If you’re a writer, you’ve likely heard the advice; read like a writer. If you haven’t come across that gem before; you have now!
Reading widely is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing craft. Considering why various elements of a book are (or are not) working well is an important skill to develop.
By witnessing writing craft principles in action, you can learn to apply these to your own writing.
Today, we’re tackling one of the most challenging writing topics for writers, but especially fantasy and sci-fi writers: worldbuilding. To illustrate some of the points in this post, I’ll be talking about Dianna Wynne Jones’ book, Howl’s Moving Castle.
p.s the gifs you’ll see sprinkled throughout this post are from the wonderful 2005 studio ghibli adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle.
What is Howl’s Moving Castle About? A mini-book review
Howl’s Moving Castle was originally published by Dianna Wynne Jones in 1986. The story follows Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, who finds herself cursed by the Witch of The Waste and transformed into an old woman. To break the enchantment she finds herself striking a bargain with a fire demon and encountering the mysterious Wizard Howl.
In the course of her adventure, Sophie will have to overcome the Witch of The Waste, her own doubts, and the mysterious curse surrounding Howl.
If you haven’t encountered this charming story, it’s well worth a read. Howl’s Moving Castle is the first in a trilogy and packed full of whimsical worldbuilding, sure to delight. I fell in love with Sophie’s ‘old-soul’ as well as her growing sense of self-worth and courage. Howl is quite different to his film counterpart, but his vanity, which one might expect to put off readers actually works the opposite as, along with Sophie, we seek to untangle his truth.
What is worldbuilding?
Keeping it fairly simple: Worldbuilding is the process of making a world of fiction. Good worldbuilding makes readers feel as though the world they are reading about (typically fictional) is engaging, immersive, and governed by its own coherent qualities. This can include history, language, geography and other aspects of the built and cultural world within the pages.
Worldbuilding is often one of the most admired aspects of fiction and sci-fi. But it’s hard to get right. We don’t want to info dump, copy too closely other fictional worlds, or make a world riddled with ‘world-holes’. Soft worldbuilding, or hard worldbuilding?
How do we get it right?
I’d say, by learning from books that have their worldbuilding on-point.
What can be learnt from the worldbuilding in Howl’s Moving Castle?
Don’t overdo the details.
The world in Howl’s Moving Castle is rich with fantasy, witches, thousand-mile boots, enchanted castles, and crafty demons. But when it comes to the prose, Diana Wynne Jones has provided enough details to paint the scene, without boring readers. Key to how she does this is by what details she has chosen to focus on. Consider when Sophie first enters the castle: the details given the most emphasis are those that have most impact on the overall plot. She notices a fire, a shelf full of objects including a skull, and a chair where she rests for the night. The scene is painted in enough general detail that readers’ minds can fill in the gaps of what the rest of the room looks like. And more context is provided throughout later scenes to add to this foundation. But the details that stand out initially, the fire, skull and her position in her chair, will recur throughout the book (to find out why, you’ll just have to pick up a copy!).
Oftentimes, I see writers fall into the trap of overwriting when it comes to worldbuilding. Overwriting refers to giving too much detail, to the point where a scene is just a straight description of a location or aspect of how the fictional world functions. It can be tempting to want to paint an exact picture of the spaces and world characters occupy. But readers can be trusted to use their imagination—they just need the details that are most importent for them to know in that scene.
In many ways, readers care more about the character’s reaction to that space than having a photographic description. Are they apprehensive, but comforted by the potential refuge they’ve discovered? (as Sophie is when she enters the castle) Or do they attempt to leave immediately, unsettled? Combining some details with reaction makes for a compelling setting as we see characters move through their world.
As you read your writing, ask yourself if you’re focusing too much on the detail of a scene? Are there long passages that are mostly explanations for the reader’s benefit? See if you can trim down these sections, or get a critique partner or beta reader to help you identify if this is a problem in your story.
When possible, subvert expectations
As mentioned above, Howl’s Moving Castle is well aware of the richness of fairytales—but the book also is aware of other expectations readers may hold. Such as how readers might expect Sophie to react to being transformed from a young woman into a wrinkled old lady.
Rather than being horrified, screaming and causing a scene, Sophie is very practical about her enchantment and opts to see the bright side of her sudden elderly state. She doesn’t wait for someone else to rescue her, but actively goes out into the world to take charge of her fate (incidentally the very thing she thing, she thinks she isn’t likely to succeed at).
There’s also quite a bit of subverting when it comes to Howl. Sophie’s own expectations of him are changed throughout the book and, as a Wizard character, his entreprenereal spirit makes it difficult for us readers to find a comparable character in fiction.
Have you ever wished you could read a book again for the first time? Subverting expectations can give your readers that unexpected dart of joy when immersed in the world of your book. This is one of the main reasons I think Howl’s Moving Castle is so whimsical and wonderful. It’s exciting when a character, or world, behaves in a way we didn’t see coming. It breathes a sense of freshness into your work.
Ask yourself what expectations readers may have of the tropes and character types in your story? How can you make changes to subvert those expectations? What kind of expectations do you want readers to have?
Consider how your worldbuilding can play into your book’s theme
Where possible your worldbuilding should interact with the themes of your book, in order to reinforce your overall message.
For Howl’s Moving Castle, one of the themes is to understand that we often need to look beyond appearances to find the truth. This can be seen in Sophie’s enchantment, the way the castle itself functions and moves, as well as in Howl, Michael and countless other examples throughout the book.
For a different example consider how in The Empire of The Vampire by Jay Kristoff, the main character is a washed-up silver saint. A brutal fighter and a drunk. The world he lives in is desolate and in need of redemption, just like him. It’s almost impossible to imagine Gabriel de León’s character functioning as well in a world as whimsical as in Howl’s Moving Castle. It’d be a very different story, that’s for sure.
As you consider your story, ask yourself what kind of world would best highlight the theme of your book? Or, what kind of character would thrive/struggle in the world you’ve created?
The answers to those questions can give your worldbuilding direction, add conflict (all stories need conflict of some kind), and give you room to grow.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a fantastic read overall! The worldbuilding and characters are stellar—which for me made the occasional lull in pacing throughout the book forgivable.
The book was adapted to film in 2005 by Studio Ghibli, which while different from the book in many ways, is its own wonderful story.
Have you read (or watched) Howl’s Moving Castle? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments.
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