When you write speculative fiction, one of your biggest tasks is world-building. Whether you’re writing a star-spanning sci-fi civilization, or a medieval kingdom in fantasy, that world-building is just as key as are your characters. If the world is neither compelling nor unique, pretty much no one is going to give your (presumably brilliant!) characters a chance to reveal themselves…
Now, I do a lot of prep and background work long before I write a story. I do it for my characters, yes, but for my “worlds” also. In fact, I probably do a bit too much. I work out details and histories and facts that no one will ever see, especially given the tight focus I like to keep on my characters. I do that background work — that invisible work — because I think the depth and “reality” are necessary. Characters are shaped by their society, and their society is shaped by it’s history. A Pole and a Czech are not far apart in space, their respective societies are not far apart in respect to the time the modern iterations have existed, but their histories…their histories make for vastly different people and outlooks.
I started thinking about world-building over the last couple of days not because of the work I want & need to do on a new story, but because of the news.
Yep, the news. The real world, boring, obnoxious news.
One of the favorite tools of the speculative fiction writer is the “empire in decline.” From the decline into senescence of Tolkien’s Gondor to the fall of Moorcock’s Melnibone…
From the disintegration of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the disintegration of Asimov’s Galactic Empire…
Hell, from the fall of Lucas’ Old Republic to the destruction of just about everything in the Walking Dead, the decline and fall of a civilization offers far-too tempting — and far-too effective! — a backdrop for any speculative writer to ignore.
Of course, I’m not just a writer, I’m also a historian. More than that, I’m a historian whose academic training is in the decline of the Roman Republic, and its transition to Empire. That training and knowledge tends to give me a certain perspective on, and fascination with, civilizations on the wrong side of the peak.
The thing about all those declining kingdoms and empires in stories is that they are there to give the characters something to look back to, something greater and more wonderful to hope/dream/aim for. They’re plot devices as much as they are world-building. That’s why you never (or very, very seldom) see good stories place the protagonist as a member of a civilization at or near its peak, not unless that power is something to be hated and overthrown.
And you certainly never see a protagonist sit amidst all the power and splendor of a dynamic, vibrant empire and say, “You know, this is all going to shit…”
So, as I said, I’ve been reading the news: You know, this is all going to shit.
As a politics geek, and a history nerd, the realization that I am living on the downslope of such an empire, that every passing year in my country will be worse than the last, is troubling and depressing. To think that we are no longer capable of things that seemed so simple just a few years and decades ago…to think that every crisis, every problem, will just get worse…
But as a writer? As a writer, that thought offers all kinds of possibilities and ideas…and challenges. We can’t forget the challenges. To create hurdles and problems that have meaning, that matter, is not easy when you’re talking about a society at or near its peak.
Writing and thinking about all this has inspired a bit of a writing exercise (that will probably never see the light of day…just like most of my “practice” exercises): can I create the basis/plot for a story that works in a similar setting? Can I create a fantasy or sci-fi setting and circumstance that sets a protagonist willingly and happily amidst a power actually at its peak? Can there be stakes and challenges that mean something in that setting?