Savvy Saturday – Worldbuilding at the Next Level

I’m at an academic conference this weekend, so this week’s blog post will be a bit different. In it, I want to share something amazing that I recently discovered about the writing of one of my favorite modern fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson.

Brandon Sanderon’s key differentiation feature – his personal brand, as we would say in marketing – is that he is an amazing worldbuilder. Yes, he tells good stories with realistic characters. Yes, he is funny and clean in his writing. But what really sets him apart is the logical, consistent, intricate way in which everything in a world fits together and makes sense, even when a world is entirely Other than the world we see around us. Good worldbuilders tend to incorporate worldbuilding at three levels.

First, authors can create a world for a single set of characters, tell a story about that world with those characters, and move on. A good example is Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean. The world of these stories is rich and complex, and focuses on one set of characters and their story. When the authors want to move on, then, they create an entirely different world with entirely different characters.

Second, authors can create a world for multiple, related sets of characters. This option allows an author to reuse settings, cultures, refer to events that have already taken place, and draw readers back into a familiar world with fresh characters and situations. A good example is Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, which takes place a few years after the events of her Alanna series in the same magical kingdom of Tortall. The events of the Alanna books set in motion the events of the next series, and the protagonist of the second series occasionally interacts with the protagonist of the first, but the stories themselves are about different events and characters. Similarly, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series follows this model, with over ten books set in the same Redwall Abbey and Mossflower Woods, though with very few overlapping characters.

Third, authors can create a world for multiple, unrelated sets of characters. This option allows for a larger meta-story to evolve, as one series about one set of characters in one kingdom then gives way to a different series set on the other side of the world that might be influenced by the events of the first series, or may have only heard about the other kingdom as a distant rumor of a far-off place. Future books might bring individuals from the kingdoms together, or drive them to war, or they might remain wholly separate, but the world remains constant. Also in this category are series that take place in the same world but spaced hundreds of years apart, where the events of one series might be seen as legend or myth in another and (with this being a crucial distinguisher), the way in which the world works – its society, its geography, its magic, etc. – are different enough so that the reader does not feel that it is taking place in the same location.

But, I recently found out, Sanderson has embarked on a fourth mode of worldbuilding. He has actually created separate worlds, separate series, with separate characters, that are all in the same universe, and linked by characters who can travel between worlds. This idea takes the possibility for a meta-story to the next level. Now, instead of worrying at most about how the plot of one series might affect the next series set in that world, bounded by the same rules of society, magic, religion, and history, readers can cross these boundaries and imagine how the events of one epic fantasy series with one set of magical rules might somehow affect another epic fantasy series with a different set of magical rules. For instance, in one of Sanderson’s worlds, magic works through the ingesting of metals and a corresponding ability of the mage to perform a particular activity by “burning” the metal – for instance, soothing another person’s emotions. What happens if a person from this world goes to another world where magic emanates from large, powerful storms and manifests as light trapped in crystals, where anyone can use devices powered by this magic, and mages can create and move physical objects via magic, but certainly cannot manipulate emotions? You get characters who do things that aren’t quite explained in-world, characters who are thought odd or prescient by other characters, characters who have some kind of authorial license to do things and say things that readers who don’t know better will shrug at and say, “I guess the character was lucky.”

For readers who do know better, on the other hand, this type of writing is mind-blowing. What does Sanderson have planned? (He has confirmed that he does have a plan.) How will the series eventually link up with each other? How can characters travel to different worlds? What do they want? Besides being an amazing marketing strategy to encourage readers to buy and finish entire series from the author they might not have otherwise been interested in, it is an amazingly large writing and worldbuilding strategy. Not only does Sanderson have to plan out how any given series will go, he has to plan out how this series fits into his universe’s meta-story.

As a worldbuilding writer myself, I am in awe.

As a reader, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

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