World building

Posted: August 21, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

Adrian Tchaikovsky recently wrote an interesting piece about world building for Fantasy Book Critic, in which he challenged a sort of snobbery that exists against the art of world building. It’s a good piece, and got me thinking about what world building involves, and how we can perhaps look at it in a more sophisticated way.

When we talk about world building in science fiction and fantasy, we’re usually talking about the work the author does in creating the setting for their book. Whether it’s extrapolating technology, detailing magic systems, or scrawling a map across your office wall, it’s creating the background to the story. It’s fun and creative and immensely satisfying, and if you’re not careful it can eat up all your writing time. It’s the author let their imagination run wild.

But is this really just a genre thing? When F Scott Fitzgerald invented West Egg, filling it with wild parties and houses such as Gatsby’s, wasn’t that an act of world building? When Hardy dreamed of Wessex, fictionalising its towns and countryside, wasn’t he building his own world? Casterbridge might be based on Dorchester, but for all the blue plaques on the walls of Dorchester, there is no real Casterbridge.

Seriously, Dorchester, he didn't live there. Because he wasn't real. (photo courtesy of Elliot Brown via Flickr creative commons attribution licence)

Seriously, Dorchester, he didn’t live there. Because he wasn’t real.
(photo courtesy of Elliot Brown via Flickr creative commons attribution licence)

When looked at that way, fantasy world building is an extension of something all writers do, and the disdain in which some people hold it seems even more absurd. Sure, getting caught up in it at the expense of actually writing is a problem, but if it’s a problem you’re having fun with then is that all bad?

But here’s what I really wanted to get at. Whether you’re writing The Great Gtasby or Empire in Black and Gold, world building is actually two separate activities. There’s building the world in the author’s head (and notebooks, and wikis, and office walls). But after that comes building it in the reader’s head, getting that world across.

While the first stage of world building is an act of imagination, the second is an act of craft, using writerly skills to portray the world so well that the reader can reconstruct it from your words. In a sense, the reader is the world builder here, but the writer is the one giving them the materials to build it from. That’s an incredibly challenging thing to do, the more so if the world is very different from our own. It involves a different set of skills from what we usually talk about when we say world building, but it’s just as vital to the process. And if this part doesn’t work, then all that building in the author’s mind will just go to waste.

Better understanding world building leaves us better equipped to defend it as a part of writing, and to do it well ourselves. If we accept the critical depiction of it as something only fantasy authors do, and something that’s separate from the actual writing, then we’re already conceding half the argument, and limiting our own understanding. Like most things, the better we understand it, the better off we are.

What do you think? Do you enjoy world building, as an author, as a reader, as a way to pass the time? What examples of world building do you particularly like? Leave a comment, let the world know.

  1. Jon Taylor says:

    I know that I, for one, find it impossible to finish a story if it doesn’t inspire me to build (rebuild?) the world of the story. Its my primary motivation for reading fiction… Probably a lot of non-fiction too, now that I come to think about. My problem is that I will occasionally invest so much ‘secondary belief’ (a term I’ve borrowed from Professor Tolkien) into a world, and all other fiction, and to some extent, the real world seems drained of colour and life as a result.

    Tolkien did a lot of thinking and writing about this idea (obviously!), but its the terms he used that I find ineteresting: “Subcreation” for the process of all human creativity, which was tied up with his devout Catholicism and his belief that only God could truly ‘Create’. “Secondary Belief” in place of suspension of disbelief, because it wasn’t enough for him to get your readers to just momentarily put aside their disbelief. He wrote the poem Mythopoeia ‘myth making’ to certain person who didn’t originally share his views on the matter…

    • I didn’t realise Tolkien had put so much thought into how we world build, but having a vocabulary for it, a way of thinking about it, is very useful. Do you know where I can find more on that aspect of his work?

  2. World building is a lot of fun. I’ve worked on one setting for decades, planning to use it for many stories, but at times it can indeed get in the way of writing. Still, I find the backdrop to add immense value to the world and storytelling.

    One trick is to avoid being tempted to say a ton of stuff about it to the reader just because you made all of that up. It takes discipline to only say what is needed and no more.

    • You’re absolutely right about that need for discipline. For me, there are few things worse than an extended chunk of background that’s just there because the writer wants to show that background. Whereas if it’s shown subtly, explained obliquely, and flavours the whole story, then it adds to the richness of the book.

  3. […] World building ( […]

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