Worldbuilding in SF – Advice taken from the great Terry Pratchett

Photo of Sir Terry Pratchett from Wired.com

My last post about the London Book Fair 2012, and attending the panel talk on Science Fiction in China, reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s talk I went to at the Barbican. It must have been in 1999, because DS-10 was still in the cable-knitted hoodie with feet attached that I made for her, and not quite walking yet, strapped to me in the stripy baby-sling. And of course she tried to participate in the seminar as much as our illustrious speaker, until she went to sleep, thankfully, and stopped trying to mug the poor man sitting next to us in the crombie coat and Doctor Who scarf.

Yes – Terry Pratchett’s talk attracted a huge crowd of SF/Fantasy fans, and wannabe authors of all ages, although I think I had smuggled in the smallest and most disruptive one. Sorry about that, Sir Terry 🙂

It must have been around the time that Science of the Discworld was emerging, because the discussion was on ‘world-building’ in science-fiction and fantasy. Now this term, popular nowadays, refers to the creating of your imaginary world in which your narrative, or story takes place. The world in which your characters dwell. You can’t just give a man in a dress a magic wand and talking horse, and expect the world around him to be immediately perceived by the reader as the next best thing to Mordor. It’s the genre where taking the reader on location with you is of primary importance.

In current everyday general fiction, you say a story is set in Paris, or in Hollywood, or in London, and folk pretty much know what you’re getting at. You don’t need to go off into lengthy descriptions of the scenery or the weather. Readers today have seen it all on TV, and the internet, and you don’t want it to sound like the travelogue of a backpacking journalist. Fixing the location in your reader’s mind saves you a lot of word-count and drives your story faster to the heart of the action (and hopefully the hearts of your characters).

Some authors do travel-writing in fiction well, because they have been there, or are seasoned travel journalists already (such as Belinda Jones). Their writing style is recognisable as such. Reading Belinda Jones novels, to me, is like going on holiday, when I’m stuck at home, in weather that (against all news items to the contrary) suggests an Ark will soon float past the bottom of the garden. I read them for the escapism, the descriptions of the beaches and hotels, and occasionally the fit entertainment…

Ahem. However, with SF and Fantasy, unless you’re writing a fairytale of Bognor Regis, generally you’re creating a world for your characters to inhabit, whether it’s on board a colony ship in a space opera, or an enchanted island in a children’s story. So you can’t just say it’s “like a Boeing 747 in space” or “Disneyworld Florida but the puppets are real” – well, you could, but your readers will feel cheated (especially if they’ve never been on board a plane, or visited Disneyworld). You’ve got to say more about the place your characters inhabit, than you might do if you’re used to writing kitchen-sink drama, or chick-lit about handbags and shoes.

Terry opened the discussion on mapping your created SF/fantasy domain with the unforgettable statement: “How does the shit get out, and the clean water get in?”

Your characters have got to drink, eat, and shift by-products, so the design of Ankh-Morpork, on the Discworld, starts with the river (and what a river – that’s a lot of by-products, which it would be, for a heaving great city). Would a city on top of a mountain work, or would only a small village last in those conditions? How would a city in the clouds function, in plumbing terms? Your readers will want to know these things, and if there aren’t any satisfactory answers, you and your readers are both missing out.

A community functions on the basis of sanitation services, and provisions of food and water. Say, for example, you have a nomadic tribe living on a desert moon, who raise herds of giant herbivorous quadruped working-animals the size of double-decker buses. What are these herds of great land-creatures eating? Sand? Air? Where is their poop going? How are they kept from wandering off at night and trampling their biped masters in their sleep? How is the animal husbandry and midwifery managed? Enquiring minds will want to know.

Terry took a question from one of the younger audience members – not DS-10 of course, whose conversation at the time was limited to ‘Digger’, ‘Tit-rings’ (which was how she pronounced ‘Tinky Winky’ from the Teletubbies) and ‘Towel’ (which was actually ‘Kyle’ from South Park). The question from the more expressive young audience member was: “What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a science fiction or fantasy author?”

Terry’s thoughts on this were strong.

“Don’t read too many books already published in your chosen genre. You don’t want to be writing imitations of what’s already out there. Read geography. Read history books. Read about science.”

…Research how worlds function, what shapes them, geologically and politically. How they progress through technology and learning, arts and culture.

It was this answer that stuck with me as I headed home, while DS-10 discovered the joy of playing lucky-dip in other people’s pockets on the London Underground, then completely charmed an elderly couple in the train seat opposite, on the long journey back to Hastings.

When I read SF/fantasy, I want that world to be somewhere real I can picture – whether it’s the likes of Greg Bear taking you on a new physiological journey in the familiar world (Blood Music) or humanity as we (sort of) know it living in an extraordinary one (The Discworld series). So definitely, don’t throw out the laws of physics and chemistry, or natural history, and think you’ll get somewhere starting from scratch. You’ll either make too much work for yourself and the readers, by re-inventing everything from the ground up (no stone or S’mak!abl! left unturned), or you’ll gloss over what could be fascinating detail by talking to the readers as if everyone in the real world already grows their own Fnargle and participates in the Great Wibbly Jai Ho before bedtime.

It’s also easy to make the same mistake with character names. An unusual name is not a qualification. Calling your lead character ‘Stumpy Jack’ or ‘Great Wizard Shazam’ is no excuse for skimping on personality traits. Considering that he’ll just be known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Shaz’ to his friends, you’ll need to find some things that those friends will have intimate knowledge of about him – not just that he has a stump, or is a Great Wizard. The same goes for Fantasy stories, where the character’s parents have forgotten to put the vowels on their birth certificate. If your reader is mentally tripping over the name Knrrph’vngyllr’kk every time it appears in the narrative, it slows down reading enjoyment, and just like the Great Stumpy Wizard examples above, it’s not a qualification either – you’ve still got to give the awesome Knrrph’vngyllr’kk a sparkling personality. I would say, as a rule of thumb, never give your charismatic hero a name that his love interest is unable to shout out ecstatically in bed without sounding as though she’s inhaled a pillow-feather.

So anyway, ever since, I’ve applied the academic research idea to writing all fiction. I sort of write about the real world, but at the same time sort of don’t – my worlds hover between extremes of reality and SF/fantasy, and SF/fantasy is where my own evolution into becoming a writer started, so it wouldn’t surprise me to find myself going full circle eventually. I’ve read so many textbooks it shows – one of my novels has been tagged ‘self-help’ already, no doubt from the amount of psychology I read up on, over about fifteen years of its development. I even added an ‘academic and popular references’ bibliography to my latest version of it on Kindle, because I felt the research deserved the credit for a lot of my character’s make-up (and my own progress, while doing the research – power of the object over the observer).

You can always learn new things, and get excited about learning new things. And at the end of the day, if you’re writing SF and Fantasy, that’s what you want your readers to experience, when reading your books. Give them your enthusiasm for what you learn, and what you want to show them of your own insights through learning. Because that’s where your originality lies – in your own inner journey.

L xxxx

http://terrypratchett.co.uk

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