Welcome back world builders!
If you’re among my Southern hemisphere readers, then sorry, I know this weeks post is a late one. But it’s still Wednesday over on the Northern part of the world for a while yet!
A lot of things pointed me in the direction of talking about plants over the last two weeks. The seed was originally planted by Rachael, (I’m not apologising for the pun), and then I started thinking about plants in fiction.
As circumstance would have it, a few days late I noticed one of my workmates was reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is an author whose other works I’ve already used as an example of brilliant world building. The setting of Oryx and Crake is a future where the effects of global warming have taken their toll. The virulent and hostile plant life that populates Atwood’s world is something of a footnote to the larger story at play, but it prompted me to mention my intention to write about plants to him.
He then mentioned a book I’d never heard of before, Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. This book took world-building with plants to an entirely new level, and as I began to read and explore it (I haven’t finished yet so no spoilers here!) I knew I was going to have to write about plants.
Aldiss imagines a world where the Earth has suddenly become fixed on its axis, with one side now forever facing the sun. The world he conjures up completely defies the natural laws of physics. There is little that is scientifically accurate in this overgrown jungle he depicts, with omnivorous plants that have begun to evolve eyes and nervous systems and wiped out most of the animal kingdom. But what it is, is captivating and vivid (and the realism of our world doesn’t matter so much in a fictional world stuck on its axis.)
But even if plants themselves aren’t the central plot of your story, experimenting with flora can provide you with all kinds of unique and interesting elements to help add character and flavour to your world.
Botany Basics – Plants as food and decoration
Plants form a part of our daily lives. We eat them, we see them in the world around us. We might even grow some at our desk or on our balcony. Unless our characters are living in a completely barren and desolate wasteland, they’re likely to encounter some kind of plant life on their journey.
Even if we’re not creating brand-new, exotic and impossible flowers and trees to populate our world, spending time describing plant life helps paint a picture of a living world.
The vegetables in the salad, the flowers in the vase. Actually describing these things with a little detail can add depth and colour, even when writing about the real world.
In 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s mention of the rubber plant helps tie together different moments in the life of Aomame, and lets the reader see the different sides of her as her story unravels and her character evolves.
There’s plenty of fascinating plants you can use to populate your fictional garden that exist right here. The titan arum from Indonesia, is a huge white and purple trumpet. The plant blooms only a few times in it’s forty-odd year life cycle. The species Hydnora Africana is bright orange and looks like some three pronged alien lifeform. It doesn’t perform photosynthesis and instead uses a host plant to gain its nutrients. A perfect candidate if you’re looking for a potato-like plant with an added creep factor.
But what if you are looking to create new, and different species of flora for your world?
Plant Life – Talking trees and singing flowers
You can learn a lot of things from the flowers~
That’s right, I’m quoting Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. As a child I was dazzled by the singing peonies and pansies in Wonderland’s magical woods and gardens, and even today I think that Lewis Carroll did a marvelous job of imagining the personalities for the different flowers. His mushrooms too, held their own importance and magnificence both from a descriptive point of view, and for the plot.
J.K Rowling’s Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series is another great example of manipulating a plant that already exists in reality to flesh out a fictional world.
Sentient and communicative plant life has been used all throughout fiction, and if you’re looking for sources out there beyond Middle Earth, Wonderland and the pages of novels, then you’ll find plenty in video games and comics.
For example, the Sylvari, a playable race in Guild Wars II. They’re omnivorous humanoid plant people, with sap for blood and petals for hair, who glow at night. Rather than being born, like humans, they grow in pods on The Pale Tree, and emerge from them fully-formed.
The combination of plant and humanoid traits that the creators of the game blended help create an interesting race with a rich lore that differs a bit from the classic high fantasy of Tolkein’s Ents.
Another of my favourite takes on humanoid plants is Alan Moore’s reimagining of Swamp Thing. In Moore’s story-lines, Swamp Thing is not the scientist Alec Holland, caught in his laboratory explosion. He’s more than that. He’s one of hundreds since the dawn of humanity. Servants of the Parliament of Trees, protectors of the green and all life on earth. Creatures composed entirely of plant-matter, and able to control plant life and grow new bodies for themselves. When I first read Moore’s Swamp Thing, I was immediately struck by the way he had drawn on classical myths like the Dryad and the World Tree to create not only Swamp Thing, but the Parliament of Trees.
These creations are central to the wider world that Moore built for his stories in the DC universe. Tying in with other elements and characters to connect the impossible world these heroes share, and give it the sense of realism and movement that is sometimes missing from comic book storylines.
I hope this weeks post has shown you just how fun flora can be when we’re building worlds and narratives, and given you some ideas about places you can look to find some inspiration if you’re thinking about using plants in your creations!
Big thanks to my wonderful friends who helped with this post! Rachael, (Elam Bonebright), for the great idea and the beautiful illustrations of plants, and Daarka, for the gorgeous portraits of her Sylvari characters. Don’t forget to click the links to check out more of their stuff!
Until next time, happy world building!