Image to Idea, A Practical Example to Illustrate the Argument, Episode 1 (Worldbuilding Wednesday 4)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

This is a long arc discussion of world building, spread over multiple installments throughout 2016 (if all goes as planned). I’m not trying to write 3 pithy posts that encapsulate everything in 1000 words each (although those can be valuable as well). So expect me to take my time as I mosey through my thoughts and my experiences, and trundle in a few guest posts besides so you can get a different perspective on specific topics.

I’ve been thinking for a while of writing a standalone fantasy novel (STOP LAUGHING), one not set in any of my other worlds. I’ve been far too busy working on major projects to have time much less the mental energy and space to start building a new world (except for the space opera I’m working on, on the sly). But a few months ago I got the most basic flickering of an idea, and it occurred to me I could use this image as a practical example to work through.

Therefore, periodically during this series I will drop in a practical example, drawing from the original image and slowly expanding it as an example that will perhaps give some insight into how I work through developing an image-idea into a story-ready narrative foundation.

Here’s the image:

The scene I see in my head is an isolated prison, small but massive, sited on a crag with a single window overlooking a cliff face. A woman of about 40 sits in the most heavily fortified and guarded cell. She is relaxed, thinking intently. Footsteps sound, and she tenses. Chains and bars are shifted, the door opens, and a uniformed man of about her age appears. He is a stranger to her, although she notices that he is handsome. She makes a sardonic comment whose hostility is only mildly veiled. He does not react visibly but informs her with utterly correct and borderline insulting politeness that he is there to escort her to . . . .

Look how many world building elements are already present:

1) Crag and cliff suggest a detail about the physical geography.

2) The prison is isolated, not in the middle of a city or near by or adjacent to a population center.

3) A culture that uses prisons as a means of separating out certain people from the main population. Not every culture uses this form of confinement and separation as punishment or control.

This is a perfect example of how a writer can default to familiar sociocultural systems and not think about why they have included them. As an American writer, it would be easy for me to use a version of how I imagine the US prison system, only set in a fantasy world, and that’s fine, if it is what you specifically want to do. But as an alternative, I might stop here to reconsider what might otherwise become generic details and background.

What does this prison represent? Is it an institutionalized prison system, which presupposes a hierarchy, a bureaucracy, law courts, and officials who work to enforce a legal system that may be just or unjust? Is it the private dungeon of a powerful eminence who can imprison people without fear of repercussion, and if so, what gives this eminence the ability to lock away their enemies? Is it a rebel holdout hiding from the authorities, with a key player from the authority’s camp under their control, for now? Are there gods and monsters? Could it be the local version of a mental institution? Is the person inside being sequestered for their own safety? In what other ways might this scene be explained? Grabbing for the first thing that comes to mind can often limit the setting.

4) The prisoner is deemed dangerous or valuable or a pariah (or some other option). In what manner she is deemed dangerous or valuable or a pariah I don’t yet know.  But think how many angles this question offers.

Is her status and that of the uniformed soldier essentially egalitarian, except he works for the authorities and she was imprisoned because she was working against them? Is the society one in which women have legal inferiority, and she is not considered dangerous in and of herself but is being held as a hostage to enforce the compliance of a man who is related to her? Yet she hasn’t been placed under genteel house arrest as would be the case in a world in which women can be more easily subdued by social means or are perceived as not capable of being powerful or valuable enough to need locking up under heavy guard in isolation, whether because of their own power or the power of the people who may want them back.

Possibly her gender has nothing to do with her being locked up or the circumstances of how she has been locked up. Perhaps her religion or ethnicity or class is the key, or a monstrous crime she has committed, or her work as a rebel against the authorities, or her position as an architect of the authority that the oppressed are rebelling against.

5) A man in uniform suggests a bureaucratic social structure. I don’t generally think of scrappy rebels as wearing elaborate uniforms, but maybe they do. I am 100% certain he does not work AT the prison but is an outside person come to the prison with the express purpose of moving her to somewhere else or because her help is needed in solving some problem. So his uniform has already started pushing my head to see this place as representative of a fairly rigid top-down centralized government of some sort that runs this prison, and has imprisoned her for unspecified reasons. But I might change my mind later as I get more information.

6) She reacts to the uniform, not to the man. Therefore there is a bad history there between her and the people who wear those uniforms.

7) She is in solitary confinement. Character-wise, being alone does not bother her, and also suggests at the very least that she finds solitude preferable to being in proximity with the other people and/or guards in this prison.

8) Sardonic comments and politely-veiled hostility between the two characters suggests the potential for sparks to fly. The default here is a heterosexual romance, and I feel I may be headed that way.

9) Will I ever get tired of the trope of men in uniform (or at the very least great clothes)? Evidently not.

10) Thinking about who she is and why she might be in prison and why she might distrust the uniformed man (beyond the obvious reason that he represents her jailers), and why he might display immediate (therefore predetermined) hostility to her, makes me think about what she has been doing during the months or years she has been stuck in the cell. So I tease out a few more details, to try and get my bearings.

The cell is furnished with a simple wood bed, a covered chamber pot, a stand with a wash basin and pitcher, and a small table with a single chair. She is relaxed, thinking intently, and has positioned the table so the angle of light from the air vents in the wall illuminates the tabletop, her hands, ink and quill pen, and a pile of paper, some blank, some tightly filled with a painstakingly precise handwriting and various diagrams.

It is right about here that I realize I want to create a variation on the Prometheus story. I don’t know how or when or why, but that’s the seed of it: The woman being held in prison has done something the Authorities really did not want her to do that involved giving knowledge or skills to people the Authorities never wanted to have that knowledge but can’t take back. Now an outside circumstance has forced the Authorities’ hand: They need her help.

This gives me a conflict. In fact, it is a nested conflict, in which an earlier conflict drives the current conflict. But it also throws up in the air all kinds of questions about the setting. Those will have to be for the next episode of “From Image to Idea,” coming later, whenever I feel it fits in the series.


Next week: Either a guest post from Aliette de Bodard as a companion piece to Inductive vs Deductive (because she works in the opposite manner to me and I think it is always useful to get another angle)


The Map As Theory (if Aliette’s post isn’t ready)

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive or Deductive