Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Signposting Differences

Welcome back to the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! Today's entry comes from Che Gilson, who submitted through the comments area in the submit here link. As I generally do, I'm going to start by marking in blue the words I see as contributing to a sense of world in the piece.

***
5th Machidiel, Boath

Dear Betta,

I found this journal in the bottom of a trunk under an old rag doll I haven’t seen since I was eleven. I was cleaning up and putting my affairs in order (sounds final doesn’t it?). The journal was in good shape and apparently abandoned after only a month of entries. If I recall correctly it was a gift from Aunt Letha for my eighth birthday.
Journal keeping is not my strong suit apparently. Or maybe at the age of eight I simply had little to record. I tore out the month of entries, which amounted to five pages, without reading them and slipped the book into my luggage.
It seems now I am doomed to have something to record. For you see Betta, I’m off to my new life blood bonded to a vampire.
Maybe I flatter myself to think you’ll one day read these pages. I sincerely doubt it. You probably wouldn’t remember me even if you did. We only had the one summer together and you were two years older than me. But you were my heroine. Standing up to the Aseph boys like that. You were even nice enough to let me follow you around like a puppy the rest of the summer. I missed you when I got back home. We wrote for awhile but then the letters got further between and finally ceased.
So my correspondence resumes! One sided though it is. It helps to have someone to talk to and saves me from the insipid “Dear Diary,” as if I were some love struck school girl! Although, I suppose that’s exactly what I should be. It’s what I wish I were. Instead I’m on this train heading south in through the mountains. In another two days we reach the sea and then Hecolath.
But that’s skipping ahead isn’t it? I need to go back a week. That was when the Taster came.
I don’t know what the Taster is like in your district but ours is very old. He must be 2,000 at least. It’s a wonder to me that every year in Barchiel during the last days of the month he arrives. Every year since I was a child I’ve been expecting a new Taster to come. But there he is the same as ever.
His name is Xathaniel Sursh. When I was little he seemed so tall to me and terribly frightening. Now that I’ve grown he’s actually quite short. His back is bent and he walks with the aid of a cane. Deep wrinkles cut his blue white skin across the forehead and down each cheek, curving around a thin lipped bloodless mouth. So thin is his skin that you can see the blue traceries of veins beneath. I doubt he was ever very great looking for he has a large hooked nose. Once upon a time he had hair I suppose but not in my lifetime. Not even eyebrows.
***

Here's how I go about using those words to determine what kind of world this is. We start with some nice made-up words - Machidiel and Boath - right at the get-go. So this is clearly a fantasy or science fiction piece. Since the words are put into an easily recognizable date format, my immediate instinct says fantasy. The name "Betta" fits well enough into this pattern. Thereafter, we get a series of quite recognizable objects: "journal," "trunk," and "old rag doll." These tell me that whatever this world is, it's quite similar to our own in many respects, and that its technology will probably belong to an era when trunks were used commonly as storage units. The first clear evidence of what type of fantasy we're dealing with comes when we see the phrase "blood bonded to a vampire."

Before I discuss this further, I'll go through the entry again, putting in my comments. Let me remind my readers, again, that these are not corrections. I can hardly stress the importance of this sufficiently. I find it useful to think aloud to myself as I read and get impressions. My comments are in brown below.

***
5th Machidiel, Boath [This is clearly a date associated with a fantasy world. Probably means we're headed into a journal entry or a letter.]

Dear Betta, [Now I think this is probably a letter. Written rather in a style traditional to our own world, but this is easily transferable to a fantasy world similar to our own]

I found this journal [hm, interesting - it's a journal?] in the bottom of a trunk [This makes me think that we're probably not in a medieval fantasy scenario, because otherwise this would probably have been a "chest"] under an old rag doll I haven’t seen since I was eleven. I was cleaning up and putting my affairs in order (sounds final doesn’t it?).[Yes; it sounds both old-fashioned and final. It makes me curious] The journal was in good shape and apparently abandoned after only a month of entries. If I recall correctly it was a gift from Aunt Letha for my eighth birthday.[clearly they celebrate birthdays in this place. Evidence is mounting that this world is similar to our own, if associated with a past technology level. I'm starting to wonder what it is about this world that makes it a fantasy world.]
Journal keeping is not my strong suit apparently. Or maybe at the age of eight I simply had little to record. I tore out the month of entries, which amounted to five pages, without reading them and slipped the book into my luggage.
It seems now I am doomed [I like this word.] to have something to record. For you see Betta, I’m off to my new life blood bonded to a vampire.[This is interesting. So the fantastical element here is vampires? Is there more to it than that, like say, magic of some kind? The use of the fantastical names and dates makes me guess there might be, but I haven't seen evidence of it yet.]
Maybe I flatter myself to think you’ll one day read these pages. I sincerely doubt it. You probably wouldn’t remember me even if you did. We only had the one summer together and you were two years older than me. But you were my heroine. Standing up to the Aseph boys like that. You were even nice enough to let me follow you around like a puppy the rest of the summer. I missed you when I got back home. We wrote for awhile but then the letters got further between and finally ceased. [All of this phrasing seems very consistent with our our own world. I wonder why it matters who Betta is. Perhaps she might enter the story later?]
So my correspondence resumes! One sided though it is.[Or perhaps she won't enter the story.] It helps to have someone to talk to and saves me from the insipid “Dear Diary," as if I were some love struck school girl! [This is very real-world, and sticks out in contrast to the fantastical names.] Although, I suppose that’s exactly what I should be. It’s what I wish I were. Instead I’m on this train heading south in through the mountains. In another two days we reach the sea and then Hecolath.[By this time I'm losing track of the fact that we've had a fantasy world marked at all, and so the unfamiliar name sticks out.]
But that’s skipping ahead isn’t it? I need to go back a week. That was when the Taster [this is interesting. The Taster is obviously a social position, and well known to our protagonist.] came.
I don’t know what the Taster is like in your district [This is interesting to me because it suggests a larger social structure surrounding the position of Taster] but ours is very old. He must be 2,000 at least. It’s a wonder to me that every year in Barchiel during the last days of the month he arrives. Every year since I was a child I’ve been expecting a new Taster to come. But there he is the same as ever.[I'm surprised she'd expect a new one. If she knew he was 2000 years old, why would she expect a change now?]
His name is Xathaniel Sursh. When I was little he seemed so tall to me and terribly frightening. Now that I’ve grown he’s actually quite short. His back is bent and he walks with the aid of a cane. Deep wrinkles cut his blue white skin across the forehead and down each cheek, curving around a thin lipped bloodless mouth. So thin is his skin that you can see the blue traceries of veins beneath. I doubt he was ever very great looking for he has a large hooked nose. Once upon a time he had hair I suppose but not in my lifetime. Not even eyebrows. [This suggests to me that Xathaniel will be an important character in the story. The amount of attention given to his appearance hints that I should probably be prepared to recognize him. I also get a hint (with "great-looking") that our protagonist is concerned with looks.]
***

There are some really intriguing elements in this piece, but as I finish it I find myself trying to choose between two models that seem to conflict with one another. The evidence of our worldbuilding words seems to point to: one, a fantasy world which we should expect to differ significantly from our own, and two, a past-Earth scenario with vampires.

A reader's first instinct might be to ask which one the author intended, but I'm not sure that's the right question. Very likely this is a fantasy world which has vampires, but also has its own characteristics and rules. The idea of the Tasters certainly supports this.

It's important to keep in mind as we write the incredible rapidity with which readers will draw conclusions. Opening three words - bang! Fantasy world. Immediately we'll be looking for confirmations of this, and features of the fantasy world which can help us pare down possible scenarios. There are plenty of fantasy worlds which make use of existing human cultures and eras... but it would be possible - indeed quite easy - to keep all of the character's voice and experiences, and the vampires, and set the whole thing in the real world during the era suggested by the language use. I generally like to accept the author's suggestions, so I don't like myself for it, but I find myself asking, "Why hasn't our author done that?"

I suspect this world is complicated enough that it needs some signposting. Signposting is what I call it when the author deliberately introduces details that fly in the face of a reader's expectations. The trick to effective signposting is to do it very, very early - as early as you can possibly manage, so as to nudge the reader off a set of expectations before those expectations become firmly fixed. I have to do this with my Varin world all the time, because people see noblemen and women moving through stone halls and immediately jump to - medieval castle! So I have to stick in Varin's high technology right up front: "two hundred and twelve electric bulbs on his vaulted stone ceiling" in sentence #1 of "The Eminence's Match", or "the crystal chandeliers dimmed slightly overhead, and Tagret looked at his watch" to begin paragraph #2 of For Love, For Power.

So for this piece, what kind of a signpost might we be looking for? I can't read the author's mind, but already I can see one thing that sticks out as an excellent possibility: the idea of the Taster, and the social system of which that office is a part. I would love to see the focus of the piece put squarely there, on the events surrounding how the protagonist was chosen for "blood bonding," because I feel intrigue and conflict there, and because that would make it harder for a reader (in this case, me) to step back from the cues given by the dates into the overly "easy" model of the Victorian Vampire scenario.

Che Gilson, thank you so much for being brave and submitting! I hope you find my comments helpful. Please, readers, recall that this is intended to be a helpful discussion. You are welcome to comment, too, so long as the comments are constructive.

The discussion is open.



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