In the seaside town where I work, every first Wednesday of the month, a cow’s irritable mooing erupts from the public-address system. Visitors get startled when her bellowing penetrates restaurants, shops, and hotel rooms. She’s disembodied and omnipresent, a bovine deity calling down wrath upon those who dare approach the ocean. For, as tourists discover when a soporific human voice takes over from the cow, we’re hearing the local tsunami warning system conducting its monthly test.
I’m not sure why local officials chose a cow to represent tsunami preparedness, but here’s my theory: could “cows” be an acronym for Coast Offshore Warning System? Or is Broadcast Bossy the mascot for offbeat local flavor, not just disaster response systems?
Image courtesy of fanpop.com
Worldbuilding, the act by which a writer creates an imaginary world and brings it to life on the page (and the signature move that sets speculative fiction apart from its realist cousins), can overwhelm the timid with its vast size and ponderous responsibilities. A whole planet? Gosh, that’s big! The idea can humble us, even scare us away from writing (or at least writing speculative fiction). On the other hand, the gargantuan task might attract us. Creating a world ex nihilo (or from shadows shuffling around in the subconscious): it’s the most conspicuously godlike of writerly activities.
Worldbuilding is not all endless space, humongous populations, and epic time-spans, though. To draw readers into an imagined world, you need the small, particular, and peculiar. Every world contains both. The tremendous (Haystack Rock! Ecola Point! The Pacific Ocean stretched out before us in her immensity!) and the small (the cow lowing on the loudspeaker!) combine to produce the identifiable real-world town where I work. Fictional worlds need both the grand vista and the tiny but telling detail to come alive for readers.
Spruce Burl Trail, Olympic National Park
While attending Norwescon in SeaTac, WA this past weekend, I listened to Greg Bear, Nancy Kress, Patrick Swenson, and Brenda Cooper presenting a worldbuilding how-to session. Pacific Ocean views and bovine emergency broadcast system tests didn’t make an appearance, but the principles behind them did.
The presenters divided their remarks into three segments.
Part 1: The Basics
Some speakers identified as planners (those who plan their story in some fashion before writing, for example, through outlining) and others as pantsers (those who let the storyline evolve as they write). These positions dictated the degree to which each one advised attendees to start building the world before writing the story. Nancy identified three areas where new world-builders should focus their attentions: physical terrain, big societal questions, and details. Map-making is crucial to defining the physical terrain. (If you’re not a cartographer, or even a visual person, I find the Cartographers’ Guild’s website helpful, and so might you: http://www.cartographersguild.com). This also means asking yourself questions about how gravity, light levels, climate, and flora and fauna may differ from the reader’s experiences with them on Earth. Big societal questions include economics (where resources come from and who controls them), technology level, and governmental structure (who holds the power). Details include clothing, entertainment, genders and gender roles, communication…all the fine-grained layers that vivify your world and generate plotlines.
Patrick encouraged us to remember that we’re writing fiction, not history, science, or a travelogue, so readers should receive their information and impressions about a world through a point-of-view character or characters. What would this character notice? What’s important to him/her/them? What does the character do and how does this influence the things, and the way, he/she/they perceive the world? Greg continued in this vein, recommending that we choose our characters carefully because what they experience is what you’ll show the reader. Also, by filtering the world through a character’s impressions, the writer introduces the world bit by bit, in an engaging way, and avoids the Dreaded Info Dump.
And that leads us to…
Part 2: Common Mistakes
Image courtesy of geekswithoutgod.com
Greg gave a rueful chuckle and started off with info-dumping. The narratorly kind is unsubtle: the writer just comes out and gives the reader the operating instructions for his/her/their fictional world. “As you know, Bob…” is a sneakier way to do the same thing: one character conveys in conversation (well, more like monologue) what the reader needs to know. The problem is that the characters already know it, so they don’t need to talk about it, and the reader spots the artificiality right away…and puts down the book.
World-building occurs in every fictional work, but it’s central to science fiction and fantasy, where the world you’re visiting will be either our own but transformed (accelerated into the future, deformed in a dystopia) or a world you’re meeting for the first time. Because the reader needs to know how this new (or altered) world works, it’s so easy for the writer to fall into the trap of imparting tons information all at once, right at the beginning. Greg winced as he described writers dumping the info in Chapter 1 and then starting the actual story in Chapter 2. The reader isn’t going to stick around for the second chapter. He reminded us that every time you create a character, you’re building a different world, and the characters make the story. “Building a world is easy,” he noted, “but creating people is hard.”
For Nancy, the standout world-building mistake is neglecting to work out and convey to your reader how the magical systems or technology work in your world. The lazy fantasy writer produces half-baked magical systems that lack consistency and limitations. (Is there nothing this wizard cannot do? What happens to the wizard when doing magic—any consequences?) The science-fiction equivalent would be implausible, poorly thought-out technologies. (How did the protagonist get from her homeworld to Planet X: a spaceship equipped with faster-than-light drive, a wormhole, or flying on the back of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon?)
Brenda identified a different type of authorial laziness: creating fictional cultures that aren’t sufficiently complex. Societies aren’t homogeneous—to be realistic, a world needs different ages, ethnicities, professions, etc. Background details that make their appearance from time to time can hint at this complexity. She also stressed how characters need mundane activities to do, even if the writer doesn’t spend too much time describing them (to avoid boring the reader). Heroes don’t spend one hundred percent of their time saving sentience—everyone has laundry and dishes to do, even if you limit your coverage to one sentence.
After taking listeners’ questions, the panelists wrapped up with…
Part 3: One Final Pointer
Image courtesy of hlfbriskeby.no
Greg: “Trust yourself. If you have an interesting passion, put it down on paper. Pick the right readers to critique it. If you write what you love, it’ll be interesting.”
Patrick: “Know and trust your details and get them across to the reader. Remember that people may be a lot different in your world than they are from people here and now.”
Nancy: “Remember that you know your world, but the reader doesn’t. Make sure you convey enough detail so they’ll learn what you know.”
Brenda: “Get readers to feel your world: if it’s cold, make them feel cold.” She might’ve added, had she ever visited Cannon Beach: if it has cows, make them hear the mooing, feel the amplified sound vibrating through their bodies, coaxing them to moooooove to higher ground.