What the hell is worldbuilding?
That was a rhetorical question, because of course I’m about to tell you. Worldbuilding is something inherent to fantasy. Science fiction too, for that matter–really any genre which places its story in an alternate universe. That universe has to be built, and if I do say so myself, doing so is the most creative, exciting phase of writing a story. I go nuts for maps and fictional histories, and I quite like creating religions and mythologies for the made-up little people that inhabit my made-up little worlds. Those–all of those aspects–are all part of worldbuilding.
But worldbuilding has been for far too long the focus of lots of fantasy authors. Those of us who love roleplaying games and Lord of the Rings and all that nerdy stuff take joy in imagining these strange, foreign worlds, with their own laws of physics and magic, and their own unique kingdoms and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process we’ve ended up neglecting another construction project that should be just as important to the structure of our stories.
Listen up: you need to write characters, people. You need to write people, people! You need interesting, complex, realistic folks to inhabit your fantastic new world, which won’t seem all that fantastic when it’s filled with cardboard characters, such as the wise old wizard, the farmboy with the heroic destiny, and his friend, the horde of slavering orcs.
See there’s two types of realism. You can have a realistic world. I’ll call that Tolkien realism, though that phrase comes with some caveats, to be discussed in a bit. Then you have what I’ll call Abercrombie realism, that is a cast of realistic characters. This one is named after Joe Abercrombie, an author I urge you to read if you wish to see how complex characters painted in shades of gray can make a book fantastic, even without the inclusion of a map (gasp).
So. First, Tolkien realism. Now, Tolkien’s world isn’t entirely realistic. There is no religion, a feature of our actual world that Tolkien deliberately omitted. Additionally, the world isn’t constructed entirely realistically as far as climates and economies are concerned. Some of these things the professor considered after the fact, such as his explanation that the armies of Mordor were fed mostly on fish caught from Mordor’s inland sea–an explanation prompted by people’s questioning how the volcanic environment of Sauron’s kingdom could support any kind of population. Those and other negligible things aside, however, Tolkien paid great attention to the history, language, and culture of his world. The man devised entire languages, wrote whole mythologies, and had a clear origin defined for every race and nation in his Middle Earth. Hell, he even included a little bit of good old-fashioned racism.
The downside to Tolkien’s world? His characters aren’t all exactly relatable humans. The very best example of humanity in his entire book is Gandalf’s insistence that he mustn’t touch the ring, lest it make him more powerful and dangerous than Sauron himself. That is a moment of truly human temptation that I’m quite fond of. Ah, but then of course we have Faramir, the brother of Boromir, who casually ignores the temptations of the ring without a second thought. Immediately we readers think, Hmm… That seems strange. What power does Faramir have that he’s so easily able to resist the ring? But I guess he’s just… noble, or something? Not a shining moment of character realism, and one that the creators of the film adaptation wisely chose to change.
So that’s where Mr. Abercrombie’s brand of realism comes in. This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.
Now let’s be clear. I think that both forms of realism are necessary for a good book. And both authors have their moments using each type. Tolkien has moments of relatable humanity, as mentioned above, and characters that stick with you despite their usually simple personalities; and Abercrombie’s world seems to be well-realized by the author himself–he merely doles out the information to the reader in small doses. But while I recognize that both character and world realism are important for our genre, I’m realizing more and more that character-driven stories mean more than stories driven only by the “Look at the neat stuff I thought up” factor. Characters stay with you–good ones forever–whereas we all outgrow the neat stuff category of fiction eventually.
What we as readers and writers of fantasy need to avoid most are characters that seem shallow. Especially shallow villains. I can’t tell you how tiresome the “Dark Lord” category of villain has become. Dark Lord? What the hell kind of personality is that? How am I supposed to feel anything towards an antagonist whose only motivation is “enslave the earth.” You see, every character can be written sympathetically. I’m fond of saying that one could write a sympathetic story about Hitler. In fact, I’m sure some already have been written. Or you could write a sympathetic story about… Satan, perhaps. Actually, that’s got potential. Guy’s created as an angel, destined to tempt the first humans and be damned to rule over hell, but he doesn’t have the power of free will, so he can’t help but accomplish his awful destiny, even if he doesn’t want to. You could make a very sympathetic story out of that if you tried.
My point is summarized best by a maxim that I try to always keep in mind: “The villain is the hero of the other side.” Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s that black-and-white simple. Everyone’s got his motivations and temptations. Everyone’s got emotions that any reader can relate to.
And including those things is how you make your story stick with your readers. It’s how you keep them turning the pages, and begging you to write more books starring their same beloved characters, in turn bringing you ever closer to your goal of enslaving the earth.
What? I never said fantasy writers had to be sympathetic.