Six impossible things

Why start with a world?

One of the things that constantly surprises me is the number of people who put a tremendous amount of pre-writing work into inventing characters and developing plot, but who never stop to consider their setting or world, apart from “They start in a city, then they go on a quest in the mountains, and they end up in a castle.” Given that setup, some people would do basic research on castles, but a lot wouldn’t even go that far.

(There are, of course, loads of people who dive in and try to construct a fourteen-volume encyclopedia of their world’s background, but I’ll talk about that in a later post.)

The world in which the story takes place is the context for everything else. It touches everything in the story: the characters’ personalities, jobs, skills, attitudes, and resources; the events that can happen; the plot twists that are and aren’t available; the things that everyone agrees are important and the things nobody thinks are important.

This means that worldbuilding can be a great source of character ideas, plot twists, and ways of developing every aspect of the story, from the kinds of events to the ways characters can grow or the things they stand firm on.

The physical aspects are the easiest and most obvious:  a city that’s situated in the middle of a continent is clearly not going to be faced with a tsunami, for instance; one that’s located on a river delta may face a flood, but probably not an avalanche or volcanic eruption. One can work backward to these – if some aspect of the plot or story requires a tsunami or avalanche, then obviously the location will require a seacoast or mountains – but for many writers, it is easier to picture a place in detail and then ask “What sorts of disasters could occur here?” than to start with some shadowy buildings floating in gray fog and think “OK, what’s a list of all the kinds of disasters that could happen somewhere? Volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, wildfire, plague of locusts… Which one do I want? Tsunami…OK, so my city is set on a seacoast.”

Similarly, physical location has a lot to do with weather, food, and clothing. You don’t find many people in Minnesota in January wearing shorts, and you don’t find them wearing parkas in Florida even at that time of year. If transportation is limited to feet and horses, fresh fish won’t be served more than ten or twenty miles from the seacoast or a lake, and the type of fish is going to depend on whether the nearest largish body of water is fresh or salt. Smoked and salted fish may be available farther inland, but not fresh.

All this is going to affect the characters’ attitudes and perceptions. If “what’s normal” where they live includes blizzards and a struggle to keep warm for six months of the year, they’re going to think and act rather differently from people who are accustomed to having to retreat indoors to get out of the afternoon heat every day, year round. And this can have plot ramifications. The character who is used to storing food on the back porch in winter because it never gets above freezing may leave the tuna casserole out there without thinking, even though the current location regularly hits 50F during a winter day, and end up giving everyone food poisoning at a crucial moment.

Then there’s the cultural stuff, which can do everything from give a story an interesting flavor to causing plot and character complications all on its own. The classic example is the character from the culture in which hospitality mandates that a guest be served more food as long as his/her plate is empty and the character from the culture in which leaving any food on one’s plate is considered a criticism of the host’s cooking (even if one has already had three servings). It doesn’t matter which person is the host and which the guest; either way, there’s going to be misunderstandings.

A writer who has thought about some of this in advance is in a better position to write characters and action that are unique and interesting. They’re also in a better position to make up new stuff on the fly, because even if they haven’t made up all the table manners and food, they’re at least aware that these two characters are going to have different ideas about what’s normal and polite. Being aware makes it less likely that the writer will default to whatever is normal for them, and will instead stop and think about whether a few comments about different table manners will make this dinner scene more interesting, or even send the scene in a completely different direction.

Worldbuilding is an interactive and iterative process. It’s not something a writer does at the start and then it’s finished. Because if the world touches everything in the story, the reverse is also true. The plot and characters and setting details reveal things about the characters.

If you know that the dam breaks in Chapter 18 and floods the town, then you know that the town is on a river and the country has the engineering technology (and reason) to build a dam. If you know that George is a librarian, you know that your society has books, paper or parchment, ink, and possibly printing presses. You can then focus your attention on what else is on the flood plain or how the dam was built or what kinds of books are (or aren’t) in the library or whether George has to deal with budget constraints or censorship. That in turn may suggest more plot or character developments, which in turn suggests more about the world.

But by far the most useful aspect of thinking about worldbuilding in advance, in my experience, is the coolness factor. Which I’m going to have to talk about next post, as this one is already quite long enough.

11 Comments
  1. Excellent points all! 😀

    I love world building, but fortunately I don’t get beguiled into creating the “fourteen-volume encyclopedia” of my world’s background. Somehow I just know when I’ve got enough to begin my story, and once I hit that point, I don’t want to continue building the world; I want to start telling the story.

    Many of my stories grow out of the social and cultural constraints of my setting. For example, in one novel, the women living in the “sisters’ lodge” are required to send their boy children to the “brothers’ lodge” to live when the babies hit two-and-a-half years old. So my story, naturally, is about a young woman who absolutely does not want or intend to do that.

  2. My draft 0 of a recent WIP (dealing in part with a mostly pre-technology society) glibly tossed off two points that I didn’t think about at all at the time but had significant bearing on the story: “She spun around and saw silhouetted against the windows of the pub two men coming toward her, saw the glint of light reflected off steel. She drew her own sword and pushed the cloak back on her shoulders” and “The officers are assembling at Colonel Ungst’s tent in ten minutes.”

    At some point on rereading, I had the awareness of mind to recognize that steel swords implied smelting capabilities—and how did ancient peoples measure units of time like ten minutes?

    Filling in the gaps created by these lapses was a challenge but gave me a better sense of how two cultures in the world interacted and prompted a few story ideas.

    • I don’t know what you’d do in the middle of the day or the middle of the night. But if you want to know how long till sunset, hold out your hand (or your two hands) at arm’s length, fingers horizontal. A hand is an hour till sunset; each finger is fifteen minutes. Would that help?

      • Oh, cool! I don’t need that at the moment, but I will definitely remember it. Thank you.

  3. This is why I write contemporary 😉 (Although, to be honest, there’s still a lot of worldbuilding that goes on in contemporary novels. A lot of authors skip it there too).

  4. World building, or at least some aspects of world building, is one of the things I get “for free.” I don’t write fourteen volume encyclopedias, but I do often end up with dozens of little essays about the world background. Much of my world building is to justify, or at least get within a handwave of justifying, various Cool Bits of setting that I want to have appear in my stories. Other parts are to try to get sizes and numbers of things right, to at least a first approximation. (“I’ve got a hot new gentlemen’s club involved in the plot. How big is it physically? How many men will be visiting each night? How many serving wenches will it need? Hmm this all depends on how big the port city is, and…”)

  5. In my WIP, I need at least one moon that subtends an arc slightly greater than that of the solar diameter. I can find online the equations necessary for figuring that, but once given the size and distance of this moon, how do I determine its orbital period – and for that matter, its effects on the tides? I used to have a resource that gave me some of that, but it seems to have been lost in one of many moves.

    • I picked up a book by Stephen L. Gillett: *World-Building: A writer’s guide to constructing star systems and life-supporting planets.* It’s full of exactly that sort of information.

  6. I particularly like the note that people who’ve put a little time into worldbuilding are “also in a better position to make up new stuff on the fly.” This is the ideal way to avoid the fourteen-volume encyclopedia problem: start with enough background to get going, and fill in more detail as it becomes necessary. (It was also a critical skill back when I was running a tabletop role-playing campaign, back in the day.)

  7. Now I want to write something that takes place in “shadowy buildings floating in gray fog”. My first impulse is to make it a chilly, northern city, but it could be tropical, couldn’t it? Hmm. If it’s always foggy, how does that affect your ways of getting to, say, work? Are you more cautious in what you say when out of doors, since you can’t easily see if someone’s close enough to hear? Being outside for more than brief transit times might be considered a bit odd. Hmm.

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