Wednesday, June 12, 2013

World-Building Wednesday: Q&A

Now that I've devoted Wednesdays exclusively to world-building I can hardly wait to write the posts. Building new worlds is the most fun this writer has ever had (well, with my clothes still on) and there are so many different aspects of it in fiction you can never really run out of topics related to it to discuss.

While I can natter on incessantly on the topic of world-building, the whole point of creating of this new weekly feature is to focus on what would be interesting or helpful to all of you. For that reason I'd like to gather some requests on specific world-building topics you'd like to discuss in the future here at Disenchanted & Co. So if you have any suggestions, please let me know in comments -- and as an extra incentive, on Friday morning* I will draw one name at random from everyone who leaves a suggestion and send the winner a surprise (and no, I won't tell you what it is, but my surprises are good ones.) This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, so please join in.

*To qualify for the surprise giveaway, please leave a world-building suggestion no later than midnight EST on Thursday, June 13th, 2013.

Related Links: I gave a two-day world-building workshop on my writing blog a few years ago, and the companion e-book, It Only Took God Six Days, can be read online or downloaded for free from Google Docs here.

38 comments:

  1. Creating the class structure in a new society always bogs me down. I'd love to hear how you do that. It always seems so organic in your books.

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    1. I think Jane Austen, Frank Herbert and Jean M. Auel taught me the most about cultural and social hierarchies, and I've probably distilled a lot of what I do from the examples in their books.
      The typical class structure is three-tiered: upper, middle, and lower. You can further divide that into more defined classes (i.e. Upper class, merchant class, middle class, servant class, lower class, and outcasts/undesirables would be a six-tiered stucture) but they all share some basis (usually economic in nature.) Those who are regarded as the wealthiest, most powerful and most influential occupy the elite position in a social class, and define the measures by which everyone else is ranked in comparison.

      Your social class has to make sense within the scope and boundaries of your world-building, and it's not always dependent on one factor. Personal wealth, for example, might propel someone to a position of importance in your society, but if they're of humble birth and your elite tier is made up solely of blue-blooded aristocrats, they're only going to rise so far. There are also loopholes and subversive ways to defeat class distinctions, such as a wealthy man of humble origins marrying an impoverished aristocrat's daughter, or distinguishing himself in the armed services to the point where he is granted a title, etc.

      In Toriana, the elite class in society are direct descendants of England's elite undesirables, such as the illegitimate children of aristocratic lineage. The particulars of their social class are also directly linked to those beginnings, which affects how stringent and defined their sense of class is (very), and how determined they are to preserve and defend it (unwaveringly).

      I've also gravitated toward finding one defining factor as a social class hub, ala Frank Herbert, to build on. If you read the Dune books, everything about that universe is built around who controls the spice that enables space travel. It's a SF spin on a property hierarchy, and it works well in his universe because the spice is the most important thing in every world -- rather like money, power and petroleum is here on Earth.

      You can also use more than one power base as a hub. Religion and politics have always paired nicely as a social class hub; so have military power and impoverished third-world societies. The more complicated you get with social classes and the reasons for them, the harder it is to define all that for the reader, so my best advice is to do what you can to keep it simple. Also, be sure you thoroughly understand your class system and the logic behind it before you dive into explaining it to your readers.

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  2. Lol, I am so wrapped up in world building right now, ready to pull my hair out. I think my biggest problem is figuring out the little things, like, are there ambulances in this world, what sort of vehicle do they drive, how is it paid for, what does the siren sound like? It is both amazing and frustrating how writing a simple sentence like - "The ambulance blew by them its siren wailing." That makes you go, wait, do they even have them, how is it being paid for, etc...

    I think that is why sometimes urban fantasy is a bit easier to write, cause at least everyone knows what an ambulance is, but still for a truly in depth world I have to figure that stuff out, and sometimes the thoughts that spawn off of that - so what is is paid for by taxes, insurance - can derail me for days.

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    1. My philosophy about world-building is that you, the author, can never know too much about your universe -- but your reader can. Detailing effectively in fiction requires you to have enormous, intimate knowledge of your world, and then to be very selective about what you tell the reader.

      Think of walking into a jewelry store that has gorgeous pieces packed into every inch of every display case. There are so many pieces of jewelry crammed together you can't make out anything but glitter and chaos; it's blinding. Which is why jewelry stores display their pieces in selectively, creating an elegant space, lighting and presentation to attract the customers' attention. They may have 437 necklaces in stock, but display only 7. As those are sold, they put out new pieces.

      This is the kind of approach to emulate when showing your universe to your reader. Highlight a few pieces of your world, not every single thing you've created.

      As to what you should detail, there's an exercise I give my students to teach you what merits attention in a story. On a random night sit down and list everything you can remember that you saw during that day. Once you've done that, pick three that for whatever reason were the most interesting to you, and describe them in detail (and if you can't describe them very well, they weren't that interesting, so pick something else.) If you were going to write a story about your day, those are the three things you should describe for your reader.

      I know world-building details can often bury a story (and the writer) in a blizzard of information, and you've got the right idea when it comes to linking things from your universe to our real world. Everyone does know what a road is, and an ambulance, and what an ambulance looks like when it blows by them with its siren wailing. If you invent something you don't feel requires detailing, link it to the real-world version by name or description, like these three examples:

      The whitecart dashed past me, the horses' hooves churning as the driver raced to help the wounded.

      A rescuvac flew past me, emitters flashing and beacon blaring as its drone pilot headed for the crash site.

      Trievers nearly ran me down as their evac cutter punched through the currents to get to the sinking vessel.



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  3. Honestly, the thing I find hardest about worldbuilding, and the thing I loathe the most, is coming up with names. So many names! People, places, professional associations, new creations, animals, types of magic -- everything you dream up has to have a name.

    You seem to have a knack for combining existing words to come up with new ones, like "darkyn". Do you have any other tips, other than just opening up a phone book or a foreign language dictionary and throwing darts?

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    1. As a former cryptologist I have a bit of an unfair advantage, but my methods aren't really that complicated. Playing with descriptive words -- most often recombining bits of them to coin new ones -- is my primary habit when creating new names for things. I make long lists of all the words I can think of that describe or in some way relate to the thing I'm trying to name, and then shuffle parts of them around until I hit a combination that feels right (and there is no logic to that; I just know when I have the right word for my universe.)

      I collect unusual names and words in a alphabetical file that I often raid for ideas. I also use anagrams, acronyms and jumbled words to name things. You can feed a word to this anagram generator and it will produce lists of alternate words for you, if you want to try that. I also wrote a post about this sort of wordsmithing on PBW here that you might find helpful.

      It also helps to study branding a little bit. I've learned more about naming things from the ways iconic brands are created than anything else, and it may open your eyes to a new naming resource you haven't yet tried.

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  4. My struggle is in writing alternate history, deciding what parts to keep and what to throw out and how the changes would really impact things now.

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    2. Good struggle; I wrestle with that one myself all the time. I tend to focus on one significant event (as in America losing the War of Independence in the Toriana universe) and then build out from there. For the Darkyn series I didn't reveal the significant event until I wrote the first Kyndred novel, and it's very subtle so unless you're paying close attention you'll miss it. For StarDoc the significant event was actually two-fold, the birth of my protagonist + the decision she made to leave Earth.

      I also learned quite a bit about how historic events impact the world from reading James Burke's How the Universe Changed, which was also a television series. You can find some free episodes to watch online here.

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  5. Your nattering, especially on world-building, tends to be interesting in general, so I'm really looking forward to this series of posts, whatever it ultimately contains.

    In general, though, I'm interested in the broad-brush strokes of world-building and keeping track of them. Like, for example, in this series, you've said that the colonies lost the war for independence. By extension, that means that some other events didn't happen, and other new events did.

    How do you decide which to keep, which to toss, and which to add? And how do you keep track of them all?

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    1. I create an important event timeline for all my universes and continually update it as the series progresses (and you can see some examples of different types of such graphs here).

      I go with a combination of logic and instinct when it comes to deciding what to keep and what to toss. For example, in the Toriana universe America loses the War of Independence and instead remains part of the British empire. I reviewed the histories of several real-world nations that remained under British rule before I began timelining my history. Since slavery was abolished by the UK's Parliament in 1833, I did the same and had the law extend to Toriana. I added a movement that saw to it that former slaves were repatriated to their country of origin, too. Military occupation is ongoing, and industrialization happens much sooner in Toriana without the North/South division in our world' history, so the combination of those events allowed me to eliminate the Civil War entirely.

      Would it really have happened that way if America had actually lost the War of Independence? We'll never know. But in every decision like that which I make I try to envision what seems logical and makes sense to me.

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  6. It's the language and social structure of a new world that fascinates me. I loved Jean Johnson's Sons of Destiny series even though the writing was ponderous and lecture-y at times, as she explained the process of building a country & its economic / political structure from the bottom up.

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    1. Often presenting a new universe to readers has us climbing on our soapbox or standing at a lecture podium, Fran. I try to be conscious of that whenever I detail some aspect of my own world-building, but I don't think any writer is 100% successful at keeping it from being a mini-seminar on something.

      I will have to check out Jean's novels. I like detailed world-building, even when it gets a little stuffy. :)

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  7. Just a note to let everyone know -- I have to run out for a couple of hours, so comments will not show up here or be answered until I get back, probably later this afternoon. Keep leaving them, however, and I will answer everyone.

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  8. I'm diving back into short fiction and keep having trouble not OVER-worldbuilding. :) What are the main, non-negotiable things to focus on, and what elements might be less of a priority? I realize this probably depends on each individual story, but if you have any guidelines or tips I'm all ears.

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    1. Non-negotiable elements for me are whatever serves the story, the protagonist's character and the journey of both, and (to a lesser degree) defines the other characters.

      Think about it this way: let's say your protagonist is a private detective. That occupation, the setting for it and how it compares and contrasts with the PI's personal life need to be defined and served by your world-building. Your reader needs to know what your PI does, where, when, and what happens after the job is done. You're going to need elements that relate directly to private investigation; an office in a city with established clientele and some sort of home. If your PI used to be a cop, you'll need to bring in the law enforcement backstory, too.

      Now in addition to your PI let's say you have a primary cast of characters comprised of a sidekick, a crime lord, a troubled client, an angry cop and an antagonist who created or is responsible for the conflict. That's five more characters who have to be defined and served by your world-building -- again, to a lesser degree.

      Most writers interweave the world-building for their character cast with that of their protagonist, so you would world-build a sidekick within the elements already in place for the protagonist, with some additional detail so the sidekick doesn't appear like a clone of your protagonist (and also doesn't compete with the protag's place in the story.) You do the same with the other characters, fleshing out your world at the same time.

      There are also setting and backdrop elements you can't ignore; these establish things like time period, important events, significant seasons (if it's Christmas, for example, you can't ignore all the trapping of the holidays). Think of these as props for your stage to inform your reader as to what is going on in the world right now aside and in addition to your protagonist's storyline. You can be sparing with these but they have to be there because the world doesn't come to a crashing halt when your story begins (unless you're writing SF and the singularity arrives, in which case that is your story.)

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  9. P.S. - I'm a daily PBW reader from way back, but somehow I missed that world building course and companion ebook you mentioned! Truly don't know how that happened. Off to download the book right now. Thanks!

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    1. I did that during one of my old Left Behind & Loving It virtual summer conferences; those tended to be very information-intensive. :)

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  10. I am struggling right now with trying to figure out the politics in my world. My problem is that I personally find politics so incredibly boring, but I really need to figure out how my government works in order to tell the story. How do you set up a government in a fictional universe?

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    1. I'm probably the worst writer to answer this one, D, as I despise politics and do everything I can to keep them out of my books. But when I have to have some system of politics to serve the story, I mainly invent my own opposing factions, detailing them with what's interesting to me and logical to the story, and then have them commence with the stupidity typical of politicians. :)

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  11. World-building sounds captivating and special. This involves so much detail and interesting areas that need research and investigation. Very deep.

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    1. It can definitely be a grand obsession, Traveler. :)

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  12. I love it when books have great world-building. I find it interesting learning how and why worlds (or countries, cities, etc.) developed the way they do. What were the politics? What were the economic and social factors that led to the world being the way it is now? It's one of the reasons I love dystopian fiction so much.

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    1. The more unique the world-building is, the more captivating it tends to be. :)

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  13. Reading this post was enlightening and gave me insight into the process which interests me very much. Thanks.

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  14. I have a lot of trouble incorporating my paranormal story into a 'real world' setting meaning, I have werewolves in Regency/Victorian England (it's on the cusp) and am working on a contemporary as well, but I find myself either losing track of the paranormal in the midst of the real world setting or vice-versa. So how do I keep things balanced without losing my story?

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  15. Just an FYI, I do plan to use your questions and suggestions for future Wednesday posts and to expand on my replies, too -- so expect more details to be forthcoming. :)

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  16. I love world-building and it is especially important in paranormal and urban fantasy genres. The sort of world I love to immerse myself in is those that is out of the ordinary but still realistic. I feel when the main protagonist is "normal" and finding her way in the world for the first time it's easy for me to be immersed in it. Usually it's the creatures and their society that really catch my attention. The creatures can be completely new or a classic with a little something new. I like epic storylines where the same set of characters live out their story for a few books. That way it gives a chance for the world to build but also for the character to grow. Many of the worlds I've enjoyed were on the dark and mysterious side.

    - Na S.

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  17. Fran already went over my question. I love looking at the social aspect of world building. Where do you start to create this part? Do you take your own society and tweak it? or start from scratch?

    Thanks!

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  18. I love UF and the tweaking of history and the subtle shift of events that weaves into the stories like the killer tomatoes in Kim Harrison's Hollows, the magic/tech waves in Ilona Andrews series, etc, etc.

    The one aspect that bothers me in Scifi/Fantasy/PNR is money. Characters can complain about it yet, they have it. ???

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  19. This is related to your blog post on detail that you posted on Paperback Writer (with lovely illustrative photos of water drops on leaf.)
    How much world building/back story/detail is too much? Can there be too much given the understanding not everything will make it into the book? Does having that detail and understanding of your world help a writer create the book even though the 'support beams' of the structure are invisible to the reader?

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  21. How do you know when to stop with too much description?

    bn100candg at hotmail dot com

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  22. When you create a world, how do you figure out the geography? I'm having difficulty creating an authentic world for my characters to explore.

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  23. I am really looking forward to seeing your expanded answers on many of these excellent questions. Just out of curiosity though, did you ever do the giveaway? Forgive my eagerness, but you always have such great surprises. :)

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    1. I'm sorry I didn't see your question until now, Diane, but yes, we did have a winner for this giveaway, which was bluebamboo (announced in this post here: http://toriana.blogspot.com/2013/06/accessory-gadgets.html)

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