In this post we’ll talk about what Brent Weeks does when world building and we’ll see if we can dig up a few examples from his books to go with his creation process.
For me, the world that I enter into when I pick up a fantasy novel is the single most important ingredient that decides if I like the book or not. That said, a lot of us find that building an epic world is a difficult thing to do. How do we serve up the details that create the world that people want to visit over and over again? Let’s see if we can shed a little light on that through the writing of Brent Weeks.
Introduce the World Early
Unlike so many other genres that take place in a world that is very familiar to us, our own world, fantasy (and science fiction) often require huge amounts of additional information (world building) to allow the reader to step into the story that you are creating. While most fantasy novels take place in a Renaissance like era with knights and castles, the fantasy author almost always changes parts of Renaissance history to suit his fictional world and will quite often make large sweeping changes. Cluing us into the culture, period or place in our history (very often the Renaissance era) that your world is modeled after is the first step to good world building. But, in addition to changes in various elements of Renaissance history, the author must usually add to it as well and the additions are what make or break each fantasy world. First make your world like some period in our world and then make the additions that turn that setting into your own unique and hugely awesome world.
Here’s an example of basic world building that comes from the first page, first paragraph of Weeks’ The Way of Shadows revealing to the reader that this story does indeed take place in the good old castles and knights (Renaissance) era by describing something as simple as a tavern.
“Most taverns in the city had dirt floors, but this part of the Warrens had been built over marshland…so the tavern had been raised a few inches on stilts and floored with stout bamboo poles.” — The Way of Shadows
Even though there are taverns in the world around us, if the reader is at all familiar with the castles and knights setting the ‘dirt floors’ and ‘Warrens’ are words that clue us into the setting without a large amount of exposition. True, the setting isn’t definite at this point, but most readers are already assuming castles and knights because of the few clues leading to that conclusion, but especially because there are no other details that set us in a exotic location. This was the first paragraph and already, as a reader, I have a good idea of the world I’m in. The bulk of world building must be done in the first chapter and to keep readers interested it must be done very well.
Brent, in a quote from his own site, said about world building,
“Obviously you want to seed some of the world building earlier so it can pay off later, and you want to fill in enough of the details about the world so it doesn’t seem like your characters are wandering through a fog, disembodied, talking and fighting with each other, but the world should be introduced as it’s important.” — The Way of Shadows
Brent then goes on, in the first chapter of Way of Shadows, to build his world for us, as well as ‘seed’ details to pay off later. He uses ‘coppers’ as part of the money system to link his world in the mind’s of his readers with both Dungeons & Dragons as well as the many other fantasy novels that use coppers. Other words like ‘assassin’ and ‘sword’ further cement us in the castles and knights world that we are so familiar with. But every writer must then take the standard c&k (castles and knights) world and make it his own. And these ADDITIONS are the most difficult part of world building. How many details, how often and of what nature?
Let’s take a look at an example of Brent adding to the standard castles and knights setting.
“If he were braver, he would have looted the bodies in the tavern, but Azoth couldn’t believe Durzo Blint was dead. Maybe he was a demon, like the other guild rats said.” — The Way of Shadows
Let’s go over just what Brent added above to begin making this world his own. Durzo Blint just killed, in record time mind you, a whole slew of guys that wanted to kill him. Sure, we need that kind of action in this kind of book, but where Weeks demonstrates his masterful and subtle skill in world building is in the second sentence from the quote. Let’s dissect the quote a little bit.
By having our young hero question if Blint, a famous assassin in this world, is a demon Weeks does a slew of things at once. First, it shows the youth, inexperience, naivete and thought process of our boy hero. Secondly it firmly alludes to the idea that there are actually demons in this world, furthering the world building by possibly adding real demons. And then, finally, it creates a very powerful aura of danger and supernatural abilities to the Blint character. All of that in five words. Kind of impressive.
The examples go on and on. Create the basic world and then make it yours with selective details added sparsely as needed just as Brent has done in his works. And though Weeks’ worlds aren’t talked about often, they are done with a quiet expertise that all of us should certainly aspire to. Is his the only way to build a very interesting and layered world? Of course not. But, his is done very, very well and should be taken note of by any aspiring writer.