I write science fiction and fantasy in both the adult and YA genres. My stories are strongly driven by character journeys & by character interaction. It is also fair to say I focus on character/world interaction and on creating a story world (that is, the world in which the story takes place) that feels vivid enough that readers can feel they really have a sense of that world and how it functions. If a reader tells me the world felt “immersive” then I feel I have accomplished what I set out to do.
Standard Disclaimer: If you write fiction, you don’t have to have the same goals I do. Honestly? I would hope you have your own set of goals unique to you. When I talk about things I do, or things I think about, I am not suggesting everyone must do this. This is not prescriptive. I don’t have “a program.” I don’t think people have to do things the way I do. This is one way, not THE way. These are my reflections after publishing 25 novels over 27 years, things that have worked for me, how I’ve analyzed what I do, what worked, what didn’t work, what I like and don’t like. That’s it. You can agree, disagree, some, both, all. ALSO: I welcome questions & discussion.
A definition for world building
In fantasy & sf we tend to think of world building as drawing a map and making up countries, histories, and religions of a secondary world that doesn’t exist.
But to quote British author Tom Pollock, “All fiction is world building.”
Whether a story is set in our world or in a fantastical world, the author is nevertheless creating “an environment in which the story takes place” (Pollock).
To create this environment we must therefore make choices on multiple levels and layers.
Who or what is the story about?
Why is the story about that person or persons or that event or idea?
The choices we make, and the angles and vectors along which we define and present those choices, are part of our own world building narrative. That is, they are not contextless choices. They don’t have no meaning and no consequence because choices in narrative always have magnitude and direction. Often they reflect what the creator thinks is important enough or exciting and interesting enough (or commercial enough) to be the focus of a tale. Sometimes they are a reflection of what the creator thinks is an appropriate or worthwhile story, whether or not the creator has examined why they have that opinion and what cultural forces may have shaped that view.
Beyond the basic question of “who or what is the story about” lie further questions. Here is where world building comes into play in an even more deliberative way.
What events and details will be used in the story to create a sense of character, setting, and plot?
All the choices we make as writers about the basic questions mentioned above are world-building.
As artists we continually make choices. We can’t put everything in the story. No matter how detailed, how long, how many tangents on the sewage system of Paris that Victor Hugo puts in his novels, we still pick and choose what is included and what isn’t included.
And that’s fine. That’s necessary. There is no right answer to what you (the individual artist) choose for your own work. That’s up to you.
My focus in the early stages of world building becomes
- asking myself to pause and think about why I am making the choices I do
- finding ways to envision a world without simply repeating what I’ve done before and thereby recapitulating my usual ways of thinking
- layering the world building into the text without weighing down the story in details and tangents.
The goal, for me, is always to create a sense of vivid presence, that the reader feels they have really walked through the world and gotten a strong sense of it as a place.
To that end, I have set a personal goal for 2016 to write a Worldbuilding (or Writing) Wednesday post every week (or almost every week). These will mostly be shorter (under 1000 word) posts moving slowly through various topics, because shorter posts strike me as more do-able week by week than longer more intense essays. That way I can divide up complex topics into shorter bursts and have a hope of actually posting regularly.
Worldbuilding Wednesday Index:
Week 2: The Flowering of an Image
Week 3: Inductive or Deductive
Week 4: Image to Idea
Week 5: Deductive to Inductive: A Guest’s Perspective (Aliette de Bodard)
Week 6: The Map as Theory
Week 7: The Internal Map
Week 8: Geography is Destiny
Week 9: The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives
Week 10: Writing Outside Your Own Experience
Week 11: Narrative Maps
Week 12: Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas adf
Week 13: Tropes: A Guest Post by Juliet McKenna
Looking forward to your series. I would suggest setting up a mailing list and a sign-up for the weekly posts.
I hate asking questions that make me feel technically illiterate, but how would that work? I have a sign up for a newsletter (although I have only sent out one or maybe two newsletters because . . . I don’t know . . . time). But how would a subject-blog-post mailing list work (i.e. in what capacity is it different from a newsletter mailing list?)
What a great new series! I will definitely be following this. My current series is set in a fantastical Eleven Kingdoms, modeled on historic “versions” of various countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and I have struggled with doing just what you’ve written about above: envisioning each setting fully and in a different way from previous settings I’ve written, and layering in the world-building so that it becomes vivid and real. Very much looking forward to following this series!
I don’t think that all fiction is worldbuilding. As you said, writers have different goals and processes. Some of us love worldbuilding; I am one. I’ve done maps, whole and partial languages, whole and partial ecosystems, as well as tidbits. But not everyone is into that. Some really do not care about setting or background — they’re into plot, or dialog, or theme. Now if you do heavy characterization, it’s harder to skip the worldbuilding because it has so much influence on character. You can focus on whatever part of fiction you like. The kind that emphasizes worldbuilding is called milieu fiction and I love it to death. It’s just not the only option out there. Sometimes, you just want to blow shit up.
Hi Kate – as I saw this on my facebook feed, posting on facebook works for me, rather than email – a gentle reminder, with link, every wednesday!
(As I read my way through spiritwalker, again, I have been delighted at what a unique & intriguing world that is.)
Intisar: oh, how exciting! I will look for that!
Anna: Oh good, that is just what I wanted to hear. I’m a little daunted by taking on a project of this magnitude but I’m determined to see it through, and so a gentle reminder with a link is about what I can manage without adding extra work in setting up more stuff. (also, thank you for the kind words about the Spiritwalker books)
Elizabeth: Thank you for commenting!
I can’t speak for Tom, but what I think he meant — or how I heard what he meant — is not defining worldbuilding in the sense of coming up with maps and cultures but in the sense that every piece of fiction is set in a made up place EVEN if that place is modern London or New York or an historical setting or a secondary world. The made up place is the fictional story element. Even in a “real world” setting the author is always making choices about what gets put in and left out, what to focus on, and how the artist themself sees the setting and how the characters work within it.
Let’s take the current American tv show Hawaii 5-0, for example. It is set in Hawaii, in the present day. No worldbuilding, right? Only there is worldbuilding all over it in the choices made by the producers/directors/writers who are all, by the way, from outside Hawaii. They have created a “fictional Hawaii” to promote to a primarily Mainland USA (and international) audience.
I do agree with Tom that every piece of fiction includes worldbuilding, when it is defined in this way. And I agree with you that not every work of fiction focuses on worldbuilding or engages in big scale creation of a secondary world, and I agree that many works of fiction aren’t interested in and don’t focus on setting details (nor should they). But however streamlined their settings, the settings are still present even if embedded and almost invisible, if that makes sense.
I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of these. I’ve been rereading Spirit Gate recently since Black Wolves reminded me how interesting I found the world!
If you do decide to set up a mailing list, setting up multiple lists with mailchimp is probably the easiest way to go about that with wordpress (some details on that here: https://wordpress.org/support/topic/multiple-mailchimp-lists-on-one-wp-site).
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Hey… the last link in that list says “Week 9: The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives” but it goes to ‘2016/03/rostam-the-son-of-zal-dastan-shahnameh-reading-project-8/’ — where do I find the final post in the series?
Fixed. (and thanks for pointing it out)
Also, here: http://imakeupworlds.com/index.php/2016/03/the-big-narratives-stand-atop-those-lives-worldbuilding-wednesday-9/
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