Thursday, April 15, 2010

World Building: Blog Posts of Note

Every SF blog out there has a post (or ten) about "world building".  It seems like a good way to start my own exploration of world building is to point out a few of the more interesting posts I've encountered while researching the topic.

To start, let's define world building - my working definition is that world building is the process of creating the full setting for the story.  In the case of speculative fiction, we have the benefit (and burden) of being able to create an entire universe from whole cloth.  So building our worlds can include a huge host of topics that must be investigated; religion, climate, technology, language, biology, ecology, social values, genders (multiple or lack there of ...), social structures, and much more.  World building is working your way through all of these areas, to some extent, and ensuring your characters have a self-consistent world in which to operate.

A good post which introduces world building is "About the Details" by David Weber.  One great point made in this post is:  "I think it’s wrong to tell someone that he or she should only “write what you know,” because too often that’s taken to mean that you should write only about something you have personally experienced."  "... very few of us have ever been starship captains, amnesiac government assassins, elven warrior-mages, or artificial intelligences. In the sense of telling a prospective writer that he should write about subjects upon which he is informed, on the other hand, writing “what you know” makes wonderful sense."  When writing speculative fiction, research is key.  As noted, we really can't get "personal experience" with most aspects of our universes, but excellent research and good world building will still result in intriguing and consistent settings for our characters.

Being trained as a planetary research scientist, I fall naturally into that aspect of world building.  I enjoy delving into the topics of geology, technology, climates, biology and lots of other 'ologies.'  But as much as I enjoy developing the cultural aspects of my worlds, I have less training for that.  Jo Walton provides an interesting means of investigating the day to day lives lived in our worlds-to-be in a post titled "Real world building for fantasy writers."  She advocates the reading of history, our history, as the basic starting point.  "History is real and solid, and if you know it you can make changes from a point of knowledge, not ignorance."  She isn't talking about getting a specific idea from these books, but instead understanding the big picture view of what it means to really delve into and be able to describe the daily lives of people, no matter their world, time, or culture.  "Read widely. Compare things across cultures where possible. Think about why things are the way they are, think about the way things fit together, think about economics and geography."  "So the questions I ask are “OK, how did it get like that?” and “OK, what are the implications of that?

If you are a perfectionist like I am, there is always the question of "how good is good enough?"  There is no world, even our own, that is free of inconsistencies.  How perfect, how consistent, does your world building really have to be?  John Scalzi gives his own answer to that question on his blog in a post called "Worldbuilding, Briefly."  He believes he satisfies about 90% of readers by being two questions deep.  That is, "you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question."  I'm not certain that is enough for me, being a rabid world builder, but it is nice to see any kind of metric.  Otherwise, it's hard to know when to stop and actually get to the business of writing the story ...


Image credit:  "Tripartite" by guitfiddle on deviantArt.

My comments:  This is one of those nicely detailed pieces I could stare at for a long time, and let my imagination go.  I see a world with three specific types of terrain/climate something like desert, temperate, and polar.  Their juxtaposition already seems artificial, then we note the sides of the cliffs show some kind of mechanical constructs.  Perhaps there are people living inside, or the 'continents' are themselves constructs.  Perhaps the entire world is a construct.  Puts a spin on the idea of 'world building' more like Douglas Adams.


Kay said...

Informative post. I'd like to mention all those details have to be integrated and internalized so they just appear in the action of the story without tons of back story and world description. Something, I keep stumbling over.

Love the artwork.

Bryce Ellicott said...

Kay - Thanks for reading and commenting. You make a very good point; the need to have your exposition of the world come forth naturally. Not forced. I find it a challenge as well - especially keeping the details in dialogue to a necessary minimum.

Very glad you like the art. I am enjoying finding it. It takes about three times as long to use this kind of art than to get something from Creative Commons, say. There's all the background work to find it, get permission, and get it posted. But I think I'm getting three times as much fun out of it.