Sunday, February 22, 2009

Make your world personal

Very often on writing and science fiction forums I see discussions of worldbuilding (including language) and backstory, and how not to make a world overpower a story with infodumping. This is an issue that I have struggled with, because my love of linguistics and anthropology makes me want to know every detail about the worlds in which my stories occur. After many years of writing I've developed my own philosophy of how to deal with this issue. I'll call it make your world personal.

We are all the products of our experiences and the worlds we've grown in. The way each of us understands the world is intensely personal. When we speak, our personal understandings of the world filter through our words in many ways: in the words we choose to describe things, in how we categorize things and people, and in subtle shadings of grammar. When ethnographers study social situations in the real world, they often analyze such elements of speech to improve their understanding of how individuals in a social situation judge one another and the world around them. Because the subtle details of expressing identity in language are mostly subconscious, their effects are easy to feel but difficult to explain. The ethnographer's analytical techniques have been designed explicitly for the purpose of bringing these details into full consciousness.

When as writers we create a new world, we often begin by laying out logistical details and descriptions as if we were reading about a foreign place in a book. I find it all too easy to write lots of words about the worlds I create, but at the same time I find that's not enough for me to enter the story world successfully. I need a character.

If I take all of the impersonal questions I've asked about my world - geography, culture, objects, naming conventions, etc., etc. - and recast them from the point of view of a character inside that culture, then I start to get to somewhere new. The place I want to find is inside someone's head, a stance and point of view that will warp everything around it, where action and the judgment of action will cause backstory to reveal itself. I want to make my world personal.

One place to start is to play with what is. Take a paragraph of description - almost any one will do - and highlight every name, object, and category label you find in it. Then ask yourself how each one reflects the unique point of view of the narrator, and whether you might be able to push any of them closer to that person - for example, by changing an article from a to the, by adding a judgmental adjective, or by substituting a word heavy with interesting connotations. Then see how the paragraph has changed.

You may discover that your world feels more personal.

It's something to think about.


  1. Hi Juliette, obviously I'm here from the Analog forums as per your recommendation that I post my suggestion regarding "Naming" on your Blog. I just first want to say that I am enjoying your blog immensely, and I thank you for all of the insight you provide in your posts. Also, I want to thank all of the participants of your World building workshop as well as your Language building workshop. I've read through all of the blog posts AND comments for both of those workshops, and not only have your posts helped give me directions, but the comments from the participants have helped me as well. Seeing each of their progress has given me insight into how I can go about tackling similar issues that they have.

    Now, as for my suggestion. I am suggesting this mainly for selfish reasons, it is something I personally struggle with, but I hope others can make use of it as well. Given, I'm not sure if you have tackled any or all of the issues in a past article. If so, I'll be happy to check them out.

    So, basically what I'm referring to when I say "Naming" is obviously the names of characters, places, or things within a fictional world. Specifically, I'm looking at where the inspiration or conventions would come from. Some of this has been touched on, but for instance, I wouldn't give a character the name "Joe" if he comes from a different planet than Earth. But how do I establish naming conventions?

    Some of what I have established in my personal project is the use of what I am calling "runes". There is a sort of sect of "Rune Scribers" that use Runes as a kind of written language. As of current, they are just general concepts kind of like Chinese. I guess it's similar to the Viking or Irish culture that used runes in ancient times (I'm not very familiar with any of that). So, the way I am using this in the story in terms of naming (various Rune Scribers also serve as plot elements and characters) is that the name of the legendary sword that the story revolves around is based on 3 runes. They are the 3 concepts or virtues that are required to wield the sword. My ideas on how to "name" the runes was that each rune would resemble a character from the latin alphabet. J, V, and L. The names of these runes should therefore either start with those letters... or something along those lines. Now, if you take those three letters and combine them, they sort of resemble an M (and this is more the case with the actual runes themselves). This combined rune based on the letter M would be the name of the sword... so again, presumably the name of the sword would start with M.

    Another issue is that there is a second sword which was a sort of "place holder" for the legendary sword. The legendary sword was "put to rest" when the original owner finally died. Because none that came after him were deemed worthy to carry the legendary sword, another sword was created. This sword was inscribed with various Runes that act as a sort of map/key to attaining the power of the legendary sword so that one day someone could prove their worth... The challenge here is how these Runes will actually help the hero of the story to both locate the legendary sword and warn him of the 3 virtues that are necessary to establish before attempting to weild it.

    So those are some specific written language type things that are probably beyond the scope of just Naming, but that kind of establishes where my inspiration should be coming from so as to fit with the story... But again, my problem is, how do I come up with these pronouns? I just feel like I'm horrible at it and whenever I try to make up something it is either unconciously based on some english word or some name or it just sounds ridiculous.

    I want to be able to come up with plausible and unique names for characters, places, and objects that fit with my world without having them sound goofy. So any insight into that would be greatly appreciated.

    And again, if you have articles that discuss this, then that works too. And I fully understand that you are probably a busy person and you may not be able to come up with articles like this on demand.

  2. Fascinating. I'm heading to bed and don't have time for an extended comment but just had to say- this is acting backwards! Which maybe makes sense, and maybe not, lol.