Worldbuilding. You guys are lucky today…you don’t have to listen to me ramble on! 🙂 Instead, I invited my friend L. N. Weldon, a master worldbuilder, to talk about it a bit. It’s a long post, but totally worth it.
Worldbuilding. Worldbuilding. Worldbuilding. Worldbuilding.
For a lot of us writers, the whole concept is a big mess of wibbly-wobbly-make-it-up-as-we-go…stuff. We look at authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, who spent literally decades fleshing out his fictional world, and think, Eh…no thanks? At best, we don’t want to spend so much time away from our stories crafting the scenery, and as worst we don’t actually think of it as being important.
But worldbuilding is important to your story, and it’s really and truly not the nightmare-inducing epic quest that Tolkien’s work challenges us with. There are three basic things to think about when crafting your world:
- What are its details?
- How did things get to be the way they are?
- How do your worldbuilding decisions affect the world and the plot?
Let’s start with the details – this is the simplest part. Have you ever seen one of those really, really fancy dollhouses? The ones with actual full collections of miniaturized Shakespeare on the shelves and tiny forks on the table? Think abut how much more realistic these replica rooms look compared to the average Barbie dream house you played with as a kid. The details make the house.
Now, that’s not saying to overload on details in your narrative, but: you should have some, and you should know more. And be original with the details – don’t just mention that the worshippers at the temple of Pash-Hooey are droning morning prayers, figure out the taboos and expectations that come along with the religion of Pash-Hooey.
Maybe women never show the palms of their hands to a man who isn’t their husband.
Maybe Pash-Hooey is a religion of the state rather than of gods, and the temple is also where business gets taken care of.
Maybe you “pray” by filling out paperwork.
Be original, be detailed, and always know more about your world than what you actually have to put into your book.
Ok, secondly: history. This is probably the easiest part for most writers – we do this by instinct. We call it backstory. Only in this case, we’re talking the backstory of the setting, rather than of the characters.
(Side note for fantasy writers in particular: think really hard before you decide to give your story a history of hundreds of years – say, since the last time the Dark Lord arose. Especially in worlds with magic. Think of how quickly history moves in our own world – four hundred years ago, there was no United States of America. Cleopatra lived in a time closer to the invention of cell phones and man walking on the moon than to the building of the pyramids. And things progress ever more quickly with every new technological invention – the same rule would apply in a world with magic, unless you can somehow retard your magic’s invention rate, as well as the intelligence or inventiveness of your world’s inhabitants.)
Let’s take again the Pash-Hooey world. So the business of government is their religion, but how did it get that way? Was there a previous religion that was stamped out decades ago?
The biggest thing to remember in this is to be consistent and think things through. Don’t just set something in place without at least giving a passing thought to how it was possible to come into being in the first place. Reasons are your secret tool. Use it wisely.
And lastly, my favorite, and the often-overlooked: think about the consequences.
I recently worked with a friend on her book about a race of flying people. The story itself was quite good and the characters were in-depth, etc – it was a very nice book.
However she did one thing that was extremely distracting: this race of winged people wore elaborate, heavy, brocade-and-velvet, out-of-a-medieval-painting clothes. She hadn’t thought it through to give it a reason or to decide why that might be a bad idea – that was simply what she pictured and she went with it.
But go with me here for a minute: a race of people with wings is going to tend toward light clothing that doesn’t get in the way when they fly. So they might wear heavy clothes – but there’s going to be a reason for it and an outcome from it.
For example, perhaps stronger flyers wear heavier clothes to show off how strong they are. Which then, of course, becomes a fashion trend because everyone wants to look like the best, even if they aren’t. Maybe new materials would be invented to imitate the look and feel of the heavier fabrics without the weight.
Maybe the actual ability to fly would become unfashionable – similar to how, in earlier times, women wore complicated gowns to show how they were wealthy enough not to need to work, but eventually it turned around so that it was unfashionable for a woman to be able to walk quickly or carry anything (or breathe deeply!) and the fashions reflected this.
Or let’s go back to our Pash-Hooey scenario. We have a world where business is religion. What is this going to do for a country’s moral system? What about it’s fashion, its culinary craft, its art and literature?
All of these things have been closely connected with religions over the centuries. Perhaps expediency and efficiency become the most highly valued virtues – in which case, simplicity and practicality would reign in fashion and food, and the arts would probably be regarded as time-wasters.
Or perhaps the layers and layers of bureaucracy turn into a complex and elaborate system where every q must be curled and every t must be crossed. In which case, fashion and food may come to reflect that, in perfect and insanely-intricate designs and concoctions. Art and literature could become focal points of society, the more elaborate and unclear and requiring explanation: the better.
The short version of this entire post is this: nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything comes from somewhere, everything leads to something – and no less when we’re talking about worldbuilding than with plot.
Will everything you dream up for your world make its way into the plot? Probably not. And that’s ok – that’s good. Because even if it doesn’t appear in the plot directly, it still means that your world and its rules will be three-dimensional and consistent, because you’ve taken the time to think them through and make them so.
I wish you the best in your worldbuilding endeavors! (Oh, and pay special attention to the fjords. They go unnoticed, but they can be works of art…*grin*)