As someone who has always been interested in reading and writing, the intricacy of Jemisin’s fictional world in The Broken Earth really threw me for a loop. How do you create a world? What makes it actually work? Where do you even start? It just so happens that lately I’ve been watching some author panels at conventions like Comic Con (Nerdy? Maybe so.), and these questions seem to come up quite often. While every author’s mind works differently, and various processes will certainly work for some while not for others, I was really interested in hearing what popular authors had to say. Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicle series, talked about the aspects of fantasy world-building. J. R. R. Tolkien, Rothfuss explains, included rich languages in his creation of Middle Earth because he loved language. That was what interested him. Rothfuss also said in this video (around 23 minutes in) that he himself likes to focus on currency:
“I’m a geek for currency. And so my economy, I actually have it all worked out, and that filters into my books… you’re a geek for something. And if that’s, like, herbology, or, like, the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics, it’s like, revel in your geekery, roll around in it and make that a part of your world, because that will be really interesting to the people reading because you’re interested in it.”
So, some authors must work like Rothfuss, starting with specifics and working their way out. But I was interested to find out whether or not this was similar in Jemisin’s process. Luckily, I found a link in this blog post of hers to a PowerPoint that she prepared all about world-building.
The “Let’s Build a World” section of Jemisin’s presentation begins with a slide titled “Pick Your Planet.” So, already there’s a difference between this process and the specifics-first process that I’ve mentioned above. There’s a very long chat in that same Comic Con panel video, however, where the authors discuss maps. (George R. R. Martin apparently does not enjoy creating them very much. Please, watch the whole video if you’re interested. Hilarious and insightful.) Rothfuss again makes interesting observations about map-making, how big cities are usually positioned near water sources, the knowledge required to place rivers and mountains realistically, etc. If an author isn’t interested in any of that, their physical world-building is going to suffer then, right? Jemisin’s world feels so immersive and palpable, perhaps because she’s so interested in the physicality of it. Her slides include pictures explaining tectonic plates, fault lines, and climate. We also know that she has an interest in geology because of its extensive use in the development of orogeny. So, is it really surprising that Jemisin begins with the general, the physical? I suppose not. That’s what works for her and her interests, the same way that developing a realistic currency works for Patrick Rothfuss, and developing an intricate language worked for J. R. R. Tolkien. Now, I just wonder whether Jemisin’s outside-in approach might make developing more specific details of a world more difficult and grueling or less.