A WORLDBUILDING EXAMPLE EXPLAINED AT LAST

n my online and in-person worldbuilding classes I often say that a lot of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding is done as you’re writing. At certain points our stories will dictate what we need to know about the world. This is meant to caution you against over-worldbuilding, or feeling as though every bit of what the world is like needs to be invented and properly cataloged before you set about trying to jam a story into it. The opposite, in fact, is true: The world should serve your story, not the other way around.

I guess I have to mention the only exception: Shared world/tie in fiction by nature has to begin with the world, but if this is a world original to you, how do you know what you’ll need?

The example I cite so often it’s come to feel repetitious is: You’re writing along, and a character dies. Okay, you ask yourself, now what? Is there a funeral?

Burial sites that date back tens of thousands of years have been discovered that include various totems and bits of stuff, bodies placed in specific poses, and so on, clearly suggesting that some sort of funeral has taken place, that there’s a ritual around disposing of the bodies of the dear departed. It’s something people do, and have always done.

How I got to this as an example, I’m not sure—it’s a little dark—but it’s meant to stand in for all the things we don’t think of in terms of worldbuilding until we get there.

So how about an example? Here’s an actual fantasy funeral from V. Lakshman’s brilliant epic fantasy Mythborn:

 The Last Passage for Lore Father Themun Dreys was a solemn affair and held at the time of the setting sun. The body rested inside a wooden boat as mourners gathered along the beach. The repetitive sound of the waves breaking along the surf was in its own way welcome. It was far off, a building rumble, crash, then bubbling hiss that gave the assembled a sense of peace, as if the entire world waited for the lore father to be put to rest.

Along with the adepts came those elders of the Isle who sought to mourn their loss, these orphans having become part of their family as much as any child born to them. Each carried a small candle set upon a wooden plate. These would be set to float alongside the funeral boat of the lore father. They had chosen a secluded spot on the shore where currents flowed quickly out past the breakers and into the wide, blue expanse of the ocean.

mythborn

Lore Father Giridian spoke of the life of Themun Dreys, his single-minded vision that kept his people alive and protected. He paid homage to a man who had spent the better part of two centuries protecting those he loved and in his final act, saving the Isle from unknown assailants.

At the proper moment, the boat was launched and set afire. Along with it floated dozens of candles, individual flames of tribute to those who had fallen. The boat blazed orange and yellow, like a sun brought to earth, reflecting its light in the deep blue waters. It made its way out to sea, a shining beacon that illuminated the dark, much as the lore father had done during his long life.

Once concluded, some mourners remained, seating themselves on the beach and gazing out at the sea and the stars as they slowly winked into existence. Others wandered back toward the main halls, their purpose lost with the death of those they cherished. It would be some time before those on the Isle who survived would heal, but they would never forget.

Lore Father Giridian watched everyone, his concern plainly evident. They needed answers, a reason why this tragedy had occurred, or else there would be no closure. He motioned to Dragor, who came and stood beside him.

“We need to delve deeper into the lore fathers’ memories. The answer to this attack is somewhere in our past,” he said.

Dragor looked out across the sea and asked, “To what end? You said the memories of Valarius and Duncan are missing. Even if we find an answer, what will we do about it?”

“Come,” the lore father said, moving off the beach and to the Halls, “there is still a lot to be answered for.”

It’s not a huge scene, not terribly elaborate, and it doesn’t in any way overwhelm the story. Mythborn is not a book “about” fantasy funerals. It’s one component to a richly-realized fantasy world that helps to immerse readers in a place and time unique to that work. The characters behave like people, and do things that people do, and not just the happy or exciting things.

I know that by posting this I run the risk of this whole point being misunderstood. This is not me telling you that before you write a fantasy or science fiction story you first have to create a complex funeral rite. What I’m trying to say is listen to your story as you’re writing it. Let your story tell you what parts of the world need “building,” and build to support the story.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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