Bryant & May: World-Building For Beginners Part 1

Christopher Fowler

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; Nothing supernatural 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?    


Dave Kearns (not verified) Wed, 10/07/2019 - 14:47

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Terry Pratchett's Discworld, an internally consistent worldview with a tangential relationship with our own.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 10/07/2019 - 18:03

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P.G. Wodehouse - several different worlds, in fact, though characters could cross from one to another.
Saki - not unlike Wodehouse, but grimmer. The apocalypse is in store for Saki's characters; Wodehouse's have survived it.
The worlds of Henry James - James I, James II and James the Old Pretender.

Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 10/07/2019 - 20:33

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I was afraid to mention Discworld, but it was the first thing to spring to mind. As you say, every author has some sort of created world in mind. A number of mystery writers have worlds where nothing basic is done. Agatha Christie's world is full of home bound wives, retired military men (and what funds those quiet lives, not just military pensions I'm betting), clergymen who seem always ready to see anyone, and people wealthy enough not to have to keep office hours. Having characters who are available at any moment makes an author's life easier but it sure puts a heavy load on the servants. We don't have servants much any more so modern authors have to arrange some sort of work around - holiday trips, part time work, unemployment, or the type of income that relies on personal timetabling: acting, painting, and writing for example. One work around involves investigators visiting work sites and you particularly see this on tv: the shop where a suspect works, the school, office or whatever where a brief interview can take place in a secluded corner or, in the case of schools, between classes. (I may well be listening closely but when it's a school I'm looking at hallway postings, classroom decor, and staff room environment.)

Ian Mason (not verified) Wed, 10/07/2019 - 22:03

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This list could become very long because the authors I find most satisfying are world builders, but here's a few: Ray Bradbury - Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ian Banks - The Wasp Factory, Mervyn Peake - Gormenghast et. seq., Phillip K Dick - A Scanner Darkly, John Brunner - The Shockwave Rider, Ursula Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness, Norman Juster - The Phantom Tollbooth (nominally a children's book, but don't jump to conclusions, it's a long swim back).

I'll stop there as this is in danger of just becoming a list of the non-crime fiction on my bookshelf, those last four are almost contiguous on my bookshelf, punctuated by the likes of Alan Garner, Neil Gaiman.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Wed, 10/07/2019 - 23:30

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When I was young the Sherlock Holmes stories did it. And the William books.

snowy (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 00:48

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[Straight to the deeply unfashionable!]


The core story is as old as time, but the scope is vast.

[Film versions with very unfortunate appearances of former School teachers in rubber underpants not withstanding.]

Rachel Green (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 07:00

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Neil Gaiman's American Gods / Anansi Boys

David Ronaldson (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 07:06

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Possibly an odd one springing to mind, but the Hong Kong in Paul Theroux's novel, Kowloon Tong. The novel is oppressive in a way the city state can be: hot and humid. The book is packed full of food imagery and with a very strong sense of having China just across the border. I spent some time in Hong Kong at the time the novel is set; just before the "Chinese Takeaway" and it brought it all flooding back, only with a darker edge.

Oh, and The Lord of the Rings. There, I said it.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 07:41

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The P.G. Wodehouse "Jeeves and Wooster" and "Blandings Castle" novels. Also anything by R. F Delderfield, esp The 2 volume saga of life near Croydon between the wars-"The Dreaming Suburb" and "The Avenue Goes to War". Also, most of Norman Collins. He has been described as "the Dickens of the 20th Century" and his "London Belongs to Me" does read like how Dickens might attempt a modern soap-opera. He was also involved in Associated Television, ie bringing adverts to British TV, but let's not hold that against him.

Andrew Holme (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 07:42

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Hard to disagree with some excellent selections. I'll throw in 'The Mennyms' series by Sylvia Waugh, an outstanding example of stories set in our world - but not quite our world. When I read the first book and came to the reveal about the Mennym family, I had to put it down for a moment and reflect. The books explore quite profound notions of death, loss and identity. Later books in the series as the Mennym family are hunted by the bad people, I found quite challenging and uncomfortable. Written for kids! Give them a go.

David (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 08:00

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On a smaller stage, Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth novels create an alternative welsh seaside town with a darkness Ivor Emmanuel never sang about. Who knew that Wales fought and lost a war of rebellion in Patagonia in the 1980's ?

Mike (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 08:56

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Joe Abercrombie- First Law series
Christian Cameron- Killer of Men series.
Patrick O'Brian- Aubrey & Maturin
All series I find myself absorbed into. One day I'll start talking like the protagonists. As long as I don't start fighting duels I should be OK

Liz Thompson (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 09:11

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Le Guin's Always Coming Home, all her books seem to have distinctive world creations. I'd support Discworld and your Bryant & May's London too.

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 12:34

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Having lived in Swansea, Malcolm Pryce's alternative is very close to the reality of dark goings on and Welsh sirens (the female type), the SW Walian psyche being a dark, turbulent and deep one. Pratchett's world is actually several, albeit linked IMO, and the Ankh Morpork of the Watch is probably the most internally consistent, with tales of Granny Weatherwax second.
I always thought that Ballard's limited characterisation was consistent with the view than humans were puny pawns in the face of the forces of nature or catastrophe.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 15:54

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The ultimate example of authors creating a world must be Borges's "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", when a group of eccentrics imagine and create the encyclopaedia of an imaginary world with different laws of nature, which then begins to take over the "real" world.

Ken Mann (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 09:40

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With reference to welsh sirens, I wish I could remember which island it was that had signs in several languages saying "pay attention to the sirens, they are there for your protection" and the English translation says "pay attention to the mermaids, they are there for your protection".

Naomi (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 10:02

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Getting started in on a series that builds its own world is wonderful, I have to mention Stephen Kings the Dark Tower because I devoured every minute of that journey. Besides finding a series, I love finding a single book that manages to drop me into new worlds, i'm right there with my fellow characters, for better or worse. The light at the end, John Skipp and Craig Spector, No one gets out alive, Adam Nevill & Havoc junction by Joe Donnelly, these are all fun excursions into expertly painted other worlds for me.

Ian Luck (not verified) Fri, 12/07/2019 - 18:30

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I'm very fond of John Connolly's beautifully dark 'Charlie Parker' novels. You can 'see' the characters and locations, and I've never had to backtrack pages to check something. There most definitely are supernatural elements to these stories, but not to the detriment of the plot, and nor are they 'shoehorned' in to add interest or momentum, but are there because they need to be there. Connolly's short horror stories (Nocturnes 1&2) are well worth a few hours of your time, too.

Tremendously unfashionable, and definitely not one iota PC, are the books of Dennis Wheatley, who was fond of writing series featuring reocurring characters, and my favourites are the ones featuring the prototype James Bond character, Gregory Sallust, whose adventures start in the mid 1930's, then through the war years, and, unusually for a fictional character, continue to the 1960's, where, in the novel : 'The Witch Of The South Seas', Gregory Sallust dies of old age. Nothing magical or supernatural in it: the poor old sod is just worn out.
A quick mention, too, for Charlie Higson's 'Young James Bond' books. Good enough to be considered canon by EON productions, and the estate of Ian Fleming - material from them was used in the movie 'Spectre' (as was material from Kingsley Amis' 'Colonel Sun'), they are a hell of a good read. Charlie Higson had previously written four very dark, and in places, terrifying novels, completely at odds with what we knew him for - many daft characters in 'The Fast Show', or further back, as singer in the great Norwich 'Manic Funk' band, The Higsons.
Higson's 'Young James Bond' books are surprisingly adult in tone, containing some eye-watering violence (a badly injured hitman who spends a lot of time wandering round with part of his skull flapping about, just held on by a bit of scalp, anyone?), and great, improbable rescues, and huge damage to property, etc. If you haven't read the original Fleming novels, then you are going to miss out a lot of the foreshadowing, and indeed, jokes in the books. Like the original novels, the Higson ones should be read in order. Another writer wrote some more stories after Higson, but they were nowhere near as good, either in tone, or detail. Where Higson left off, with Bond's (necessary) expulsion from Eton, is the perfect place to leave him, I think.

Jan (not verified) Sat, 13/07/2019 - 06:32

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Recently read Khoury's time traveller "what if" novel from 2017 "The Ottoman Conspiracy"

I really did enjoy it and found the Ottoman Paris and earlier Vienna he created really exceptionally put together. The research was detailed the novel and it's alternative reality were well put together and sort of more than that in a way the alternative reality was very, very believable. It didn't seem that big a jump from our world to the world the novels characters inhabited.

A few months back I got v. interested in the alternative realities historians had slung to together hingeing around ?s like "What if King Harold had succeeded at Hastings but failed against the Norse Men instead of their offspring the Normans? There's lots of these what ifs about. Whole topics on the interweb devoted to this stuff. Jonjo pulled me back in the end told me how crazy it all was but was bloody interesting I'll tell you.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 13/07/2019 - 17:20

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PBS is currently showing The Man Who Would be Bond, a "life" of Ian Fleming during WWII. I am sure large swathes of it are real enough and I agree that writers are entitled to embellish situations for their own purposes, especially when their subjects are safely dead, but I really do wonder at the amount of violent sex they put into this story line. I'm sure part of it is a form of Fleming's wish fulfillment but it is confusing for the viewer. There's something rather nasty about creating some sort of imaginary world to replace a real world that was violent and dangerous enough for anyone.
I'm just wondering.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Mon, 15/07/2019 - 13:25

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I love Phillip K. Dick's idea of kipple taking over, the whole idea of entropy of a city I always liked.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers gives a lovely creation of time travel and a form of steampunk in that there London, the whistled tune was a great way to get the plot moving.

William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland creates a wonderful claustrophobic place that links different worlds.

Shirley Jackson's We have Always lived In the Castle and the Haunting of Hill House, put me in a different closed in world.

Chandler's world for a hard boiled Marlowe and Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster's world are splendid places to visit for different reasons.

Ian, Faintly Macabre, the not so wicked witch is one of my favourite characters.

I could go on and often do, but I think I'll leave it there for now.


Ian Luck (not verified) Mon, 22/07/2019 - 07:06

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William Croft Dickinson wrote many beautifully dark and troubling short stories, all imbued with a tremendous sense of place - in his case, the wilds of Scotland. He writes so well, that you are there, after a few lines. His novel for children, 'Borrobil' is simply wonderful - I've ordered a new copy, not having read it since I was seven or eight. Any of the books by 'BB' are worth reading, especially 'The Little Grey Men', 'Down The Bright Stream', and 'The Forest Of Boland Light Railway'. About as perfect as children's books get, but with some proper darkness and threat mixed in. Also, and dreadfully un P.C., are the '------- Of Adventure' books by Enid Blyton. Full of detail, ideas and sometimes barking mad, I still love reading these. They don't beat about the bush, or pander to the easily frightened child - sometimes, the kids in them are in mortal danger, and might die. The bad guys they encounter will kill them if they can, as they are unimportant children sticking their noses in where they shouldn't.

Michelle (not verified) Mon, 22/07/2019 - 08:58

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Quick Trumpesque fact check- The novel of Big Little Lies was set in Australia. The HBO series relocated it to Monterey.