Category Archives: World-building

World-building – Oops!

I’ve been a reader for over 50 years.  I’ve read a lot of good books, and some not so good.  And I’ve heard other writers talk about the craft and about books in general.  From all of that, following are some common missteps in the area of world-building.  (And yes, I’ve been guilty of most of them at one time or another.)  All identifying logos have been removed and serial numbers have been filed off or otherwise obfuscated.

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If I’m going to write in contemporary Earth settings, if I’m using a city for my setting du jour, I’d best know its geography well.  For example:

  • If I’m going to lay a story in Sacramento, California, or Denver, Colorado, or Anchorage, Alaska, I’d better know which sides of the cities have mountains near them, and which mountains they are.  Same story with rivers:  what are they named and where do they run in the city?
  • If I’m writing in New York City, I’d better know which streets are on Manhattan Island and which are in Brooklyn, I’d better know which direction they run, and I’d better know which streets the major landmarks are on.
  • If my character is standing in a certain location in downtown Chicago and looking west, I’d better know which major buildings he’s going to see, and just as importantly, which buildings he won’t see.
  • Ditto for London, and Paris, and Moscow, and Beijing, and Oslo, and Tokyo, etc.

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Animals are not machines.  Yes, an ox or a donkey or a horse can work all day, much as a human can.  However, a hard-working animal needs rest and water and food on a regular basis, just like a hard-working human does.

Although I am not a horse person, I know some, and I am reliably informed that, despite what Hollywood shows us, a horse cannot gallop for hours and hours on end.  Oh, a willing horse might attempt it at the urging of his rider, but if pushed to the limit the horse will drop, exhausted, and will most likely die.  I mean, after all, can you sprint all out for six hours at a time?  Neither can a horse.

And it might surprise you that a horse, traveling at a reasonable pace, doesn’t really travel that much farther than a man over the course of a day.

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As remarked back up the chain somewhere, major characters should not have similar names, especially if they are also very similar characters.  (The thought bears repeating.)  It might be considered a characterization issue, but I’m more of the opinion that it’s one of world-building.  Wherever you pigeonhole it, it is confusing to the reader.  I recently “awoke” in the middle of the novel I’m currently working on and realized I had two major characters named Thomas and five characters (three major) named George or Georg.  I was getting confused; never mind what this was going to do to my prospective readers!  So unless that confusion is something you need for the story, you might find another name for one of them.

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Western European culture is considered by many to be an aberration in the history of culture in the world.  (I’m not too sure but what I don’t agree with them.)  Because of this, we need to be very careful about projecting our 21st century Western cultural mores (political, religious, sexual or otherwise) on earlier periods and places of history.

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Cloth  (This last one may be less an “Oops” moment and more a chunk of “trivial” data that you may find useful.)  I must stipulate that I am not a Clothing Expert.  These are just a few things I’ve picked up along the way, mostly from writing in the 1632 universe.

Pre-industrial societies did not have an abundance of cloth, and what they did have was not for the most part very brightly colored, or at least, not for very long.

  • Without powered spinning machines and powered looms, cloth is very labor intensive to produce and turn into clothing.  (Check into how long it takes a hand weaver to weave a three-inch width of cloth.)  In 1996-7 I saw the exhibit of royal Chinese artifacts that toured the US.  They had a suit of clothing (tunic and trousers) that had been produced for a (short) member of the royal family.  I didn’t think it was all that much to look at, but according to the program notes it took over two man years to produce that suit.
  • Vegetable/biological dyes didn’t produce very rich colors for the most part.  Even when they did (imperial purple, for example), they faded fairly quickly, so most people ended up wearing dull or pastel hues of blue or brown or sometimes red.  Bright or deep/rich hue dyes were usually scarce, and correspondingly expensive.  I’m told by a fabric maven that producing a good black dye that would hold fast was particularly difficult, so it was very expensive.  Only the wealthiest people would wear black.  (Explains all those Renaissance and Baroque era portraits, doesn’t it?)
  • And unless a family was very well off, each member of the family would be fortunate to have two or three suits of clothes.  (Remember the size of pre-industrial families.)
  • Variety was sometimes served by making the clothing modular:  detachable sleeves and collars, combined with different bodices or vests, sashes, belts, etc.
  • In most pre-industrial societies there was probably a good market for used clothing, possibly even removed from corpses before burial.  (Think of the old cleaning lady’s scene in Scrooge’s vision of the future in A Christmas Carol.)
  • This explains a lot about accounts in the Bible and other ancient literature where gifts of clothing were given to a guest or to someone who was favored.  (Joseph’s “coat of many colors” ring a bell?)

Cloth and clothing after the industrialization and mechanization of the cloth industry is a very different topic.  Someone (not me) should do a post on that some time.

World-building – Driblets from the fermentation tanks

Last post in this chain we looked at one approach to the “how-2” of world-building.  Today, just some more or less random musings on this part of our craft.

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There are without a doubt other approaches to world-building, including the “make it up as you go along” approach.

Don’t let all the structure of the last post mislead you.  My experience is that the world-building process is nowhere nearly as organized as all that post would indicate.  Most authors that I’ve heard mention the subject tend to have some degree of organization (usually notebooks or spreadsheets), if for no other reason than so they can find that decision they made six months ago.  And I know of at least a couple of special cases where a group of people brainstormed and designed a detailed story universe that was shared among them.  But that level of detail and control is probably unusual, unless you’re doing work-for-hire for TV, movie, or game tie-ins, in which case someone else has already built the universe and all you have to do is figure out how to tell your story in it.

I’m certainly not that ordered.  In fact, I tend to be very intuitive; jumping to a decision or a conclusion, then looking backwards to figure out why that would be a good idea is not unusual for me.  On the other hand, I typically don’t totally make it up as I go along.  I usually make decisions about the big obvious stuff up front, then fill in additional details as I write the story.  (Sorry, I don’t outline well.  Or often.  Or at all, most of the time.)  And yes, I do tend to carry it around in my head, only making physical notes of really abstract or subtle points.

I suspect the majority of writers are more flexible than rigorous.

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Keep in mind that every change to the starting default should have a price.  If we change one aspect of the world, what will be affected by it?

  • I mentioned in a previous post that in the biological “world”, there are desired constructs that might be possible, but only with trade-offs in other areas that might be prohibitive to you or your characters.  (See Robin McKinley’s new novel Pegasus for an example.)
  • If you’re going to use a magic system, where does the “power” come from, and how does it get renewed?  For the story to ring true, there has to be a cost to it.  Supermen of any type are boooooring.  But a character who pays a price–perhaps a heavy one–to do something super . . . what can you the writer do with that?
  • If a character gets a super-normal ability, what does he/she lose or impair to have it?  For example:  DNA modification produces human level intelligence in elephants:  what do they give up to have it, and how do they feel about it?
  • Etc.

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A few thoughts on research.

  • Yes, research is necessary.
  • Yes, probably lots of research is necessary.
  • But “Sometimes plausibility is more important to a story than sheer accuracy.”  (Tim Powers, Soonercon discussion, June, 2011)
  • Do Not do your research in other fictional works, lest you trip over another author’s missteps or “plausible” decisions.
  • Wikipedia is not 100% reliable.  It can point you in certain directions, but do not accept anything it says as valid unless you know from your own personal knowledge it is correct or you have verified it through other research.
  • Actually, the Wikipedia point may be true about the Internet in general, considering how many times I find the same paragraphs (word for word match-ups) posted in multiple locations.  Frequency of occurrence does not necessarily equate to accuracy of content.

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As I said somewhere back up the chain of posts, this series is not an all-encompassing list, partly because each world-building exercise is different from the last one.  You may find other items you want to add to it.  You may have your own list you want to compare to my list.  That’s all good.

If you haven’t seen it before, author Lee Killough wrote an excellent  short book on world-building entitled Checking on Culture. (  She goes into a great deal more depth than I have, and I freely confess to having learned a lot from it.  Even though it’s slanted toward science fiction and fantasy, the general teachings in it are universally applicable, and I highly recommend it to and for writers of all genres.

Nest post:  Oops!

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.