WFC – Worldbuilding

My strong suit isn’t worldbuilding. I don’t mean that I don’t imagine my world and see it with awe and wonder, I mean that what I see in my head doesn’t always make it to the page like it should. So I thought, why not attend a forum and make weak things strong.

Enter Howard Tayler, author of the online comic Schlock Mercenary, and all decked out in steampunk attire. Think chef’s coat, but black with metal buttons on top, and big shoes that look like they came straight from the costuming department of Flash Gordon. Maybe this is how Howard always dresses, but I thought it especially appropriate for a forum on worldbuilding via a scifi guy.

WHEN IT COMES TO WORLDBUILDING

Resist the temptation to worldbuild for worldbuilding’s sake. A dragon that is in the background that doesn’t do anything doesn’t need to be there. Don’t describe scenes that will have little bearing on your story. What the character sees should tell the reader either something about that character or something about the story. What would your character notice? And what descriptions can you use to help create your story?

Ask yourself, what kind of a story do I want to tell? Build your world around that answer.

A HORSE IS A HORSE

There are things that you’ll do when you worldbuild that you shouldn’t. You’ll take the things that you are familiar with and put them in exactly as you’re familiar with them. Take for example horses. If you’re writing a fantasy story, odds are horses will show up sooner or later. But let me ask you this question. Does your horse behave like a horse or like a motorcycle?

Because most of us aren’t around horses we tend to treat horses in our stories like motorcycles. It’s an object that gets us from point A to point B. We ride it from one location and park it, like a motorcycle and carry on. But that’s not how people typically treated horses back in the day. They were companions, they were been given names, and treated more like another person than an object.

SCIENCE IN STORY

We want to be as consistent as possible. We want it to be internally consistent. The reader is forming opinions as you’re writing. If you change from the “writer’s conference” to the “David Copperfield magic show” it doesn’t work. Keep your story’s world consistent with your story.

When you’re writing scifi, you’re going to have to deal with science and the way it works with your world. But even if you’re writing urban fantasy, like Harry Potter urban fantasy (I was thinking of you at this time, Kate) you still have to use it. When you are worldbuilding you have to leverage the best of the both worlds. Like making magic work with science.

What is Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic? The ability of the protagonist to solve a problem with magic is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of magic. Let’s use Lord of the Rings as an example. What are the rules for Frodo’s ring? The ring must be destroyed, but the problem is everyone who wears the ring gets corrupted and ultimately won’t destroy the ring. So how do you get the ring destroyed in a way that works with the rules of your story? You don’t have to throw the ring in, but the ring has to get thrown in. (That’s why Gollum destroying the ring ultimately makes sense).

Build a setting where you understand the rules well enough that you can tell your reader the rules and when you get to the end and what they do at the end makes sense. (See Ringworld by Larry Nivein). Weave in surprising yet inevitable pieces. You want the science to be a part of the story in sci-fi.

If something is interacting with them in a certain way that the scene plays out differently because of that setting. Have a reason for those scenes to exist.

Can anyone tell me the point of this character? Or better still why in a universe where people missing most of their body come back as half robots and this potential for story they had with this guy was left rotting in the power chambers of Naboo?

STORY IS EVERYTHING!

Nobody wants to read the Silmarillion. Don’t give us the encyclopedia up front. Tolkien needed the Silmarillion to exist for him as a reference guide, but you don’t put it all directly in the story.

JAE SIDE NOTE: This is often commonly referred to as infodumping or gunking up your story with too much backstory. Most of us have done this at one time or another in our writing and often most of us still do it in first drafts. It’s interesting to us, but not to our readers. It’s our job as writers to figure out how much info to share and not to share. It’s also our job to figure out how to weave the necessary information into the story so it seems natural and never a lecture or history lesson.

QUESTION & ANSWER

One more JAE NOTE: Nobody was asking him any questions, leaving that sort of awkward pause where you know you had a question but when asked you suddenly can’t think of any. Well, I asked the first question that came to mind: Where’d you get those fancy steampunk boots? πŸ˜‰ He said some vintage shop in Las Vegas you shouldn’t visit after dark.

How do you do the research? There are three levels of knowledge: the known-known; known-unknown; and unknown-unknown. The fantasy horse works as a known-unknown. You know what a horse is and typically how it functions, but you don’t know enough to probably make your story’s horse credible.

He then held up a coin. Challenge coins were for me, an unknown-unknown. I’d never heard of it before until someone mentioned it to me. So I immediately went a looked it up and now I’m going to incorporate it into my story.

But the point of all this is that you should grab hold of everything. Somebody around you knows a thing that you have no experience with. Your job as a writer is to ask them a question so you can know a thing. Be a sponge. Be the sponge.

How do you know if you’re crossing the line with your world-building (or as the asker put it, jumping the shark)? If in your world your reader senses it would be easier to just use “donkeys” for a certain task than just to use magic but you’re not using donkeys, then something is broken. Or we’re in a transition from one world to the other. If you’ve introduced something that saves them and doesn’t drastically change the world, then you probably have a problem.

It’s cheaper to let us bring our knowledge to the book and add dragons or whatever, etc. (He used Lord of the Rings AND Harry Potter as the example. There are elements we’re familiar with in those worlds combined with things we’re not familiar with).

And there you have it. So, do you have any “fantasy horses” in your stories you had to eliminate? Do you try and use language to describe your world that tells readers something about the character or story? What do you do to expose yourself to unknown-unknowns? Do you wish Darth Maul would have stuck around at least a little longer as a great revenge plot? Let us know below.

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22 thoughts on “WFC – Worldbuilding

  1. Another excellent post – really helpful. And it’s very true… I’m writing a novel in which the descriptions and sense of place is very important. But I’m trying to bring these things to life by focussing on a few small details, sometimes not the obvious ones, to help describe places and situations. We’ll have to see if it works!

    • Oooh, sounds interesting. I hope it goes well for you. You’ll have to update us all on the progress. I’m glad these posts are helpful. I’ve got another conference this weekend, so you’ll have to forgive the plethora of notes that will be occupying the blog. πŸ˜‰

  2. Some very cool insight into world-building… Personally, I try to remind myself that I, as the author, need to know everything. The reader, however, does not. (Case in point: the Silmarillion example, as sighted above.)
    As far as “fantasy horses” go, I might need to work on that. I substituted horses in my fantasy novel for a different mammal of transportation called the “steed”, modeled after an extinct Earth species, Macrauchenia. However, I think I may have also fallen victim to treating this animal like a motorcycle… Drat! (You can read about the steed on my blog if you want – I won’t link to it, here. Not trying to clutter your comments with links…)
    Enjoyed this! Keep up the cool posts.

  3. Great advice, all around. Trying to know things before I write is one of the reasons I’m investing so much time in research at the moment. I get the added benefit of generating character/plot/scene ideas from what I learn.

    I didn’t know about challenge coins either. What a cool idea and I’m excited to see how you use it in your story.

  4. I think I remember being told that a Darth Maul clone was planned, but the scrapped the idea.

    As for the world-building, I think I tend to have some stuff in the background that builds atmosphere. If the scene starts in a swamp, I use a paragraph to set the stage and fill it out as the characters react to things. Having a character notice something does work better than bluntly telling a reader.

    • And you hit it right on the head, the big problem is: telling. Like you said, we can use characters to help show our readers the world vs. telling them.

      Postscript. Thought you’d enjoy this vid on how Episode I could have been awesome…

      • Ah, such a nice dream of a good Episode I.

        I have a love/hate relationship with the ‘show, don’t tell’ phrase. I’ve had it leveled at me a lot in my early years without any explanation of what the person means. I think a lot of editors and authors throw the term out to new authors, forgetting that they might not understand the phrase. I had to figure it out on my own through trial and error.

        The trick to it all is to know the difference to showing and telling. Also, that some genres can use a minimal amount of showing. In a lot of the fantasy that I’ve read there are opening paragraphs that describe the overview of the world to set the stage. The bigger, overall cities might not be visible from the character’s point of view and it can be a little bit of a stretch to have them wander over the city. Unless you have them fly by on a griffin to inspect the city, but I can only pull that off every now and then. Too much and the griffin loses its novelty.

        • I think, though, that we have to be careful saying that because other people have done it and gotten away with it, that we should too. I love Patrick Rothfuss’s stories, but good gracious, some of the detail he goes into about stuff that doesn’t matter, I more than once found myself saying get on with it.

          But I think you’re right. People should define what they mean about telling. I always try to do that in feedback by saying stuff like, “Instead of telling me he’s angry, show me. Are his hands shaking? Ears burning? Fists clenched? Etc.” It’s interesting, though, how much it seems you do have to figure out on your own when starting writing.

          I know fantasy can be notorious for telling and info-dumping. I tend to skim read those parts. If they do it too much I’m out. I guess it depends how big of an audience you want to potentially draw. And I always remind myself, just because some famed author got away with something doesn’t mean I will, ya know?

        • True. I always think of Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl’ where he spent the first two pages describing at yellow brick wall. At least it felt that way to me and I promptly gave the book back to the teacher. Easiest way to get an ‘F’. For me, I use a descriptive paragraph or two to describe a new region or if a big event is going on like a giant battle. It’s nothing extremely detailed, but it helps set the scene.

          Physical mannerisms, facial expressions, and adjectives are very helpful. You get more from ‘he angrily says with a glare’ than ‘he says’. It’s a lot of trial and error to see what works in the story and your own style.

          Fantasy is definitely infamous for it because authors try to throw in history, environment, and everything. I cut out a lot of the history as narration and put it into dialogue where a character will mention it if I can fit it in. It does mean I have chatty characters, but I aim for character development a lot, so that seems to fit. The funny thing about the famed author doing it is that almost all of them have done it in fantasy. People almost expect the info-dumping even if they don’t like it. Not doing it makes people wonder if the author knows what he’s doing. Just can’t win some times.

  5. 1. A dragon is to fantasy what a gun is to Chekov. Does that make it Chekov’s Dragon?

    Everything should feel organic to the story and to the setting, instead of, “Gee whiz! We’re in a fantastic setting!” The difference can be seen in the original introduction to Mos Eisley and the Cantina in Star Wars versus the over-long montage of Luke and Obi-Wan driving through Mos Eisley that was added to the Special Edition. In the original, the alienness and shadiness was set in a few seconds. In the re-worked version, it pulls the audience out of the story.

    2. Darth Maul needed to be the Darth Vader of the Prequel Trilogy – the over-arching villain who has a connection to Anakin, and is key to his fall to the Dark Side. Darth Maul could have had a character as cool as his design.

    3. I think about the horse problem a lot, especially having worked at various summer camps with horse programs, and having tacked and untacked my fair share. I actually wanted to work in horses into my story more, but it doesn’t work with the narrative.

    • Oooh, all great comments! Yeah, I really wish Darth Maul had been there to take us through. That’s what you get when no one challenges your early drafts. Let that be a lesson to us all. Get feedback so you don’t get Episode 1.

  6. I’m with you – I think world building is one of my weaker skills. That’s why it’s nice to write with Kati – she has an eye for all the little details that I totally gloss over. For instance, if I were writing Mystic Cooking alone, none of our characters would be wearing clothing…I just don’t think to describe it.

    It’s interesting how the descriptions change from draft to draft. I think our earlier drafts didn’t have nearly enough, then our middle drafts had way too much, and now I like to think it’s just about right. Hopefully. But it’s definitely a tricky balance, knowing how much world building and description to put in so the reader gets an idea without boring them by including unnecessary details.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing what you learned! Oh, and his outfit sounds awesome. πŸ˜‰

    • It was a pretty awesome outfit. πŸ˜€

      Ugh, I just need to buckle down and do description drafts and really focus on setting and people. I don’t really like overdescription, so I think I lean toward too little a bit too much. πŸ˜‰ Nice that you have Kati to balance your book out.

      And of course now with that balance you’ll totally dominate during Writer’s Voice!

  7. Oh, I love world building! It is so much fun, lol. My problem is the actual writing of the story. A lot of that advice was conclusions that I too came up with, so yeah, agree with everything he said! One thing I would like to see more of in Fantasy, is often people just keep normal days of the week and a day has 24 hours. Boring. Take time to think about how the world orbits around the local star (or stars). How fast does it rotate? How many moons does it have… is the planet actually a moon of a gas giant (Endor!) That last is a new idea I had for a Fantasy world. It’s one of the things I like about Game of Thrones, the concept of Winter lasting years. That’s just planets, there are so much other stuff to think about. Yeah, I have a lot of fun with it, lol. Too bad I can’t write worth a hill of beans. Great post Jae! πŸ™‚

  8. Guh, well I know that worldbuilding isn’t my strong suit either, so thanks for putting this post up. It’s pretty amazing that you managed to get Harry Potter, Tolkien AND Darth Maul in there. xD Now all you need is a tiny Doctor Who reference.

    “Nobody wants to read the Silmarillian.” Actualy, that is not true: I know three people (two of them younger than me) who have wanted to read it/are reading/or have read it. And I’m curious to have a peep myself, regardless of how slow it might be. As a reader, I mean. As a writer, I probably couldn’t stick it.

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