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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “Worldbuilding in Urban Fantasy,” by Eric Dontigney •


Worldbuilding is the bane of science fiction and fantasy writers. Whether you construct one from scratch or adopt the world-next-to-the-world approach of urban fantasy, you must confront this hurdle. It’s a hurdle that many writers stumble over. 

For some writers, worldbuilding becomes an exercise in an overwhelming recitation of details. It’s not urban fantasy, but go take a look at the early Wheel of Time novels for a good example. Jordan spends a staggering amount of page space on details about the world. It doesn’t make the novels intrinsically bad, but it did make them longer than strictly necessary to tell the story well.

For many urban fantasy writers, the solution is to pick a real place and assume people know the geography. I cite for you most novels set in a big city. This is problematic. Even people who live in those cities often lack a good handle on the geography. Unless you’re a cop or a cab driver, you probably spend most of your time in one neighborhood.

That assumption of understanding makes it’s easy to fall back on shortcuts that deprive readers of important details. For example, let’s say I set a novel in the Los Angeles area. It’d be very easy to set a meeting at Dodger Stadium and write, “We drove to Dodger Stadium.” Easy as pie, right? Well, not so much.

If my characters were hanging out in Pasadena, they’re probably looking at a 30-40 minute drive depending on traffic. They might pick up 134 West and then California State Route 2 South. If they’re coming from Compton, on the other hand, it’s more like an hour of driving on I-710 North and I-5 North. These might not look like hyper-salient details, unless your bad guy sets the meeting for 15 minutes from the call.

There is no realistic way your characters can make it there on time. Now, you’ve got some choices for building tension. Your characters can negotiate for more time. Your characters can try to make it on time but at the risk of interference from law enforcement. They can arrive late and find a grisly consequence. All of this gives you a chance to shed light on your characters motivations, decision-making process, and history. You get all these narrative gifts from not taking the shortcuts.

A related problem is when writers pick cities they don’t live in and make basic errors. The early Dresden Files books were reportedly bad about this. That annoys people who know better, though casual readers won’t care. Getting the details right when you do this is no mean feat. I once spent a couple hours staring at maps, doing real estate searches, and reading news articles so I could write one accurate paragraph about Chicago. You have to make your own judgment call about how important accuracy is going to be in your book.

The flaw in world building that I notice in most novels is what I call the vacuum setting. The entire story happens in a place seemingly disconnected from the rest of the world and from personal histories. That’s a jarring failure in a time of high geographic mobility, social media, and instant communication.

Look around at your circle of friends. I’d bet you that many of them have moved at least once in their life. Most of them have probably moved at least once or twice as adults. You’re probably still communicating with people who moved away or that you moved away from. You probably get random text messages and Facebook chat messages from friends or family. I like to think of these things as the salt and pepper of daily life.

Yet, so very often in urban fantasy, we hear about the protagonist’s past but see no evidence of it. He or she never gets random text messages from a sibling, friend, business associate, or parent. They never call someone in another time zone. Police databases never seem to reach beyond the county border. Residents never seem to be transplants to the town or city.

It’s like the protagonist stepped through a dimensional curtain at the town border. Unless that’s a plot element, though, it leaves readers wanting.

So, how do you bridge the gap? My preferred method is to start with a few obvious indicators that there’s a world beyond the edge of town. Have your protagonist take a call from someone looking to enlist their help or a family member who wants to talk family politics. The protagonist has to beg off because of plot reasons and offer some explanation to their current companions.

This lets you build some personal history into a natural conversation instead of info-dumping. It firmly establishes that, yes, things do exist beyond the edge of town. Our protagonist has existing and ongoing relationships with mostly off-screen characters. (This also a good way to obliquely introduce characters you want to use in sequels.)

It’s also effective at humanizing your lead character. He or she faces ordinary limits like not being able to do everything or be everywhere without necessitating some kind of soliloquy about that fact. That makes the world you’re constructing feel more familiar. Who hasn’t been overbooked and wished that they had a clone to send on some task.

Stage two of my preferred method is giving your protagonist mundane tasks. Magical firefights and showdowns with the powers of darkness are cool, but you’ve got a couple hundred pages to fill. Everybody eats. Everybody shops. Have it happen on the page. It lets you talk about the setting in a natural way.

Our protagonist needs toothpaste, so she needs to go find a store. That lets her interact with everyday people in everyday ways. She needs to ask for directions. Drive around looking at things. Get lost. Ask for directions again. Wait in the aisle while someone spends five minutes choosing between Crest and Colgate. Deal with a lazy cashier. All of which supports the fiction that this is a believable place.

Worldbuilding is unquestionably in the details, but it’s about using the right details. Use common technologies to support the idea that there’s a fully-fledged world beyond the borders of town. Show that the protagonist has relationships and responsibilities that aren’t related to the current crisis. Leverage the mundane to help you explore the environment. You’ll get a more believable world.

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