On crafting your world.
I save every story I ever write… which, thanks to my constant bouncing from one project to the next, has left me with about fifty or so half-finished tales sitting on my hard drive. I remember the first story I ever completed: it was a tale involving my halfling character, Stanto Pigwalter, and his companions on a quest to a forgotten city to find some great treasure. I was 21 when I wrote it and I’ll admit it smacked of Dragonlance quite badly. The characters were generic, the story was confusing and contradictory from page to page, the villain was a Sauron rip-off that the heroes wanted to kill for no particular reason, as it was trapped in an amulet and couldn’t actually do anything, nor had it done anything for the last several thousand years, and, gasp, there was a sudden and totally unexpected heel-turn for one of the main characters, for no reason at all! (Unless you count “because my main villain sucked and I needed someone for the party to fight.)
Shoddy writing and character development (or lack thereof) aside, the world I had my characters travel through was wild and untamed (mostly because it was a poorly-veiled rip-off of the Eberron campaign setting from Dungeons & Dragons and all the legwork had been done for me) and there was peril at every step of the way. By the time the heroes finally showed up in the forgotten city to murder the villain, (who really had been minding his own business this whole time,) the heroes were road-weary, battle-scarred, and tired. To top it off, a raging hurricane had been battering them most of the tale, so not only were they beat up, they were also wringing wet and Stanto had a raging head cold.
In comparison with the bland and lovingly borrowed (see: blatantly plagiarized) plot elements, the world in which the characters stumbled through was alive. Water dripped from leaves, rocks and boulders choked the ancient roads, critters hooted and called from the thick jungle on either side, and on the whole it only served to showcase how one-dimensional my characters were. “Oh, I have tripped over a rock again. Let’s wait three pages and do the same thing again because I can’t think of anything else exciting to do.”
What I’m trying to say here (in an extremely self-deprecating manner,) is that both the characters and the environment they interact with should be believable and real. Don’t sacrifice one to pump up the other. Let’s take a look at the video game Morrowind as an example of good world design:
The world of Morrowind is vast; it’s certainly one of the larger game environments from recent years. The reason I choose Morrowind as my example over the more recent Elder Scrolls game of Oblivion (or even Skyrim,) is that Morrowind is such a different type of place. Cities grown from giant mushrooms! Towns made from driftwood in swamps! Giant fleas to carry you from one city to the next across vast impassible marshes of volcanic silt! Raging dust storms! Volcanoes! More giant mushroom houses! A city housed entirely inside a discarded crab shell! (Yes, there is seriously a crab shell in this game large enough to house a city inside of it.)
By comparison, let’s take the more recent Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. What sorts of environments do we see? Fields and… more fields. Also the occasional mountain. Heck, Morrowind has the advantage over Oblivion in the fauna department as well: whereas Oblivion has generic wolves and bears to worry about, Morrowind hosts such exotic creatures as the Netch, a giant, mid-air jellyfish creature that is Morrowind’s version of a cow. The Cliff Racer, a pterodactyl creature that has inspired many a cursing fit when it sweeps down to nibble on your head. The Alit, an eyeless two-legged beast that’s about 90% jaws and fangs and bad attitude… and those are merely the common creatures you find roaming around the countryside! That’s to say nothing of the steam-powered centurions and guardians locked away in the forgotten Dwarven cities scattered across the island!
What it all boils down to is that the world your characters inhabit should be as alive and as part of the story as the characters themselves. What sort of physical environment does your tale take place in? Sand? Water? Rock? Jungle? What time of year does your story take place? George R.R. Martin has taught us all to shiver and draw our jackets a little tighter around ourselves in recent years with the now-immortal phrase, “Brace yourself; Winter is coming.” Take, by comparison, the bland environments of the Star Wars universe: (I am a huge Star Wars fan, so don’t think I’m mindlessly hating on it,) A sand planet! A snow planet! A tree planet! A city planet! What do these planets tell us about the people that live there? Nothing! No character in Star Wars is shaped by his environment! Luke acclimatizes to any other planet as easily as if he’d lived there all his life and not on a ball of rock and sand. He never complains about the cold compared to his world, he never says that he misses the desert, he never blinks an eye at interstellar travel, despite being an uneducated country bumpkin. Why is this so? Well, because there’s no connection in the writing between the characters and the environment. The only instance of this we ever see is when Luke almost freezes to death on Hoth, and even then there’s no permanent damage done; he’s up and running around the next morning! The danger is merely an illusion, not meant to endanger our cast, but just to give them something pretty to bounce off of. Let’s consider for a moment if Luke had lost an arm or a leg to frostbite? How might that have changed the story? Let’s say he lost part of his face? Would we still have loved him if he was deformed? Would we still gasp at the battle of Hoth, knowing that because the Rebels were there, Luke lost part of himself? Probably not. The audience would have paid a high price for the opening scene; the loss of part of the main character’s identity. That’s why we cringe every time we see Luke fly to Cloud City; we know he’s about to lose his hand. It colors Cloud City for us permanently. Cloud City is pain and betrayal and where true love is ripped apart and innocence is lost forever. Tatooine is merely sandy. (And sand is coarse and gets everywhere.)
Don’t be sucked into the urge to make your characters adventure in front of a drop screen; make the environment real and three-dimensional. Make it surround the cast, color their actions and their quest; make it as much a character as the characters themselves.