Friday, August 3, 2018

Workshop: Worldbuilding for Fantasy That's Rooted in the Real: Daniel José Older

Daniel José Older is the award-winning author of both young adult and adult books. His books include Star Wars: Last Shot (Del Ray, 2018) and the forthcoming middle-grade historical fantasy Dactyl Hill Squad (Scholastic, September 2018). His New York Times best-selling YA novel, Shadowshaper (Scholastic), was a New York Times Best Book of the Year and has been optioned by Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose. Daniel’s other books include the Bone Street Rumba novels, including Midnight Taxi Tango and Half-Resurrection Blues (Penguin). He is the winner of the International Latino Book Award, and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, the Locus and World Fantasy Awards, and the Andre Norton Award.

Older is chiefly known for his urban fantasy, creating a deeply realistic view of New York City while weaving in complex fantasy elements.  He likens his approach to music, "where story is melody and worldbuilding is harmony." The worldbuilding underpins everything and supports the story's journey. "Imagine the way that notes look. It's going on underneath the song."

Older was (not surprisingly) plainspoken on the role of politics in worldbuilding. "Writers are quick to deny the politics, like they just hope it works out, [but] the world is filled of things people hope will work out and that's why we have white supremacy and patriarchy."

He continued, "Worldbuilding affords you room to be complex," and that complexity is exactly what we need to embrace. "We don't need any more simplistic analysis--this year has shown us how wrong the good guy can be and how to distrust the myth of the good dude."

To Older, an important aspect of worldbuilding is that no place stands still. "People say, 'Cuba is the place time stood still.' No, m*f*, they just have old cars! It continues to not stand still." The people who see this, only experience Cuba as tourists, as outsiders, only seeing what the guides show them. But if you can get a guide who's an insider, "you will not hear the song of the street." There are multiple views available for the street every character will have one; some characters, like some people,  will be invested in controlling your view. Use that.

Older went on to talk about the different approaches to worldbuilding juxtaposing Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. "Tolkien was a linguist who invented the world and the language. The story came out of that. Martin makes up what he needs when he needs to know. There is no 'hidden culture store,'" filled with volumes of reference material.  The worldbuilding is context-based, driven by the needs of the story. This is how major characters can be killed off without losing audience interest: "I care about what happens in Westeros more than any one person in Westeros. Westeros is the main character. How does he do it? I think he does it by caring so deeply about the history."

"Some writers don't want to take responsibility, don't want their work to be political because it's preachy. I have found it very useful."

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