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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Two Kinds of Worldbuilding
Inspired by my recent Two Kinds of Badness post, I thought I might make an occasional series.

Today, I'm thinking about worldbuilding, and once again it occurs to me that there are two kinds of it, which we might call Static and Dynamic.

Tolkien can stand in as my example of the ultimate Static world builder. By this I don't mean, of course, that he didn't develop and revise his world over time, but that, by and large, his aim was to have a world that, as a sub-creator, he could survey and find good: full of detail, self-consistent, multi-faceted. A good static world is one which you can draw maps and write histories of, a landscape you can wander all day, confident that you won't tumble into a bottomless lacuna or fall prey to a contradiction.

The Dynamic world is a zoetrope that has to be kept continually spinning to maintain the illusion of reality. The builder of such worlds is a rhetorician, a magician, a sculptor in ice. They must continually weave new threads to replace the old, which start to fade at the touch of sunlight, and their concern is not the finished product but the performance. J. M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy is perhaps the ultimate example in its virtuoso mercuriality, but you can find elements of it in much less obviously flamboyant writers. Kenneth Grahame's riverbank world makes no sense when you think about it, especially in its interactions with the human (just how big is Toad?), but the pleasure lies in being persuaded not to think about it, or only when the author chooses to prompt awareness, as one astringent element in a highly complex flavour. (If the contradictions become the main point, then of course you have entered the world of metafiction, which is a different fish kettle.)

I love this.

I think it applies to Shakespeare as well. Histories vs. Romances.

Oh yes, that's very true.

I generally tend to prefer the Static worlds which feel solid and real and consistent. I can't, offhand, think of a fantasy written for adults that fits the Dynamic category. If not careful, in children's books it slips into whimsy. Perhaps the adult version is magical realism, which I have to say I don't care for. If anything can happen and there are no rules, there can't really be suspense.

You have to be really sure what you're doing to bring the Dynamic type off, I think: you're right about whimsy being the danger. Of course, it can be done, as the two examples I mention demonstrate - and I might have mentioned Lewis Carroll as another. Perhaps you're right about adult fantasies, though. Douglas Adams, maybe?

The second kind requires a lot of skill, just to keep it from falling apart. Strong characters help

Agreed. Also a strong narrative voice.