A few thoughts on World-building
I write in the world of “what if?” The proper name these days is “speculative fiction,” encompassing fantasy, science fiction, horror, paranormal, and…probably a few others I don’t even know about. It’s a blast, and I love it, but it’s a challenge sometimes.
All fiction requires a certain amount of scene-setting and imagination, but placing the reader in my own version of “what if?” requires actual world-building. I’ve noticed that some authors do this better than others. I used to consider world-building secondary to character development, but I have since learned otherwise. The world is the foundation on which the story rests–it’s the framework through which the characters move and act. You have to have a believable, solid, intriguing stage to set them on.
In my humble opinion, the best fantasy worlds provide that solid, believable underpinning without overshadowing the characters or the story. I dislike books in which the author seems to be trying to “one-up” the rest of us by making his/her world so rich, so fantastic, so uber-complicated, that we get lost, and not in a good way. The best imaginative transitions are seamless, as though I not only received a permanent visa to the author’s world, but I didn’t even have to stand in line to get it. I can go there whenever I feel like turning pages, and feel as though I belong. And I don’t have to work too hard at it.
This is not so with all readers–some like to be shocked and amazed with over-the-top, wildly imaginative worlds that stretch their sensibilities to the limit. They have no way of explaining how various phenomena came to be, and they don’t care. They agree to suspend disbelief. This may be, to some extent, a product of our video-game culture, where stuff just happens “because it can.”
OK. I suppose you could call me stodgy (and you’d be right!) but I enjoy worlds that I can actually believe in. I believed in Middle-earth, for example. When I was twelve, I dreamed of going there. Tolkien is the undisputed master of world-building–he got it right–and as far as I’m concerned, he’ll never be equalled. It’s a rare author who has his skill-set, not to mention the amount of time required.
So, what about us lesser beings? We have skill-sets of our own, and, in my opinion, we should capitalize on them. Every author has experiences, abilities, and special insights he/she can apply in world-building. And we should have at least a basic grasp of the laws of physics and chemistry…we live by them every day. They are part of our “tool kit”, too. After all, we’re building something here, hopefully something our readers will deem worth reading. What tools do we have available?
–The Laws of Physics and Chemistry Your readers live by them–it’s harder for them to relate to a world in which those laws are violated/ignored too often. Even “magic” should be well-established, if not actually explicable.
–Your Own Experiences I can describe ecosystems, habitats, and weather better than those who have lived their lives indoors, because I was a field biologist who spent countless hours in wild places in all weathers. Any part of the story involving horses is likely to be well conceived because I have spent thousands of hours on the back of a horse in all terrain, etc.
–The Lessons of History If your characters are human, and behave as humans behave, modeling your fantasy society on an actual one will help you be consistent. Readers are often better at spotting inconsistencies than writers are. Nothing jars me out of a fantasy world faster than a writer whose world-building contradicts itself.
–Other Works of Fiction There. I said it. Writers are also readers, and we cannot help but be influenced by books that captured our own imaginations. We should not strive to emulate them, as we need to carve out our own place, but we certainly can learn from them. Knowledge rarely comes upon us spontaneously–it is conveyed by those who have gone before. I could probably cite influences from Dickens, Homer, and others, in addition to the obvious influence of Professor T.
OK, so our tool kit is getting there. Now, what do we do with it?
–A World Needs a History! The best world-builders have fleshed out the history of their worlds, though they may not share it all with readers. History is something we draw upon in our own world–it gives us context. If your fantasy characters have no context, they are incomplete. It’s difficult for them to move forward when they have nothing behind them. Some writers simply take a period from our own history (War of the Roses) and convert it into fantasy.
–Cosmologies and Belief Systems These are also helpful to give the characters context and to help them be three-dimensional. They also help the reader identify with them. Stories often turn on spiritual beliefs, just as in our world. These can be some of the most intriguing, yet tricky, aspects of world-building.
–Climate, Geography, and Natural Phenomena Fleshing out these details can be important to help put the reader (and the characters) in the scene. Remember–they should make sense and be consistent. I cheat–my world is earth-like. It’s modeled after parts of North America.
–The Bestiary The world should be populated with critters, and you can decide what they are, where they live, what they do, and what to call them. I have a few opinions on this, as I am a biologist. The critters should be able to exist in the environment you have placed them in. In fact, it’s a big plus if you can explain how each creature evolved within that environment. You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to explain this to your readers, but you should understand it yourself. I pride myself on this in Alterra–yes, we have a dragon, but it’s a dragon adapted specifically for life in a severe environment. I’ve never seen another like it. Real creatures from our own world provide excellent inspiration for believable fantasy creatures.
–Magic Systems I am in no way qualified to comment on these. Alterra is not a very magical world, and any supernatural phenomena are innate, not learned. There are some primordial, powerful beings whose powers are not well understood, and that’s ok–some things should remain mysterious. Your magic system may be simple or it may be complex, but, as with everything else, it must be consistent! And please, please do not use it for convenience. I despise deus ex magica with the heat of a thousand suns.
I have just realized that I could write many, many pages of stuff on world-building, as it is a very complex topic, but I don’t think that’s what anyone had in mind here. So I’ll close with a bit of advice: Make your world believable in any way you can, short of boring us with unnecessary details. The world is important, but is still secondary to the story and the characters who bring that story to life. Challenge your readers and delight their imaginations, sure–but keep it “real.” You want them to not only acquire that permanent visa, but to use it year after year, to pass it to their children and grandchildren. That requires a memorable, consistent, yet fanciful world for your characters to roam–a world where we can watch your story unfold, and feel as though we’ve LIVED it.
Good luck! –CSM