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Pat Rothfuss Says: Worldbuilders, Embrace Your Geekiness

After finishing a first draft of my novel around Christmastime, I spent the first half of this year going back through my series bible to fill in worldbuilding holes. As I’ve mentioned here before, worldbuilding for me is both less and more intimidating than writing. On the one hand, there’s less pressure to get the prose right; you don’t have to worry nearly so much about individual characters’ motivations; and you can reassure yourself with the thought that “I probably won’t need most of this anyway.” On the other hand… worlds are big. Like… big.

Last week, I ran across a fabulous video from Comic-Con 2014 featuring five epic fantasy authors (Joe Abercrombie, Diana Gabaldon, Lev Grossman, George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss). If you’ve got an hour to spare, I’d really recommend the whole thing — they talk about the writing process, about who their first readers are, about how they come up with maps, and many other glorious things — but there was one piece of it that really spoke to me, and that was a quote from Pat Rothfuss about traps to avoid when worldbuilding. He says (roundabout Minutes 22-25 in the video):

A lot of people following in Tolkien’s footsteps [will] think, “If I’m writing a fantasy novel, I need to have a bunch of created languages, because Tolkien did it, and it’s kind of become a tradition.” But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek and that was what he loved. And I am not a linguist. I need [languages] to make my world realistic, but I don’t geek out over it. I’m a geek for currency, and so I have [my world’s economy] all worked out, and that filters into my books… Nobody ever spends money in Tolkien’s books, because he obviously didn’t care [about it]. That wasn’t a thing for him. And so, when people ask [me] about worldbuilding, what should they do, I say, you’re a geek for something. And if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics… revel in your geekery. Roll around in it and make that a part of your world, because that will be really interesting to the people reading, because you’re interested in it. Whereas if you try to do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, I don’t think that’s the best way to really enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world.

I think there are two pieces of real wisdom here. The big one, of course, is that we’ve all got our geekeries. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be “geeks” have specialized knowledge, from their hobbies and occupations and life experience; author and scientist Dan Koboldt organizes a whole section of his blog around guest posts from experts in a wide range of fields. My personal list of random specialized non-writing-related knowledge and interests includes, in no particular order:

  • Ritual
  • Religion
  • Names
  • Language
  • Astrology
  • School curriculum design
  • Genealogy
  • Kinship and family relationships

I’ve got whole sections of my bookshelves devoted to these topics, and almost all of them have been at least somewhat fleshed out in the world of my novel. And for the most part, I had a great time doing it.

I think that’s the more subtle aspect of Rothfuss’s point. When you’re worldbuilding, just like when you’re writing, at least some of the time you should be having fun. There are always things about putting a world together that will be less-than-your-favorite-activity (one of my big ones is maps: I dislike drawing maps), but there should be parts of it that are fun for you, too. Rothfuss strongly implies that if you’re not enjoying yourself, you won’t make a vibrant world, and I believe this is true, in the same way that I believe that if I’m bored with the scene I’m  writing, it’s probably a sign that the scene isn’t working, or that if I’m not feeling some of the emotion my character’s feeling in an emotional scene, I’m probably not getting deep enough into it.

And I can vouch for the wisdom of Rothfuss’s words, at least in my own experience: when you’re working out the nitty-gritty details that readers love, if you love them, too, it’s going to show. Later in the same SDCC interview, George RR Martin reports that he really gets excited about heraldry. Let’s look at a little section from A Storm of Swords, shall we?

“There’s a purple flag with yellow balls.”

“Lemons?” Pod said hopefully. “A purple field strewn with lemons? For House Dalt. Of, of Lemonwood.”

“Might be. Next’s a big black bird on yellow. Something pink or white in its claws, hard to say with the banner flapping.”

“The vulture of Blackmont grasps a baby in its talons,” said Pod. “House Blackmont of Blackmont, ser.”

There are eight more sigils described in this sequence. Only one of them is a family of significance to the story at that time; most have no members who ever appear on screen at all. And yet, GRRM went to the trouble to create them all, because he thought it was cool and fun to do. And it makes the story feel richer.

You’ll never fill in all the parts of your world when doing preparatory worldbuilding. You’ll have to make some up as you go along, and even if your world ends up out in the Real World of published fiction, there will inevitably be parts of it that are still full of holes (GRRM has a great quote in the Comic-Con video about how he discovered the truth of this with his maps very late in the game). But if you take Pat Rothfuss’s approach and start with developing the stuff what you love, I think you’ll be well on your way to having a world that feels real to your readers.

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  1. Reading Challenge Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things (or: “Write What You Love”) | Sociologist Novelist

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