Bryant & May: World-Building For Beginners Part 1
Which books have created a world for you?
It’s not just for fantasy writers. The creator of every story has to make his or her world convincing. The most extreme examples are practiced by authors like John Crowley, Ursula LeGuin and Paul McAuley, but we all have to do it to different degrees.
The world of the murder mystery series ‘Big Little Lies’ is a good example. Both the book and show have meticulously recreated the world of Monterey tiger-moms, where tension-drenched family life unfolds in a series of status-threatening competitions and eventually result in a death.
But the world we are shown is a trick mirror. It concentrates on the trappings of wealth; the cars, homes and lavish lifestyles, the self-delusion that allows a faux-rustic beach hut to serve soy decaf lattes to stressed-out women as if they were castaways. To create this world it selects what it wants to show you, an idealised Carmel (one of the most boring towns I’ve ever visited) of pristine beaches and perfect lawns. No-one seems to work and nothing practical gets done because we are shown that in this land of lotus eaters human nature is prone to the same dark tragedies. The world is designed to be seductive and sinister.
JG Ballard’s worlds are patently in the here and now, rooted in reality, yet they are in many ways the most extreme of all. Flooding, drought, transformation, alienation, cruelty, coldness and inexplicable violence are natural extensions of our behaviour in this world. Ballard gives his world priority over his characters, in whom he shows little interest. ‘Gormenghast’ encloses the world within a tighter world, a single building in another time and place – and the books lose their power the moment this is opened out in the disastrous third volume.
Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ posed a simple AI question about sentience, but Ridley Scott’s genius was to foresee that the world of ‘Blade Runner’ would be heavily influenced by the Far East. If you’ve been to any tall building in Tokyo you’ll know where the two films are set.
The smallest of stories can show you different worlds – Magnus Mills’ books offer a strange Kafkaesque world of bus timetables and tins of paint, fences and menials failing to do what is asked of them. It is recognisably a different world to ours – and yet part of it.
All writing is about making choices, and designing the rulebook is hardest.
For example, my Bryant & May rulebook includes;
All must be possible
Humour limited to non-violent scenes
Dark/light balance checks
The rules are changing all the time, too, so in 18 years of writing Bryant & May their world has subtly altered. I feel confident enough now to play around with the format, and have toyed with the idea of dropping them quite literally into an Ealing Comedy.
Which books do you feel have most completely created a world for you?