World Builders resumes today with more great insights from world building authors. Today, I welcome ST Ranscht and Robert P Beus.
ST Ranscht saw her first work published at age 12 when her review of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness appeared in Quest Magazine. Rima the Bird Girl’s jungle presented a richly green and intriguing world, but this was about the same time Sue discovered The Hobbit and LotR. The depth of Tolkien’s creation — including languages! — changed the way she saw literature.
Her writing became more layered as she explored ways unusual settings could affect characters and plot. Her training in theatre, both through her Dramatic Arts BA from SDSU and years of volunteer work in costuming for San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre helped to clarify her story world
Life being what it is, with that pesky need to eat, she pursued a career with the Forest Service and attended Law School at USD until she became a single mom. Giving up the glamor of Civil Service, she became a Licensed Child Care Provider, reentering a world where stories are often more important than food. With her son’s interest in theatre, she spent 12 years costuming for one area of a nationwide children’s theatre organization. Today, she earns a living as a seamstress/costumer, working as an independent contractor with Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, Diversionary Theatre. She and the co-author of ENHANCED, Robert P. Beus, met through their work in the theatre, collaborating creatively on many successful musical theatre productions over 20 years.
Robert P. Beus is a writer currently working in the insurance industry. He grew up singing, dancing, choreographing, and directing in San Diego. Now he is an active performer and founding member of Musical Mondays at Rage in West Hollywood, where his works, Turkey Lurkey and Liza are renowned. As an open member of LA’s gay community, he has become an outspoken critic of anti-gay politicians, anti-gay legislation, and discrimination of any kind. He lives in West Hollywood.
Today, their YA scifi novel, ENHANCED ranks in the Top 10 of the Nerdist/Inkshares contest, hoping to win publication by finishing in the Top 5 on 9/30/15.
I’m excited to share with you today their responses to my questions on their world building process.
What is the appeal of world building to you? How does it compare to the importance of character and plot?
First, we want to thank you for inviting us to contribute to World Builders. We’re honored and humbled by your interest in ENHANCED.
Almost all stories take readers out of their own lives, but when an author designs the world of the story to differ extensively from the world we know, we believe readers become more
attentive to all the story’s elements. The unfamiliarity of major physical differences, like a zero gravity environment, or an underwater realm become journeys of discovery. Worlds where the differences are significant but less pronounced tend to keep the reader a little off balance, but less uncertain. However, if the differences are subtle enough, it’s necessary to incorporate organic ways to remind them of the differences without sounding repetitious.
ENHANCED is an example of more subtle physical differences from the reader’s world. Twin moons give us the opportunity to describe unusual nighttime lighting and more extreme tidal effects than the reader commonly thinks of, but they don’t change the characters’ natural behavior. Second Earth’s most significant differences are technological and cultural.
Ultimately, we believe world building isn’t any more or less important than the characters who live in the world or the plot of the story that carries them through it. Without memorable characters, strong character development, and an intriguing plot, readers are pretty much examining an empty stage set — not a great way to keep them turning pages. It seems to us world building’s greatest value is to add depth that creates unforgettable images, and influences the characters and plot by its natural restrictions or requirements.
What aspects of the world do you have to figure out before you start a story? What do you allow to unfold as you write?
Working together, we use a process we refer to as throwing paint. You might call it brainstorming, but it’s intended to create a cohesive picture rather than a solution or a plan. With ENHANCED, for instance, we started with a single character (Tadeh), who represented a group of people who aren’t normally protagonists in Young Adult literature. Then one of us suggested a connected character (Ellisyn) because Tadeh couldn’t be alone, then a place (Second Earth) that would allow us to create a less technological lifestyle that isn’t common in developed nations on Earth. That led to other questions, like, “Why did the people leave Earth?” and, “What happened to their technology?”, which became the background for the actual story. The more paint we throw, the more it runs together to become a seamless story in a world that makes perfect sense.
The framework becomes the bible. It includes character arcs, architecture, environment, government, political factions, and religion, but additional characters, personal histories, and the specifics of the main characters’ paths arise organically during the writing. For instance, in establishing that the Mainstreamers are politically savvy, it became clear each parage (similar to a neighborhood) needed a Public Circle for spontaneous speechifying, railing and ranting, or election rallies. Of course, we know some events — like who has to die — from the very beginning, but sometimes necessary events come as a complete surprise.
Do you have a technique for keeping track of world building as you go? How do you ensure your material is easily retrievable and easy to modify?
Robb is still waiting for the finished product, but I like to sketch maps so I know where everything is, where the characters are going, and how long it will take them to get from one place to another. But I don’t keep extensive files to remind me. Other than a list of brief notes for future edits, I have to admit I hold Second Earth in my head.
Maybe I should have it insured by Lloyd’s of London. Or examined.
How do you avoid excessive world building and balance it with the act of writing the story?
We always ask ourselves what is essential for the reader to know? The tendency most of us beginning writers have is to believe that every word is golden and the reader is going to be just as fascinated as we are by our 500 word description of the leaves exploding out of the skin of the trunk and creeping in the dark of night along the branches to their tips, like a koala fetus searching for a teat to latch onto for nourishment. Don’t bet on it. Unless the information is essential to the story, it’s probably just gunking up the pace like sludge in a drain pipe. Having a co-author definitely has it’s advantages when comes to sorting out what’s important and trashing what just gets in the way. You have to keep reminding yourself that the story comes first.
Without a story, no one cares why we’re here.
What do you enjoy the most about world building?
Robb prefers hearing dialog to seeing the setting, so it falls to me to add the texture. That’s fun.
How are the people or other sentient life forms influenced by their environment? How do they use it or change it to serve themselves? I enjoy imagining how the light hits the scene. What’s its source? What colors are in it? What qualities doe it have? How warm or cool is it? Old or new? What is it reflecting from? I also find it immensely satisfying to establish the pace of life on the world through my design.
Have you learned tips on world building from other authors in your genre? If so, what are they?
We haven’t gone looking for tips from other authors, but we have to acknowledge that we have been influenced by every book, movie, or game world we’ve encountered. If you look at them with an analytical eye, you’ll be able to tease out what aspects of those creations add to the realism or leave you dissatisfied. LotR has always represented the peak of world building to us.
Every time we re-read the series, we feel present in that world. So when we have the opportunity to build a world of our own, we examine what Tolkien did that makes Middle Earth so real. Of course there are many other worlds that have left strong impressions. The light-up footprints in Avatar. The oil paint smearing in What Dreams May Come. The starkly rich reality of Card’s zero-gravity battle room. Or any of his other worlds. Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury, Clarke.
There are so many masters to learn from.
Describe your world building method. Do you have forms that you fill in? How do you organize your notes? Do you use a wiki or some other software?
Haha! As I admitted earlier, Robb and I haven’t structured our process and imaginations with enough discipline to formally record our methods. We’ve directed all of our discipline at expressing the world in the story and holding each other to it. Maybe it’s the result of our theatre training that we plop ourselves down in the story world and know right where we are. I suspect if either one of us were writing alone, we might have a need to document what we create.
Do you use diagrams? If so, what kind? What about charts, schematics, or other visual representations of your world beyond textual material?
We are partial to maps, although Sue hasn’t produced anything yet that she considers finely finished enough to share. She has the skill, it just hasn’t been important enough yet to spend the time. Maybe when it’s time to publish. Maps on the endpapers would be nice.
There is one icon in ENHANCED that is crucial to the story, and we have created that as an illustration to be included in the book. Even so, when the time comes to reveal it, one of the characters draws it on a napkin with the tine of a fork dipped in a red sauce before we see the actual illustration. We think it’s a charming moment.
How has your world building process evolved over time?
It was more difficult in the beginning when neither of us knew exactly what the other one was seeing. Part of the paint throwing process was all about what Second Earth looked like, how it varied from place to place, which parts of it our characters would see, and how it was similar to or different from Earth. Now we both seem to see the same things, so communicating it in the story is easier now. That’s not to say it’s completely smooth sailing. We’re working on Part 2 of The Second Earth Trilogy now, and the characters are visiting places they’ve never been. We’re still throwing paint.
How do you balance realism with magic or other world building elements that allow for departure from the ordinary?
There is no magic on Second Earth, even though, like Tahiti, it’s a magical place. The natives have some Enhanced abilities, but those are based in the explainable science of science fiction.
We’re huge fans of the statement Kip Thorne made about warp drive and traversable wormholes, “…the laws of physics probably forbid it, but, gee, if they don’t, it would be great to have!” We like to apply that to the Genics’ Enhancements. We want to remember the “fiction” in Science Fiction.
What are some fundamental rules to world building you would say are important to every writer in the fantasy genre?
First: Consistency. Most important. If your world isn’t consistent within itself, the readers will lose their way. That’s not to say you can’t use inconsistency as a characteristic of a world. Look at Wonderland. The one thing Alice could count on was that she couldn’t count on anything.
Second: It’s important to provide enough description that the reader has a clear sense of place, especially if your world differs drastically from the Earth we all know.
Third: Don’t overdo the description. Providing an impression of how the color, scent, and texture of the forest forest floor make your characters feel can evoke an even deeper personal response from readers than an HDR photo of the minutia on the ground.
Are you modifying your world building process? Do you have any particular things you’d like to improve on?
We really would like to produce some high quality drawings of some of the locations we’ve
created on Second Earth. Even some of our characters’ residences. We’ve described a few of them in detail because they’re so unusual, but in the interest of pacing, we’ve saved them for the Bonus Material DVD. And Sue is really going to get on those maps. Any day now.
Seriously, there isn’t anything any of us has done that couldn’t be improved at least a little. We’re always on the watch for those things.
In your opinion, what is it that makes a believable and immersive world for a fantasy story?
As theatre people, we begin with a willing suspension of disbelief. Probably most readers do.
We’ll believe anything you show us as long as it makes sense. If your characters move through your world, supported by your world, without tripping over something that just doesn’t make sense, we’re going to be right there with them. If you can make us feel what your characters feel about and for this world — and this is where excellent storytelling comes in — we’re going to feel just as connected to or disconnected from the world as your characters do.
How do you deal with contradictions in your story that require large changes to your world? Have you run into this kind of difficult situation and if so how did you resolve it?
Because we’ve been mindful of the nature of Second Earth, we haven’t run into any
contradictions, but there have been moments in the storytelling when we’ve had to stop and ask, “How do we get from here to there?” Not in a physical sense, but in a plot sense.
Fortunately, so far, we’ve been able to look back and see that we had already created the bridge without really knowing exactly how it would be used. We can only attribute that to a
subconscious understanding of the world and the story. Considering we’ve worked on it for more than three years, that’s probably not surprising.
Describe your world and some of the considerations behind it that you feel give your stories a solid sense of realism:
Second Earth has the same sorts of geological features as Earth in a different configuration and distribution. There are similar climate patterns. There’s no evidence that dinosaurs ever roamed it’s surface, but a few similar creatures to those on Earth have evolved, such as hoofed mammals, fish, and birds. There are a few species of flora and fauna that First Earthers brought with them. Their Governing Council also brought with them a determination that First Earthers would be stewards to their new home, caring for it in a mindful, foresighted way.
Races and cultures differ significantly from any we are familiar with on Earth, but each exists consistent to itself and its world, granting reality to their existence.
What tips do you have for aspiring fantasy writers on how to create a solid, believable world?
Be prepared to explain all aspects of your world, especially those ways in which it differs from the world we know, but don’t explain it; just have your characters live in it convincingly.
Now here’s more about ENHANCED:
If you love LotR, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games, ENHANCED should be on your
Refugees from embattled Earth share what remains of their technology with Second Earth’s primitive, genetically Enhanced natives. Now that they understand what Enhancement means, growing numbers believe all natives are a threat to Mainstreamers. Citizens disappear. Landers explode. Local authorities do nothing. Searching for their friend, unlikely allies find no one outside the mainstream is safe.
Here is a short excerpt:
Brysent, not willing to be left behind again, volunteered to carry the lander’s tech kit, and followed Ellisyn with no clear idea of their goal. “What are we hoping to find in the Cave of Murder?” he called out to anyone who might answer, his voice filling the rarified air with more sound than it had held in many decades, too much sound, so much sound it slipped sideways down the rugged slopes like bits of scree, rattling and scraping, ground to dusty echoing whispers, until, settling in the unseen bottom of the world, murder gave birth to silence.
Jemeer replied in a low, respectful hoarseness that carried only as far as Bryse, “Absolution. Liberation.”
Shifting the equipment-laden pack on his back, the pilot muttered, “And I had my heart set on cash.”
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