Worldbuilding and How To Do It
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One of the most exciting things about spec fic is the chance to build worlds. I'm working on my first in this genre, so it's also my first attempt at creating a whole new environment. My book is earth-based, but set 500 years in the future. I get to imagine what might have changed and what might have stayed the same. I'm enjoying it tremendously, but what's struck me is how much of it comes out without planning. As I write, the world kind of builds itself. Not everything, mind you, but enough to make me wonder what happens with other writers. So... how do the rest of you build your worlds? Do you plan ahead? If so, how much? If not, how does your world create itself? Do you have special procedures for names? How does it all come together for you?
  • Hi, Sue Ann,


    I've found most of the discussions on SW to go dead pretty fast, lol, but I get emails when anyone replies to this one. I'm so glad you did! I wish I could say that my world building comes from a lifetime of scientific endeavor--I think that kind of background would be a terrific place to start. Alas, I'm just a poor English major, so it's a little harder for me! I'll check out your blogs--thanks for sharing them.

  • Not sure if this discussion is still active, but my world building came from a lifetime as a geophysicist and atmospheric scientist. I used it as a blog topic last winter, and now have all of those posts linked from my author website.
  • The iceberg analogy makes a lot of sense! And I agree, it really pulls me out of the story when an author seems to feel compelled to show us the whole iceberg, not just the tip.
  • I like the idea of putting it all in and cutting it all out. Also--I think you can add dribs and drabs as you go--as long as you're deeply into a character's voice, and it's his/her thoughts. But I agree, it's a balancing act. I just read The Empress of Mars and Kage Baker did an interesting thing--she began the book with a kind of prolog that explained the world's background. It was a couple of pages and it was way interesting and left off at a good hook. Turn the page and the story began. I'd never seen a book start that way, but I don't read a lot of sci fi.
  • Your welcome. If I don't have something original to add, at least I can point in a good direction. :) Hope it helped.
  • As a reader, I'm pulled out of stories at any sign of an info-dump, and I'm just as apt to drop it in chapter 1 as I am chapter 24 if the author wants to explain what the world is and how it works. There are good ways to slip in description of the world and how it's different (Jasper Fforde, IMO, is a pro at this), and there are bad ways (and I'm not naming names, because I know a lot of people who like the Wheel of T-- oops). It is a balancing act, and maybe the trick is to toss it all in, then cut what isn't needed in an editing purge the next draft, if that's what you want to do. You want just enough information that the reader is intrigued and wants to read more. I wish I could give you a rule (two sentences? A paragraph? A page?), but I think that depends on how much it relates to the story, how well you can convey it in dialogue without invoking the ol' maid-and-butler or "As you know, Bob," exchanges, and how interesting it is to everyone who isn't you. I've heard worldbuilding referred to as an iceberg. The tiny part you see on top is the smallest fraction of all the work that's gone into it. I think that's apt, except for where they break apart, or sink behemoth ships.
  • Thanks for the ideas, Kam. I'm not a big SF reader, just a huge imaginer, so all the books you mentioned are new to me. I will check them out and see what others have done. And, yeah, creating an entire language is so big it gives me shivers. I don't think I'll get that far. LOL!
  • Oh wow... I love the idea of creating a mashup language. It sounds like a very big project in itself, though, and I'm a slow enough writer as it is, hehe. Using a sprinkling of words here and there, though, I like that idea too, and it sounds a lot more doable. I really liked Ursula Leguin's use of made up words for concepts that were peculiar to the culture and biology of her invented races, and didn't have direct equivalents on Earth. Other examples, hmm... there are the various languages Tolkien invented for the different races of LOTR. Also, there's the Klingon language invented for Star Trek. Harry Harrison used Esperanto in his Stainless Steel Rat books. I think one of the coolest examples I've read in a book was the musical language of the Titanides in John Varley's Titan trilogy. Although I can't remember if it was actually transcribed in some way, or just described in words.
  • Kam, that was so cool! Loved hearing how you took real-world stuff to create a new world. I especially enjoyed hearing about your naming technique. My wip is a futuristic, and I wanted to create a mashup language combining several earth languages. Unfortunately, I'm not talented enough! I loved the Chinese in Firefly, but finding out how to curse in Chinese is beyond me... I thought the Navi language in Avatar was amazing, too. I read they hired a linguist to create it. Of course, I don't want to do whole sections in a language no one understands, but wouldn't mind a little bit of something here and there. So I'm curious. Have you--or anyone else hanging out here--used or read something with a new language? Any tips?
  • I definitely know what you mean when you say the world creates itself. I've tried doing all the worldbuilding and research up front, with those exhaustive lists of every detail you're supposed to know about your world, but for me it just doesn't seem to grow as well in a vaccuum, as it grows in my brain at the same time I'm writing the story. When I need to know something about the story in progress, I'll make it up then. When making it up brings me to a sticking point, that's when I'll go into research mode. I've found it useful to use real examples of environments, locations, cultures, etc. from our world to help me develop my made-up world. Like for example, in the world of my current WIP, I wanted to have two countries engaged in some kind of long-standing conflict. I decided to use the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir as a rough model, and have each country claim ownership of the same disputed swath of territory, and rather than have it be all-out war all the time, the conflict would sometimes simmer, sometimes erupt into overt hostilities. But I made everything else different, the culture, language, and so forth, and it grew into its own thing that's (hopefully) not going to come across as simply "Kashmir on another planet". I also found it useful to look for pictures of real places on Earth, and let them spark my imagination, and then morph them for my own usage. I found some images of Sao Paulo, Brazil, showing a shantytown against a background of shiny skyscrapers, and it made me think that I wanted that in my fictional city too, some very overt physical evidence of great economic disparity over a small physical distance. Oh, and my shantytowns have hovercraft flying over them. For names, I'll pick some theme and then try to stick to it. For this particular story I didn't go so far as to invent new names in a new language, rather I decided that people in both of the two warring countries would have Greek and Spanish names. And then in a third, neighboring country, all the names are Italian and Irish. I figure maybe their ancestors originally came in different spaceships sponsored by different Earth countries? That's my explanation for now, anyway :)