Creating a Grim Dark World
Somewhere between the incredible detail of JRR Tolkien’s worlds and the slapdash efforts of films such as 10,000BC, which famously had snow turning to jungle turning to desert, lies a happy place. A place where an author can create a believable world. Although, of course, it doesn’t have to be a happy place. In fact it’s better by far if it’s grim, gritty and downright dirty. Because that’s far more interesting than happy.
Because creating a world can be one of the most difficult things for an author to achieve. How much time and effort do you put into your world creation, knowing that you have a word limit and every 1000 words spent on describing some political system is 1000 less you can spend on your characters, your plot and of course the action.
My first tactic is to pick up Horrible Histories. This is a hilarious series of history books aimed at kids but with all sorts of gems in there to make your world believable. Now, of course you don’t have to copy this slavishly. But it is a great starting point, seeing how different cultures coped with different eras and climate and conditions.
It allows you to give your world those touches that make it convincing.
For instance, while I can appreciate an undeniably beautiful piece of prose describing some elven forest sanctuary, I am far more interested in gritty reality of human life and little facts such as, in winter, people used to bring their animals into the house. You stabled the goats down one end and the cows down the other – women had to piss with the cows and men with the goats. To do otherwise was considered rude!
Thatched roofs sound pretty but they had to be covered with thick moss and other filth to prevent them catching alight.
Dung was as good as gold in many societies. Both human and animal couldn’t go to waste. You could use it for fertiliser, to create a wall coating, to bleach clothes – it was the WD40 of its time.
Roads weren’t paved. Only the Romans had time to make roads and the only reason they did that was to move soldiers quickly from one end of the province to another. So roads are usually dirt, which turns to mud in the rain and, if used to drive animals, is going to be stinking with dung.
Battles weren’t always fought under sunny skies. My latest series has one in the middle of the torrential downpour and another in a snowstorm. The elements can kill you just as well as a man with a sword. Only maybe not as quickly…
Food was plentiful from late spring to mid-autumn but winter and the early part of spring especially were hard. Food had to be dried, or salted. And every part of an animal was eaten. Even a cow’s udder, pressed flat between hot stones, made a meal.
This is the sort of detail that can be brought in, piece by piece, to give richness to a world.
Characters can experience these things and, by doing so, you can show not just what the world is like but also how people could really live there.
I don’t do fantasy with a cast of singing elves and dancing dwarves. I like humans and so our history gives us a pretty good starting point for believable worlds. After all, people really have lived that way, so you don’t have to spend 5000 words explaining some aspect of your world. Instead, give people a taste of it and let their imaginations fill in the gaps. That is what fantasy is for.
I believe that giving fantasy a bedrock of reality only adds to its appeal. You can enjoy the fantasy aspects more if you accept that the world, the way of life and above all the characters are seemingly real. Fantasy asks the reader to suspend their disbelief when they turn the first page. Offering truth in there makes them more willing to go along for the journey.
Part of this pseudo-reality world is due to me wanting to dispense with too much world building and take the reader directly into the guts of the story and the characters. Sometimes literally …
As an example of successful fantasy, I like to highlight The Walking Dead. It’s a world that is completely alien to us yet we recognise it. It therefore allows us to gloss over inconsistencies (why are all the zombies dressed smart casual? Why are most zombies just infected with one bite, when a horde would want to devour healthy people? Why don’t the living need haircuts or food?) and get into the action.
Best of all, it demonstrates perfectly what Joss Whedon (Serenity, The Avengers) calls Interior and Exterior action. Exterior action, in this case, is the zombie apocalypse. Interior action is the effect this has on the characters and their relationships with each other. That is what makes a story interesting, when each zombie attack changes the dynamics between the group.
That is what I like to spend my time on, that is what I like to strive for.
By using a recognisably human world, from a reasonably recognisable human era, it allows me to set my stories in a gritty, realistic background, where I can offer fine detail about their lives and then let the reader fill in any blanks from their imagination.
Because if you can get the reader to picture things in their mind, then they are hooked on the story and the characters – and that is the whole point of what I do.
Yes, the world makes sense, it has order – it has to do these things. But that has to be secondary to the characters and the story.
Pretty looks good on TV and movie sets. Dirty works better in books.
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Duncan Lay is the fantasy author of the trilogy "The Dragon Sword Histories" — The Wounded Guardian, The Radiant Child, and The Risen Queen. He is also a layout designer and headline writer at the Sunday Telegraph. You can find Duncan over at http://www.duncanlay.
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