Monday, May 20, 2013

The Worlds We Build

Guest post!  Getcher guest post, right here!

Today's installment of One Man's Pony Ramblings (Except when it's Not) is brought to you courtesy of The Descendant, that inimitable fanfic bastion of Victorian prose and occasional potty jokes.  He also has some has some thoughts about the vitally important yet easy-to-do-poorly execution of worldbuilding within one's writing.  He also also has some exceptionally interesting hobbies besides writing ponyfiction, as you'll find if you click below the break.  So... do that.

The second we step out of the woods and into the cornfield, everything goes to Hell.

The plans that the officers had made, the grand strategy that they had pondered, and the way they had carefully explained it all washes away amid the tall stalks of the corn. The leaves tear tiny cuts across my hands and face as I plunge forward, following the other men of my company.

I pull my Sharps rifle closer as I walk the furrows between the rows, and the sound of the musket fire only seems to grow more constant around me.

There is a volley off to our left, and the high staccato sound of the rebel yell drifts through the field. The eerie wail reaches my unit like the cries of innumerable banshees. The day is warm, and I can feel every bristle and bur that clings to the wool of my uniform. I’m miserable, hot… terrified.

There’s another volley. The men of my company and I listen for the insect-like drone of the Minie’ balls, the clap of musket fire, and the cries of wounded men. Snaps leaps from our right, and we know that we are in the thick of it, that despite not being able to see more than a few yards in any direction we know that we are amid a conflagration.

“Sounds like they’re to our left and our right,” I pant, stating the obvious. “Sir!” the sergeant calls to the lieutenant, politely ignoring my sun-addled idiocy. “Sir!” he calls again, some small panic in his voice.

I stare through the corn, imagining figures behind every stalk.

“Christ!” someone calls, and in a second thundering hooves are upon us. Cavalry! Ours? Theirs? The outline of a horse arises from the corn. The first trooper pelts past us… the second stops in our midst.

Grey and butternut! Theirs! Theirs! Shit!

There’s a flash of metal, and a cavalry saber flashes past my head. I turn, lifting my Sharps. I squeeze the trigger. A “ka-kang” lurches out into the corn, and I retreat into the rows, hiding amid the white smoke of my shot as my hand frantically goes to my cartridge box.

I take off, desperately searching for the other men of my company. I nearly fall over them as I reload on the run. We follow the retreating rebel cavalry, knowing that they are protecting something.

We burst out of the corn, and there on the very edge of a woodlot sits the Stars and Bars, the Confederate battle flag. Beneath it sits the flank of an infantry regiment, the last few men in the battle line staring at us wide-eyed.

“Fire away, lads!” calls my sergeant, and I lift my Sharps. “Fire away!” he calls again. I level my rifle, dropping to my knee to steady my shot as…

Something catches in the corner of my eye. I wheel about… and find myself staring at a video production crew.

A late-summer morning in September of 1862 drifts away. What had been The Cornfield at Antietam becomes a farmer’s field sitting close to Interstate 81 in twenty-first century Maryland. The contrails of jets bound for Washington D.C. appear overhead as a final punctuation to the end of the world the Civil War re-enactment had been presenting me.

The 150th Anniversary Reenactment of the Battle of Antietam was the largest re-enactment I’d ever been a part of… but I can’t honestly say it was the best. The “battlefield” where we fought for the ten thousand spectators was under some massive, hissing power lines. The Dunker Church replica looked like it was freshly purchased tool shed from Home Depot, and the model of Burnside’s Bridge (which I have the dubious honor of having been the first Union soldier to fight his way across) was mostly constructed of crepe paper.

The process of building a world, either in our fiction or at a Civil War re-enactment, is one that requires a fair amount of care. It is so easy to damage the illusion, to have the foundations crack, or let the seams show. Fan fiction is “easier” in some ways, in that there is already a developed canon to work from, but then again it is our want to explore that canon the drives us to write concepts that spring from our creativity alone.

Fan fiction is a form of speculative fiction, and as such we can’t help but let our own ideas come into play. This is often referred to as “head canon”, but I can’t help but prefer “personal fanon”, as it reveals the simple truth that we all have our own visions of the shadowed, unrevealed aspects of the series are that we are trying to explore.

I’ve been writing fan fiction for a great long while, and reading it even longer. In doing so, I’ve observed what I’ve seen as being the most successful ways to go about the world building we require to make our personal fanon, and our most original concepts, come to pass.

1)  Remember that the reader has no idea what you’re talking about.
The greatest mistake a fan fiction author makes when they begin to write for their unique vision is believing that others share in it, and that they inherently understand it. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The job of the author is to involve the reader in the work, to make them feel present within it. For an author to simply assume that a reader understands their setting and the premise is akin to dropping the reader in some foreign city and expecting them to know the streets.

How do we avoid doing that? By following the next two rules.

2.) Stay rooted in canon character development.

Readers are a largely forgiving bunch. They wish to see what the author comes up with, and are generally willing to go with the narrative to some very unusual and unexpected places. It takes a measure of trust for them to do that, though.

Nothing destroys that trust faster than removing the characters from their canon portrayal.

Once again, we write fan fiction because we wish to explore what these characters would do in the different situations we present to them. If we radically change who these characters are, then we’ve essentially created original fiction rather than a work of fan fiction.

This is not to say that character development should be ignored within the fan work itself, but rather that it should continually be tempered and tested against what we already know of each character.

3.) Find the line between “too much” and “too little” information.
The least effective way that any author can present any sort of information is as a block of text. These “infodumps” are pedestrian, and the only worse way of presenting a back-story is by simply beginning with a note stating “Pretend that X didn’t happen”, or that “Rainbow Dash is actually a seventeenth century harpsichord repairmare,” etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.

The situation only gets worse when one of these cascades of information begins with one character telling another “As you are aware…” or “As you already know…” Imagine what that would feel like in real life. How long could you stand having an associate ramble on for long minutes about something that you already know in detail before you finally scream and run off into the distance, arms flailing through the air?

Or, at least, become bored. The readers feel the same way.

But, keeping our first rule that the reader must be informed in mind, how do we find the happy medium between leaving the bewildered and sending hem running off? The answer lies in looking at successful examples from literature.

The hands-down champion of world building was, of course, Tolkien. I was reminded of this as I watched the first installment of the new movie version of The Hobbit. With a few subtle clues he informs us of how much is going on in his constructed world, Middle Earth, without drowning us in details and turning it into a history lesson.

For me, one of the most effective scenes in the work is when Elrond simply inspects the swords that Thorin and Gandalf found in the troll cave, the ones we come to know as Orcist and Glamdring

In a few sentences we learn that they were used by powerful Elvish lords in ancient times, before the fall of a great kingdom… and then the narrative moves on, opening the reader to a great, vast new understanding of Tolkien’s world without taxing their patience or willingness to invest in the work.

Sometimes, what an author does not tell the reader is as important as what they do. Finding that middle ground takes patience and trial and error, and is fraught with missteps and errors. Yet, once accomplished, it is a powerful aspect of the story, one that adds many dimensions to the work.

In this fandom, I’ve encountered effective use of world building in places where I least expected to find it. I’ve read tales of Equestria entering an industrial age, and of it rising out of the sea. I’ve enjoyed stories where characters were taken to the logical extremes, and ones where they were played against themselves. The only thing that has successfully separated the worlds that these authors created from their less successful contemporaries was how well they settled the characters we’ve come to know into these worlds, and how they developed the vision of the reality they saw in their minds.

A successfully crafted world immerses the reader in the writer’s vision, the “personal fanon” of a fan fiction author, and makes them believe that it could exist. Carefully considering how to successfully approach such world building is an important lesson for the author to learn.

Three days after my adventure in the farmer’s cornfield and with the video production crew, I was still wearing my uniform.

It was six o’clock in the morning on September 17th, 2012, and as the dawn broke across Antietam National Battlefield, I disappeared into The Cornfield. This was no hastily assembled replica, no falsified version. This was the actual killing ground where the bloodiest day in American history had begun one hundred and fifty years earlier to the minute.

The cornrows consumed all other noises except for their own ambient rustling. I walked forward, tracing the horrible, anxious minutes of the unit I represent. I stood where they stood, listening to the breezes drifting through the corn where those men had suffered. I pressed forward, and in my head I began to hear the cries of the wounded, the droning of the musket balls, the shriek of the artillery.

The present melted away, and as the corn brushed my face the world of those first desperate hours of a nineteenth century day revealed itself in full.

Stay Awesome,



I don't really have anything to add.  Thanks for sharing, TD, and for both the good advice and the great story!


  1. *Grumble* *grumble* Toklien *grumble*

    1. Looks like Muphry's law is in effect. ;)

    2. I don't know what you two are talking about... *whistles innocently*

    3. Uh, I wasn't referring to the misspelling in the blog post...

    4. There's a misspelling in the blog post? I was just grumbling because Tolkien sucks.

    5. I don't often use the term "lol", but that really did make me laugh out loud XD

      As much as I resent his influence on D&D, and even though I couldn't get more than three chapters into Fellowship before calmly setting the book down and bashing my head against a table edge, I wouldn't say Tolkien sucks. The Hobbit's really good, and I loved his use of language, both in constructing a mythology and in naming characters. Belladonna Took, Beorn, Smaug... how can anyone not love that? Tolkien just needed a ruthless editor to tear out all the boring crap

  2. "Once again, we write fan fiction because we wish to explore what these characters would do in the different situations we present to them. If we radically change who these characters are, then we’ve essentially created original fiction rather than a work of fan fiction."

    Funny thing is, I've read some brilliant stuff that could be described as original fiction that happens to have core values of ponies and friendship. Maybe it's because there's been so much fic writing over these years, but it feels like fanfiction is kinda part of a more... Idonotherightwordhere sphere of ponyfiction. Maybe it's just me being half-asleep, but I kinda take offense to the not-at-all direct inclusiveness of Descendent's statements. (Inclusiveness isn't the right word for what I mean to say either. Sorry.)

    Oh hell, I can't even think of any good examples right now. Plus, I don't think many people read the blog this late or on Tuesday, so chances are no-one's even gonna come around to tell me that I kinda have a point but mostly I'm half-asleep.

    1. You kinda have a point, but I think you are missing the larger picture. Writing stories about OCs or alternative settings is fine, and really commendable, even if they have no connection to the show other than the protagonists physiognomy. For instance, look at the four Descendant stories that Chris has reviewed — all but one deal with original or background characters, using the show setting as a back-drop.

      The issue is that when you decide to write about a character named Twilight Sparkle, you should write her as depicted on the show, or have a very good reason why she isn't. Otherwise, why are you calling her by the same name, instead of creating a different character that would act in the manner you want that character to act? It is the same issue I have with movie sequels that share no similarities other than the name. It is a bait and switch strategy to get people to see something they wouldn't normally, and is very dishonest. And yes, that is valid even if the creator isn't aware of what he is doing.