Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Building a world after you've already started your story

This week, we spoke about the problem of coming to a world after a story is already partially or fully written. I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Erin Peterson, and Misha Gericke. Misha was attending for the first time, all the way from South Africa! (That was really cool).

I suppose the best place to start is determining what the topic means. What is "before" and what is "after" in this context? I think of "before" as cases when people have been designing a world in depth and then go about finding stories in it. Erin told us she does the worldbuilding and then never gets to the stories, and there are plenty of people who do this! "Before" also applies to cases where people have an initial story concept, and try to figure out which kind of world that story concept would most effectively be framed in. Glenda says that she does a lot of this, trying to match a story problem to a cultural model where that problem would be best exemplified. "After" for me means that you've started in on your prose, so characters and events and locations are happening without any previous world planning.

Erin mentioned that if you are conlanging (creating languages) and think you're not creating culture, then you're really just using your own culture as a basis because it is invisible to you. This was an excellent point, and reveals one property of worldbuilding also: if you think you're not worldbuilding, but are writing a story, then you really are worldbuilding, but using familiar world elements and not checking the consistency of the new elements you introduce.

The problem with writing that doesn't include at least one phase of concentrated worldbuilding is that very often the story will not come together as a result. Things will be implausible. Further, you won't be able to tell if the way the world works should have influenced your prose style more.

It's good to have a checklist to go through when you are preparing to head into revisions. You could always use my list of hangout topics, or my interview questions here, which are based on worldbuilding ideas. One important place to start, though, is with the characters. Who are they? What social groups might they belong? How do the story's problems relate to the characters' identities?

Erin noted that novels give a writer a lot more space for worldbuilding than short stories do. I've talked about this issue before, in this post. On the other hand, you ideally need more worldbuilding for a short story than you might imagine.

The most important technique here is to examine the details of the story as it has been written, and use those details as clues to larger patterns.

For example, do you have a scene where people are eating? What are they eating? Whatever they are eating must have come somewhere, so you've got an immediate insight into climate, agriculture, and trade. Take it further. What are they eating with? How were those items made?

Take any detail that you like and magnify. Explore its underpinnings within the world. Any piece of information you can find in the piece can expand and cross-inform others. Misha agreed, saying everything is connected - dress, weather, etc. Worldbuilding is about making connections, and making sense. Misha wrote her first draft without a fully built world. Each country was referred to simply in North/South/East/West terms. From there she went to climate and from there to buildings. Since there were a variety of countries, she had to point up differences. She took her cold climate nation and made the people very rich but accustomed to fighting for what they get. They have a different way of thinking as a result. This influences their work ethic and the way they think about goals. This in turn influences language.

Internal consistency is a really good goal to work toward. Readers will notice inconsistencies and find them bothersome - and eventually may abandon the story. If there is an apparent inconsistency due to diversity within the culture, make sure to put the background for that diversity into the world.

Economy is another critical ingredient, and one that we can learn a great deal from just by looking at what kind of evidence might already exist in a story draft. How is food produced? Where does it come from? What about clothes? Who has the money? If there is a nobility, where do they get all their money? By what kinds of steps might they be connected to the produce of the land they own? Or do the richest people of the world come from a merchant background? What kind of trade makes them so successful?

Worldbuilding is so valuable in part because it can help you shore up sparse areas in your story with extra richness of detail. Because of the internal consistency and interconnectedness of the world, you won't find yourself having to make up seemingly random details out of thin air.

Look also for the kinds of metaphors you have used. How did your characters describe and judge their surroundings? What kind of motivations might that imply? What kind of personal history might lead to those motivations?

Adding meaningful detail to a story isn't just about putting in things you like, but creating meaning. Look, for example, at Watership Down by Richard Adams. It's about rabbits. There are all kinds of details available about rabbits in the real world... and a great many of them are included in the story. But there is also more. There is how the rabbits understand themselves and each other, and humans. There is a whole world of cultural meaning that makes this far more than just a story about rabbits.

Erin remarked on a pet peeve of hers, which she called "Inadvertent Connecticut Yankees." This is what happens when you end up with a world that is clearly not American, but a character in it who acts just like a typical spunky American teen. Characters who have grown up in their worlds do not question its restrictions in the same way that outsiders would. A freed slave character in a novel about the Civil War period is most likely to feel distressed but resigned rather than to have the modern variety of righteous indignation.

Misha said that culture must lie behind the motivations of characters. What if the culture doesn't allow for sword-wielding women? We agreed that this was most likely to lead to Joan of Arc scenarios.

Worldbuilding applies also to historical and international fiction contexts - and even contemporaries. The world that exists on the page is written, and thus by definition is not the same as what surrounds us. Every author has to build a world, and those worlds are never 100% accurate. As Misha said, we are still dealing with fantasy in a cloak of reality.

At this point I asked, "What if your character doesn't match your world?" One type of compromise is to have your protagonist be a person from another land; another is to give him or her a backstory that would justify a cultural mismatch. Misha had a character who needed to be even more ruthless than the culture of her cold country would suggest, so she gave him a backstory that made him desire to retaliate against his fellows, and had him disregard rank in his behavior, thus setting him apart from the others. Erin said that most protagonists are outsiders to the dominant culture in some way. The fact is that most people have a relationship with the values of their cultural group, and the values of any group are not enacted uniformly. Diversity is the norm, and any group, no matter how uniform it seems, will have subgroups internal to it. In Japan, the concept of "in group" can refer to yourself, if you're contrasting with anyone else, or to your family, if you're contrasting with an outsider to that group, or even your country or your world. Look at all the subgroups in fandom! This is to say that you do not need to make all of your characters match in order for the world to be plausible. You just need to know why they don't match.

We also discussed how disaster can lead to atypical behavior. The more serious the threat, the greater the possibility that it will change cultural behavior. Misha suggested that entire cultures can change if the threat is big enough, such as when women began to wear pants after World War I drove so many men out of the workplace. Erin mentioned how World War II changed the culture of upper class debutantes in Britain. This is all to say that you should consider the context of the conflict as you've established it in your story, and use that to assess how much deviation there can be from a background level of cultural behavior. It may make your worldbuilding job easier.

In a way, filling in your worldbuilding after you've written the story is a good idea. That way, you know you have a story before you can get lost in the details of the world! I hope you can get some ideas from our discussion to help you in your own writing.

Thanks again to Glenda, Erin, and Misha! I hope to see you again soon.

This week's discussion will be tomorrow, Thursday, March 6 at 11am PST on Google+. We will be discussing Weapons, Fighting, and Battles in Worldbuilding. Join us!


  1. I really need to do more of this! I tend to make my world details up as I write (I guess this would count as after), and I totally know that a lot of my details are based on my world view, not necessarily the characters. Lots of food for thought here.

    1. Thanks, Rinelle! If you have time, you can get more of the details of the discussion from our video (link at the index). Good luck with your projects!

  2. Great post, Juliette! And very timely for me, as I just decided to change the setting of my WIP that is half-finished. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Jan! Good luck with the setting change.