I’ve been thinking a lot about worldbuilding recently, mostly on account of having broken the worldbuilding in The Moth Trilogy. Okay, so ‘broken’ seems an odd word to use, but basically I asked a few questions of myself and the whole thing fell apart, so I’m trying to rebuild from the bottom up, which is a slow and intense process.
As a result, worldbuilding is something I’ve been paying attention to in everything I read, and recently I read Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge, which I picked up because I’ve read books by the same author before, and I know her worldbuilding is outstanding. Having read it I thought I’d write out a few thoughts on why it’s good worldbuilding, and if anyone has anything to add about how to create a fictional world, I’ll welcome your thoughts.
It shows rather than explains.
You’ve all heard ‘show don’t tell’, and I guess this is just a variant on that. But what I noticed is that instead of trying to explain how her world worked and why it worked the way it did, Hardinge just let is see it. Instead of an explanation of the cultural differences between the Lace people and the other islanders, we saw their encounters and how they perceived each other.
There was no info-dumping.
This is a related point, but throughout the book the narrative was the most important thing, not a detailed summary of why everything in the world was the way it was. Things were explained as and when they needed to be, and other aspects of the world were just scattered around for the reader to pick up on in a way that showed how much thought had gone into it, but didn’t push it in the face of a reader less interested in that kind of detail.
The different cultures were fleshed out.
Rather than dropping a few stock descriptions into the mix and allowing the reader to construct their own picture based on real-world examples (here’s a tumblr post about that), Hardinge took the time to give the different cultures in the book distinctive traditions, styles of dress, ways of speaking, lifestyles… The result was a world with more depth, colour and believability.
It wasn’t a thinly-veiled representation of our own world.
Some themes will always reflect real life, and characters will always have traits that we can relate to. That’s important. But this fictional world functioned independently of the one we understand, and seemed ‘other’, apart from it, which gave it a much more whimsical and interesting feel.
The narrative was shaped by the world.
Of course it was. Without this world and the way it works, the narrative wouldn’t have happened. It’s about the Lace people and their status within society, and it’s about these mysterious ‘Lost’ people and their powers, and it’s about volcanoes that can communicate and fabric dyed with the ashes of dead people. It isn’t about our world; it’s not a story that would work directly transplanted into our world. The characters are shaped by their environment, even down to simple things like how their names reflect the ideology of their culture. It feels utterly embedded in the world Hardinge has created.
It was consistent.
Which I guess is a standard marker for whether worldbuilding is good: it’s internally consistent, points that are brought up early on don’t mysteriously disappear when convenient, and things that seemed unimportant at first actually turn out to be plot points.
I can’t think of any more individual points about why I thought Gullstruck Island was, like Hardinge’s other books, a good example of how to build a fictional world, but I would recommend it. It’s usually found in the children’s section of a library or bookshop, and I don’t think that’s entirely erroneous. At its heart it’s an adventure story featuring a twelve-year-old protagonist. However, it’s got the depth and level of detail that you might expect for a book aimed at older readers, and it’s so well-written and generally sophisticated that I see absolutely no reason why older readers wouldn’t enjoy it too, whether teens or adults.
I first read Hardinge’s work because I picked up Fly By Night in a bookshop. This must have been around 2005 or 2006. It had the same title as a story I read during my horse phase (I think most girls go through a horse phase when they’re about nine), and at first I thought it might be the same book, but on reading the blurb I found it was completely different. Nevertheless I bought it and was amazed at its strangeness. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve read, in the best possible way.
Much more recently I read both its sequel, Twilight Robbery, and another of Hardinge’s books, A Face Like Glass. The latter again reminded me of how I felt about Fly By Night: it is completely unusual. It departs entirely from our culture and creates one that’s new. How does Hardinge think up these bizarre and wonderful worlds? I have no idea. It takes a very creative mind to invent societies of the kind she writes.
But of the four books of hers I have now read, not one of them has disappointed me in terms of worldbuilding, and not once have I thought, “That was a great concept, but she could have done more with it.” Instead, my reaction is, “Wow. I would never even have thought of a world like that.”
Because they are utterly unique and I love it.
I told myself this post wasn’t going to just end up being about books the way most of mine are at the moment, and would instead focus on storytelling in a more specific way, but whatever. It’s about books. Books are awesome, and everybody should visit the children’s section once in a while or they’re missing out on some quality literature. These books are honestly on a level with so many more ‘literary’ works in terms of writing style, and I would encourage everybody to check them out.
Okay. Enough fangirling over Frances Hardinge now.