Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Building Worlds and Villains

Sharon Wildwind

Let’s keep astrophysics out of this discussion, okay?

Several years ago at a science fiction convention, I spent an interesting and throughly confusing hour listening to a panel discussing world-building. Since I spend my working days more-or-less building imaginary worlds, I thought this panel might be helpful.

In reality, it was a discussion of how to physically build a world. How big should it be? Should it be round or oval? How does its orbit affect weather? How old is it in geological terms? How much of the planet is water? How much is desert? What is its albedo?

I didn’t even know what albedo was. Turns out to be the reflective coefficient of an object, and this affects the planet’s equilibrium temperature. In case you’re interested, the Earth’s albedo 0.39, but that’s an average. Sunlight on fresh show can be as high as .85 (this is why you need sunglasses while skiing) and dense forests as low as 0.1 (bring a flashlight).

Occasionally I’m asked to critique a story set on an alternative world. My first question is, what is the major premise on which your world runs?

Sometimes I get a confidential, “It’s really England in the early 1800s, but instead of a working steam engine someone is going to invent a steam-powered airship.”

Sorry, but that’s not an alternative world.

An alternative world proposes a major change in how the world works. When it’s well written, an alternative-world story depends on implications that flow from that proposal. Sherlock Holmes proposed that criminals far more devious and ruthless than the police. Usurla LeGuinn’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas proposed that an entire city’s happiness depended on how one child was treated. Ray Bradbury said that Fahrenheit 451 proposed how television destroyed interest in reading literature, which led to believing unrelated factoids passed for knowledge.

As writers, we build alternative worlds. As mystery writers, we believe that a killer’s reason to kill makes sense to him or her and can, under the right circumstances, make sense to the reader as well. That’s the basis on which we build the villain’s alternative world.

Here’s a proposal: the world owes clever people a living.

Right away three sub-proposals pop up. Clever people are in the minority. Life is a zero-sum game: when a clever person wins, a less clever person loses. This is the way life should be.

This is where we get to what I call my Havoc Hedge Fund. What can I invest in the character that’s likely to pay the most dividends in plot stakes later? It’s always complex; the more layered the motivation, the better the payoff.

My villain is clever and he’s been told so all his life, but the people who pushed him to think of himself as clever are not reliable and they’ve used his cleverness for their own gains.

Let’s look at the four “stocks” in our Havoc Hedge Fund and see how they pay dividends.

He’s clever: He’ll have credentials and a good job, but it’s never enough. He’s always after the next big score. He has a right to the best because he’s clever. Anyone who gets in his way is fair game.

People tell him he’s clever: Halo effect. He expects compliments, favors, and not to have to play by the rules. He’s the guy who has the perfectly good reason to jump to the head of the bank queue. Anyone who doesn’t think he’s clever is fair game.

People who pushed him to think of himself as clever are not reliable: He doesn’t make good choices about the people who surround him. He likes people who pander to his ego; dismisses people who don’t. Need a good secondary character here who sees through him. Maybe he’ll polish her off just because she does see through him.

People use his cleverness for their own gains: nice trigger point here. He was recently taken advantage of in a big, public way. People laughed at him. He hates that. Now he’s out for revenge and, heck, who could blame him? It’s not right to treat a clever person that way. The guy who embarrassed him needs to be taught a lesson and he knows just the clever way to do it. There’s no way he’s going to get caught. Clever people don’t get caught.

The sad thing is that this world view makes perfect sense to him. The great thing is it makes perfect sense to us as writers, even if we run our own lives on completely different values. This why we’re writers. As Geoffrey Chaucer said in A Knight’s Tale, “I give wide scope to the truth.”

By the time we meet again, the gifts will have been opened and the Christmas brunches eaten. All the holiday best to you and yours.

Quote for the week
The writer needs to react to his or her own internal universe, to his or her own point of view. If he or she doesn't have a personal point of view, it's impossible to be a creator. 
~Manuel Puig (1932 – 1990), Argentinean author


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sounds like your hard-core science fiction fans chose the aspect of world building that's of the least interest to anyone but hard-core science fans, setting themselves up for information dump. To me, world building is about the sociology of an alternate world or universe. There are great examples in science fiction itself. Frank Herbert's Dune, with its clash of cultures and hidden source of wealth and power. Sharon Shinn's Samaria, with what looks like a magical power differential turning out to be generated by technology. Lois McMaster Bujold's galactic context and the impact of its contact with the long-isolated, low-tech planet Barrayar. And universes with one significant invention affecting everything written in the universe (and in some cases, passed on to later writers): Asimov's robots, Ursula LeGuin's ansible. Or a trait that affects everything: Marion Zimmer Bradley's laran (telepathy). Universes with aliens or more than one sentient species per planet (Sheri S. Tepper, Joan Vinge, David Brin, all wildly different from each other) vs universes in which all sentient life is human (in Bujold's, humanity originated on Earth, in LeGuin's, on the planet Hain). (Whew! that was fun!)

Anonymous said...

That was also wonderful.

Do you know McMaster Bujold has a new book out. This one focuses on Ivan Vorpatril. We've been waiting a long time for this one.