Tolkien Tuesday: Creating a Fictional World That's Alive
You want to make a world in your fiction that feels real. Easy. Just google how to do that. You will find plenty of articles with great checklists like this:
-Create a capital city.
-What festivals are in this city?
-How do they govern themselves?
-Do knights tell squires they need experience to be hired, but they need to be hired to get that experience?
-How many Jeni's Ice Cream shops are there?
You get the point. Those kinds of articles do have their uses. Remembering that people in your fiction celebrate some sort of holiday at some point is a good thing to add in. Ultimately though, this creates pretty little diorama towns that are akin to the window shops at Disneyland during the holidays. Nothing is alive in there because you forgot the main ingredient to creating a culture. Us. People. Stinky humans (or elves, or whatever) that will ultimately ignore problems about the world they live in until it's too late.
Too real? Good. You just created a successful (terrible) culture.
Let's turn to someone who knew how to world build pretty decently.
J.R.R. Tolkien took over a decade to write Lord of the Rings so that he could justify nerding out on the languages he created for funsies. He created dungeons deep and caverns old, simple, courageous Shire-folk and Tom Bom, Jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo. And, like, other stuff too.
He knew there was more to it than how many candles Denethor had to light up in his tower to hot box the place while looking through a Palantir. Culture, and therefore worldbuilding, is about how people interact with it. You say you want to build a world that feels real, but what you mean is you want to build a world that feels ALIVE.
Think about shows that travel around our world. Different food is eaten, places are seen, religions are explored, and jealous wanderlust is raised. Do the hosts just experience it and then leave? Sometimes. The good ones go deeper, though. They ask the people of these far off places what they think. How do they react to the world that’s around them? It's their opinions that create the reality of this other culture. Sure, they still pray five times a day and face a specific direction, but what they think about that practice is way more influential.
So we come to Faramir.
(Book Faramir, not the ‘kill time while the other characters have fun’ movie Faramir)
He is the son of the Steward of Gondor. At this time in the story, that's as high as the corporate ladder goes. He also has Numenorean blood, maybe not as pure as Aragorn, but he is cut from a different cloth than most Gondorians. He is the captain of a fighting force out in the woods and loved by his people. (I mean, y'all, grown men weep when they think he dies). He should be the prime example of the spoiled rich kid that thinks all his problems matter more than the Gondorian who's having trouble putting roast mutton on the table.
Except that he hates what Gondor has become.
Oh, so this means he's one of those “Make Gondor Great Again” types that use banners on their Facebook posts. Wrong again. Good characters are more complicated than black and white opinions. Let's read what Faramir says about Gondor right from the book:
“Death was ever present, because Numenoreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars.” -The Two Towers, “The Window On The West”
In spite of Faramir's desire to protect Gondor, and the goodness it represents, he understands there is more danger to its great cities than just orcs. Gondor is withering from the inside out and always has. The obsession with the past that was lost is ruining everything. It is to the future that they need to look for change.
This doesn't mean they forget where they have come from or forgo all traditions. When Aragorn becomes King (spoiler alert for a book called Return of the King), he represents something of the past that was lost. He brings back much of the old glory, but he also brings in something new. He looks to the future and changes what Gondor is about.
If you read the appendices (and of course you will, you friggin' nerd), you see that Aragorn eventually makes alliances with the former buds of Sauron. The Men of the south and east are better understood, and exchange takes place between them and Gondor. Suddenly, these old enemies become other people, instead of faceless foes.
(Can we also appreciate that Tolkien was writing this mostly during the 1940s. I see you, John).
Culture grows in the world. Or ideally, it does. Traditions can still be sacred while something more active is taking place in the now. The people living in that culture might not agree with everything. Few do. There are those who have their own motivations for living within, or on the outskirts of, the societies that we have in the real world, ergo, your characters should too.
Give your worldbuilding life by allowing your characters to talk about it. Let them bitch and vent and be as patriotic as they desire. What do they think of the rulers of the world? Do they disdain those that scoff at their religious beliefs? Would they sell their house to taste the exquisite cuisine of some other far off land one more time?
The world wasn't created on your first page. Unless you have a creation story, I guess. But, the narrative part of your story probably takes place with some history behind it. There have been generations living in this world, and things aren't always going to be good, or wholly bad either. There is an ebb and flow to the world, and your characters ride on it with tiny sails in a great storm. What they think of all of it is far more interesting than how detail oriented your burial rituals are.
Once your world feels alive, your readers' imaginations will be set on fire. Get ready to answer questions from your fans about your main character’s complicated opinions on that old battle from the epic poem 'Maybeweshouldnothavebeeninvolved.' (That's elvish by the way, look it up).
The past has a powerful hold over us all, and so it should be reflected in your characters too.
That doesn't mean they have to like it, though.
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