World Building – What Do Plutarch and Shakespeare have to do with Game of Thrones?

 March 8, 2018

Shakespeare was a world builder – he created worlds for his audience to enter. They entered enchanted forests, encountered witches, spirits and nymphs and traveled through time through the many volumes of historical plays he wrote.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love William Shakespeare. I studied Shakespeare in high school and college and have been attending the Michigan Shakespeare Festival since the second year of its existence. That was over twenty years ago, back when it was the Jackson Shakespeare Festival. My children had parts in different productions and I’ve been volunteering at the festival for the past ten years. Still I’m far from an expert on the subject so I enjoy the Bard talks before the performances where I can listen to the real experts.

Julius Caesar and Plutarch’s Lives

Last year before the performance of Julius Caesar, the artistic director for the festival, Janice Blixt, explained to us how back in Shakespeare’s time everybody was crazy about Plutarch’s Lives. They would gather in the local drinking establishment and someone would read from Plutarch’s Lives to excited audiences. She compared it to people watching Game of Thrones in our current day. Since few people could read, they had to gather at pubs to listen to others continue the story.

Plutarch’s Lives consisted of 23 pairs of biographies, each biography featuring a Greek and a Roman leader. It was an epic, as is Game of Throne. Everyone knew the characters and if you left one of those characters out, they would let you know about it. This is where Shakespeare comes in.

When he wrote Julius Cesar, he needed to include those characters whether they moved the plot forward or not. If he didn’t include them, his audience would have complained. Imagine leaving out one of the favorite characters, even minor ones, in Game of Thrones. We get caught up in the story, come to know the characters. They become family, including weird sisters, twisted uncles, black sheep. We miss them if they are not included. The longer the story, the more complicated it becomes as new characters are brought in but you can’t leave out other characters unless you kill them off.

Shakespeare had a lot more time to deal with this within his writing than we do today. His audience would stand for hours, enjoying the latest play. He wasn’t competing with the multitude of shows and movies on TV, all clamoring to gain an audience. His plays would go on for five hours, creating a challenge for those who put on his plays today. And so he could include these characters regardless of whether they moved the plot along. Today his plays need to be cut to fit within a two to three hour time frame, leaving out some of those beloved characters.

World Building – Mid-West America!

I’ve been appreciating this as I continue to write books in my series. When writers talked of world building in the past, I would think, that doesn’t apply to me. That’s for fantasy and science fiction where you create whole new worlds. I’ve since come to realize that world building is precisely what I’m doing with my series. I have created a world of my own making, set in the current time in a Midwest city, but still my own world.

As I add new characters, it can be a challenge to include other characters that my readers have come to know and expect to be part of this world. I don’t have the luxury of going on for hours with each book, which requires me to carefully weigh out:  What do I cut because it doesn’t move the plot forward? What do I keep because it moves the series forward?

I’m not writing an epic saga set in a new world, nor am I writing an extensive history. I’m just writing stories about middle class families in a Midwestern city, much like many other families in America. Still I am world building and have to consider that in each book of the series.

What about you? How do you deal with multiple characters in a series? What is your experience with world building?


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