Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Worldbuilding and the Origin of Fandom -- Part II: The Authors

Part I on worldbuilding and readers was lost to an internet error, but a backup can be found here, now here's my take on the author's end of things.

Tolkien is often cited as the father of worldbuilding, and though he was hardly the first to develop an invented world in which to set fantastical stories, he did take the practice to new heights of complexity. Since then, many authors have followed in his footsteps, copying his length and complexity despite the fact that neither length nor complexity are desirable traits, in and of themselves. A good short story is not improved simply by the addition of more pages, nor, when we discover a scientific principle, do we tend to represent it in its most complex form--quite the opposite: art and science both benefit from elegance and focus. As Einstein said, a scientist begins to expect the world to be beautifully elegant, such that it is often considered a good sign for a theory if it is able to represent an idea fully with the interaction of a few simple variables.

If some part of you doesn't weep in wonder to see this, I'm not sure there's much help for you
Yet there is a certain sense in modern art that complexity is desirable: that the amount of time and effort put into a work corresponds to its worth, impressing by sheer volume instead of innovation, style or skill. So, we get artists who wrap old churches in cling film, who set up ten thousand umbrellas on the side of a highway, who recreate the Mona Lisa thirty feet tall, with toothpicks, as if the worth of art could (or should) be measured in the same way as the world record for pullups. Yet, as anyone who has worked in an office can tell you: an increase in the hours spent on labor does not necessarily correspond to more or better work.

Mother and Child Divided by Damien Hirst
I have always preferred to witness in art acts of elegance, precision, and skill--a demonstration of the long years of work and training which enable the practitioner to show us effortlessly and masterfully all that they have learned. Thus I respond more to a study of the quality of the lines in a Da Vinci sketch than to a cow which Damien Hirst has bisected with an industrial saw. There is no reason to be impressed by the amount of work that has gone into something when you realize that it is possible to spend a great amount of exertion fruitlessly, achieving nothing much, at all. But there will always be some who are impressed, and there will always be authors who fall into the same trap of quantity over quality, particularly when it comes to worldbuilding.

This article points out the trend which can be found in the numerous notes, letters, and other papers left behind by Tolkien: though he began his career writing stories with regularity, he ended it painstakingly rereading his own work trying to ensure that distances, phases of the moon, Catholic theology, and locations of all and sundry dwarvish instruments were properly accounted for. Certainly, as authors, we should want to be accurate, to create worlds and stories that make sense, but there are sane limits on how far to extend this. We are human beings, it is inescapable that we will make errors, so trying to ferret out every one is, in the end, a losing proposition. A man's life is simply not long enough, and so a balance must be struck. To me, it is a terrible misalignment of priority to spend as many years altering small details as were spent on writing the book in the first place. If the story is already there, why go back and obsessively alter every part of it, except as a fit of pique?

Scrimshander by Robert Weiss
What would be the more valuable contribution to the world: for Tolkien to correct those thousands of references to names and facts, or to spend that time writing another three books? Certainly, it is a natural human urge to spend time obsessing about impossible perfection instead of actually finishing our grand experiments. Yet the greatest works in the history of literature are full of flaws, over-extensions, and explorations that didn't pan out. This didn't make them failures, in fact it is a large part of what made them so remarkable and influential. Looking at one of the most ambitious such examples, Moby Dick--which played fearlessly with genre, style, and philosophy--yet for all its errors, it stands as one of the most impressive achievements in writing. In my experience, most writers already spend far too much time editing, and not half as much time as they should writing.

Its an obsession that has plagued many great writers throughout history, but rarely has the urge to tamper been to the benefit of the work. Milton's Paradise Regained and Tasso's Jerusalem Conquered are little more than footnotes to the great works they were intended to modify or replace. Petrarch's great poetic cycle starts off with lust for a teen girl he saw in church one day, and ends forty years later, reinterpreting a young man's eros as a dying man's hope for redemption in the savior. Aside from being brilliant and one of the most influential works in the history of Western literature, Petrarch's poetry demonstrates that in editing, the best the old artist can hope for is to completely subsume his former self. Why rewrite it when the result will be a completely different work?

As George Lucas famously said in his defense of film preservation during Ted Turner's project to remaster and color old films:
"It will soon be possible to create a new "original" negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires . . . Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten . . . The public's interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests."
And perhaps if he had stuck to that ideal, he would not have tried to recreate something that was already good, but moved on to the next idea.

It can certainly be difficult to properly balance writing versus editing, particularly when we're in the midst of creating. There is a very strong, sometimes perverse urge to refine, detail, and explain, to answer questions that no one but us would ask. It was not necessary to reveal that the immortal sword-wielders of highlander were actually aliens from the planet Zeist, or that the reason Superman can pick up buildings without them crumbling is because he has 'tactile telekinesis', or that 'the force' of Star Wars is actually the result of superintelligent bacteria whose name I will not stoop to write. No one was clamoring for these explanations--they make the story no less artificial and convenient, so all they add is additional pointless complexity. Nothing is changed about the way the world in the story works--you could just as easily say that Highlanders, Kryptonians, and Jedi owe their powers to jellybeans and be done with it, for all the good such tampering achieves.

When I read, I am always looking for purpose: if there is a word there, a sentence, and idea, then why is it there? Without this reason, it were better left out. But there are so many possible reasons, and therein lies the great depth of critical analysis, of how and why we create. Besides the vague and arbitrary reimaginings in the examples above, there many books--especially sci fi works--which are built around very specific, enumerated details, yet these can be just as fraught with pointlessness.

Nautiuls Model by Harper Goff

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, I found long passages--or even whole chapters--which described the specific tonnage of the vessels, the chemical composition of the batteries, and long lists of plant and animal binomials. I struggled to find a reason for these inclusions, a way that they enriched Verne's world or the story. Surely, a prolonged thought-experiment about buoyancy might be interesting to an engineer, but while there may be many thought exercises we embark upon as writers, they generally end up in the cutting room with our outlines, and for the same reason: our writing has already delivered their gist without need for explicit review.

Ovid, too, had his lengthy lists, but his were poetic--paintings of timbre and sibilance--few of Verne's digressions can make a similar defense of contributing to tone. It certainly makes sense for the character, a biologist, to express such thoughts, but then, an author has their choice of characters, and if they choose one with certain habits, then it is up to them to make that choice interesting to the reader, as Wodehouse and Douglas Adams did with wondrously dull characters. What benefit was there to including lists that was superior to passing them over with an explanation of their lavishness and an admittance that the specific details could interest no one but a born classifier?

Certainly, details form a fundamental part of how every author delivers his world to us, but there's no reason to go on about them unless they are either vital to the situation at hand, interesting on their own, or aid in some artistic or philosophical exploration. In Ghostbusters, all of the references to the paranormal use real terms and concepts, Dan Ackroyd's Great-Grandfather having been a noted Spiritualist. Yet these details are written into the world realistically, so that they do not distract by way of overwrought exposition--indeed they would almost certainly go unnoticed (except as gags) to anyone not familiar with them. The details are given in relationship to characters, conversations, and events which are all immediately pertinent to the action. They are not dull, they do not detract because there are several narrative layers in effect at the same time, not just overwrought digressions.

Ray's Occult Books

That isn't to say aspects like detail, explanation, accuracy, length, and complexity are to be avoided--they are neither good or bad, in and of themselves, they can be used or misused, hence it is important for the creator to ensure that the amount of work he puts in is equal to the amount of value his readers will get out--or indeed, that he will get out of it. If it will take longer to correct an error than the time he put in creating it in the first place, it must be clear that he is now working in reverse: not making, but unmaking, at which point, it is better (and braver!) to take the imperfect experiment as it is, release it into the world, then move on to the next idea.

'When I'm good and finished.'
There is no perfect book--an author could keep editing the same work over a lifetime and still, he will not have achieved that elusive thing. His one book will be rewritten into a different story, then another--as he changes in life, so will he change his mind--shifting the story back and forth without nearing his goal, so that in the end, he will be like the painter who paints over his canvas again and again, creating then destroying a dozen pieces with little to show for it. We shall all progress through different states of mind as we go through life, and so a book written at one point represents different goals, different values than will be held at other points in life. This is not the flaw but the wonder of humanity: in learning, growing, changing one's mind. We need not think of it as a failure to be ignored and covered up, as our younger self being 'wrong' and our older self superior.

For some, the unbridled juvenilia will be superior to the stodgy dodderings of age--for others, age will bring invaluable wisdom and experience which early, half-formed pieces lacked. Some few, lucky authors even experience both periods: the style of age, while drastically different from that of youth, is equally powerful in its own idiom. But it makes little sense to take a work which was conceptualized and realized with one view in mind and try to make it match some completely different concept. That lifetime might better be spent completing several dozen books representing the many periods of life, each of which, while not perfect (nothing is), would make a far better gift to the world than a shedful of indecisive notes from an elderly man trying to alter the words of his passionate youth because they have ceased to make sense to him.

Next up: Part III, What Fiction Does Well


  1. I think the reason Tolkien works for me is actually the worldbuilding. I've ran into no other fantasy world that I could truly immerse myself into. Consequently, this makes me care about the world and therefore care for its fate. In fact, I'd go as far to say that the true protagonist of "Lord of the Rings" (to say nothing of the unpublished writings, namely "The Silmarillion") is Middle-earth itself, not Frodo or Aragorn. Most of his copycats, however, focus on the motive of Hero's Quest when in fact it's just one thread in the tapestry.

    Ironically, the person who sought to subvert perceived "Tolkienism", George R. R. Martin, actually came closer than Tolkien's "followers" to the idea of novel about the world rather than a protagonist. But I find that Martin fails in the very thing you are begrudging Tolkien here: lack of planning. He started writing without firmly establishing where he wanted to take the story, and now the quality is dropping with every book and gaps are getting larger. Yes, in the process of writing, there will be changes from the plan. But I think Martin barely laid any foundations before embarking on his quest.

    But there is another reason why most of Tolkien's writings remained unpublished: he was told by practically everyone he showed them to that people would not want to read something like that. "Lord of the Rings" is not the book he intended to write. It was the saga-like epic whose fragments are gathered in "The Silmarillion" and "Lost Tales". But people wanted another "The Hobbit", so he gave them "The Hobbit" on the larger scale.

    Not to say extensive worldbuilding works for everyone; with Tolkien, general slow pace and the tone make it bearable, and I won't deny I skimmed some of it the first time around. In more action-packed and/or character-focused narrative, sudden infodumps completely ruin the pacing. And I agree that over-explaining is, in general, something to be avoided. I suspect the writer's urge to show off is to be blamed here. "Hard" science fiction writers suffer from this perhaps even more than fantasy writers, since theoretically "inventing" new technologies is a large, if not the first and foremost purpose of writing for them.

    So I'd say that while worldbuilding is important in the process of writing, most of it is better left in the notebook instead of the final draft. Tolkien is Tolkien and he did his thing for his reasons (linguistics) and fantasy should move on. It's not like Literary Fiction writers are writing like Tolstoy anymore.

    Another great post. (And this time, I even mostly agree!) Looking forward to the next one.

    1. "I've ran into no other fantasy world that I could truly immerse myself into."

      I have nothing against a story being set in a world, of course, even a made up one, but to me, whether or not that world is immerse has to do with the author's tone, with the ideas presented, with the things the world suggests about life, and the ways it can make a story stronger. Lists of details that don't have any bearing on that are what I would consider poor or useless worldbuilding.

      "Martin fails in the very thing you are begrudging Tolkien here: lack of planning."

      Actually, a lot of what I'm talking about with Tolkien isn't the time he spent planning, but all the editing he tried to do after the fact, suggesting either that his original planning was insufficient, or that he changed his mind and was trying to rewrite his story to fit his new preconceptions. If you check out the Andrew Rilstone article I linked in the review, it goes into more depth about that.

      "I'd say that while worldbuilding is important in the process of writing, most of it is better left in the notebook instead of the final draft."

      Certainly true, though again, I'd stress that it's important for the author to ensure that any time spent on worldbuilding is productive and actually adds meaning to the story that makes that use of time worthwhile.

      Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading.

    2. I've read the article, but all I got from it was the not-really-complaint about altering "The Hobbit" to fit it into the continuity of "The Silmarillion". As for "The Silmarillion" itself, Christopher Tolkien admitted that he might have been hasty in the selection of the material and, as the article you linked to states, some of the "editing" was actually his.

      But I admit I'm biased since I'm a very alinear writer. I write from all the corners, as opposed to starting a story and seeing where it takes me. In a recent project, I rewrote the ending five times until it felt connected to all the previous events that came in-between later on and ended up deleting a whole long scene because there was no reason character would have gotten to that point after the development he went through. In contrast, I know a writer who cannot move on until the sentence is written to perfection and has been known to scrap the whole chapter because he is dissatisfied with a detail and start over. It's a psychological need.

      To get to the point, I think the writing process differs from person to person. And to some "wasting time" at worldbuilding helps, even though it may seem useless in the final product.

    3. "to some "wasting time" at worldbuilding helps, even though it may seem useless in the final product."

      Certainly true, though if a writer finds it indispensable to sit in the bath and work out the plot in their head in order to be able to write, I still don't think that justifies the author trying to include bathing photos in their book under the argument that it is a 'vital part of their writing process'.

    4. Of course. I did mention in my first comment that most of the worldbuilding should stay in the notebook. By which I mean anything irrelevant to the plot or creating an atmosphere.

      Though with the popular trends in marketing, I wouldn't be surprised to see someone selling the model of the bathtub newest bestselling author sat in.
      Or the model of the bathtub E.L. James had in mind when writing sex-in-the-bathtub scenes.

  2. "What would be the more valuable contribution to the world: for Tolkien to correct those thousands of references to names and facts, or to spend that time writing another three books?"

    Tolkien's goal was never to simply 'write books.' So the criticism that his time could have been spent better if he wrote more books is irrelevant.

    1. "Tolkien's goal was never to simply 'write books.' So the criticism that his time could have been spent better if he wrote more books is irrelevant."

      I wasn't arguing about what Tolkien's goals might have been, I was questioning if the time he spent on them was a worthwhile contribution, as a writer. Certainly, if he wanted to while away the hours pruning his hedges and napping in the sun, or carefully cataloging rock-types in a pretend world in his head, that's his choice, but it isn't a defense of his books.

  3. Nice use of Euler's identity in your post. I remember I once derived essentially all of a summer's worth of trigonometry class from Euler's formula, and fit it on a single page of paper. I always prefer elegance, but unfortunately the world does not seem to prefer that. I suppose elegance would not create enough pointless make-work for all of us to carry out.

    The Ray's Occult Books scene was actually nicely done. I found it on YouTube:


  4. The concept of the quantity of details in worldbuilding is interesting. This reminded me of a hobby that I had as a teenager: writing programs that generated worlds, characters, monsters, etc in Dungeons and Dragons. Many games actually use procedurally generated content in this manner. Nowadays we could probably even generate such world-building details by marking world-building paragraphs from authors' texts, and then asking the computer to read such text and then using deep neural networks to regurgitate similar text.

    The problem I see with both humans and computers generating such content is that it ends up quite entropic, so it does not really parse well into intuitive character or story arcs. It all ends up sounding like the tweets from Deep Drumpf: