At Tr!ckster this year, I participated in a symposium on world building with Scott Morse, B. Clay Moore, Ivan Brandon, Ted Mathot, and Derek Thompson (yes, a lot of links – apparently we’re all web-enabled). There were perhaps 30 people in attendance, and it was a great discussion on the nature of building an “immaculate reality,” of the thought that drives such construction, and the inherent pitfalls therein. It’s one thing, after all, to sit down and start pounding out ideas for whatever story you may have gnawing at your backbrain; it’s quite another thing entirely to make that world work, to keep it internally consistent.

Interestingly enough, there was a fair amount of discussion with regards to world building’s relationship with story theme and character. Not something that I often hear discussed, but something that I think is honestly crucial if you’re trying to create something that will truly resonate. The Pixar contingent – Scott, Ted, and Derek – cited Up as one example, and I thought that was terrifically apt. It may be why Pixar’s films are so consistently successful for me – their attention to thematic detail is second-to-none, and it has served them very, very well, in my opinion.

For my own part, I’ve always engaged in some level of world-building or other in every story I’ve had a hand in, whether intentional or not. This past year, however, has seen it taken to an entirely new level, with three separate projects each requiring dedicated world-building on one level or another, Lady Sabre being just one of them. Interestingly enough (or maybe not, you could all be terribly bored by this, I really have no idea), of those three, only one project demanded any degree of construction before the writing began – the new novel, ALPHA. I managed all of 3,000 words or so before I had to stop all work and devote myself to constructing the environment of the novel, and that construction, in turn, meant building lore, naming characters, assembling history, and even recruiting the services of one Sterling Hershey – a terrific designer – to make a map of the key location. Only after all of this had been completed was I willing to move forward with the story.

Conversely, Lady Sabre had two scripts written before Rick and I truly began to work the nuts and bolts of the universe, and I’ve no doubt this was done more because it’s far easier to write the Brave New World than it is to draw it. Again, touching on something brought up at the Tr!ckster symposium, it’s all well-and-good for me to say Lady Sabre’s ship is the Pegasus, it’s quite another thing to draw the ship. In the latter, Rick has to know what makes it go, and how it sails the Aether, and even, ultimately, what the hell the Aether is, anyway. On the most fundamental level, everything on the page or screen goes to construction of the world, and it all must fit, it all must make sense.

One can argue that, even in narratives set within the confines of our “real world,” the creator is obligated to give world-building its due; the introduction, after all, of a fictional character, a fictional situation, into the “real” environment by necessity changes that reality, and those changes echo forth. Queen & Country is a great example of this, speaking personally; the series has always attempted to cleave faithfully to reality, but the series is inherently unrealistic: Tara Chace, the SIS Minder, does not exist.

(I should add that, even when writing Q&C, devotion to reality is not necessarily a good thing. Verisimilitude is all fine and good, but needs of the narrative must always come first. After all, I’m telling a story, not writing a documentary.)

The best world-building occurs when the fiction anchors not to our material reality, but to our emotional reality. I’ve always felt that the writer’s saw of “write what you know” was never meant to be taken literally – if it was, we’d have no Lord of the Rings, no Star Trek, no Batman: Year One, no Mass Effect. One of my favorite comics coming out right now is Atomic Robo, a series where Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener blend historical reality with science with science fiction to create an (apparently, though I know much better the heavy-lifting involved) effortless blend. On the page, it looks easy, logical, elegant. Before it hits the page? I’m sure it gives them both incredible fits. And in all of these works, the emotional truth of the stories forges – even forces – a connection with the audience. Thus resonance.

Steampunk, it seems to me, inherently forces certain thematic elements, the most obvious being the conflict (or perhaps, less confrontationally, the relationship) between human and machine. The march of civilization, the belief in the supremacy of science, the pervasive search for knowledge and understanding. These are all well and good, and I suspect Rick and I will be touching upon many, if not all, of them in the weeks, months, even years (?!?) to come. But all of it means nothing if there isn’t that base human connection, the emotional bond between characters, their loves and losses and conflicts.

Ah, I ramble.

Rick is back from his sojourn abroad, and I fear I’m about to exacerbate his jet-lagged state with all of the questions and ideas I’ve had percolating since he’s been out of touch. Thematic concerns now foremost amongst them.

Hold fast!