Beauty and the Queef: Worldbuilding from the Ground Up

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Photo courtesy of the worthy unsplash.com

Your character is a beautiful and sassily intelligent half-elf half-whatever. She wears a simple green and grey dress. She throws daggers, because she’s kind of a tomboy. She goes hunting with the guys (even though, interestingly, she always seems freshly showered, and the closest thing to stench she collects is a ladylike sheen of sweat, generally ‘on her brow’.) Her hair is a ‘waist long mass of auburn curls’. Her eyes are green–insert sparkling or emerald here. And she’s slender. Always, ALWAYS slender.

That’s all well and good, I suppose. It’s so utterly, boringly saccharine I’m scheduling another dentist appointment as we speak, but okay.

Here’s where my question comes in. What does this have to do with anything?

In a movie, I might be transfixed by your character’s glistening eyes, her auburn curls, the faint blush of her alabaster cheeks (we’re going to call her Princess Caddywampus. Why? Because we can). The alarmingly even tan on her long and well-muscled legs. In a literary document of some 100,000 words, however, I have better things to contemplate. At least, I hope I do. If I was reading for beauty, I’d pick up a copy of Cosmo. Beauty is all well and good, but I don’t need to slog through a page and a half of what your character looks like.

Pure and simple truth of it is, even if you didn’t describe how Our Fair Princess looks at all, people would provide their own visual image as they read. Some basic details–hair color, maybe eye color, general dress, height, etc.–can be inserted as the story goes, as they’re relevant. And if they’re inserted, they better be relevant.
Again, folks, we’re talking cause-and-effect characterization. You will find I talk about this a lot. I talk about it because I believe in it. So should you.

Take this example:

1) Princess Caddywampus is a beautiful red-headed half-elven maiden who likes to go hunting with the guys. This leads us through:

A) What kind of effect has being beautiful had on her life? Does she have an uncomfortably long line of suitors? Are some of them assholes? Do the ladies of the court make up cruel shit about her, because they think she’s just too beautiful to be a genuinely nice person?
B) For that matter, IS she a nice person? She’s very attractive royalty, come on. I bet this bitch hasn’t had to lift a finger for herself in twenty goddamn years. She probably has people falling all over themselves to help her (except, of course, for those vicious court ladies). But wait a second, she goes hunting with the guys. So she has some friends–or maybe they’re just hoping to get in her pants. Either way, she’s hunting out in private, so she probably has a somewhat humble nature. Therefore:
C) Something’s made her this way, in spite of what you’d expect. Maybe it’s the vicious gossip of those court women. Maybe her not-so-wicked father named her Caddywampus when she exited her mother’s womb and, being so pretty, blinded the attending physician. As a result, she’s had to go through life with this awkward-stupid name, and she just knows everyone is secretly laughing about it. Maybe she was ugly as a kid. Hell, maybe she got secret magical corrective surgery, and this whole damn story is about her dealing with her body issues. But this is the main crux of your story, right here–whatever has made her so shy is good inner conflict. It’ll also make her grow.

So now we know a little bit about the delectable Lady Caddywampus. And that’s great. I’m thrilled as a fat kid in a jumper made of cupcakes.

However, I’m still bored.

Let’s take this to the next level. The fantasy writer level. The level that keeps you from tossing away your golden quill and taking up the matte black spacepen of mystery/thrillers. And that level is, of course:

What does this princess being so beautiful and red-headed and stuff mean in the context of her world?

This is where you get to some true-blood, magnum opus, final-words-recorded-for-posterity shit.

The best world-building, in my not so humble opinion, is never done from the top down. It doesn’t start with a map, or a government system, or a pantheon of gods. It starts with you, killer. It starts with you thinking of something small–one character, one place, even a brief scene–and extrapolating. You’ll have to use your imagination, of course. But if that’s a problem, technical writing has a place for you. Your iPad owner’s manual will be a bestseller.

I don’t think the job of a fantasy or sci-fi writer is really to come up with something new. Entirely new is unappealing because we have no idea what the fuck it is. This is why, perhaps, fantasy and sci-fi remain very formulaic. We know all about being on a journey, searching for validation, finding friends in odd places, growing up and accepting responsibility. In literary fiction, that’s what you call this stuff. In fantasy, f’rinstance, ‘growing up and accepting responsibility’ might come in the form of ‘Prince Arkansas goes on quest for the legendary Blooded Scarab, has to do difficult shit and learn more about himself than he’d really like to know, comes home and becomes King’. A journey might be a quest to get rid of a certain Ring (hint: there’s only One of ’em). Your ‘unlikely friends’ might be telepathic spiny water creatures living under the ice of Europa.

But these basic stories are, essentially, the same in any genre. And the trick about them is, your main character has to learn something from them. Otherwise, why write fiction? Write biography. There are plenty of people in this world who don’t learn shit the entire time they’re alive.

This is why, to me, a fantasy/SF writer builds milieu and plot and everything from a fucking character, even more so than your regular ol’ writer. A fantasy/SF writer has the unique opportunity of building a world, to order, in which all the facts reinforce the main lesson your character is learning. When done correctly, this is powerful.

Get me? Your cool creatures and magic weapons and majestic magelords better be the way they are for a reason.

To reinforce this, let’s return to the plight of our tragically lovely someday-to-be-majesty Caddywampus. What do we have so far?

1)She’s beautiful. This has caused some friction in her life, because if it made her life too easy she wouldn’t be able to learn anything, and would therefore be static and uninteresting.
2)She’s a slender, green-eyed, half-elven redhead.
3)She goes hunting with the guys, because she’s cool like that.

There’s a lot of stuff to pick from here, to start building your world with. I’m going to choose the red hair, because my hair is red and goddammit, I want to.

Maybe–and this is just the sound of me drinking–maybe a redheaded elf is extremely rare in the land of Arglefargle, where Caddywampus is from. Maybe most elves are blonde and blue-eyed. King Crispus, Caddywampus’s rakishly good-looking but strangely stolid father, knows why this is, of course–her mother (kept a mystery from the general courts) was actually a human woman.

This tells you a few things right off the bat. Humans and elves obviously don’t interbreed much. Why?

Maybe there’s some great law against it. Personally, I don’t like that. I don’t want Caddywampus’s father to become more interesting than she is, and a lawbreaker for love and passion is pretty interesting. In fact, let’s go with something that makes the missing mother cooler. This might give us a little more info on The Caddywamps–maybe she’s very curious about her mother, because all she knows about her is that her human mother did this brave-ass thing to be with her dad.

Let’s say humans and elves don’t interbreed because there’s a magical wall of hot cheese around Arglefargle, and the humans live beyond it. Elves, by the way, are horribly lactose intolerant, and fart like a well-fed Boston terrier when exposed to the smallest drop of cheese.

Because Caddywampus grew up with the elves, she doesn’t really know that humans aren’t like that. After all, the most she’s heard about it is all the elven priests praying to the Goddess Beenoh to spare them from the Mighty Winds, and the sound of her father in the bathroom at night after he accidentally ingested half a teaspoon of powdered milk. (How did the powdered milk get there in the first place? Elves like their dignity, and nobody likes farting like a Boston terrier. This could be another plot point. Maybe it’s considered an extremely dangerous substance, religiously forbidden, and Caddy herself stole it from the house of the single human beggar woman in Arglefargle on a dare from one of those boys she goes out hunting with. Dad saw the vial sitting on a countertop and thought it was salt. Maybe this has really strained (YES, strained) the relationship between Caddy and Crispus, her dad.

Now, Caddywampus already feels a little weird in Arglefargle. She’s the only redhead in the land, and there has been much speculation (cue those obnoxious court ladies) on The Manner of Her Birth. Crispus has sworn her to secrecy regarding her human side–he’s a bit of a conservative, and he’s worried about what his people would think if they knew his missing wife had been a human who crossed the dreaded Brielin Wall to be with him. (Hell, let’s call this the Cambertian Curse–if even the suspicion of cheese is cast on an Aglefarglian monarch, his crown is forfeit. And Crispus likes his crown.)

Caddy feels so out of place, in fact, so estranged from her father, that on one of those one-of-the-guys hunting trips, she tells her friends the forbidden secret, that she’s actually half-elven. Being younger men, they’re awed–half human, you? No! Humans are imaginary!–and, of course, promptly dare her to eat the rest of that vial of powdered milk to prove it. Because they’re boys. And she’s one of them.

Caddy’s half human, sure. But she’s only half. She sucks down that sweet powder, waits a second or two, and farts so hard her hair turns brown.

Well, she fucked up pretty big. She is now most definitely and obviously touched by that Cambertian Curse, and as soon as somebody sees her she knows she’ll be declared an invalid heir to the entire Arglefarglian populace. Dad won’t understand, he’s too busy covering his own ass (with TOILET PAPER, because Caddy left the bottle out. Heh. Sorry, ignore that).

So what does our intrepid princess do? Hair veiled, Caddywampus braves the Brielin Wall to find the one person she thinks might be able to help her–her mother.

All sorts of things can happen then. Maybe an assload of human men fall in love with her beyond the wall. Maybe she has to learn about love the hard way, and how shitty people can really be when they’re smiling at you and kissing your hand. Maybe she meets her mother, all these expectations built up inside her, and discovers that, hell, any human could walk through that wall. They don’t because they’ve all gotten too fat from eating readily-available cheese. (Mom used to be on a diet. She gave all that up when she lost her well-paying job, and had to start eating wall-cheese like everyone else). Having discovered her mother is even more useless than her father, maybe Caddy goes home, gives the middle finger to the Cambertian Curse, and says screw you, I’m doing this ruling thing anyway.

This is all totally off the top of my head. I took up five minutes or so of your valuable time with it because I think it shows, very well, how an entire world can blossom from a few meager facts. You’ve got a redheaded half-elven princess who goes hunting with the guys, and suddenly you have a religion, a system of government, and interpersonal conflict. You have societal stratification (I note that human woman uno was a beggar in Arglefargle, and only the poor humans Beyond eat wall-cheese) and immense possibility for growth and learning. Our disgustingly lovely Caddywampus even got a personality. So did her dad and her friends.

You don’t create a world by ticking things off a list. You create a world by dreaming up the people who live in it and then, for as long as it takes, living with them.

Think about your own world for a minute. Maybe the stop sign on the corner has been knocked over for two months–is this because your local government is broke? Maybe you have a poor highway department? Or maybe Mrs. Brantwell’s son Brian keeps running into it. He’s always driving drunk, mostly because his dad left four years ago and he had to quit high school so he could get a job and help support his family.

But the story doesn’t start with your government’s failings, or the nymphomaniac in charge of Highways and Roads who’s too busy sleeping with Brian’s dad to authorize a new stop sign. It starts with the stop sign. It starts with you, one person with a limited view of the world.

If this is the way you see your world, shouldn’t you see the world you’re creating the same way?

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