Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The wonderful world of world building

By Trish Milburn

There is something absolutely magical about a book that sweeps you into a totally different world and makes you believe you are there, even when “there” is Middle-earth, an urban fantasyland where vampires aren’t just scary myths, or a school for young wizards. I’m in awe of authors whose talents lie in remarkable world building. They don’t just tell a compelling story with an interesting setting and fascinating characters. They create from nothing an entire new world. How heady and incredibly awesome is that?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a classic example. Seriously, I want to live in one of the Hobbit houses in the Shire, visit the Elves in Rivendell, and go riding with the Riders of Rohan. Tolkien’s stories and Peter Jackson’s creation of Middle-earth in the three fabulous Lord of the Rings films made me believe this place was real, that I could go there if I really wanted to. Two tickets to the Shire, please.

The same could be said of Caldwell, New York, the setting of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood vampire series. Even though it’s not a fantasy world like Middle-earth, I can see and feel the darkness, the menace lurking, waiting to pounce.

And I couldn’t possibly write this post without mentioning J.K. Rowling, Hogwarts and Harry Potter’s magical environs. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to head to Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station in London on my way to see Harry, Ron and Hermione at Hogwarts. And perhaps help the gang kick Voldemort’s wizard butt once and for all while I’m at it.

What is it about these fictional locales that make them seem so real? First, the authors layer in details that make the settings three-dimensional, not a flat, two-dimensional place that’s easily forgotten as soon as the book is closed. They create their own mythology and lexicon, not a small endeavor. And then they people the story with unforgettable characters. You will find no cardboard heroes and heroines in these worlds. These characters are so real that you’ll want them for your best friend, your mentor or your lover. Just say Hermione Granger, Gandalf, or Zsadist, and remarkably complex, three-dimensional characters spring to mind. One of these aspects alone won’t lead to perfect world building, however. What good is a fantastic world if your characters are boring?

Reading wonderful stories where world building was critical led me to try it for my own stories. The effort led to one of my Golden Heart finaling manuscripts this year, Coven. It was so much fun to write, and I’m absolutely in love with the story. And I fully intend to delve into the wonderful world of world building again.

Are you a fan of world building? What author do you think does it especially well? And if you could visit one of these worlds, which would it be?


Jo Davis said...

Ooh, yes, I envy authors who can create a world so magical, complete with strong, noble heroes, that I want the book to suck me inside and never let me cross back over to this life! J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R. Ward, Anne Bishop, and Sherrilyn Kenyon are some of my favorites in this regard.

Which world to visit? Hmmm. The Black Dagger Brotherhood would be mighty tempting. Just think, getting to hang out with all those tough, hot vamp guys.

But the big winner is going to have to be Tolkien's Middle Earth. Forget the Hobbits and elves. I'll take Aragorn, gift-wrapped! :)


Caren Crane said...

Oh gosh, Trish, we have to choose? I am a huge fan of world building. When I was a very young teenager and read Tolkein, I wanted nothing more than to live in Middle Earth! It was more magical in my mind than they could ever depict on film (though the films were wonderful!).

I also seriously wanted to "impress" a dragon (or even a fire lizard!) in Anne McCaffrey's Pern. I love to get lost in the Arthurian England of Mary Stewart's "The Crystal Cave" and I would have gladly sold several siblings to walk through a wardrobe into Narnia.

I have to say, though, that I don't get as lost in new worlds, even Hogwarts, like I used to. The magic, while still powerful, affected me much more when I was younger and the world held more mystery. Oh, well. Now I want to go read a great book!

Deb Marlowe said...

I love world building! I think it adds so much to the reading experience, and I want it in my historicals, contemps, everything! I want to be swept away into the world the author created, I want to know the characters I'm reading about intimately.

There are so many places I'd love to go if they weren't just shared figments of the author's and my minds. Besides the worlds Trish mentioned, I'd say Pern, definitely. The Regency world of Liz Carlyle's connected books. Georgette Heyer's Regency--all those witty ladies and aloof gentlemen! Even Xanth would be good for a laugh!

I could do this all day!

Deb Marlowe

Anna Sugden said...

I love world-building! In books, films and computer games. Having the time and ability to create complex worlds would be awesome.

For now, I'll settle for the small worlds I create in my books - at the moment, the world of a hockey player in the NHL in New Jersey.

If you think about it, all books create worlds for the reader to explore. They may not be magical, mystical or futuristic. But they're still worlds we love to enter, full of rich characters. Think of Susan Mallery's Buchanans and Marcellis, Maggie Shayne's Brands, Christine Rimmer's Jones and Bravos and Geralyn Dawson's Menaces.

I'd love to visit JD Robb's world (OK - so I want to meet Roarke!) and Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory *g*.

Trish Milburn said...

You all are right about the world building also being a part of books set in real places. I almost put this in the initial blog post but decided not to so it wouldn't get too long. Two mystery authors whose work I love are fantastic at world building. Nevada Barr writes mysteries set in U.S. national parks, while Dana Stabenow makes Alaska and the quirky cast of bush Alaskans come to live in bright 3-D.

Suzanne Welsh said...

As much as I adore Aragorn and Boromir in The Lord of the Rings, J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood and the Dark Hunter stories, if I had to choose a world to visit it would be an historical setting.

Knights, Aristocrats, Pirates, Mountain Men, (Can we say Last of the Mohicans anyone?). Those are the men in the worlds I'd love to slip into. In fact one of my proposals out right now is for an American historical set in the 1880's.

But I also like the charm of contemporary small towns. The series I'm working on right now is a made-up midwestern town with a cast of quirky characters. I've got a list of each character as they make their entrance, and a map of the town, for consistency sake. I'd probably go nuts if I had to give every object a different name like in futuristics or fantasys! Ack how do they do that?

Trish Milburn said...

Suz, I LOVE Last of the Mohicans -- the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, not the book. Sadly, I couldn't even get through the book. I've been to the area in North Carolina where they filmed the movie. It's gorgeous.

Suzanne Welsh said...

Trish, James Finamore Cooper is best read out loud to a six year old Daniel Boone wannabe! It's the only way I could get through it with my son begging me each night to read. I had to embelish and explain, rather dramatically, but he loved it. I must say I prefer the movie, too!

Joan said...

I'm with Caren on this one. We have to choose?

My favorite authors and their special worlds are Sherrilyn Kenyon, Karen Marie Moning (grrr....LOVE Adam Black) Robin D. Owens with her Celtia series and all the flare and Susan Grant.

I was very fortunate to be able to read an ARC of Susan's next book "How to Lose an Extraterristrial in 10 Days". It was fantastic. The character of a assasin from a distant world and a determined earthling woman caught me by the heart and pulled me straight in. I literally read it in less than 24 hours.(Don't you just love that kind of read?)It is a must read for any fantasy, sci fi, paranormal romance reader.

Now, off to my own little made up world where I have the agility and grace to be on "Dancing with The Stars" (Go, Apolo!)

Christine Wells said...

Trish, wonderful post. I think Coven sounds like a book I'd want to read. I so agree that good characterisation is a must. I don't care how detailed someone's world is, they've lost me if they can't people it with great characters. I love Denise Rossetti's characters because she really thinks hard about how the characteristics of the creatures she writes about shape their personalities.

I'd like to visit Hogwarts, as long as I'm not a muggle!

Beth said...

I so envy authors who can create a world that is almost a character itself. I'm afraid I lack in that ability but I love being sucked into another time and place -- whether it's a fictional contemporary small town, another planet or a magical school for wizards *g*

Great post, Trish! Coven sounds fantastic!

Trish Milburn said...

Joan, Susan's book sounds great.

Beth and Christine, thanks for the compliments.

Keira Soleore said...

Trish, I love historicals, and so every time I pick up one, I do expect a detailed world to be set up for me. I also expect that this world does not violate historical facts and the fictional elements that are now accepted as "fact" in the sub-genre.

However, I also believe that contemps also have world-building to do, and not just the ones that are based in Morocco or Greece. Even the ones based in Chicago or LA or Billings, MT. The landscape forms a character that's informed by the h/h and secondary characters, just as much as all the people are informed by the landscape details.