But What do the Trees Say? :

Or, the unimportance of worldbuilding

Probably apocryphal story: There was a glut of children’s books with talking animal characters on the market. Talking animals topped the list of things editors swore they never wanted to see again. A woman at a writers conference raised her hand, and timidly asked a children’s editor how he felt about talking animals. The editor thought for a moment. “It depends on what they have to say.”

Before I start, let me say that worldbuilding in SF and fantasy is important. I put a lot of time and effort into worldbuilding, and it greatly enhances my stories. But that’s all it does—it enhances. It cannot replace.

Some years ago, in the library where I work, I was approached by a teenage girl who’d been told that I wrote fantasy. She wrote fantasy too, and she wanted to be sure she was on the right track. What did I think of a forest of giant purple trees? I said something vaguely encouraging and noncommittal, and spent the next decade wishing that I’d said what I should have said.

The color of the trees is irrelevant—what matters is what happens in that purple forest. If your characters just ride through, saying, “Wow, purple trees, cool,” then purple trees are worthless. But if your characters stop in that forest because their wounded leader is dying, and even though it means their pursuers might catch them, they can’t stand to see him suffer from being jostled for one more mile, then your purple forest becomes a place of infinite sorrow and wonder.

You have seven gods who embody the greatest blessings of mankind, and seven goddesses who embody mankind’s greatest curses? Who cares? Until the goddess of bad luck burns her sigil onto your hero’s forehead, and he’s stoned from the gates of every town and village he tries to enter, because no god fearing person dares to spend a minute in his company. Then we care.

All your characters are eleven-armed squids? Doesn’t matter a bit. Until two of those squids, who’ve been inseparable friends all their lives, meet in the purple glade to fight a duel to the death. Then everything matters, from the mores that shaped their code duello to the way their tentacles hold a weapon, and especially the fact that a cut that sends blood into their single eye can blind them for the one crucial second required for an opponent to thrust home.

What do I think about purple trees? It depends on what they have to say.

Spring 2002