World-building – Stepping Through the Dance

So, I as a writer want to commit fiction.  And I’ve been told I have to engage/indulge in world-building to do this.  What does that entail?  My thinking about this has changed even during the last few weeks since I started ruminating on this.  Today’s thoughts look something like the following.

World-building is nothing more and nothing less than all of the foundational decisions that are made while preparing to commit fiction.  At the moment my concept of this is that it is basically comprised of five components, in more or less the following order.

  1. Cosmology
  2. Biology
  3. Technology
  4. Sociology
  5. Characters

These labels are being use more as generic buckets and not as precise technical terms.

To begin with, the default of anything we must consider is the Earth human historical experience and understanding of our existing universe-how can it be otherwise, when it is our own physical/emotional/historical/social matrix?  That means we need to make a conscious choice if we want/need to step outside that matrix in our writing.

When we consider the universe we plan to write our story in, the paramount question in our minds should be “Why?”  We as writers need to justify anything we are going to create or change from the default.  “Because it’s a cool idea!” isn’t good enough.  “It’s fun!” isn’t good enough.  “I like it!” isn’t good enough.  As Tim Powers was heard to say at a recent SF convention (Soonercon 2011), he not only asks himself “Why?”, he then comes back and asks himself “Why really?”, in recognition that the first answer may not be the only/best/correct one.  There has to be a reason in the story for that change.  Not just a reason in the story, but it has to be key to some element in the story.  Otherwise, what good is it?

And if we accept the defaults for all or most of our universe, we must answer the same questions, and for the same reason.

Either way, we may have to ask the second question several times to drive the real answer out.

So, briefly speaking, what kind of choices do we writers need to make?  (A reminder:  since I write fantasy and science fiction, I may cast my net a bit wider than some of you.)

Cosmology – the choices we make that determine the size and physical characteristics of the story universe, whether it is a superlatively grand multi-verse concept that authors such as Charles Stross and David Weber have recently utilized, a setting as small as a single mind inside a single skull/brain, or something in-between those two extremes.  This includes the decisions we make about science and magic, most especially the rules that govern any twists we introduce to the Earth normal matrix.

Biology builds on cosmology, to my mind.  If you’re going to vary from the default, perhaps even more important than knowing why certain biological constructs work is knowing why certain constructs won’t work.  In the biological “world”, everything has a price, and the desired constructs might be possible, but only at trade-offs in other areas that might be prohibitive to you or your characters.  Biology also encompasses the decision about what kinds of intelligence exist:  human/alien/artificial/dwarf/elf?  Other(s)?  Blends?

Technology, whether “scientific” or “magical” or blended, builds on cosmology and biology, and is one that often is under-researched and under-developed.  It includes not only decisions about what will work and what doesn’t, but also the questions about what resources are required, how much wealth it takes to own the technology, and maybe even how that wealth is developed.

Sociology:  history, societies, religion, philosophy-the more we deviate from the default, the more intense both our research and our writing becomes.  What twists will we create?  What effect will they create in the universe?

Characters (which builds on cosmology, biology, technology, and sociology):  This is a very nebulous territory lying on the borders of the Sociology aspect of world-building and the whole Writing Element of Characters.  But in that borderland there is room for something that is “east of the sun” of designing a society and “west of the moon” of developing the individual characters in the story.  It’s hard for me to define exactly what this part of world-building entails, but at the very least, this will involve developing the character, conscience and ethos of the peoples in our universe.  This would potentially be very emotion-laden ground.

Okay, enough about the “how-2” of it.  Next post we talk about some of the ins and outs of it all.

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 ( 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.

4 responses on “World-building – Stepping Through the Dance

  1. KylieQ

    The sociology is always what interests me most. I mostly write historical fantasy and I love delving into the mental worlds of my characters and discovering what they would have thought/believed/loved/wondered.

  2. Noel Gayle

    Excellent post, and one that I suspect will prompt my own post on the matter. It frames the issue of world building quite well and lays out the considerations one must keep in mind when approaching this exercise, considerations that are often dealt with in the background and subconscious, and so appear in the work as unfinished or rough.

    I would agree that technology is often the most under-researched and under-developed, being the most technical and, for many, tedious part of the universe construction to handle. However, there is nothing that takes away from a setting as the feeling of its underlying technology being hand-waved and skipped over.

  3. Evan Braun

    Good points, Noel. I forced myself to do a lot of relatively thankless technology research for my recent sci-fi epic, and I think it was well worth the trouble in the end.

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