Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Worldbuilding Wednesday: Land Beast I

One thing I really admire in fiction is good worldbuilding.  So before I go further, let's define that for those who might not know the term.

Worldbuilding is, as the term implies, the process of building a world.  A fictional world that is, which is the place where your characters do their thing, whatever that may be.  It's the culture, society, attitudes, location, logic, and all the other little granular details that make up the world your characters live in.

Now obviously this is an absolute necessity for science fiction and fantasy.  Sure, you can get away with a tossed-off "spaceships, ftl, robots, blah blah", but you're not going to make Firefly that way.  Or at least you're not going to make a Firefly that's any different from a million other space shows.  Without all the background detail, even if not much of it appears in the story, there's nothing to differentiate Firefly from Star Trek from Farcry from Battle Beyond the Stars.  Same goes for fantasy, it's sheer laziness to just say there are elves and such, and your readers will pick up on that pretty quick.

Even in stuff set in present day, you can still apply worldbuilding.  I recently read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and she's built in a number of new things into that world.  Instead of just assuming her Harry Potter expy and running with it, she includes excerpts from the books that this new character stars in, and shows how they're a thing of their own to some extent.  To whatever level she's successful at the attempt (and honestly I wasn't entirely convinced) it's an attempt to create a context in which the main character could be a big name fan writing fanfic about the series in question.

Tolkien, of course, is the archetypical worldbuilder.  Not only do you have The Hobbit providing context for Lord of the Rings, but you have the Sylmerylion before that, providing a detailed look at the history and legends of the world of Middle Earth.  And more, you have The Adventures of Tom Bombadil who opens a window on the culture and folklore in a world full of fantastic creatures and events.  And on top of that you have Tolkien's notes and side stories, which all add to the richness of the overall world.

To take another, more contemporary example, I've been enjoying a recent manga series named Centaur's Worries (take a look around, it should be on MangaTraders or someplace).  The basic idea is a slice of life story involving a centaur schoolgirl and her friends, who are all other fantastic creatures like satyrs and angels.  But as you get deeper into the narrative, you learn more about the world they live in, and the richer the world gets.  From the fact that standard biology in this world is based on six limbs rather than four (wings, forelegs, etc), to the idea that riding a centaur is considered a hate crime since they were formerly slaves and war mounts, to the mystery of the snakelike Antarcticans who have advanced technology but little culture.  Some of the details are vital to the overarching plot, which doesn't become apparent for quite some time, and some are just trivia intended to help the reader become immersed in the characters' world.

Like all skills, worldbuilding is something that needs to be learned and developed.  It can be pretty scary too, since every choice you make has effects on what choices are available to you down the road.  Not to mention, they're your choices.  You're the one responsible for everything, and that can be pretty heavy when you really think about it.

In any case, as part of my attempts to build good writing habits, I want to declare Worldbuilding Wednesdays, and each week get a little more into the process of creating, well, a world.  So here's the first part:

Worldbuilding Wednesdays: Land Beast Part I

So we start with just the basic germ of an idea.  A world with a hostile surface where it would be difficult for humans to survive. What does live here is a gigantic creature, the Land Beast, a continually moving beast of enormous size, which supports its own mobile ecosystem, part of which are human-like, and eventually the protagonists of stories that take place on the Beast.

So right away, the question comes up.  How damn big is this beast anyhow?  The size of New York City?  The size of France?  Bigger?  And what sort of planet is this?  Are there oceans?  Is there an ecosystem on the ground?  Why can't humans live there?

These are all valid questions.  So let's think about this.  First of all, the Beast would have to be big enough to support a complete ecosystem.  Plants, animals, humans, the lot.  And that takes quite a bit of room.  So something France-sized would be workable, since it would not only support the necessary life, but it would be big enough to justify a society of humans as well.  Which obviously would be necessary if we're going to tell stories that humans are going to relate to.

Yes yes, I know about Watership Down.  But I'd rather write about people who are people, rather than animals who are basically human.

So we've got a size, how about a number?  How many of these beasts are there?  This is where you can get a bit arbitrary, since I'm going to decide that the humans, or humanoids at least, who live on the beast have never seen another one.  So the beasts may be assumed to be solitary in nature and only very rarely come in contact with each other.  They'd also need to be very long-lived in order for their ecosystems to grow.

So maybe in the whole world, there are only a handful of these beasts.  Call it 10-15 at most, and they generally avoid each others' territories.  I can imagine it would be a major event, and one worthy of stories, for these creatures to actually encounter one another, which would also involve contact between the dominant species who live on them.

Speaking of living on them, there has to be some benefit for the Land Beast to have critters and forests growing on its surface.  Clearly they have to be symbiotic, rather than parasitic, to last this long together.  So perhaps the plants provide a vital service, providing nutrients, catching rainwater, and aerating the outer skin of the Beast.  Likewise, the animals would fertilize the plants and some of their own byproducts would provide vital elements.  An evolution which, over time, has benefitted both species.

It strikes me that there must be oceans and rain on this world, otherwise it wouldn't be possible for the animals to get fresh water.  Certainly you don't get a mountain spring out of a living creature, so perhaps the plants have grown in such a way that their roots capture pools of falling water. Some of which is absorbed by the Beast, some of which goes to maintain the animal portion of the ecosystem.  Sounds good to me.  Plus, it leaves open the idea of a Sea Beast narrative that takes place in the same world.

So right away you see we've closed a door on some choices about the world.  This cannot possibly be a desert world.  There are seas, there is regularly falling water, so that is no longer an option. So instead, perhaps it's the makeup of the planet's surface that's the problem.  The land itself could be poison to species like the ones we know, perhaps high in some molecule that we are weak against.  However, the Beast is able to survive this, and on its back is a much preferable environment where development is more likely to occur.  So while there may be creatures and plants on the surface, these would also include these elements as well.  

So there's another decision made.  Humans can't live on the surface, but the Beast acts as an intermediary that makes that sort of life possible.  It would probably have a metabolism that lets the harmful elements pass through, so they'd return to the land via its waste products, meaning that it would never be cleansed.  Of course another reason would be the continual danger of a Beast tromping through and destroying what it steps on, so nothing really lasting could rise up in the first place.

Of course that leaves the possibility of nomadic critters with incompatible biology to the Beast-riding animals could exist, but probably irrelevant to the stories I'd want to tell.  It's something I can get away with leaving open to decide later in any case.

Speaking of nomadic, that brings us back to the Beast's wandering lifestyle.  It would need a fair amount of space to stump around in, plus room for the other Beasts that exist on this world.  Plus we've already decided that we need seas.  So that opens the question of how the land is arranged.  Obviously something heavy on islands or archipelagos would be right out. But what about a supercontinent, one large land mass that all the Beasts exist on, tramping eternally through the wide expanse.  Or should there be multiple continents, say two or three, each with two or three Beasts each?  Personally, I like the idea of a supercontinent.  It opens more possibilities for the Beasts to encounter each other, which could be a threat to the individual "worlds" that reside on them.

That's a good start for the first day of exploring the concept of the Land Beast.  Next week, we'll get a little further into it and see what new decision points come up.

Comments and suggestions are more than welcome throughout this exercise. I am quite open to input and criticisms into the world that's slowly being created here.

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