On worldbuilding: The Nihilistic Architect and the Negligent Gardener

George R R Martin’s now famous analogy of the architect and the gardener distilled the craft of novel-writing into two distinct creative approaches. I would suggest this is a particularly useful analogy when thinking specifically about worldbuilding – the manner in which writers go about creating a fictional universe for their story to live within.

In this case the architect represents the scrupulous worldbuilder– someone who explores their creation in a top-down fashion before letting their characters near it. A committed architect classifies and indexes their world through pages of documents, carefully annotating influences and tangents from real-world sources. Culture, religion, magic, and politics are all given detailed, encyclopaedic entries. Only when the world has structure and integrity does the architect allow their characters to explore it. In this case the setting establishes functional rules in which the narrative inhabits, but these can limit or burden the story just as much as they offer opportunities to enhance it.

On the other hand, the gardener worldbuilder uses setting as a support for telling the story and developing the characters. Here, the setting is permitted an organic elasticity to grow around character and plot in a bottom-up manner. The immediate setting is prioritised, and often harmonises with narrative sequences to allow for allegory or as a test of character. Far from set in stone, the gardener’s paracosm utilises a ‘fog of war’, where details of the world come into view as and when the story requires them. This ‘unreliable map’ offers huge scope for bringing to light all sorts of details, but doesn’t necessarily hold them together very well, and can come across as contrived or unconvincing. I remember reading my much-loved Redwall books, both intrigued and dismayed as each new entry in the series rejigged the map, confusing distances, and adding or erasing topographical features as that particular story saw fit.

Of course, most worldbuilders sit somewhere on a sliding scale between the two polarities: laying out a generous foundation for their paracosm whilst allowing room to shade in details and firm up ambiguities as the story progresses.

But there is, I think, a further method which this analogy leads to, one that utilises both the rigour of the architect and the organic freedom of the gardener without limiting the scope of either. For want of any better title, I’m calling it the Nihilistic Architect and the Negligent Gardner, (or NANG for short, acronym fans). And no, it’s not a convenient shortcut to worldbuilding – as the title ostensibly suggests – it’s quite the opposite. In fact, the hard work required to invest in this method might be enough to put off some. But the end result, in my opinion, is worth every hour sunk in.

This method is about intentionally weathering your world, giving it a lived-in feel, a sense of history – natural, human, or otherwise. A simple suggestion, perhaps, but one that requires a rethink of the worldbuilding process to properly do it justice. Here’s how it works.

As a worldbuilder consider what you have built. An intricately crafted house, months or years in the making, within which each room holds an element of your fictitious universe. Wonderful, isn’t it? Now break it down. Burn it. Don’t be precious. It is marvellous – it was marvellous – but we’re not interested in what was, the question is: what is it like now? It’s time to fast forward the present of your novel.

Now look. What has happened over the intervening years, decades, even centuries? The ruins of the house are overgrown by plants you never knew you’d planted, invasive species have uprooted areas you no longer recognise. Ivy has a stranglehold on the east wall, in fact, it’s the one thing holding it up. There’s a tree growing right through the middle of the house, taller than the second floor. Bricks and slate have been stolen, appropriated for something else. Wild animals, travellers, bandits, vagrants, they’ve all left their marks. Look around. The light slanting through the broken ceiling from an upstairs window, illuminating the fireplace. Something it was never meant to do. But isn’t it beautiful? Then you remember. You reach up behind the chimney, feel a weight. It dislodges. It’s right where you’d hidden it, all those years ago. But now, with the coating of dust and ash, the crisp of age, and the thrill of survival, how much more excited you are in discovering it!

What I’m trying to say is this: the real world is rarely neat and understandable, so why should ours be? Reality is veiled by conflicting histories, throttled by agendas from the powerful through years and centuries of rule and misrule. War, religion, politics, technologies, migrations, invasions, plagues, ideas. All are in flux, changing one another and being changed in return, leaving scars, absences, and vestiges in their wake. Our notions as to why these things happen are just as warped, by just as many variables. Important discoveries, beliefs, and decisions are very often based on error, chance, or misinformation.

As writers, we like to have our worlds make sense because it’s satisfying that they do, and because we worry readers will pick holes in worlds that don’t. But I think there’s a danger of creating an overly convenient world where its contrivances are invisible to us, when what’s needed is a world broken yet captivating. A world weathered by time and obscured by history, where writer, character, and reader alike can wonder at its cracks and dark places, at its fossils and ruins.

So try this approach: the nihilistic architect builds the world, crafts it perfectly, then destroys it. Interpret ‘destroy’ however you like. It could be an all-consuming apocalypse, a world war, a genocide, a virulent plague, a virulent idea, religious, social, cultural, or political upheaval. All of them at once. Staggered. Sequential. Maybe it’s just time and progress, spread over a long stretch – apply what appeals. Then let the negligent gardener take over. Prune, plant, or trample your way through. Up to you. Go right ahead and explore this new world with your characters, and consider what has happened over the years. What has changed, forcefully or by choice? What element has been muddied or usurped by something else? What has faded to myth, or retains vestiges in custom and place names? What remains clearly identifiable, redoubtable to the last? What strange, invasive species will the negligent gardener let in? You might be surprised by what you find.

It’s a hard act, letting loose the forces of time and consequence on your finely wrought world, but the setting that emerges is richer for it: you’ll have given it a depth of history. Even better, you’ll find your characters are more affected by this new world. You’ll look deeper into where they’ve come from, what they believe, why they do what they do, how their personal backgrounds entwine with that of place. The best bit about this method is discovering all the additional stories and characters you weren’t expecting to find, the people and events that are born by necessity through the weathering process. These are the organic moving parts of your novel’s background, the elements that ensure contrivance is kept at bay.

Everything has a history, and that always comes across somehow, whether symbolically or literally, as trace or as monument, with shame or with pride. This method of worldbuilding lends the depth of history to your world that has the potential to enrichen every part of your novel.

An edition of this article first appeared at Fantasy Faction on April 8, 2016.


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