Easy-ish worldbuilding

I like the title of this post: The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds

Liking the title doesn’t mean I think I’ll agree with anything in the post. I will just bet up front that when it comes to worldbuilding, I do absolutely nothing this post recommends. I bet it’s all about sitting down and thinking through a million details before you start writing, in the same way that various posts recommend sitting down and interviewing your protagonist about his childhood, or whatever.

But I could be wrong about what this post is going to suggest, and hey, I do like the title! So sure, I’ll read the post.

Before I do that, though, I’ll suggest my own easy-ish way to create believable worlds:

My own personal easy-ish method of worldbuilding: Read a lot of fantasy novels, historical novels, and nonfiction. Do that for thirty or forty years and then just sit down and write novels. I bet the worldbuilding will take care of itself at that point and there you go, wasn’t that easy?

So that’s my method. Now, let’s see what this post suggests …

You don’t need to know where every mountain range is in your world unless your characters intend to cross them. What follows are a set of exercises that are geared mainly toward writers of fantasy who are creating secondary worlds, but hopefully applicable to all writers. The goal of these exercises to help you build a believable world that will add depth and color to the story you want to tell—without making you spend hours writing out the dominant flora on a continent your story will never visit.

Ah! This is at least close to reasonable. I see we are going to be given exercises. As a rule, I’m not a big fan of exercises or prompts or whatever, but let’s just see …

Exercise #1: Write down everything you already know about your story’s world.

Set a timer for five, 10, or 30 minutes—however much time you think you need—and write out everything you already know about the world in which your story takes place, stream-of-consciousness style. Focus on the parts of your story you’ve either written or can picture clearly in your head. For example, if you know a critical scene in the climax involves an escape from a desert prison, write, “There’s a prison in the desert.” Do not consult Wikipedia’s list of desert flora and fauna.

Now, I don’t think this is a terrible idea. I like the recommendation to avoid research and let the world be “a blurry mess,” as this post also suggests. On the other hand, I would never do the above exercise. In fact, I’m thinking now, retroactively, about doing this, and it’s not working.

Things I found out about the world of Tuyo when I got to them, not ahead of time:

–The fengol, which I created for that early scene, long, long before I knew it might be important.

–The way daylength is different on each side of the river

–That the land of the shades is literally under the earth, beneath the land of the living, and that the Sun and Moon literally do go down past the edge of the world when they set.

–In fact, everything about the metaphysics of this world.

I mean, I capitalized Sun and Moon and gave them gendered pronouns BEFORE, not after, developing the metaphysics. I didn’t know when I first did that how important that choice would be for the overall metaphysics of the world, even though it’s utterly crucial. I chose gendered pronouns just to nudge the world into a less familiar shape. That was an impulsive choice, not something I thought about beforehand.

After the metaphysics of the world developed — which it did during the process of writing the story, not before — that metaphysics then powerfully affected the societies of the Ugaro and the Lau. If I’d tried to write out a quick list of Things I Know About This World, NONE of the important metaphysics would have been in that list. Only the river with the different climates on either side. That’s it.

Almost everything about the role of women in Ugaro society would have been completely missing from a list of “stuff I know,” or worse, the role of women would be completely different, based much more on real-world societies. Thinking too much beforehand would very likely have prevented me from empowering women in the unique way they are empowered within Ugaro society, because their role is based on metaphysics that developed as, not before, I wrote the story.

This post goes on to suggest other exercises. Like this:

Exercise #3: Now pick ONE thing that you know about the world of your story, something that affects the characters and plot. Then change it.  Is it basically impossible to change one thing without changing everything else? Good—That means your world is probably pretty cohesive already.

Interesting! Again, I’m not likely to do it, because I’m not likely to know enough about the world to even know what elements exist, much less which are important, until I’m way into the story. But this does circle back to the metaphysics of the Tuyo world. If I tried to de-gender the Moon and the Sun, everything would indeed change, boom! The whole Ugaro conception of femininity totally depends on the metaphysics. I suppose the Lau conception of masculinity also depends on the metaphysics, but that is so much more consistent with real-world societies that it’s hard to tell.

Also from the linked post:

How to Add Depth to Your World’s History

I do think this is very important. I do it with details of food and architecture drawn from real historical cultures; with attitudes also drawn from real historical cultures; and, increasingly, by trying to create and use plenty of world-specific idioms, metaphors, axioms, and so on. Adding all sorts of figures of speech is a deliberate effort I make, and something I think I’m better at now than I used to be.

Let’s see what this post suggests:

There are a lot of things that make for an unforgettable world, but one of those things is that, sociologically, it makes sense. 

I agree, although a skilled enough author can get away with changing human nature to a surprising degree. Here I’m thinking of Sherwood Smith in her Inda series. Absolutely fabulous series, which I love very much, but certain elements of her societies are, shall we say, not entirely plausible. She is good enough to pull that off.

And … yeah, the linked post is now getting into Let’s Create A World Bible! territory.

List all the races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, species, and other “groupings” of beings in your world.Now pick a group from your world, and describe in a couple of words (or longer) their historic relationship with some of the other groups on your list.Write a history of these relationships from the perspective of the participants.

Oh, come on! You might as well also pause to look up the ecology of desert regions, and while you’re at it why not draw maps that show all your mountain ranges, complete with hidden citadels and the ruins of past civilizations. You could also delineate current and historical political borders and hey! why not develop a complete language (two!) because that’ll certainly add depth …

To me, this sort of exercise seems like it could be a fun hobby, but a hobby that is almost entirely orthogonal to actually writing a novel. Worse, and I realize this is just me, but it looks like the sort of exercise that is slamming doors as it goes. If you design too much ahead, how is the world going to actually develop? Yep, obviously that’s a protest that comes from an organic writer, not the sort of writer who works from detailed outlines. I’m willing to bet at this point that the author of the linked post … Kelsey Allagood … is probably an outliner. Maybe the tendency to create a world bible is independent of the tendency to be an outliner, but it seems offhand like the two should go together.

Anyway, I do think my method — read a lot of books for thirty years and then just sit down and write books — is in fact easier. For me.

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7 thoughts on “Easy-ish worldbuilding”

  1. My advice is: Read a lot of history. Particularly primary source. Once it has knocked off your block so you do not default to your own society when it makes no sense, then write your stories. And you will have a sensor that twigs when something goes wrong. For instance, if you are familiar with the history of textiles, your sensor will go off when you think of a wedding gown, on the grounds that it is insanity to have a dress you use once.

    Then, if you research, you find that even incredibly wealthy women wore the dress worn on their wedding day over and over and over again. Yes, it is incredibly common to try to get a new dress for the day, and it would be in the most formal style you would reasonably expect to wear, but then you would wear it over and over and over again. In some cultures, you would be buried in it.

  2. I agree, Mary, history is a super helpful interest for anyone who wants to write secondary world fantasy.

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    I spent much of my teens and my college years writing a very detailed world bible for one series that I was working on… I built it up so much I was afraid to spoil it by writing the stories! I did have a lot of fun coming up with those lists of tree names and why they were important, though. And the languages, and the genealogies. My favorite fantasy work at that time was not the Lord of the Rings but the appendix at the end of Return of the King!

  4. Kathryn, you made me laugh, picking the appendix as a favorite fantasy work!

    Worldbuilding can definitely be a hobby in its own right, and who knows, maybe people who develop extremely elaborate world bibles will also (eventually …) write actual novels set in those worlds. Sherwood Smith again comes to mind for that, as I think she pretty much did it that way — lots and lots of worldbuilding either before or at the same time as writing fiction set in the world.

  5. Worldbuilding is a hobby of mine and I did indeed develop a lot of Valdyas as pure worldbuilding before I wrote even a short story in it, but writing does make me expand the world, sometimes even contradicting the initial worldbuilding (and then what’s in the story is the reality, at least in that place for those people).

    I keep finding little things, on rereading old favourite books and rewatching films, that ended up in Valdyas without my deliberate intervention. Even the inn “The Spotted Dog” appears to have come from a children’s TV series I saw in my teens, with only one mention in a song.

    (And the appendix of LotR has been one of my favourites forever, too!)

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