The Map As Theory (Worldbuilding Wednesday 6)

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.

I always start with a map.

However–and this is crucial–there are two kinds of maps.

One is the physical, geographical “external” map.

The other is the socio-cultural “internal” map.

When I use the word map many people think I am talking about a physical representation of the geography of a world. But a map isn’t limited to physical representation. Maps are patterns we impose. When world building I believe it is important to be aware of maps AS PATTERNS and to think about what these often unconsciously-imposed patterns may mean when we create a secondary world.

As world builders, writers can go over the same sort of terrain over and over again because it’s the landscape people are familiar with.

Here are three well worn narrative maps:

King (or any authoritarian adult male figure) dies at hand of usurper, son flees, and must return to overthrow the usurper and restore rightful rule/status.

Evil lord or horde lays waste (or oppressive king places chains on his subjects) and band of heroes must rise up (rise up!) to take back the land and/or beat back the threat.

Two people meet and feel attraction; obstacles intervene and are overcome; they kiss.

Most readers recognize these sorts of narrative maps, and often choose to return to places that have familiar contours. I do, too. There is nothing wrong with creating a setting that feels familiar and comfortable and is populated by characters who act in ways familiar and comfortable to you as the writer. I do this as well, or in specific ways within my books.

Just be aware that stories that are specific to your experience and your comfort and familiarity level are not universal stories, even if we have been told they are. For example, the Joseph Campbell version of The Hero’s Journey is not universal, it is particularist. That’s fine that it is what it is, but best not to claim for it something it is not.

The beauty of fiction in general and fantasy and science fiction in particular is that we always have a chance to move beyond the border, beyond the boundaries, to see the world in a way we haven’t looked at it before.

While building a world, I believe one must constantly negotiate the balance between the experiences and subjective assumptions I bring to the world I’m creating and the experiences and assumptions that are meant to exist in the world itself, that are meant to represent this specific world’s way of being rather than my own way of being.

I can think like I do, but I also need to know how the people in my world think.

If the two are the same, I need to know and recognize that. If they are different, I need to write their world as the characters see it, not as I see it. (I’ll explore this point in more detail in a later post.)

Furthermore, maps are not objective. It is commonplace to define a “western-style” map as an objective measure of the land, but it isn’t. Mapmakers are always making choices about how a place is represented and what matters enough to put on the map.

No one builds a world from an objective place. As a world builder, you are making a series of decisions about what matters enough to go in the map, and about what and how it is represented. If a place or character isn’t on YOUR map, the map in your mind of what matters about the world you want to write about, then you the writer can certainly not go to places you’ve never thought about, places you think don’t matter enough to warrant notice. Matters that aren’t visible to you.

This is why the map I start with is the internal map.

Every character in the story has an internal map through which they measure, comprehend, and navigate the world they live in. Their maps won’t be the same as every other character’s, and they (probably) won’t be the same as mine.

To understand how “the peoples of my world” look at the world they “live in,” I have to move outside my own narrow range of experience. To a fair degree I never can, but with conscious effort I can attempt to widen my view and shrink my limitations bit by bit and piece by piece. If I don’t think about the unconscious ways in which my understanding of the world is limited by my upbringing and its setting, and by my own cultural expectations and experiences and perceptions and biases, then I will bring those unexamined assumptions into my world building (and I do indeed do this all the time despite my efforts not to). Again, it’s fine to do that if that’s the story you want to tell, but that too is a choice. Own it.

So, yes, early on in the process I will draw a cartographical representation of the physical world. Yet for me the most important “map” is bigger than that. It’s not flat, it’s multi-dimensional: A physical map intersects with this internal map, and these conjoined maps influence and are influenced by the architecture of the narrative as it unfolds.


Next week: The Internal Map
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard)

The Story of Iraj (Shahnameh Reading Project 4)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Summary: In which Feraydun divides his lands into three parts for his three sons, and the two oldest becomes jealous that Iraj, the youngest, recieved the best part. They kill him, and Feraydun mourns spectacularly.

An illustration depicting the king, Feraydun, dividing his empire between his three sons. Feraydun is shown as a dragon and each son is mounted on a horse.

An illustration depicting the king, Feraydun, dividing his empire between his three sons. Feraydun is shown as a dragon and each son is mounted on a horse.

KE: Well. That was depressing. All my worst fears realized, and so very sad.

Here are a few of the particular things that interested me besides Ferdowsi’s examination of envy, nobility, and grief.

Of course the good son becomes king of Persia “because he is worthy” while the other two are relegated to the opposite ends of the Earth where, we may be encouraged to believe, the somewhat less worthy are meant to reign.

Feraydun’s two wives play no part in the drama at all despite being the mothers of the sons. Neither do the Yemenite princesess whose marriages were such a large part of the previous section. It’s fascinating that Iraj’s bloodline is carried on through a daughter; that her issue (the subject of the next section) will become the instrument of vengeance. She’s not named, however (although her mother is), but her spouse is abruptly introduced as Pashang with no further information, which makes me wonder if it was assumed that the audience knew who Pashang was from some other story cycle or supplementary tales. Else why mention the man by name? Maybe we will find out in the next section although I’m doubtful.

I continue to really enjoy Davis’s translation because I assume it is doing a good job of bringing across to me Ferdowsi’s vivid and powerful images.


TG: I noticed that immediately about the daughter, too. I was laughing that Feraydun was hoping for a grandson to take vengeance for Iraj’s death, and then OOPS a girl! But as soon as she wasn’t named and her husband and mother were I pretty much gave up on that hope. We’ll find out in the next section.

I love love loved the language in this section. So many phrases stood out to me. “The blossoms of his face ran with blood” “your body’s shroud a lion’s maw” “sealed the tight eyes of happiness.” SO GREAT. And the words of wisdom were particularly well drawn this time, too: “grasp this cup while it is still dawn, or at night supper will be at your expense” and “one should not be surprised that the moon radiates moonlight” in particular are going to stay with me for a while.

The descriptions of grief were just amazing. Throwing dust on their heads, blackening their faces, burning the garden, his “waist girdled with blood,” weeping so long the grass grows up to his chest… magnificent.

I have to admit that the longer rhyming poems pull me out, though, because I wonder how much we lose in the effort to create the rhymes. Maybe very little, but it does jar me out of the narrative when they’re so simply rhymed.

And, lastly, what a great moment calling back to the dragon from last section, when the brothers make it clear that they can’t trust their father because he deceived them when they were youths. In a way, that one piece of selfish magic Feraydun performed, to test them, led to his sons’ betrayal and the death of Iraj.

KE: I have mixed feelings about the poems. I like the idea of including verse, but I’m not sure Davis’s poetry is as good as his prose in terms of giving us a taste of Ferdowsi.

Besides the marvelous and evocative images and emotion in this section, that callback really resonated. I thought the dragon test was a cheap trick at the time for a parent to engage in (shades of King Lear), and it really did rebound against him in the end.



Next week: The Vengeance of Manuchehr (February 12)
Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons

Enthusiasm Thursday: some of my favorite music videos

I’m so old I remember when MTV played music videos. My not-yet-husband and I used to go to a frozen yoghurt store so I could watch MTV (we couldn’t afford cable). I love music videos. I still do although the thrill isn’t as intense as it was then, when it was a new way of interacting with songs you would otherwise only hear.

These are a few of my favorite music videos from over the years. This is not a top ten list but a “some I feel like enthusiasming about right now” list.

All Night Long (Lionel Richie)

This is a sweet, goofy video from 1983, and as much as I love it (and I do) just about everything from it is clearly from a different era. The style and color palette of the clothing has not, shall we say, worn well. Too many of the outfits remind me of the dread era of Jane Fonda Workouts. What were they thinking?

Lionel Richie looks so incredibly young and suave, and he has the effortlessly pleasing visage and presence of the videogenic. The infectious beat, the easy cheerfulness of the dance party vibe where everyone is celebrated and celebrating, and the unexpected policeman make this a classic that for all its hokey-ness never loses its appeal for me.



Beat It (Michael Jackson)

I asked my spouse what music videos were most memorable for him, and Beat It (1982) is the first one he mentioned. It was innovative, massively popular, and hugely influential, of course. However, while I appreciate its place as a classic, for me it hasn’t aged that well although the dance-off remains great and Jackson is a great singer. As with West Side Story, the dancers don’t really look as tough as they are meant to be. And it reminds me of how much women get relegated to the sidelines in this kind of story. That awful kiss in the diner makes me cringe every time.


Somebody to Love (Justin Bieber, featuring Usher)

No, no, stop. Don’t walk away. Bear with me.

I love the clever and flashy direction of this cheerful 2010 video. Okay, Bieber is not a great singer, and he can’t dance, but Usher can sing (and dance), and the dance crews are great, and diverse, and foregrounded as near equals in the sense that the video doesn’t work without them.

And–get this!–all the women are clothed! This is a bigger deal than you may realize in an era of so many music videos with clothed men and unclothed women, and I appreciate it greatly. Also, regardless of your Bieber feels, it’s a pretty great pop song qua pop song. And Usher can sing. Listen to him fancy up that melody.


Shoop (Salt-N-Pepa) (1994)

I miss 90s music. I miss this 90s music, the one with the women owning their sexuality and making their way in company with each other.


Express Yourself (Madonna) (1989)

“Come on girls, do you believe in love? Because I’ve got something to say about it, and it goes like this.”

Madonna plays multiple roles in a reworking of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The plot is classic, the man is beautiful, the jazz band-as-automatons is chilling and effective, and the video is visually sophisticated, with a filmic aesthetic and a gorgeous palette. Plus the song is sex positive!

Also: that milk.


Take On Me (a-ha) (1985)

That girl is me at 15.


Escapade (Janet Jackson)

Few songs and their attendant videos make me as purely happy as this one. (If I had to assign songs to characters, this would be Cat Barahal’s song.)

Despite its 1989 release, here we find no vintage 80s hair or vintage 80s clothes to date it a la “All Night Long,” so it still feels and looks fresh. Janet Jackson’s gear is always timeless, and her clothes were particularly to my taste during her RHYTHM NATION period. How much do I want that jacket???

The choreography is crisp and interesting, the carnival setting joyful and complex, and the video as dance-and-story is top-notch. There is a mysterious and handsome man. And Janet Jackson may have the greatest smile in the history of music videos. What’s not to love?


Black Hand Side (Pharoahe Monch featuring Styles ) and Phonte)

Great song and great video from 2011. This simply is one of the smartest uses of the medium to enhance & complicate the message, and of course it does not pull its social commentary punch. The sequence where he is walking along behind the young couple is sheer brilliance, deep insight into how much prejudice is embedded in the stories we tell ourselves about “how people are” and how racism constrains the stories we are willing to believe.

If I had to have a top three music videos of all time, this would be on it.


Fantastic Baby (Big Bang)(2012)

The clothes. The hair. The style. The beat. The owl. This is everything a music video is supposed to be.



That’s nine. What would you add?

Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Worldbuilding Wednesday 5)

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.

Today I’m thrilled to present a guest post by Aliette de Bodard. Having written about whether I use an inductive or deductive (top down or bottom up) approach, I thought it would be illuminating to see how another writer works in a way different from my own. I can’t emphasize enough that writing isn’t a specific process to learn, but rather a matter of discovering the process works for you.

Here you go:


From the top down, or how vibes and research drive my worldbuilding

by Aliette de Bodard

Disclaimer: this is the way things happen to work for me now. Like all writing advice, this is no way an obligation. I’m simply sharing stuff that currently helps me write fiction–and if it doesn’t work for you, or if only part of it works for you, that’s totally cool. Everyone has a different process, and also processes change quite a bit over the months/years!

I have a tendency to build my universes from the top down.

It’s by no means an absolute rule: I’m a big fan of “whatever works”, and especially for short stories I have built with a mixture of top down and bottom up, or simply bottom up like Alis does (though I can’t noodle for long. I have to get specific fairly fast).

But very often, with longer works, I tend to go for a very specific vibe, often tied to a subgenre/mix of subgenres that I find intriguing. Obsidian and Blood was explicitly conceived as a series of noir mysteries/fantasies featuring Aztec culture (and in particular Aztec magic derived from blood sacrifices).

The vibe is the dominant mood of a setting for me: for instance, Xuya, my Vietnamese space opera universe, is heavily focused on families and interpersonal relationships, and on the intersections of tradition and science. It gives a certain… tone to the stories? I’m not saying they’re all comedies or tragedies! But rather that they have a certain thematic focus on families and daily life, and that they also have an accompanying tone (what I think of as “quiet”, “intimate” stories rather than large-scales ones). They’re very different beasts from Dominion of the Fallen stories/novels.

Dominion of the Fallen (my series which started with The House of Shattered Wings, and which I’m working on at the moment) is a decadent/post-apocalyptic series set in a Paris devastated by a magical war. The thematic focus is the mechanics of survival/the impossible choices faced in a resource-scarce environment, and the tone is (grim)dark. Even in the short story “Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship” (an adventure/caper featuring two characters who fall in love with each other), the setting is never free of I think of as “grimdark 19th Century”: huge social injustices, an omnipresent colonial mindset, and oppressive, cruel characters in positions of power. In that story, it’s background, and not the main focus of the narrative, but it’s still there.

Once I have a setting, I research a lot. I tend to pick time periods that I think will be relevant: for Xuya, it’s 19th-Century/early-20th Vietnam (which serves as the basis for an intergalactic empire based on Vietnamese culture). For The House of Shattered Wings, I researched Belle Epoque Paris, as well as the history of colonies in both World Wars/colonial immigration to France in the first half of the 20th Century. I read fiction from the time period, non-fiction on it, and other media I find interesting (amusingly, for The House of Shattered Wings, I ended up drawing on a lot of anime, both set in Western-inspired worlds, and in post-apocalyptic settings: Black Butler, Full Metal Alchemist, Ergo Proxy).

This gives me what I think of as the base. The base is the backdrop against which the characters move: it’s both the physical settings (a Vietnamese pagoda orbital is very different from a magically nuked Notre-Dame) and the resulting mindsets of characters. Mindset being very important to me, because otherwise everyone ends up feeling like 21st-Century French characters in period costumes. For instance, in Xuya, familial ties and ancestor worship are very important: characters always know who is eldest/youngest in a relationship. In Dominion of the Fallen, the mindset is pragmatic: it’s not so much what you do, as what you can get away with–all hidden under a thin veneer of politeness and courtesy that preserves an increasingly fragile social order.

I need to know this in order to know about my characters: how usual or unusual they are, against accepted norms. A Xuya character with no respect for their parents, for instance, is wildly outside the norm and possibly a bit of a pariah because of this. And Madeleine, a character in The House of Shattered Wings, is what we would think of, today, as a decent character who tries to do the right thing: in that universe, however, she is widely viewed as being too naive and principled to survive.

I then get the plot in a sort of organic fashion from the worldbuilding: after all of this work,I generally have strong images and ideas for scenes that I slowly string together until it (hopefully) coalesces into something that makes sense! And, lately, about halfway through writing the book, I will pause and look again at the plot on the basis of what’s been written so far, to see if the extra worldbuilding I improvised as I was writing has shaken loose any ideas.

You’re going to point out this method leaves little room for improvisation. Actually, it does! I like having a large chunk of the worldbuilding while in planning stages (because I’m lazy and it’s cheaper to do it early), but there’s also a significant portion that gets added in/changed as I’m writing, because I can’t plan everything in advance.

It can be small things, or large ones: a lot of it is details, which have to be congruent with the larger setting. I agonise over small throwaway things, like the exact name for a low-level servant in my alternate universe (where domestic service isn’t gendered, so “maid” isn’t going to work), or where people get their running water from to wash their laundry (which turns out to be trickier than you think in a city where the Seine has turned dark and rather… aggressive). Some of it comes straightaway without much effort, and some of it comes from research: one particular scene ended up having lush, green gardens because the name of the place evoked something I’d seen elsewhere.

So my worldbuilding process looks a bit like this:

  1. Get a high-level concept
  2. Research, research, research
  3. Get images, ideas and snippets from research
  4. Create a plot congruent with the mood of 1.
  5. Draft, while improvising missing details (keeping previous steps as an overall guideline)

So that’s my worldbuilding process –or at least, the way I currently do it, because, like anything to do with writing processes, this is always breathing and changing and springing last minute surprises on me!



KE: Many, many thanks to Aliette for a fantastic and illuminating post. It’s so important to see how varied and adaptive the writing process is. Remember: The goal is to figure out WHAT WORKS FOR YOU (and what works for the current project).

Next week: The Map As Theory
Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive or Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Example