MIND MELD: The Rules of Worldbuilding
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
In fiction, especially Fantasy, SF, and the like, part of the joy of reading is the sometimes vast, and complicated, worlds that authors create. However, there are certain “rules” that seem to apply to this process, and io9 recently published an article called 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding, which made me wonder what authors and readers thought about the subject, what kind of “rules” they use in their writing, and also what they like to see in their reading. So I asked them:
Here’s what they said…
For me, worldbuilding has to add to the narrative. For example, there is no point in telling me the ins-and-outs of a new plant species unless it is eaten or used for medicinal purposes in the story. Likewise, there is no need to spend ten pages explaining a piece of technology if it is never mentioned again.
My young adult novel When the World was Flat (and we were in love) is set in our world, but – at the risk of sharing spoilers – it also includes an alternate world with a re-imagined history. This alternate world is the catalyst for the relationship between the two main characters and all of the worldbuilding is connected to the events in the story.
My work-in-progress (WIP) goes one step further than When the World was Flat (and we were in love), as it is set in a world with a re-imagined history. This means breaking the rules of our current world (e.g. everyone eats ice-cream three times a day instead of just for dessert), but with good reason (e.g. the world is run by kids). I promise that is not the premise of my WIP!
I loved the worldbuilding in the Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy by Carrie Ryan, because it showed the separation of societies in a post apocalyptic world by distance and therefore culture. They even have different names for the zombies in each region, e.g. the Unconsecrated, Mudo and Plague Rats.
- My first rule of worldbuilding is actually my first rule of writing, period: it’s all about the characters. Worldbuilding, or exploring a world, has to do something to characters, to move or propel them in some way, or to reflect something in the characters themselves. If you do a piece of really elaborate worldbuilding for no reason other than to do it, then it has all the meaning and effect of a big glob of icing in your mouth: it’s nice, yeah, but it gets old the more you chew on it and you quickly want something with some more substance.Example: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Every situation the characters encounter causes them to think, contemplate, and change. The situations say something about the characters and the world.
Exception: Douglas Adams’s The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That’s a book that is more than happy to disappear down inconsequential rabbit holes. Though it’s quite possible the most important character in that book is the narrator, Adams himself.
- The second rule would be that familiarity breeds contempt. The more one knows about your world, the less effect or sensation it inspires. To know everything about a world is to completely remove it of all allure. So, only tell readers what they really need to know, or whatever’s needed to propel the characters or the plot. Tantalizing hints are completely acceptable, and even encouraged – though one has to walk a fine line with this, because if you hint at too much that’s never fulfilled or engaged in the story, then it’s a tease. The trick is to suggest that there’s a lot happening beyond the page, but that’s not where everything is happening.Example: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Gaiman is damn good at this. It might even be his forte. He’s good at tossing off tantalizing, mysterious hints that will almost always go unexplored – except when they do get explored, in which case they have huge, huge ramifications for the plot that totally blow your mind.
Exception: I can’t think of one. If any of the three rules is unbreakable, it’s this one.
- My third rule of worldbuilding – and this is probably where I break from 90% of people who do any worldbuilding at all – is that it should all be in the text. IE, no maps, appendices, legends, dictionaries, family trees, or any other companion material that you have to have to navigate the story. If a story twist means I have to go looking for an atlas to figure out what the hell it means, that means you just made me break from the text. This CAN be done well, but boy howdy, you sure can overdo it – I feel like with a generation of writers raised by RPGs, some just assume that you can click “World Map” in the corner of the page to figure out where the next quest point is in the story. But that’s not a story, that’s a game.Example: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Only one of the fifty-some-odd novels has a map, but it doesn’t need it: where things are doesn’t matter as much as who’s doing what and why.
Exception: Susana Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is not really an exception, as the ancillary text (the 100+ footnotes) bulls its way to the forefront to often become the primary text. But it has an amazing effect, due to how closely the footnotes follow rule 2, listed above.
I came to science fiction and genre through worldbuilding. In the quartet of Plot, Character, Setting and Language, Setting was and to a extent remains my first love. Once upon a time, if you had a Playground of the Imagination,to use the Niven term, you had me as a reader. As I grew and developed as a reader over the years, I began to see other virtues in science fiction and fantasy. But even today, get the worldbuilding right, and you will have a better chance of hooking me as a reader than if you ignore the important details.
When I was first handed a copy of the LOTR Trilogy plus Hobbit and I saw the map of the area around the Lonely Mountain in the frontispiece of the Hobbit, I was immediately transported to Middle-Earth What and where were all of these places, what were they like, and would the characters be visiting them? I was as enchanted by the locations Bilbo and Thorin’s Company didn’t get to see as those they did. And of course the idea of a map with secret moon-letters on it that is plot-significant just intensified and helped crystallize my love for maps in epic fantasy novels. It made me expect them, and want them, even if, unlike The Hobbit, few of them ever made the map an actual plot device inside of the story.
The map may not be the territory, but for fantasy novels, especially epic ones, the map is where the world begins with me. Sure, the late Diana Wynne Jones made fun of the excesses of fantasy maps in her seminal The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Excesses with maps and their use aside, geography is important to me as a reader. I like to visualize the layout of the world and the region, as a way of helping to ground me in that space. Kate Elliott’s novels, most recently the Spiritwalker novels [Cold Magic, Cold Fire and Cold Steel] get this absolutely right and the ice-age map of the world is absolutely crucial to the characters and the rest of the world.
Another crucial element to worldbuilding for me is food and drink. What does the character eat? What does she like to drink? What does that say about the culture? What does it say about the character? What are the rituals of breaking bread, one of the oldest things, if not the oldest things humans have ever done in groups? Too many fantasy novels are content with rations and the like, or worse, have the dreaded “stew” on a long epic fantasy journey.
Laura Anne Gilman understands that food is important to characters, and drink is as well. In her Vineart War series [Flesh and Fire, Weight of Stone, The Shattered Vine], the magic system comes from wine. But even beyond it as a magic system and a source of magic, the rituals and importance of wine as a drink, as a cultural marker, as a class distinction, come through clearly. Vinearts drink differently than rich merchants, who drink differently than lower classes. They drink different things, drink in different ways, and have different reactions to what they drink.
In N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology [The Killing Moon, The Shadowed Sun], the rituals of food and drink are important in Gujaareh. In addition, we get to see types of food and drink from a cultural matrix that is relatively uncommon in fantasy fiction. The vaguely Egyptian food and drink help us immerse and get comfy with the culture she presents. I visited a local Ethiopian restaurant after reading The Killing Moon , craving some Doro Wat and Injera after the power of Jemisin’s descriptions and evocations of the food in her novel.
Finally, the nuts and bolts of the world, be it technology in the case of Science Fiction, or the Magic system in a fantasy novel, are important to me, too. I get frustrated with too much handwavium, when it comes to the technical details of a starship, or if a magic system just seems to have no limits, rules and boundaries whatsoever. Those crunchy details help bring a world alive for me. You can drown in the minutiae, and overdo it (just like any worldbuilding element) but I do like to have a skeleton of the nuts and bolts to think about. For one thing, it shows an author has thought through the consequences and implications of what they are unleashing upon their world.
Brandon Sanderson, with his laws of magic systems, is one of the exemplars of thinking through a magic system, its limitations, boundaries, strengths, weaknesses and consequences. Be it the Allomancy of the Mistborn series[The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages, The Allow of Law ] ,or the Surgebinding of the Stormlight Archive novels [The Way of Kings] , it’s clear the author has thought through the magic with care, and turned them nearly into scientific disciplines, as detailed they are. Allomancy even has a page on Brandon’s website detailing the finer aspects of the system.
In terms of recent science fiction, the team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck as James S.A. Corey has the right balance of technical geekery without going too deep into pages and pages about the fusion drive. There’s lot of cool and neat tech in the Expanse series [Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate] and its described just enough to get the cool factor, and make the technical details plot-relevant and important. Power armor. Mysterious Alien tech. Ganymedan farms. Colonized Asteroids. And the spaceships! Just to name one beauty, I just love the Rocinante, former Martian warship turned free vessel for Captain Holden and company.
Even though I key on characters a lot these days, get the worldbuilding bits right, and I will remember them long after the story or novel are done.
As a reader, I tend to look for the same things in world building as I do in characterization. Just as good characterization lets me know the characters existed before the first sentence of the story, good world building lets me know this place is larger than just this particular story. The worldbuilding is the context in which everything else happens. Most English words on their own don’t carry much context or connotation within them, leaving the reader one hundred percent dependent on the author to give those words and stories and people a context, or a world, in which to exist. On the flip side, excellent worldbuiling should blend into the background. If it’s infodumped or pointed to, the illusion is broken. In other words: show, don’t tell.
If I can close my eyes and be there, you’ve succeeded. It’s funny, I almost think of Worldbuilding as what a blind person mightexperience: What does the market smell like? Are hems of clothing clogged with dust or mud? Is someone angry because this is the fourth ship in a row to arrive with no coffee on board? Do the slave traders specifically advertise at the heights of the carried palanquins? Are people on foot or riding animals?
Or: Are the Roombas of the spaceship automatically programmed to clean the hallways, or are the crew members sick and tired of tripping over trash and loose wiring, or watching cobwebs collect in the cargo holds? Where are they going and do they actually want to go there? Is the ship part of a military mission, are they hauling freight, are they exploring new worlds and new civilizations, is the ship so big that everyone has to run because if they walked the movie would be over before they got there?
That all sounds like “description”, and it is, but it’s also worldbuilding. It tells me where I am in the world in which the story takes place. It gives me context, and I am all about the context.
Who does it right? Plenty of people. Robin Hobb, Scott Lynch, James S. A. Corey, and China Miéville are just a few who immediately come to mind. I appreciate that Hobb’s trilogies all take place in different areas of a larger world. Cities I visited in one book are referenced in another book, and I can say to myself “I’ve been there! Wow, that character has no idea what they’re talking about, that place is nothing like that”, or some such. Time passes as well, and it’s neat to see how the world changes over the course of generations. In Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series the characters are always have adventures in different places, showing us different cultures, languages, foods, and politics. It’s amazing how much worldbuilding you can cram into how someone introduces themselves, and what they offer you to eat or drink (or if they make the offer in the first place). Corey is in my mind because I recently finished The Expanse trilogy, where we’re giving multiple viewpoints of how people of different backgrounds view everything that happens, it’s an excellent example of “three characters, four opinions”. China Mieville’s worldbuilding is so dense and descriptive I often feel like I’m swimming through Bas-Lag instead of walking the streets or catching a ride on The Armada.
Those are just a few of many authors who succeed wildly when it comes to capturing my imagination and transporting me. Most of the ones I mentioned are known for their series books, which makes me wonder if a series of doorstopper books simply give the author more opportunity to develop the architecture of the world.
Thinking about Worldbuiling I can’t help but remember the first time I watched Babylon5. I remember asking someone “Why does Mollari have a different accent from the other Centauris?” and the response was “Does everyone on Earth speak with the same accent?” Someone’s accent, such a tiny aspect, whether built into the character by J. Michael Straczynski or ad-libbed by Peter Jurasik, it pulled me in like a gravity well. That was some subtle worldbuilding, and oh so effective.
In my former, pre-authorial life, I wrote scripts for teen/tween genre TV shows, as well as back-of-DVD synopsis copy for a couple thousand feature films and a boat-load of trailers. (Here’s a thing: trailers used to be shown after the main attraction; thus: trailers. Then theater owners realized audiences weren’t sticking around to watch.) Anyway, this dual-focus background fed directly into the way I constructed the world/starship stages on which my Zenn Scarlett books play out. So, that’s the clunky prologue to whatever insights I have to offer.
My DVD movie-synopsi-phizing and trailer scripting made me value economy. Concision. It’s good. And this goodness applies in most cases to ladling out world-bits. Give readers just enough to form a picture. (A juicy, richly limned picture, of course.) I tried to let my world take shape underneath the action in tasty little slices, then moved along. So, a deal-breaker here would be tossing more buckets-full of worldly detail onto your hapless reader than the narrative will bear. And this is where a beta reader or editor comes in really handy because, at least in my case, I love all my little word-babies to death… and the more there are, the cuter they look.
Then: my experience with cranky, time-stressed TV show story editors taught me to pay meticulous attention to the show bible. This tome lays out all relevant data re: the series’ pre-fab world, story arcs, characters and their backstories, exposition, blah blah blah, so when I came to the Great Novel Plunge, I was schooled in show-biblical-fidelity and the yawning hell awaiting any writer who strays into apostasy. I think this predisposed me to aiming for exhaustive familiarity with my world via my own never-writ-down but mainly in-my-head story bible, which in turn encouraged the giving of lots of attention, sometimes unconsciously (due to aforementioned familiarity) to economically showing the reader how my world worked, and what led to this world working the way it does.
It will come as no surprise that all world-descriptors in my third-person-limited POV story is presented to the reader straight from my main character’s frontal cortex and associated sensory inputs. Zenn is my girl on the scene, in every scene; so everything reaches the readers through her eyes, ears, nostrils, epidermis. The trick, such as it is, lies in conveying the sensation of riding around in her head, seeing the world entirely, relentlessly, credibly from her point of view. I.e., when she considers the part of the Valles Marineris where the Ciscan Cloister exovet school is located, she thinks about it/relates to it all in entirely unexceptional, everyday ways. I need the reader to feel “oh, familiar place, usual smells, comfy, well-worn reality all around.” And, yes, not all at once. And yes, in relationship to the past as lived by colonists on Mars (as far as Zenn understood this history). And I know: “credibly” is the evasive, leering leprechaun of writerly technique in the above nugget, but we all need to find out how to net that rascally little hobgoblin and force him/her to cough up the cauldron of world-crafting-gold in our own special leprechaun-throttling way, don’t we?
Or it’s like this: Your world is another character. And, like characters, worlds should generally show, not tell (and, OK, that’s a so-simple-it-don’t-mean-much writer’s t-shirt slogan, but that’s another Meld for another time). Don’t make your world spout annoyingly obvious clichés. And don’t have it talk to other worlds and say stuff like “As you know, Procyon Prime, I myself am infested with xenophobic parasitical hairless primates whose greed and bogus farming methods are really screwing with my soil arability quotient.” Or maybe it’s like this: World-building is akin to a cinematic score. It’s there, it adds immeasurably to the experience, it shapes the emotional impact of every single chapter, scene and beat, but it’s humming along beside your gentle reader in such a smooth, polite, accommodating way that he/she doesn’t notice it exists.
Easier said than done? Well, sure, and we all drop some steaming constructo-piles onto our manicured story-lawns now and then, but overall I feel like the writing career I wallowed through previously put some helpful foundations in place (be brief, be evocative, don’t be dump-ish). All of which gave me at least a short leg up on the process before I set up my theodolite, squinted along its range-finder and said “Oh yeah, I see some frakkin’ cool word-world architecture that’s gonna be goin’ up right… over… there….”
As for worlds I found especially immersive: Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for the way it crafted such cool alt-history with so few sentences, Tolkien, for his pitch-perfect linguists’ mastery, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders for making you deeply feel the insular despair of her abandoned colony, most of Cormac McCarthy and William Boyd and, frankly, this list could just go on and on so I’ll just say thanks for letting me drop by, good night and good luck.
I’m a sucker for rich, complex, dynamic worlds. I love stories that have high stakes – stakes not just for the characters involved, but for a broader landscape, and that inevitably requires high quality world building. So what sticks out for me?
- Put Your World Under Tension – All stories need tension. All good characters need to be put through tension. And in a story with a rich world, the world itself is an important character. So put your world under tension. What pressures are threatening to rip it apart? What discontent is simmering in the streets? What wars are brewing? What threats are looming just beyond the borders or just over the horizons?George R. R. Martin does this in A Song of Ice and Fire. From the very first scene of the very first book we see that the Others are real, and supernatural, and stirring after millennia. Almost the entirety of the first book goes by without another hint of the supernatural, yet we know that threat is there, and building, and threatening to engulf the world.
In Nexus I layer in tension showing this struggle over advanced biotech and nanotech – how they’ve been used in dangerous ways, how laws have been passed to constrain them, but how the science has just moved underground, and the research is still moving forward illegally, until a conflict is bound to happen.
Do that. Think about the forces and tensions throughout your world, show them off, and use them to raise the stakes throughout the story.
- Show Your World From Multiple Perspectives – Any real world is too large, too multi-faceted, and too full of contradictions to show properly from just one point of view. If you really want to immerse a reader in a world, take the chance to show it from multiple angles. If you do it right, those perspectives will add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.Maybe the greatest example of this is Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, where Simmons borrows the structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The novel is really 6 stories, told in sequence, by a set of pilgrims who meet on a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion hoping to meet a semi-mythical called the Shrike. Those stories are very different – a soldier, a scholar, a diplomat, a poet, a private detective, a priest. At the beginning of each they seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. Yet each story paints in a different part of this extremely large and intricate world that Simmons has built. And through those different perspective you piece a different and far richer and more nuanced view of this world than you ever possibly could have through one perspective alone. And as an added bonus, by giving you those multiple perspectives, he can drop different clues to the mysteries at the heart of the novel, letting you slowly piece things together as the pieces of the world snap together in your head.
Not everyone can or wants to write a novel of that complexity. But if your world matters to you, show it off from more than one pair of eyes, and more than one way of thinking.
- Show Conflicting Perspectives – To amplify the above point, some of my favorite novels are those where the different perspectives you see are quite in conflict with one another. They might be characters who have different goals. Or they might be characters who see what’s going on very differently. Either they have a different understanding of what’s right and wrong, or they may even have a different perspective on the facts.Why do I like this? Well, real life is like that. In fiction we so often fall into hero / villain. But in the real world the conflict is often much more complex, between different forces that have their own goals, that have their own legitimate reasons for wanting what they want, that have their own historical reasons for believing what they believe.
In Nexus and Crux I try very hard to do this with perspectives of the government agents working to keep the Nexus brain-linking technology and other nano- and biotech illegal versus the perspectives of the young scientists and activists trying to improve it and release it to the world. Everyone has their own perspective. And while you mostly see the story from the point of view of someone who is very much in favor of improving on the technology and getting it out into the world, you also see a lot from the point of view of someone whose life was scarred by the mis-use of similar technologies, and from government agents who sincerely believe that cracking down on this kind of tech is their duty to help protect humanity. There aren’t that many black and white bad guys, for a reason.
Stephen R. Donaldson, in his “The Real Story” series, does another variant on this – letting you see the same sequence of events, in some cases, from two or even three different perspectives. The first time, you think you know what happened, and why, and who the good guys and bad guys are. But as you see the events again, your mind changes just a little bit. You don’t do a 180 degree turn, by any means. But your sympathies shift. That’s good storytelling in my mind.
- Build Your World – Then Change It – Everyone knows that a character that doesn’t change throughout a story is boring. We may love their dry wit or their super skills or something else about them for a while. But in the end, if we don’t see them grow or evolve in some way (even for the worse), then we’ll tire of them.Well, the same is true for your world. Especially if your story is one about large stakes and about a world, then you have to show how the world changes. Let that tension build the breaking point. Show us all those different views on the world. Let us care about those different parts of the world that are in conflict. Then bring that conflict to a head, just as you bring the tension in your individual characters’ story arcs to a head, and then, through the action of the characters or through the things they see happen, leave the world different, somehow, even if in a small way.
Think about the most epic science fiction and fantasy stories you’ve ever read. Whether it’s Dune or Harry Potter, Hyperion or The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings or WOOL, they all change the world through the course of the story. When you close the covers of those books, or turn off your kindle, or whatever you do, you know that the characters have changed, and that the world has changed, that it’s a different place, for evermore.
That’s how you write a world.
I work terribly hard at getting my world-building to seep through the narrative. I see it as an immersion process for the reader, rather and an instructional lesson. To me, the most often-committed sins are when writers’ drop in chunks of world-building exposition that don’t have anything to do with the actual storyline, and/or leave gaping logic flaws in the physics or the history of the world. A writer needs to know a lot more about the world than the reader, then find a way to distil what is important.
I must admit to being far more tempted by strange and exotic worlds over traditional fantasies. Once the horse and cart, spoked wheels and medieval window dressing comes out to play, I quite often go for a nap.
There have been SO SO many world’s that I’ve loved in my journey as a reader of speculative fiction, but I’ll name just a few that stand out; Rama, Ringworld, South East Asia in Divine Endurance and Flowerdust, Vermillion Sands, Hyperion, 15th century alternate history Earth in Ash by Mary Gentle, and Arrakis.
I’m not one for obsessive map-building or planning large-scale landscapes in minute detail, but I do try to maintain a certain amount of logic into my build: I’ll refer to similar real-life geography if I can, just to make sure I don’t do anything deeply silly, and I maintain a mental image of the overall geography so that I can tweak elements to suit the narrative without falling prey to any disastrous mistakes that might pull a reader out of the story. I’m lucky in that I live in a part of the world where I can physically travel to (old and brutally weathered) mountains, hills, deserts and forests in less than ten hours by car simply by picking a direction—the South-West of Australia is a place of unending majesty and beauty in so many ways—so it’s relatively easy for me to experience geographical extremes firsthand, and I’ve been kicking around this part of the world for 30 years now, so a lot of that experience is internalised.
The most important part of world-building, for me, is that the landscape mirrors or contrasts, in some way, the internal journey the character is undertaking. For me, a story involves characters in action across a setting—that setting is *important*, and can be used to great narrative effect. The worst thing the landscape can be is passive, a simple blank canvas for the action taking place in front of it. Setting should be an active participant in the story I’m telling.
That said, the act of world-building that most gets my goat is the ‘single-feature’ build: desert planets and ice worlds with no variation in tone or shading. I know there are planets and planetoids in our real Universe that consist only of one broad type of geography— our Mars is not my grandfather’s Barsoom– but too often this type of world becomes a narrative ‘white room’, where the setting becomes little more than white noise to be ignored. I’m not saying I automatically discard any story that lacks this feature—Kim Stanley’s Robinson’s “Red Mars” is a master class in how to take a single-feature world and give texture and intonation to that simple landscape– only that it’s often a lazy way of not having to think about the world in which the action takes place.
Some of the settings that have fired my imagination, as a reader, have been those that have most directly shaped the narrative. Brian Aldiss’ “Hothouse” and “Barefoot in the Head” are favourites, as is KJ Bishop’s “The Etched City” and Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” quadrology, particularly the sections set in Nessus and Thrax, and in the Autarch’s palace grounds. Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels and the world of China Meiville’s Bas-Lag stories both fascinate me. One world that does little for me, to be honest, is Pratchett’s Discworld: I love the stories, but the setting itself is little more than a canvas for whatever point he’s making. It doesn’t take over the books, doesn’t infuse them with anything—it’s a sort of default 19th century British view of London and the Empire that doesn’t translate into anything beyond the satire of the text itself.
I am possibly the worst person to ask about worldbuilding, since I tend to start with characters and character relationships, then spin a sort of pearl of plot around those. I’m constantly getting bright ideas, then contradicting them and having to go back and ret-con after the fact to explain how having done so actually makes sense. Case in point: in my first novel, A Book of Tongues, I began the Hexslinger series by establishing that the main reason magicians don’t rule the alternate world in which these books take place is that they’re physically incapable of cooperation–put two hexes in proximity and they will try to parasite off of each other, the stronger literally sucking all the magic out of the weaker. By the end of Book, however, I’d broken this rule by creating a way for magicians to work together; in the next two books (A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones), a great deal of plot was taken up with exploring how the parameters of this new option, demonstrating first-hand how it did–and didn’t–work.
Luckily, my husband is an RPG geek, so when I run into really bad logic trouble, I talk things out with him. But my first impulse is always to the poetic, the metaphorical, the best image, the hardest emotional kick in the gut, and this doesn’t often mix well with doing worldbuilding the right way–ie, figuring out things beforehand, instead of having to cobble them together by the seat of your pants while already firmly in forward motion.
That said, for me, the primary “sin” of worldbuilding is definitely the unearned save. There’s this idea that to invoke a deus ex machina is always taking the easy way out, but the fact is, some systems do allow for it (Greek mythology being the primary case in point). If you’ve established that there’s a particular way to kill a particular monster, then every monster of that type should be subject to it, or I want to know why. Similarly, if you’ve established that every person who does a particular thing a particular way will suffer life-threatening injuries, then damnit, that goes for everyone–even the people you love best. And if you’re going to test that thesis, you better work for it.
I always think about the sequence in James Cameron’s The Abyss in which Ed Harris has swum over from the pod with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio on his back; he has a suit, she doesn’t, and she’s basically agreed to let him drown her on the assumption that he may be able to resuscitate her later on. Turns out that he can, but man, it takes a while, as it should. (She should also probably have brain damage, but that’s a different story.) Cameron later pushes things by having Harris appear to die in a suit that’s running out of air, only to bring in deep-sea creatures to rescue him–but since he’s established these creatures and their magical-seeming tech already, I’m okay with it. Or maybe I’m just okay because I love the two of those characters a lot, and I’ll gladly suspend logic to get what I want.
So what do I want to see, and what’s a total dealbreaker? I think you have to have that delicate balance of either complex yet believable (or at least intriguing) structural detail and a bunch of people to bond with at the heart of all those funky contortions. Give me something to care about, or the minutiae just roll off my back. I’m not a happy ending junkie, believe it or not–I mean, I do write horror–but if there’s nobody to care about, you might as well be shouting into the wind. So perhaps that’s my dealbreaker. It’s certainly detached me from a whole lot of narratives that other people tell me they find fascinating for the worldbuilding alone.
As for worldbuilding that’s really captured my imagination…I love Joe Hill’s Locke & Key series of graphic novels, and the way it leads fairly seamlessly into the background of his novel NOS4A2–items imbued with power less from magic than from will, the strange transmutations of desire. I love the alternate history of Ian Tregillis’s Milkweed trilogy (Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil), in which angel-powered mages and Nazi technomancers run World War II from behind the scenes. I also loved G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, which blends djinni magic and computer hacking through a completely Muslim cultural filter, and Mike, Linda and Louise Carey’s The Steel Seraglio, which tells a complicated historico-fantasy parable about female empowerment through an interlocking series of almost fairytale-like stories. But explication is the least of my needs from something I enjoy–I mean, I really liked Lauren Buekes’s The Shining Girls, and it never “solves” its most fundamental worldbuilding problem. I was just enjoying myself far too much to notice, while I was inside of it.
When it comes to world building, I believe you fall into one of two categories as an author – a gardener or an architect. When JK Rowling tackled Harry Potter, she very much followed the architect’s approach. Before she began scribbling the first word of Harry’s grand adventures, she had already filled up ream-upon-ream of card files with details of her world – potions, spells, creatures, slang dictionaries, floor plans for Hogwarts, maps and the social structure of wizardry. This approach often goes hand-in-hand with plot-planning almost as long as your novel itself. With so many writers coming from an RPG-playing background – or in some cases, actually professional scenario writing for Wizards of the Coast and EA – I suspect this road of world building sees the most traffic. It was the route famously trod by Tolkien, although in his case, Middle Earth’s epic girth of world-building sprung from his academic interest in linguistics and rebuilding a parallel reality of Anglo-Saxon myths that had been largely ethnically cleansed by the Normans.
If you’re lifting an existing cultural imprint for your world – say the cod-Tudor medieval society of Westeros and the War of the Roses, there’s often a lot of research you need to fill up your card files – or Access database – with before you’re going to be comfortable writing at full speed in the period. Unless you’re a university professor specialising in a specific epoch, there’s nothing worse than having to break off mid-flow to research 13th century heavy cavalry saddle rigs for an hour just to get an accurate one line description of what’s under your hero’s bum.
And that might lead to the cardinal sin of world-building… feeling the urge to info dump seven pages of detail on medieval clothing just to prove you really have done your research! And as soon as you halt your writing to “just” check Wikipedia for lace bustles for a few seconds, you’ll suddenly notice your six FaceBook updates and that fascinating Twitter retort and the notification of a new five star Amazon review and… was that you again, Mom? Adios writing time.
For my Jackelian series of novels, I took the premise of a far-future Earth with societies emerging from an ice age and having just re-attained a Victorian level of technology, but surrounded by the debris of lost civilizations – in effect, our current and future age as their Atlantis. Detaching my storyline from the actual 19th century and filling with it genetically altered animals, imported alien species, evolved human offshoots (and self-evolving robots) and a world geography rendered unrecognizable via millennia of continental drift was really just a sneaky way to allow me to take the gardener’s approach to world-building… a few seeds, tend and grow, and catalogue everything as your novel grows. If I had set my narrative in the real 19th century with walk-on parts for Captain Nemo and Sherlock Holmes, then I would have needed a heck of a lot more pre-writing prep – period maps of London, models of hansom cabs, deck plans of iron-clads, the whole nine yards.
Fantasy – often rooted in semi-real history – lends itself to architects, while science fiction is the gardeners’ realm. When your SF universe becomes complex enough that it needs its own bible of races, planets and tech, you’re probably writing fantasy a la Star Wars or Star Trek, with the science lying dead in a ditch (amputated by a laser sword).
Whether you’re a gardener or an architect, the only true rule of world-building is to keep everything grounded and consistent enough for the general readership to swallow the imaginary with a healthy spoonful of reality. Failure to follow this will see your work labelled ‘surreal’… or even worse, ‘the new weird’ (or as book-stores like to call it when they’re boxing your books up: ‘the new returns’).
Whether it’s SF or F; give me imagination and escapism every time… I get enough reality where I am, thank-you very much. Tax returns or classic Michael Moorcock, it’s hardly much of a choice, is it?
I could write a lengthy treatise in response to these questions, but out of mercy to the readers and my fellow writers who will also be weighing in, I’ll focus on one particular aspect. In historicals I call it “period sense.” In works of speculative fiction, it’s world view, attitude, basic cultural assumptions. It’s the psychological and social and cultural underpinnings of the world—and the vast majority of the time, these reflect, more or less uncritically, the attitudes of the writer’s own time and place.
When we study history, we say that a historian’s work reflects not so much the time he’s writing about as the time he’s writing in. His priorities are those of his own time and place, and he brings the attitudes and the judgments of his own culture to the events of the past.
In modern sf and fantasy (and historical novels as well), worldbuilding is a very big deal. Making sure the landscapes make sense, the history is developed in sufficient detail to give the story depth and substance, and everything from the technology to the weaponry to the wardrobe all gets its share of attention—but the author raises this whole intricate structure around characters with modern attitudes and biases. Lots of middle-class white Americans in fancy dress.
Nor, all too often, does she seem to realize she’s doing it. It’s just the way people are. Villains do things that our culture disapproves of, from keeping slaves to smoking tobacco. Heroines of course rebel against arranged marriages, because romantic love is the best and only way. If they do act appropriately for their place and time, they may be described in terms that imply, subtly or otherwise, that the author is judging them according to modern standards. Lifelong virginity (as in a medieval monk or nun) is either impossible or awful or both. Characters fight for their individual rights, and the good or right person is the one who fights for truth, justice, and the American Way—regardless of time, place, or cultural setting.
I confess to committing a few of those sins myself, sometimes under editorial pressure, other times because, well, I got lazy. It’s easy to meet modern expectations as far as personality, attitudes, and morality are concerned. It’s much harder to convey a different viewpoint—and do it in such a way that it’s accessible to the modern audience. Readers have expectations, and when you’re writing in genre, you have to be careful not to violate those expectations. If you tweak them, or play around with them, you have to do it in ways that keep the readers happy enough to keep turning the page.
As a reader I sometimes like to settle into the comfort of a nice, exotic world with nice, familiar characters who share my world view. But as I grow older and pickier and more aware of the wide range and variety of human cultures, I find myself looking for something different. I want to get into minds that aren’t just like mine, and live vicariously in worlds full of people who see things in ways I might not have imagined on my own.
As a member of Book View Café I worked on the production time for the reissue of Leah Cutter’s novel, Paper Mage. It’s set in ancient China, and it is not your usual tale of plucky heroine rising above repressive culture and achieving American values. At all.
In fact some of its original reviewers took issue with the “passivity” of the protagonist, and complained that the story didn’t really go anywhere because it wasn’t following the usual fantasy tropes and plot lines.
I loved it. Here was a protagonist with a strong sense of duty and family, trying very hard to do the right thing according to her upbringing and social position—and moving through a world of magic that bore little resemblance to the usual fantasy backdrop. This is fantasy that has stepped away from its author’s culture into a completely different world of thought and feeling.
The same goes for Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine. This at first may seem more conventional: it’s sort of sideways Steampunk, with a bratty-princess heroine and a hunky soldier and a great deal of intrigue and skulduggery, not to mention magic and mystery. And yet it’s profoundly and beautifully subversive, focusing not on the maneuverings of courts and princes but on the rise of the working classes in the Industrial Revolution.
Here again is an author with a strong historical sense and the courage and insight to examine her own assumptions. She presents a world that is not conventional or comfortable for the modern mind. It has to be read in its own context, seen through the eyes of characters who are very much a part of their world. Some in fact are not human at all, and their thought processes are quite wonderfully alien.
That’s hard to do, let alone do well. The ability to approach a world and its characters on its own terms, without imposing one’s own cultural judgments, is rare. It’s also something I look for when I read and write. There is so much more to even this world than its current dominant culture—and part of the pleasure of reading in genre is the freedom to explore other cultures, both real and imagined.
Tagged with: Andrea Johnson • Christian Schoon • Gemma Files • Ingrid Jonach • Judith Tarr • Lee Battersby • Marianne de Pierres • Mind Meld • Paul Weimer • Ramez Naam • Robert Jackson Bennett • Stephen Hunt
Filed under: Mind Meld
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