Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Ambiguity and Anchoring in Fantasy Contexts

Welcome to week 12 of the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! This week's entry comes from Lexie. Thanks for submitting! As I generally do, I'll begin by highlighting in blue all the words that I use to pick up worldbuilding information, and directly following the excerpt, I'll talk about how those words give me entry into the world.

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The night that Al'sea was found, the journey Priestess Cen'sea had already traveled more than two days in the blistering cold to reach her destination. The fact that she saw Al'sea at all was something of a miracle; the child's pure white skin, bone white hair and white shift blended perfectly with the mounds of snow pushed aside along the path. If a stray beam of moonlight had not glinted off of the strange silver dots above Al'sea's left eyebrow, Cen'sea was sure the child would have stayed in the drift until the spring.

Luck was Al'sea's pup that night however and what Cen'sea thought to be some trader's lost wares turned out to be a lost waif, barely breathing and cold as ice. Praising Cina for her mercy, Cen'sea grabbed her blanket from her traveling pack and hurriedly wrapped the child in it.

"Call me Moon-crossed but you weigh little more than a chick child," Cen'sea murmured, rubbing her back as she hefted her upwards. “Kalyea will see to it that you are put to rights, you shall see,” she continued, naming the Healer conjured images of a warm room and company. “If I do not get us lost that is,” she added wryly.

The wind picked up in ferocity as Cen’sea struggled through the deepening snow and deeper shadows. Where the Northern Citadel lay, dense forest grew all around, eclipsing the moon everywhere but at the Citadel itself. Perfect for protection, less perfect for winter season traveling. Later, when relating the story to the High Priestess Cen’sea would thoughtfully linger on the fact that moonlight had been what guided her to the child in the first place.

As she made her way, certain the Citadel was little more than a few more steps in the right direction, Cen’sea whispered to the child. Lullabies from where she grew up, farther west where the Great Northern River lay. When those ran out, she recited winter season devotionals from her novice years at the Citadel. “Though I find these as boring now as I did then little one,” she said with a sharp bark of laughter.

Occasionally the child stirred, murmuring incomprehensively before burrowing further into the blanket and Cen’sea’s shoulder. Cen’sea would adjust her weight then, and scan the horizon for signs of the Citadel’s gates.

Thus far she had managed to follow the path mostly by feel and by locating each glowing orb that marked the path to the Citadel. The orbs never went out, never faltered or flickered, but burned a dull blueish light all around the clock to guide travelers to their destination no matter the time or season. They were known as the Orbs of Cina and only the High Priestess knew how to make them work.
***

We open with "night", which gives us orientation to the basic fact that we're on a planet, but the biggest opening hint to our location is the name "Al'sea" which speaks instantly of a fantasy world. The reader's job then becomes learning more about that world. "Journey Priestess Cen'sea" appears to be a title, giving us a sense that there is religion here, and that it is associated with a degree of social organization. We get climate and seasonal weather information from "blistering cold." The word "miracle" confirms the presence of religion and also clarifies some of its qualities (i.e. the possibility of a particular type of divine intervention). I also get important information from "child's pure white skin, bone white hair and white shift," though I'm not certain how broadly these characteristics would be seen among the local population. Since Al'sea is being found, not born,we don't know yet if her coloration is bizarre and atypical or relatively normal. "Mounds of snow" fits with the blistering cold, and "path" tells us that we're not dealing with an extensive system of roads (it suggests the possibility of medieval technology). Thereafter we get some further clarification of the world when Cen'sea says "praise Cina for her mercy" and when we see the description of the "Northern Citadel" and the forest around it. Interesting information suggesting culture comes from such phrases as "Moon-crossed" and "put to rights." Also intriguing were the "winter season devotionals" which suggest more about the religion she follows.

At this point I'm going to do my think-aloud read through the piece, marking my comments in brown. I don't intend these to be corrections, though I will point out any places where I was confused.

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The night that Al'sea **[I think it's good to have fantasy names early, because it gets us looking around for the clues we need to understand the world.] was found, the journey Priestess Cen'sea **[This was the first point where I got confused, and I think it was for two reasons: one, the similarity between Cen'sea's name and Al'sea's name (and the fact that I'm not sure which we're following more closely at this point), and two, the fact that on first read-through I had read "journey" as the subject of the sentence, and not as part of the Priestess' title.] had already traveled more than two days in the blistering cold **[this is nice and tangible!] to reach her destination.**[So has she reached her destination at this point? It's not clear.] The fact that she saw Al'sea at all was something of a miracle**[I wonder if the intervention of gods in this world will be simply referred to, or actually witnessed]; the child's pure white skin, bone white hair and white shift**[I wonder how Cen'sea judges this - is it normal for people? I'm guessing not, but there's no indication of exactly how unusual her coloration is.] blended perfectly with the mounds of snow pushed aside along the path **[ah, so we don't have roads. This pushes me a bit towards a medieval technology model]. If a stray beam of moonlight had not glinted off of the strange silver dots above Al'sea's left eyebrow **[This stands out as a "special mark" and makes me access my "finding the chosen one" plot model.], Cen'sea was sure the child would have stayed in the drift until the spring.**[I was a little unclear on whether this meant the child would actually have survived the experience. Probably not, but when magic is in a world, more things are possible.]

Luck was Al'sea's pup **[This is a really interesting expression, but given that it's not being used directly "luck was my/her pup" I had trouble parsing it when I first read it, and wondered what pups had to do with the scenario in the snow.] that night however and what Cen'sea thought to be some trader's lost wares **[I like this hint of the economy.] turned out to be a lost waif, barely breathing and cold as ice. Praising Cina for her mercy, **[I like that we see reference to Cen'sea's deity here.] Cen'sea grabbed her blanket from her traveling pack **[This is fun because it talks about technology and also how simple a priestess' belongings are.] and hurriedly wrapped the child in it.

"Call me Moon-crossed **[I like this phrase. I wonder how it relates to her beliefs.] but you weigh little more than a chick child,"**[The "chick" suggests this world's animals. The way she talks makes me guess her older instinctively, though I'm not sure how old she is (old, or just mature).] Cen'sea murmured, rubbing her back as she hefted her upwards. “Kalyea will see to it that you are put to rights, you shall see,”**[The lack of contractions stands out here. Perhaps it is priestly formality.] she continued,**[the joining of these two sentences confused me a bit] naming the Healer conjured images of a warm room and company. “If I do not get us lost that is,” she added wryly.**[I didn't realize until this point that there was any danger of being lost. I thought she was all but arrived.]

The wind picked up in ferocity as Cen’sea struggled through the deepening snow and deeper shadows. Where the Northern Citadel lay, dense forest grew all around,**[I like this sense of the area but I'm not sure whether Cen'sea is currently in the forest, since I haven't seen her remark on trees.] eclipsing the moon **[eclipsing is so specific that I wonder if it is really happening; I think more likely the moon is hidden by the trees. Is it hidden to Cen'sea?] everywhere but at the Citadel itself. Perfect for protection, less perfect for winter season traveling. Later, when relating the story to the High Priestess Cen’sea would thoughtfully linger on the fact that moonlight had been what guided her to the child in the first place.**[Oh, so are we leaving the scene of the child's discovery?]

As she made her way, certain the Citadel was little more than a few more steps in the right direction,**[I hadn't had the impression to this point that she was feeling lost.] Cen’sea whispered to the child. Lullabies from where she grew up, farther west where the Great Northern River lay. **[I really like this. It reveals character as well as world culture and geography.] When those ran out, she recited winter season devotionals from her novice years at the Citadel. **[This is lovely too.]“Though I find these as boring now as I did then little one,” she said with a sharp bark of laughter.

Occasionally the child stirred, murmuring incomprehensively before burrowing further into the blanket and Cen’sea’s shoulder. Cen’sea would adjust her weight then, and scan the horizon for signs of the Citadel’s gates.**[I like this hint of the Citadel architecture, but I'm still wondering if she's in the forest or not. Surely if she were, she wouldn't see the horizon?]

Thus far she had managed to follow the path mostly by feel and by locating each glowing orb that marked the path to the Citadel.**[If she's lost, there must not be many of these. I wonder why not.] The orbs never went out, never faltered or flickered, but burned a dull blueish light all around the clock **[this is a nice piece of world information saying that they use clocks as well as magic] to guide travelers to their destination no matter the time or season.**[I like this also because it suggests seasons are meaningful to these people, as well as just time.] They were known as the Orbs of Cina and only the High Priestess knew how to make them work.**[I'd like to have a little hint here of what Cen'sea thinks of them. That they are amazing? That she wants to learn how to make them work? That there are too few?]
***

I really like a lot of what is going on in this piece. I particularly like how much social and other information (like the clocks) is coming in with the language used. What I'm having trouble with is anchoring on the local level because of (very few) points of ambiguity in the text, like the priestess' title, and because I can't be quite certain how Cen'sea's position relates to more general information about the location (like the forest and the orbs). The fantasy context is a lot of fun to work with but has disadvantages for a writer because of the sheer number of possibilities available. Thus, our sense of the fantasy world can come into play very quickly, but from that point on we're looking for specific types of anchors to tell us things like whether magic or deities are actively at work in the world, what kind of technology is being used, etc. The possibility of events outside the normal can create ambiguities about what is going on - ambiguities that would not exist if we had an established real-world context. Thus, part of the challenge of working with fantasy worlds is not just opening doors into possible avenues, but also closing them (usually, closing more than we open!).

Thanks again for submitting, Lexie, and for your patience - I hope you find my comments helpful.

I welcome any constructive comments.