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Sunday, April 29, 2018

What is Worldbuilding, and Why Do We Do It?

So, what is worldbuilding? A lot of people I speak to seem to think that worldbuilding means a long exhaustive process of creating massive secondary worlds. What is a secondary world? Well, it turns out the term was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, and refers to "an internally consistent, fictional, fantasy world or setting that is different from the real 'primary world.'" And some worldbuilding involves creating worlds like that - but not all of it.

Keep in mind that when one starts writing a story, one starts with a blank page, and then has to create the sense that the reader is experiencing a world. That world might be our world, as it is in narrative nonfiction. It might be a past version of our world, or an alternate version of our world. Or it might be a secondary world.

In my view, any time you are creating a sense of place while storytelling, you are worldbuilding.

As readers, we encounter many different kinds of worlds with many different feels depending on the genre we're reading. It could be romance, science fiction, fantasy, mainstream fiction, crime, mystery, narrative nonfiction, etc. etc. Even known places in our world can be portrayed in lots of different ways.

Kat immediately picked up on this, noting that though she grew up in Los Angeles, she's always interested to see "someone else's concept of my hometown." The idea of a Hollywood Los Angeles is quite common, but it's certainly not the only kind of portrayal we can find in fiction. Every time you have a different point of view, it will result in a different portrayal of the same place.

The Werewolf Principle by Clifford Simak has a protagonist who has three different minds and bodies, and switches between them. When he's in the form of an alien and encounters a thunderstorm, he thinks "what is all this water," but when he's in a human form, he has the normal reactions we would expect to getting wet.

Morgan told us she used to work in an office building with an elevator lobby that, she discovered, the author Laura Anne Gilman described in her book, Staying Dead. Think of a familiar environment, and of what you notice there. What would another author notice there?

Noticing is a really key concept in point of view. Ask yourself: What does the protagonist notice? Noticing is an extremely subjective thing. Different people will notice different things. Also, the same person will notice different things at different times. The way that you will describe something should depend on what is important to notice about it, and this may depend a lot on the point of view you are writing from. Prose description is a lot of fun when it matches a particular character's way of thinking.

Genre also has an influence on what should be described in the environment. Steampunk tends to put a lot of attention on clothing and goggles and gadgetry. Science fiction often puts attention on gadgetry, but it is less likely to dive into descriptions of clothing or furniture. Romance often gives loving attention to clothes and the interiors of rooms. Depending on what you are writing, you should ask yourself, "What are the key details? Where should I put them?"

Sometimes we can find that our own history of reading influences our expectations and the ease with which we understand a story setting. We understand things based on context, and that means that someone who has a lot of previous experience reading in a particular genre will need fewer context cues and explanations in the text itself in order to understand. As genre readers, we take certain things for granted. This is one of the things that can make science fictional (and other) worldbuilding opaque for readers who have little experience reading in the genre.

The famous author Samuel Delaney has said that every word makes you alter or build on an image.

Che pointed out that changing one thing often can change everything around it, like the time travel butterfly effect. Different discussants pointed out different ways in which small alterations, or particular speculative concepts, could create changes that might not be fully explored by the author. We decided to take the question on in a future hangout (Exploring the Impact and Implications of Your Speculative Concept).

Whether you include an explanation of something - anything from faster-than-light travel to a wired telephone - will depend on your perception of your audience's previous knowledge, and also on the focus of the story. A story that is not focused on how time travel works, even if it features time travel, will not need you to explain it. Kat argued that we need to consider explaining old technology to young people.

Brian noted that our expectations color the patterns we use in the stories we write. They influence our use of tropes. Horror used to rely on isolating people back in the 1970's.  Now it would be more likely to make horror out of always being in touch.

Descriptions that you put in of your setting, provided that they reflect the point of view of a character, will not only describe the place they are in/thinking of but also reveal things about the character's background and thoughts.

We talked briefly about how to pick which details to include in a world. Some details are connected to larger patterns within the world, such as when telephones are linked to the use of electricity and other aspects of technology. The presence of one object can imply the possible existence of a number of other objects in the world.

However, as Kat notes, we can't rely on every step of a technological history to come along with a particular object. The history of the telephone, for example, is different in Europe from the way it occurred in Africa, where people have skipped over landline phones and gone straight to cell phones, which are more practical. Kat and I both highly recommend the Writing the Other workshops and book, which can give us insights into how to write the perspectives of people unlike us. Kat also mentioned how the history of fax devices is very different in Asia from what it was in the US, including that deaf kids in Japan used fax machines while the US used teletype.

An audience can come to your story with a very large set of default assumptions that may not hold in the world of the story, and sometimes as the author you will have to work against them directly in order for people not to rewrite your world in their subconscious.

At this point, a number of people brought up fantasy and science fiction worlds that operate on dream logic, or don't strive for total consistency, etc. and yet are still successful. It's true - there are some like that! Cliff said that Michael Moorcock said he "never did worldbuilding," but had the worlds reflect the moods of the characters. J.K. Rowling when she was creating Harry Potter did not need every part of her world to be grounded and consistent with general historical principles... and that was perfectly all right. It's true: logical realism is not necessarily what we want. However, a lack of logical realism when it's expected can kill a story.

Kat put it this way. What do your readers expect? Realism? Allegory? Use that to decide how you approach your world.

Sometimes we worldbuild subconsciously, without thinking about it. This is when our own cultural defaults are most likely to slip in, and we have to keep an eye out for that.

Next we asked the question, How do you start worldbuilding? Well, even if you only have an idea for a speculative gadget or a magical power, you have already started. You can enter a story world from lots of different points. Worlds and cultures are interconnected places. The things in your world can be culturally, physically, thematically, or metaphorically connected with other things in your world.

A lot will depend on the categorization systems you use. Kat said that when people are given a monkey, an apple, and a banana, and asked which two go together, some will say the apple and banana go together because they are fruit, and others will say the monkey and banana go together because monkeys eat bananas. We learn our categorization systems when we learn our first language, and when we learn our native culture. Breaking out of this normative worldview can be difficult.

It's fine to decide to stay with the normative worldview, but I always like people to be aware of what they are doing, and making purposeful decisions.

Che suggested one way to begin a world is to pick a time and place from our own history and build from there. You can, for example, pick the 1930's Depression-era America, but use made-up town names in recognizable states, creating a place that is just slightly off from the actual real-world references.

Remember, you don't have to build the whole world... just enough. Sometimes it's enough just to know what the point of view protagonist knows. If you then decide to expand outward from there into greater complexity, then go for it!

Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion. I'm so grateful to Che and my other discussants for suggesting we do a general "Introduction to Worldbuilding series of videos. You guys are the best!


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