world building topics

I’ve been working on a (rough) list of all the topics that world building could cover in speculative fiction, which quickly became too long and ambitious to ever be able to cover in a month. Still, I think it could probably serve as a guide or inspiration. Most of these topics overlap.

Topic list:
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invitation to world building month

This is the official invitation!

August is going to be dedicated to world-building, here, and on any other blog or site that wishes to participate. We’re going to be exploring everything; history, art, politics, geography, map-making, town-building, magic, science, rumor mills, everything that provides a setting for writing. Any medium of exploring these topic is welcome, from essays to writing samples to artwork. This is an open project. As with Villain Month, I’ll be showcasing people’s work every week.

Interested in participating? Just leave a comment, and be sure to include the URL where you’ll be posting your own projects.

June’s Villain Month was a great success; here’s hoping that World Building Month can do the same!

a precursor to world building month

Once upon a time, when I was trying to avoid defining a plot, a beginning, or an end to the vague story-idea I had in my mind (a few years ago– internet role play, of all things, taught me how to move a story along, but that’s another issue entirely), I used to build static characters that only had situations, not actions, and worlds with details but not events. I made maps. I drew terrain, and defined linguistic patterns so that I could have realistic naming conventions for the cities.

Saint Know-All brought up the point that world-building can be completely distracting from the writing process, and I thought that I’d address that. World building is done to enrich your story. It requires action, and relevance to the project. It needs to contribute. After all, there’s not much point detailing characters that won’t be mentioned in the story. And world-building is important in genres other than fantasy and sci-fi.

Building a planet, galaxy, alien races, and government are all world-building. But so is defining the layout of a character’s house, the kind of furniture in the front room, the name of the street that said character lives on, the gossip that is spread around, and the statue that was defaced in the local park. No one can completely define the place they’re writing… and when you start mapping out blades of grass, you’ve probably gone too far. So first, before we begin our world building project, we’ll need to define its scope.

Simply put, where does the story go, what topics does it consider or touch on, and what are we going to see most often? Detail that.

For instance, if your character is a member of the local nobility, you should have a very, very good idea of how their system works, what the local issues are, and what duties fall to whom in the government. Even if a king isn’t introduced, you should know what kind of man he is and what he will and will not involve himself with. What people eat halfway across the world from said character will not be considered important, unless the character has a penchant for foreign delicacies.

world building woes

Recently I started reading an enormous book (700+ pages) that had, among other things, fantastic world building. History… no, it wasn’t just history. It was economic history, military history, artistic history, mythological history, the history of arcana, discrepancies between the histories and difference of opinion based on source. It spanned racial customs, clothes, weather, standards for different classes, idioms, the difference between different districts in a city, children’s skipping rhymes. It included little details, always relevant, always practical: a minor character took a room not far from a butcher, and the main character can’t help but notice the smell every time he comes by to see her. And the method of immersion into this world was so well done that finding more about it felt as if I were slipping into a steaming bath, or cuddling up to a down blanket. I get excited when the author writes a few pages of summary or explanation; I feel as if I can safely laugh at the show-don’t-tell Nazis now that I’ve seen it done so well, so efficiently, in such an entertaining and smooth fashion.

I have a difficult time reading new books. I can’t turn off my internal editor, which tends to focus on plot, theme, and composition. So when I’m trying to read for fun, I keep finding myself considering the question, ‘If I’d written this, would I be proud of myself?’. When I find that the answer is ‘no’, I tend to stop reading. And when I find something as detailed, complex, and well-done as this, I start raising my standards. My novel just got a little worse.

June was ‘Villain Month’. That seemed to go fairly well. I think I need a ‘World Building Month’ next, a concept that was mentioned a few weeks ago. I do want to finish this draft of my book first, but there are fifteen days of July left and roughly twenty thousand words to write. And I get anxious the closer I draw to the grand finale. That puts me at 1,333 words every day (including this one) until July. … On the bright side, it’s not as bad as NoNoWriMo.

Here are my goals, then:

  1. 1,333 words a day until the book is finished. I estimate that will let me finish the book before August.
  2. Finish ‘The Name of the Wind’.
  3. Write a book review.
  4. Possibly send girlish fan-letters to Patrick Rothfuss.
  5. Start the hype for ‘World Building Month’. Set it for August.

I’m imagining that World Building Month will be more useful to writers of speculative fiction than contemporary fiction. Even so, solidifying a good, living setting does deserve some attention. So, since Villain Month met with such approval, I’ll be doing the same thing. Anyone interested in signing up and joining in the event are welcome.

writing fantasy: the dilemma of familiarity

Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.

I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.

I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.

I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.

A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):

Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.

Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.

Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.

(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…

Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.