Without doubt scene setting and world building is an ancient craft, consider Shakespeare’ s Twelfth Night. Why do you think other worldliness is so important to a fiction writer?
The easy answer is that world building is the cornerstone of suspension of disbelief. Say you were watching a Western, and the bottles behind the bar were all brands that didn’t exist in the 1800s. Sure some viewers might not notice, but as soon as someone realizes a mistake like that exists the film can’t suck them in anymore. The glamour vanishes, and it’s just a movie again.
Good world-building, by contrast, is like the set up for a magic trick. The audience knows what’s going on is impossible, but because it’s so subtle and believable they get lost in the wonder of what you’ve created. In short good world-building is the kind you never notice or question, because there’s nothing for your reading brain to object to.
When you are creating a fantasy world do you begin with Characters, Geography or the Plot?
It varies by project, but the ones that most often make the jump from my head to the page tend to start with a compelling character (or two, or three). With New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam I created the character of Jacob Cobalt, the Steel Necktie. In order to fully realize him as a character though I had to create the city of New Avalon around him, and by figuring out the city he’d been born and raised in I learned more about the character.
Shakespeare of course was famous for creating historical settings for his characters and action; how important is the era to a fantasy story?
I’d venture to say that era is one of the most important things in writing fantasy. This is particularly true when it comes to writing in fantasy worlds that are not earth, and so you don’t have earth’s history to fall back on. Your readers need to know, for example, whether or not the concept of a standing army has been invented yet or if wars are still fought on a small scale between clans and tribes. If there are knights in shining armor, how common are they? Has the crossbow been invented yet? Gunpowder? Is monarchy the default form of government, or is the power of the royal family limited by parliament?
Deciding on the era you want your story to be in (or at least feel like) informs you what you can do without raising red flags in your readers’ minds. If you want to have a high-flying, swashbuckling adventure then it obviously has to be during a time period after heavier swords have given way to the rapier (which means heavy armor is no longer the order of the day). Era is the frame of your story, and everything you create within that frame has to fit.
Many famous fiction writers and we should include JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien, created worlds where the laws of Physics and Biology could be suspended or changed. Do you feel that the same suspending of reality could apply to moral attributes?
I feel that characters and worlds need to remain true to what they are. While people may change and characters develop (the hard-hearted mercenary learns to trust, and so regains his honor and the ability to fight for a cause greater than himself), that development and change has to make sense in terms of the story you’re telling.
When it comes to altering the laws of physics, biology, and morality, the very nature of fantasy means that the worlds we’re reading about are not the world we live in. Rather than changing what we know, we simply have to learn the rules of a new reality. In the case of Rowling we have a hidden world where wizardry is a real force. It has limits however, and part of the reading experience is learning and understanding those limits.
So I suppose my answer is that fantasy doesn’t suspend the rules we know, but rather it creates its own rules that authors have to lay out and we as readers have to learn.
Do you give your characters normal, or what we might consider ‘larger than life’ attitudes?
Generally speaking I try to create characters who, even if they are placed in impossible situations, act, feel, and speak in a way that makes sense to the reader. Characters who feel real trigger a reader’s empathy, and they help those readers slip into the world. The logic in the brain goes, “well if this world created such a down-to-Earth, realistic person then the environment that person lives in must be just as real as they are.”
That’s why even if your lead is a seven-foot-tall Martian warlord it helps to make them understandable and relatable to the reader. Stories are about people, and readers need those people to be as real as possible.
Do you consider that your fantasy worlds have character or maybe even become a character?
I believe it is absolutely necessary for the world to be a character, because the world sets the entire tone of your story. In New Avalon for example, readers go on a district-by-district tour of a fantastical steampunk city. Every district is a different facet, and the feeling of that facet informs the reader what sort of story they’re going to get. The mist-shrouded docks of Headsman’s Wharf are seedy, rough, and more than a little superstitious. Cranktown on the other hand is concrete and steel, and it’s the kind of place where great scientific discoveries are made and adventure is just a field-test away.
It doesn’t matter where your story is set, that setting has to be a character. It affects everyone in your story, and it is a constant part of the narrative. Whether you’re in the seedy underbelly of London’s gangster scene or in the frigid teeth of the Himalayas you need to feel that setting on every page.
Will you expand your story lines from within your world of ‘ New Avalon?’
As I mention in the book’s introduction the original idea was to write a novel series starring Jacob Cobalt (the lead in the final story, “The Steel Second”). These ten shorts helped flesh out the world, and they created definite events that have happened in the city of New Avalon. While I would love to expand on them, and to bring readers on a tour of the back streets and narrow alleys, a lot of that will depend on the reaction to the book. If the readers want more I’ll be glad to oblige them!
Thank you Neal we wish you every success with your latest work
Thank you! I hope to come back, and with even more books under my belt next time.