An Impatient Writer's Approach to World Building

I’m an impatient writer. I don’t enjoy prep work, especially the kind of detailed preparation needed to create a believable imaginary world. When I first began writing, my solution was to wing it. I’d take an idea and plunge right in, letting the story take me where it would and allowing the world to develop spontaneously.

The problem was that I constantly wrote myself into corners. I’d get to a point where I’d realize that what I wanted to happen couldn’t happen, because of some social custom or rule of magic I’d set up earlier. Or where something had to happen that I didn’t want to happen, for the same reason.

This gave me the choice of going back and changing what I’d originally written–which of course had a ripple effect, necessitating many other changes for consistency’s sake–or switching the direction of the narrative. If you make enough of these kinds of shifts over the course of a novel, it begins to show. It’s also an incredibly frustrating way of proceeding.

I realized that I needed to impose some discipline (in all aspects of my writing, not just world building, but that’s a different story). Over the years I’ve worked out an approach that’s a compromise between my natural hastiness and the need for consistency in the development of an imaginary reality. Before I do anything else, I make sure that I have a firm grasp of my world’s core principles; but the details–the shape and nature of the actual places my plot takes me–aren’t developed until I get to them in the course of writing.

Here are the core principles for my novel The Arm of the Stone: a parallel world where technology is regarded as deadly to magic; a medieval lifestyle artificially maintained by draconian limitations on technological practice; a repressive ruling group driven by a fanatical anti-tech ideology, hoarding all magical power for itself and bolstering its authority by its possession of a mysterious, godlike talisman.

The initial idea came to me via a friend’s dream. (This is how I usually get book ideas: odd things I read, interesting things people tell me. Sometimes it’s the story I think of first, sometimes the alternate reality; with The Arm of the Stone, the world came first). In the dream, my friend traveled to a place where magic was possible only because technology was rigorously restricted. I was intrigued by the question of what sort of world that would be. Would the restriction be based on a natural law–magic and technology are intrinsically incompatible–or on an ideology–people only think they are? What kind of lifestyle would that create? What mechanisms of enforcement would be involved?

I decided to make the incompatibility between magic and technology a belief, rather than a law of nature. Belief systems are a fascination of mine, and the idea of an anti-tech ideology that might or might not be based on truth seemed to offer more plot possibilities than a natural law. Also, I didn’t feel I could come up with a reasonable explanation for such a law, and I dislike books where situations exist “just because.” So the people of my world believe that technology kills magic, and they believe it as if it were a natural law. Whether it is or isn’t is an important theme in both The Arm of the Stone and its sequel, The Garden of the Stone.

I was then faced with the question of why such a belief should arise. How can you be violently opposed to something unless you’ve actually experienced it, or think you have? There had to be some past experience of rampant technology, an evil memory that had become a fundamental part of the belief system.

I considered several possibilities: a high-tech society that had destroyed itself and had been replaced by a magical one; a high-tech society that repressed magic and then was overthrown by it; and the option I wound up choosing, that my imaginary world had splintered off from our own “real” world when developing technology began to crowd out the old magical and mystical ways. I didn’t want fully-developed technology to exist only in the past; I wanted there to be a parallel reality that the people of my world might visit from time to time, in order to feed their anti-tech zeal.

It seemed to me that the lifestyle of my anti-tech world would be more or less medieval–not just because anti-tech ideology would force it to remain a pre-machine culture, but because the ideologues, in their fervor, would cripple the practice of technology beyond what was really necessary.

Granted, the generic medievaloid world is a major fantasy cliche. But it seemed to me that what’s most generic about such worlds is that they’re so often presented as having existed on the same social and technological level for centuries, without any explanation for the lack of change. In my world, the stasis had a clear–and artificial–cause, which I thought provided a sufficiently different take on medievalism. (I should say that not everyone agrees. I’ve gotten mail from readers who take me to task for not using a more original setting.)

I had the ideology, then, and the lifestyle. But ideologies don’t exist independent of the groups that formulate them. I needed an organization that would embody the anti-tech belief system–and enforce it, since repressive beliefs need a lot of policing. I like to use real-world models whenever possible; I think an imaginary world gains depth not just by being strange and different, but also by being recognizable. Because I wanted my anti-tech ideology to have a strong religious flavor, I decided to base my organization on the medieval Christian church.

Thus the Order of Guardians was born. It has a central seat of power, like the Vatican. Its members receive training and take vows, as in a religious order. It’s ruled by a single spiritual leader, like the Pope. It governs by means of Dioceses, controlled by the equivalent of Archbishops, and parishes, administered by the equivalent of priests. It has scriptures, in the form of the Books of Limits, which set forth the precise means by which technology must be restricted. Like the medieval church, it’s an entrenched bureaucracy concerned as much with its own preservation as with its spiritual mission. And like the church, it hoards wealth: all wealth, including magic. It also has an Inquisition: the Arm of the Stone, charged with the investigation and punishment of those who transgress the Limits.

It seemed to me, however, that even the Guardians’ semi-religious ideology wasn’t enough to explain why people would accept their rule and adopt their core beliefs. For an oppressive system to endure for a long period of time, people have to buy into its core premise. Why should the populace, most of whom have no magical ability,  care whether technology threatens magic’s existence?

Inventing a deity whose will the Guardians could claim to be fulfilling seemed like an unnecessary complication. Making the Guardians the possessors of some mysterious power that enabled them to hold sway magically seemed like cheating. In the end, I decided to combine the two ideas. I gave the Guardians ownership of an object known as the Stone, which has an omniscient world-consciousness and is thought to sustain reality by its contemplation of it, and is also thought to be the source of all magic. By teaching the populace to believe in the Stone as a kind of god, the Guardians are able to present their anti-tech agenda not as mere ideology, but as a mission in service of a higher power. As custodians of both the mission and the Stone, they gain unchallengeable legitimacy as an organization.

These, then, were my core premises for The Arm of the Stone. I worked them out over a period of about six months, while finishing up a previous project. I then began putting together a plot and fleshing out characters. Because I was most interested in the Guardians’ mechanisms of enforcement, I centered my story on the Inquisition, the Arm of the Stone, creating a tale of a man who is driven by a vow of revenge to infiltrate the Arm, is seduced for a while by its ideals, and ultimately finds his way to a completely different world-view.

With plot and character in place (I write a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, and work up one- to two-page character sketches for each of the main characters), I faced the task of unfolding my core concepts into the detail required by the story: the nuts and bolts of world building.

Each section of the book required me to portray a different aspect of the Guardians’ rule: in the first section, the Guardians’ methods of educating and punishing the populace; in the second, the Guardians’ internal training systems; in the third, the special training required by the Arm of the Stone; in the fourth, the Guardians’ administrative bureaucracy; in the fifth, the Guardians’ ways of punishing their own.

As I mentioned above, I decided on the actual shape of these things only when it came time to write them. Before beginning work on each section, I paused for three or four days to sketch out settings and customs and other necessary details. While the core premises were formulated mainly in my head, I did the detail preparation on paper (I tried to think of myself as compiling a series of essays for an imaginary encyclopedia).

I also made rough maps of the terrain, buildings, cities, etc. that my characters would be encountering–nothing fancy, just enough to keep myself oriented so that I wouldn’t describe something as being on the left side of a courtyard and then, in the next chapter, say it was on the right.

This method does slow me down, since I have to stop writing fairly frequently in order to build settings. But it’s easier for me to discipline myself to this kind of prep work in small periodic doses than in large do-it-all-at-once lumps.

Plus, I like the freedom of not being locked in to a specific template from start to finish. It gives me a sense of discovering my world as I journey deeper into it, and allows room for inspiration. Many of my best details are things I probably couldn’t have envisioned at the start of the book, springing not just from my understanding of the basic principles of the reality I’ve created, but from the context of what I’ve already written.

Another advantage of building a world in bits and pieces: I don’t come up with more detail than I actually need. This is important, since I’ve found that if I go to the trouble of making something up, it’s incredibly hard to stop myself from including it, even if it doesn’t really serve the plot.

For me, this method of working is the best compromise I’ve found between the demands of good writing and my own impatience. The time spent in initial, broad-premise preparation gives me the consistency I need to produce a believable and fully-developed world, and the working out of specific details as I go allows me the flexibility I crave. Best of all, it preserves the element of discovery that is, for me, one of the greatest joys of writing.

First published in Phantastes, 1998

Copyright © Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.


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