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.

Emotional Hygiene

Dr Viktor Frankl in his book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, talks about ‘hygiene’ emotionally and psychologically, a hygiene necessary to maintain a healthy mind and heart.

Upon release from internment in concentration camps, release from the extremes of deprivation and human suffering, Frankl observed that humans encountering their new freedoms had to be cautious of their emotional health in the following ways.

First, they had to be cautious to not react with vengeance and hatred towards the world, careless of the hurts or disadvantages towards others that their behaviour could cause, all the while justifying their actions by their own needless sufferings.

Second, they had to be wary not to succumb to bitterness when encountering those who would trivialise their prisoner experience with hollow platitudes devoid of any true empathy.

Third, they had to be on guard not to give in to disillusionment when returning home, upon learning that the objects of their love and hope for the future, their family, beloved, friends, were now gone.

In this way Frankl teaches us all, very few of whom have suffered the indignities of a concentration camp, to care for our own hearts and minds as though for our bodies and homes. We must daily clean the toxic emotional build up and thought patterns of life as we would ritually wash our hands before eating, our bodies before resting, our wounds before going out into the air. We must throw away rotting thoughts and attitudes before they infect our lives and vigilantly clean up our living space of soiled attitudes or ideas past their due date.

How is your emotional hygiene?

On Responsibility

In Victor Frankl’s work ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he explores the question of what is the ‘meaning’ of life. Frankl explains, that life, like the game of chess, has no perfect move, only the perfect move for a specific player in a specific situation. Life has no ‘meaning‘ other than meaning derived from responding to one’s life in any given circumstances.

He correlates then, ‘responsibility‘ with the essence of human existence. To live meaningfully, one is to imagine one is living for a second time and that the first time we lived, we made every mistake possible. This imagining, confronts us with all of life’s limitations and the finality of what we make of our life and of ourselves, pushing us to be responsible.

He continues. The question of ‘responsibility‘ calls into question whether we are truly free or not. If we are indeed victims of life, we have no responsibility for the consequences of our existence. However as victims, we are not truly free. If we are however, to claim to be truly free beings and to have agency over our existence, we cannot then fall back upon the comfort of claiming ‘victimhood’. We must face the reality that our life, and the consequences or our existence, and indeed our total responsibility.

Frankl, as a psychiatrist, saw his role in therapy much the way an eye-surgeon would when dealing with a patient. He worked on the faculty of sight to restore a patient’s ability to see the whole spectrum of his or her potential and the meaning of their life. By helping a patient to become ‘responsible’, he would help them become empowered to actualise the potential meaning of their existence.

And in doing so, no matter the circumstance of his or her life, to become truly free.

On Suffering and Joy

In Victor Frankl’s treatise ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘, he compares suffering to a gas. It will fill any space it’s given.

The 1946 book, first published under the title ‘From Death-camp to Existentialism‘ chronicled Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In it he examines the effects of extreme suffering on the human psyche and outlines the early formation of his life’s work as a psychiatry, namely his method of ‘logotherapy‘ a process by which a patient identifies a purpose in life. At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

Frankl identified that inside the concentration camp, almost any circumstance, great or small, suffering or joy could fill it. For example, a starving, half frozen prisoner of war, deprived of all freedoms, dignity and comforts and driven to work in degrading conditions, can pause and note a beautiful sunset, feeling a moment of joy.

Conversely, a man, well fed, free, warm, wealthy and honoured could feel intense existential suffering for want of any sense of life meaning.

So is the human condition, both fragile and curious.

Out of Africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”

And so in the lilting Danish accent of Meryl Streep, opens Out of Africa, a 1986 film directed by Sydney Pollack.

With sweeping plains of East Africa in view, an attractive cast including Streep and Robert Redford, bolstered by a beautiful musical score by John Barry, ‘Out of Africa‘ went on to win 7 Academy Awards and box office earnings of over USD $227 million.

Based on the memoir with the same title by Danish author Karen Blixen, [Isak Dinesen] the original book was first published in 1937, and recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The film script was adapted with additional material from Dinesen’s book Shadows on the Grass and other sources.

The book’s title is probably an abbreviation of the famous ancient Latin adage,

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi.

Pliny, The Elder

Out of Africa, always something new.

The book and film are a lyrical meditation on Blixen’s life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire.

Noted for its melancholy, nostalgic and elegiac style, biographer Judith Thurman describes Out of Africa using an African tribal phrase:

clear darkness.

The tale covers the deaths of at least five of the important people in Blixen’s life, and is a meditation on her feelings of loss and nostalgia. She describes her failed business, and comments wryly on her mixture of despair and denial, of the sadness she faces there. A brave and hard working woman for whom almost nothing flows smoothly: marriage, love, business, health. Everything is challenging, even crushing.

Why then is such a story, so sad and so melancholy, yet so enduringly popular among movie goers and readers?

Perhaps in true modernist and existentialist style, Blixen captures the feeling of living, the sights, smells, and sensations of a foreign land and the strange and diverse people she meets there. The bitter-sweetness of existence is shared with us through her experience, marked by love, loss, desire, knowing, holding and surrendering.

Blixen was admired by her contemporaries including Ernest Hemingway, who is reported to have said on winning his own Nobel prize in 1954,

I would have been happy – happier – today if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.

What Would Machiavelli Do?

Niccolo Machiavelli was a 16th century Italian diplomat and political theorist, author of The Prince (Il Principe).  His short treatise was published in 1532 and has forever secured his fame [or infamy] as the book is singularly responsible for bringing the word “Machiavellian” into usage as a pejorative word in relation social and political dynamics.

The Prince is sometimes claimed to be one of the first works of modern philosophy, especially political philosophy, in which the pragmatic truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal.

Niccolo Machiavelli

The general theme of the short text is to accept that the aims of princes – such as glory and survival – can justify the use of any rational means to achieve those ends, without recourse to questions of morality.

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

The Prince starts by defining the “state” to mean,

all forms of organization of supreme political power, whether republican or princely.

He then clearly distinguishes new princedoms from hereditary established princedoms, by saying that hereditary ones are much easier to rule. For such a prince,

unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him.

This is opposed to his advice to new princes, for whom as the

… new ruler who will need to establish himself in defiance of custom.

Conquests by “criminal virtue” are ones in which the new prince secures his power. Machiavelli advises that a prince should carefully calculate all the wicked deeds he needs to do to secure his power, and then execute them all at once, such that he need not commit any more wickedness for the rest of his reign. In this way, his subjects will slowly forget his cruel deeds and his reputation can recover.


Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medicito whom the final version of The Prince was dedicated.

Since there are many possible qualities that a prince can be said to possess, he must not be overly concerned about having all the good ones. A prince may be perceived to be merciful, faithful, humane, frank, and religious, but most important is only to seem to have these qualities. A prince cannot truly have these qualities because at times it is necessary to act against them.

In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes,

…it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

Fear is simply a means to an end, and that end is security for the prince. The fear instilled should never be excessive, for that could be dangerous to the prince.

Machiavelli notes that a prince is praised for keeping his word. However, he also notes that a prince is also praised for the illusion of being reliable in keeping his word. A prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard.

As Machiavelli notes,

He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.

In summary, to answer the titular question, ‘What would Machiavelli do?’ one may well surmise he would above all, do what needs to be done…

…for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.

Pygmalion

Pygmalion (Πυγμαλίων Pugmalíōn) is a legendary figure of Cyprus, most familiar from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. He is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has carved.


Depiction of Ovid’s narrative by Jean Raoux.

Having crafted the perfect woman, Pygmalion makes offerings to Aphrodite at her festival day, quietly wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” When he returns home, he kisses his ivory statue, and finds that its lips are warm. He kisses it again, and finds that the ivory has lost its hardness. Aphrodite has granted Pygmalion’s wish. Pygmalion marries the ivory sculpture and they live happily together.

In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, reexamines the myth through the story of underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Higgins teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations. The play inspired the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.


King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, by Edward Burne-Jones, currently hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.

George Bernard Shaw’s re-telling of the Pygmalion myth also draws upon the Elizabethan ballad of King Cophetua. Titled “The King and the Beggar-maid,” the story is Cophetua, tells of an African king who one day while looking out a palace window, witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, “clad all in grey”. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua walks out into the street, he tells Penelophon that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God’s love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,

We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt…

In classical fairy tales, the maiden is woken from an enchanted sleep by the kiss of the Prince, just as Pygmalion, the sculptor awakens his bride, with a kiss. Moreover, Professor Higgins endows Eliza with dignity and pride, bringing her ‘to life‘ by bestowing upon her the graces of society. But these tales offer little nuance to what may occur to an unsuspecting creator once he has summoned a real life woman with agency and choice, into his life.

It is not love to to fashion a person as though an object, to be pure and good, endowed with life yet with the expectation it will remain good and pure in perpetuity? A mannequin or socially engineered project like Eliza Doolittle cannot truly feel loved nor genuinely love in return under such conditions.

Bernard Shaw’s play notoriously does not end with the fairy-tale love story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Rather Eliza rebels from Higgins, refusing to fetch his slippers and he grows furious for “lavishing” his knowledge and his “regard and intimacy” on a “heartless guttersnipe” who he has made “a consort for a king.”  The Hollywood film version ‘My Fair Lady’ of course rejected such a realistic ending in favour of, well a Hollywood one.

What is reality then? The Hebrew prophets tell of a tragic drama between YHWH and his people, here depicted as a young girl taken from poverty to be the bride of the King. Ezekiel 16 reads:

10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.

However, the bride does not remain beautiful and obedient for the king. She soon rebels, turning to prostitution and idol worship and even giving her children up for human sacrifices.

15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute… 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution... 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 

The prophet continues to lament all of Israel’s misfortunes as resulting from the self inflicted chaos of Israel’s choices, a once chosen and adorned bride who chased other lovers. He closes with a reminder of YHWHs eternal promises.

Soren Kierkegaard’s version of the ballad of King Cophetua, ‘The King and the Maiden’ retells the tale with the king willing to take on the clothes of a beggar to claim the woman he loves. It is he that abases himself rather than she he elevates, lest he overwhelm her with his power and grandeur and never truly claim her heart.

The King and the Maiden

This short story strikes at the heart of the reader, for love is true love not when the object of desire is bestowed with graces to make her worthy of love, but when she is met by the humbled heart of one earnestly and repeatedly wishing to know her win her heart, one indeed willing to suffer the pains of loving her and her imperfections and keep coming back to an eternal promise of love.

Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound is a 5th century BC Greek tragedy attributed to the playwright Aeschylus. It recounts the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who defies the gods and gives fire to mankind. Prometheus is famously subjected to perpetual punishment for this kindness, becoming a precursor to rebel heroes of literature and popular culture, who stand against tyranny and suffer for the freedom of others.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Προμηθεύς,  meaning “forethought”) is is credited with the creation of man from water and earth and for enabling the progress of civilization. Prometheus not only gives the gift of fire to mankind but he also teaches humanity all the civilizing arts, such as writing, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, architecture, and agriculture.


Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger. 

The Titans, of which Prometheus is one, were members of the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology succeeding the primordial deities born from the void of Chaos. The Greek story of creation, much of which entails the violent warring between the primordial deities such as Gaia (earth), Uranus (sky) and Chronos (time) is said to have been adapted by Hesiod from eastern creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish. 


Prometheus watches Athena endow his creation with reason (painting by Christian Griepenkerl, 1877)

The Titan Chronos (time) wins the primordial battle and establishes the Golden Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, (Theogony, 511–616) the Golden Age was an era when:

[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.

The peace of the Golden Age was upturned when Chronos was overthrown by his son Zeus, to establish the reign of the Olympians gods or the Silver Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, the Titan Prometheus supported Zeus in his war against Chronos, however later undermined Zeus’s authority by thwarting his plan to obliterate the human race, and further helping humanity by stealing fire for them (Hesiod, Theogony, 565-566) .

Zeus sentences the Titan to eternal torment for his rebellion by ordering him to be bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the symbol of Zeus, was sent to eat his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day and forever. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, descendant of Zeus, slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from his torment (520–528).

In Hesiod’s account, Prometheus is no hero. He contributes to human suffering by gifting humanity fire and granting them independence from the gods, and loss of innocence. On the other hand, in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus is portrayed as the rebel with a conscience, whose crime – his love of the humans he created – brings not only the rage of the gods, but eternal suffering and the sympathy of the human audience.


Prometheus (1909) by Otto Greiner

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Romantic artists admired the Promethean figure, using him a a foundation for the Romantic hero who, resisting the oppressive forms of society foresees a future in which all such repression will be overthrown. In light of the Napoleonic wars, the American war of Independence, the French Revolution and other struggles of the era, the emancipation of humanity from tyrannous rule was indeed topical and required a strong, emancipating hero.

Writers such as Byron’s saw Prometheus’ victory over the gods, in a metaphysical sense, as a refusal to submit to

‘the inexorable Heaven, / And the deaf tyranny of Fate’ (ll. 18–19),

and to go to one’s grave

‘Triumphant’ by ‘making Death a Victory’ (ll. 58–9).

As such the figure of Prometheus [bringer of fire] was compared with Milton’s defiant character Lucifer [bearer of light]for embodying the spirit of rebellion.


Prometheus Bound by Thomas Cole (1847)

On the other hand, other Romantic writers saw the Promethean hero to prefigure Christ, as a divine being who suffers horrible tortures for the sake of mankind in face of the will of the gods. How then could one literary figure represent both Christ and Satan, holding qualities of both rebel and sacrificial hero?

Percy Shelley, writing Prometheus Unbound, posited that hatred narrows perception. He writes:

Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement

Shelley’s version of the Promethean hero focuses upon transformation, made possible by the act of forgiveness. While Byron’s retelling of the Promethean myth puts the emphasis exclusively upon defiance, Shelley’s hero forgives his oppressor, and suffers for his creation, setting in motion a process which leads to a new world, freed from oppression.


Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan by Dirck van Baburen

Writing to the political climate of his day, Shelley rejected the cycle within history of replacing one tyrant with another.

… until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

As such Shelley’s Promethean hero, champions free will, goodness, hope and idealism in the face of oppression.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.


Heracles freeing Prometheus from his torment by the eagle (Attic black-figure cup, c. 500 BCE)

S. E. Hinton

 Susan Eloise Hinton (born July 22, 1948) is an American writer best known for her young-adult novels which she wrote during high school. Hinton was 15 when she started writing her first novel, The Outsiders, and 18 years of age when the book was published. 

Hinton is a brilliant example to aspiring writers to not be inhibited by age or inexperience.

The Outsiders, her first and most popular novel, is set in Oklahoma in the 1960s and was inspired by people at Hinton’s high school. It details the conflict between two rival gangs divided by their socioeconomic status: the working-class “greasers” and the upper-class “Socs” (pronounced ‘soshes’—short for Socials). Hinton wrote from the point of view of the Greasers, showing a desire to show empathy for the underdog.

Since it was first published when she was only 18 years of age, the book has sold more than 14 million copies and still sells more than 500,000 a year. 

The Outsiders is told in first-person perspective by teenage protagonist Ponyboy Curtis. It recounts Ponyboy’s relationship with his two brothers, his tough oldest brother Darry and the easy going and likeable Sodapop in the wake of their parents’ recent deaths in a car crash. Ponyboy’s soft and poetic nature is set against the harsh environment of his gang world. When fleeing the authorities after a gang death, Ponyboy cuts and dyes his hair as a disguise, reads Gone with the Wind to fellow fugitive Johnny, and, upon viewing a beautiful sunrise, recites the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.

The novel is essentially a coming of age story of disaffected youth, and its enduring popularity is testament to the young writers voice.

A film adaptation was produced in 1983, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring many of the top young actors of the ’80s including Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, and Rob Lowe. The film grossed $30 million from a $10 million budget and Coppola followed it the next year by adapting Hinton’s sequel, Rumble Fish and featuring many of the same cast and crew.

When the book was first released, Hinton’s publisher suggested she use her initials so that book reviewers would not dismiss the novel because its author was female. For a 15 year old female writing about her teen experience of the 1960s, Hinton’s work is a reminder to all aspiring writers to tell our stories without inhibition. You never know what enduring legacy the story you tell, might have.