MIND MELD: Worldbuilding
This week’s Mind Meld is brought to you in conjunction with the Shared Worlds creative writing program for teens, currently in session at Wofford College. During this program, groups of teens create a ‘shared world’, much like the Wild Cards or Thieves Guild books, then create stories, art and games set in that world. Along the way they learn how to work together to create the world and the assets, and how to solve the problems that come up in a team environment. The first challenge is, of course, building the world, which is the subject of our Mind Meld question this week:
The bulk of my writing is contemporary fantasy, set in the recognizable modern world, but with the addition of magic. As such, traditional worldbuilding doesn’t usually enter into my process. I have to think more about the implications of inserting magic into the
existing world — if people had supernatural powers, what would they do? (“Attempt to use it for personal gain” is the short answer for most of my characters.) How does magic fit into a world of cell phones and the internet and hybrid cars and suspension bridges and mood-altering drugs? Most readers seem to respond well to the wide variety of weird-ass magic I try to pack into my books, and I draw on all sorts of mythologies and magical traditions and psychological pathologies to come up with those forms of magic. And, yeah, I do love writing about pornomancers and foul-rag-and-bone witches and silicon mages and swords that can cut through abstract ideas and people who
can turn into bears….
Atmosphere, hands down. The feel of the world, the emotional response it gets from them. The way it smells, sounds, and looks. The kinds of things that happen there.
I generally world-build in one of two ways. The first is “secret history” (as opposed to alternate history) in which I interlace fictional events with real recorded history, without changing any factual details. The other is in a straight fantasy context, where I create everything.
Although the Company series, which uses the “secret history” model, sells better with a larger audience, oddly enough I get little comment on the world-building aspect of it; people tend to be more interested in the interactions between the characters. I get the most fun out of exploring obscure little corners of history and weaving them into stories, but readers want to know more about the Company operatives than about the amazing true history of the Great Snake God Glycon, for example, who was– swear to God– a sock puppet operated by a couple of ancient Greek con men….
Where I have received a lot of positive feedback is in my fantasy world-building, and this is perhaps because readers appreciate that my fantasy universe is not modeled on Tolkien’s. No elves, dwarves, orcs, feudal political structure. Instead, I’ve drawn on my general knowledge of history, mythology and economic systems to produce something of my own. Radical concept, eh? And a lot of hard work.
Strangeness times plausibility. My readers aren’t just after a good story, though that counts. They want to believe it, at least as long as the story lasts.
The more interesting the story, the less plausible it needs to be.
That’s where the fun is for me, too.
What I hear from people is how much they like the details, the richness of my worlds. Which always strikes me as a vaguely funny, as I subscribe to the shark-in-muddy-waters school of worldbuilding. It’s like the art of the telling detail in developing character, except as applied to setting.
Here’s the metaphor behind that name: You’re standing chest-deep in the brownwater surf of the Gulf of Mexico. The ocean is slapping you with swells, the day is clear, and for the briefest moment, something very big and muscular scrapes your thigh and your heart is chilled.
You don’t need to see the fin, count the teeth, stare into the gelid, dead eye to know how close you just came to disaster. You know it in that one heart-stopping moment.
So it is with worldbuilding. If I give you just *enough* detail, your imagination will color in the rest in vivid terr-O-vision. Or fantasy-rama. Or whatever is suitable to the story.
Another part of this is the common dialect of science fiction. I had a story a while back called Lehr, Rex, which was E.E. “Doc” Smith by way of Phil Dick, if they’d collaborated to rewrite Shakespeare. I used the phrase, “coruscating emanations of this forgotten world’s overbright sun”. You pretty much can’t use the adjective “coruscating” in our field without bringing to mind the Lensman, and all that implies for the world.
So your telling details can be direct — sensory observation or bits of description — but they can also be referential, calling down payloads of association for readers in the know. At the same time, you have to give enough surface attention to the prose that the reader unfamiliar with the field (or the metaphor in play) will still be able to follow the piece without feeling left behind.
At least, that’s the way I play the game. Except when I don’t, of course.
“Worldbuilding”, I’ve got to say, is one of those workshoppy terms that doesn’t have a lot to do with the process of writing as I experience it. In fact, I didn’t encounter the term until relatively recently, and it certainly wasn’t something I was aware of when I started writing professionally. For me, it implies a lot of nasty baggage – reams of notes, calculations, tedious backstory – none of which factor into the way I work. I remember talking to a writer once who could bore for his country on how he’d worked out the precise throughput requirements for the irrigation and sewerage systems of his entirely invented fantasy kingdom. That’s got nothing to do with fiction, as far as I’m concerned. In a similar vein, SF writers – hard SF writers in particular – are often advised to build their planets from the raw atoms upwards, beginning with an orbit around a star, a selection of moons, then factoring in influences like metallicity, presence or absence of
organic compounds, plate tectonics, atmospheric chemistry, magnetism and so on. I don’t work like that at all, which probably doesn’t make me much of a hard SF writer. I’m much more likely to begin with a scene, an image, which I then have to work at to concretize in the reader’s imagination. To give an example (from House of Suns), it might be a far-future city on a planet somewhere else in the galaxy, rising from the twinkling silver-white sand dunes formed by the shattered and pulverised remains of earlier civilisations. At no point am I required to specify the mass or size of this planet, or worry about its orbit around the star. It just is.
For me, it’s much more about texture than about some mind-numbing checklist of stuff you’ve got to work out first. If pressed, I’ll go back and worry about those details later – but only if they’re absolutely germane to the story. Most of my energy, though, will go into “thickening” the sense of place; adding details that imply a three-dimensional world with a history, without ever needing to worry about the intimate facts of that background. This takes time; it’s not something that happens in one draft. Much of the pleasure in rewriting, in fact, lies in precisely this act of thickening; layering in details and references that will hopefully resonate against each other to imply a larger whole.
I guess I’d better answer the question, though. Readers really like the invented societies, technologies and weapons of the Revelation Space universe – the Conjoiners, the lighthuggers and Hell-class weapons, for instance. I like all that stuff as well, and – to a degree – that’s exactly the kind of thing I enjoy doing. I have the most fun when I’m playing with some well-worn SF trope and hopefully doing something new with it. In “Great Wall of Mars”, I really enjoyed rethinking the whole idea of airlocks and spacesuits – how you could essentially combine the two by having a kind of intelligent, nano-tech membrane stretched across the door, which then wraps itself around the astronaut when they want to go outside, forming a kind of blobby, transparent suit. In House of Suns, I played with the idea of dispensing with airlocks and suits entirely, by inventing (with the aid of inertialess fields) something called “whisking”: what if you could be shot between two ships sufficiently quickly that you were only exposed to vacuum for a few milliseconds? You wouldn’t even need a spacesuit. It’s that kind of thing – taking something hackneyed and rethinking it – that gives me many of the best kicks I get as a writer. To a large extent, I think, it even dictates the area of SF I like to work in – the soggy hinterland between soft and hard SF, because that’s where I’m most at liberty to let my imagination fly, without being too tied down by the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of whether or not something might actually be possible. And not unexpectedly, that’s also the kind of SF I most enjoy reading.
I sketch rather than describe in detail, letting the readers confabulate to fill in the whole picture. That makes it a cooperative project between me and the readers — I pitch, they catch — and I think that makes it a more “real” experience than if I had gone into minutiae of how buildings are constructed and the particular design embellishments on an aircar. I try to show my characters interacting normally with a physical and social environment that, for them, constitutes their everyday reality; that puts the reader in the position of being plonked down in a somewhat strange land and having to pick up a sense of what’s going on by following the action. Nobody’s going to stop and explain, via as-you-know-bobbisms, exactly how everything (or anything) works. The characters are too busy pursuing their goals and making the story move.
Well, let me rant for a minute about worldbuilding in general, then I’ll get down to cases.
Worldbuilding is a balancing act between exoticism and familiarity. On the one hand, if you’re building a new world, there’s not much point just recapitulating the real world. Adding in new things — griffins, spiritual parasites, dragons, shared consensual hallucinations, body transfers, whatever — is the point of the exercise. By making the world different, readers (myself included) get to walk into a new environment and be seduced by it.
On the other hand, if the underlying rules are too different from what we know, it’s too hard to relate to. You could, for instance, make a world where people have a new emotion — gemuftheit, say — that is totally unlike any feeling we have here, everyone sees radio waves, and men orgasm every time you throw rocks at their left arm. Thing is, once you’ve changed things that profoundly, there’s no way for readers to identify with it. At best, you end up writing intellectual allegory. At worst, it’s just weird for the sake of weird. The things that I believe need to be held sacrosanct and *not* changed when you’re building a new world are emotions, economics, and basic physics.
Basic physics: If I have two moons in my fantasy world, and they aren’t in the same phase (both full at the same time, say), something very weird is going on which had better be central to the plot. Otherwise, they’ll just think I don’t understand how moons work,
Economics: If I have a huge city in the middle of the wastelands and no farms to supply it, I don’t have a credible world.
Emotions: This is what we read for. Changing the emotional nature of the characters is pretty much a recipe for making them unlikeable.
Beyond that, the field’s pretty open.
Okay. To cases.
The things that are most often praised in my worldbuilding of the Long Price Quartet books are the magic system (I did a world where it’s based on reifying abstract concepts), a secondary language of formal poses that characters use to compliment or replace spoken language, and an overtly oriental set of window dressing.
Of those, the one I had the least fun with was the magic system. It’s the primary difference between the imaginary world and ours, and thinking about how to balance the power of it with the realities of commerce, trade and politics was tricky. The poses were actually pretty easy, and mostly there as an exotic grace note — there’s only one place where they serve a plot function that couldn’t be done with more customary, familiar gestures, and I could have found a way around that if I needed.
The faux-oriental feel of the books was a decision I made to help differentiate them from the other fantasy books on the shelf. That one’s done in small ways — people in the world drink rice wine (sometimes infused with plums) and tea instead of quaffing tankards of mead. It’s all window dressing, and it sets the tone (and because of that the reader’s expectations) by a long series of small details. This is where worldbuilding starts to feather into writing description. Evoking a quasi-oriental tea house (lacquered floors and carved cedar shutters that scent the breeze coming off the ocean) and, for instance, the tech support pit at a small ISP (harsh fluorescent lights, the near-constant ringing of telephones, and a big whiteboard on one wall where someone has written “NO PORN AT WORK UNLESS YOU BRING ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE”) actually exercises all the same skills. Just with different details.
*That* part’s fun.
From the feedback I seem to be getting, readers seem to enjoy seeing some of their favorite tropes re-imagined in the odd ways that I also seem to find fun. The idea of Caribbean Steampunk that pervades Crystal Rain is a bit of an oxymoron, if you think about it. Steampunk’s ethos and sense of style is rooted in the Victorian period, a period where the European powers continued their colonialist behavior throughout the world. While steampower and rail was being introduced, in the colonies forced labor destroyed generations of peoples lives.
This doesn’t mean I’m shunning the trope, I do understand the appeal of Steampunk is not all bad. I’ve read that for some it’s the pastoral fiction of our mega-developed age. That while people from the prior century looked back from planes and WWII of Tolkein toward the simple farms and counryside untouched by technology and lives were simple, our writers today in a world of internet, routers, and spam look back toward a time when machines were physical and simple: you spun dials and belched steam. Steampunk is our pastoral fiction.
This fascination I have with honoring the tropes and worlds I’m playing in, while bringing it up to date for a very different millennium, seems to work for my readers. Burroughs vision of Africa is a deeply flawed one, but that doesn’t change the joy of the pulp fiction he wrote on the level of action/adventure, just the implicit worldbuilding behind it. Writing pulp adventure that speaks to a modern, blended demographic, is where my worldbuilding comes from. Taking these worlds and showing a wide and diverse range of people inhabiting them is what gets me excited, and so far my readers have followed along and seem to be having as much fun as I am.
Yes, so far my impression is that the readers appreciate the same things I do — the worldbuilding predicated on character development and stemming from the characters’ needs and not the other way around. I do believe it is easy to get lost in worldbuilding, and then overstuff the book with details that are neither particularly interesting nor relevant to the plot. I prefer to present the world as the details seen by a viewpoint character — the things they see and perceive, the details that attract their attention. I think it creates a sense of a world beyond this narrow beam, and this helps to imagine the large world outside of the story’s scope.
Readers like that sense of implicit larger whole — at least, this is the impression I got. As far as specific elements are concerned, I think the things that are best received are the ones that have a sense of realness to them. For example, in The Alchemy of Stone the alchemical experiments the character performs have similarities to both alchemical explorations of the past and actual chemical experiments — which gives them a sense of being fantastical and yet plausible. The same with the gargoyles — fantastical, mythical creatures that are made real with their understandable dilemmas and occasional helplessness. Both were really fun to write, and both have received a very positive reader reaction so far.
I think there are three things that readers like most with regard to worldbuilding: overall atmosphere, interesting physical details and spaces their imaginations can fill in.
For me, atmosphere is the part of worldbuilding that I find the most fun. I also think that tinkering with the rules of the world are interesting and worthy, but I think readers only want rules to make intuitive sense. I think that the rules that readers care about are the ones that guide their expectations and tell them whether the world operates with straightforward day logic or numinous and messy night logic. For example, several of my books use rules from faerie folklore. Faeries have rules that are capricious and seemingly arbitrary, but which they can’t defy, like the rule that faeries must tell the truth. For the reader, however, those rules serve the function of setting expectations for the atmosphere of the work. Likewise, I think a lot of thought on the author’s part goes into creating a world that is rich and multilayered, but again, the reader experiences that more as immersive atmosphere than anything else.
I also see readers respond to very specific physical details–often ones they can reproduce or draw–that stand in for the whole work. For an example from the Spiderwick books, kids like to draw the Seeing Stone and the many-lensed monocle because it is a specific and unique object from the series. Or, for another example, they are interested in Kaye’s appearance–her black eyes, green skin and wings is the image most commonly drawn by fans because they think of her appearance as intrinsic to the world.
Most of all, I think my readers like when the world seems big enough that there are places not just for them to visit in their minds, but enough openness that their imaginations can fill in the undescribed places. They like to imagine themselves as the protagonist, sure, but in addition to that, I think they want to see spaces for other characters to have adventures.
Ultimately, I believe that the involving, fun and lengthy worldbuilding that is done by a writer is mostly obscured to a reader — the more organic it feels, the more effective it is. The details that they love are the byproduct of the imaginary world, not its core elements.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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