To World-Build, or Not To World-Build

Picking up the discussion where I left off before my musing interlude post, I’d like to talk about world-building. The fact that this is a subject that occurred to me may give you a hint that I write fantasy and science fiction. ‘Tis true, I admit. And the label world-building may seem to imply those genres; in fact, when most of us think of “world-building”, I dare say we think of it almost exclusively in terms of F&SF. When we attempt to create a background for a story, we are creating a world for our readers to experience. That’s pretty self-evident if our story is going to be laid on/in Venus, Barsoom, Oz, a dwarf planet circling the star Fomalhaut at a distance of 8.3 AU, Lilliput, or the Hierarchate of High Phalangistan.

Lately, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while it is perhaps not so self-evident, all writers practice world-building whenever we commit fiction. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. World-building is not exclusively an exercise for the F&SF writers; instead, it should be the equivalent of the mason’s trowel in our tool-kits.

This is true even if a story is laid in a setting as modern as 2011 New York City. A writer might live in the setting of her story. She might know the setting backwards and forwards, have the most intimate details so ingrained in her memory that she is the consummate authority on that locale. But . . . (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?) . . . the vast majority of the readers of that story will not have that knowledge. They’ve never been to New York City, and all they know is what they’ve seen in the media; or if they have visited, chances were it was a number of years ago. Either way, their superficial knowledge is hopelessly restricted and obsolete in relation to the author’s up-to-the-minute story requirements. In this situation, readers probably have no hope of understanding many/most of the foundational elements of the story. Unless . . . (surely you saw the ‘unless’ coming) . . . unless the writer builds the scene for them, giving them enough information and description and detail that they can place the characters and events of the story in their proper framework and context.

So we all, we writers, practice world-building when we commit fiction. It is impossible to write good fiction if we don’t. And we need to do it well, for two reasons: first, to play fair with the readers, who are totally dependent on our skills as world-builders to bring that setting alive for them; and second, because even though the vast majority of our readers may not have the knowledge or experience to question what we write, there are always a few out there who will know as much (if not more) than we do, and will happily inform us of our mistakes. Count on it.

Lovely case in point: L. Sprague de Camp wrote one of the earliest and finest alternate history novels ever written, entitled Lest Darkness Fall. It’s an absolute classic, even now, 60 + years after it was first published in book form. (What? You haven’t read it? Tsk. Go read it. Now. I’ll wait.)

Anyway, the story is laid in 6th century Italy, and Sprague researched it to a fair-thee-well. In a bit of biography (that I can’t provide a cite to because my library is packed away for a move) he told the story on himself that, proud of his research, he wrote a bit of dialog in one scene in 6th century Gothic. After the book was published, Sprague received a letter from a professor complimenting him on his use of Gothic, but informing him that he used the wrong grammatical case for that bit of dialog.

There’s always someone out there who knows more about something than you do. Always.

Actually, in the scale of difficulty of world-building, we writers of F&SF may have the easiest time of it, overall, because we can invent our story universe out of whole cloth, if we so desire. (Okay, maybe not all the time, but still . . .)

Writers of historical fiction (including alternate history) probably have the next easiest time of it, because once they do the research to get the big stuff right, most of the details can be invented as part of the story process, and the proportion of experts in the reading public who can catch errors at that level of detail is normally pretty small.

The writers of contemporary fiction may face the biggest challenge today, especially when they’re setting a story in a place they’ve personally never been, because there are potentially hundreds or thousands (if not millions) of readers who can catch them in errors and happily splash it across the internet. To do it right, they often have to do mind-numbing amounts of research to provide the foundations for a story, the results of which will mostly never appear at all.

Well, I’m ready to dive into details of world-building, but it seems I’ve about run out of space today. So, set a place-holder and we’ll resume from here next post.

About David Carrico

David is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He has been writing since 1977, but made his first sale in 2004. Most of his work has been written in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, and has either appeared in The Grantville Gazette electronic magazine (http://grantvillegazette.com) or in the anthologies Grantville Gazette III, Grantville Gazette IV, Ring of Fire II, Grantville Gazette V, and the forthcoming Grantville Gazette VI and Ring of Fire III.

12 responses on “To World-Build, or Not To World-Build

  1. Colette

    My latest novel is set in modern-day Bowling Green, KY and I definitely felt the weight of world-building as I chose aspects of the city to explore in the book, local haunts you wouldn’t find anywhere else, and as I tried to get a feel for the town. It’s a lot of fun as well as a lot of work.

  2. Evan

    So true. I recently finished a book that goes to several European countries, Egypt, Malta, Australia, Antarctica, and the islands of the South Pacific. I spent YEARS researching it, because I’d been to none of those places. All the while I was wishing the dang thing was set in space somewhere where I could just make everything up. (Of course, I have a few planetary scientist friends who like to poke holes in my world-building there as well.)

  3. Dylan

    I’m trying to incorporate more of a sense of place in my book as I write about Halifax and Cape Breton – areas familiar to me, yet not to the reader.

    It’s interesting you talk about place so strongly with world-building; what do you think about “world-building” the characters and their origins? Not necessarily the character sketches, but trying to develop the types of people that would live in the world you’ve created?

  4. David C

    See next post. 🙂

    David

    @Dylan

    I’m trying to incorporate more of a sense of place in my book as I write about Halifax and Cape Breton – areas familiar to me, yet not to the reader.
    It’s interesting you talk about place so strongly with world-building; what do you think about “world-building” the characters and their origins? Not necessarily the character sketches, but trying to develop the types of people that would live in the world you’ve created?

  5. KylieQ

    David, I would disagree with your comment that writers of historical fiction have it easy. I have been working – for more than 10 years now – on a series set in ancient Egypt and the amount of research required to accurately bring this to life is enormous. We know so much about the ancient Egyptians, not only practical things like what they ate, drank and wore, but also about what they thought and believed. This means that not only do my characters need to eat, drink and wear the same but they need to be able to think in the same way. What my characters believe, love and hope for has to be coloured by what we know of the ancient Egyptians. I think historical is one of the toughest areas of fantasy to write in because – as you say – there will always be someone who knows more than I do. I find urban fantasy a welcome break from the intensity of historical fantasy because the modern day world is so much less exhausting to write about.

  6. Evan

    Well, that’s true, Kylie. But fewer people will know what you got wrong about Ancient Egypt than would know what you got wrong if you wrote about, say, New York City, right? (Assuming, of course, you haven’t been to NYC.) I think in your case your tireless research demonstrates your integrity as an author to create as accurate a depiction as possible.

    A few years ago, after writing the first draft of my sci-fi epic, I got long lists of scathing comments from my friends who pointed out that my spaceships and such were completely unrealistic; the propulsion systems didn’t make sense, the gravity was all wrong, the timeframes of the journeys my characters took were out of whack. It came down to whether or not I wanted to world-build my own future, with all its fantastical elements, or whether or not I wanted to be a “futurist,” creating as technologically and scientifically accurate a future as possible.

    I ultimately decided to take the futurist route, and spent YEARS getting everything right. But the group of knowledgeable readers I satisfied through this effort is rather miniscule. And in fact, by trying to get as much of it right as possible, I almost open myself up to even greater scrutiny; if I’d only gotten 20% correct and made the rest up, there would have been a great of deal “suspension of disbelief.” But as it is, I’m probably 85% correct, meaning there’s a juicy 15% or so to nitpick over, for those who would really want to.

    So… I don’t remember what my point was anymore. 🙂

    Oh yeah: all the extra accuracy is great, and maybe the average reader will sense all that research and detail, but chances are not very many people will truly appreciate that it’s there, cuz they probably wouldn’t have missed it in the first place.

    At least, that’s been my experience.

  7. KylieQ

    Evan, I see your point that not many people will appreciate that attention to detail but I’m not sure I agree. Those layers of detail all go into making a credible and “alive” world. The average reader might not know just how accurate every fact is but it all blends together into a world that is real and that’s what will matter to them. And for those readers who *will* know the difference, it will matter even more. For me, it’s important to do the very best job I can and that won’t happen if I’m slacking on the research.

  8. Evan

    Yes. Absolutely. Most readers will sense the authenticity of dense research. They better, or else I’ve wasted a lot of time. 🙂

    But good imagination is a great substitute for facts, hence fantasy worlds come alive even though they’re entirely made up.

  9. KylieQ

    But good imagination is a great substitute for facts, hence fantasy worlds come alive even though they’re entirely made up.

    Yes, and provided they are not trying to pass themselves off as historical, that’s fine! 🙂

  10. Colette

    Every time I delve into a type of writing I haven’t done before I think it will be easier or require less research than what I’ve done in the past. Every time, I’m wrong. Even my short story about the attacking were-beetle involved a LOT of research. I know a lot more about beetles and India than I ever wanted to learn.

    I think the characterization stemming from setting is a really important element to explore. And gaining the balance between how life is different for them than people from other places, and yet avoid stereotyping your main characters is a fun challenge.

  11. Clancy Metzger

    All so true. And so far, for me, I’m finding that it doesn’t matter if I’m creating a world from the ground up or borrowing a contemporary setting – I’m still doing a lot of research and a lot of work.

    I do so love this topic though – thanks, David!

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