“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”
-George R. R. Martin
Martin’s quote up there has resonated with me for some time. For awhile after I read it, a little bit before I entered college, I agonized over which of these types of writers I was. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both kinds. Gardeners draw you in and craft some of the most organic characters in the field of literature, because you follow along with them and discover things as they do. They may not always have the best endings out there, but they’re about the journey. And really, the journey is one of the best reasons to read a book, watch a movie or play a game. Even something with a truly abysmal and nonsensical ending doesn’t invalidate everything that came before. It may make subsequent re-reads a little more painful knowing that things are going to take a downturn, but still.
Architects always bring to mind the Big Idea SF of the golden age, where you have a brilliant scientist inventing or discovering something that will Change The Way The World Works Forever, and he goes about doing just that as the story zips around and explores the impact on every facet of human life… usually with a very flat cast of characters. There are exceptions to the rule, obviously, but architectural writing is very planned out and I think it shows. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, any more than the randomness that can crop up in gardener writing. The most egregious examples of either will get ironed out during the editing process, of course.
For the longest time, I think I tended to come down on the architect’s side of things. I grew up reading a lot of Tolkien, a lot of Herbert, Leiber, Moorcock, men who very meticulously planned out worlds and made sure that the details all lined up before letting their protagonists out to explore. The kind of guys who wrote the ending first, and then the beginning, and then took a look at what happened between the two places. Curated worlds that were just as alive as the characters who inhabited them (if not more so).
As I’ve gotten older and exposed myself to a wider range of literature, I’ve come to regard myself as kind of a hybrid, though.
I still love worldbuilding. I love it to the point where I consider it a negative character trait of mine. I get completely caught up on the minutia of a set piece and flesh out stuff that the reader is never actually going to see. The rationalization is that as long as I’m writing with those rules in mind, the setting will adhere to a certain kind of internal consistency even if it is a place with unnatural elements. People may be able to rip the dead from the earth and render them down into ectoplasmic batteries, or channel the energy of long-dead elemental gods, but they still have to follow the rules. I take it too far when I start getting into the really trivial stuff about the civilizations and geography of the world, the flora and fauna that may not even show up in a given story. I might make up an entire nomadic culture background because one character belongs to such a tribe, and s/he is the only member of it that actually shows up and said background isn’t really explored over the course of the story. It still influences how the character will react to a new setting so alien to what they grew up in.
What I like to do is build a really intricate world, and a bunch of cultures, and their religions, and their customs. Make a history for them. Figure out why they warred with one another, why they stopped, how they spread and changed from nation-state to empire to republic over hundreds of years. Changes in their religion, how it impacted the magic system and vice versa. Bleedover between different groups, what they borrow and steal from each other.
Then blow it all up and see what grows over the ruins.
It’s a tremendous amount of fun to have set up this world, and then a catastrophe, and then to skip ahead a little bit and let the characters discover it as forgotten history and folklore. You get to play around with unreliable narrators and share in the joy and terror of discovery alongside the characters.
I’m a student of history, and it goes beyond academic interest into pleasure reading and hobby for me. There are dozens of history blogs and aggregates I check on a regular basis. Atlas Obscura, Stuff You Missed In History Class, Ancient Foods, The Fairytale Traveler, History of the Ancient World, and The History News Network to name a few. It is absolutely staggering how little we know about what came before us, how much new stuff we discover on a weekly if not daily basis. With all of the technology and entire scholarly fields dedicated to it, we have to revise long-held notions on the regular. Imagine doing that within a fantasy setting and stumbling across concrete proof that shatters cultural norms. In the modern day, finding that a higher percentage of viking settlers/raiders than originally thought were female is mainly of interest to academia and a small number of historical writers who might deal with stories in that era. Take a viking analogue in a fantasy setting and have a fact like that uncovered just a few generations after they gained notoriety and vanished from the coasts. Potential societal upheaval in a male-dominated feudal society where women are told they can’t fight – all of a sudden there’s proof that women can not only fight, but made up half a group that sacked heavily guarded villages and… I don’t know, used bizarre salt and seaweed magic and summoned spectral hounds alongside the men. You could do an entire novel just about the sudden surge in women wanting to train in the art of combat and integrate into the standing knightly ranks, and that’s assuming you’ve copypasted traditional western European social norms to start. There’s tons of permutation to run with the concept just based off one discovery.
Which leads me to my second geek-out.
I, like many, many nerds across the world am watching the new season of Game of Thrones right now, learning new stuff as it pulls ahead of the books I read for years. Don’t worry, no spoilers present in this post. I’ve also spent some of my pleasure reading time going back over the Hellboy comics saga and something has stood out to me about both. They both have mythologies at war with other ones, religions with texts written by the victors of previous struggles. Completely unreliable stuff.
I really like unreliable mythology. An unfortunate plot device in modern fantasy writing is to take one pantheon and have the entire setting acknowledge its existence. If you’re really lucky you might get two at perpetual war with one another, usually some pagan setup versus a monotheistic stand-in for a blend of ancient Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Sometimes you may have a pantheon interpreted slightly differently by various cultures, so that one god is the thundergod of different names in different geographical regions but he actually exists and it’s the same guy going by some pen names.
One of my absolute favorite things about A Song of Ice and Fire is that it subverts this. Lots of other novels have subverted high fantasy notions of chivalry, of stark good and evil, of combat and prophecies. Westeros is one of the best settings I’ve seen to subvert religions. You’ve got the First Men who came to the continent and waged bloody war against the dryad/elf-like natives before signing a peace treaty and adopting their gods, the all-seeing white trees. You’ve got multiple waves of conquerors pouring in and attempting to rewrite the religious standards of the territory because that’s one of many very useful tools in imperial conquest. Blot out the native cultures’ gods and make it very clear that your deity can beat their deity up, or even better that their deity never actually existed. We don’t actually know if the old gods in this setting existed or if they were something else that the first men misunderstood to be divine. They obviously have some power, as evident by the greenseers, but that could just be the greenseers themselves having latent magic. Same with the red priests of R’hllor. We’ve seen bizarre flame magic and resurrection and visions, but half the time their prophecies are screwed up and don’t work, or are badly misinterpreted. You get the sense that their god isn’t as powerful as they claim. And then you have the religion of the Seven, brought in by the second most recent wave of invaders before the Targaryens came in. The Seven have been shown to be completely toothless in comparison to every other instance of divine power in the series, and are rather blatantly used to control the superstitious lower classes while the rulers ignore the holy rules up until it suits them to do differently.
And that’s just the stuff explored in depth in the show, before you get into the more detailed passages from the books with the Drowned God, the Storm God, the Moonsingers, the Weeping Lady, the Lady of Spears, the Many-Faced God. There’s just enough supernatural crap floating around to make you wonder if these beings are real, or if they’re phenomenon that men and women have attributed divine aspects to in an attempt to humanize them and try to placate. Quite a few of them are mutually exclusive and claim that the others don’t exist, and when you see evidence of both, well… It adds as much to the drama and tension for me as the mortal power plays around the Iron Throne.
Hellboy does some similar. You’ve got one creator being, “God” for lack of better term, and various layers of divine watchers and messengers and meddlers created over hundreds of thousands of years. Instead of a traditional angelic rebellion story, you’ve got one of the firstborn watchers stealing the holy fire from the heart of God and creating the Ogdru Jahad as his equal or greater, and all the other watchers had to come together to seal it away. That is all a footnote in the overarching story of the series, where various world mythologies duke it out for supremacy or try to isolate themselves and rule absolutely within their own little sphere. It takes the all myths are true approach in a very unique way. There are Lovecraftian-inspired cosmic horrors out there, and the various other factions align themselves with either freeing them or keeping them sealed away or just not caring. Hell is actually created when three watchers team up and murder the one who created the horrible Ogdru entities in the first place, and apparently kinslaying is higher on the sin list than spawning reality-munching void entities because the creator throws together the pits of hell just to house these three, their followers and other supernatural entities they can poach from the world.
There are other urban fantasy stories that take the kitchen sink approach to world mythologies, but I think Hellboy is my favorite because these factions have very human reactions to their situation. Innsmouth-inspired frogmen, old Celtic fairies, Russian undead, the twisted descendants of the Hyperborean age trying to bring back their golden cities, various demigods and goddesses who fall into different camps, none of them at open war with the other but more of a running cold war over whether or not these primordial beings should be released. And none of them really know what will happen if that release comes. Some think reality will be unmade and they seek that oblivion, others think that the world will be remade and the next race of man will thrive, still others think they can strike a deal and be spared the purging to rule the next iteration of the cosmos. It’s really great, an epic scope of mythological characters who feel very human in their goals and none of whom are necessarily right. They’ve each got chopped up bits of prophecy and can’t cooperate long enough to put them together and figure the whole thing out.