There’s More to Worldbuilding Than Making Magic, by Fonda Lee

In penning her first epic fantasy for adults, Fonda Lee built a fascinating magic system based on precious stones that grant those who obtain them magical powers. But shaping the world of Jade City was about a lot more than coming up with a nifty fantasy hook. Fonda joins us below to talk about the most vital part of worldbuilding—and it has nothing to do with magic.

When science fiction and fantasy writers consider the task of worldbuilding, the most obvious and observable aspects of a fictional setting often come to mind: technology level, magic systems, climate and topography, fantastical creatures, nations and monarchs, and so on. After all, this is where the “speculative” element in speculative fiction usually comes in: we’re excited about the distant future, or life on another planet, or an alternate industrial revolution era fueled by magic siphoned from dying gods.

But no matter how well an author has thought out the “cool” factor of the world, what will make or break the story comes down to whether the reader finds the characters—their reactions, interactions, and engagement with their surroundings, their circumstances, and with each other—to be believable and relatable. Readers will believe in almost anything—except people acting simplistically or implausibly.

The vital ingredient in a fictional world is culture.

Inventing a fictional culture is not easy, and writers approach it in different ways depending on the needs of their story and what they’re trying to accomplish. Perhaps the most straightforward (and often successful) method is to base a fictional culture on a specific time and place in human history. Thorough, thoughtful research will yield a wealth of information on how people of that place and era behaved—how they spoke, ate, lived, worked, worshipped, and what their general beliefs and attitudes and norms were. Guy Gavriel Kay is renowned for writing historical fiction with, as he puts it, a “quarter turn to the fantastic.” Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is very clearly set in Napoleonic England…delightfully altered to include dragons.

But if you aren’t basing your story on a particular time and place, what then? How do you invent all the details that a historical fiction author might discover and include only after years of research? The pitfalls are great, particularly if you’re drawing upon recognizable touchpoints inspired by cultures that are not your own. You could end up with a thinly-developed, shallow and unconvincing world, or worse yet, create something based on gross stereotypes.

When I created the island of Kekon and the city of Janloon in Jade City, I knew what would bring it to life on the page was the culture of the people that inhabited it, especially the Green Bone warriors and the clans they swear allegiance to. I set the novel in a roughly 1970s equivalent time period and drew inspiration from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Okinawa, and Singapore, among others, but I have never lived or spent any considerable time in any of those places, and Kekon is not any of them—it is a place entirely my own, and yet, I hope, it feels complete.

I’d sum up my approach in a word: remix.

Filmmaker Quentin Taratino said, “I steal from every single movie made, all right? I love it. If my work has anything it’s because I’m taking from this and from that, piecing them together.”1 Tarantino’s films are full of stolen bits, but they feel fresh; we recognize pieces, but they’ve been combined and rearranged into something new. The same can be done in worldbuilding, to create a fictional culture that is full of details that evoke something familiar, but copies no whole thing.

As is often the case, research was the key. I immersed myself in fiction and non-fiction books and films about organized crime groups from all over the world. I read books about the history of the Triads and watched documentaries about the Camorra. I found interviews with yakuza leaders and historical accounts of the Five Points Gang. I read travel guides, I studied the maps of Taipei and Hong Kong, I found old photographs of 1970s Shanghai and current pictures of jade mining sites in Myanmar. And then I set it all aside in a folder (in Scrivener, naturally), and I wrote, making everything up by plucking and changing details I’d picked up in dozens of ways.

The nationalistic history of the Green Bone clans is modeled to a large extent on the Chinese Triads, as are the allegiance oaths and the fanciful titles such as “Pillar,” “Weather Man,” and “Horn” (Triad organizations have “Red Poles,” “Incense Masters,” and “Straw Sandals,” among others). The strict hierarchy, openly visible societal legitimacy, body modification as status, and charming custom of amputating a minor body part as atonement for sins, came from the Yakuza. Neither the Triads or the Yakuza possess the strong family aspect that I lifted directly from the Italian-American Mafia. The Green Bone weapons are modeled after the Burmese sword (“dha”) and the Indonesian kerambit. I had the core of a very recognizably Asian gangster culture, and from there I expanded the view and filled in all the details: everything from food and cars, to sporting traditions and holidays, religious customs and superstitious sayings.

Looking back, I’d estimate that the speculative premise of Jade City—magical jade—comprised perhaps 10 to 15 percent of my worldbuilding effort. I determined how the jade would work, where it would come from, and what its different effects and limitations were. The crucial flesh surrounding that premise—the believable and nuanced culture of this old society where the magic substance exists, something clearly recognizable and yet entirely different from our own world—that was where the vast bulk of the hard work lay. I think that’s how it should be.

Jade City is available now.

References: [1] Bailey, Jason. “Quentin Tarantino is DJ.” The Atlantic. 14 Oct 2014

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