Guest post: When the Whole World is Against You - Building Fantasy Settings
Ever have one of those days when it feels as if the whole world is against you?
Well, perhaps not excellent for you but I suspect it made for a great story. Dramatic storytelling comes from conflict. As a writer and as a reader, I don’t just want the conflicts the heroes face to be against other characters. I want the world to be an opponent - the deadlier the better. I want it to a source of danger on all levels of human experience: physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual
My first step in building
a fantasy world is to look for what you might call the contrasting
dynamic: contrasting because it works against the needs of the main characters
and dynamic because it drives all the other elements of the world. In Traitor’s Blade,
I wanted to explore what happens to fundamentally heroic characters when they
discover that heroism has utterly failed - that the things they believe in
simply don’t work in the world around them. So while Falcio and the Greatcoats
are driven by a belief in justice and decency, the nation of Tristia is fuelled
by corruption and cynicism. While knights in fantasy literature are often
presented as honourable and dashing, in Tristia the very notion of a knight’s
honour is that anything you do by your lord’s command is righteous - no matter
how heinous the act itself. Even the peasantry, whom the Greatcoats have risked
their lives to protect, view the Greatcoats as cowards and traitors once the
Dukes have proven their power against them.
This notion of corruption and cynicism carries through to the physics of the world as well. There is very little magic to be found in Tristia and what there is generally costs more money than decent folk could ever hope to afford. It’s also a petty sort of magic - more useful for manipulating and harming others than for healing. The gods and saints themselves, when they do appear, do so for the powerful, not the righteous. All of this makes Tristia a rather terrible place - and therefore a perfect backdrop for characters who are struggling to maintain their ideals in the face of futility and despair.
Part of why I start with the idea of a contrasting dynamic is because, unlike most hard science fiction, I don’t want physics and technology to drive culture. I want the world to reflect the underlying themes of the book, so I draw from elements within our own world to make that possible. In Traitor’s Blade, the travelling magistrates known as the Greatcoats were inspired in part by the itinerant judges of the English Middle Ages - envoys from the King who would travel a year-long circuit of towns and villages listening to cases and dispensing verdicts. Of course, in my world the Greatcoats' situation is vastly more precarious and involves a great deal more sword fights. Never all that common in our own world, and not a characteristic of itinerant judges, the use of duelling as a means of resolving legal disputes is a critical part of the world of Traitor’s Blade - one that affects people’s ability to get justice for themselves and their families. This impacts all aspects of society and culture within the world of the story.
Whether the individual elements of the world are inspired by aspects of our own or are created out of whole cloth, they all have to fit within that contrasting dynamic identified at the outset. They all have to be physical and cultural reflections of the themes that underpin the story. In other words, the individual elements all work together so that my poor, struggling characters will feel that the whole world really is out to get them.
Sebastien de Castell, March 2014
The first book in the new and exciting Greatcoats series, Traitor's Blade, is out now by Jo Fletcher Books.