World Building

Good writers, whether they set their stories in 19th century London or in a Galaxy Far Far Away, grip their audiences by drawing them into a rich and real fictional world.

‘Real’ and ‘fictional’ seem opposed and almost oxymoronic in their juxtaposition, and yet together articulate one of the most powerful and necessary features of good story telling. Audiences need to be able to enter and believe in the world of the narrative for the story to work.

‘World building’ is a most notable skill in science fiction and fantasy, since the writer must create a fictional world from the ground up. The more realistic and convincing these alternative worlds are, the more immersive the experience.

The master of world building is of course J.R.R. Tolkien whose life’s work, multiple stories, myths, legends, poems and songs, existed within an entirely fictional world of Middle Earth. The depth to which he created his world entailed the construction of several languages with their own script, grammar and lexicons, lengthy histories and prehistories of lineages of kings, as well as mythical and magical religions, creatures and talismans of power. Tolkien’s work almost singlehandedly created a whole sub culture of fantasy and science fiction world building which continues to this day.

Why is world building so vital to good story telling?

As a child enters a game enthusiastically and will object when the rules of the game are contradicted or broken, so too audiences rebel from authors who betray the integrity of the world they have constructed.

The analogy of ‘play’ is powerful, affirmed by the naming of live theatre a ‘play’. The audience must not only suspend belief watching those on stage ‘play acting’ but they must effectively engage in the ‘play’ with their imagination themselves.

No greater illustration of this is given in Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V.

The chorus enters and addresses the audience directly with these questions:

can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The chorus continues requesting the audience to enter the play with their minds, to convert the small theatre into battle fields, to populate it with thousands of soldiers and horses and allow the short hours of the play to cover years of history:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass:

Audiences will feel betrayed if elements of narrative history are forgotten or rules of a fictional universe are contradicted. The world of immersive ‘play’ is jarred, and the narrative experience interrupted. The reader returns to the real world disappointed with the story, leaving it often never to return.

However, one does not need to climb through a wardrobe or up a beanstalk to enter a magical world since every single narrative is ‘painted’ through words and its scenes, characters and plot.

Charles Dickens set most of his novels in the England of his own time and recent past, however he managed to colour his world and bring it alive by giving his characters peculiar names and particular ways of speaking. His novels are full of such character names as Bumble, Cruncher, Datchery, Fezzywig, Magwitch, Noggs, Pardiggle, Pecksniff, Peggotty, Podsnap, Pumblechook, Snodgrass, Sweedlepipe, Stiltstalking, Tappertit, Toodle, Turveydrop and Wopsle; the list goes on.

Filling his characters mouths with unique turns of phrase and mannerism Dickens further coloured his narrative world. Uriah Heep [David Copperfield] is frequently heard to say while wringing his hands ―’I am much too Umble’ and Mr Sleary [Hard Times] is depicted with a lisp: …’ith fourteen month ago. Thquire, thinthe we wath at chethter.’

Lastly, Dickens set his stories against the very real social, class, cultural and economic challenges of his era including the French Revolution, racism against Jews and other foreigners, the workhouses and the plight of the poor, the marginalisation of women and the ignorance and injustices of the class system.

With every added nuance and layer of detail, Dickens builds a world so convincing and inviting that readers return time and time and again to his works. Their willingness to surrender to the immersive experience of the narrative world he created is testament to his mastery as a great story teller.

The Ultimate Continuum

The much celebrated 2014 film Birdman, gives an insightful review of human (in)significance in one key scene between Sam [Emma Stone] and Riggan [Michael Keaton].

Riggan, an ageing actor and artist who is suffering an identity crisis, is counselled by his daughter as to how her recent stint in rehab helped her come to peace with her own anxieties. She methodically draws small dashes onto squares of toilet paper, 150 dashes per square, until she fills and entire roll.

Then she unfurls the paper roll and points out that one meagre square of tissue represents the entire span of human existence. One dash alone equals a million years and the roll entire, the 6 billion odd years of space and time. In so doing, her own and Riggan’s agonies over life significance are put into perspective.

The illustration questions any worries about life achievements, fame, or success. Indeed, there seems little difference between doing ‘something’ and doing ‘nothing’ with ones life, little difference between becoming a trillionaire even, and becoming a subsistence farmer.

Any sense of achievement then is simply won in comparison to our peers, those whose admiration we might crave or whose love or fear we might seek. Ultimately, however, we remain a small fleck within an infinite sea of darkness, a darkness within which giant stars burn for millions of years and even they remain dwarfed by galaxies, in turn dwarfed by the magnitude of space and time.

Is such an epiphany calming? or more anxiety inducing? Why in fact should we make any effort? and for what ultimately, is any effort of value?

What indeed then, is the difference between committing mass murder verses committing ones life to charity and community service? If ultimately, we are atoms afloat in an infinite sea of nothing, then nothing indeed is of meaning, is it not?!

The story explores the primal questions that existentialist philosophers have asked for millennia. It brings us back to the ground of being which is in our feelings, our hearts, our emotions and our soul. The difference between committing one’s life to harm verses help, lies in the significance of the human experience, in our feelings, our heart and soul. We draw our being from love, not from our achievements, our wealth, our power, fame or grandeur.

We don’t draw our significance from our stature amidst infinite space and time, for it renders us ridiculously finite; we draw our significance from the face of love, which is the face of God.

The question still stands, to what do we commit our little life to then, the hours we have, the time in our hands? The biblical story of the ‘talents’ [Matt 25:14-30] expounds on this very point. If you have one talent, double it; if you have five talents, make them ten. Whatever you have, work with it, double it, increase it.

And more than anything, do all you do, with love.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang!: When Men Write Women

I have recently completed several seasons of Peaky Blinders, a gangster series set in 1920s Birmingham, based on the real life family The Shelby’s and their illegal betting and black-market trading businesses.

The story is clearly a boys fantasy, while couched in history, the heroes and villains become caricatured and superheroesque and women fall into two broad categories, wives and lovers.

Initially, leading female characters seemed plucky, tough. However they soon devolve into wives with children who hover in the wings, or mothers vigilantly attending their sons. They’re sassy and have their own minor narrative arcs, trysts and adventures however they largely fall into two dimensional supports for the boys.

To be faithful to bygone days, women did not have the rights and agency of men to run businesses, bear weapons, own property or take a professional career, nor do they have the physical strength to engage in fisty-cuffs as typified in gangster sagas. What is sorely missing is not girl-versions of boy gangsters, but females with rich, varied and nuanced existences, intellect, entrepreneurship, humour, allure, mendacity and creativity of their own.

Thomas Shelby, the gang leader, is a male fantasy. Women throw themselves at him one after the other, while men either love him or want to kill him [and even the ones who want him dead will happily collaborate with such a decent foe].

What presents as a nuanced period piece, the 1920’s world brought to life amidst IRA tensions, a young Winston Churchill in office, ethnic gang wars between gypsy travelers, Italian mafia and Jewish business empires, an wider back drop of the dying and corrupt Russian Empire, the early stirrings of communism and of a second World War, becomes a disappointing two dimensional fantasy of bad boys gone badder, rolling in money, cocaine and power, breaking all the rules except the code of brotherhood and seeing foes and beautiful women falling in front of them with ease.

There is not one woman in the series who is not oriented to the men as lover, mother, wife or more crudely, an object of desire. No strong character, weak character, evil character or good redeeming character has any other place in the narrative except as part of the family or as a side interest. And this where good writing falls down.