Introduction to a Series of Posts on Worldbuilding in Fiction (Worldbuilding Wednesday 1)

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

  1. asking myself to pause and think about why I am making the choices I do
  2. finding ways to envision a world without simply repeating what I’ve done before and thereby recapitulating my usual ways of thinking
  3. 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