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.

A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

A-Tale-Of-Two-Cities-no-TT-1170x476

What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

crowd

Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

prison

In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

Paris

As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

A Tale of Two Cities

Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

A Christmas Carol

scrooge

Who doesn’t love a good story of Scrooge at Christmas? The miserly man who hates the holiday cheer, is reformed through a series of rather confronting dreams and wakes to a new lease on life, love and generosity.

However, on closer inspection,  the story may have sinister 19th century overtones.  Ebenezer [Hebrew for “help of God”] Scrooge,  owns a counting house and is a notoriously miserly business man. He has no love for Christmas, and hates the very sentiment. However, three spirits appear to him in dreams and show him Christmases past and present, recounting life events including his own future death. This is enough to inspire in him a love of the Christmas and good cheer to all.

Does anyone else notice something suspicious about a cold hearted, money hungry, eccentric old man, with a Jewish name in London, chief of a counting house who hates the very idea of Christian holiday ? Faced with his own imminent cold grave, his own selfishness is illuminated, he repents and becomes joyful and generous.

a-christmas-carol1

The story moves from a tale of human redemption to something dated by racial overtones. While the story of restoration through a realisation of Christ’s birth is joyful, unfortunately Dickens tale errs to moralism – Scrooge is Jewish and selfish and should become Christian and generous.  I’m not the only one who thinks so:

http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/dailyrft/2010/12/dickens_christmas_carol_anti-s.php

If Christians are to tell stories of redemption, we are better to take a biblical [and indeed Hebrew] perspective of how the narrative plays out. The protagonist is always the common one, always flawed. One does not become a follower of Christ by accepting the holidays and charitable ways – but by radically being confronted by the grace given.