As a writer, I am fascinated by the way an author can create for his or her readers a place, a person, a world, or a piece of reality that never had true existence except as a finite number of words on a collection of pages that you can hold between your two hands. This is truly a case where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.
Early on in my writing career I wanted to see how this was done. So I took a favorite novel, the first Dune book by Frank Herbert,1 and analyzed it as best I could. I took each of the many unnumbered chapters, some containing multiple scenes, and wrote a short summary of each piece of action, as if I were outlining the novel before writing it myself. Who were the characters involved in each scene? What action took place? What did it achieve in advancing the story? In this way I had a grasp of how much “screen time” each of the many characters was given to develop his or her persona and view of the overall story.
I don’t have the summaries anymore, and I’m not going back to recreate them now—or even try to count the unnumbered chapters in that thick book—but I ended up with somewhere between one hundred and two hundred separate bits of action. Each character got maybe five or ten scenes, and usually less, to open him- or herself to the reader’s inspection. It was a surprisingly compact feat of storytelling to make readers believe that so much more was happening, so much more lay behind the story that was told, than actually lay on the pages.
Yes, that first Dune novel had four appendices—which feel like part of Herbert’s background notes before he started writing—covering the ecology and religion of the planet Dune, the nature of the religio-political organization known as the Bene Gesserit, and the backgrounds of the Great Houses with which most of the characters were aligned. But I’ll bet most readers came to these “historical documents” only after falling under the book’s spell. The work of a master storyteller lay in the main text of the novel itself.
The novel had a map of the planet’s northern hemisphere, and it may have helped active, inquiring readers fix various places in their minds. The book also included about twenty pages of glossary, “Terminology of the Imperium,” which explained new words and concepts, although the words and images Herbert used in the text were usually self-illuminating if not self-explanatory. The glossary really only helped if you came upon the term a second time and needed a reminder.
The universe Herbert created owed a certain amount of its richness to these new words and the ideas behind them. In the same way, John Le Carré created a new world of spies in the operational language of London Circus in his George Smiley novels.2 Words are the means by which we know the world, and a deft writer will create his or her own vocabulary to set the fictional world apart from the reader’s everyday world.
The author is painting a complete world with a few brushstrokes. He or she is assembling it for the reader out of the bits of language, attitudes, social norms, artifacts, and attributes that fall within the purview of the characters as they go about their plot business. While these world-building elements may be chosen in the random walk of the character’s lives, they cannot in fact be random. The author cannot put in elements ad hoc and without thought.
Every artist who paints a tree with a few dapples of green and yellow must have in mind’s eye a full and complete tree to justify the sweep of each stroke and the choice of its color. In the same way, an author can create a sense of depth and perspective on a particular world or society, but the elements must relate to one another. Behind this glimpse and that glimpse must be a complete whole that ties the glimpses together. The author always tells less than he or she knows, but at the same time he or she must have more in mind than is shown. That deeper vision does not have to be worked out in every detail, but it must be full enough that the seemingly random bits work together in a way the reader can understand.
For most authors writing in contemporary society on planet Earth, the question of the underlying vision usually does not arise. They write about what they know and have experienced, and the reality of everyday life is the binding glue. But for the author of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, the task becomes a bit harder.
Imagination is a great thing, but it must be controlled. The author cannot in one part of the book describe a libertarian society and then in another part hem the characters in with speech codes and laws about spitting on the sidewalk. The author can’t create an agrarian society where most of the background characters plod along as indentured serfs and then populate this world with frictionless machines drawing on boundless energy that replicate all the essentials of shelter, food, and clothing.3 Behind the laws and customs that readers are meant to perceive, behind the lifestyle and artifacts they are asked to accept, the author must imagine a consistent framework that yields logical results through those bits of custom and artifact.
As a novel is an expression of the author’s character and emotional temperament, so it is also an expression of his or her knowledge and study. A deep knowledge of and formal training in science is not necessary to write science fiction, although it’s not safe to delve into alien morphology without some sense of biology, nor travel among the stars without a grounding in astronomy and physics. But an author who sets out to create a world that feels whole and complete must also be versed in the basics of history, economics, and human nature,4 with a grounding in military strategy and tactics as needed.
If you want to sit down and create a world—from the waterless planet Dune, for which Frank Herbert supposedly studied geology and marine biology, to the tight circle of espionage in London Circus, which drew on John Le Carré’s experiences in the British foreign service—you must be intensely curious about the world around you. You must constantly be asking about motives and mechanisms: “Why would he do that?” “Why does this work?” “Why couldn’t they do it that way?” You must constantly seek the underside of things and how they connect in the places you can’t see directly.
If you live on the surface of your world, accepting things as they come without question, you won’t necessarily be alive to the connections that make a world work. The author paints things on the surface for the reader, but he or she must live amidst a vast underlying mechanism of science, sociology, history, and relationships. The author’s world may exist on the pages of a book held between the reader’s two palms, but its reality, its implications, its underlying framework must extend into the reader’s mind and experience like the many-layered internal dimensions of a hypercube.
1. The novel is structurally composed of three “books,” although I have never seen it sold as more than one volume. Herbert wrote a number of sequels to the Dune story, and his son Brian in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson have written even more prequels that expand on the history. But for the purposes of this analysis, I am focusing on the first novel—which is all any reader had until the first sequel, Children of Dune, came out, and by then the world was fully fixed in our imaginations.
2. Consider such concepts as “tradecraft,” “legend,” “lamplighters,” and “scalphunters,” which the reader immediately understands from their context. The terms also suggest the different and slightly skewed, mildly sinister view that the Circus organization has of the world around it.
3. These are examples from the top of my head and should not be taken as criticism of any particular author’s work.
4. Yes, even if your characters are non-human aliens, you still need to understand basic psychology and the rules of logic in order to make them sensible to human readers. Until we are confronted with a truly non-human perspective with reasoning based on a non-human logic, we are probably not in a position to appreciate how different the aliens are likely to be from humans. My bet is, when we finally meet them, we probably won’t even know they’re alive. Their thinking processes, their timeframes, their needs, desires, imperatives, and dislikes, will be more foreign to our minds than those of army ants or tube worms. “Take me to your leader!” … Um, define “leader.”