Thursday, 9 April 2015

Case Study: World Building with Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb has built a complex and intriguing world for her Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy, Tawny Man Trilogy and Rain Wild Chronicles.  The stories are set in different countries in the same world.  Events in one affect those in another.

This is the part which truly impresses me: the rules for her world stay consistent throughout each novel while still exploring different aspects of the cultures.  Although Bingtown and Buckkeep are as different from one another as, say, Atlanta and Maine, they still feel as though they are part of the same universe.

It’s easy for an author to lose track of all the details they’ve created, particularly when it comes to fantasy worlds.  Remembering how high a dragon can fly or whether or not a particular magic is more potent with or without touch takes dedicated notes.  A reader may go through the series in a matter of weeks, but the author took years to get to the same place.  And also has likely gone through several different versions.

Someone once indignantly posted about a dedicated fan whom George R.R. Martin goes to in order to confirm details.  They complained: how can a fan know more about the series than the author?  The problem is that the author knows all the variations that led up to the final published process.  A character might have had black hair at one point, but the author decided to change it to blonde later.  Then they might change it back.  Four volumes later, it can be hard to remember whether or not the change actually happened.  A convenient source can be a godsend.

Hobb built a very rich world with the initial Farseer Trilogy.  When I picked up Liveship Traders, I initially thought it was an entirely different world, one which was equally rich.  Then I began to notice cues that the two of them actually co-existed.  The details were consistent regarding location, sea and current information, relative cultural views.  It was incredible.

Details like the food, clothing, manners and other minutiae are what make imagined worlds feel real.  They create the illusion of depth and permanency.  Some authors take shortcuts by superimposing a real-world culture on their fictional universe and that can be useful as a starting point, but can quickly begin to feel shallow (if not well-researched) or off-putting (if followed too closely).

Hobb’s world is focused on the sea, for the most part.  Her characters live in coastal trading towns, are subject to sea-raids, piracy and other nautical nuisances.  Bingtown is a trading hub specializing in rare and magical items, but does not have the land to feed its population adequately.  That creates a cultural focus on trade and social obligations.  Buckkeep is a fortress guarding access to the inland rivers and has undergone a period of intense raiding.  Their culture is more military, with a strict feudal system.  The Outislands have poor farming conditions and survive by cross-raiding.  They have strong kinship ties and family obligations.  The Pirate Isles are a relatively new settlement, populated by outlaws and freed slaves.  Their towns have a Wild West feel to them, with every man looking out for himself and much negotiation for larger issues.

The history of each of these location shapes them, just as a character’s individual history shapes their development.  To separate a fictional world from the real world inspiration, then consider how their histories differ.  Without a Julius Cesar, would Rome have switched from a Republic to an Empire?  How would North America look if the Thirteen Colonies hadn’t rebelled against England?

Every time I read Hobb’s work, I’m impressed all over again because I always find some new detail I’d missed previously.  And it all works brilliantly together.

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