Worldbuilding, part 1: It's not just for science fiction anymore!

Worldbuilding. What is it exactly? Why is it important? How do you do it?



Ahem.

Anyway, there are lots of definitions of worldbuilding, like this one from Wikipedia:
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a fictional universe....The term world-building was popularized at science fiction writer's workshops during the 1970s. It describes a key role in the task of a fantasy writer: that of developing an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, ecology, and so forth.
This is great as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. So for the purposes of this series, I'm going to give you my definition. (As always, this is one writer's opinion. Your mileage may vary.)

Worldbuilding is the process of creating an authentic setting in a place and time where the reader has never been.

And unless you're writing about a place and time EVERYONE has been to, then you will eventually have to do some worldbuilding. It doesn't matter if your setting is a fantasy world, a spaceship or a Tibetan palace in the sixth century. Even a small town in the badlands of Wyoming needs good worldbuilding to make it come alive.

 "But Miriam!" you say. (Or at least the imaginary you in my head says this.) "Worldbuilding is only for worlds you invent! Those other settings just need research."

Fair enough. But my point is that the actual process of putting vivid worlds on paper--and the tools you need to do it--are universal to every story.  In fact, if worldbuilding is not your strong suite you can learn a lot from other genres.

(Also, don't knock research. Good worldbuilding needs research and  I'll tell you why in the next post.)

Let me break down what I see as the four basic types of worldbuilding and maybe you'll see what I mean. 

Scientific Worldbuilding:

This is the building of a world in its most literal sense. Scientific worldbuilders are the people who know how dense their planet is, how far it is from the sun, how long the days and nights are. They know how all the creatures on their planet evolved and why each one looks the way it does.

Later, I'm going to talk about a worldbuilding principle I call the principle of internal consistency. Scientific worldbuilders have internal consistency in spades. Every part of their physical world fits together, everything makes sense.  There's a reason that "hard" science fiction is the oldest and most popular form of sci-fi; people like plausible worlds. Especially ones that are different from their own.

Of course, the downside to this kind of worldbuilding is that all the rules are different, which means you have to come up with a way to communicate the rules without slowing down the story. (Large chunks of exposition need not apply.)

Magical Worldbuilding

Magical worldbuilders deal in making the impossible seem possible. You want giants? Dragons? Mythical flying horses that poop rainbows? We can do that. You want talking cats or a city in the clouds? Done. In a fantasy, anything is possible.

And in a weird twist, this means that magical worldbuilders--more than anyone else--have to set rules and limits for their world. When anything is possible, there is no tension. If everyone is powerful and immortal, there is no risk. Magic has to have a price, and many of the most enduring fantasy novels are about the price of magic and how much people are willing to pay for it.

So in addition to all their crazy dreaming, magical worldbuilders spend a good deal of time figuring out what people can and can't do and why. Then they follow those rules religiously.  (Of course, communicating the rules is still an issue, but that's a different post.)
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It's easy to stop here. You figure out the rules, hammer out the magic system and then say "Look I came up with this awesome world! Yay!" Then you throw in some magical creatures, draw a map and call it done.  Meanwhile, your characters are eating stew (the official food of Fantasyland), wielding magical Mcguffins and generally doing all kind of generic things.

Or say you want to write a paranormal romance, a la S. Meyer. You know agents and editors are swamped by such things, so you try to come up with something different. Like a ghost-selkie! Or a were-platypus! Meanwhile, your characters lack spark and your settings are blah.

Here is the truth: if you want to create a world that draws readers in and doesn't let go, basic fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding is often not enough.

Yeah, I said it. 

Don't despair though. There are a couple other kinds of worldbuilding you can look at to help you.

Historical Worldbuilding

Good historical fiction writers are the best worldbuilders around. They have to be. If you're taking your reader to a time they may not know anything about, you need to communicate how things work. What are the rules of the society? What is the level of technology? Who has the power? Why? And so on.

Historical fiction writers are detail oriented. They know that every little part of their story--what the characters eat, how they travel, what they sleep on--needs to be authentic. And because of that,  historical fiction writers also know the value of research.

When you're writing historical fiction, it's really, really easy to get it wrong. Historical fiction is a different beast then speculative fiction. It can be googled and researched and double-checked. And these writers know that if you want to be taken seriously, the person doing the googling and researching and double-checking had better be you. 

Cultural and Sub-cultural Worldbuilding

Cultural worldbuilding is everywhere, from John Grisham's legal novels and Robin Cook's medical thrillers to more literary books, like Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Any time you write about a specific culture, subculture or profession, you are engaging in cultural worldbuilding.

Like their historical counterparts, cultural worldbuilders are very specific. They use the appropriate jargon, they find telling details about their character's lives and routines and use them. And they're either experts in the field they're writing about, or they've talked to people who are.

The expert part is important, because good cultural worldbuilding isn't just about physical details, but about attitudes and values. It's about how people think.

An example:  In traditional Inuit culture, cooperation is so important to their survival that it's extremely rare for anyone to live alone. In fact, refusing to share is almost a crime in social terms.  On  the other hand, people in modern North America place a high premium on privacy and private property. If you have an Inuit character in your book and he gets angry that someone used his knife without asking, you've just undermined your world's authenticity.
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At its heart, worldbuilding isn't just about creating an entirely different world. It's about writing that world in such a way that the reader is drawn in. It's about making your world--whether real, historical or imaginary--feel completely real.

And we'll start talking about HOW to do that in the next post.

In the meantime, do you guys have any questions? Does this make sense? And can you think of any books that show really good worldbuilding?

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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.