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Sunday, October 4, 2015

GUEST POST: On Building A World by Matt Karlov

Sometimes I think we fantasy authors are crazy. We sit down to write a story, and we think: the world, well, it's not bad. There are parts of it I quite like. But it's not quite right for my story. How will I solve this problem? I know! I will invent a whole other world.

I mean -- what? Me and my tiny meat-brain? Create a whole world? It's insane, right? And yet, it's not. We've seen other people do it, and we've connected with some of those worlds and stories in a way that we've rarely connected with anything else in our lives. And some of us think: maybe I can do that too.

I've always loved fantasy. When I started to consider writing The Unbound Man, it went without saying that it would be fantasy. Because, crazy as it might be, an invented world allows you to tell stories that simply can't be told anywhere else. Anything is possible. All you have to do is put in the work to make it believable.

Sounds great in theory. But it turns out that going from 'anything' to 'this specific thing' takes even more work than you might imagine.

I don't know how other fantasy novelists build their worlds. I suspect that, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each of us is crazy in our own way. If you're thinking of building a fantasy world of your own, I can't tell you how you should approach it. But I can tell you a little about how I built mine.

See that dot next to the squiggle?

One of the very first things I did was make a map. Maps are great because they're not just about geography -- they reflect history, politics, culture, and more. Nothing fires the imagination like a good map. So I began to draw, and I asked myself questions as I went. Start, perhaps, by marking off a small section of land and optimistically labelling it the Kharjik Empire. Delusions of grandeur, or the last remnant of a much greater realm? Call another section the Free Cities, but note that it was formerly known as Coridon. What prompted the change: a rebellion, a war, something else? Why are those plains in the middle not claimed by anyone? How do those people in the Jervian Protectorates feel about being 'protected'? What's up with those islands to the east and west? And so on.

Much, much later, I would hire the wonderfully talented Maxime Plasse to turn my rough sketch into the map you see here. At the time, I just kept adding to the map and to my notes until one day I looked at what I'd drawn and thought: Yes. This looks like a place where interesting things could happen.

It's all about the story!

The thing about building a world for a fantasy novel is that the world isn't really the point. The point is the story you want to tell. So, once I'd developed a suitably inspiring map, I dived into the characters and the plot, adding to the world as I went. I already had some ideas about what this particular story would be, but it still took a lot of thinking and several false starts before I arrived at an outline I was happy with.

Several things gradually became clear. The main character had a particular hatred of coercion and an unusual obsession with freedom. Placing the story in the so-called Free Cities would make for an interesting thematic counterpoint, and would give me the kind of sophisticated urban backdrop that the narrative required. The presence of (nominally) non-political factions was also looming large: merchant companies, groups of sorcerers and scholars, and other organizations would wield as much influence in this part of the world as city governments.

Regional infrastructure would be a blend of convenience and messiness: the region's recent unification as Coridon would give its cities a shared currency, for example, while message services between cities would largely consist of merchant courier networks, most of which would also deliver private letters for an appropriate fee. And hovering over it all would be the shadow of a long-dead empire and the relics it had left behind.

You can do what, how?

I'd always planned to set The Unbound Man in an world with early Renaissance-level technology. I'm far from the first to write that sort of fantasy world, but at the time I hadn't read the likes of Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch, and the idea felt fresh and exciting. I gradually worked through the specifics of what the technology would look like. There would be gunpowder in the form of cannons, but few if any personal firearms. The printing press would have arrived, but it would not yet have made hand-scribed documents obsolete; a significant portion of the population would still be illiterate. And the culture would be experiencing more subtle shifts as well. For one, people would be starting to pay attention to clocks -- indeed, a table clock for one's own home would be quite the fashionable purchase.

Equally important, and vital to any fantasy setting, was how to approach magic. I knew I wanted my magic system to stand somewhere between the extremes of being utterly inexplicable and completely systematized: it needed enough structure to be understandable, but not so much as to strip away the mystery. Sorcery, perhaps, could be built in a manner roughly comparable to a physical device, and grounded in some physical substance.

It would be rare enough to be special, but still readily available for those who could afford it. Groups of sorcerers would sell ensorcelled items, from relatively cheap sparkers (used to light lamps) to the rather more expensive chill-chests (whose refrigeration properties would require constant refreshment). Certain particularly distrustful people would have developed a way to nullify a sorcerer's powers -- this would be even more expensive, but would provide an important brake on sorcery. And this model of magic would also fit well with the story, the plot of which was by now becoming increasingly clear.

The fun stuff!

With some of the bigger decisions made, it was time to start writing the actual story. And with that came a whole new set of opportunities to flesh out the details of the world and the characters' experience of living in it.

I particularly enjoy reading fantasy novels in which the world bears some marks of an intellectual and artistic history. Many fantasy novels make a point of highlighting great kings and generals from their world's past -- their Julius Caesar, you might say, or their Alexander the Great. It's less common to hear about that world's Plato, or Herodotus, or Michaelangelo. Less common, but certainly not unknown: Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker are two who do this in different ways, and who not coincidentally are two of my favourite authors. I decided to follow in their footsteps and sprinkle The Unbound Man with small examples of the intellectual life of the world -- historians, fabulists, prophets, skeptics, and others -- and the more entertaining or thought-provoking, the better. These would also offer opportunities for thematic resonance and counterpoint, not to mention humour!

I also wanted to play in a few areas that had been somewhat neglected by the traditional school of Euro-centric fantasy. I live in Australia, so the plants and wildlife I'm most familiar with are Australian. Well, no problem! The world of The Unbound Man soon had an abundance of eucalypts and lorikeets. But not exclusively so -- I also wanted to set aside space for some North African-inspired cuisine: flatbreads, tagines, and the like. And I was tired of every second fantasy world possessing some variation of coffee, so I decided that my characters would drink chocol -- a luxury beverage, imported at some expense from across the sea.

But what about...?

There's more, of course. I haven't even mentioned race or class. I've barely touched on religion. Some of these have a significant presence in The Unbound Man; others, less so. But there comes a time when you have to step back from the setting and tell the tale you've come to tell. A world is huge, and even the biggest, fattest fantasy novel is tiny by comparison. And a novel is neither an atlas nor an encyclopedia. It's a story. When all is said and done, the world is just a place for the story to happen.

Or maybe not. In fantasy -- in every genre, really -- the world is an essential part of the story. In a way, stories are like each of us: individual, yes, but shaped more than we can imagine by the world in which we live. Trying to separate a story from its world would be like trying to separate you or me from 21st century Earth. Without a world to live in, a story -- or a person -- would be just an idea.

Which means that maybe this crazy idea that I can sit down and build a world isn't so crazy after all. Maybe this is actually a gift that the real world gives us, one that goes some way towards making up for so many of its frustrations and shortcomings.

Here, in this place we all share, there's always room for one more world.


Official Author Website
Order The Unbound Man HERE

Like every child, Matt Karlov was raised on stories of the impossible, from the good parts of Sesame Street, to The Hobbit, to Watership Down and beyond. As Matt grew older, he had the good fortune to retain his taste for the fantastic, which soon developed into a deep love of speculative fiction in its many guises. He has been struggling to make room on his shelves for new books ever since.

Matt has been a software designer, a web developer, and a business analyst. He lives in Sydney, Australia. The Unbound Man is his first novel.

NOTE: All maps courtesy of Maxime Plasse and Matt Karlov.



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