by J.T. Ellison
I was at the bank the other day, which is always a trip, because our bank branch is staffed with characters. There’s the comedian chick, the brooding manager, the upbeat and chipper trainee, and the artist. The artist and I get on well, because he’s a writer. He’s done songs, he’s done poems. But lately, he’s been working on a movie script.
You don’t expect to get enlightened at the bank. If anything, that’s about the last place I’d ever go. But the artist dropped a bomb on me, just a simple term that he used to describe what he was responsible for with the script he’s co-writing.
He’s the world builder.
Now I’m sure all you screenwriters just rolled your eyes and said DUH! but I’ve never done any screenwriting, nor worked in Hollywood, and this termed concept of world building was a new one to me.
Of course, I understand that I already have an intrinsic grasp of world building. I do it every time I sit down, open my laptop and create. Each story, each character, each setting, all goes into the world I’m building. I’m the God of my own land, the High Priestess of the Page.
I make the rules.
Oh, heady day!
Science fiction and fantasy writers do a bang up job of world building. Hobbits become heroes, dragons befriend young slayers, vampires turn vegetarian. Trees can speak and witches float around in soap bubbles. Lions rise from the dead and the labyrinth of our subconscious fears are realized. Good and evil have Janus faces, and nothing is as it seems.
In these alternate realities, there are fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and every possible incarnation of death. In Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT series, the books work not because of the vampires, but because of the underlying story – a teenage girl who is uprooted and ends up in a faraway land where normal rules don’t apply. This transportation into a new world allows for a willing suspension of disbelief – that’s the trick. That’s the key.
It’s the driving force behind our culture’s creativity.
If you build it, they will come.
Historical romances sweep us into a land unknown. As a little girl, I remember getting lost in Karleen Koen’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, only to emerge on the other end with a fascination for all things historical. Diana Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is completely transcendent. I am there. I am present. I am so entranced that I can see and smell everything the characters do. I’m not reading a book, or a story, I’m plowing through an alternate universe.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books did that for me also. I still lament that I wasn’t able to attend Hogwarts, with all its bizarre idiosyncrasies and history.
Imagination in the hands of a competent world builder is something to be treasured, read and watched over and over again, striking a resonate chord with all who fall under its spell. It’s just plain bliss.
The mythology behind these grandiose otherworlds are evident. They all have one thing in common: A hero, called to a journey. I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, (I’ve got a post coming on why I’m mad at Vogler…) and the whole concept of mythos and world building are foremost in my mind as I sit down to write a new Taylor Jackson novel. How am I going to bring Taylor’s world alive for you? What parts of Nashville have I missed in past novels that will give a real flavor to her world? It’s more than character, it’s using setting to define your story. I’ve always said Nashville is a character in my books. I want to show the essence of the city, the piquancy that comprises its hodgepodge cosmopolitan nature.
But I run smack into a brick wall rather quickly. My world? Already built. I’m using real places, real people, real streets and sights and smells. I can’t deviate from what we know this town to be without causing a fervor – and that’s rather limiting.
I started a standalone a few years ago, between my non-published novel and All the Pretty Girls. It’s about a female assassin named Cassiopeia with a chip implanted in her head that can be turned off and on, activating and deactivating her for duty. Sound familiar? Yes, Joss Whedon just released a television show, DOLLHOUSE, with a similar premise. I haven’t watched it because I don’t want to be influenced, because I’m still writing this book. From what I’ve heard, the brain chip is the extent of our similarities, so I’m not worried about finding a market for it once it’s done.
But it’s fun to write, because it expands reality a bit. I’m hoping this book allows me a chance to build a world outside of the careful construct of Nashville. It will take place all over the world, and I have the opportunity to make that world whatever I want it to be. Look at Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION. Sitka, Alaska becomes a world unto itself, with its own rules, its own idiosyncrasies. The characters live inside the construct Michael has laid out, and it works because we’re in the hands of a master manipulator, a writer who knows exactly how to twist the world to his own image.
But even the most humble story, if done well, can transport us into another’s life, into their world. We see through the characters eyes, feel their disappointments and frustrations. Whether the setting is as massive as Narnia or as small as a trailer park, if the author has done their job, we can lose ourselves in another world, at least for a time.
So let’s hear it, ‘Rati faithful. Who are you favorite world builders?
Wine of the Week: Sebecka Cabernet Pinotage An absolutely luscious South African wine with the cutest cork (yes, I said cutest cork) It’s cheetah print!
PS: I have a guest blog up on Criminal Brief today! Come over and show their crew some love too!