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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Worldbuilding II: Answering Questions
Previously we talked about building a fantasy world.  You start with some cool idea(s) and extrapolate a world from there.  Some of the ensuing discussion raised another good point about worldbuilding: answering questions.  When you don't know what's going on with a particular part of your world, how do you get yourself unstuck?

1) Consider what you want and what you don't want.  List some things you like about fantasy and some things you don't like.  List some other stuff you like and don't like.  This will help you map out what's going on. 

...* Likes are easy; you put them in, or use close variations of them.  Maybe you take your favorite fantasy motif and fan it out across a dozen iterations.  Purple rhinoceri, blue elephants, periwinkle ponies, amethyst aurochs, etc.

...* Dislikes are a little more challenging: you have to use them as a starting point, then turn in the opposite direction.  Frex, most fantasies have a medieval time period and a monarchy in charge of it.  Pick another time.  Pick another form of government, or better yet several.  Imagine the fun of a hundred-countries fantasy world that has NO monarchies, but they're trying dozens of other governmental systems and some organization is driving everyone bugfuck by publishing comparisons of which does what better!

2) Derive from what you have.  This adds power to the most important parts of your setting.

...* Look at the cool thing(s) that you fell in love with.  What will support that?  What will make it stronger?  What will threaten it?  Charm makes readers love a setting, its creatures, its people; danger makes them sweat through the story.  Show them the adorable kitten.  Then show them the villain with a knife to the kitty's fuzzy belly.  If dragon eggs are the main source of gold, and overbreeding is making the dragons so magical they float out of the atmosphere and die, that's a challenge to people who want them alive.  But what if the bankers are lobbying to ditch the gold standard?  That's going to threaten dragon recovery efforts.

...* Know your themes and your messages.  You're not just blowing smoke here; you should have something important to say.  Your theme is a Big Idea: love, faith, revenge, freedom, chaos, home, loss, etc.  Your message is what you have to say about that: Love makes sorrow bearable.  Vengeance is only satisfying if it stops the problem.  Always connect your theme to important features of your setting.  Frex, maybe the Purpleverse has a theme of Greed and a message of "Too much of a good thing can be bad for you."  We've already seen that magic is necessary for many creatures in this world, but too much cripples or kills them.  Maybe we're wondering: "Why are there a hundred countries here?"  Backtrack this theme: a historic empire was shattered by greed.  Now extend that into the current plot: whenever characters try to do anything to excess, it will backfire and hurt them.  They'll have to use moderation and multiplicity to solve their problems.

3) Balance things according to tone, scale, etc. 

...* If you have large aspects of magic influencing the plot, also show small aspects of magic in domestic, decorative, or whimsical uses.  Maybe the Purpleverse has plays recorded in eggshells, or perfume that magically changes based on the wearer's mood.

...* Use dynamic balance.  Things don't have to stay the same; they can swoop and change.  One large grief can be balanced by many small joys, rather than one large joy.  These aspects are like the rigging of a compound bow: one plotline looped over many pulleys, which is stable until the bow is drawn ... and the arrow released.  Once you've established that Greed is trouble in this setting, for instance, readers will begin to get nervous when a character amasses great wealth and acts like a miser: they can feel the tension as the bow is drawn, and they sense something dire will happen.

4) Use theory for inspiration.  Once you've got your cool things, look for ways to develop them further using known science or imagined principles.

...* Even a fantasy world usually has somewhere you can attach science, and science is full of bizarre inspirations.  Frex, I used my knowledge of genetics to give the magical animals a problem -- Scottish Fold cats have a similar dilemma, where too little cartilage folding makes them look ordinary and too much fuses the spine.  This time just look at your main idea and try to find ways of fleshing it out or answering its questions based on stuff we already know about things that are vaguely similar.

...* Ideologies, philosophies, religions, and other "thought systems" are also handy for this purpose.  Look at the subtle side of your worldbuilding and imagine: What if their religion is true?  What if it's false?  What would a setting look like if Karl Marx had been right about the natural evolution of socioeconomics?  Here we have the bankers debating whether to abandon the gold standard; what if they ultimately decide that's a bad idea because ... they imagine some of the ghastly problems our economy has had, and don't want to go there?

5) Bear in mind these two countervailing premises: You can't put the whole world in a box, but you must create the illusion that you have done so.  The more you know, the more cohesive and convincing your stories will be.  If you're just flailing around blindly, your audience will notice and probably flee -- but you can never know everything about another world.

...* Choose an area and develop it thoroughly.  Start writing there, and then move outwards in whatever direction(s) may interest you.  By creating a solid background where the plotlines cross and re-cross each other, you'll have a core to build on later.  In the Purpleverse we'd probably start with matters concerning the people whose lives depend on the rhinoceri and the dragons, because there are lots of connections there.

...* Deliberately leave a few intriguing loose ends.  You can go back and pick them up later if you wish, but never tie them all off at once.  These are like the lines that extend past the edges of a painting; they hint at a world larger than what's on the page already.  Maybe a later story would focus on the jewel-colored birds that accompany the purple rhinoceri and are hunted by people for their feathers that are prized in enchanted hats.  But the demand for hat feathers is driving the birds toward extinction, and some of those hats do crucial things like notifying a healer of nearby emergencies.  Proposed alternatives include teaching silkworms to work magic, but it turns out that protecting the birds will work fine.  Will we ever find out if silkworms can learn magic ...?

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7 comments or Leave a comment
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: July 10th, 2010 02:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Gene Roddenberry said that nobody who began by saying,
"I have in mind this strange world..."
ever wrote a good Star Trek script.
At the other extreme, I've heard that Silent Running
was created because one of the writers knew guys who had lost their legs in Vietnam.
He imagined the little robots with the idea of roles for these guys,
and then thought up a story that would include them.

But I guess this is a case of "Write what you know"
Even if you have to make it up.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 10th, 2010 02:31 am (UTC) (Link)


>>Gene Roddenberry said that nobody who began by saying,
"I have in mind this strange world..."
ever wrote a good Star Trek script.<<

I have to wonder if he ever said that to Harlan.

Also, some of my favorite Star Trek episodes are strange-world ones.

>>But I guess this is a case of "Write what you know"
Even if you have to make it up.<<

Or write what you're willing to learn about, and what you care about.

One cool idea waving its fanny in the wind does not make a story. It has to be supported, and it has to mean something. Worldbuilding is all about how to design a setting that you and other folks will love spending time in. There are various ways to do that, but they all have to get to approximately the same goal.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: July 10th, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

I think Roddenberry's point was that regardless of the setting,
a story is really about people in that setting.

In any case, yes, the willing suspension of disbelief
requires some sort of worldbuilding.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 10th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

>>I think Roddenberry's point was that regardless of the setting,
a story is really about people in that setting.<<

A story can have different focal points, and fashions in that have changed over time. Character isn't the only option, though it's very popular right now and I like it a lot. Setting can be the main point: a "milieu" story. Plot can be the point. Classic science fiction was often a "story of idea" where the characters were just sketchy figures, the setting was barely a stage, and the action was all about what happened when you dumped The Idea (an invention, a catastrophe, etc.) on top of whatever poor schmucks happened to be standing around.

Those are all very different types of tale and you need to understand what kind you want to be telling. Worldbuilding is essential for milieu stories, helpful for character or plot stories because it can generate unique inspiration, and largely pointless for stories of idea.
christinathena From: christinathena Date: July 10th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC) (Link)
Frex, most fantasies have a medieval time period and a monarchy in charge of it. Pick another time. Pick another form of government, or better yet several. Imagine the fun of a hundred-countries fantasy world that has NO monarchies, but they're trying dozens of other governmental systems and some organization is driving everyone bugfuck by publishing comparisons of which does what better!

Or better yet, incorporate contradictions into their government. The modern Kasshi Empire, for example, has a huge inconsistency at its heart. Its political system is something called "Pragmatic Socialism". I'm still working out the details of what, exactly, that means (I'm working backwards in a sense - starting with their propaganda, and then figuring out how it actually works in practice), but class mobility is part of its theory. Unlike classical socialism, PragSoc does not advocate a classless society. It considers classes both necessary and beneficial, but believes that class mobility should be made easy (in practice, it doesn't quite work that well ...). However, the Empire is ruled by a hereditary Empress/Emperor, and there is a hereditary nobility (although it is possible for people to leave or join that class - rare though such events are). Most of the nobles do not have power over their nominal territory*, but all nobles automatically have a vote or votes - one per title rather than one per person - in the Council of Nobles, roughly analogous to the British House of Lords, except with actual power. Likewise, the Crown retains significant power. This isn't a situation like modern Britain with a purely figurehead Queen and House of Lords.

The existence of hereditary rulers is a major contradiction with the ideals of PragSoc, and idealists have long advocated the abolition of both the hereditary Crown and the Nobles. Some do advocate retaining the Crown and the various noble titles, but instead making their holders be elected. Others advocate their complete abolition.

A great deal of effort goes into justifying these contradictions. Ultimately, the contradictions will prove too great. I'm still working out the details, but the Crown will be abolished, with the last Emperor voluntarily stepping down, being permitted to retain the title of Lord Mayor of Ivets, which had been previously held by the heir to the throne, and which retains significant power over the City-State of Ivets.

*No one may be made a noble without being given some kind of territory. However, there is no requirement that the territory actually be productive - or even populated -, only minimum area requirements for various titles. Quite a few individuals were ennobled by giving them nominal territories in deserts or polar regions or even - after the beginning of the Space Race - extraplanetary claims! Indeed, Empress Chara Charakh even made her sister "Governor-General of All Extraplanetary Territories" ... despite no actual extraplanetary colonies existing at the time (a few were later established). These "space lords and ladies" didn't last very long, though. A law was later passed that required a noble to visit their territory in person at least once every five years, which made it impossible for the space lords/ladies to visit their lands, and thus causing them to lose their titles. As for the nobles whose territories were populated, most had gradually ceded power to elected officials, until they had no actual power (but they still collect income from their lands, a tiny percentage of the tax income; although for some that tax is very much nominal, the equivalent of a few dollars a year, or something ceremonial). A few nobles retained some degree of power over their territories, though. The Duke of Kassa (a title currently held by a branch of the Imperial Family) remains an almost independent ruler, a near-king in his own right, with significant power over the island. He's an exception, though, and most nobles have at least some significant restrictions to their power.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 10th, 2010 04:11 am (UTC) (Link)


That sounds interesting. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of one vote per title.
christinathena From: christinathena Date: July 10th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Wow!

Thanks. :-) As you can imagine, it causes certain nobles to have significantly greater power than others. Quite a few nobles have a large number of titles, due to generations of strategic marriages. A law passed a few decades ago sought to minimize this by requiring that titles be split up among one's heirs, but it remains a significant problem as it would take quite a few generations to break up the biggest blocks, and families often function as voting blocks anyways.
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