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.

O, For a Muse of Fire

Henry V,

Act I, Scene I. Prologue: Enter Chorus

Chorus:

O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

So starts the prologue to Shakespeare’s history, Henry V. In metanarrative the chorus goes on to call attention to the fact that this is but a company of actors, upon wooden boards, within a humble “cockpit” of a theatre, conjuring the magnificent histories of England and the battles of France and England at Agincourt.

shakespeare

…………… But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: 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 audience is asked to populate, through their imaginings, the vast armies,  cavalries of horsemen in the battle field, one or two actors transformed into hundreds of characters, and within a few hours, the happenings of years of historical events, all within the “narrow girdle of these walls”

the globe

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may

Attest in little place a million;

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

………

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

………

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: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” the chorus speaks to the audience, removing the veil of pretence between the two, breaking the “fourth wall”. The adult audience is being asked to enter into the play, to become a part of it by supplying the props, sets, scenery and extraneous cast. The audience is actively PLAY-ing.

shakespearean acting

This holidays I am at home with three neices, between 2 years and 8 years of age. I see them move between games and conversation, pausing casually to nibble imaginatively on a wooden piece of cake painted brightly. One sits dialoguing with her dolls,  the other role playing with costumes. Their pace is constant, like tightly wound tops they move without ceasing,  activity after activity, sometimes absorbed, sometimes quarrelsome. They are a marvel of imaginative involvement, mostly content unless tired or hungry.

All the time I see them learning. Learning to hit a ping pong ball for the first time, swinging and missing, and slowing learning coordination.  When restrained too long amidst adult conversation they grow restless and sulky, wanting desperately to keep on playing. Play, play, they want to play. The little knowledge I have of early education is that play is essential to childhood learning. It is a marvel of nature that children are compelled to play, to imagine and to explore. Difficult things are learned daily, a fearful world is explored and mysterious customs of the adult world, far beyond comprehension absorbed by imitation.

I reflect on the year of learning I have experienced – I would describe it “painful”, marked by “failure”, “hard work” at times “discouraging” and mostly “tiring.” When did we lose our sense of PLAY when learning new and difficult things? Why is not every new endeavour covered all around by imagination and role playing?

Furthermore I view a world troubled by international events, politics, religion, commerce, power. How can we as adults enter the “cockpit” of the Globe Theatre, and learn the messy business of life from a company of rag-tag actors and artisans? How can we thump each other with wooden swords, and die deaths from vials of poisons, bleed with ribboned blood and then rise at the end to bow and exit stage left? How can we play out our conflicts and not hurt each other deeply

How can our life and learning by led by “a muse of fire”?