Why such a terror of the fictionality of fiction? Relax. There’s no need to feel ashamed. No one is going to find you out. They already know. That’s the contract. The whole job is to make a pretence. If you can write, you can get the reader to immerse. There’s no need to be so desperate to encourage suspension of disbelief. Voice will do it. A couple of details will do it. There’s no need to present yourself as a holiday destination. No one really believes these alien planets you invented are actually there; to be honest, no one really believes this bus station you drew so painstakingly from life is actually there. No one thinks the worse of you because you are just another human being telling a story. That’s why we look up suddenly in delight in the pub and say, “You’re having me on!” I’d rather pile up real facts to reveal something evidently unreal than pile up invented facts to make something unreal seem real.
I found this joke comment on a writing forum and it made me laugh/think of your view of worldbuilding: “Look, your ideas don’t mean shit unless they live in a world. So I implore you, please spend the next several years building a world! Don’t write anything down until you know who your main character’s uncle is and whether he is allergic to gluten. Then AND ONLY THEN may you write.”
There has to be the feeling of a “world” (in all sorts of senses, not just, say, the social or geographic), even in a Beckettian monologue delivered from an empty stage. But you can assume a world from so little, and readers will. So I’m more interested in economy than encyclopaedism, in how little you can get away with rather than how much you can cram in. A few years ago I began to wonder if obsessive-compulsive worldbuilding was really a kind of guilt, essentially an attempt to pretend that you weren’t writing fiction at all. It’s certainly an attempt to gloss over or deny the major pivot between the reader and the contents of the text: ie, the writing. Without the voice, without the agreement to be told & the complicity of listening, the fiction simply can’t exist. It can never be run as an independent, unmediated experience inside the head. That would require telepathy. Or that the reader was not reading but making up the text.
Perhaps it’s the reader’s rejection of the externality of the text that’s at issue around this whole thing.
I obviously roughly agree since I enjoy your texts. But maybe you have still slightly failed because occasionally I find myself hankering after more “data” about the world of a text, and am slightly disappointed having to provide it myself, thinking yours would have been more interesting.
Glad it’s only occasional…
Anecdotally, obsessive worldbuilding seems to appeal to engineers and the like who aren’t really interested in metaphor or allusion.
“And the like” makes me sound dismissive there, I just mean people of a more technical bent.
Readers may be good at constructing certain kinds of things in their heads and poor at constructing others. Say, it might be easy to construct the atmosphere of a bar from only little hints, but more difficult to interpolate the motivation and traits of a character who has been through extraordinary events. Of course it’s good to exercise those atrophied areas of imagination. I’m not complaining.
As for character: for me, what’s on the page is what you get. What you see the character do is the character’s character. Although, of course, other characters often speculate about it… I couldn’t conform to a pre-loaded trait paradigm (indeed working directly against that concept was what built my own idea of “characterisation” in the late 70s). As for motivation, I don’t believe in it & therefore try never to show anything resembling it, unless it’s (usually absurdly incompetent & self-deceiving) internalised speculation on the part of a character.
Did you have these ideas during the writing of a Storm of Wings? I’m reading it now for the first time and it seems to me to be a turning point in your style.
You don’t really have turning points, because all sorts of changes are going on simultaneously for quite long periods. Also, if you’re me, most of your experiments take place in the short story anyway, where you can testbed ideas a lot quicker and more often. It’s a long, slow process to develop enough stress in the work to force catastrophic change. I can see now that I was changing constantly but at the same time moving towards exactly the same goals, since I started. From the mid 70s, the short stories & novels were consciously on quite different tracks, written with quite different motives. (You see that if you do a direct comparison between Storm of Wings and “The Ice Monkey”, written in the same year: they might be written by different people.) Certainly something fairly visible was going on, in my life, my reading and the writing, at that time. The other side of it you have In Viriconium, the majority of the Viriconium short stories and the kinds of short stories collected in The Ice Monkey. And you have Climbers. That kind of switch has been repeated a couple of times since, always in an attempt to move myself along & get closer to the sensibility & technical capability I wanted to have when I was twenty.
What if… just what if worldbuilding, and especially complex and tediously photoreal worldbuilding was necessary and important in order to distract the writer from what they are writing about? To get the writer out of the way by doing a load of interior decor and worrying about whether they are going to remember the guests’ names and whether the milk has gone off, precisely so that something else can emerge from a direction that the overburdened writer has deliberately blindsided themselves from seeing arrive fully in bloom.
What if these sorts of things?
[shrugs] Nothing forces anyone to keep everything they write in the finished text. You can do completely automatic writing if you like, then cut & cut & cut when you’ve isolated what you were looking for. I understand that you might want to put the reader through the same process: but I think that’s a different kind of writing, with different goals, than the kind we know I’m talking about. The more often I think about this the more I realise the point I’m trying to make is about materials technology and overengineering. Worldbuilding isn’t unnecessary, the world just doesn’t need to be built out of three inch iron plates riveted together & requiring three megawatts of propulsion just to overcome its own weight, let alone haul goods.
I really think there might be something in this idea of guilt, too, the liar adding detail after faux detail to reify–verify–the lie.
Yes, I think it’s a different type of writing too, in that overdriving a process of this sort might act as a revelatory mania while worldbuilding of the standard sort is writing with half an eye towards the big prize: can you sell the game, the action figures, the movie rights; the franchise that is mostly held together through yr own superior understanding of the exact dimensions of the game?
And on the second point: I believe that Freud said something about this sort of added value in certain species of lying: I didn’t write this book with an intention of selling the film rights, and besides, I haven’t been to the cinema in years.
Interesting. I haven’t got to the Ice Monkey yet, is the Incalling part of it? That’s incredible that one. I agree about the liar piling on detail to reinforce his fantasy, when you’re telling a funny story to someone in person you usually only give them a few strokes to set the scene cause you want to get to the funny bit as quickly as possible, the meat of what you’re trying to say.
It reminds me of CGI effects in that manner, CGI being a case of something being “overwritten” in a visual sense. I recently saw the Hitchhikers Guide movie quickly followed by the old BBC one. The old cardboard sets were no less convincing than the shiny expensive ones in the Hollywood version as they simply did their job of setting the scene for the drama and left it at that.
A bad storyteller always seems to start too far back from the point and then too long on the wrong details.
Get the Excel spreadsheet of gnome demographics just right. Shade those crooked mountaintops in the top right to just the right elevation. The pages are starting to elongate, something like a disgruntled swan. Soon your reader licks their forefinger and has to reach behind them to fumble for the recto edge. Every turn of the page turns into a self-swaddling. Certainly the point is to physically build worlds which is way way more feasible than it sounds if only you know where to start. A little stomach and bowel in the spine, a little hydrochloric acid and protease enzyme in the ink. Readers rich in proteins, who will feel more engaged.
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