Writing Excuses 10.6: The Worldbuilding Revolves Around Me (“The Magical 1%”)
Key points: Be aware that sometimes worldbuilding sets a small group at the center. Look at the dramatic possibilities and conflicts for characters outside that group! Pay attention to the magical 1% and the un-magical 99% in your world. Look at what happens in the interstices of the great events. This is fertile ground for humor, for laughing at tropes. At the point when a secondary character meets the Jedi Knight, there are two paths — maybe I am not really the hero of my own story, OR No, I AM the hero of my own story. When a world is built around the magical 1%, looking at all the other people gives you a richer world, and more potential for conflicts. You need the everyman for us to relate to. Fairytale structure does this, often, with the everyman stumbling into magical worlds. Consider Samwise Gamgee, Hansel and Gretel, and John McClane… and put your everyman character barefoot stumbling through the woods!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode Six.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Worldbuilding Revolves around Me.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Max Gladstone.
[Max] Hi. Nice to be here.
[Brandon] Thank you for coming. Max, introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us a little bit about your books.
[Max] Hi, I’m Max. I guess Brandon just mentioned that.
[Max] I write books, the Craft Sequence’s novels, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five so far that are set in a kind of post-industrial fantasyland where you have gods with shareholders’ committees and wizards with pinstripe suits and corporate magic being played out on an intercontinental scale.
[Brandon] Awesome. Now, you pitched this topic to us, the worldbuilding revolves around me. Explain to us what you mean by this.
[Max] So, I find it really interesting in fantasy and science fiction universes, where you can tell that the worldbuilding is set up to place a certain small set of characters at the core, at the axis. Star Wars is a great example of this. The Jedi are sort of the center of everything, especially in the original trilogy. If you’re not a Jedi, you’re kind of on the periphery. It’s all about Luke and the Emperor and Darth Vader. Now, it can get very scary to be living in a world where you are not the hero, where you’re not the person… One of the seven people in the universe who has a destiny. At the same time, there are all sorts of interesting dramatic possibilities that come from focusing on characters who aren’t really at the center of the universe. That’s one of the things that I think Han Solo brings to the first series of Star Wars movies. He’s a person who’s outside the epic destiny. He’s free to be a little bit more interesting.
[Brandon] Right. Now would you say that this is a foible that people should watch out for or more just something to be aware of when you’re doing or what?
[Max] I’d say it’s a feature of the landscape, especially the epic fantasy landscape. People are working in a sort of Campbellian monomyth space, right, where you have the person who leaves town and goes and meets the dweller on the threshold and goes into the underworld and finds the Golden Fleece/Grail/magic amulet thing and then comes back out and finds… If you’re on that wheel, then you are engaged… You can be unintentionally building a world that is privileging some people because they have magic powers, because they have the destiny, because they are the one who set out to find the magic.
[Mary] This is like the magical 1%.
[Max] Right. Exactly.
[Brandon] Yeah, the magical 1%. That’s a great title for this.
[Max] [garbled and inaudible — I’m going to use that?]
[Howard] Start again.
[Max] We are the un-magical 99%.
[Mary] But what you’re talking about, where it’s sometimes more interesting to step outside of those people… When we were talking about this earlier, it reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Which is basically the tale of Hamlet told from these two bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who come on, take a message, and go away. Later you hear that they’re dead. The play shows us everything that happens in the interstices between what’s going on with Hamlet. I do think sometimes when you can show how people are shaped and affected by these big events that aren’t part of their story, but they still get trampled by…
[Max] Absolutely. I’m reading right now, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It’s a wonderful and weird book. I’m not quite done with it yet, but the conceit of it is you have this very straightforward urban fantasy plot that’s happening almost entirely in the background of this book about people growing up and falling in love and falling out of love and being horrible human beings. You’ll go through an entire story about this young student at Cambridge who is an utter sociopath who is doing a very talented Mr. Ripley sort of play on all of his wealthy, aristocratic peers, and then only at the very end, is recruited into this mysterious secret society of evil people.
[Max] But that’s it. That’s the end of the story. So you’re kind of getting these skipping stone views into this world in which you have some people who are special folks, but everybody else ends up being much more interesting than the people with the magic powers.
[Brandon] You know, we’re talking about this… All the examples I’m thinking of are humor. Not that it’s the only way to do it, but it seems like this is fertile ground for making fun of tropes. Because one of my favorite versions of this is actually by one of Howard’s web comic friends. The guy who draws Sheldon. In it, he has an entire sequence about the Klingon hairdresser. [I think he means this http://www.sheldoncomics.com/archive/070618.html about the Klingon fashion designer]
[Brandon] Because he’s like, “Klingons got to have all these people. You never meet them. Who is the Klingon hairdresser and who is that like?” Then he spun it into the Vulcan party planner.
[Brandon] And things like this. Like the people who would… Because the world is built to focus on these few individuals who are the warrior society and things like this, they… Going and taking a few steps further and saying, “Wait a minute. What do they do about the normal things in society?” Immediately becomes humorous to us.
[Mary] That’s a…
[Max] Oh, I’m sorry. Ahead.
[Mary] I was going to say Redshirts by John Scalzi.
[Max] In another way, Mike Ford’s The… Oh, gosh, I’m spacing on the name of his Klingon novella, but this is John M Ford who wrote a couple of Star Trek novels and the World Fantasy Award-winning novel The Dragon Waiting. But he wrote a book that was sort of defying the way that people looked at the Klingon culture, because when he came to it, Klingon was like the warrior race that was doing creepy stuff out over there. So he built a world of Klingon chess players and politicians and prize cooks that became amazing… Final Reflection. Thank you very much.
[Brandon] Yeah. The whole Jim Hines and Goblin Quest basically doing the same thing.
[Howard] One of the things we tell ourselves all the time is that when we’re creating a world, when we’re creating characters, everybody is the hero of their own story. This idea that you are the hero of your own story up and tell the point that you run into a Jedi Knight and then you realize, “Oh. Maybe I’m really not.” Or, up until the point that you realize, you run into a Jedi Knight and, “Yeah, you’re pretty awesome, but I’m still the hero of my own story.” There’s two paths.
[Max] There’s a wonderful potential for frisson there and for character development. Like the Gotham Central comic series which is focusing on the detectives in the Gotham city police force. They run into Batman occasionally, but most of it is like beat copping and detectiving in this world that Batman just occasionally is swooping by over in the night.
[Dan] And everyone’s terrified of him. There’s another great example from the comics… I can’t remember what the original series was called, but it started out as humor, which Brandon mentioned is such fertile ground for this. They were the construction crew whose job was to live in Manhattan and rebuild all the buildings that the superheroes broke when they fought each other.
[Mary] Oh, that’s gorgeous.
[Dan] It was really funny, and then it eventually became… They were the villains behind the massive year-long Civil War storyline. In which… We’ve been watching superheroes fight each other over civil rights for a year. Capt. America and Iron Man at each other’s throats. That was all orchestrated by these guys because they wanted more business, so they tricked them into destroying everything.
[Dan] It became a very dramatic thing that grew out of this funny joke.
[Mary] There’s another example of doing this dramatically, which is Patrick Rothfuss has a novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things in which a secondary character of his is the only character in this novella. It’s showing what her day-to-day life is like. It’s incredibly compelling and there’s a great deal of pathos in it, but it has absolutely no bearing on the main plot of the novel. It’s just very much about her internal life.
[Brandon] We’re going to do our book of the week. Max is actually going to tell us about one of his books.
[Max] So the book is Three Parts Dead. It’s the first book in the Craft Sequence. It’s about a junior associate in an international necromancy firm who’s been hired to resurrect a dead god.
[Max] So, pretty straightforward.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, yeah. As happens.
[Dan] That old trope again.
[Max] Exactly. Pulling out the old standards, the chestnuts always [slam?]
[Howard] Way to go back to the well.
[Max] Exactly. I was really impressed back in 2008 when the United States economy exploded spontaneously at how you could have a traumatic experience for an entire country and really an entire world that didn’t result in any smoking craters in the near term. It wasn’t like I could go to Wall Street and see the burned-out wreckage of J.P. Morgan. Something weird had happened on a nonphysical plane affecting ostensibly people that were ostensibly immortal sort of that had suddenly resulted in trillions of dollars just disappearing or going up in smoke. The reaction that a lot of financial journalists seem to be having at the time was this sort of religious terror. Their world system was collapsing or crumbling or cracks had appeared in the walls. I thought, “Wow. So if we just refigure this, or we have organizational entities as basically gods in the old school D&D sense, where you have belief and prayer and sacrifice, and then you get benefit back from that…” Well, gods die sometimes, just like organizations die. What happens when the organization dies? You bring in the bankruptcy people to carve it open on the slab, pull out the stuff that isn’t working, tie it all back together, wire it up and hook it up to the lightning generator and get them to go.
[Mary] One thing that Max has not mentioned is that his writing recently earned him a Campbell nomination. He was one of the finalists this year in London.
[Max] That was really great.
[Brandon] So did you get to join the ranks of Campbell losers like myself?
[Max] I did! Yes.
[Brandon] Awesome. [Garbled]
[Brandon] Sitting next to Mary, though, because she won it.
[Brandon] Yeah, we’re not allowed…
[Max] I’m going to do the we’re not worthy thing over here.
[Howard] All right. Well, you can go get, fair listener, along with me, I now want this. You’ve sold me on it, Max.
[Howard] Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. It’s read by Claudia Alick. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse, you can start a trial membership and have this one read to you for free. It sounds like great fun.
[Howard] I think it’s interesting… Mary, earlier you said in talking about world building, where the world building is centered around the one tiny group, you said the magical 1%. Here, now, we are talking about, in Three Parts Dead, the magical 1%.
[Mary] The magical…
[Max] Exactly. Well, this is something that I’m working on as I’m building out the series. The first book is focusing on a sort of a trainee necromancer in this way. The second book is focusing on somebody who doesn’t have access to those sorts of magical powers. So the setting, which I had conceived as this wonderfully fun romp, turns into this horror setting, because you have these people running around who can warp space and time and bring zombies back from the dead and holy crap
[Howard] The Occupy Sith Temple equivalent.
[Mary] There’s a history buzz phrase, called history from beneath, which is the idea of reporting history from the people who are marginalized. Like the dairy maids, the slaves, the weavers… The milliners. The milliner assassins. I think that one of the things that we’re talking about here is that this is also an opportunity, that when you have a world that is built around this 1%, that looking at all of the people who are around it can give you not only a fuller, richer world, but also more potential for conflict. Also, looking at your fiction and realizing that if you do not have those people, they don’t necessarily have to be a main character, but if you don’t have them, this may represent a weakness in your world building.
[Brandon] Right. This is the topic I was going to bring up next, which is the idea that in most cases, we want to treat the world building like a character. Meaning we want to show different facets of the society and world in order to stay away from melodrama. Where melodrama, defined by me, is where each character expresses only one emotion. Or where your world expresses only one tone. Now that actually can work in some books. Some stories are about one tone, let’s laugh at it, here you go. But even in a book like that… Pratchett’s work is often like this, when you get the stark differences, that’s where you get the poignancy of a Pratchett work which is one tone, one tone, by the way look at this for a minute, be horrified at what you’ve been laughing at, okay, now we’ll go back and we can laugh some more. When you’re building a great big epic fantasy story or epic science fiction story, it becomes more and more important to see through the eyes of some of these people in order to keep you from parodying yourself.
[Dan] Let’s go back and look at the very first example of Star Wars. Han Solo was the everyman character in the original series. He was the one that people latched onto, that they felt connected to. One of the biggest problems of the prequels is that there was no Han Solo in them. There was no everyman. There was nobody from outside of the system that we could relate to. Most… Who is your favorite character in Lord of the Rings?
[Brandon] Right, it’s Sam.
[Dan] For most people, it’s Sam. Because he’s that everyman. He’s just a gardener, he’s just like us.
[Howard] You know, you’ve raised a couple of examples where the everyman character is running along with the quest, and is part of the heroic action. If you look at the… Some of the large… The epic thriller Tom Clancy novels, you will often drop into… They’re usually written omniscient, but you will drop into the point of view of somebody who really has no bearing on the main action, just so we can see what happens when the shrapnel is flying and get a sense of how incredibly destructive this invasion was or this attack was or whatever. I just… I bring it up, because that’s a completely different way to handle it. Every time Clancy got to those points, the touchstones of those characters were very interesting. Oh, this is a neat character. Oh, look at the thing that they’re getting to watch. Oh, I hope they don’t die. I, all of a sudden, like this person, really engaged with them, because they’re more like me.
[Max] Fairytale structure does this a lot too, actually. You have the experience of this person who’s not privileged by the plot, who’s stumbling into crazy magical stuff, whether it’s Hansel and Gretel or… Honestly, I think Die Hard has…
[Mary] Jack tales.
[Max] The same structure. Yeah, Jack tales, exactly. In Die Hard, you have John McClane just sort of stumbling into this enormous scheme-y terrorist stealing robbing plot, and he’s just a guy who’s trying to figure his way out through the woods.
[Brandon] Right. I’ve never heard John McClane and Samwise Gamgee compared so brilliantly.
[Brandon] But they really do fulfill the same role in the plot.
[Howard] They both spend time barefoot.
[Max] That’s true. And their character arc is both centered around dealing with a girl they have a crush on.
[Mary] And there’s a tower!
[Max] There’s a tower.
[Howard] And a Yippee ki-yay.
[Max] Yippee ki-yay!
[Brandon] Okay. We’re…
[Brandon] We’re degenerating quickly, but I’m going to say this was an awesome topic. I want to thank Max for coming on and actually we had two writing prompts. I want to hear Max’s before we started. Let’s go ahead with yours.
[Max] Oh, great. Sure. Well, thank you first very much for having me on. Honor to be here. So this is… Howard was telling me this is more of a story seed than a writing prompt.
[Brandon] That is just fine.
[Max] So, think about the last time you lost at a game. Videogame, boardgame, poker, whatever. What was the sort of process of thought and emotion that led up to that loss? Did you overplay your hand, did you outsmart yourself, did you just couldn’t keep track of everything in your head at once? Then try to replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of a story. But, you can’t put any games in the story. It has to be a story about making the same kind of mistakes, making the same kind of edge plays, failing or succeeding in some ways and failing in others.
[Brandon] Excellent. That sounds wonderful. All right. This has been one of our wildcard episodes. Next week we will be back to discussing structure. So, you’ve been given homework. Just a reminder. Coming up next week, we will be talking about this again. For now, you are out of excuses, now go write.