We interrupt our regular column to bring you this brief interlude.
When I talk with friends or other writers or whomever about my geeky world-building projects, the general response is a sort of half smile, a nod and something along the lines of, “That’s nice.”
On the rare occasions I get actual feedback — when someone actually deigns to engage with my ideas and my obscure hobby — it’s generally something like, “Yes, but who are your characters?”
A work of fiction is composed of a variety of elements — the language, the setting, the story, the plot and so on. Any writer will tell you that a work needs to have all these things in order to work. At the same time, most writers inevitably concentrate on one aspect of the work, depending on their particular interests.
For a while, for example, serious literary authors were really only interested in the language itself — the “mighty sentence” ruled, even to the exclusion of basic components like story and character. This attitude isn’t as prevalent as it once was, perhaps, but it’s still there. If you want to be taken seriously as a literary author, the thinking goes, you have to pay attention to language.
Moving down the spectrum a bit, perhaps into the lower range of high-brow but most of middle-brow, character is king. It seems pretty obvious. What is a story, after all, but the events that happen in the life of a character and how that character reacts to them? If you bring together multiple characters and just follow their natural path through their lives, there will inevitably be conflict, and conflict is what makes stories interesting.
You could run an experiment. Get a group of people together, give them a stack of photographs and tell them to pick out their favorite ones. In a vast majority of cases, the people will pick out photos with people in them, especially people’s faces. As a species, the subject we find endlessly fascinating is ourselves.
Solid, well-made middle-brow fiction, as a rule of thumb, is a character study. That has changed somewhat over the years as literary and mainstream authors have sought to incorporate more genre elements into their work. What could create more character conflict than a murder, after all? Even so, these elements are essentially macguffins tossed into the mix in order to stir the pot and create that conflict. They aren’t especially relevant in and of themselves.
That may lead us, then, to question all the effort we’re putting into world building. What do these details matter when what people care about, ultimately, more than background, even more than story and plot, are the characters?
There’s a lot that can be said for that sentiment. If you spend too much time crafting an exotic, even alien, background, it’s entirely possible that the motivations of your characters, which will be tied up with background, will be so alien that your readers won’t have any means of empathizing with them. Read Herbert’s Dune novels, particularly the later ones (the originals, not the sequels written by other authors). Everyone is all tied up with politics and social upheavals of a complex interstellar society with only a passing resemblance to anything with which readers may have familiarity. This is true of a lot of science fiction, fantasy and even historical fiction.
A perfectly viable option for my project, for example, would be to set it in the real world in the 1930s. After all, so much of the world building has already been done. There’s even no reason I couldn’t include magic in the mix. The magic would just need to be hidden away from the eyes of the mundane world, which I’ve done before. I could also create an alternative history that uses elements from the real world but mixes them up with the various fantasy elements. Alternative history is a perfectly respectable genre tradition, and allows you to play with elements with which the audience will likely already be familiar. You could even include some fictionalized versions of real people, or modified versions of existing fictional characters from the era.
Those are all fine ideas, and I wish whomever wishes to use them well. It’s just that that isn’t what I’m interested in doing.
Imaginary Atlas is an exercise in world building. The goal is to create a fictional setting that is complex enough and rich enough that it will inspire the creation of interesting characters and absorbing stories. Some of those stories will inevitably be about the exploration of this world, its geography, its history, its societies. If I do my work well enough, this world will become a living place that readers will enjoy visiting on a regular basis.
So, it isn’t that characters aren’t important. They certainly are vitally important elements in the project. Let’s just not get ahead of ourselves.
To be continued….