A good deal of fantasy, though not all, has a phase not shared by realist fiction: the author must create the world the action takes place in. There are almost as many approaches to this as there are fantasy authors – some plan meticulously in advance, not starting to write until they know everything about their world, whereas others wing it, only creating details as they come up, knowing little more than the reader. Most – myself included – fall at some point between the two extremes.
All these approaches seem to produce both worlds that live and breathe and worlds that feel completely artificial, so it’s clearly not this aspect that determines success or failure. I haven’t any formula to guarantee success in world-building – I’d bottle it if I did – but I’d like to make one suggestion for why worlds sometimes aren’t convincing – they’re not messy enough.
An example of a non-messy world is David Eddings’ Belgariad. Let me say first – I thoroughly enjoyed The Belgariad. It’s a thumping good tale – but Eddings clearly had a lot to learn about world-building when he wrote it. He presents us with a dozen or so countries which have apparently been ordained by the gods at the beginning of history and have scarcely changed since. OK, one country has disappeared and one has been created, but otherwise not a single border has ever appeared to change.
In addition, each country is inhabited by one race of people, every individual of which shares a specific characteristic: obsession with money, stupidity, shrewdness etc. Everyone displays this characteristic – then you cross the border and everyone’s completely different.
Now, compare this with our world. National borders change all the time, as a result of wars, treaties or mergers of countries. The border between France and Germany (or whatever political unit has stood in Germany’s place) has been shifting for centuries, and changed at least three times during the 20th century. (This confusion, incidentally, was originally caused by the Partition of Verdun, in 843, between Charlemagne’s grandsons). In Britain, the border between England and Scotland has been very fluid, and even now the town of Berwick-on-Tweed isn’t entirely sure where it belongs. There’s a story (probably apocryphal) that Berwick recently discovered it was still at war with Germany, since it hadn’t been specified in the peace treaty.
Besides shifting borders, nations themselves are being created and destroyed all the time. Yugoslavia, for example, came into being after the First World War out of the ruins of two empires and dissolved in civil war into half a dozen sovereign states in the 1990s. This kind of thing has been going on throughout history – for example, during the period when the tiny kingdoms that grew up from the remains of the Roman Empire coalesced into larger states like England, Spain and France.
Even more fundamental than all this political manoeuvring, however, is the fact that people don’t conveniently go and sit in pigeon-holes. Most countries today are multicultural, but this isn’t anything new. The traditional view of history, and particularly of prehistory, is of mass-movements of peoples, slaughtering or driving out the previous inhabitants and replacing them. That certainly does happen, and has happened to a shocking extent in the past five hundred years, but genetic profiling now seems to suggest that it’s the exception rather than the rule. In Britain, far from the Anglo-Saxons “replacing” the Celts, who earlier “replaced” various nameless peoples, it now seems that most people are actually descended from the hunter-gatherers who followed the retreating ice northward.
What does seem to happen is a steady influx of smaller numbers of people who intermarry with the locals and occasionally have an influence beyond their numbers, when their culture has something the host culture needs. It’s probable, for instance, that there were quite a few Anglo-Saxons in Britain before the Roman occupation ended – along with people from all quarters of the Empire – but that, for various reasons, their culture became fashionable. A large proportion of the populations of Wessex, Mercia and the other kingdoms would have been indigenous farmers who adopted the ways of the Anglo-Saxons – just as their ancestors had adopted the ways of the Romans, the Celts and many others.
There’s rarely much connection between nationality, race and language, even in a country like England that’s supposed to have a unified history. Nations and empires that are thrown together for political or military reasons have even less unity. Some real-world cases are obvious (Israel/Palestine, for instance) but most larger countries contain communities that speak different languages and consider themselves “different peoples.”
Culture is perhaps a more powerful unifier. Classical Greece is often seen as racist in its attitude to “Greeks” and “Barbarians”, but their definitions weren’t really racial. A “Greek” was defined as someone who spoke Greek, worshipped the Olympian gods and lived in a city-state. They were actually just as mongrel as everyone else.
Culture is essentially how a group of people like to see themselves, and this is where national stereotypes have some limited reality. German culture might like to see itself as efficient, for instance, and Italian as fun-loving, and individuals might strive for that ideal harder than in other countries, though there are always large numbers of exceptions. And, of course, characteristics depend on who’s observing them. Take Britain and America. In Britain, we like to think of ourselves as tasteful and Americans as vulgar, whereas the view in America is that they’re forthright and we’re uptight. Both and neither is true – it’s purely a matter of what’s seen as “normal”. And, of course, there are plenty of vulgar Britons and uptight Americans.
It’s doubtful that a created world could actually be quite as messy as the real world without being too confusing to follow. I’ve noticed in my own creations a tendency for cities and nations (especially cities) to last longer than might be considered normal, although not impossibly so (Damascus, for instance, has existed for about 5000 years). Still, being aware of the points above can create a little of the organic ebb and flow of a real world, instead of one with thick lines drawn around every “country” or “race”.
Go for messiness.