Today's guest post is from Carole McDonnell, author of The Constant Tower, a thought-provoking fantasy novel that sidesteps the expected in a lot of really fascinating ways. I asked her to write about her world-building process. Specifically, I asked her how to be original and plausible in creating a fantasy world. The Constant Tower isn't set in the generic post-Tolkien fantasy world we've seen so many times. How did you create it? What were the challenges? Here's Carole with her reply.
I had had a dream of a world where each morning the inhabitants of a city woke to find the landmarks and geography of their city changed as if someone had moved around a jigsaw puzzle. Except that, a tower was always constant. I didn't write that story but I started thinking. In the end, I wrote a story where the world stayed put but people were tossed around all over the planet.
After that, I began thinking about how would society develop on such a planet. I like walking around in the worlds I create. I like using and seeing every possibility and permutation of a particular system. It’s like a game to me. Given situation A, how would B, appear? And how would B appear if C is present? I do that in all my stories. I’m always trying to see how all the organic possibilities of a possible situation.
For instance: there is the technological issue:
Technology is about controlling our life and making life livable.
What happens if there are degrees of control? What is the danger of this situation? The worst danger: being separated from those you love. How would people deal with that possibility of separation? Why, of course, they would live in longhouses. They would, of course, fear the night. How much warning would the inhabitants of this world have each night before the night did its separating work? Because it’s technology, we have to allow that not every clan has the same amount or kind of technology — in this case “tower science” or “tower lore.” Because the towers have some control over the night.
Technology is connected with wealth. This means some cultures will be wealthier than others. Of course there are many technologies in the world. No one technology rules the world, but there are sciences that are more important than others. This makes some clans more powerful than others. In addition, there are poor folks in the world. Poor folks, and solitary folks, of whatever clans, are less in control of their fate than rich folks or folks who have a more advanced clan/culture.
Wouldn't the most knowledgeable clans have more linguistic knowledge? Wouldn't they have treaties? Humans being humans, people will want to protect what they own. But humans being humans, what do the haves owe the have-nots? What would ownership be like on such a planet?
The theological aspect: Why is the world like this? Is this problem of the night normal to this world? Or was it a theological curse of some kind? Can night be restored? Of course, because it’s a theological question, there is the problem of belief. Some folks will believe some things, others will believe other doctrines, and some will not believe at all. What about courtship rituals and marriage? What would the god of such a planet consider important? Are animals affected by this particular situation?
There is also the communication aspect. How do strangers react to each other if they are equally tossed about by the night? What if there is disparity between the strangers? How would family be defined? How would war be defined? How would culture be defined?
Of course all this seems like an analytical outline. I didn't really think analytically in the beginning. I simply walked into that world and wrote what I saw. I saw that some clans had power, some did not. Some clans liked being rooted to the same spot. (But what prevented them from continually staying in one spot?) Some clans liked being night-tossed. Their idea of a Permanent Home is the afterlife.
I saw the towers. Some of them quite powerful, some of them petulant, some of them failing, some of them angry at humans. Then I wondered…what would happen if the towers fail? All good fantasies need a looming disaster and heroes who can save the world or help the world move from one era to the next.
I think the only way to create a plausible world is to create plausible people who inhabit that world.