc. Figure out some good swear-words, you can tell a lot about a culture by how they blaspheme.
Also, all of this is flexible! I try not to get too attached to anything until I have a detailed outline of the story. Places in particular may need to move — it’s better to redraw the map first then try to fudge later, people will notice.
What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you. (Please take Kenyon novels out of the running on this one.)
A lot of people complain about stale tropes, like the Tolkien races, vampires, etc. But I think any trope can be used well, and there’s no point in being different just to be different. If you call your elves “bworfs” but don’t change anything else, it’s still just as bad.
What I am tired of, though, is what I think of as “package deals”. This is when the essential aspects of some trope get tied up with cosmetic or inessential aspects, and the whole thing gets dropped into a world willy-nilly, without the author thinking about it very much. With vampires, for example, you might say the essential aspect is that they’re risen dead creatures that drink blood. (Or something else! That’s okay.) But then when you put them into your story, you import all this baggage — fangs, can’t go out during the day, garlic, crosses, running water, etc. No matter how many minor twists you then add (“My vampires hate ginger instead of garlic!”) you’ve still got a hunk of someone else’s worldbuilding, inelegantly grafted onto your own. Dwarves are another good example — underground race that crafts things, sure, but do they have to be short, bearded, axe-wielding Scotsmen?
Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence is a wonderful example of doing these things right. He uses some pretty well-worn tropes — gargoyles, vampires, etc — but he takes the basic essence and then recasts it in light of his world and magic system, so the result feels fully integrated and part of the world. Charles Stross’ Laundry Files does a similar job integrating vampires, superheroes, and many more common myths into his unique framework.
On the other hand, you can just go wild with invention! China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books are a wonderful example of the weirdness you can throw together by not including standard-issue fantasy tropes.
In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?
I like to keep some mysteries, but I think it’s important not to cheat the readers. Basically, if our point-of-view character knows something important, you shouldn’t keep it from the reader for very long unless you’re otherwise using an unreliable narrator. If the characters and the readers are learning the deep nature of the universe together, that’s fun. If the characters already know, but just aren’t telling so that you can spring a sudden twist on the reader, that’s a cheap gimmick. (This is sometimes called “The Jar of Tang“.
Do you consciously work against reader expectations for a milieu? If
I do this a lot in The Forbidden Library. There’s a ton of creatures in those books, both familiar and completely invented, but I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t use anything from mythology purely as-is. So there’s a fairy, for example, but he’s got the coloring and nasty temperament of a wasp; elves with needles for hair; and cute little kiwi birds that gather into a terrifying swarm. The dragon has eight legs and six eyes. Just little things, but it helps give the setting an alien feel instead of a familiar one.
About this post. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Tananarive Due and Sharon Shinn!
Previous interviews. L.E. Modesitt, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Martha Wells, C.S.E. Cooney and Louise Marley.