Sure you can have elves and dragons, time travel and aliens. Myth and alternative technology are part of world-building in fantasy and sci-fi. But the real alternative worlds are inside people’s heads. To take the reader emotionally into a fictional world, the writer must show us how the main characters understand this world. Every world in fiction is a mentality – a way of understanding, a means of making judgements, a catalogue of right and wrong. To build a world, we must build our characters.
Consider, for example, an old jalopy. To one character this might just be a heap of rust, a shameful sign of poverty. To another character, the same car might be a challenge, a promise of something to be restored, a long summer full of happy activity. Different characters invest the same landscape and the same object with a multiplicity of significances.
I’m interested in how people create meaning in their world and negotiate shared meanings with others. And I was stuck at a fulcrum chapter in the book I’m writing, The Tears of Boabdil in how I was to achieve that with my main character. The novel is a braided narrative (thanks, Paula, for reminding me of that term). It combines a gritty police tale of an agent infiltrating a jihadist group, a forbidden love, and the magical power of narrative. In this chapter, the undercover police agent meets his handler. I needed to find a way of showing that the character inhabits a world not quite like our own, and I was struggling to express his rules.
The answer came from an unexpected source – a book I’ve been reading on the meaning of Palaeolithic art by Jean Clottes (What is Palaeolithic Art). Whether Clottes, a world expert on the cave paintings of southwest France, is right or wrong in his interpretation I don’t know, and I don’t really care. His schema was captivating, and perfect for my character.
- Connectedness and fluidity. Everywhere and everywhen are one. Things and events can metamorphose into each other. Signs are important.
- We tend to see individuals as members of general categories (cats, women, vehicles). But my main character responds to the particularity of things, so that a sleeping cat is a different thing from a stalking cat. He will later on experience the multiple aspects of his quarry – jihadi, respected teacher, doting father – as different entities
- The world is permeable to the effects of supernatural forces and these forces can be appealed to for their blessing
- The identity of a person or thing is the story we tell about it. Images have an affinity with the thing they portray and can change reality.
And there, I had the framework of my world. If we allow ourselves to be open to the permeability of things, the answer is out there. Now it’s a somewhat scary craft challenge to see if I can match up to Tolkien’s description of the goal of world-building as creating immersion or enchantment.