Creating depth in fantasy worlds: Let your people be people

As a reader, I have a three sided structure for liking novels. One wall is writing, one is plot, and one is character. If a novel has two out of three, chances are I’ll forgive it the third. Good characters and a great plot can carry mediocre writing, for example. Or interesting characters and great writing can make up for a Swiss cheese plot. Good novels often do two of the three very well, and are reasonably passable on the third. Fantastic novels do all three well. Those are my keepers.

But for Fantasy and SciFi, my rubric is slightly different, because when you’re dealing with invented places, the world itself becomes a dimension of the story. If plot, character, and craft are the three walls of my novel-liking pyramid, then the world is the floor that holds the whole thing up. Take China Meiville’s Perdido Street Station, for example. The plot was fairly ridiculous, and, with a few exceptions, the characters weren’t really likeable. The writing was transcendent, but that alone isn’t enough. By my pyramid scale, Perdido Street Station was propped on one, beautiful written but teetering leg, poised for collapse into mediocrity. Yet, I love that novel. LOVE it. Read it three times. Why? The world. The world of Bas-Lag is so amazing, so deep and colored and wretched and desperate and infinitely interesting, I could read about it forever.

This is a rather extreme example of the power a strong, imaginary world can bring to a story. This is why writing (and reading) fantasy is so much fun for me. With other genres, you really only get three dimensions standing on the solid but boring platform of our mutual reality. With Fantasy, you can rip that sucker out and lay down a whole new reality. But, of course, the danger in messing with anything this fundamental is the possibility of royally screwing things up. Just as a fantastic, interesting, absorbing world can carry a lacking story, so can a poorly thought out, inconsistent world doom even the best fiction.

 Now, if you’re an author, the internet is full of resources to help you with world building (Holly Lisle has some good stuff, the wonderful Patricia C. Wrede has more). These are very useful for a bottom up, nuts and bolts approach to creating a new world. But for me, in writing and reading, there’s only one real test, I call it ‘letting people be people.’

 “But Rachel,” you say, “that doesn’t apply to me. I’m writing about a world of sentient otters!”

Fine, you’re not writing about humans, but you’re still writing about people.

Now when I say ‘people,’ I’m not really talking about characters. A character is a person, but your world is filled with people, and I think Agent K said it best: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

One person can be wildly different from another, but people all share some fundamental traits. For example, people are lazy. They’re ingenious in their laziness, though, and always looking for ways to better their situation, whether through innovation, or killing the innovators and taking their stuff. Some of our greatest inventions were made because we didn’t want to have to walk everywhere, or make a fire whenever we wanted to cook our food.

People want power, all the power. People who already have power want more, and people without power will stomp on those with even less until you reach the point of rebellion. To see an example, just look at all of human history.

People mess stuff up. They act in their own self interest, even when it’s horrible in the long term. They focus on meeting their needs and the needs of their loved ones, even if that screws over a lot of other people. They might feel bad about it, but they’ll still do it.

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the point. As humans living on earth (which I think accounts for most readers of this blog), we all know, deep down, how people act. We know that there’s no such thing as a thousand years of uninterrupted peace. We know that civilizations don’t stay static, especially not for the kind of epic timelines you see all over fantasy as a genre.

Readers swallow these inconsistencies because people are also adaptable, and if you’re already suspending your disbelief to allow magic, it’s not too hard to stretch it a little further and believe that an Empire could stand unchanged for five thousand years. But when you make a reader do that, you’re cheating them, and your story, out of a world of depth. This doesn’t mean you can’t have ancient Empires in your novel to great effect, it just means that you have to make them real, and you do that by letting people be people. If your Empire has been around for five thousand years, it’s only going to have the scarcest resemblance to the government it was in the beginning, or at the two thousand year mark, because people are constantly messing with things. There will have been wars. Maybe distant, maybe at your gates, but violence and upheaval will have occurred. If there’s an ancient prophesy about a lost king, people will have tried to fake it. Maybe one of them was even king for a while before he was found out. Once you start digging into all of that, you find story after story, all interesting and varied and unique, and none of which existed before when all you had was a static, five thousand year of Empire.

This is what happens when the people in your world stop acting like a back drop and start acting like people. All of the other parts of world building, creating ecosystems and believable terrain and maps, these are cool, but secondary, the little touches of fine craftsmanship. But the real depth, the thing that will actually ruin your reader’s suspension of disbelief if you do it wrong, comes from people. Not just your characters, but the actions and lives of imaginary people who may have died thousands of years before your cast was born. You already know how those people acted. We all do. Use that knowledge, make your people act like people, and you’ll have a world I’ll want to read.  

5 Responses to “Creating depth in fantasy worlds: Let your people be people”

  1. 1 nojojojo
    February 20, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    Heh heh. You said “rubric”. Now I’m having grad school flashbacks…

    I laughed at your comment about a thousand years of uninterrupted peace being silly. In my novel, I posit a world which has had two thousand years of uninterrupted peace… but only because the dictators who rule the world have a habit of wiping out any nation or group of people that gets too fractious. Then they rewrite history to make it seem as though that nation never existed — thus the “uninterrupted” part. ::snort::

    I like the way you think. I’m looking forward to your book. =)

  2. 2 rachelaaron
    February 21, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Hey thanks!

    Yeah, can you tell I was an English Major?

    And I looove your revisionist history take on the peace. That’s awesome… and kind of brilliant.

  3. 3 Auntie Lou
    February 21, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    I suppose it’s self-evident, but everything you say also holds true for writers — and readers — of “reality” fiction.

    But you’ve got me wondering — could I create a world satisfying enough for fantasy readers?

    Probably not, but it might be fun to try.

    Thanks for a beautiful, thought-provoking essay.

    Margaret’s “Auntie Lou”

  4. 4 rachelaaron
    February 22, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Hello Auntie Lou!

    You’re way cooler than any of my aunts if you’re reading this blog! Hooray!

    You’re absolutely right about reality fiction, there are some books that make the “real” world into a place every bit as mysterious and fantastic as you’d find in a fantasy. I guess I tend to be fantasy centric because I’ve never really had inspiration for reality as I have for fantasy.

    Thanks for the compliment!

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