Friday, July 23, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part II

Grounded Imagination
In last week’s blog, I discussed the merits of using reality as a basis for constructing fantasy worlds. We took a quick look at several memorable story worlds and how the authors used realistic, though far from mundane, details to ground their readers in fact. This week, we’ll look closer at some of the imaginary creations from two of these authors.

I also discussed the “5 whys” concept of drilling down into detail. This technique is used in the corporate world when determining the root cause of problems in order to formulate solutions that will nip complicated setbacks in the bud. It applies equally well in many aspects of fiction from building unique and richly layered worlds to character creation to developing plot twists. Continue to ask “why” and you will discover things about your story that you never knew were in there.

One thing I thought noteworthy: Terry Ervin, author of Flank Hawk, was kind enough to point out our efforts when creating this kind of depth are often never represented on the page. So WHY go through all the trouble? As we write, many subtle details come out in the story as subtext. To put it simply, subtext is the words used to portray a theme or idea in a passage without directly stating it. Subtext is used to create mood, reveal motivation, hint at mystery clues, foreshadow upcoming plot events, and a host of other things. It really is a topic of its own and we need to stay focused. But, my point is that subtext, the unwritten words, can be strongly influenced by what we already know about a subject - in this case, the subtle details of our story world. I highly recommend Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld for some good examples of this technique. Although the book covers much more than that, the author’s explanation of the subject will initiate you into the delicate art of subtext.

Impossible Worms

In Dune, Herbert’s world of Arrakis is a lifeless, barren world. Nearly every living thing on the planet was brought there by space craft from other worlds over countless generations. Arrakis cannot generally support life because of its arid conditions. “Never a drop of rain on Arrakis.”

The only famous indigenous life of note? Giant sandworms, as much as 400 meters long, endlessly roam the desert where nothing else grown. What a fantastic and wonderful imagination! But how do the sandworms survive? Realistically, a predatory creature of such magnitude must feed in tremendous quantities. So how then do they live in the middle of nowhere and not prey enough in sight to power their massive bodies?

So much time is dedicated into this subject throughout the Dune series (a little at a time) that it would be unfair for me to spend the entire article on the matter to the exclusion of our other example author.

To keep this brief, sandworms survive by eating their young - sort of. Cannibalistic? Perhaps. But the system seems to work fairly well. Sandworms are born, if you can call it that, as billions of tiny microorganisms called sand plankton. How sand plankton are created is never directly stated (that I can remember). These simple celled creatures are consumed by the hundreds of thousands in a single feeding. Those that survive slowly grow to a stage called a sand trout. The sand trout are basically large amoeba. At this stage in their lifecycle, the sandworms are no longer attracted to them as a food source because trout bodies contain more moisture than the worms can comfortably tolerate. Some die and those that don’t go deep underground where they slowly transform, over several years, into tiny (3 meter long) sandworms. The process continues indefinitely.

What moisture the sandworms do need to survive is brought from the planet’s depths, far from the scorching sun, by these microorganisms and baby worms.

Herbert put allot of effort into just this one imaginary aspect of his books. It’s one of the most well known and most read sci-fi stories to date. The author’s hard work and attention to detail make this an incredibly memorable story in the minds of many readers. The series survives with several books published even after the author’s death.

If you’re curious on just how deeply these details go, take a look at the article on Sandworms (Dune).

Smegol’s Wretched Fate

Few characters from fantasy fiction are as memorable as Gollum. He is a creature of malice, mentally poisoned and tormented over the course of 500 years by his one precious possession of value, the Ring of Power - about which The Lord of the Rings centers. Tolkien’s details of Gollum varied from edition to edition of the story. It should be noted that the original Lord of the Rings was reworked for a subsequent publication, which gave the author more time to flesh out much of the missing details in the original story.

Gollum began his life as Smegol, slightly taller than a hobbit and living in a village near the edge of a stream. While on a fishing trip, Smegol discovers the ring and wants it desperately enough that he murders his friend to claim it. He’s driven out of his village and wanders until coming to rest in an underground cavern deep in the mountains. There he waits until the reader discovers him, centuries later. Though we don’t know precisely why, it’s assumed Smegol became ill from the ring’s poisoning effects. He develops a hacking cough that sounds like “gollum” and the name stuck.

So far, we’re forced to suspend our disbelief - magic is real, the ring can allow this creature to live so long, etc. But, Tolkien grounds this make-believe character with some interesting and realistic details.

Gollum’s skin is described as both pale green and sallow (light yellow) - the result of centuries without sunlight. His eyes have grown overly large, adapting to subterranean life. Most of his teeth have decayed or fallen out. (Actually, it’s surprising he has any teeth left at all, given that much time.) His stomach can no longer process “normal” food, and he is forced to live on a diet of raw meat. This last point actually becomes part of the story, because Gollum cannot eat the bread offered to him by Frodo and Sam, which builds tension. His arms and legs are inhumanly thin from lack of nourishing food and exercise since he never leaves his cave. His hair has fallen out save for a few wisps either due to illness or simple age.

Gollum’s transformation is more than just physical. After so many years in the dark, alone, he has lost a fair chunk of his mind. He talks to himself in second person plural (referring to himself as “we”). He doesn’t know how to relate to other people and often mumbles as if no one else is around, revealing his motives and plans. He’s described as rarely seen in good lighting, because he 1) doesn’t want to be seen and 2) doesn’t like the light.

There’s considerably more to this character and allot of time dedicated on the page for him. His outward appearance is a reflection of the madness that’s consumed him for centuries. Tolkien paints us a great picture of what this antagonist looks like, but rarely, does he say precisely why Gollum is the way he is. We just have to make assumptions about what the author’s intentions were during this character’s design phase.  This is an example of what Terry said last week.  By knowing the details, the "why" comes onto the page, sometimes without us even realizing it.

Can we say the same for our characters? Do we show a 10 foot tall ogre without ever thinking about why or how that creature could possibly be so tall? The challenges it faces? And why it thinks/acts the way it does? Robots must be built by someone. Dragons breathe fire, why? What makes one character a wizard and another a bumbling thief?

Just things to think about.
Q4U: What brings a character or place to life in your mind as a reader? What realistic clues does the author use to bring out such a reaction?

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