I have written enough books now that I do feel I have some things I can say about world building in a science fiction and fantasy context (although some of my comments pertain to any form of fiction regardless of whether it is set in a secondary world or this one). I wish to emphasize here that this is how I go about it. That’s all. These are my thoughts and my process, not a universal should, ought, or must.
My process has changed over the years as I’ve begun to think more about how I think about the worlds I’m building.
For me, the intersection between setting and character has always been the most important element of developing a story.
I love and adore maps, and I will probably write a post about maps another day (oh, wait, I already did), but most maps can only give us a limited picture of what is going on:
Mapmakers are always making choices about how a place is represented and what matters enough to put on the map.
These days the first thing I consider when I start are questions.
Who is going to be visible in the story? And why?
Which people does the culture or cultures the story will move through consider important enough to be visible? Who is invisible in this culture? And why? Whose voices do these cultures privilege, and whose do they ignore? And why?
That allows me to ask myself whose stories I want to tell. Who do I want to make visible? Who is visible to me? Who may be invisible to me and how can I set aside or uncover my own assumptions so I can create visibility for characters and lives and situations I might otherwise ignore?
Why does this matter?
Honestly, I can’t do justice to this topic, but I’ll make a few comments and probably follow them up later, and I hope those of you interested in this subject will chime in with your thoughts either in the comments here or with posts elsewhere. Those of you uninterested in this subject will, I hope, have stopped reading by now.
There are a lot of people “we” don’t see. I don’t mean “we” as a universal because too many factors like gender, age, race (an anthropologically problematic word but the only one I’ve got at the moment), ethnicity, language, community, sexuality, religion, country of birth and/or residence, and a whole host of other elements influence each individual. But to generalize, let me propose a scenario as an example.
Let’s say “I” have decided to write an epic fantasy trilogy. It will focus on a war, and have a lot of battles, plus court intrigues, and maybe some travel through dangerous landscapes. There will be bad guys and good guys, and the first thing “I” decide is that I don’t want it to just be a default good versus bad setting but to have ambivalent guys, too, people who do good things for bad reasons or do bad things while trying to achieve good outcomes and also people who have flaws that cause them to make bad choices or strengths that cause them to do good things even when the reader thinks they are only capable of bad. I am going to make “visible” the idea that people can be complex and have both strengths and weaknesses.
But who are these people and where are they living? What does the full tapestry of life look like in this place? If I do not think about this, it is easy to fall back on choices that aren’t choices as much as unexamined assumptions about whose lives are interesting enough to read about and what people are “allowed” to tell their own stories. By not considering the totality of life in a culture (regardless of whether I write about it), I am already creating visibility and invisibility in my own head if nowhere else.
As a writer who grew up in an Anglophone country in the northern temperate zone, I can easily “default” to a quasi-medival or early-modern English-history-like setting just because such settings pervade the literature that is already written here and the visual media I have been exposed to. There is nothing wrong with these settings. These are great settings for stories. But if I do not consciously think about why I want that setting instead of some other one, then I am defaulting to the most visible setting in my culture without truly specifically choosing it. I have, without thinking about it, already created a visible and an invisible.
For that matter, even if I do choose an Anglophone-like setting or whatever setting I choose, which part of that setting am I going to highlight and follow? What part of daily life am I going to see? What might I be ignoring? What lies behind the door I never opened because I didn’t think it was important, or because I was told it didn’t matter and never thought to question what I was told?
As a writer (and a person), I have to keep stopping myself from plowing on with my unexamined assumptions. I have to keep asking questions.
The questions pertain to characters, too, perhaps more to them than to any other part of the world building (because world building is not separate from character).
Whose stories are worth telling? Whose stories need telling? Whose voices do I hear? Am I ignoring voices because I believe what I’ve been told, that they don’t belong in this story? Am I ignoring characters because I don’t see them? Because I think they don’t matter or that no one will want to hear about them?
How can my world have weight and life if it is built on a edifice of silence?
Am I seeing the lives of the people who live in this world in their fullness, as they would see themselves? Or am I only seeing them from the outside, assigning my own definitions to them?
What about the characters I decide to write about? How will their lives illuminate the world they live in? Is this all I want or are there other places I might want to go?
What might I not be seeing?
To build a world, I start with questions. I want to build not on top of my limits, but on top of the possibilities.