Monday, October 21, 2013

Setting and Worldbuilding: Not quite a case of To-ma-to, To-mah-to

I'm going to be giving a worldbuilding workshop soon, for a local writer's club. I'm really looking forward to this. Mind you, I love going to conventions and talking about worldbuilding topics with people for an hour or so... but this will be different. Hands-on. Analyzing quotes to see what authors are doing, interacting with people face to face, spending several hours engaging in the worldbuilding topic.

Several times, I've been asked by the organizer to make sure that my workshop is accessible to non-genre writers. Several times, I have assured him that it will be. We'll be working with quotes from nonfiction, mainstream fiction, and genre.

I suspect, because the activity we're doing is labeled worldbuilding, that most of the people in attendance will be genre folk. I hope not, though.

In mainstream fiction, and in nonfiction, we talk about "setting," not worldbuilding. I really feel that using the word "worldbuilding" is more effective in describing what writers do, for one critical reason.

The world is not on the page. Only the words are. The world we feel when we read is in our minds.

This may seem obvious, but in fact, I can't emphasize this enough. The reality that we feel while reading is only in our minds, evoked by the words that we read. Any writer, in choosing the words to use, is choosing what aspects of a world to evoke. That means that certain words will evoke our own world in a non-fictional way, certain words will evoke our own world but place fictional events within it, and still other words will create a sense of a world that is somehow fantastical. It's like a magical spell - the realities that it creates are so strong that we can believe in them (at least for a time) quite as much as the reality we see and hear and smell.

This is why the word "worldbuilding" appeals to me so much. Each word we put on the page is a small piece of the whole. Not a brick, though. In my head right now I'm imagining each word as a pebble dropped into a pond, with ripples surrounding it that represent all the different possible contexts in which the reader has previously seen it. Each word then drops in a different spot, and the ripples join together to create a most amazing work of art in multiple dimensions.

Not only is it an amazing process, it is not an entirely reliable one. The author controls the pebbles, based on the patterns the ripples make in his/her own mind. But the author only controls the pebbles. In a reader's mind, the ripples created by those pebbles will be different - possibly, vastly different - because the contexts in which the reader has heard the same words can be so different.

You could say that worldbuilding is a bigger challenge for the genre writer. Why? Because we can't rely on readers to have the same vision of our worlds that we do. We can't use the word "house" and expect a person's natural gut sense of what "house" means to fit within our model. All this is true. However, mainstream and nonfiction authors who are really good at what they do manage to create a very specific sense of place, and not only of place but of emotional association with that place. Stieg Larsson in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo puts us in Sweden with incredible effectiveness. To me, that is also worldbuilding.

Good writers cannot rely on "default settings." This is in part because default settings are generic and boring. But it is also because we can't know what our readers' actual default settings are. This is one of the traps that is all too easy to fall into. I think immediately of prejudice. If a writer is relying for his/her worldbuilding on male gaze, or a default that is either all-straight, all-white, all-cisgendered, all-able, etc. that will not only be evident to the reader, but detract from the effectiveness of the worldbuilding for anyone who does not share those defaults.

I guess you could say that I've expanded the contexts in which I use the word "worldbuilding," so it suggests not just setting but character, not just the unreal aspects of a fantastical world but also the unreal aspects of a real world - since, after all, all we're doing is putting words on a page.

It's something to think about.



  1. Honestly, as someone who writes SF, fantasy, romance, and mainstream, I'd say worldbuilding is hardest in the mainstream and contemporary romance.

    In SF and fantasy, readers are expecting to be taken somewhere new. They open their minds to the author's intentions and look for the clues. In contemporary fiction, though, you're vying with preconceptions, with the reader's knowledge that X means Y when in your story it means P.

    This is especially true when you set something in a real place. Think of the authors who write about a place and get slammed by readers who used to live there when it was different, or who live there now and something significant has changed since the book was written. I'd much prefer to create something from scratch than try and blend with what people expect.

    1. I think a lot depends on what you're most accustomed to... and what kind of sf/f you are writing. People come to that with preconceptions, also. I agree that the research requirements for real-world settings are more stringent. :) Thanks for your comment.

  2. In the WIP (mainstream), I will be rewriting recent history - enough to annoy the purists. I agree that it's a battle of words vs. preconceptions - and I know everyone's preconceptions are different from mine.

    It takes more words to lay the foundation. More 'perfect details' to switch the automatic mind track onto MY mind track. The nice part about grabbing real dates for my story to happen in is that I can check things like the time of sunset - and lock something down that feels real because it IS real, which then gives the invented stuff anchors.

    I'm reassured: even what purports to be history is often the historian's perception. If it serves the story, in it goes.

    And please don't notice I've renamed the local Catholic church, or the restaurant at the bottom of the hill, and complain about it: there IS a reason. Read on, and find out.


    1. Alicia, I've heard similar stories from alternate history folk about the kinds of preconceptions they go up against. It sounds like you are mustering your tools to deal with it. Thanks for your comment, and good luck with the project!

  3. One of the things I love about worldbuilding is that you don't have to be a writer to do it. But I think you have to be a worldbuilder to be a writer. I like that it gives me a W title by which to call what I do. If I tell people I'm a writer they will always ask "what have you written?" or "what do you write?" Neither of which I have a concrete answer for. But if I tell someone I'm a worldbuilder they will ask "what is that?" ...Then I jabber long past the point that they've stopped listening and walked away :D Congrats to you, Juliette, that you get interested, like-minded folks to throng about you.

    1. Well, I think of characters and their stories as ambassadors for worlds in many ways. Stories give people a way to interact with a created world that world information alone doesn't quite achieve. While I don't post stories here on the blog, I do talk about them. I've also been doing this blog for five years now. I'm grateful to everyone who comes to hear what I have to say. Thanks very much for your comment, Realmwright.