Built Upon The Shoulders Of Giants
These notes are taken from the titular panel at WorldCon75. The panelists were George RR Martin, Jeffrey A Carver, and Alex Acks. The moderator was Jon Oliver.
Where should one start: with the world or the characters?
Tolkien created his world first, George RR Martin and the rest of the panelists created their characters first.
As with so much in writing, neither way is better, just whatever works for the story you’re working on now.
An Approach to Creating a Magic System
Martin prefers his magic to be truly super natural–not fake-science with a formula. Magic that trifles with forces beyond this world. Unknowable. Uncontrollable. With the chaos-like the feel of elder gods.
In Tolkien’s stories, Gandalf rarely resorted to true magic.
If people in a magical world try to codify their magic, doesn’t mean that they’re right. They might fail, or at least miss some stuff.
When Writing Science Fiction, How Close To Magic Can Your Science Get?
We can bend the rules of physics – but keep it moderately plausible for scientists. After all, what are ‘hyperspace’ and ‘wormholes’ if not science-fiction’s method of time travel? Making time stand still while we travel generations away.
Remember, the concept of plate tectonics was just discovered 50 years ago.
Just because there’s a capability out there that we don’t know if we CAN do, doesn’t mean we know that we CAN’T figure it out eventually!
What Makes A World Stand Out To A Publisher?
I actually got to ask this question myself! The panel description had promised this, but as you see, they clearly hadn’t addressed it yet!
Publisher Jon Oliver chimed in that there are two things that you want to avoid:
- Don’t make your world too complex
- Don’t make your world too simple
Most fantasies have a pseudo-medieval European feel. It’s been done! Try something new.
Some stories are too excited about telling you all the information about the world, that they neglect the characters and plot.
Martin says, “make it your own.” If you’re writing something based on historical places, just make a historical fantasy. When inventing a world, “turn it up to 11, and do a left twist!”
It’s hard to figure out, the advice sounds basically like: “how do you win a race? Run Faster!” But if you can figure it out, it’s magical.
The Importance of Consistency
It doesn’t have to be consistent with reality, but it must be internally consistent. Remembering what you wrote earlier can be a challenge.
George RR Martin finds it difficult.
- He’s “blundered into people who help.” The people who run the Westeros wiki have been very helpful. The site is un-vetted by him, but usually right.
- He has notes, textbooks, and a DOS computer with search/replace capability
- Most of his world building is in his head – thanks to a trick or curse of memory he remembers “[his] fake world far better than the real world.”
Another method of keeping track of everything that many authors, including Jeffrey Carver, uses is:
- A spreadsheet with all names, places, and their descriptions
How Do You Convey World and Plot Building Information In A Sequel?
An info dump is only an info dump if the reader doesn’t care about it. Interweave it with the story–maybe tell it from a new character’s point of view–and you can make it interesting again.
Show what the characters do, and then filter in the world building as you need it.
As the writer, you need to know more than the reader about your world. If you must include everything, you can add appendices or footnotes. Using info HINTS, instead of info dumps, is a better idea, you don’t have to share everything with the reader.
Do Characters Mess With Your Plot?
The final question on the panel was more of a back-and-forth than summarizable tips, with other authors quoted. But I thought you might enjoy the conversation.
Martin said, yeah, they can be bossy. Sometimes they’re wrong. But usually, he just goes with it.
Carver mentioned that Jane Yolen when writing a story, found out part way through the novel that the character was gay.
Connie Willis is quoted as saying, “If my characters get uppity, I kill them!”
To which Alex Acks agreed, it’s true, “characters can be assholes.”
Then George RR Martin replied, “killing your characters? How horrible!”
And with that, my notes for this panel are done.