I'm currently in the middle of what may be perhaps my most important exercise as a writer. It is something I have been considering doing for almost a year now, but just could never find the time. I finally decided to quit putting it off and just dive right in. It doesn't matter whether I succeed or fail and I doubt whether this project will ever see the light of day, but the importance lies in what I learn. I'm hoping to get a better grasp of my series and the characters within it. You see, dear reader, I have endeavored to create a history to go with the world I created.
Like all serious writer, I had some background events written down. There were things from the past that were important to my current storyline, however I lacked a coherent history of the land that I created. This was partly because most of the series takes place on Earth. Then, my former mentor had me write a creation story (which I briefly mentioned in another post). I stumbled across this recently and realized that this would be a great way flex the old creative muscles (which were in danger of atrophying due to a couple recent setbacks in my career).
As I've been struggling with this new and exciting project, my mind has often wandered to the somewhat sorry state of contemporary genre. Aside from the inherent homogenous nature of a money-driven system, there is a blandness that has crept into tales of wonder. Almost every fantasy, scifi, and horror story seems to be following the same dull formulas dependent on the genre it falls under. I would venture to say that fantasy is in the worst state, but that could just be because I know more about that genre than the others.
I attribute this to authors being more concerned with their book being turned into a movie rather than caring about the art of the novel. There is no craft to the story, no beauty in the words, no dimensions to the characters. Rather it's just pasted together haphazardly and thrown at the publisher (or self-published), who will put it out in the hopes that some movie executive will pick it up. I don't know which is worse: that writers like this sell or that people are dumb enough to eat it up.
I was recently emailing a friend and I mentioned something along the lines of "genre would be so much better if more philologists were novelists". Philology is a now rare study of language. Tolkien was a philologist. He created his own languages and the novels he wrote, those classic beautiful novels, were just a way to use these invented languages. My friend mentioned that this was probably why his work is so absolutely amazing. Those languages made his world come alive.
Ursula K. Le Guin also had this unique ability to create fleshed out worlds by creating histories. I read somewhere about her focus on cultures. Le Guin's father had been an anthropologist and so she has always had an interest in cultures. One book she wrote, and I hesitate to use book because it was so much more, revolved around an invented culture. The book came with audio tapes of songs, art, and other creations of this culture. She had invented an entire history of this culture and she even made artifacts to go with it.
There are many modern authors that can't seem to fathom why someone one write purely to write. Movies and novels have become so intertwined that one is almost indistinguishable from the other, particularly when it comes to genre. I can't think of any modern writers that are capable of the kind of dedication as Le Guin and Tolkien. The mindset seems to be "if its not going to be published, why bother writing it?"
Writing a history of an invented peoples, an invented land, gives a work depth and gives the author a better understanding of their characters. It also helps the reader delve more deeply into the story, whether they realize it or not. The history will creep into the novel in subtle ways, giving the story even more texture. What true author wouldn't want that?
I'm currently reading "The Silmarillion". The history I'm working on will never be anywhere near as complex or drawn out, but it never hurts to see how other authors have approached similar projects.