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Panel Discussion: Worldbuilding, Part 1

One of the difficult issues in writing AH is developing a consistent world that the reader can appreciate, without descending to the intrusive and disruptive style that takes the form: “As you know, Bob,” when one character tells another something that would be blatantly obvious to anyone living in that world, merely to get over, in a very stilted manner, information about how that world differs from ours.

An example of this sort of thing might take the form: “As you know, Bob, because Franz Ferdinand wasn’t killed at Sarajevo, we narrowly avoided plunging the world into a Great War, and as a result, airships are commonplace. My bid is Two No Trumps.”

It’s rarely so blatant as that, but getting such information across smoothly is something that has exercised the minds of many talented writers.

I’ve drawn together a panel, each of whom is knowledgeable about how various talented writers have dealt with this issue. And, I must say, they are very forthcoming. The clue to that is that this is Part 1 of the discussion.

They are:

Thomas Anderson, speaking about the books of Terry Pratchett;

Tom Colton, whose specialist subject covers the films of James Bond;

Andy Cooke, Tolkien afficianado.

Dom Ellis, who knows more than pretty much anyone about Pathfinder’s RPG game world, Golarion.

Matthew Kresal, Specialist on Dr Who.

You’re each knowledgeable about your chosen source. Can you summarise how the worldbuilding inherent is shown to the audience.

Andy Cooke:

How is Tolkien’s worldbuilding shown to the audience?

Maps and names, firstly. And names on maps.

Names on maps; who needs English?

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A fundamental element of Tolkien’s worldbuilding is that the illusion of depth is not an illusion. Where a film set will show the painted front of a building with nothing behind, Tolkien metaphorically built all the buildings. And populated them, and kept a full history of the evolution of each building.

It’s not recommended unless you have a LONG time to do it, and you’re an expert in a key area or two. For Tolkien, this was linguistics and linguistic history. It’s been said that Middle-Earth was created by Tolkien simply to provide the backdrop for the evolution of his languages. That the mythology and stories were created so as to provide a stage on which the languages could have come about and changed over time.

I think there’s more than this – he loved creating stories, and found in them an escape. The Fall of Gondolin, first of the Lost Tales to be written, was written while he was convalescing after combat in France in World War One, and the influence of the war is unmistakeable.

To get back to how it’s shown – names of places, names of people, snatches of language – all are drawn from very detailed languages (and a professorial knowledge of English linguistics as well). In the Shire and near to “home”, we have very “English” names, built exactly as place names in England were built. When you get to Bree-land, he pulls in a handful of “non-English elements,” according to him, to make them sound just slightly strange. “Bree” and “Chet”, for example, were Celtic elements that had survived in place names of England to mark them as older than the Shire placenames.

Beyond there, names are often purely descriptive in English (Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, Rivendell – literally Split Valley), or drawn solely from non-English or created languages. Imladris, Minas Tirith, Moria, Lorien, Anduin, Barad-dur, and so on – other than in Rohan, where he decided their language shared roots with that of the Hobbits and made the words and names deliberately Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Edoras, the capital of Rohan, is Old English for “Dwellings, houses”. The name of the King of Rohan, Theoden, means “King” or “Prince” (literally “Leader of a People”) in Old English. This throws a more familiar (to the subconscious mind) flavour to the Rohirrim.

And each of these languages has a fleshed-out vocabulary, syntax, and rules.

There’s a lot more (casual references to a hugely detailed background history that was separately written and evolved over decades), but the fundamental underlying element of Tolkien showing his world-building is literally showing the world he built.

Tom Colton

In Dr No, the audience is introduced not just to the character of James Bond, who isn’t even in the first two scenes of his own movie (and he wouldn’t get this honour until Goldfinger), but to his organisation and that of his constant enemy up until about Diamonds Are Forever, SPECTRE.

The REAL star of the movies.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After two scenes of sudden, brutal violence in which a British government official is murdered en route to his office for an unrelentingly routine call – which requires a radio hidden behind a secret shelf, indicating a far from mundane purpose for said call – and his secretary is killed waiting for him, we finally see what connects them to James Bond, who still remains unseen by the audience until his game of cards.

This critical piece of connective tissue which gives us a wider suggestion of the world in which these incidents are happening is a short scene set in a radio control centre in London where one nearly throwaway line of dialogue gives us the name of their employer – MI6, ie the British Secret Service – and ends with the suggestion that our man is going to be involved when the foreman asks an offscreen authority: “Yes, sir. Will you tell him, sir?”

After James Bond makes his unforgettable debut (along with his very first paramour, Sylvia Trench, to the beat of his own theme song) in a casino and is abruptly taken away by duty, we see what that duty entails as conveyed by his boss, M, and M’s secretary, Moneypenny, with whom he shamelessly flirts despite his promise to see Ms Trench again.

As efficiency of exposition goes, it’s hard to beat, establishing our hero (albeit without his bona fides as a man of action yet), his organisation, and the sorts of stakes involved in his line of work, all within ten minutes!

Dom Ellis

With RPGs, Pathfinder especially, it is fairly simple on the face of it. They publish a whole line of books about the Lost Omens setting which, so far, has covered Golarion. Primarily one area of Golarion, that being the Inner Sea region, but they have started doing other areas now – there are a few books on Tian Xia – the Asia analogue – coming out at the end of the year.

Drink. Table. Nibbles. Dice. Moody atmosphere. It's either a horror film or a role playing game. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There are books from the previous edition of Pathfinder which cover other areas and even other planets, but these are slowly being superseded as new books come out. RPGs are not worried about redoing canon if later authors look at it and think it is a bit iffy, but they do have a team of creative directors there to ensure it all lines up and isn’t too egregious.

There are also other ways they show it, within the mechanics of the game. The elves and dwarves of Pathfinder are just elves and dwarves, they’re Golarion elves and dwarves and there are all sorts of feats, spells, items, and archetypes which help expand on the world in ways that the more narrative or ‘fluffy’ style of the Lost Omens books do not.

I didn’t mention some other prongs of worldbuilding for Golarion before, so I will do so, for completeness. Paizo, or third-party companies and authors with Paizo permission also write a boatload of adventures for the setting which do build upon the world. Along with having setting articles in the back, they have the stories that the players take part in. This is probably the most immersive and challenging form of world building as not only are you reading (or watching) a story unfold, a story that you are taking part in yourself.

A lot of times, I’ve seen players complaining that events have moved on in the world without an adventure linked to it that they can play.

There are also books and comics and board games, all related to the Golarion setting and the iconic characters, who are used for stand ins for the PCs in these narrative exercises as well as pre-built characters for people who don’t yet want to make their own.

Tom Anderson

Terry Pratchett is an author who wrote for many decades, and how he portrayed worldbuilding changed over time as his writing grew more mature in style. His earlier books, such as the standalone science fiction novels Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun, generally do worldbuilding competently, letting our understanding be built organically through moderate esoteric references that eventually make sense. However, they still occasionally resort to the dreaded infodump (for example, both books have an introspective paragraph in which they list the prominent alien races in their setting). Even at an early stage, Pratchett was writing parodically and referencing other sci-fi works, so we can enjoy the infodumps, but they still interrupt the action. The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, is even more packed with infodumps, especially early on in the first pologue. I actually really like how he does it in this book because the language used is so fascinating and evocative that I don’t care that it feels more like I’m reading an author’s notes than the story. Tellingly though, he also establishes a number of ideas (such as Discworld’s geography meaning it has an 800-day year) that are just ignored, retconned, or handwaved in later books. Nobody wants to keep having to remind a new reader that a character who’s just said they’re sixteen years old actually resembles a 35-year-old from Earth (or ‘Roundworld’).


There is a great paragraph from Pratchett about this problem of worldbuilding, from the introduction to the first Discworld quizbook, which I will quote here: “the fact is that any fantasy world is, sooner or later, our own world. ... However towering the local mountains, however dwarf-haunted the local woods, any character wanting to eat a piece of zorkle meat between two slices of bread probably has no other word for it than ‘sandwich’. ... The builder of fresh worlds may start out carefully avoiding Alsation dogs and Toledo steel, but if he or she has any sense will one day look up from the keyboard and utter the words “What the hell?’” This is a fantastic (and typically humorous) example of the quandary that any writer of speculative fiction faces. I love using alternate terminology in my AH works like Look to the West and explaining the origins of the OTL (in this case, we wouldn’t have the name sandwiches without the Earl of Sandwich, Alsations wouldn’t be called that without WW1 resulting in a backlash against the name ‘German Shepherd’) but it’s easy for this to be taken to an extreme conclusion and end up with writing of Ulysses-level incomprehensibility. Pratchett’s warning has led me to take a slightly more relaxed approach in LTTW, such as not avoiding a useful word just because it’s technically anachronistic (like “chauvinism”, allegedly named for Nicolas Chauvin, who was never born in LTTW). At some point, one must remember that the worldbuilding is always secondary to the storytelling.

For most of the Discworld series, Pratchett restorted to a characteristic technique which can be summed up by the description: “Discworld is a world, and a mirror of worlds”. Implicitly influenced by more conventional timelines, Discworld can feature anything from our world that Pratchett wants without much explanation or grounding, whatever is needed for the plot and the humour; it can also feature exaggerations of real things or creations of his own imagination. Part of the journey of a young reader of Pratchett’s work is learning that many of the things we assumed were so wild and unlikely that they were Pratchett’s comic creations, actually turn out to be based on real things from our world and history (especially the eighteenth century). He was fond of pointing out that when our real world has things like the United States’ imposing motto E pluribus unum (out of many, one) being lifted from the Roman poem by Virgil about making salad dressing, it becomes very hard to stretch a parody beyond the oddities of history.

The real worldbuilding in later Discworld is not about wizards’ spells or even the cultures of the dwarfs and trolls, although those are fascinating; it’s in how Pratchett makes the city of Ankh-Morpork live and breathe (with some gagging at the smell) as a setting. It’s similar enough to real life that we empathise with it, but then we’re reminded it’s a fantasy world by the fact that pocket watches work because a small captive demon pedals them. Over time, more familiar technologies start to appear, but in unusual guises, such as satire on modern telecommunications told by the medium of the ‘clacks’ semaphore, which existed in real life but never became as dominant as they have in Discworld.

Importantly, though, Pratchett never lost his keen sense of worldbuilding nous even when he allowed it to take a back seat to story. A fantastic example can be seen in Jingo!, itself an example of a seemingly absurd and farcical plot (an island rises from the depths and two countries then fight over it before it sinks again) which is lifted directly from real history – the Mediterranean island known as Ferdinandea or Graham’s Island, which appeared in 1831 and then disappeared again in 1832. In fact, the real-life version is more farcical than the parody, as it was a four-way dispute between Britain, Sicily, France, and Spain. Anyway, Jingo! describes something as a “Pavolvian response”, which necessitates a footnote, because there’s no Ivan Pavlov on Discworld to name it after. Normally we would just let this go, but Pratchett informs us that on Discworld, the behaviour in question was discovered by a wizard named Denephew Boot, who found that on ringing a bell, he could train a dog to immediately eat a strawberry meringue. This is an unspoken pun on the dessert called pavlova, and then the well-informed reader has a delayed laugh from the fact that this is just shifting the worldbuilding problem onto the absence of Anna Pavlova, the ballerina after whom the dessert was named. Few authors really understand the issues with standing apart from our world’s historical references to begin with, never mind being able to pull off multi-level jokes about them.

Matthew Kresal

Doctor Who’s worldbuilding is as varying with its setting and the stories it tells. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given that it’s a series that has lasted for six decades based on being able to go anywhere in time and space. Or, in its earliest years, was initially alternating between science fiction stories and stories set in history that were part costume drama, part semi-educational.

The TARDIS in front of the BBC Television Studios. The guide assured the photographer that it was the original TARDIS.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Not to mention that, for at least the first third of its existence to date, it was built upon as it went along. These days, there are series bibles that lay out who everyone is, where they came from, and even how the series will unfold. Doctor Who had a sort of version of that, at least for its initial main characters, but something as fundamental as whether the Doctor was human or an alien wasn’t fleshed out until six years into its run. In that time frame, actors playing the start and different production teams all had differing ideas, some of which were outright contradictory. There’s the occasional nod towards those notions in the series (such as a reference to the Doctor having one heart instead of two, as was established later on), but it’s only when the series is in trouble at the tail end of the 1960s, and they need to do a soft reboot by setting it on Earth, that someone finally stands up and goes: “The Doctor is a Time Lord, and that’s that!”

Even in the early 1980s, when the series began to become (sometimes all too) aware of its history, there’s an air of that. The series spends the better parts of two years where every single serial has returning characters or villains. There’s a serial called Mawdryn Undead that brings back the character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who, as head of the UNIT organisation, had been a major part of the show starting in the late sixties but stopped appearing in the mid-seventies, who got popped in because they couldn’t get the actor who played another character back to reprise their part. It was a seemingly innocuous decision, except that it blatantly contradicted when the earlier serials that the character had appeared in were meant to be taking place! The result is a debate that’s ongoing to this day among fans that have even popped up in throwaway references in the continuation of the series that’s been on air since 2005.

Indeed, the best summary of Doctor Who’s worldbuilding might come from writer Peter Cornell, talking about some of the aforementioned examples and the fact that he’d adapted one of his own 1990s Doctor Who novels for TV, but with a different Doctor and in slightly different circumstances. Namely, that everything is canon, but nothing is canon. As a result, you can have multiple origin stories for the Daleks written by the same writer a decade apart, for example, or the mysterious nature of the Doctor’s origins that resurfaced in the current series to the consternation of some.

Is it the ideal way to run a franchise? Probably not. But it’s kept Doctor Who going since 1963 and has been the topic of debate among fans for at least half that time.

Part 2 of this discussion will continue on the issue of internal inconsistencies.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including the Look To The West series, The Surly Bonds of Earth, and is editor of the Great War anthology N'Oublions Jamais.

Andy Cooke is the author of many books, including The Fourth Lectern, and the Endeavour series, from SLP, and the Shadowlands Chronicles and Skyborn from Sergeant Frosty Publications.

Matthew Kresal is the author of Our Man On The Hill from SLP.

Discuss this article here.


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