Tuesday, July 10, 2012

TTYU Retro: Worldbuilding - what's on the page?

Are you one of those worldbuilders who has files and files of material that you've developed about your world? Have you spent years on it? Have you tried to fill in every box in the checklists about ecology, economy, culture, language, etc.?

That's wonderful. Congratulations on all your hard work. Those files will be a fantastic resource, just so long as they don't turn against you.

Here's what I mean. Sometimes, as the writer, you can know your world too well - so well that you don't notice when your world isn't making it onto the page. The words that you write can evoke so much for you personally that you mistakenly believe they do the same thing for all of your readers. Having reams of information sitting in your head can blind you to this.

This is one of those cases when it's vitally important to listen to beta readers and critique partners. What you really need is someone who doesn't have all the files, and who hasn't sat with you for hours and hours to hash out world details. The best possible option is to have someone who has never seen your world before. EVER. Hand that someone the story, so that what you hear back about is only what is actually on the page.

Of course, then what you have to do (and it can be hard) is trust their judgment. Allow them to tell you what they don't understand, and try to believe them.

So how do you make sure that the world you know so well is actually coming out on the page, back when you're in the midst of drafting, and not to the point where you're receiving criticism yet?

The best suggestion I can come up with is to do what I'd call "fully engaged worldbuilding." That means leaving off talking about your world in isolation, and going to the story and the characters. Forget "what is true" about your world. Start thinking about what is relevant to one single scene, one single object, one single character. Think about a person's misconceptions, prejudgments, bad judgments, and how those might grow out of the background you've imagined. Think about tiny situations. Look at the world in its daily operation. Dig in as far as you can, and then when you're finished, go back and dig even farther.

Don't worry if it takes a while. This stuff comes in layers. Until you've reached one layer, often you can't see that there's another one below it.

Right now I'm dealing with Varin, which means I'm looking at a very complex caste system - seven levels, each of which has its own cultural values. Frankly, I'd be toast if I hadn't written files and files about what I know. I've rewritten aspects of it so many times I can hardly count them, but I'm still discovering things. My discoveries always come from things that are small, and they always depend on context (usually caste context).
  • Pharmacy: my servant character had to go to a pharmacy, which had me thinking about how a pharmacy would work in their world as opposed to ours. I posted about this earlier. It was different because it was a school pharmacy for students with medical training rather than a public pharmacy.
  • Money: two of my noble characters had to argue over a bet that one of them made with a member of the soldier/guard caste. During this interaction, the guard pulled out a coin, and I had to go figure out how money would work. I also realized that the noble characters would never have seen cash before (they use cards), but because the guard likes to bet, he carries it all the time and finds their naivete very amusing.
  • Architecture/map layout: for a fight scene, I had to figure out how a neighborhood was laid out. When I got right down to it, I realized that space is at such a premium that there are no alleys between buildings, only behind them. To get behind an attacker, one of my main characters had to go through a shop, exit the rear door, travel through the back alleyway all the way to the end of the block, and come back around.
  • Oppression: out of my realization about the layout of neighborhoods above came an understanding of institutionalized racism (actually caste-ism) in my story. The alleyways that bisect city blocks are only traveled by tradespeople and garbage collectors, and they are considered to belong to the undercaste. This is why undercaste folk are in a position to worry about running into Highers (tradespeople and shopkeepers) but the vast majority of Highers are able to ignore the undercaste completely because they are not even walking on the same streets, and the undercaste always enter a shop from the back.
  • Language: there's so much to this one that I can hardly even touch it. However, I will point out that I was paying very close attention to the use of titles in the last chapter I wrote, deliberately shifting the way one character referred to another from a fully caste-appropriate appellation to a somewhat more intimate one.
So if you're dealing with a vast world, a complex society, a conlang, etc. I recommend that you increase your own self-awareness, and thus the strength of your work, in two ways:

1. Focus on the story, and particularly on small things, when you work on your own.
2. Get someone to read your work who is entirely ignorant of what you want to achieve.

After all, you've done all that work! The least you can do is make sure that your readers get to see what your world is really like.


  1. Well said. And thank you for posting all the time. It gives me something to do and they're always insightful and thought provoking. To support and add to what you've said here, Writer - try to think like the Reader. This can be tough in a world building sense because the first part is usually a blank map that you're filling in. The issue is, how available would a map/book be to a person within said world? For example, in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time Rand only has a vague idea of the world around him because he's only ever seen the map hanging in the inn. Frodo and Bilbo had a pretty good idea of Middle Earth because they had maps and books and spoke a little Elvish. But they were uncommonly learned Hobbits. Keep this in mind, writers! We have an astounding education of the world around us compared to the Middle Ages, which coincidentally is the basis of most fantasy settings. Easier said than done without suffering a severe head injury (which would undoubtedly hinder writing) but try to forget about 500 years of "common knowledge". Now you're ready to tell a story....

    1. Interesting point, Realmwright! It's definitely good to keep in mind any limitations on your character's knowledge - and also the way that their cultural background causes them to think about the world. Thanks for the comment!

    2. case in point, as anthro nerds you and I know that every culture on this spinning rock at some time or another thought no one was as awesome as them. We can't really help but view everything through a biased lens.

    3. Yes, indeed. I'll be having some thoughts on that on the blog later today.

  2. Well put. I think you are onto something, Ms. Wade. I personally believe that worldbuilding is more than just what should be included into the story. The world is bigger than any character in the story, and so should have a feeling like so. In Lord of the Rings, who was Tom Bombadil? Where did he come from? How old was he? It wasn't answered in the book. A world should feel alive and the through the characters, can we experience this life.

    1. A.J., thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that there is value in expanding our general knowledge of a world, even when we won't be putting a lot of that information into the story. But my primary point here was that if you don't concentrate on what details do make it into the story, and how the background knowledge influences what happens on the page, then readers won't be able to sense the amount of work you've done on the background. Thanks again for your comment!