World-Building – Belief Systems

Belief systems are part of the anthropologist’s triad – culture, language, myth (belief). These three are so intertwined I can’t imagine studying one without drawing deeply of the others. Our personal library contains ~300 books on different belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems. If you count ebooks, the number goes over 1,000 volumes (and note my bias there).

But what about using belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems as part of your world-building?

Margaret Atwood postulates a radical cultural change brought on by an exaggerated belief system in The Handmaid’s Tale, and that culture’s language evolves to sustain the belief system. Probably the best known blend of culture, language, and belief system is in Tolkien’s Trilogy. Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series does an excellent job of blending these elements, but it’s all predicated on Helliconia’s weather (and perhaps you’ll appreciate how intertwined everything is when one builds a world from scratch).

Create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.

 
But again and to me, it comes down to “create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.”


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World-Building – Weather

I’ve yet to encounter a created world that does not make use of climate and weather directly or indirectly.

That includes this one. Consider the history of earth and the interdependencies between life and climate become obvious (I hope). Read anything by Brian Fagan and you’ll get a taste of those interdependencies beautifully written.

Examples from Fiction
Climate/weather directly affecting the story and and done well, Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series. Directly and done fairly well, any mythical apocalypse or creation epic. Directly and poorly, Medea: Harlan’s World. The first time I became aware of weather/climate/environment/meteorology as a crucial story element was in H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon; the Selenites’ civilization literally stops due to an eclipse.

Every mythology I’ve read has weather as either a deity or an elemental. Some cultures use climate as one of the “great makers.” Northern aboriginals include Ice as an elemental force. Some eastern cultures include Metal (usually some form of iron) as an elemental force.

All of these can act for or against humans, however, and that’s key. Consider weather/climate as part of a story’s setting and every Man v Nature story takes a bow. The Perfect Storm, White Squall and many of the movies listed here wouldn’t be worth seeing without the weather’s role (many of them aren’t worth seeing, period).

And again, weather/climate isn’t playing an active role in these stories (at least the one’s I’ve seen or read). It is there to help or thwart the protagonist(s) from succeeding.

Specific to weather/climate/environment as a story’s setting, if setting isn’t important – and I can’t imagine it not being important. Perhaps I have a different concept of “setting” – then mention it as little as possible, or only mention the aspects of that setting that are necessary to the story. Katherine Mansfield is a master of putting only the necessary setting elements on stage.


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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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World-Building – Moving from Mundane to Fantastic Settings

When asked, “How do characters move from mundane to fantastic settings?” the correct answer is:

  1. The take the 45st L, get off at the first stop, then go left at the bottom of the stairs.
  2. By grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

In the Harry Potter Universe, children get to Hogwarts from Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross station. Aside from people not noticing a young person with a tram of luggage and a caged owl on top or that youngster and all their belongings suddenly disappearing into a brick pillar, we’re back to the familiar in the unfamiliar mentioned in World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters.

It’s worth noting that Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 is a representation of the starting point for every hero on every hero’s journey regardless of culture or mythology: We enter the fantastic via the mundane. The invitation to the mythic must be accepted or there is no journey and the invitation must be accepted in front of others – Muggles – who can’t accept or refuse to accept it. Usually there’s a mentor/guide/guardian/herald/… someone to help the young adventurer on. Harry Potter’s Mrs. Weasley told him how to “enter”, ie, pass the first challenge.

The message here is that entry into the fantastic is always around us, is everywhere, is waiting for us to become aware. Consider Keith Jarrett’s preface to his album Treasure Island:

The treasure has always been there
It is not hidden
But is only where certain people would look
At all
Thus it remains a secret to the rest
And to solace themselves
They say it’s hidden
Or buried
To still their invading thoughts.

Some are calm and content
Or at peace, in their words

Some are stirred and cloudy
But they are improving their vision

Of the island
Of themselves

I make use of these “we must see the magic for it to exist” concepts myself in my short story The Magic Tassels: A shaman lives in a village and is known for the magic tassels he wears on his wrists. Different villages come and ask what the tassels are for and he asks them, “What do you think?” Everyone tells a magic story about them save three old women who mock him. Later the village is threatened and everyone will die. The villagers come to the shaman for help and his tassels turn into the magic each saw, which saves them.

Except for the three old women. When they ask him to save them he answers, “No, the only magic in my tassels is that which others put there. All the magic I gave others they already had. I merely reminded them of the magic within them. You saw nothing in my tassels, so there’s nothing I can give you. There is no magic in you for me to remind you.”


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World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters

Every time you have an opportunity to show something most people aren’t familiar with, do so to add color to the story provided you can do it in a way the reader understands and can relate to.

Ground the unfamiliar with the familiar

 
You have to ground the unfamiliar with the familiar so that readers can relate to it. Example: A reviewer wrote of The Augmented Man‘s protagonist, Nick Trailer, “His struggles were easy to relate with and, honestly, I found myself hoping to see his happy ending by the end of the novel.” The “reader wanting the hero to succeed” is key to world-building as it demonstrates the reader is emotionally involved with the character individually and the story in general.

A familiar example of grounding the unfamiliar with the familiar comes from the original Alien movie. The opening scenes are of the crew waking from suspended animation. Quite unfamiliar to most people. But the next scene is the crew in the mess complaining about being woken up, how crappy the coffee is, are they going to get extra pay for this extra work, et cetera.

The unfamiliar grounded in the familiar. The crew may have just woken from suspended animation on a deep space ship but they’re just like your friends in the corner bar grumbling about work, they’re your co-workers in the company cafeteria complaining about crappy food, they’re your workmates wondering if the company’s going to pay them for any overtime coming from making an unscheduled stop on their delivery route.

In short, most people accepted the unfamiliar in Alien because whatever happened, it was happening to people they could relate to and understand; the unfamiliar was grounded in the familiar.

The heart of any story is believable characters either succeeding or failing to achieve their goals. There is a general rule about people; what people do rarely changes. How they do things changes. Example: people gossip. One hundred years ago people gossiped by gathering in the general store, the local pub, in the park. Now they gossip on their mobiles, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. People have gossiped since we climbed down from the trees and stood on our hind legs. How they’ve gossiped has changed over time.


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