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.

Much Ado About Nothing

Queensland Theatre Company [QTC] recently produced Much Ado About Nothing and set the play in a contemporary beach-side home of wealthy widower Leonato, with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. Here they celebrate the visit of the Prince of Aragon, and his friends Count Claudio and Signor Benedick, men who are returned from service in the Royal Naval Forces.

The production was director Jason Klarwein’s mainstage directorial debut and to his credit, is raucusly funny and accessible. With a clever revolving set, the addition of live musical numbers, some audience interplay and a talented cast of actors – the production effectively wrings meaning and comedy from every turn.

MUCHADOLISTING

Much Ado, tells a lively and relateable tale of romance and betrayal and draws out the tensions between the the enslaving powers and institutions of love and the allure of freedom and independence.

Shakespeare’s greatness lies in part, to his masterful use of language and poetry and in part to his nuanced insights into human jealousy, love, hubris, revenge and vulnerabilities. As such, transplanting the story to a contemporary context only serves to highlight the humorous truths and insightful understanding of human beings through Shakespeare’s plays now some 400 years old.

What is most striking about Shakespearean staples such as Much Ado, is that they are not dissimilar to soapies or cheap penny-novellas in essence. They are made of the same stuff – star crossed-love stories, dilemmas of mistaken identities, machinations of wicked antagonists and the dysfunctions of family and culture.

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But what makes them different to mere pulp fiction?

Instead of succumbing to cliche, Shakespeare shines light onto seemingly every facet of broken humanity to reveal the humorous, tragic, poignant and transcendent elements of love, revenge and redemption. Much Ado for example, reveals from the mouth of Beatrice remarkably insightful feminist dialogue on the plight of a woman in love and marriage, her resistance to being owned by a man and caged like a bird.

It is commonly accepted that Shakespeare plagiarised common medieval plots for his plays and innovated on their bare bones structures. Watching the delightful comedy, set in contemporary time and place, laughing outright at the scathing burns and witty insights of the characters whether knowing or unknowing – one is reminded that classic does not mean new, it just means “truer” and “more timeless.”

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So today, we remake Shakespeare, just as in his day, Shakespeare remade medieval and classic court tales. The beauty of classics is that there exist layers of truth each subsequent generation can appreciate.

 

 

A Brave New World

Brave New World [1932], by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian novel set in futuristic London. On our calendar it would be AD 2540.

The story opens in the year 632 A.F.—”Anno Ford” or rather 632 years since the year of the first Model T production. This future world is founded entirely on “Fordian” methods of mass production and consumption.

The events transpire in The World State, a benevolent dictatorship headed by ten World Controllers over a stable global society.

brave new world 2

It is to all appearances a successful world in which everyone appears to be content and satisfied. It is a world of advanced technology and science, peaceful and stable. However, upon closer inspection, this stability is only achieved by sacrificing freedom in its true sense. Progressive efforts to eliminate any sorrow or disharmony have also eradicated any individual identity or responsibility.

We are introduced to Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx, members of the Alpha caste. They both work within the Hatcheries where human embryos are raised artificially. Bernard oversees the hypnopaedic process, a system of subconscious messaging to form growing children’s self-image.

Children are bred to fit into ranked castes with Greek letter names, from Alpha (the highest) to Epsilon (the lowest) each with different economic roles. The lower castes are bred for low intelligence and conditioned not to think but the more intelligent upper castes are socially conditioned by taboos.

Art and culture has ceased to exist, literature is banned as subversive, as is scientific thinking and experimentation.

Shallow and hedonistic lifestyles are promoted; recreational sex rather than emotional ties are celebrated. Any pain is reduced by the freely accessible hallucinogenic drug soma. Moreover, to maintain the World State’s economy, citizens are conditioned to promote consumption and hence production, reciting platitudes such as “spending is better than mending

 

soma

Bernard disapproves of society and is vocal about his differences and he is threatened with exile because of his nonconformity. On an outing to a Savage reservation outside of civilisation, he encounters Linda, a woman who has a biological son John. She had become pregnant by the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, a societal taboo which leads her to hide away with shame.

Linda has taught John to read, although from only two books: a scientific manual from her job in the hatchery, and a Collected Works of Shakespeare. John, naive to the world, can only expound his feelings in terms of Shakespearean drama.

book cover

It is John’s desire to see the “brave new world” which inspires Bernard to take them to the Director of Hatcheries. Presenting him with his unknown son and past lover, Bernard humiliates the Director who resigns in shame.

Bernard and John are then brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident “World Controller for Western Europe”. They are told they are to be punished for antisocial activity.

Mond outlines to them the events that led to the present society and his arguments for a caste system and social control. While Mond’s words are designed to convince,  John rejects them and Mond sums up the dilemma by stating that in demanding freedom, John demands “the right to be unhappy“.

John concurs.

huxley

Huxley said that Brave New World was inspired in reaction to the utopian novels of H. G. Wells, especially, A Modern Utopia (1905).  He rejected the enlightenment view that science and technology would progress society only onward and upward. Having lived through the First World War and observing concerning trends in his own industrial and modernist society, he posits a futuristic society grounded in these elements.

The prognosis is grim.

Huxley uses the irony in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, to make his point. He cites the passage in which Miranda exclaims:

O wonder!
How many godly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206

 

The excerpt is drawn from when Miranda, like John raised in isolation, sees other people for the first time, is overcome with excitement and utters the famous line above. However, what she is actually observing is representatives of the worst of humanity, traitors and manipulators.

Like other dystopian novels such as “The Giver” or “1984,” Huxley’s novel explores the relationship between advances in technology and the [in]credibility of creating a utopian society. He highlights concerns for the direction of his own society and hypothesises about the the controls necessary to manufacture a world without pain and suffering.

Freedom, individuality, relational ties, the arts, the ability to question. All of these are linked to feeling pain and suffering. Perhaps the “right to be unhappy” as John, steeped in Shakespeare, realises,  is the greatest freedom we humans have?

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Prison Drama

William Shakespeare wrote:  [As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii].

All the world is a stage

Well from the plethora of literary and narrative representations of characters in prison, one could equally state:

All the world is a prison.

From Viktor Frankl’s work “Man’s Search for Meaning” to Sohlzenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich“, to Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption“,

Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman sitting outside on the benches playing checkers and talking in a scene from the film 'The Shawshank Redemption', 1994. (Photo by Castle Rock Entertainment/Getty Images)

and added to by prisoner of war movies such as “The Great Escape“, J G Ballard’s “The Empire of the Sun” and more recently the biopic of Louis Zamperini,  “Unbroken” the list of prison dramas goes on and on and on.

Unbroken

Men and women trapped within a confined space with others of diverse backgrounds and with complex stories, facing chafing constraints, hardship and oftentimes abusive treatment from powerholders – seem to carry the strongest metaphors for the experience of living.

Narratives of mental asylums as prisons go even deeper.

mary-ellen-mark-cast-of-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest-posing-for-their-photograph-on-location-at-the-oregon-state-hospital-salem-oregon-mary-ellen-mark-1974

Consider “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” and Scorcese’s bad but good “Shutter Island.” Throw in a bit of madness and give the crazy ones the dialogue that makes the most sense.

Oppose this by giving the sane, dialogue full of subterfuge and chicanery and the metaphors escalate.

Shakespeare saw his world as a play; madness, hubris, revenge, love and lust were all played out upon the dusty boards of a theatre and observed by a crowd for their entertainment, edification and esteem.

OITNB

More modern narratives see this world as a madhouse, a prison of sorts, ruled by despotic guards, nurses and gatekeepers. No great narrator rules this universe, the protagonists struggle for hope, alone with other inmates for cheer.

Prison it seems a perfect platform to explore existential meaning for each generation. Within the constraints, tension, trials and suffering of this petri-dish, the characters explore what it is to “be” and find their “why” for living.

Prison dramas at their best bring out the why of living.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote:

nietzsceh

 

 

Sonnet CXXX

ugly woman

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and in sonnet 130 he turns to satire to mock poetry itself and the tradition of lofty allusions and hypberbole.  By outlining his lover’s human qualities, he mentions the conventional poetic features, eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks, breath, voice, movements as they appear in common day and not in his mind’s eye. Above all things he acknowledges she “treads on the ground” and in doing so,  he claims to be more faithful, for he loves her truest being. 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.