The Wonders of Worldbuilding

We’ve entered some kind of Golden Age for film trailers. Batman Vs Superman. Jurassic World. Terminator Genisys. A host of classics are storming back to the cinemas.

But one towers above them all: Star Wars.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched it now, but it’s certainly in the double figures – and I’m not even a hardcore fan. There’s just something about Star Wars that sucks me right in: the sheer epic scale of it all.

The build-up to The Force Awakens has brought me back to the late nineties, when the world was gearing up for another new entry to the canon. If possible, people were even more excited about Episode I than they are about Episode VII, maybe because there had been a longer break between the movies. I remember going to see the Special Edition trilogy in the cinema and gobbling up any article I could find on George Lucas and his creations. I remember thinking, ‘how cool would it be to create a world of my own?’

This thought had been bubbling away in my head since I was a kid and fell into Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett and the other greats. I loved Games Workshop (though I was pretty terrible at it) and played Fighting Fantasy in the back of the car when we were out and about. I’ve been reading in the genre ever since, and feel that same sense of awe when I enter the worlds created by George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie. The drive to invent my own imaginary places has always been with me.

It would be easier in many ways to set my books on 21st-century earth. I do live here, after all. I could have a good crack at guiding my characters around South-East London (where I live) and North-West Ireland (where I’m from), and I could pull out a map if they wanted to head somewhere else. There are real streets they could get lost in, rivers they could swim in, mountains they could climb. All these things already have names, too.

But there’s something about creating a place and setting a story there that is hard to beat. Some of the reasons are obvious. This world follows its own rules, as set down by you, the author. The setting for my book – a vast continent called the Plateau – is dominated by a city-state, the Overland, whose leaders are picked by something called the Machinery, which is itself hidden away in a strange place called the Underland. It’s hard to imagine this working in South-East London or North-West Ireland.

There’s also a lot of entertainment to be had with the creative process. It’s good fun deciding on the names of characters, of streets, of geographical elements. It can be interesting to create a political model for a society, or to work through the history of an international rivalry, and not have anyone say you got it wrong. How would they even know?

For me, though, the real attraction is the powerful sense of possibility. You are of course bound by certain restrictions; you can’t suddenly place a temple where once there was a barracks, or close a plothole by inventing some new type of magic. You can’t mix and match different types of names. But in each book you get to explore more and more of the place you’ve created, which is good fun.

There’s another part to this, too, which might sound a bit mad. I’ve always felt that if a fantasy world (or galaxy) is constructed with enough depth and detail, it begins to take on a life beyond that of the author. It’s as if it exists at all times, quietly ticking over with trade and warfare and construction and art, and the book simply provides a microscope with which to view it at a particular point in its history. Of course the world lives in the imagination of the author, but if it’s done properly, you’re almost convinced it exists in and of itself.

So I’m looking forward to returning to a galaxy far, far away, to find out what happens 30 years or so after the events of Return of the Jedi. What I love about the science fiction and fantasy genre is the powerful sense that, in those three decades, something really happened in that galaxy, and it wasn’t just in someone’s imagination.






Author: gerrardcowan

I'm an author and freelance journalist. My fantasy trilogy, 'The Machinery', is being published by HarperCollins.

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