William Ray on World Building
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of William Ray's Verin Empire series. His stories are always exciting and filled with engaging, credible characters but it's his world building which impresses me the most. It's tough enough to create a world which is defined in one genre but William goes way beyond that. He blends genres so that his world has twin perspectives. And, as if that isn't enough, his three stories (including his soon-to-be-released Shadow Debt) each have different fantasy settings.
Gedlund's world is set in different war zones, one with goblins and the undead primarily. The Great Resoration is set in the same world, the Verin Empire, but this time on the 'frontier', a land once populated by Elves. In Shadow Debt, we travel even further into the wilderness of this world, into the Wild West, cowboy country. A place so vivid you expect John Wayne to turn up.
In my discussions with William, I asked him how he went about creating such a vivid and diverse world when it needed to serve so many different purposes. The result is this article.
A world is a big thing to build. No mere mortal could hold the entirety of our world in their mind, nor even build a library sufficient enough to hold all that detail for them. There are innumerable guides to world-building, but my advice on the subject essentially devolves into two main points.
Firstly, as Frederick Pohl once said, good science-fiction predicts not the automobile but the traffic jam, and I think that perfectly encapsulates the difficulty faced in creative world-building for both science-fiction and fantasy. A fantasy world might resemble medieval Europe, but it has crystal balls and fire-breathing dragons, and a big part of making the world feel real is showing how those things have impact beyond their immediate use in the plot.
In striving for that, you should never waste time on work someone else has already done: there’s a whole world right here, whose details you can sift through to fill in every spare corner of yours. Mark Twain explained that history never repeats, but often rhymes, so in your world-building find history that rhymes and borrow the details. History can’t tell you how people respond to crystal balls, but it can show you how they reacted to crystal radio. The Great War showed how we might respond to flying, fire-breathing monsters. Even looking into the future, while history can’t tell you the impact of a teleporter, there is plenty to learn from changes wrought by the telegraph.
The danger in drawing from history is that history seldom lists the usual moments, and is instead an accounting of the oddities. History tends to talk about the progress created by new innovations, but nothing tells you more about how something really felt than observing what people complained about. To get the proper feel for it, you need to look in dusty corners. Newspapers can be good, as can period guidebooks and contemporary novels. Court cases are another great way to suss out what people were really concerned with in their day-to-day lives. Nothing makes a world feel more real than unexpected inconveniences – sure, flying around on dragons is great, but the poop! And the smell! And farmers complain that they startle the livestock, causing a general shortage of eggs and butter, making the price of bread skyrocket! Newspapers and lawsuits can help you find all sorts of unexpected inconveniences.
And always remember that our world is so full of contradictions that it’s often said we can only recognize its rules by observing their exceptions. Let things be messy.
Secondly, when it comes to fantasy world building, perhaps the most important thing for an author to remember is whose perspective is describing that world to the reader.
This lesson was driven home to me in a college role-playing game. As a player arrived at a location, our Game Master would describe it to them, who was there, what they were doing, and so on. The second player got a different description of the same location, because they interpreted that same room in a different way. The GM gave four very different descriptions of the room before my turn, and I was near breathless in anticipation of hearing how it would seem to me. The interesting part of any world is not what is there, but how we perceive what is there; think through what each character, including the narrator, perceives, and how those perceptions differ.
The trick to writing a good story in what feels like a believable world is to always remember that, unlike reality, the perception offered up through the narrator is more firmly set than the world that offers it. Don’t overbuild your imaginary world up front – instead, create details as they’re needed. Let the world grow from the story. Science may be forced to take a fixed world and work through a myriad of descriptions to figure out what is real, but creative fiction does the opposite, taking descriptions necessary to the story and changing the world’s underlying reality to match it!
The biggest key that I’ve found to maintain that flexibility is the use of error. Force your characters, particularly whoever provides your story’s point of view, to be wrong. Maybe they are mistaken, or maybe they just lie, but either way establish early on that their expectations and perceptions are not definitive. It doesn’t need to be anything major, but an innocent mistake or a transparent deception will set the audience’s expectations.
If errors have been in the narration, a sudden change becomes a twist of expectations rather than an inconsistency, but more importantly, the underpinnings of that change also allow you fill in all sorts of details about your characters, your world, and their perceptions of it. A character being wrong also allows you exposition through error. If the character thinks all ogres are evil, and is told they are not, that lets you explain not just about ogres, but also what the world at large thinks of them, and what your character thinks, and how they react to the new information. That mismatch of character expectations allows you to construct the world through the clash of their perceptions.
Another often overlooked aspect of perspective is the horizon. Always show a day-to-day world that extends beyond what your narrator sees. This is critical for avoiding the sensation that the world is just set-dressing. If you only show me foreground elements that are important to the story, various Chekov’s guns hung in orderly rows, then I can’t guess what it would be like to be a farmer, or a grocer, or somesuch living in your world, and it won’t feel like a real place. Always remember that a character’s perspective isn’t just what they see, but what lurks in the corner of their eye.
And that is how to build an entire world. Maybe there’s more to it, but I only get the space of a thousand words, and even the good Lord took a full week of words to make it happen!
I'm very grateful to William Ray for this article. It's given me lots of think about, particularly because he's dealt with both the macro and micro levels of world building. Plus, the idea of 'borrowing', using inspiration from newspapers, guidebooks and the like is a clever way to get credible ideas. Letting characters make mistakes too, I can make excuses to my editor with that one!
You can find all of William Ray's Verin Empire series here. I highly recommend them!