E1 Commentary: Crafting a Culture

In E1. The Red Card-Stock Pamphlet Jay reads the pamphlet Faith got from Virgil Skyy. He’s still hallucinating, so he interprets the pamphlet’s religious message as a command to visit the Islands of Sheridan. In Chapter F, we’ll travel Sheridan and learn about the people who live there. Until then, this red card-stock pamphlet lays the groundwork for world-building.

World-building means making up cultures, places, and peoples for the universe of a fictional story. Good world-building can mean the difference between boring characters against copy-pasted backdrops and interesting characters who interact with fleshed-out areas and ideas. Some triumphs of world-building include Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. If anything, Harry’s rivalry with Voldemort is an excuse to give the reader a tour of Hogwarts. Lord of the Rings is just a jaunt across a continent so J.R.R. Tolkien can make readers witness his linguistic inventions.

The common element of stories with great world-building is the interaction of the fictional setting with the themes and plot. Hogwarts changes as much as Harry, sometimes a safe haven and sometimes a war-zone. Tolkien’s linguistic efforts built the elves and dwarves we know today and sent them on a quest.

In Akayama DanJay, the Islands of Sheridan are remote to reflect their reclusive, mysterious, and thematically significant religious traditions. For the same reason, in section A1, I show the islands only briefly before focusing on furtive monks. In B2 Jillian’s teacher warns of secluded islands where crickets grow. Until Virgil Jango Skyy reappears in C1, all we know about Sheridan and crickets and centipedes is hearsay. Even Jango is tight-lipped, refusing to tell Faith a story about the Biggest Bird because she is not a monk in C2. These details make Sheridan seem a secretive place with mysteries to solve. The reader does not know what to believe yet, but should be eager to learn more.

The pamphlet provides the reader with concrete details about the islands, but Jay’s mental state means we can’t trust what he reads. Even if we could, it’s still surreal and raises more questions than it answers. Is the Biggest Bird the same creature as the Heart of the Mountain? Is “the Mountain” the mountain Jay and Faith saw on their drug trip? If so, why did the bird make Sheridan, and why did it leave? What’s its plan? Who is this Nemo person, why were they named Virgil Blue, and why do the islands follow Virgil Blue’s word? Why are the three commandments such random things like “don’t eat centipedes” or “don’t take pictures of birds,” instead of normal religious commandments like “don’t steal” or “don’t murder?”

These are questions the reader might ask themselves, and therefore it’s my responsibility as a writer to make sure most of them are answered. Every domino I set up should be knocked down. Anything which occurs in a story but does not contribute to the themes and plot of the story should be cut, even world-building work the writer is proud of. Make each big element of your world impact the story at least three times: when it’s introduced, once again as a reminder, and one last time as a resolution to some conflict, a payoff.

In Akayama DanJay, Jango mentions the Biggest Bird in a conversation to Faith, but refuses to tell her its story. Then Jay and Faith meet a big bird, and Jay reads about the Biggest Bird in the pamphlet. On the islands we’ll see more reminders of the bird’s presence and influence in worldly events. Eventually we will see its story firsthand, and it will answer some long-lingering questions.

Smaller details might not need to be repeated as much for impact; they may be set up and then later called back for a payoff, or a punchline. In this pamphlet I mention several religious sects who will appear along Jay’s journey. I’ve set them up, Jay will interact with them for the payoff, and the reader won’t mind if they don’t appear again.

So, world-building can be fun, but a dedicated writer should make sure it’s in service to the story. There’s another concern which I’ll address in more detail as we see more of Sheridanian culture:

In crafting a culture, one must be aware of cultures in real life. If a fictional society is too far removed from feasible real-world cultures, it may ruin the readers’ suspension of disbelief. Too closely copying a culture will make the writing appear lazy, if not offensive. In the case of Sheridan, I’m trying to make a religion which reminds readers of real religions without stealing those religions wholesale. On these islands exists a complex ecosystem of practices borrowing from island cultures and multiple varieties of monasticism, Christian and otherwise. Maybe I’ll discuss specific influences as we see them.

Meanwhile, thanks for reading! I’m having a great time writing and talking about my process. Next week, let’s see how leaving out details can increase the impact of events. Keep eating your worms!

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