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Monday, December 16, 2013

Worldbuilding for Speculative Fiction

(This post is a revamp of a guest post I did for author Michelle C. Eging in March 2012. You can read the original post here.)

Many stories, especially those under the umbrella of "speculative fiction," must have a clear setting before they can bloom. Revered science fiction author Orson Scott Card says in his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, that he first starts with the world itself. Why? Because characters grow from setting, and story grows from characters. The setting, at least for Card's stories, is the seed for a novel:

“I didn’t have even the seed of a good . . . story until after I had a clear idea of the world in which the story would take place” (p 27-28).

Setting affects all aspects of the story: how people live, what they eat, what they wear, and how they get from place to place. Take any popular book, change its setting, and you change the story. (Twilight, for example, would have been very different if written in the Bahamas. There would have been a lot more hiding, a lot more secretiveness, and a lot more sunburn.)

Many writers don’t just create a new town (such as Clayton in Dan Wells’s John Cleaver series), they create whole worlds, whole planets. Everything from where these planets are located in their solar systems to how close the protagonist’s country is to the equator affects the story. What minerals and materials are to be had? Those determine the kind of house the protagonist lives in, the tools he can make. If the country is flat, he'll have to worry about tornadoes. Mountainous? Earthquakes. You get the idea.

I had the pleasure of talking to Isaac Stewart (mapmaker for Brandon Sanderson and others) at LTUE 2012. I took notes on everything he said and compiled them here (to inflict on others, of course). Feel free to check it out—he said some interesting stuff.

But setting is more than just jagged coastlines and a volcano or two. What readers want to know is, What makes your world different from ours? Why should anyone care about the world you’ve created?

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing class at BYU, when he told me to think of my setting as a character. What makes it an individual, and what are its quirks? What are its points of conflict? When I think of my world as a person, I start to care about it a lot more, and if I care about it, I can assume readers will, too.

That being said, there’s also the cultural side of worldbuilding. The cultural side is just as important, if not more important, than the physical setting. For example, when I think of ancient Japan, it’s the culture—the samurai, the geisha—that spring to mind long before I consider Mount Fuji and vast oceans. If the earth beneath the characters’ feet is different from our own, their society likely will be, too.

But be warned—the more imagination you put into your world, the slower the pace of the story. The higher the risk for info dumps (which should be avoided at all costs). And, though you may know every last grain of sand in your world, the reader doesn’t always need to. (I imagine Tolkien had a lot more to say about Middle Earth than what he laid out in The Lord of the Rings.)

In the end, remember that a good setting can make you shine. Geography, race, government, social roles, economics, religion, and technology all make the pieces of the next great novel. The only question left is, what will yours be?



8 comments:

  1. There's also a threshold where your worldbuilding makes the story so darn interesting that you can info-dump without actually info-dumping (if that makes any sense). I recall a passage from The Eye of the World in which Moirane talks for five pages, which normally would be terrible, but in this case it was plain awesome.

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  2. So true that world building needs to be deep and show many aspects of our culture. Cinda Williams Chima is an expert at this. Thanks for your tips.

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  3. This may be the reason I hate short stories. If the setting's good, the story will likely be good, too. And if you've got a whole world built, why stick to just a few pages to tell your story?

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  4. This may be the reason I hate short stories. If the setting's good, the story will likely be good, too. And if you've got a whole world built, why stick to just a few pages to tell your story?

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  5. That's a great tip about thinking of setting as a character. I'm way in over my head in researching my settings/time periods/culture right now, so this is a well-timed post. Thanks!

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  6. Awesome tip! I think even in non-fantasy thinking of setting as a character can really help set your work apart.

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

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  7. I hadn't ever thought of setting as character - I usually come up with characters first, and build from there. But it's a really interesting idea, and I'll have to consider it with all the plotting I'm supposed to be doing. Thanks!

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  8. "And, though you may know every last grain of sand in your world, the reader doesn’t always need to." So very true! In any genre, it's important for us to 'see' the world in which the story is/will be taking place, because only when we are totally familiar with it can we select just pertinent bits that will allow the reader to visualize the setting. Too much detail dished out becomes the infamous 'info dump' that ends up boring the reader.

    My problem is that sometimes I'm so familiar with the setting I forget to convey it adequately on the page. I forget the reader can't see into my mind! :)

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