The Humble Map and Friends (aka The Otherness)

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January 6, 2013 by jcfarnham

A lot of writers swear by them, others are the first to warn you of making more work for yourself than is “strictly necessary”. The same devide can be witnessed when lists and/or family trees of noble houses, and much more besides, are brought up.

This more or less defines who is a worldbuilder and who isn’t. Some revel in the infinite possibilities of their pet setting. The other camp worries doing all that might trick them into over explaining the setting, infodumping or worse, and so would rather detail only what their viewpoint demands of them.

Personally, I think a good writer has to fall somewhere in the middle (despite this neither way of thinking is wrong mind you).

The power of a well built setting can’t be denied. To ignore your world-setting is to ignore the hidden and arguably most vital character in your arsenal. Likewise too much detail at once and not enough attention to the characters and plot kills all that preparation right off.

I like to call the perfect manifestation of worldbuilding in prose “the sense of other”. It’s that sense that the story you are witness to is not all there is. The undeniable sense that the setting goes on no matter what the characters do.

The king of map-making and world building? For me that’s Tolkien’s stories as told by Peter Jackson. I saw part one of the Hobbit last night. If you don’t get that magical sense of other from that movie I’d say your watching it wrong ;-). I think Orson Scott Card called this phenomena a snapshot in time. It’s the idea that we’re only getting one shot of the rich tapestry that is that world.

But did either Tolkien or the screenplay writers actually detail and explain much of this “other”? You don’t have to sit through a day in the life of a man living in Dale at the foot if the lonely mountain… But its there if you look for it. In the market place, in the buildings, in the actions of the people during the dragons attack.

The trick is to invoke the feeling with as little distraction as possible.

To achieve this you can wing it and create off hand mentions of things even you don’t need to really understand, a name and title here, a famous battle there… Or you could “do the time”, that is, create the maps, the family trees, even summarise the alluded to historical events. All good fun?

Both writers would end up to the same end, just… Enjoy taking different journeys there.

Personally I don’t have the patience to intensively world build all the time, but I can’t ignore making at least a few maps or other trappings of the world building bug.

If I want to mention a place that’s import to a character of mine, but
this isn’t a place the narrative will ever venture, I’ll want to delve into it myself so I know how much to let on, so I know how much I need to do to aid my setting in coming alive for my readers.

… But do try to making that setting live whatever method you take. In the form of satisfied readers, you won’t regret it one bit.


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January 2013
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