Sunday, February 22, 2009

Make your world personal

Very often on writing and science fiction forums I see discussions of worldbuilding (including language) and backstory, and how not to make a world overpower a story with infodumping. This is an issue that I have struggled with, because my love of linguistics and anthropology makes me want to know every detail about the worlds in which my stories occur. After many years of writing I've developed my own philosophy of how to deal with this issue. I'll call it make your world personal.

We are all the products of our experiences and the worlds we've grown in. The way each of us understands the world is intensely personal. When we speak, our personal understandings of the world filter through our words in many ways: in the words we choose to describe things, in how we categorize things and people, and in subtle shadings of grammar. When ethnographers study social situations in the real world, they often analyze such elements of speech to improve their understanding of how individuals in a social situation judge one another and the world around them. Because the subtle details of expressing identity in language are mostly subconscious, their effects are easy to feel but difficult to explain. The ethnographer's analytical techniques have been designed explicitly for the purpose of bringing these details into full consciousness.

When as writers we create a new world, we often begin by laying out logistical details and descriptions as if we were reading about a foreign place in a book. I find it all too easy to write lots of words about the worlds I create, but at the same time I find that's not enough for me to enter the story world successfully. I need a character.

If I take all of the impersonal questions I've asked about my world - geography, culture, objects, naming conventions, etc., etc. - and recast them from the point of view of a character inside that culture, then I start to get to somewhere new. The place I want to find is inside someone's head, a stance and point of view that will warp everything around it, where action and the judgment of action will cause backstory to reveal itself. I want to make my world personal.

One place to start is to play with what is. Take a paragraph of description - almost any one will do - and highlight every name, object, and category label you find in it. Then ask yourself how each one reflects the unique point of view of the narrator, and whether you might be able to push any of them closer to that person - for example, by changing an article from a to the, by adding a judgmental adjective, or by substituting a word heavy with interesting connotations. Then see how the paragraph has changed.

You may discover that your world feels more personal.

It's something to think about.