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Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Kitchen Sink, and Why You Don't Need It

Please welcome guest blogger Erica Hayes

A lot of talk goes on about worldbuilding in fantasy, futuristic and paranormal circles. And one thing we all seem to agree on is that your worldbuilding should be as rich and detailed and developed as you can possibly make it. One of the ways we can stand out in such a crowded market (crowded in the case of paranormal at least!) is to create a world so vivid and believable that you sweep the reader up and carry them along into your imagination.

Okay. So more is good, right? For a world to be rich and vibrant, it needs to be teeming with magical creatures, all fighting for space on the page?

Not necessarily.

The fabulous Nalini Singh teaches a workshop on paranormal worldbuilding, which I was lucky enough to attend in New Zealand last year, and one of the most important things she teaches is this:
limit your world. Focus.

Don't throw in everything just for the sake of it. In Singh's Psy-Changeling world, we have just and only that: psy and changelings. Singh didn't need any other paranormal elements to tell her stories, and she's up to book 9 and counting.

Why does it work? How can she get nine books out of such an apparently simple set-up? It's because
conflict is inherent in the Psy-Changeling world. (I'm talking about romantic conflict, because Singh's stories are romances, but also external conflict.) What does 'inherent conflict' mean? It means that the conflict stems from who and what the paranormal characters are. Psy are emotionally repressed; changelings are not. A simple conflict that's good for so much.

The simpler your world is, the easier it is to pin down a simple, inherent, easy-to-explain conflict. Angels versus demons. Vampire hunter falls for vampire. A human girl sees fairies, who are out to get her. And the simpler the concept, the easier it is to pitch--and the more compelling, on the whole, your story will be.

The Twilight universe is another great example of a limited world. The basic romance plot of Twilight is: Love Triangle Between Human, Vampire and Werewolf. So that's who we get. There's no need for anything else. Meyer doesn't add in fairies, for instance, though in a world with vampires and werewolves, fairies could be believable--because what would be the point? She didn't need fairies to tell the story.

Not all fantasy worlds are limited to that extent, of course. Take Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries. Vamps, weres, shifters, fairies, demons… you name it. And it works beautifully. But Harris set it up so that at the beginning of the series, only vampires had revealed themselves to humans. We discover all the rest along with the heroine, Sookie, over the course of many novels. We have time to take it all in. It's not all thrown at us in chapter one. Vampires Are Among Us. That's where we start. Simple, inherent conflict.

Rob Thurman's Cal Leandros world (urban fantasy) is another that contains all manner of creatures, because without them there'd be nothing for Cal and Niko to hunt. But Thurman introduces her monster-infested world with a few well-chosen examples--characters who are important in the story, not just standing about--and lets our imagination do the rest. She doesn't need to do any more work: show me a troll under the Brooklyn Bridge, and I'll extrapolate that the world is filled with bloodthirsty fae. Monsters Are Everywhere, And They're Out To Get You. Can't get a much simpler, more inherent conflict than that. And it's one for which you need a lot of monsters. But they're introduced as and when we need to know about them.

The same principle--
limit your world--applies in sci-fi. You don't necessarily need a dozen different alien races or multiple star systems to make your universe vibrant. The TV series Firefly has only one star system and no aliens at all. No fabulous technology. They don't even have faster-than-light travel. Why? Because the inherent conflict--One Man Against The Establishment, or Wild West In Space--doesn't require it. They simply weren't needed to tell the story the writers wanted to tell.

Once you've figured out your basic conflicts, then by all means get as detailed as you want with the worldbuilding. It's the details that bring the world to life, even if not everything you've discovered makes it onto the page.

But by defining the concept--by nailing down the inherent conflict--you can limit your world to what needs to be there. If you can do that, your characters will have ample room in which to play, without getting overshadowed by an unnecessarily complicated world.

Erica lives in Australia, and writes the Shadowfae Chronicles, a dark urban fantasy/romance series, for St Martin's Press.


A seductive magic mirror lies hidden deep in a demon’s lair, with a simple warning: don’t stare at the glass…

Ice is a thief and a scammer—a troubled fairy trying her best to eek out a meager living in the squalid underworld of the Shadowfae. When she spends a hot night with a demon lord, she discovers a powerful magic mirror in his lair—and pilfers it, knowing it’s the key to escaping her bleak life as a two-bit con artist. But Ice soon discovers that its power comes with a price…madness, which is slowly overtaking her.

Indigo oozes darkness, danger and tempting sensuality. He’s been sent to destroy Ice and bring the mirror back to its rightful owner. A mission that, if he fails, will cost him his life. But when he meets Ice, he faces an even greater challenge: an insatiable sexual hunger that neither of them can deny, and dark passions that threaten to claim them both forever. The trouble is, the longer he stays within the mirror’s reach, the greater its hold on his sanity—and his determination to save Ice…


Anonymous said...

Nice! "You don't necessarily need a dozen different alien races or multiple star systems to make your universe vibrant." This sentence hit home for me. Makes sense.

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