Category Archives: Setting and Milieu

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.

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.

Four Elements, Part 2. . . .yeah

But first, a bit of musing by way of interlude….

I’m a reader. I read like most people watch TV. I’ve been that way for years-most of my life, actually. I can remember in junior high reading 28 young adult novels a week during the summer between school semesters. (The library only let me have 4 per day. I’d check out 4 about 1 pm, read three before bedtime, read the fourth the next morning, and repeat after lunch.) I once tried to estimate how many fiction books I’ve read in the last forty-mumble years, and quit trying after I arrived at a number even I didn’t want to believe. One of my major complaints about actually succeeding at writing is that it cuts waaaaaay into my reading time.

I discovered science fiction in sixth grade, by way of Andre Norton’s novel Catseye. (It gladdens me to see Ms. Norton receiving from many of the current generation of great writers the recognition she is due. It saddens me that she didn’t receive it during most of her life.) From there the jump to Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc., was a short one.

I think what caught me up in SF was what the old-timers used to call the “sense of wonder”. But in my case, it wasn’t from the idea of space flight or zoomy technology that grabbed me. No, I was hooked on the worlds. Even at ages 10-12, I began to see beyond the limits of the page and wanted to go to those places.

And then I arrived at eighth grade. Age 13, bright, introverted, lazy, and defensive. (“You really read that science fiction stuff?”) And then I discovered Tolkien.

This was 1964-5, right before the first paperback editions came out. In fact, I first read The Hobbit in paperback, but I read The Lord of the Rings in the hardback edition from the library. And of course, I had no idea what a trilogy was-who did, back then-so I read them out of order. (Did the same thing with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, too. I told you, I was 13.) And boy, did I get confused, not least by the fact that the two main villains were named almost identically. (Sauron/Saruman-c’mon now, hand up those who didn’t stumble over that the first time through.) (That’s what I thought.)

But what caught me up in a hold that still exists to this day; what caused me to read the entire trilogy 12 times in eight years and re-read my favorite excerpts many times over since then, was the world. Say what you will about the stories-and I know that Tolkien is not everyone’s cup of tea-(Philistines)-the creation of Middle Earth is unequaled in the field of literature with a small ‘L’. The height and depth and breadth of Tolkien’s conception and realization is unparalleled, to my way of thinking. Of course the fact that he spent 20-30 years building it might have something to do with that. (Sometimes we feel like if we spend 2-3 months building our story universes, we’ve wasted time.)

The appendices at the end of The Return of the King quickly became some of my favorite reading. That’s where Tolkien gave me glimpses of everything that was lurking behind the scenes and under the surface. And I wanted that. Oh, how I wanted that. I copied out the tables of the runes from the appendices, and used them to translate the bands of runes on the title pages. (You do know that those aren’t just decorative, right?) I would pore over the genealogies, looking for correlations to the trilogy narrative. I would even lie awake at night and try to figure out what would go in the blank spots where he didn’t say anything…to no avail, of course.

And gradually, the desire began to grow in me to write. But I didn’t want to write to make a buck, or to impress people, or to feed my ego, or even to scratch an unscratchable itch. No, what caused me to set pen to paper (literally) in 1977 was a deep-seated desire to craft something that people would be drawn into the way I was drawn into Middle-Earth.

Oh, I know I’ll probably never attain that. The circumstances behind Tolkien’s craftwork are unique, and will probably never be duplicated. And even if it could, I don’t have 20 years to spend in doing it. But the fact that a goal may not be attained does not mean that it should not be striven for.

To this day, the works that are most likely to be retained in my library for frequent re-reading are works whose worlds are masterpieces of the world-building craft.

So that’s why I’m taking time to share thoughts and discussion about world-building.

Okay, end of musing interlude. On to discussion about world-building…next post. Promise.

Four Elements, Part 1, maybe

Okay, so this is my first blog for Fictorians. Bit nervous, and all that. New territory for me, blogging is. But, having agreed to do it, here goes.

As I understand it, this is supposed to be a blog by writers about writing, and that those of us who participate can write on most any topic that appeals to us. That being the case, I’m going to spend a few words on the craft of writing fiction. Oh, not on the nuts and bolts of it, the grammar and vocabulary, the sentences and paragraphs. No, I’m going to wax at least semi-eloquent on what I think of to myself as the Four Elements of writing fiction: Characters, Plot, Narrative, and World-building. Others may disagree with me on the composition of the list, but to me these are the big four.

Different writers approach those elements in different manners. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien, of The Lord of the Rings fame, did his world-building first. He created the languages first, then after asking himself the question “What kind of people would speak these languages?”, created the world and the peoples (a/k/a Middle-Earth), and only then began creating the stories, the histories that morphed into The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all of the other tales laid in that universe.

Other writers come up with the story idea first, then develop the characters and the universe.

Still others create a character first, and the story and the universe grow out of the question “What would this guy do?” I fall in that category most of the time: a character usually springs into my mind full-grown and full-blown, and I begin telling stories about him or her because I want to learn what he/she did.

Of course, an author is not locked into a single approach. We’re free to adopt whichever approach works best at a given moment or for a given idea. However, I suspect that most of us have a favored approach to the Four Elements. As I said above, I’m usually character-driven, and my track record is that my best writing occurs when I have a bond with my characters.

But regardless of which door an author uses to enter the hall of the Four Elements, he/she can’t exit without having visited all four of them and incorporating them into the work. There may be a few exceptions to that rule, but every story I can remember reading that I felt was written well and told a good story had all four elements present.

Of course, none of this is new thought. Reams of written texts and countless hours of discussion in seminars and other venues have chewed on these elements. And I don’t pretend to have distilled it all down to pure unalloyed truth. But it is kind of fun to spend time chewing on them some more.

Now, I’m going to tell you that all of the above was in the manner of introductory remarks, to set context, if you will. What I really want to do is narrow the discussion down to one of the elements: World-building. But I’ve about reached the limit of what I can do in a single post, so I’ll leave that for my next post. I’ll try to make it worth the wait.