Thursday, February 7, 2013

Worldbuilding Process: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

I was joined for this discussion by Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Kyle Aisteach.

For the discussion of worldbuilding process, I wanted to explore how people got started on creating their worlds rather than go through a checklist of areas where worldbuilding information might be found, because not all worlds need to be elaborated in every area, but people come at their worlds from a lot of different angles. To this end, I started by asking about the worlds that my guests had created.

Dale told us that he'd just managed to come up with a backstory for a world he has created, so we explored his process first. He began with a premise: the idea that a man gains the power to compel people to say what they're thinking - or to stop them from saying what they're thinking.

Here is the background that he created.

The people in his world live in an isolated community, isolated because they escaped from religious persecution in a place where their way of life received no respect or privilege, and plenty of abuse.
The community has a legend of its own origins, which goes like this: An unnamed benefactor lent them money to build ships for their escape, on condition that all the people of the community live by their principles for 100 years. In fact, the legend hides the fact that three men stole the money. Dale knows that there is a letter which is supposed to be opened on the 100th anniversary of the community's founding, but Dale doesn't know yet whether it will contain a confession or more lies. Either way, some fundamental lie about the community's identity is about to be revealed.

From a process point of view, Dale explained that he realized that his protagonist's magic was about truth, and that this would create conflicts if people had deep secrets... so therefore he went looking for what kind of deep secrets people might have. He also understood that the stakes would be higher if the secrets threatened the entire community... so he went looking for something that would cut straight to the heart of what the community's founding stood for. These ideas about truth and its value have also given him ideas to think about in developing the protagonist's personality, so that the original premise has expanded to influence both the setting and the characters.

So what we see here is recurring elements - we hesitated to call them "theme" - of honesty, revelation, et. spread across different aspects of the story including plot, conflict, and character. There was also the issue of the use of power to compel or suppress truthfulness, which allowed the story conflict to spread outward into the world.

In a sense, what we come up with here is the idea that when you are worldbuilding, you're really stepping into a vast web of interconnected parts. In fact, if the parts of the world weren't logically interconnected, you'd find your world would have a serious credibility problem. This isn't to say that you can't have diversity in a world - lack of diversity also decreases credibility. But you do have to think through a lot of complex interrelations and interactions, and try to expand elements of meaning as far as you can into the story. The nice thing about a web that is interconnected is that you can find your way in at any point, and because of those interconnections, you will still be able to find your way to the other regions of the web.

Next I talked about my initial development of my Varin world, which has been expanding for going on thirty years (yikes!). That one, too, started with a story premise, but it wasn't that story premise that caused the expansion to occur. Initially the premise was that ancient kings with magical powers got cast down and became the lowest of the low, whereupon one person discovers this hidden truth and gets imprisoned. Kings cast down, though, wasn't what made the world really take off for me - it was instead the idea of a political prisoner, someone who is imprisoned for "knowing too much" (and indeed in my 13 year old draft, that was what was written on his prison door!). At that point my subconscious decided to stick with the concept it found most fascinating, and the idea of being trapped or imprisoned started expanding through the world. I created high-tech underground cities, and I created a very restrictive caste system. The concepts may not seem related at first glance, but both of these have:
1. levels
2. relative comfort on each level
3. no escape

In fact, a lot of factual research also went into my creation of this world, despite the fact that it is not a future Earth or related to Earth in any way. I imagine the process of research looks a bit like one's knowledge of a town with an extensive subway system. The subway system is the interconnected web of the story and its world. Each time your train comes to a halt because you don't know enough, you get out and go up into the real world to learn what you need in order to make things run more smoothly (like checking out the neighborhood of the station). I use a ton of my own knowledge for linguistics and anthropology, but also sociology and psychology, and the history of Japan, etc. etc. I based my caste system on that of Edo era Japan and then modified or refined it based on the characters I had imagined. The characters were also deepened by these caste concepts because I was able to establish the values of each group and have each character relate to them differently. As you worldbuild, you will often discover that characters and world feed into and inform one another.

Dale pointed out that often, the setting becomes so important to a science fiction or fantasy story that it is almost like a character in itself. It's always cool when you can say, "This story couldn't have happened anywhere else." The setting can be used to amplify conflicts and present threats to what characters accomplish. Similarly, you want to have a character who fits into both the world and the conflict, so that the story "could only happen to this person." The conflict is stronger if it feeds directly into the character's problems. Kyle called this, feedback between the setting and the story. He himself has been working on a world that was inspired by a physics paper he read, but hasn't yet landed on the appropriate conflict for it yet.

At this point we talked about story seeds, and anthology themes - essentially, these are when someone hands you a piece of information and says "this must be in your web." I used to find them really tough to deal with, but when I think about it as an element of the web, then I find it helps me a lot.

Recently I was handed the idea of battles in military fantasy and asked what I could do with it. Since battles haven't been my "thing" to this point, I panicked a little, but immediately started thinking about what kind of culturally interesting aspect of battles and fantasy I could find to make this element fit into a workable web. I found my way to the concept of a translator, and from there to the idea of someone caught between the two cultures. That made me think of someone who lives in a place where the land is continually fought over (there are tons of real-world examples including Kashmir, Alsace, and Jerusalem among others). When I started to ask how a single person might influence the clash of armies, that made me think that magic could be useful, which gets in the fantasy element I was looking for.

When you're looking for a type of magic, it can often help to use metaphors as inspiration. I was thinking of the actions of the two armies like waves sweeping over this region of land (albeit slowly) and that made me think the town my protagonist lives in should be called (in translation) Tides of Death. That brought me to moon magic, and suggested that the moon goddess should be the goddess of war. My daughter suggested there should be two moon goddesses, fighting one another and causing the phases of the moon (yes she is very cool). That brought me back to what implications this idea might have for the world, and gave me ideas for battle standards, light vs. dark etc. It's an idea in progress, but since this hangout was about practice, I thought I'd show the connections.

Brian picked up the idea of third culture persons and took it in a different direction, talking about how many stories have featured halfbreeds, or mixed marriages, and issues surrounding them. He mentioned that once an area has been fought over long enough, there is no way to disentangle the ethnicities involved. Yugoslavia, for example, held rifts going back to the 15th century, but the whole area is ethnically a mix.

Kyle mentioned his mother had done some genealogical research and discovered that while she believed she was entirely Irish, she is in fact half English. Her parents were English and Irish, but at that time, if you married an Irish person you became Irish - this belief persisted even in the United States, where they were living, despite the distance from Ireland itself. In early Australia, in the penal colonies, there was a similar perception of the English and Irish as different "races" that must be kept separate.

Dale mentioned that using a checklist of topics can be very useful in worldbuilding process - things like History, Religion, Family, Community, etc. I suggested we talk about it another time, but for my readers, I encourage you to go and look at the list of hangout reports to get some ideas of things to think about. This hangout was primarily about organic process, but analytic process is also very important and the categories must interlock. Often, we can use analytical techniques to inspire and trigger progress in our organic worldbuilding.

Brian brought up the question of the difference between worldbuilding for short stories and worldbuilding for novels. While it is true, as Brian said, that short stories often need less worldbuilding effort, they don't necessarily need as little as you might imagine. I referred my guests to the article I wrote for Janice Hardy's blog some time ago, here, in which I describe the difference between the two lengths as that between looking out the window and walking out the door. In a short story, you will have to be able to provide meaningful glimpses of the world you have created. When we look out a window we see a small but complete enough view that we can extrapolate about what surrounds us. However, unless we walk out the door, as we have room to do with a novel, we can't get into the close details of that view, or know for sure what lies outside the boundaries of the frame.

Dale gave the example of old movies where what we see when looking out of the car windows is obviously fake, and Brian mentioned the movie Airplane where stock footage plays behind the car. He also mentioned that if you don't move your hands on the steering wheel it looks fake, even though when we drive we don't move our hands on the wheel at all. Sometimes we can do the equivalent of borrowing stock footage for our stories by making reference to a technology set or something else (like FTL drive) that people are very familiar with. Essentially, using an element like this is the equivalent of saying to the reader, "It's okay to maintain your usual expectations in this spot."

Our last topic was one about expectations as well - but this time, the expectations that surround us in out own culture. Every work of literature reflects in some manner the social expectations of the era in which it was published, and the works we write are no exception. They reflect our values, often in very subtle ways, and those values are a product of our era and our cultural environment. It's also valuable when writing and worldbuilding to consider the kinds of social debates that are ongoing in society at large. I believe it was Kyle who said that "whatever is currently under discussion must be validated." For example, because gender and racial diversity are major topics, it can feel like a big omission if we don't at least make a nod to those issues in our work ("hang a light on it"). That basically means that these issues don't need to be central to the main conflict or our stories, but if they are not, then it's good to indicate subtly why (or that they are deliberately not included). Kyle suggested that it would be very interesting to contrast the worldbuilding of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with an eye to examining the influence of the World War II historical context.

Thanks to everyone who attended! It was a great chat. Our discussion today was a lot of fun, and we talked about crafting cultural interactions. That post will be up next week!


  1. I very much agree with Dale's point that Setting is as much a part of the process as anything. Where is it and why must must it be there? I find it easiest to focus on aspects like History, Religion, Magic, Philosophy, Politics, Commerce, etc when building just because it helps me to organize my thoughts. Once I have a handful of ideas/goals for each section, I can then begin tying them together.

    You make and excellent point that WBing is different for novels versus short stories. Great analogy about doors and windows, btw! I think something else that ties in with that is gaming. Are you making a book for a single reader, or are you designing for a session of D&D? Mayhap knowing the "why" of your build is as important, if not more so, than the "what" you are building.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Realmwright. You're right about the ordered list giving a good organization scheme. Yes, the why is very important (as it will make the difference, for example, between filling your world with alien vocabulary for visual media, and not doing so for readers). I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.