Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.
The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.
Chapter 7: Turtles All the Way Down
This chapter is by Jane Yolen, a prolific writer who has authored and/or edited over 300 books. It is also a break from the preceding chapters focused on science fiction. She dives head-first into what it takes to create a believable fantasy world. Just as the other chapters have used science fiction to deliver lessons on plot, dialog, and characters, this one uses fantasy to teach world building.
The chapter starts off with the origin of the phrase “turtles all the way down.” Yolen tells the anecdote of a person who believes the earth is actually the back of a giant turtle, which stands on the back of another larger turtle. When asked what the second turtle stands on, the answer given is the name of this chapter.
It’s the same with books. Each one stands on the back of story. As Yolen says, “it’s story all the way down.”
Writer as Careful Observer
Yolen’s first rule of world building is to believe. The author is responsible for making the fictional world believable. If the author doesn’t believe, then their skepticism will show through. Readers will sense this and give up on the story, the same as the author did.
To make the fantastic real to the reader, the author must know something about the subject. This seems simple. The author is building the world, they must know it’s background, right? Maybe not.
The key is research. No matter if the author roams the lowlands of Scotland or the dusty part of the library, the research is where the background comes from. The landscape of the story is a reflection of the world the author has researched.
She also cautions against relying on second-hand research. Simply looking at pictures of wildflowers won’t correctly place them in the wild. Just as looking at the D&D Monster Manual won’t give the historical context and the legends surrounding a fantasy creature. She says lazy writers relying on third-hand sources have diluted the rich history of our mythical creatures.
In short, if a fantasy world (or a “modern” world with fantasy elements) is created with enough detail, it becomes easy for the reader to believe the story.
Writer as Vatic Voice
Vatic is defined as “prophetic, inspired, or oracular.” This is the voice of fantasy writing. Yolen then gives examples of voice in various works which are broadly defined as: the oracle, the schoolboy, and the fool. But uniting them is the storyteller voice. The one that regardless of viewpoint or dialect must have “the breath of life.”
Writer as Visionary
The writers of realistic fiction by necessity base their works on the world of current events. Writers of fantasy are “just as mired in society.” This leads to an author’s unconscious prejudice creeping into their imagined world. Yolen uses the following examples to show this in realistic fiction:
- Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies started out as a critique of the rich in 19th century England, but is now better known for revealing the author’s prejudice against blacks, jews, and Catholics.
- The Jungle Books, Mary Poppins, and Dr. Doolittle all share a cultural bias against people of color.
In fantasy, the world is “one step removed” from the real world of realistic fiction. By taking this step back, the author lets the reader pretend that the story’s message in not about the world of our day-to-day lives. This is fantasy’s agreement with the reader. The story can stand on its own, and can be taken as such. But the author’s message is there if the reader does some digging.
She ends the chapter with a listing of the three rules of world building:
- It must have identifiable and workable laws as its base.
- The protagonist starts out lost/vulnerable and easy for the reader to identify with.
- The end must fulfill the reader’s sense of justice.
When put together the story will resonate as a whole. But to do so, the writer must have a vision. One of what they want their new world to look like. Therefore becoming visionary.
The chapter ends with Yolen comparing the writing process to a fantasy story.
We venture forth from our writing rooms—the world of common day into the supernatural wonder of the story. We encounter supernatural forces like slippery words, monstrous, unwieldy plots. The decisive victory won is the book completed. After all there is only one letter difference between the words boon and book, which we bestow on readers everywhere.
This was a hard chapter to review. The frequent use of examples and quotes made capturing the texture of Yolen’s writing elusive at best. But I hope her ideas about the nature of world building came through.