A World of Straw: Lincoln Michel on Worldbuilding

Image result for straw man

Today I ran across a pair of articles by Lincoln Michel on the subject of worldbuilding in literature. He’s opposed. Quite strongly opposed, actually.

The sad thing is, he has absolutely nothing meaningful to say, because he’s constructed a gigantic straw man – as, I have noticed, critics of worldbuilding tend to do.

Some people will argue, tautologically, that all fiction takes place in a world and thus all fiction worldbuilds. But the way most people use the term is similar to what Chuck Wendig’s definition: “[worldbuilding] covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic ‘twerking’ rites.”

Worldbuilding is not merely creating a fictional setting and writing a narrative in it. It is an attempt to flesh out an invented world in way that allegedly feels “real.” In a perfectly executed work of worldbuilding, there would be no gaps in the world for the reader to fill in. Everything from the goblins’ favorite type of baby wipes to the export taxes on Martian ray guns would be worked out (at least in the author’s mind if not on the page). This is not possible, but worldbuilding expects the author to have “rules” that are “logically” followed to their conclusions.

No, worldbuilding is creating an immersive setting through the judicious application of particular details. Show people the tip of the iceberg, and they’ll assume the stuff under the water – which may or may not be there. The trick is avoiding showing them the entire iceberg – no-one needs to know the export taxes on Martian ray guns (normally, anyway), but if your story needs them, you create the impression they actually exist. Fiction is a con-trick, remember?

Michel also puts logically in inverted commas, as though logical consistency in a setting is a bad thing. Well, no. Consistency in a setting is like consistency in a character’s actions – to depart from it without organic development would destroy the willing suspension of disbelief. The comparison with characterisation is also pertinent, since you don’t describe someone’s hair, eye-colour, and middle name to build them as people on the page. You describe their actions, and from their actions, we learn about them. Same with worldbuilding – you don’t write an encyclopedia, but show the world being lived in.

In contrast to “worldbuilding,” I’ll offer the term “worldconjuring.” Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.

The distinction isn’t between worldbuilding and worldconjuring. It’s between good wordbuilding and bad worldbuilding. And, as I have said before, illusion requires some consistency to maintain itself.

Worldbuilding is The Silmarillion, worldconjuring is ancient myths and fairy tales. (In fairy tales, we don’t learn the construction techniques of the witch’s gingerbread house or the import/export routes of evil dwarves.) Worldbuilding is a thirty page explanation of the dining customs of beetle-shaped aliens, worldconjuring is Gregor Samsa turning into a beetle in the first sentence without any other fuss.

We don’t learn the construction techniques Turgon used to build Gondolin either. Seriously, has this guy ever read The Silmarillion? The closest you get to worldbuilding infodumps are the Valaquenta, and Of Beleriand and its Realms – both of which are simply setting the scene for later fireworks. The rest of the book is actually pretty light on it, and a terse read generally – we never find out what, exactly, Ungoliant is, never mind what, say, Feanor is wearing on any given day.

What kind of fiction needs such details? A prime example might be A Song of Ice and Fire, where the varying religions, political factions, and regional customs are indeed a huge appeal of the books. It’s also no coincidence the series is massive. As we’ve pointed out before, the current five books (of a planned seven) are 12 times as long as One Hundred Years of Solitude, 36 times as long as The Great Gatsby and more than and 80 times as long as The Metamorphosis. As a general rule, the longer we stay in a world, the more worldbuilding might be necessary.

And yet One Hundred Years of Solitude is longer than The Silmarillion, supposedly the epitome of world over story.

Even in epic fantasy stories, though, it’s questionable how much detailed worldbuilding improves a work. Tolkien is revered among worldbuilding obsessives for going to such lengths as inventing complete languages for his fictional races before even writing the story. Contrast that with George R. R. Martin, who famously describes himself as a “gardener” instead of an “architect,” and who simply makes up some fake words and lets the reader infer the rest. Readers may prefer one series to the other for a variety of reasons, but I doubt one reader in a million prefers The Lord of the Rings because dwarven has more realistic grammar than Dothraki.

Which shows a misunderstanding of why Tolkien invented languages. Tolkien invented languages because language is what he loved. He was not doing it to improve his stories, but because it was his own passion. The connection with the stories arose because, as Tolkien notes in his Letters, he thought a “real” language needed stories to go with it – which means that he invented the stories to improve the language, not the other way around.

Martin’s use of language only becomes an issue when he tries to draw attention to it (the “nuncle”and “leal” nonsense). Otherwise, asking why the Dornishmen and the Wildings speak the same language is like asking what Aragorn’s Tax Policy was (right, Mr Martin?).

And for all the worldbuilding love that The Lord of the Rings gets, Tolkien’s work would fail the worldbuilding guides I’ve linked to here. He may have set the table for high fantasy, but he doesn’t even pass contemporary fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s first “law’ of magic. The focus on worldbuilding has moved far beyond simply creating some interesting backstories and complex politics to increase the drama of the tale, to expecting a writer to have mapped out every detail of a world as if they were producing an encyclopedia instead of a story. Would the mythic The Lord of the Rings be improved by more discussion of elvish trade agreements and Mordor dining room etiquette?

Yes, The Lord of the Rings would fail Michel’s straw man – though I have no idea what Michel means by Tolkien failing Sanderson’s Law, which refers to the perils of using magic to solve problems. Tolkien doesn’t use magic to solve problems in Rings.

The funny thing is that Tolkien did actually write about Gondorian currency – but cut it from the appendices, because it had zero relevance to the story he was telling. Because Tolkien’s work was just that – story, not encyclopedia.

(As an aside, it isn’t a coincidence that the celebrated SFF “worldbuilders” are Western writers, typically white, while imaginative writers from so many other cultures get lazily lumped together as “magical realism.” Worldbuilding insists on a certain concept of supposedly logical “realism” that pretends it is the only way to see the world.)

Really? I always thought magical realism was fantasy that dare not speak its name.
My least favorite example of this is the “crazy fan theory.” These normally begin on a site like Reddit, then spread like Kudzu across the internet. Why didn’t the giant eagles simply fly Frodo to Mount Doom? Well, it would be a really boring story if they did! That doesn’t satisfy fans, who instead create fan theories that “explain” and “fix” and “change the way we see” famous works like The Lord of the Rings. (These crazy fan theories exist for basically every popular book or movie that has ever been produced.)
Good grief. He’s clearly never heard of the distinction between Doylism and Watsonian either. People make Watsonian explanations, not because they are trying to change the text, but because… it’s fun on its own terms. Clearly a terrifying concept.
But do we need “worldbuilding” as a concept to explain why moral simplicity, characterization without nuance, or a lack of a tactile sense-of-place can be a problem? A work of fiction set in 2017 will also be bad if the characters lack nuance, the political messages are heavy-handed, and the story is wrapped up in an overly-logical bow. Good writing is complex and ambiguous, not simplistic and heavy-handed.
Because Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is so ambiguous in its message…
I also love how a “tactile sense of place” has suddenly become important. Because here’s the funny thing. World-building is explicitly about creating a tactile sense of place. If I write a story set in Paris (a place I have never been), I am going to have to build the setting with research. If I write a story set in the Viiminian Empire (another place I have never been), I am going to have to build the setting with imagination.
Ultimately, the logic of worldbuilding always succumbs to the more important logic of storytelling. George R. R. Martin liked the idea of a planet that goes through decades-long winters, but he also wanted it to seem like medieval Europe with similar wildlife and political structures that would, in “reality,” not survive decades of winter. What matters in a story is the story, and what serves the story is useful. The Machiavellian political struggles of Westeros are the story of ASOIAF, and so the complex politics of the region matter where the grammar of Dothraki or the breeding habits of Westeros mammals do not. 
Correct. One doesn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire for the world – one reads it for the story. I am vaguely disappointed Martin didn’t do more with his multi-year winters, however – imaginative settings have value unto themselves, because they can be so damn fun to explore. It’s a big appeal of Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia books.
And so on. One can see where this is going. Michel has simply taken a mistaken idea of what world-building is, dressed it up in a hat, then spent two essays knocking the hat off. Well, if he wants to misrepresent the concept, that’s his business. For me, good worldbuilding is not an encyclopedia, any more than I would try to represent Paris by parroting demographic data. Good world building is character development for the setting.

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