22 September, 2011

Terry Pratchett Month: World Building Through A Series of Books: How And Why It Works

If there's one distinctive thing about the Discworld series--beyond Terry Pratchett's humor--it's that no matter which characters happen to be the main ones for a particular novel, the setting is the same. One flat world on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the shell of an enormous turtle called Great A'Tuin.

There is no particular reason why a majority or all of an author's books can't be set in the same world, over a variety of genres and/or age groups, with a collection of different characters. However, there are some features which make exploring the same place much more intriguing than if it had been left with only a single novel, that not all books have.

1. The existence of unexplored regions.

Rehashing the same places with different characters is interesting enough, but when they travel off someplace  mentioned in previous stories that remained relatively unknown, then it really adds a new dimension.

Example: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. The Fellowship followed a different path than Bilbo Baggins, encountered different creatures, and existed setting that may as well have been a separate world--except for the knowledge of locations linked to the previous story. This can also be done by setting a story in a different time. Example: The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. A different landscape and people, many years apart, but the same continent.

2. Different cultures.

There must be a range of characters (people or other beings, as it may be) that, like the setting, are put into the background for some stories but brought out in others. Again, it's much more interesting when you see another side to something that was less well-known before.

Example: Fire and Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Fire is the companion novel to Graceling, set a little while before Graceling begins, on the other side of the mountains. A very different kind of magic and people, but with connections to each other culturally that only the reader notices.

3. The world must be big enough.

This relates closely to #1. If, say, you set your novel on a small set of islands, you are limiting yourself to that range. And while an archipelago can be excellent for a slave uprising (Example: Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce), there is a limit to how much you can pack onto it.

Same if you pick a setting that is too closely like good old real life--unless you happen to write Literary Fiction (which, for the record, I think is awesome) that doesn't leave much to the SF/F-style world building I'm talking about here. Once you've explored it once, then you must leave world building doors open if you want to go further. It's much like writing the second book in a series: if there isn't any opening, trying to continue it will just feel like a pointless extra (Example: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare).

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with the points I've made? What do you think are important elements of writing in the same world, for more than one book or series? Do you have a favorite cross-book world?

-----The Golden Eagle


Dan said...

Very good points.

Discworld is near the top of my list as far as cross-book worlds go. Hugh Cook's Chronicles of an Age of Darkness uses a similar style of world-building.

Christine Rains said...

They're all excellent points. Discworld is ripe with stories. I would think any well made world would be.

Madeleine said...

Good points that I had not considered.
Quite thought provoking the ntoion of creating a world where different characters interact and head off to previously mentioned but unexplored areas of it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

All of Terry Brooks' novels are set within Shannara.
I explored the new culture aspect in my second book. (And new planet.) So it was the original race meeting a new race.

Susan Fields said...

I love how, like in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the reader can explore different lands they've only heard of before. It makes me feel like an insider because I've heard of that place before.

KarenG said...

World building is not something I could ever imagine doing. I have the utmost respect for those writers who do.

Michael Offutt said...

I definitely agree with your points. A sci-fi world-building genius is Frank Herbert. Holy cow...the Dune universe blows me away with its depth and complexity. I can never tire reading stories placed within this setting.

mshatch said...

well, I love Terry Pratchett's discworld series, especially DEATH. His characters rock. I liked The Mistress of the Empire series by Raymond Fiest and Janny Wurts, which was an offshoot of Fiest's previous series. Loved all those books and the world the authors created.

Sarah Pearson said...

Some good points here. I love that 'aha' moment when a book mentions a place or character that might only have been an aside in a previous book.

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely love it when fantasy authors explore "terra" incognito in their stories. Making maps is so much of the fun of writing fantasy.

laughingwolf said...

well said, ge

see my hp poster yet?

well, not mine... just on my page! :P lol

Ryan Sullivan said...

I'm actually doing this with my Válkia Chronicles, telling different stories with different characters in different times and cultures in the same world. Although I do think I should add to the world, because like you said, I'm limiting myself if it's too small, and right now, it's too small to let me branch out much more.

Jennifer Hillier said...

I'm always fascinated by what's involved in world-building, because as someone who writes books set in present day Seattle, I don't have to world-build. I just describe what I see every day.

Therefore, I'm afraid I don't have much to add the conversation, other than to say I'm learning a lot here!

Old Kitty said...

I so agree with all these points!! Think of the possibilities of stories from a planet you've just made up!! All those histories, all those present, all those futures! Wonderful!!! And the best thing about Discworld? I always feel part of its population whenever I'm lost in a Terry Pratchett book! Take care

Rachel Morgan said...

I've actually been thinking about some of these very points recently. I'm not as fond of stand alone stories as I am of series, so I've been thinking about how to use characters in multiple novels in the same setting where sometimes they're main characters and sometimes secondary characters. I know this post is about world building, but it can be spoken about together with characterisation. Using characters more than once requires that you know more details about them, which makes them more "three dimensional" and believable :-)

PS. Doing this on my phone so I didn't read the other comments. Sorry if I've repeated what anyone else has said!

Laila Knight said...

I like your point of view. In Sci-Fi especially I enjoy seeing the world through the characters' eyes. It does add ton of dimension. :)

BornStoryteller said...

GE: this is one of the reasons I built Renaissance for the Rule Of Three Blogfest you are signed up for (and other writers here should join up: our cut off point is October 3rd!!)

I love world building. Herbert's Dune is amazing. Larry Niven is great at it. Asimov was too.

I've enjoyed a lot of shared world series, where various authors shape the world: Thieves World; Wild Cards; Boardertown.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books are like that as well. Great reads: one world, so many stories and character arcs. Try it.

Thanks for this GE. Can't wait for October 5th.

Tale Spinning
Rule Of Three Blogfest

Damyanti said...

Never thought of this..must explore this in my WIP.

Join me at the Rule of Three Writers' Blogfest!

E.R. King said...

I think having different cultures and languages is important. Thanks for sharing. It got my wheels turning.

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

Interesting points. There is so much to keep in mind when writing a novel that sometimes the obvious stuff gets past us/me. You've given me lots of food for thought. Thanks for sharing this.

nutschell said...

The thing I love about Discworld is that Terry Pratchett did an amazing job world-building--to the point that he can take/create any number of new characters and you could totally imagine them living somewhere on Discworld.


Arlee Bird said...

I don't recall reading too many books in which worlds have been built, but I think logic and consistency are important. I like it when the author has actually provided a map for reference.

Tossing It Out

Barbara Kloss said...

I agree with all of your points!

AND they're an excellent reminder for future plotting, so thanks :D

My favorite of your points is the varying culture. Fun to explore and, come to think of it, you just gave me an idea...

The Golden Eagle said...

Dan: Thanks!

I've never heard of the series--but if it's anything like Discworld, I'll have to check it out. :)

Christine: Thank you.


Madeleine: Thanks. :)

Alex: Oh, I hadn't thought of that example. Great point--Brooks' novels are set in the same world as well.

It sounds like an excellent story. I really hope I get the chance to read your books sometime! :)

Susan: It does.

KarenG: I find it's a lot of fun; you get to explore so many imaginary places that are however you want them.

Michael: I have the Dune books in my TBR pile; I read a few pages in the first book, but need to get around to finishing it!

Mshatch: I've never heard of either of the authors, or the series; but it sounds like there's some great world building!

Sarah: Me, too. :)

Charles: Never tried making a map of one of my Fantasy worlds before . . . though it's something I do want to try.

Laughingwolf: Thanks!

Off to check out. :)

Ryan: It sounds like you have a very diverse world!

Good luck writing it. :)

Jennifer: That in itself can be hard, since there's getting the existing world right.

Old Kitty: Same here! He really opens it up to everyone, with such a mixed cast as in Discworld.

Rachel: True! You make a great point--characters should be as three-dimensional as their world. :)

Laila: Thanks. And I do, too; it's more real if it's seen through the eyes of an actual person (or alien, in some cases. :P).

Stuart: Asimov--great example. I love his Foundation books.

I've never heard of those worlds before; they sound like interesting places!

You're welcome. :)

Damyanti: Hope you find it useful!

E.R.: Can't forget the languages; that is a major marker of a different culture.

You're welcome!

Andrea: All too often--the details sometimes dominate the more obvious things.

You're welcome. :)

Nutschell: There are many different side to Discworld, that's for sure!

Arlee: I do, too. It's helpful to be able to trace the character's path along a map. Though I hate it when the path is already traced by a line of dots as a visual aid--it sometimes gives away plot points. :P

Barbara: You're very welcome!

Hope it's a good one. ;)