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Building in an existing world

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Jun 2, 2021.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    For those of you who are writing urban fantasy, set in a modern Earth setting, how much world building do you do? What even constitutes "world building" when dealing with a world that already exists? What aspects of the existing world do you take unchanged, what do you spin, and where have you had to invent?

    Especially you folks who have published or who are well along in writing, what aspects of the above have been unexpected?

    I suppose I can invite those who write historical fantasy as well, since many of the same considerations would apply.

    [Explanatory background: I'm working on a workshop to give this fall. I want to ask that audience of writers a number of questions, of which this is but one. I'm interested to hear what the Currently Assembled have to say, in hopes I can lead a better session. If I fail, it will all be your fault. <g>]
     
  2. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

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    This is a really good question and I'd love to hear what others say. One of my many novel ideas is an urban fantasy set where I currently live (San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley) and I was planning on doing a lot of googling, day trips + taking reference photos/notes, and talking to people who grew up here (or at least lived here longer than I have). But I'd also have to make up people/historical events/businesses/institutions/laws for things where it diverges from reality (or I don't want to include Real People for whatever reason). I imagine determining when things change and how exactly your fantasy fits into those gaps are important.
     
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  3. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I think all fiction that takes place on our Earth boils down to adding a fantasy element into the real world and seeing where that leads. So, I wouldn’t take writing that kind of urban fantasy as any different from writing a crime thriller or what have you.
    And every form of fiction involves building a setting. Like, Gotham city takes place on Earth but there’s still some world building that goes into it.
     
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  4. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    World building in an urban fantasy is a lot easier because you don't need to go into much detail when referring to places like London, Paris or New York. Virtually everyone has heard of these places and have seen images of them in books, movies, documentaries and TV shows.

    If the story is set in a country like Aotearoa and the fantasy relies upon Maori legends and spiritualism for its inspiration then a lot more world-building would be required. That's primarily because both the setting and the fantasy elements would be unknown to most people outside of the South Pacific region.

    WooHooMan refers to Gotham City as an example of urban fantasy world building. I agree with him about that. Batman could not exist in a city other than Gotham City. Its dark and gritty streets, the drab skyscrapers and the sense of corruption and vice that oozes from every part of that place was first rate world building.

    Of course it doesn't need to be so elaborate. Explore the area where you live and think about the sort of businesses, schools and government agencies that would exist if there was magic or other fantastical elements in it. What would your local police officers be wearing if one of the occupational hazards was dealing with drunken mages blowing up cars with staffs that unleashed fireballs? What building would suit a Ministry of Magical Affairs? And do you have insurance that covers damage by dragons?

    In short, urban fantasy can involve world building just as elaborate as the totally made up worlds. Even just ordinary fiction can involve some elaborate world building. Check the English whodunnits set in English villages with their own urban legends, cultures, festivals, fairs and assorted characters. The rich diversity of characters and settings within such small places is a testament to great world building.

    And I fear I may have rambled on too long. Sorry.
     
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  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I don't write Urban fantasy but I have a story based around a British university. so more suburban.
    I tried to change as little as possible but I blended serval universities that I know well, together to give me the environment I needed and just enough vague hints on relationships between it and other places to give the reader an idea of where it was if they thought about it.
    For me the "world building" was limited making sure my blended university fitted in to the reality.I knew where the various department, schools and faculties were as well as the accommodation blocks, sport facilities etc. Most of it came from the real world unfiltered.
    This is so when the story started to get Weird, the weirdness stood out from the mundane reality.*
    At least one reader spotted one of the donor universities, because they worked there.
    * Pro safety tip - Never build a Tokamak on the convergence of ley lines...
     
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  6. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    This may seem obvious, but I've come across several works that don't do it that well.

    When you develop an urban fantasy world you actually need to develop it.

    I've mostly encountered this problem with Superhero settings. They want a superhero setting and that means having a generic Not!Superman, Not!Batman or teams like the Not!Avengers, but no thought is given to those character's motivation or the affect they'd have on the setting. Now, that doesn't really matter as much when like, the story is a comedy about a group of misfit C-list supers living together in an apartment, but it does get notable for stories that are supposed to be at least somewhat serious. Now, while I've mostly seen it with superhero settings, it's not hard for me to imagine a more traditional urban fantasy setting falling prey to it if someone decides to include like, generic vampires or fairies without thinking it through.

    On the other hand, don't overdevelop it either.

    I mean, if I flipped open your book about people in colorful costumes with superpowers beating the shit out of each other then I've already bought into the scenario. You don't need to sell me on it by saying that powers come with some sort of conflict drive that pushes them to fight each other.
     
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  7. Skip, a few months back I was struggling with why I seemed able to write my urban, current-day, Earth fantasy story forward at a much faster rate than my other two, fantasy-world pieces which have very little basis in any Earth period. What I came to realize was I was not getting caught up on the peripheral details of the present day urban fantasy because I allowed I would easily be able to go back and figure them out.

    For an urban, modern day story, I know what a museum looks like. A food truck. A split level house. A high school gym. A school classroom. So I wasn't worried about getting those things down pat early on. I'll add the details in later drafts because they are familiar ones I'll be able to summon at will.

    With my other heavy-lifting fantasy worlds, I felt compelled to be sure I was addressing things as I went along (details about clothing, weapons, food, interiors, cultural traditions, symbolism etc etc) which was killing my writing productivity. I've since learned how to write forward and, with few exceptions, to not worry about anything but the characters/plot being important in those first drafts. All the rest can come later as I edit and revise and finalize the world's structure but man, I really had to work to get out of that corrective world building headspace until I figured it out.

    The surprises are few for me within modern settings and I tend to only write in a modern day Earth setting when I have a singular idea I want to highlight and not bury in a total fantasy world. I have a short story set in what seems to be the here and now but for the existence/need of parallel dimensional storage. The idea for that came from reading a story about a woman in NYC who pays $1300 a month for a 77 square foot apartment with no closets. So the one fantasy element wasn't a surprise, but my actual starting point, to which I added the structural boundary that everything else should seem normal and present/near future in the story setting.
     
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Fair enough. But what the specific challenges you've encountered when writing such?
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >I fear I may have rambled on too long.
    Not a bit of it. But what are the specific challenges you've faced and how have you met them? Or simply struggled with them? The devil may be in the details, but a good many angels hang out there as well.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thanks to the Cup as what belongs to Joe. Or is it a cup made out of Joe?

    Anyway, thanks for offering up some specifics. If I might take the liberty to re-state: you took the world as-it-is (changing the names to protect the guilty <g>), but then altered ... something. Some sort of weirdness. Did you find those alterations forced "real world" adjustments into the story?

    Let me get more specific here. If the story is essentially real-world, when do you let the reader know something is different? A couple of instances come to mind: Folk of the Air, by Peter S. Beagle, and Neverwhen, by Neil Gaiman. In the former, we're a bit into the book before things get weird. In the latter, if memory serves, it happens very early, within a couple of pages. I offer these because in the one, the hook is more with the characters while in the latter the hook is with the plot.

    But that's just one detail. If you have others to offer, regarding how the weird, the fantasy elements, affect the real, I'm all ears. Well, mostly ears. Well, just two, as it turns out.
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thanks to the Maker of Things, for providing several bits of detail. The post sparked a number of thoughts for me (such a number can be very small but must be natural).

    One, familiarity can serve both writer and reader. This helps explain why medieval Europe is so often chosen as a setting; the author knows (or believes they know) what armor looks like, castles, battles, peasants, etc. Urban is another common choice simply because so many of us live in cities. Let's hear a vote for Rural Fantasy!

    Two, setting involves more than just buildings and clothing and food. Rules of physics is an obvious one, often bent in a fantasy tale. Another, though, is political structures, economic systems, social structures and relationships, cultural norms. The closer to "real world" a story is, the more of these elements get taken for granted, by reader and author alike.

    But in every case, there's the possibility of changing something, which brings with it Consequences. If there's a fantasy element to how the economy works, as an example, what then? How does that work into the story, whether or not it's central to the plot?

    Well, that's it for thoughts, few in number though they be. At least they're natural. We can have fantasy numbers, I suppose. But not imaginary.
     
  12. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    My biggest challenge when writing such tends to be “why wouldn’t these characters call the police and let them take care of this?”

    I mean, in the real world, no one stumbles on a corpse or a briefcase full of money and don’t immediately call the proper authorities.
    As a result, most of my writings that take place on Earth tend to have mundane plots or main characters in law enforcement or similar exciting careers.
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    OK. So here you're speaking to a situation. I'm guessing you mean one in which magic was obviously used. Is that right?
     
  14. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Not always. Anything exciting or dangerous or mysterious that can get a big exciting plot going - if it happens in modern day real life, most rational everyday people would let the authorities take care of it.
    I find the first thing about getting a story going is to make sure the protagonist is the person who would most obviously deal with whatever the plot is.
    Keep in mind: even in fictional settings, I tend to gravitate towards crime thrillers.
     
  15. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Had to grapple with this fairly often in my 'Empire' series. The first four books - and parts of the next two take place in a large civilized nation with a good communication network (signal towers).

    Book I ('Country') takes place in a backwater, no real police force (because literally half the populace was killed in the war). Justice tends to be a hands on affair. Still, at one point, the one MC tries to get his half brother (local baron) to make him Sherriff - only to be told he wasn't qualified for the job because it involved more than mere head bashing.

    Book II ('Capital') takes place inside the imperial palace; bodies turn up, the guard is right there investigating. One MC gets questioned by them twice. The bad guys are forced to invest substantial effort to not getting caught by these fine fellows; in the end they manage a not exactly successful escape.

    Book III takes place on an estate that is also informal capital of a once prosperous province. The local officials there tend to be insular, taking an 'out of sight out of mind' approach to the more prominent troublemakers. 'Go away and don't come back' type stuff.

    Book four ('Metropolis') takes place in a severely stressed city with a population topping the one million mark. Gangs rule some districts outright, riots and mob justice are not unknown. Mixed in with this is a brutal 'police force' that collectively regards bashing heads as the best solution to maintaining order. Making matters worse are assorted secret police groups which have a degree of authority over local law enforcement. A couple of MC's spend time in cells as a direct result of this.
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    So, WooHooManWooHooMan, where do to fantasy elements enter in?
     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Same question to ThinkerXThinkerX. Is there magic involved? What's the fantasy angle? And what aspects would you call "real world"?
     
  18. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Oh, there's magic involved.

    Much of the Bad Guys activities in 'Country' is prep work for an especially nasty magical ceremony. One character makes a pair of 'location amulets' to track down what the MC's believe (wrongly) to be responsible. However, the results get disregarded both times ('that can't be what we're looking for.') Again, there'd no real police force in the area.

    In 'Capital,' the Bad Guys are using magical means (demons, which require summoning) for a fairly mundane end - assassination. The palace guard uses fairly straightforward investigative techniques that would not be that far out of place in the present day. Others employ magic of various sorts, but nobody is quite sure what's really going on - and there are no end to assorted plots and projects.

    In 'Estate,' the one Bad Guy is engaged in a sort of...magical shadow war...to deflect attention from what he's up to and keep the mundane police types busy. Others know something is going on, but have only parts of the puzzle. The MC's know magic is in play, but again, they don't grasp what's happening. A dearth of known wizards in the area complicates matters.

    'Metropolis' revolves around the prep work for a major, secret, (catastrophic) ceremony...nominally initiated by the Church, which claims jurisdiction over wizards. Magical detection spells and wards play significant roles in the plot, and helps a couple of the MC's figure out what's going on. As stated, local law enforcement is of the 'head basher' variety, but the secret police groups at least attempt investigative work - though they come close to running out of live bodies for such. That last becomes a...dubious opportunity...for important characters in the next book, 'Spiral.'
     
  19. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    My main character is Leinani Kalani. She's an unranked mage who can only practice magic under supervision. However, due to the state of the economy she moonlights as a cat burglar to pay the bills.

    One of my problems has been trying to figure out how magic can be used to make her job difficult and the sorts of magical devices that could be used to prevent a briefcase, a hotel room or a car from being broken into. The added challenge is coming up with a way in which Leinani can counter magical devices without leaving behind her unique mage mark. (When mages cast spells the item or person upon which a spell is cast is branded with the mage's unique mark that only other mages can see. Good news for police mages investigating crimes. Bad news for cat burglar mages.)

    One thing I came up with are mage locks and handcuffs that have an enchantment that negates spells so mages can't use spells to break them. I've also come up with ways in which a person who is either non-magical or a mage who can't risk using magic can by-pass magical or enchanted items such as mage locks.
     
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  20. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'm not writing in the real world, but in a fantasy setting where the stories take place in a time period roughly equivalent to the real world of today. So there's elves and magic and a lot of other fantastic things, but there's also cellphones, office commutes, and tabloid magazines. The internet is probably at about the stage it was ten to fifteen years ago.
    There's no "masquerade" and all of the fantastic elements are accepted parts of everyday life.

    I started by figuring out what mechanics would differ from the real world (magic and gods) and what additional races would exist (elves, dwarves, anfylk (halflings/hobbits), and minor oddities).
    Once the races were created, I tried to figure out how their "racial traits" would affect their relationship to life/existence, and how it would differ from that of humans. This in turn would come to shape their cultures, and their place in modern society.

    Elves, being immortal, would have a different perspective on time, and their motivations and priorities would be different to those of humans.
    Anfylk, being created by one of the gods in relatively recent times (about 2k years ago), have very strong ties to their creator, and she is a large influence in their lives.
    Dwarves, spent most of their history in the darkness under the mountains, but once humanity discovered them, it lead to a change in their diet, which prolonged the average life span of the individual dwarf, meaning there are now more dwarves than dwarfdom knows what to do with. This is also relatively recent. Dwarves have access to the memories of their ancestors, and in modern times, dwarves are exploring the world so that they can more efficiently pass on their experiences to their descendants.

    To make things easier for myself, I decided that humanity would outnumber the other races by a significant margin. That way, they'd have the strongest influence on the overall culture of the world, and it would remain similar to the real world (the elves may hold the actual power behind the scenes, but it's probably more convenient to let the humans believe they're in charge).

    Magic is common enough that most people will know at least one person with some kind of magical ability.
    Magic is complicated and difficult enough that it's not halted technological advancement, but it has slowed it somewhat.
    Gods do not directly interfere in the affairs of mortals, but Church (the umbrella organisation governing all other religious organisations, regardless of worshipped deity or pantheon) is one of the five super powers on the world stage.
    The other super powers are three large nations and one corporation.

    I wanted the world to contain large areas of unexplored land, so I decided that transportation would be an issue. Specifically, I like the idea that the quickest and most efficient way to travel a large distance is by train. I also decided that there wouldn't be any cars.

    The "no cars" thing turned out to be a tricky thing to work around.
    I couldn't just decide that fuel was rare, because human ingenuity would invent some other fuel.
    For a while, I went with how the tiny little explosions of a regular combustion engine would trigger unexpected and violent magical reactions, but there's nothing that say that humans wouldn't start using jet stream engines, or something else to circumvent that.
    Eventually I figured out that if a person travels too fast in a vehicle that isn't properly grounded (like to a railroad track), the aether (magic stuff) will erode said person's soul. This means that cars are technically possible, but no one wants to use them for fear of losing their (immortal?) soul.

    The International Rail Company is the fifth super power. They're the corporation that handles all long distance train traffic in the world, and they hold the same amount of political sway as each of the three large nations, and as Church.

    Racial integration is something of an issue in the world.
    Most human cities have an elven quarter (where elves live) and a fylktown (where anfylk live).
    Humans are generally suspicious of elves, because they're a bit scary (immortal, powerful, and good looking).
    Humans generally like anfylk, but have a hard time respecting them or taking them seriously (they're so short).
    Humans tend to avoid dwarves as much as they can (they're weird, and you can't see their faces for all the beard) - in fairness, this hasn't been fleshed out at all because I've not really included dwarves in the stories yet.

    I lost my train of thought, and this may have been more of an explanation of my setting than an answer to the original question - but I'm open to elaborate where needed. :)
     
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