Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Like A Party In Your Brain: World-Building

Today the scary ogre of a topic that is on my mind is world-building.

For those of you who don't know the lingo, world-building is essentially creating an authentic and convincing environment for your characters. If you're a writer, you have to build a world no matter what you're writing, even if it's set in modern-day wherevertown. You have to decide where your story takes place and what that setting is like and what impact it has on your characters. But for obvious reasons, world-building gets a lot more complicated when you don't set your book in modern day wherevertown, which is why I think a lot of contemporary writers hesitate to try speculative fiction (IE: dystopian, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.), and why a lot of speculative writers spend time bashing their heads against solid objects at one point or another.

I'm going to say something that will make you want to flick me in the eye, probably: even though I've been writing speculative fiction since I was an angsty pre-teen with bracelets made of safety pins, I've never thought about this before. I never evaluated whether I was good at world-building or not, or how to go about it, I just did the best I could and with DIVERGENT it seemed to turn out just fine, although there was (and still is) room for improvement.

So this is my attempt to figure out how it works, or at least, how it worked for me.

It starts...with a concept. A notion. A thought. Whatever it is about your attempted world that made you want to set your story there, or that inspired your story, and so on. For the purposes of this example: what if there was a world populated entirely by marshmallow people?

What are the implications of that concept/notion/thought? How does that concept affect the rest of the world? For example: the marshmallow people would probably live in fear of rain, because it would melt them into little piles of marshmallow goo. Likewise, they wouldn't take showers and they wouldn't drink water or go swimming.

Wait-- if they don't drink water, what exactly do they live on? What fuels a marshmallow person's survival? Clearly the answer is sugar. So the marshmallow people eat sugar, but how do they grow it? Do they have miles and miles of sugarcane fields? If so, the marshmallow-people farmers must be the daredevils of the marshmallow people world, because they constantly run the risk of getting caught in the rain, and in fact, derive their well-being from the consistency of rainfall.

In fact, those living within marshmallow people cities probably envelop themselves in as much rain protection as possible, possibly a large plastic dome, but the marshmallow farmers have to live outside the dome, and...

Okay, I'm going to stop, because that's probably getting annoying.

My point is this: whatever idea you have, there is a problem inherent in it that needs to be addressed and extrapolated from in order to create your world. Or, if your idea is itself a problem, you have a different set of questions to ask yourself. That's kind of how it works for me, with dystopian worlds. What's "the dystopian problem"? (IE: people forced to enter televised death match, people constantly monitored by Big Brother, people who aren't allowed to experience human emotion, et cetera) From what kind of people/society did that problem arise? What was the inciting incident that led to the formation of a dystopian society? And so on.

When you write yourself into a corner, and you probably will, let the world you've already created tell you how to write yourself back out of it again. As you build the world, you start to make rules for yourself, and those rules will dictate how the rest of the world is built. One of my professors used to say that you should let the story tell you how it should progress.

My advice is essentially: think about it. A lot. Think about things that never come into play in the plot of your book. Think about currency, morality, religion, food, holidays, government, units of measurement, customs, rituals, values, expectations, funerals, weddings, fashion, architecture, leisure activities. But most of all, whatever details you come up with, think about how they affect the world you've built. Or you can approach it in reverse-- think about the world you've come up with. There are hundreds of factors that contributed to creating that particular place in its particular situation. What are they?

I mean, if you're writing it, you probably enjoy thinking about it anyway. So this is fun. Yes, that's right. World-building = fun. Like a party in your brain.

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