In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at the issue of fictional worldbuildling.
Oh, the pleasures and pains of worldbuilding! It is fascinating task but one with many perils for the budding author! In this post, I am going to run through some of what I believe to be the key components of successful worldbuilding, starting with:
The story always comes first
Even before I wrote the first words of This Sacred Isle, I knew the setting would be central to the story and that it would be a significant worldbuilding challenge. I had some worldbuilding experience; after all my Tree of Life fantasy series was set within a secondary world, which required a vast amount of research and shaping to achieve a detailed, coherent setting.
One key lesson I learned is not to allow the worldbuilding to overwhelm the story - it should support and enhance the narrative, not slow or replace it. Worldbuilding is fun and addictive, after all, an author is the god of their fictional universe! Readers of fantasy love to read about invented histories, creatures, cities and races, but not at the expense of story, and such details should be used sparingly. As the author you of course need to profoundly understand your fictional world - only that way can you write about it with consistency and achieve a sense of internal logic. But I strongly advise you to keep your wonderful moments of what Tolkien called sub-creation in note books, ready to employed within the story only when completely necessary. And the same goes for maps - you need 'em when writing the story, you might even want to print them in your book with faux medieval or Renaissance artistic flourishes, but you don't have to contort your story to make sure the characters visit every single place shown. Allow an element of mystery, hint at places unseen and unvisited, and in doing so rather than spoon-feeding the reader, let their imagination wander...
The world must impact the characters
Although This Sacred Isle takes place in a real place rather than a pure secondary world, the setting is, to modern eyes, largely alien. Dark Age Britain was sparsely populated, with no cities, only small scattered settlements, the Roman era towns long ruined and abandoned. It is essential that a novel’s setting, however fantastical, is coherent and holds a consistent logic, and impacts meaningfully on the characters. To achieve this, I (very roughly) divide the main bulk of my worldbuilding into two elements, which I call physical and social.
The physical aspects of my setting for This Sacred Isle – the natural landscape, the buildings, the clothes etc. – I developed through detailed research of the period. But this is more than just listing items (it is not just an RPG style inventory) - this reveals the scope of what can be achieved within the story, where the characters can go and what physical limitations there are upon them. Within the Dark Age world of This Sacred Isle, travel is difficult and slow - roads are few and in poor condition, and with only the wealthy and powerful owning horses, getting from one place to another on land will require plodding along on foot. The physical landscape and available technology makes it difficult (though of course, far from impossible) for communities to communicate - all this guided my narrative, for the characters cannot swiftly access news from afar, much of what is happening is unknown to them, mysterious, unexpected and frightening.
I also researched the social make-up of this world, looking at religion, customs and beliefs, and this was just as important, because I needed to show the effect the world of the story has upon the characters. The actions and decisions of the characters are influenced (and often constrained) by the belief system of their society and by the history of their people. Morcar, for example, constantly frets that he is acting contrary to his upbringing and although often feels in his heart his decisions are true, he fears he is in some way betraying his people and in particular his father.
So by bringing the physical and social elements of the world together, I hope I built a setting that is multi-dimensional, that complements and guides the narrative, and that has a true 'cause and effect' relationship with the characters.
The importance of time
In any fictional setting I believe it is important to show the passage of time, to represent the impact of human history on the landscape. This gives depth, a sense of the world having been lived in and that the story being told merely builds on the bones of hundreds, thousands of other stories and events. For example, in This Sacred Isle, the characters visit a ruined Roman villa, a ghostly remnant of a civilisation lost and almost forgotten. And the sinister events of the opening prologue take place at Wayland's Smithy, a chambered long barrow from the Neolithic period, which pre-dated the Dark Ages by thousands of years. In placing key scenes in these locations, I wanted to show that the world of This Sacred Isle is a continuation of struggles past, and a sign that many of these issues still have an impact on our world today. As the mysterious Lailoken says:
"The past cannot be buried, it lives with us every moment, every day, and it shapes the present like the potter’s hands shapes clay. Men have fought over these lands for generations. The blood, the agony, leaves a stain. To ignore the past, to pretend it is done, is to walk half-blind, half-deaf. The past can be as immediate as the present."
This Sacred Isle - Chapter Nine
It must be your world
I will also not deny that the world of my story reflects the world I live in and in my opinion, fictional settings should do so, they must reflect an author's experiences. For example, Tolkien's personal experiences influenced much of his secondary world of Middle-Earth, from the gentle, bucolic land of the Shire (a view of the rural England Tolkien so loved) to the battle-blasted Dead Marshes that reflected what the author witnessed in the First World War.
This Sacred Isle is not an allegory, there are no easy one-to-one comparisons. But the issues within the book of tribal identity, of misuse of power, are issues that obviously still resonate in our modern world. The malign, bitter Merlin I present in the story is not meant to represent say Nigel Farage or Donald Trump, but I have little doubt that demagogues such as these inspired the development of his character. In his quest for power, Merlin uses real suffering and genuine wrongs - the Anglo Saxons of This Sacred Isle treat the native Britons with little kindness - to manipulate his followers. Merlin talks of a distant golden age - a lie, of course - that existed before the Anglo Saxons, and one that could, if they follow his command, return. Merlin seeks to widen division, to exploit it, for his own ends. It seems almost pointless to comment that this has a common phenomenon in recent months and years...
And for all its Dark Age and mythical elements, I wanted This Sacred Isle to be a book about Britain. The period in which I wrote the book saw a general election, the Scottish referendum and the European Union referendum. This was a time of political (and at times social) turmoil within Britain, of fractures appearing between communities, where regional and national identity seemed to matter more than they had done for many years. I found the tone of much of the debate during the Scottish and EU referendums disturbing - and as I wrote the novel, I do not doubt that my concerns guided the themes of the story and, just as importantly, the way I built the world. It was not about taking sides and certainly not about writing thinly veiled propaganda, but in my fictional world I wanted to play out some of the anxieties I felt (and possibly others feel) about how the society in which I live.
The creative act of worldbuilding is a mighty challenge for any author, but for all its inherent difficulties and pitfalls, I believe this aspect of novel writing is a hugely rewarding experience.
What is your approach to worldbuilding? What do you enjoy the most, and the least? And what do you like most about fictional worlds? Leave a comment and join the conversation.