World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.
Long ago on Twitter I asked people what world building questions they would like me to answer. Several of the questions seemed to me to fall into a set that was about my approach to world-building.
How early in the story do you need to know the world? Before you start, or as you get to pieces you need? (Colleen W)
I am curious about the level of detail to start out with vs. what is filled in later? (Stephen M)
Your fave method top>down vs. bottom>up. How detailed is enough? (Sunny K)
Is world building an inductive or deductive process? (Paul W)
In many ways I am not an orderly world builder. I like to rely on a combination of instinct (allowing the subconscious to churn), research (deliberate exploration), and synchronicity (the space where the two intersect).
As I said last week in The Flowering of an Image (WBW2), the world and the story develop together. To briefly recap: My stories have their genesis in an almost filmic image of a character embedded in a setting.
The initial image/scene already feeds me information about the world. King’s Dragon appeared to me as a landscape with a feel of early medieval Europe. By the evidence of the type of window and the carriage, Cold Magic wanted to be set in an equivalent of the 18th or 19th century. At this stage it is also important to remember that these earliest and basic images may also be loaded with the most standard options or fallbacks, with common backdrops and familiar aspects because that is typically where our minds go first: To what we’ve seen and read most often.
It’s important for me to find a balance between that spark of an image that will guide me into the story versus grabbing for the first and thus possibly most generic ideas. I embrace the inspiration while I also work to not let my creativity settle into a familiar place. I must leave myself space to interrogate my choices in a conscious way.
At this point I will usually write an initial version of the scene and, perhaps, its followup section. I won’t think too much about where and why, just feel out where my mind wants to go with the character(s) and setting. This first and rawest draft will never be published anywhere and never seen by anyone except me. I may also write bits and pieces of other scenes. I might write notes or sketches of what could happen next or what some major plot points or end points are.
As I do this I am continually making decisions about details, which to include and which to discard and which to think harder about. We all do this when we write fiction no matter where it is set and even (or especially) if we aren’t consciously aware that is what we are doing, which is why I agree with Tom Pollock’s statement that “all fiction is worldbuilding.” A story set in modern London is world built in much the same way a secondary world set in the imaginary Republic of Hesjan is. The made-up aspect is the fictional story element; how it interacts with the setting and what the writer chooses to show to the reader is part of the world building process. If I don’t examine the details I may end up (but don’t always) perpetuating stereotypes and engaging in lazy narrative choices.
In other words I am defining world building NOT in the sense of coming up with maps and made-up cultures and history of a non-existing “secondary world” but in the sense of how the artist describes the setting and how the characters function within it. To give an example: The current USA tv show Hawaii 5-0 is set in Hawaii, in the present day. No world-building, right? Only the show has world building stamped all over it in every choice the producers and directors and writers (most or all of whom are, I believe, from outside Hawaii) make every week. They have created a “fictional Hawaii” to promote to a primarily Mainland USA (and international) audience that relies in part on stereotypes about Hawaii because the real culture of Hawaii veers away from people’s expectations and/or may confuse viewers.
Details begin to create a barebones framework that the world will ultimately be built on because the details tell you a great deal about the social and physical landscape.
For instance, if I introduce a character as a girl who is selling fruit in the marketplace, that means she lives in a culture where girls and women can sell goods in the market. If the scene shows that it is both common and accepted for them to do so, that tells you something (for example) about Mai’s oasis home town in Spirit Gate.
In the opening to Court of Fives a mother and her four daughters are taking their leisure at dusk in an outdoor courtyard. One of the girls is reading by the light of an oil lamp. Poetry exists, as well as secret love notes. Consider how the details start creating the world: It’s warm enough they can comfortably sit outdoors in the evening, so it’s likely either summer or a sub-tropical or tropical climate, but the way they are using the courtyard as an extension of the house made it feel this is a place where it is warm year round. The oil lamp gives a clue about the level of technology. The girls are literate and educated. Most of these details were not ones I “decided on” before I wrote the scene but rather came to me embedded in the action.
Part of my process becomes untangling how these earliest details fit into and help define the world.
Small details that accrete as I write and which are woven into a larger whole are one aspect of how I build up a world. I’ll come back to the issue of details later in this series.
But there comes a point where I have to stop writing snippets and step back to consider the big picture, the overarching geographical and cultural and historical elements.
I need to build a basic scaffolding to give me a basic sense of place or, if you will, an understanding of the foundation that roots the story. From this point forward the big picture and the details develop in tandem with the unfolding plot and the characterization.
Once the foundation (or scaffolding) has enough heft, I can start actually writing the book instead of noodling. Even when writing the first and subsequent drafts I still do not know everything about the world, and in fact I will never know everything about the world (nor do I need to). At intervals the plot will stall out because of a cultural or geographical or historical aspect I’ve not yet worked out, a piece of information I didn’t know I needed to know until that moment. Or I’ll discover or have a creative flash of something really cool or momentous that will turn out to be of crucial importance in the narrative.
I have come to understand my personal process well enough to leave space for these moments of synchronicity as I move forward. Rather than rigidly shoving things into place, I try to leave room for the unexpected to jump in and my subconscious to play. Often if I’m pondering a world or plot detail I will stumble across exactly the thing I need, sometimes in the strangest places, in the last place I would think to be looking, and sometimes exactly where I had hoped to find an answer.
Here is the basic outline that is kind of what I do:
1. basic idea which features a basic character in a proto setting
2. start noodling
3. need more context so do some overt building & research
4. start actually writing, and continue world-building as I go through drafts