Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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. This is a very good warning. I work a little differently from you in that I do only a very broad sketch of the world before I get started on my first draft. I have more of the world in my head, a lot more, but once I put it on paper, my head says, ah, that part's dealt with. Then when I start writing the book, that bit, no matter how crucial, will only be referred to rather than part of the story. Sigh.

  2. I think most worldbuilding will only be referred to in passing as it relates to the story. It's through dialogue and action that we see the world our characters live in. Unless the people living in that world are trying to explain it to a newcomer, they simply have no reason to go into all the whys and wherefores. After all, everyone in that world knows how it works.

    My book has a character going from one world to another, so although only one chapter takes place on her world, the reader finds out a lot about it through her actions and dialogue on the other world, as she relates to the various different people and cultures she encounters.

  3. Margaret, thanks for the comment! This one was the story of my early writing life, unfortunately. I'm starting to "see" more clearly what I'm doing at this point, but it has taken a long while.

    Anne-Mhairi, I agree that the world gets demonstrated through dialogue and action, but I'd add one more thing that can make the difference between telling about the world and showing it: character judgment. I personally use internal point of view so I can show how the characters judge the dialogue and action and setting, and when those judgments are culturally based, it helps the world stand out even though I'm not actually explaining it. I agree that you can demonstrate a world "in negative" by showing a native of that world in an unfamiliar context. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Great post. I love betas for just this reason. I always try to just show the world building, but until someone else goes over it, I never know if I'm actually communicating.