I didn’t set out to be a writer. I was raised by a single mother, putting herself through grad school typing up other students’ papers for them back when typing skills were rare enough to make this a feasible way to make money. There was a Christmas or two, when I was very young, that we were the recipients of the local Catholic charity tree and presents–you know, the stuff you dump in the bins every other year if you think about it. We were that family. I have memories of staring at dried milk and potato flakes in the store, all we could afford. I stood there in the flourescent-bathed aisle, longing for a real glass of liquid, frothy milk, and a whole potato, with crisped red skin.
Our lives got better. We moved to California so that Mom could stop typing papers and teach political science at a good university. She finished her doctorate in the sun, with actual glass bottles of organic, cream-top, fresh milk in the fridge, and steaming potatoes wrapped in glittering foil. But I never forgot the taste of Butter Buds and Alpine Aire, the smiling children on their red boxes, how utterly I knew their happiness and healthy smiles were lies. Between those boxes and my mother, her hard life and her very serious lessons on what it means to be a grown-up, how you can never rely on anyone to support you, and that to be self-sufficient is deadly important for a woman in this world, I sure as hell was never going to do anything as risky and low-income as writing fiction for a living.
It sounds bizarre, given all that, to say that I went to school to study Classics. But I meant to emulate my mother, to teach Greek and Latin to pre-med students until I could get tenure. Then I would be safe, you see. Then I could breathe.
It was a good plan. If not for epic fantasy, I might have managed it.
Now, that’s not fair. Epic fantasy didn’t ruin my life. It didn’t lead me to opium dens where elderly, wizened Chinese men passed redolent copies of Tolkien around a room, or to dice halls where you could lose all your first edition Eddingses in a fast hand of Texas Hold ‘Em. But it did teach me that it is practically required for a lost and lonely child without terribly much to eat, growing up without a father, to pursue an impossible and astonishing destiny, to become something wonderful, to strive against odds.
Who was I to argue with the thousands upon thousands of pages of epic fantasy that I ingested over the course of my childhood? Sure, none of those destined children were girls, and they usually ended up having royal pedigrees I certainly didn’t, but what is inarguably a cliche does serve a purpose, the purpose most fairy tales serve, the purpose of most stories, in the end: now and again to teach a child that there is a slim, but very real, possibility of a world beyond their own dark and frightening kingdom.
As an adult, however, epic fantasy seems to me to be the most problematic of all fantasy sub-genres, pestilent with the twin orcs of cliche and derivative narratives that flirt with plagarism. But it is that very danger that makes epic fantasy so relentlessly attractive, so ripe for re-invention every decade or so by a new Michael Moorcock or George R.R. Martin. Like any ruined maid, epic fantasy has all the prettiest clothes and all the filthiest morals. No one wants to bring her home, but everyone’s had her, and most have gone back for seconds.
We love it because it’s broken. And like Henry Higgins, most of us think we’re just the terribly clever kids to fix it. But we always run up against those pretty clothes and those filthy morals, and if you’ve forgiven this over-extended metaphor, then I’m reasonably sure you’ll let me take it just a little further on.
Worldbuilding is the hoop skirt and the hoop earrings and the feathers in the hair and even the corset that makes objects inside it appear larger than they are. We really can’t be blamed for falling for this kind of thing. Most SFF authors are nerds at heart, and to list, to categorize, to arrange, to label and annotate is essential nerd-activity. Given an entire universe utterly under our own sway, who among us can resist chronicling the geneologies of ticks on the hindquarters of the King’s sister’s least favorite dog? More importantly, if Tolkien himself was addicted to appendices, why should we resist? After all, most SFF readers have a healthy geek-streak in them, too. When I’m asked about worldbuilding, the question most often revolves around how much is too much, how do you know when to stop, where is the line between a believable world and an over-determined one. Behind all of these is the assumption that we are all of us battling the forces of crushing pedantry at every stroke of the keyboard.
The answers have to do with the whole idea of worldbuilding itself. The idea that as authors of fantasy, we are in the business of creating worlds with unique rules and attributes which must be communicated to the reader before they could ever hope to understand the story they all showed up to hear. It just isn’t so. At best, we create an alternate history to the world we live in, this very one, the one with Butter Buds and kids with poor typing skills and doctorates. Show me a map in the beginning of a doorstopper that isn’t a warped version of England or Europe, or if the writer really went nuts, South America. A world where the basic physics of our own do not hold, beyond standard magical tropes such as flight, trans-substatiation, and giant fireballs. Anything that a first-year alchemy student in the 15th century didn’t figure his thesis advisor knew how to do and would totally tell him if the Magister didn’t have to guard the secret against the grubby hands of plebian society. It’s hard enough to find a fantasy world that doesn’t strictly hew to the gender roles and economic structure of the 15th century, let alone stretches to such impossibilities as twelve-legged horses and government by anything but hereditary monarchy.
The fact is, there’s no such thing as worldbuilding. Not in epic fantasy. What is happening instead is that the author is playing historian to a world very like our own, where technology is replaced by magic and the VIN numbers have been filed off and replaced by long names with extraneous apostrophes. And historians are fighting pedantry with every step, agonizing over how much they know that the average person could never understand, but is just so cool when it’s just the cool kids–everyone with enough felt to pad an elbow. The historian’s best approach is an easy rule of thumb: assume the reader is basically familiar with how the world works, at least enough to make it from his house to his car in the morning, and provide only as much context as is absolutely necessary for understanding the events at hand, which is usually not terribly much, as everyone groks the basic psych profile at work: wants to stay king/wants to kill king/wants to be king. It’s not exactly complex, and knowing who Ethelred the Unready’s second cousin was is not key or even necessary to understanding the Battle of Hastings.
The more interesting example, come to think of it, is whether it is necessary to know that the deposed King in question was named Ethelred the Unready. Almost certainly not. However, it provides unbeatable color, interest, and a peek into the mindset of the kind of people who would name their King that and not take his brother aside and ask if he’s ever thought of a career in public service. That detail is not necessary, but it is vital, because it pulls a double shift. It conveys information about the culture while at the same time foreshadowing the conclusion of the battle. It’s also a little hilarious. Any detail that doesn’t do double duty, and preferably triple, should be right out.
Understanding the historian’s issues is a double-edged (mystical) sword: it means that so long as everything rolls along basically the way earth history does, (or as we tell ourselves it does, because I’ve got news for you: even Trajan’s family took three generations to go from slave to Roman Emperor and they were famous for the speed of their social mobility) epic fantasy holds together, has gravitas, feels muscular, real, solid. But it also means that high fantasy is the least likely of all sub-genres to depart from the political structure of your average game of RISK, and the familiar ups and downs of earth history become just that: familiar, repeatable, dull, predictable.
There’s a solution to that, and it has to do with filthy morals. Remember the over-extended metaphor?
The thing is, once the “world” is “built,” inevitably, people have to live in it. Fortunately, epic fantasy does not require real people. It comes with a roster of easily-insertable archetypes which were only archetypes when Joseph Campbell was talking about them, and have long ago become robots, androids, machines with deceptive human faces. It is your duty to kill them, for the good of your race.
The level of ripping-off that goes on is truly epic, and it’s not just Tolkien, who hardly created the most scintillating characters known to man. At this point it’s copies of copies, with massive generation loss. Tolkien was at least riffing off (an important distinction, ripping off and riffing off) of organic, self-replicating folklore. The field today is firmly on the side of the robots, and running Xeroxes of cardboard cutouts. The trouble with the hero with a thousand faces is that once you get four or five of those faces in a room, there are a limited number of stories that can play out, and all of them have been played out before. Again, the double-edged mystical sword strikes for half-damage: archetypal stories are archetypal because they work, way beyond our modern brains’ ability to sniff and seek something more rarified. It’s reptile-brain territory. Your lizard-brain knows absolutely that when the ambitious duke wearing black is dining with the good king wearing white and the king’s kind but soft-hearted son that shit is about to go down, and it starts hollering with all its cold-blooded, atavistic strength for the good guys to run, to save themselves, fly, you fools!
If you do it right, you can ransom that poor, dumb king with the money you make telling the same damn story over and over, and readers will still be moved to tears, and children will still take strength from it. Such is the power of hard-wired backbrain-narrative, the stories we’ve been telling since we were squatting around a fire on the savannah. But if you blow it, it’s the worst storytelling there is, and frankly, most of us are going to blow it. Backbrain books aren’t easy–in their whole careers most writers manage one book that hits the bone and the heart and the DNA so hard readers can’t catch a breath. Even the big guy, my boy J.R., got one.
So what’s the solution? How do you do epic fantasy, which thrives and relies on familiar narrative, neither assuming that you have an IV in the universal vein or getting so wrapped up in your precious creation that you miss Hastings for staring at Ethelred’s tapestries?
So there’s this kid. Grows up in the middle of nowhere. No father, mother’s not around much. Hates the crappy food at home, dreams of something more. One day, the kid turns out to be really good at something, and the world opens up, awful and beautiful and threatening and enticing. Everything the kid thought was desirable and good enough falls away, and something better, something worse, something harder, something brighter, becomes possible.
Is this a story about a boy on a farm who discovers he’s meant to wield an ancient sword and restore a fallen kingdom to its rightful ruler? Or is it a story about a girl who gagged on Alpine Aire Dry Skim Milk and dreamed of a quiet tenure until she found box after box of books with ancient swords on the covers? What you know about the farmboy is vague, archetypal, serviceable, generic. What you know about the girl is specific, culturally indicative, a little pathetic, even. It’s the same story, the difference is only in the worldbuilding–the boy doesn’t live in a world, he lives in a Campbellian holodeck. The girl lives in this world–and to any character ever constructed, the world they live in is this world, just their own world, the only possible world, it doesn’t have a fancy name any more than we call our world Gaia, and it cannot, by definition, be filled with the generic and the vague.
The moral is: you get one. Either an archetypical story or a derivative world. For the other, you have to ante up. You use something personal, something that tastes bitter in your mouth, that’s hard to write. The most successful series of recent years took all the familiar tropes and changed one thing, whether it’s killing main characters like there’s a fire sale on tombstones or using the word “fuck” a whole lot. But you have to pick something you can sell as real, true, honest as milk, gritty as all hell, because readers want to both be comforted and feel that they’re edgy, erudite consumers of literature. It’s either a girl who hates the taste of Butter Buds and loves ancient Greek verbs who finds the sword and deposes the wicked king or it’s a farmer’s blandly blond son who grows bitter and angry over the lack of mystical weaponry on his land, learning the name of every sheep in the county, until he smothers his family in a night of grief and rage and misplaced destiny. Either one of those is a hell of a lot better than yet another shepherd turning into a king, which is just a Jesus riff, in the end, and I hear he’s got a nasty team of copyright lawyers.