Worldbuilding, part 3: The Secret to Worldbuilding Success (according to me).



I have a secret principle when it comes to worldbuilding. It's a private policy that I take very seriously and don't really talk about. In fact, this is the first time it's ever come up on the blog.

It's also something I haven't seen in many other places. This could be because I'm in the wrong places, but it could also be because it doesn't work for everyone. (As always, your mileage may vary.)

My personal secret to successful worldbuilding is something I like to call "the principle of internal consistency." It goes like this:

Everything in your world should mirror the real world as much as possible, with deliberate exceptions.  

This rule applies more to fantasy than to science fiction because science fiction starts with the same basic rules as the real world. It just takes them in a vastly different direction. (Like creating and describing the life on different planets.) Because of this, well-done science fiction already has a lot of internal consistency.

Fantasy, however, doesn't operate by the rules we know; so the principle of internal consistency is vital.

I'll give you a personal example.

The world of The House of a Thousand Dolls is called the Bhinian Empire. While it is based on Southern Asia, it's a fake world. I made it up. It has magical creatures who can turn from human to animal and a sky that's always gray. Totally not the real world at all.

HOWEVER, one of the most solid pieces of writing advice out there is "use specific details." Don't just say tree, say elm or cypress or palm tree. So when I went to write a scene where the main character goes into the forest and meets a monkey, I needed to decide what kind of tree to use, and what kind of monkey it should be.

The tree was easy. Nothing says South Asia/India like a teak forest.

found at theinteriorevolution.com

But the monkey took some digging. And quite a few people told me not to bother. "It's a fantasy," they said. "You can make it any kind of monkey you want."

Except...I couldn't. Partly because I'm obsessive like that, but also because then it wouldn't have felt real. And I believe that the best way to write worlds that FEEL real is to MAKE them real as much as possible.

Steampunk wouldn't be nearly so cool without the background of authentic Victorian society. J.K Rowling didn't make up railway carriages and preparatory schools and British politics. She simply made them wizardly.

Of course, if the monkey had been magical, or special in some way, then I could have described it as purple or brown with green spots and gotten away with it.  But if you're going to depart from reality that much, you really should have a reason. Like...all poisonous animals in your world are bright red, including the deadly viper-monkey!!

*horrified scream*

But even then, you're borrowing from reality because it's very normal in our world for poisonous animals to have bright or unusual colors. (See what I did there?)

The advantage to basing your world as much as possible on the real one is that it makes vivid description easier.  The monkey I settled on is called a gray langur and it looks like this:

found at wikipedia.com

So all I had to do to describe it was pull up a few pictures and look carefully.  And I ended up with this scene:

Nisha spun, her heart jerking in her chest. A gray monkey with a black face sat on a low branch. It seemed neither startled, nor afraid, but regarded Nisha with an expression of benevolent curiosity. 

"Hello," Nisha said, not sure what else to do. 

The monkey chittered back, inching closer along the branch. Its narrow tail twitched, and its dark eyes never left the orchid in Nisha's hand. 

"You want this?" Nisha said, holding it out. The monkey bobbed its head and leaned closer to the flower. Thin bones moved under silver-tipped fur. Nisha held the flower closer. 

"Go on," she said on an impulse. "You can have it."

A dark paw flashed out and then both monkey and orchid were gone. Nisha watched the long-limbed form of the monkey pulling itself through the branches of the trees until it was out of sight. Then she turned and walked away, the cool air like a silk coverlet on her empty hands.

I don't mind telling you that this is far more vivid than anything I could have imagined up on my own. And there is nothing wrong with my imagination. *grin*

In essence, the principle of internal consistency acknowledges that there is a whole complicated, beautiful, vivid world out there for us to use, and then demands that we use it whenever possible.

So that's my worldbuilding secret. Any questions? Do you have a worldbuilding secret too?


EDIT: The always-awesome John just pointed me to a great example of similar worldbuilding, Janice Hardy's post "Building a World from the Ground Up."  You should go read it, there's some excellent stuff there.

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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.