Thursday, 18 August 2016

On Writing, World building and Parallel Universes

(source: pinterest)

In my last post about Stranger Things I mentioned that the idea of parallel universes is one that has appealed to me for a long time, especially the possibility of crossing from one world into another. It is that possibility which got me into writing, and one that I inevitably ended up exploring in my novels. Before I share my vision, let me just say that I will explore the idea of a multiverse strictly from a writer's perspective and as someone with an over-active imagination, not as a scientist. I will look at the stories my mind has created for those possible universes, not the facts behind them (fascinating as they are!).

Even as a little girl, chasing imaginary monsters in the garden, I had a very clear idea of what magic was. Yet in all the books I read, no one ever got it right. Every author had their own vision and many executed that vision beautifully, but it was not my magic. Or at least my idea of what magic was. I eventually realised that, if I want to get my magic into the world, I would have to write its story myself. And even though I imagined those powers here, on this earth, my world, I realised that was not where it originated. Before I knew it I was building the world that would have given birth to my magical system, a world I have been working on time and again for nigh on ten years now. I still don't have all the details, because I have not experienced that world yet through the eyes of my characters, but by now it feels easy to pull the right bit of background work into the forefront and show it off. To me, that world feels almost as real as my own. If I close my eyes I can see it, breathe it, feel it.

And even as I see my own world, I wonder if others had the same experience. I have no doubt in my mind that J. R. R. Tolkien saw his Middle-earth as a real place when he created it and continued work on it throughout his lifetime. Are Westeros or Mid-World, or even the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so closely linked with our own, any less real because they appear in fiction titles rather than history books? My rational brain says, yes, they are, but the dreamer inside me insists that they're not. In the eyes of the author those worlds are real, for they have lived them through the experiences of their characters. Even the reader, for a brief period of time, is pulled into those worlds and away from their own. To me, that is enough to make them real.

I see them as worlds bordering ours, invisible to all, but the one who would share it and tell its story. Sometimes that story may take the form of paintings. Sometimes a writer may pick up on one or two people who live in that world, listen to their story and share it with us. I don't know how others catch a glimpse of those distant worlds, but for me it's through dreams and closed eyelids, which is why I imagine the space between those world as nothing but darkness, unlike C. S. Lewis' Wood between the Worlds or the doors and portals used by Stephen King in the Dark Tower series.

A lot of this assumption has to do with the way I write. Friends often hear me say that I am not so much the mastermind behind my novels, but the scribe to my characters. I listen to the stories they have to tell and bring them on paper. It makes me an explorative writer, which means I have a core idea and a rough plot arranged around a basic structure, which I try to follow.That structure is not rigid and may change many times throughout the writing process. In fact, every scene potentially affects how I continue.

Let me give you an example:
When I look at the outlines for my novels, a scene note may simply read: Policeman questions Main Character about Suspicious Event.
I know my goal for that scene, which is to increase the pressure on my main character. I don't know the details of that conversation and I might not even be aware of the conclusion both my MC or the policeman draw once they part ways.
I just start writing, allowing my characters to take the reigns. I generally have a fairly clear idea of who my characters are, but they still manage to surprise me. My main character in this instance, I knew, would play it cool, so I went into the scene with that in mind. I was not as clear on the policeman's personality... that is, until I started writing. Before I knew it, the policeman was pushing my main character into a corner, and my usually collected MC, who always had an answer ready, became quiet and fearful.

Though it may impact everything that happens after that scene, I love it when unexpected things like that happen. I never feel like the story is constrained by my own expectations.In fact, I have had many occasions where my character's reaction proved more fitting to the story and his/her personality at a later time, than my planned reaction would have been.

Some of my writing friends don't work that way. They have the idea, they have the characters, they have the plot, and they have the goal and the structure. They write and they do not deviate from that plan. From the first word until their last, they know what their story is doing and where it is heading. I marvel at that. And I admire people who can work that way.

I find too rigorous planning and structuring limiting. For me the story grows with the telling. Subplots, I did not know existed, may suddenly appear to be woven into the story and polished later. As I write, I leave many things in my characters' hands. They know what is happening next, because to them it already happened. I trust in that as I write and find myself carried away into a world of my own making to find insights I had never imagined and little guiding lights that connect dots I had not even been aware needed connecting. It is what makes writing such a fantastic experience for me. It's a kind of magic that opens the door to places I never knew existed.

When it comes to world building, my approach is similar. I know the basics. For example: I have a rough idea of the social order, the religion/beliefs, the geography, the way of life. In some instances, I may know every detail about something, especially when it came to my magic system, which was the reason the world was created. However, I don't use all of that information, or expand on it, as the case may be, until my character encounters it. In other words, the world exists, but it doesn't come to life until I experience it through the eyes of my characters. Suddenly, there is colour, there is life, and there are tiny little details, more intricate than anything I could have come up with on the spot. Even the magic system was not completed, until I wrote A Study on Magic, an essay written in first person point of view by my main character. It is not something I ever use in the novel itself, but to me, that study is invaluable whenever I think of the ins and outs of power.

I am not sure if there is a right or wrong approach to world building. For me, I don't really see my world as myself, unless I'm working on the nitty-gritty background stuff, like coming up with the geography, or researching superstitions. But that, to me, is structural work. The world does not come alive until I see it through the eyes of my characters - which may end up overthrowing everything I had worked on so far, making dozens of days of research void. But that is the beauty of it.

It is also what makes me believe in other worlds. The portal to those worlds may be a book or a blank page or canvas, but I think parallel worlds can be accessed. The writers and painters of this world are simply the ones who see them first and open the door so that others may follow.

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