Vision: A Resource for Writers
Finding Ta Taglegebol
By Steven Swain
One problem many Fantasy and Science Fiction authors face is how to give their world the depth and the feeling of solidness that authors of other genres often take for granted. I gave a general overview of the problem and suggestions on how to solve it in Issue 14 of Vision -- http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue14/wbnotall.htm. In that article, I made a comparison between the histories of England, Egypt, and Babylon. The problem with that, of course, is how to make one of your civilizations seem almost as mysterious and ancient as Babylon. I faced that problem myself in one of my novels. I wanted to introduce a certain city almost in passing without spending a lot of time on it. It had to be mysterious, but it had to be known to the reader so that when the story led the character to that general area, the reader would know what the ruins might be.
I chose to make the reference so obscure that the character did not hear about it in everyday conversation. (After all, when was the last time you heard about Babylon in everyday conversation as opposed to Egypt or England?) This limited my options. I finally decided to have the character "come across" a manuscript fragment. How I did this isn't important to this discussion. What is important is this manuscript fragment was very small. I quote it here:
Even I, the author of this paragraph, have several thoughts when I read this. I want to know more. I want to know where Ta Taglegebol was supposed to be. Did it exist? What was the tale? Was the ruler male or female? Was this scroll written when Ta Taglegebol was new or old?
I, of course, needed to answer certain questions for my own knowledge so I could use them later on in the novel. But the reader already knows several things from that paragraph. The city is "lost." It was called Ta Taglegebol. There are many legends about it. The people that lived there are not immortal. (Not always a given with a "lost city" in a fantasy novel.) The city was "run" by a single ruler. The ruler was the ruler of the city, so it was most likely a city-state. Either that, or perhaps the nation/kingdom had the same name. And, finally, it was considered important enough at one time for the editor of something to mention it. And that editor took the evidence that it truly existed seriously.
That's a lot of information, isn't it? It sure didn't seem like it when you first read it, did it? In the article I referenced in the first paragraph, I said that the author needs to be judicious in which facts he doles out. I certainly had to. In fact, I had to restrain myself from actually writing out all the tales of the entire scroll. It would have been fun, yes, but it would have defeated my purpose. I wanted Ta Taglegebol to have the same "aura" as Babylon instead of the "aura" of Egypt, much less that of England.
Of course, given that this was for a novel, I couldn't throw that in without a good reason. Now that my character was aware of Ta Taglegebol I let him find more bits and pieces of Ta Taglegebol as he went along. I tried to be careful in what I had my character find out so that the information was seemingly unrelated except that it related to Ta Taglegebol. Some of the information was less substantial than the manuscript fragment, some of it more substantial.
For example, I had the character find a reference to "the sorcerers of Ta Taglegebol." Later I had the character learn a little bit about Ta Taglegebol's trade. In particular I had him hear about "the ever-sharp knives of Ta Taglegebol." I am obviously simplifying things a little bit for this article, but you can see how with little bits and pieces of information you can have the reader's curiosity increase along with the character's curiosity.
Now, reading this, it may not sound like very much cultural and scenery information is being presented to create "word pictures." But remember we are dealing with Babylon-like amounts of information. To carry the analogy further, I am fitting in the Ta Taglegebol facts along with the much more plentiful "England" and "Egypt" amounts of information. I had the character's home nation and culture be the equivalent of Egypt and the place where he was traveling be the equivalent of England. I had it set up this way so that the reader was finding out the most information about the immediate surroundings and culture. The character's home culture provided the frame of reference that influenced how he perceived the immediate surroundings, but other than that wasn't very important. Therefore it only needed to be the equivalent of Egypt.
I know as well as anyone else how tempting it can be to fill in the blanks just to satisfy my own curiosity if no one else's. Imagine if I had filled in some blanks in that manuscript fragment. This is what it could have looked like:
And then I proceeded to tell at least the tale of the funeral; fascinating information all of it. However, in the end, it proved irrelevant to my purposes. It would have added at least a couple thousand words to my manuscript without any problem apart from the near doubling of the editor's note, but if I did this, Ta Taglegebol would have lost some of its aura of mystery and approached the level of the merely exotic. In that case, I'd have the equivalent of one England and two Egypts. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, of course, but that's not what I wanted.
The key is to decide what level of familiarity you want the character and, ultimately, the reader to have with a given culture. And then -- and here is the tough part -- STICK to it. Don't change it no matter how tempting it is to elaborate on something here, throw in an extra paragraph there, or show off your worldbuilding before you're ready for it. Too many writers I know have to fight the temptation -- with varying degrees of success -- to give the reader all the information they have on a place or character or culture the minute it is introduced. RESTRAIN YOURSELF. Be disciplined. And the rewards you reap will be much more satisfying than the momentary thrill of giving the reader so much information they're convinced Ta Taglegebol is a thriving metropolis next door and the character is a blind idiot for not seeing it.