Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World Building Pitfalls Chain Me to Fear

I've been stuck in my world building. I've been stuck with my X-Future reboot. I've been stuck in my collab with Ronoxym. I've just been stuck.

I tried to move through it by going back through some of my old world building notes. I found the pile of print-outs I made up back in 2008 when I first started building Amara's world. That's right, I've been world building for six years! I have print-outs of maps. Tons of maps. I use them as study materials. I use them to figure out how our world looks. I use them to study how natural landforms are placed. I study the shape of coastlines and the twists of rivers. I study the boarders of countries and states. I even have print-outs of Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings and Alagaësia from Inheritance Cycle. This way I know how even fictional worlds are laid out.

I have notes on the statistics of different states: rough state width and height, overall square feet, square feet of water vs. land, tallest mountain, deepest valley, etc. I have notes on medieval through Victorian England - mostly population density and the like. I have all these stats and real-world examples to try to help me make my maps and my world as realistic as I can.

This attention to detail will better immerse my readers and players. It will prevent those nitpickers out there from dissecting my work and pointing out how inaccurate and implausible everything is. I don't need a reader to be ripped out of my story because I have a desert surrounded by a rainforest without any magical explanation as to how that would ever work. I don't need a reader to wonder how a character can cross the entire country - on horseback - within a week when it's the size of Texas. I don't need a reader to explain in an online essay how implausible both my population density and technology level are given the rest of the surrounding environment.

In other words. I don't need any noticeable goofs if I can prevent it.

Which is probably why I'm stalled.


Every writer fights against it at some point, and this is my time I guess.

Yes, I am concerned that while I have a small following swearing up and down that my writing is fantastic, what if they are the minority? I mean, my stories aren't exactly breaking records for readership. Same with this blog. On the flipside, what if I am as good as my fans claim, but only if I have the crutch of a pre-established world? What if once I move away from fanfiction and work on my own original works it isn't as compelling; entertaining?

My biggest fear is that I literally cannot move away from being a fanfiction writer. That it's so ingrained in me that I unintentionally write something that is just a thinly veiled version of another tale. I'm mostly interested in writing a high-fantasy tale heavily inspired by D&D. That's the main reason I'm building Gyateara in the first place. However, what's going to keep me from being just one of the numerous others who end up writing a dumbed-down Lord of the Rings? How do I avoid my tales being unfavorably compared to the Grandfather of High Fantasy? Or have critics call me out as simply transcribing a D&D campaign?

What if - in an effort to avoid being compared - I go too far away from the inspiring source, and then my world doesn't work. What if there's a flaw I didn't notice, or it just isn't as intriguing as Middle Earth?

And because of this, I'm stuck. I'm afraid of coming up with something new because it either sounds stupid, or it's too tedious a task to attempt, or it ends up just sounding like Lord of the Rings anyway...

What got me focusing on this fear this week?
Reading those notes I printed out in 2008.

It was shortly before the third book in the Inheritance Cycle was released. I had printed a few things off as warning passages for my own world-building, and I had forgotten about them - to an extent. The first was a short online essay explaining how the author was able to use the few clues Christopher Paolini put in his books in order to figure out things such as the size and population of Alagaësia. The essayist Shinobaka continued to state that Paolini was vague enough in his writing for it to not be that big of an issue, but made a huge mistake in both creating a map of Alagaësia and then including it with the books. Now Shinobaka could truly figure out the estimated land-mass and population of the continent. Based on these facts and the map, Shinobaka was able to note that Paolini's description of both The Empire and it's army were insanely disproportional, both to each other and to the rest of the continent.

Shinobaka's calculations had the whole of the continent about the size of France and Germany combined, the Empire about the size of Italy, the mountain range the dwarves lived in as well as the woods the elves lived in both at about the size of Romania, the large desert taking up at least half of Alagaësia as about twice the size of Iceland, and the independent nation of Surda as the size of Denmark. Very cool that Shinobaka was able to figure out these real-world figures. As I stated at the top of this post, I am using the same tactics when building Gyateara - using real world figures of what I want and then transfer those stats in to my world.

However, the ability to find real-world correlations also gave Shinobaka the ammunition to attack Paolini's inability to thoroughly think through the logistics of what he wrote. For starters, the army that attacked Surda - most likely just a portion of the entire Empire's available military - was larger than virtually any in human history. Especially when coupled with the Medieval Age, which is the closest to resembling life in Alagaësia.
[Most] of the examples of armies [the same size Paolini gave in Eldest] come from the Muslim world, which at its smallest controlled an area at least seven or eight times that of Galbatorix's empire.
Shinobaka continued by attacking the general population density of Alagaësia.
The closest population figure yielded by a quick internet search was one of about 5-7 million people in England circa 1300. Since the Empire is somewhat larger than England, we can estimate its population at about 8-9 million, making Galbatorix's draft seem like 100,000 men were taken from New York City overnight...

There are a total of ten large cities in the Empire, including the capitol, and five smaller population centers. Simply put, this is a ridiculously under-populated country. Going by the apparent technology levels of the humans, Alagaësia seems to be about on par with Europe circa the 11th century, yet maps of the British Isles circa 802 AD, Italy circa 1050 AD, and even Greece circa 362 BC show much greater population density.... The population density...that most closely resembles [The Empire] is the island of Sicily circa 1050, which is [smaller than Surda]. A country that coincidentally has six major cities despite being a fraction of the Empire's size.

Couple this with the five major dwarven cities and the six major elven cities, and...[Galbatorix] is pretty well outnumbered.
The second article that I printed out as a bit of a warning of "what not to do" was the Wikipedia article about Alagaësia itself. Some time between 2008 and today, the individual article about Paolini's main continent was taken down in favor for a more broad article about the book series itself. However, I do still have that print out of the original article, and on the first page it has yet another pitfall: possible proof that Paolini didn't pay too much attention to our world when creating his own - either that or he wanted his just THAT fantastical...
The Beor Mountains are the tallest mountains in Alagaësia, being over ten miles high (nearly twice as tall as Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth)....
So Paolini has an entire mountain range that is - according to Shinobaka's calculations - about the size of Romania, and every last one of them are not only taller than Everest, but nearly TWICE as tall. It makes me wonder if the man just threw large numbers out to make everything seem daunting without actually taking the time to note how plausible such numbers were.

As much as I know these pitfalls, and as critically attentive to details as I am, I still fear that I'll make the same mistakes. Someone will point out that my towns are too close to - are too far from - each other, or the rivers aren't flowing properly, or that the population is too small or too large. There will be something I'll forget about since there is SO MUCH RESEARCHING I'll need to do to figure out the real-world correlation.

And I SUCK at research. Always have. I always seem to find the hardest and longest route to find the information I want. I'll spend five hours on Google trying to figure something out, and then Hubby will swing by my computer, type in one thing, and BOOM the answer I need.

However, even if I do manage to get my world built and it feels authentic, there's still that original fear of it being a derivative of some other better-known work. Even in the criticism section of Inheritance Cycle's Wikipedia entry there is a listing of people noting the series being little more than a rehashing of stories such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Dune.

Who's to say my works won't be the same way? Especially when most of them DO start off as fanfiction. I mean, the story I originally built Gyateara for was nothing more than a massive hybrid of stealing components from the first Fable, Ocarina of Time, Inu Yasha, Vision of Escaflowne, and Fushigi Yuugi. There was even a very subtle bit of inspiration from friggen The Little Mermaid.

Yes, authors do get inspired by other works around them. It's common practice. It's one of the main reasons people don't read fanfiction of their work if it's ongoing; they don't want to unintentionally be influenced by a good story they read.

However, how do I know I'll be able to keep it at being INSPIRED by these components and not end up like Paolini - writing a story with blatant influences from the source material?

All I can really do is know what to avoid, and pray the daunting task of actually avoiding it won't keep me frozen for too much longer...

What about you guys? What is your fear about your work? What's keep you chained in place? Let me know in the comments section. Maybe stating our fear will help us overcome it.

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