Six impossible things

Wiscon and worldbuilding

Wiscon was fun but, for me, low-key – I caught a nasty cold the week before, and was still recovering, so I ended up napping a whole lot more than usual and skipping a lot of the parties. But I got to see a bunch of friends and I picked up a couple of books (and a slew of recommendations) and had fun and lots of good food. And the cold is a lot better, so I can’t even grouse that the napping was a waste of time.

One of the interesting things this year was that there were three (!) panels on worldbuilding, and that’s not counting the ones on specific bits of worldbuilding, like the panel on “Designing a Magic System.” I was on the third panel, “The Joy of Worldbuilding,” which suffered a bit, I think, from being at the end of the run of panels on the topic. Nevertheless, we had a good crowd, and that tells me something about the interest of readers and writers in the topic, especially since they’d already had (potentially) at least three related panels in the previous twenty-four hours.

The topic was supposed to be about the sheer fun of worldbuilding for its own sake, but the discussion drifted (as such things are wont to do). What I ended up taking away from it was neither a list of recommended books (though there were quite a lot on display), nor tips and tricks for doing worldbuilding (though a few of those ran by as well), but a number of thoughts about process and utility.

For at least some fans and writers, inventing a coherent, consistent imaginary world is immense fun. Yes, even doing the math-and-science bits (sometimes especially the math-and-science bits). Yes, even when you know perfectly well that 99.9% of your readers are never going to notice that the orbital mechanics of the space station or the plate tectonics of the land masses are right (as far as scientific theory as of the copy-edit date knows). Yes, even when it’s a totally-imaginary fantasy world and the notion that there even are plate tectonics or fossils is never even going to occur to them. Getting it right, making it work within the rules-as-we-know-them is fun. So is making up a bunch of one’s own rules and then figuring out as many ramifications as possible.

In spite of the fun and the intellectual puzzle aspects of it, worldbuilding for its own sake has a bit of a bad rap in an awful lot of fan communities. I think that this is because so very many fans want (or think they want) to be writers, and worldbuilding is perceived as both a vital necessity for writing science fiction or fantasy and as a snare that can easily sidetrack the would-be writer into spending years doing worldbuilding instead of producing stories.

What people forget is that J. R. R. Tolkien spent forty years working on the worldbuilding for Middle Earth…for fun. Yes, eventually The Lord of the Rings came out of it, but the goal, at the start, wasn’t to write a bestselling fantasy. The goal was to make up some cool languages and then some neat people/elves/dwarves/ents/hobbits/etc. to speak the languages and then some poetry and history and cultures for the neat people/elves/etc. The story came last, almost as an afterthought.

In other words, worldbuilding does not have to have a utilitarian purpose in order to justify doing it. If one’s goal is to write a novel, well, then, yes, one does need to do some worldbuilding, whether one enjoys it or not, and one does have to be a bit careful that if one enjoys it, one doesn’t get too distracted from the ultimate goal (writing the novel). But if one just wants to have fun making stuff up…why not? You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy constructing an imaginary place.

The other point is a process one. We had two writers on that panel, and we represented the opposite ends of the worldbuilding process. I need to have a certain (fairly significant) amount of the worldbuilding done in advance in order to keep my story and my characters in line and everything consistent. I didn’t need to make up every single magical creature on the Great Plains in Frontier Magic (though I did make up quite a few), but I did have to know that I wanted an entire magical ecology that existed simultaneously with the non-magical, real-life one…which meant making sure that I talked about magical plants and insects and birds as well as things like dragons that you’d expect to find in a fantasy. I need a fair bit of foundation laid before I start working on the story, even if I don’t actually use most of it.

In contrast, the other writer on the panel apparently did much of his worldbuilding as needed during the writing of the story. I have a good friend who works similarly; where I need the structure and foundation to keep things in line, she needs the freedom to come up with an emergency escape detail on the fly that can get her characters out of a sticky situation. I don’t recall her actually having to do this, any more than I actually use the specific details I come up with in advance, but just as having a foundation is necessary to my process, being unrestricted and able to make up details is necessary to hers.

The last thing about worldbuilding is that we use the word in two different ways. On the one hand “worldbuilding” is that pre-writing or hobby-like invention of a coherent imaginary place, in as much detail (or lack thereof) as the inventor happens to want or need. It’s independent of story, just as real-life places exist independent of the people that live in them and the things that happen in them. On the other hand, there’s the worldbuilding that takes place within the story – the accumulation of details and bits of description and information that the characters find out about the history of the place(s) they move through, all of which creates an image of the world in which the story takes place. This kind of worldbuilding is a writing and storytelling technique, and it applies as much to modern mimetic fiction as it does to the most surreal of fantasies. The existence of real-life New York, Capetown, or Bombay does not make it easier to convey a sense of them to a reader than it is to evoke the feel of an imaginary place like Hobbiton or Edoras.

It’s the second kind of worldbuilding – the in-story techniques for conveying the look and feel of a place, whether real or imaginary – that is vital to fantasy and science fiction. The pre-writing make-it-up sort of worldbuilding is optional, depending on one’s personal process.

6 Comments
  1. I love worldbuilding! Right now I’m creating a story where unicorns are evil, dwarves are downright lazy and dragons are only out for their own financial gain. It’s been a blast to piece all the things together.

  2. I enjoy worldbuilding, tend to do a bit more than is strictly necessary for the story, but don’t get carried away with doing too much. (At least, that’s how it feels to me. Just lucky that I’m “mejum.” Grin!)

    I do need a certain amount of worldbuilding to even spark the story, since my stories seem to sprout in the intersection between person and place. I also need enough worldbuilding to keep myself straight. (No, the map shows it would take at least 12 hours hiking to get there, so she couldn’t just pop over for afternoon tea!)

    I used to think I should be able to just brainstorm a plot out of thin air. I’m sure some do! But I need to noodle on places and people for a while before ideas percolate.

  3. My favorite kind of world building is inventing myths, then inventing what parts are true and which aren’t. It’s amazing how knowing what stories everyone believes will tell you how they’ll behave. (Like one group who is very respectful of women because Death is a lady and she might make the afterlife difficult if they’re not.)

  4. This kind of worldbuilding is a writing and storytelling technique, and it applies as much to modern mimetic fiction as it does to the most surreal of fantasies. The existence of real-life New York, Capetown, or Bombay does not make it easier to convey a sense of them to a reader than it is to evoke the feel of an imaginary place like Hobbiton or Edoras.

    Amplifying on that: I am minded of the feel of many of Barbara Hambly’s historical mysteries — she does a very good job of not just describing the environment in the periods, but also highlighting all the alien parts of them, in ways that resonate with the fantasy-worldbuilding as well.

  5. Thanks, this was a helpful post. My current WIP hasn’t progressed much because of that ‘simple’ little idea used for the magic/physics system. I keep having to rethink all the ways this impacts the food distribution system, buildings, transport, menus, laws, and even ecology! Its fun but I was getting a bit frustrated by the lack of progress. Now I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy the world-building. ^_^

  6. I love it when we are reading about an exotic world, and a child in that world is excited about seeing a woman with a feather in her hat.

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