Are we all writing historical fiction, but the history is invented?
When I was working as the Forgotten Realms novel line editor at Wizards of the Coast, this idea became something of a mantra to me. When it comes to writing tie-in fiction like that, the canon, however fantastical, should be treated the same by a fantasy author (or science fiction author in the case of, say, Star Trek novels) as the author of historical fiction treats the canon of real world history. If you’re writing a historical novel set in Victorian England, it’s not enough to keep in mind that no one has a cellphone, you’ll have to figure out how they actually did communicate with each other. Sorry, no airplanes, but then how do I get my Civil War-era cowboy from Tulsa to Seattle, and how long does that take?
But even if you aren’t writing in someone else’s sandbox, and there aren’t years worth of D&D game products and other novels that describe those things for you to use as research materials, does this idea of fantasy as historical fiction still hold true?
In Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov said, “We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connections with the worlds we already know.”
That would seem to point to yes, SF and fantasy worlds of our own creation still require the same degree of attention to detail as historical fiction. But then, how…? To answer that, let’s start with my basic “rules” of worldbuilding:
- Let your characters tell you what they need to know about the world.
- Let the plot make demands of your imagination.
- What you’re going for is plausibility, not realism; imagination, not invention; experience, not education.
- When characters start explaining, shut them up and get on with the story.
- And finally, ask, always: How does my POV character’s experience of the world in this scene help move the story forward?
What do I mean by this? Let’s break it down one at a time…
Let your characters tell you what they need to know about the world.
Maybe you’ve already done all the worldbuilding. You’ve already set the funeral rites, you know how people clean up after going to the bathroom, every kingdom has a unique cuisine, and you’re 100% clear on the difference in buying power between a Silver RavensCrown and a Copper Ha’penny. Lovely, now, as we had in the Forgotten Realms, you have a source to go to when stuff like that comes up in your story. But keep in mind that neither your readers, nor your characters, need to know any of that up front. In “Writing Is a Monstrous Act,” historical author Hernan Diaz said:
There’s always the danger of fetishizing one’s research, becoming obsessed with a little archival gewgaw one has found, and then starting to write just to create a display case for it. I dislike novels that feel like show-and-tell. And although I don’t want to make egregious mistakes and am terrified of anachronisms and inconsistencies, I’m not obsessed with referential accuracy. That’s absolutely not a primary concern for me. To me, archival work has to be in the service of imagination. Instead of becoming a factual straightjacket, research has to open up your vista and let you imagine things that were unimaginable before.
We read fiction in order to piggyback on the experience of another person. Let your characters ask you if they think they’re being cheated when the street vendor asks for a Silver RavensCrown when what they’re buying is clearly worth no more than a Copper Ha’penny. But if the coins don’t matter to that character in that moment, no mention of the coins is required.
Let the plot make demands of your imagination.
If you’re throwing obstacles in front of the intentions of your characters, those obstacles should come, one way or another, out of your world. The Holy Grail of worldbuilding, you might say, is when a character runs up against an obstacle that could only ever happen in your world. Ask a historical novelist and they’ll tell you the same thing: This could only have happened in Imperial China or Caligula’s Rome, or… the distant future. In “Good Bots and Bad” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2022), James Patrick Kelly wrote: “Here’s a tip for any aspiring writers who are gearing up to write their SF masterpiece about cutting-edge technology: The invention isn’t the story, the repercussions are.” What this thing can do, whether or not it works, what horrible thing might happen if it’s used incorrectly… all that matters only if it matters.
You know what I mean.
What you’re going for is plausibility, not realism; imagination, not invention; experience, not education.
As soon as the dragon shows up, realistic is right out the window. Anyone who reads fantasy and science fiction for “realism” is reading wrong. We want the fantastic in fantasy, we want the impossible tech in science fiction. Plausibility comes from following your own rules—rules you’re entirely free to set purely out of your own imagination. But once set, those fantastical rules should be treated as you would the rules of a real world historical period. Keep in mind, though, that as Hernan Diaz cautioned us against focusing in on every little detail, there is such a thing as too many rules. H.G. Wells, in his preface to Seven Famous Novels (1934), wrote:
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. “How would you feel and what might not happen to you,” is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you. How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you changed into an ass and couldn’t tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses also began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting where anything can happen.
Beginning with that caution not to overwhelm your innocent readers, in reality a steam train just couldn’t go 300 miles and hour, but a magic train in your fantasy world could do ten times that, if you say so in Chapter Three. If it then hits the speed of light in Chapter Eight, you fucked up somewhere… or you had a better idea, in which case, go back and revise Chapter Three accordingly. That, ultimately is the freedom SF and fantasy authors have that historical fiction authors don’t: the freedom to have a better idea.
When characters start explaining, shut them up and get on with the story.
Why is it impossible to commit the perfect crime? Because once you feel you’ve committed the perfect crime, you just have to brag about it. Why is it impossible to build the perfect fantasy world, in which all details are filled in, all customs, languages, etc. present and accounted for? Because if you think you’ve done that, you just have to info dump. And yes, one character explaining the world to another character is still an info dump. Keep in mind Chekhov’s gun and your poor, beleaguered readers’ mental inventories, and be okay with leaving a large percentage of that worldbuilding detail where it belongs: your notebook, not you story.
How does my POV character’s experience of the world in this scene help move the story forward?
Maybe you’re putting together a Kickstarter for a new fantasy RPG campaign setting. Then, by all means, describe away, detail to your heart’s content. But if you’re writing a novel, your primary—in fact, your only priority is to tell a story. To that point, Michael Moorcock once said:
I don’t build worlds because the worlds I describe reflect the character. Landscapes are there to reveal what’s going on in the characters’ minds. On a melodramatic level you find it in all James Whale’s fantastic movies. I’m not very interested in, say, the GNP of Melnibone! I don’t mind if others enjoy playing that sort of game but it’s not of much interest to me. Characters and their moral conflicts interest me.
I’ve described a story as characters in conflict, and plot as what happens when those characters start conflicting. Even epic quest fantasies are about people, not worlds. Our job, as authors of fiction of any genre, is to keep our stories moving forward.
Alastair Reynolds described his approach to world-building as “a bit smoke and mirrors—there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.”
If any bit of world detail, however clever you know it to be, doesn’t move your story forward in that moment, ignore it until it does. And maybe it doesn’t ever move your story forward, and that’s okay. It’s better to leave a detail in your notebook than stop your story, even for a couple sentences, to drop it in for the sake of “color,” or worse: detail for detail’s sake.
And ultimately, what brings your world to life is your own passion for it, which will shine through your characters’ experience of it. It’s okay to be caught up in your world. “Engagement is the key to inspiration or the muse or pure inventiveness, at least when it comes to fiction,” Dan Rice wrote. “If you can engage with something, meditate on it, become engrossed by it, you can write about it.”
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