Jan 12, 2015

The Three Keys to Worldbuilding in The Inheritance Cycle

It took me a good number of weeks, but today I finally finished the 906,057-word-long Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. My basic reason for reading it was curiosity (okay, that would be a reason to read just about any book...but what I mean is, I wouldn't have picked this up just for fun having never heard of it before. It took a lot of convincing for me to finally bite the bullet and read it.) First, so many people were talking about it, and second, it was written by a teenage homeschooler.

I'm not big on the magic thing (a post for another day), so that was the main reason holding me back from reading this series. But I stomached it and read on anyway. I wasn't impressed by the writing, (mechanics-wise) which was amateur, but by the last book it had really gone uphill. While Paolini's writing is not the strongest, he is a master in some regards, and after book one I had to read the rest of the Inheritance Cycle. Curiosity continued to drive me on: I had to crack the mystery of how he was doing this.

'This' refers to the worldbuilding. My greatest impression during books one and two was the vastness full of immense unknowns. How did the author create this so very vast world? His world isn't unusually large for a fantasy book, but he somehow gives this impression of vastness (I don't mean largeness, I mean vastness. Feel the difference?). And I was determined to figure out his secret.

By book three, I was catching on to him. By book four, I had it all figured out. I'm not sure if I would be able to pull it off too, but I did figure out how (I think) he did it.

Beware: there are spoilers ahead. I will mark them for extra safety measures. Also, even if you skip the spoilers, you'll be familiarized with some elements of the story and this is one of those stories that I think is more enjoyable the less you know about it before reading it. Not a big concern, but just a warning in case that's important to you. The reader experience, y'know?

Anyway, let's get started.

The key to this vastness and unknownness is just that: vastness and unknownness. I know, that was lame... But let me explain. I'll use the Beor Mountains for example. They are huge. Like, ten miles tall huge. (Or were they bigger? I kind of lost track of all the measurements in the dwarves' home...). That's amazing, right? But it wouldn't be nearly as amazing (I don't think) if there weren't other mountain ranges of more normal proportions to compare it to. Yes, there were multiple mountain ranges.

So, Key No. 1: Size. Make big things in your world. Then make more (lots more), but bigger. Way bigger.

And this brings us to our next point. Paolini has just...tons of STUFF in his books. So many things come in huge quantities, and then on top of that, they're all different. Take all his races and species and creatures, for example. He has humans, elves, dwarves, Urgals (and Kull), dragons, werecats, and then Shades, the Ra'zac and the Lethrblaka, the spirits, and more. He has those mega-critters in the Beor Mountains to match the mountain range's size (the Feldunost and those big boars and bears). And he doesn't have just dragons, either; he has the wild dragons and that sea dragon sort of thing too (sorry, I don't remember all the different names). And a whole other slew of creatures on Vroengard. Like the burrow grubs. *shudders* I'm not going to forget those things in a while. Quantity, people. Quantity. The more the merrier.

But keep in mind that he didn't sacrifice quality for quantity in his world, either. Sure, he has some crazy creatures, but none of them are belief-suspendingly-crazy. Unless magic is involved, but he still doesn't make them silly crazy. They're still worthy of respect, even if they're pushing the limits of physical reality. Like the burrow grubs. *starts screaming*

Key No. 2: Quantity. But don't throw away quality at quantity's expense.

The third key to Paolini's vast world has to do with the unknown. The unknown is frightening. And Paolini capitalizes on this fear and uses it to strike awe in his readers' hearts as they wade through his very vast and mysterious world.

****Vague Ra'zac spoilers****

Just think; by the end of book one, nobody had even seen what the Ra'zac looked like; they were still wreathed in legend, and it was only in book two that we found out the extent of their physical repulsiveness (yeah, as if they could be more repulsive than they are in book one). And after they were seen and their eating habits were established, we still didn't know anything about their mysterious mounts for awhile. And it was in book three that their home was explored and they were finally killed. And in book four we found out the terrible, horrible root of their repulsiveness.
Always, through it all, we knew that there was something worse about them than was first apparent. And each time that we found out a new thing about them, we knew there was more. And even when we thought we knew it all, there was still more, and this was worse than everything else about them.
****End vague Ra'zac spoilers****

The Ra'zac were only one of many, many unknowns in Paolini's world. It seemed like every time a mystery was solved, there was another to replace it. Usually more than one to replace it, actually. And this dovetails with Key No. 2.

Key No. 3: The unknown. And when the unknown becomes known, replace it with even more unknown.
****Exremely Major Spoiler (highlight to reveal)****

The series even ends with a finale blast of unknown. Eragon leaves the world he knows, (notice: the world he knows; it's no longer full of the unknown for him) to go find a new, as-of-yet unknown place. It's in keeping with the rest of the story and is thus beautiful.

****End Extremely Major Spoiler****

So there you have it: the three keys to Paolini's vast world: size, quantity, and the unknown. I could probably write a whole book on my findings in depth, but this is the meat of the mystery. I hope you find it helpful in your own worldbuilding enterprises! I know I will.

Have you read the Inheritance Cycle? What did you learn from it? Have you ever set out on a mission to unlock an author's authorly secrets? Spill in the comments!

-- E. C. Jaeger

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