Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: Some (More) Thoughts on Worldbuilding

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Some (More) Thoughts on Worldbuilding

Hello, dear readers!

I'm back from my trip to the Great Upstate, where much planning of weddings was done and I even managed to read most of a book. Hazah! Now it's back to work, and I feel quite refreshed.

I gave up on the idea that I was going to an authorial wunderkind years ago and resigned myself to what I think of as the Rod Smith approach (Denver Broncos fans will probably know what I mean here, but the tldr is that he thought of himself as much less talented than the other top guys people in his field, so he made sure to work twice as hard). Part of that, for me, is a constant drive to improve various aspects of my writing from book to book. I have a long list of things I want to get better at, and one of them is worldbuilding.

So I'm taking a class from Scott Lynch of Gentleman Bastards fame, and I'm learning more about worldbuilding and spending a lot of time thinking about it. Fairly early on, it became apparent to me that I build my best worlds in a way that's often been described to me as "lesser." To wit: my best worlds seem to be the ones I build as I go. When I build a world and then try to set a story in it, the story, and by extension the world it's set in, usually feels a little flat. I really have to struggle to get all the elements to line up. On the other hand, when I start with a story and then build a world around it, everything seems to fit together much more tightly and harmonize much better.

With the help of my classmates, I've come to call the second way "discovery-style" worldbuilding, because you discover things about the world as you write.

I was working on an exercise for the class last night, one for which I'd been tasked to write a short bit of description to accomplish some worldbuilding goals. I wrote it. It read like crap. Absolute crap. I even cheated by setting it in the Soulwoven world and choosing an interesting scene from the backstory to write (for the curious, it's the moment when Eshan and Crixine leave Duenel).

As I was describing a river in the distance (again, for the curious, the Soulth'nth---the one the characters travel up to reach the mountains in the end of the first book), I realized why.

When I do "discovery-style" worldbuilding, I get to create the setting to match the theme. A river only exists in a discovery-style narrative (that I write, anyway) because it serves a thematic purpose; it's a metaphor for a journey, or a point that must be crossed and can never be uncrossed (like the Rubicon, the Lethe, etc.), or one of any other number of things. When I set a story in a world that already exists, the river is there, and I must describe it if the characters are looking at it. That's very limiting to me as a storyteller.

I'm glad that I spent months building the Soulwoven world, writing history and language and geography and myth. Doing that taught me a lot about how to build worlds, and I have a better sense now of what I need to discover when I'm writing them discovery-style (though I'm still learning and probably always will be). Plus, that was how Tolkien built his world, and given how much the traditions I work in derive from his work, it felt good to follow in his footsteps for a while.

But I don't know that I'll build any big worlds like that again; they just don't quite fit my style.

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