Worldbuilding, from the ground up

After four years of living eyeball-deep in a historical fantasy series, I am at last returning to my original stomping-ground, which is secondary-world fantasy — stories set in a world that is not our own.

In the case of my new series, I’m aiming for a bit of a hybrid. The world is not our own; unlike, say, Jacqueline Carey, whose Kushiel books take place on familiar geography with unfamiliar history, I’m not building in any point of connection with the real past. But I am borrowing real cultures in modified form, because one of the central points of this series is to play around with the colonial and exploratory aspects of the nineteenth century. The heroine comes from a country that looks a lot like England, and will be going to places that resemble Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the South Pacific islands, and more. Just, y’know, with dragons.

I could do this as alternate historical fantasy, the way Naomi Novik did. But after four years of the Onyx Court, I’d have a hard time letting go of the little voice in my head that points out when things don’t make sense. If I wanted an independently industrialized Japan, that voice would remind me Japan has very little in the way of coal deposits (whereas England has quite a lot). If I wanted pastoral native societies in North America, Archaeologist Brain would kick in and start asking questions about how they avoided the near-total die-off of megafauna (large animals) at the end of the Pleistocene. Nah, better to chuck that and just build a world to my own specifications.

. . . oh yeah, that’s going to be SO much easier.

There’s a climatology textbook sitting downstairs in my living room, waiting for me to read it. I have tabs open in my browser on topics like orogeny (the formation of mountains — a word I didn’t even know until I went on tonight’s Wikipedia research dive). I bought an inflatable globe so I could more easily see how our world fits together, complete with latitude and longitude, and bonus ocean currents. For the love of god, I am teaching myself PLATE TECTONICS.

The problem is, you can’t fling things around and expect them to turn out the same. I’m contemplating putting my world together such that the Europe-analogue would be considered the “Eastern world” and the Asia-analogue the “West,” just to screw with our usual associations with those terms. But I can’t just flip Eurasia around, redo the coastlines, and call it a day. In European latitudes, the prevailing winds blow from the west, which means they come in from over the ocean. This affects climate. Great Britain lies further north than Sakhalin, but Sakhalin is colder, for a whole host of reasons I won’t bore you with. And if I had a mountain range like the Urals partitioning my “Europe” off from my “Asia,” the former would be a heck of a lot drier than it is in our world. Working through this the other night, I found myself wondering if I should flip the freaking rotation of the planet — except that if I have the sun rise in the west and set in the east, then I think I’ve officially Gone Too Far.

The other day my husband sent me a link to this image. I think he meant it as a joke. Me? I want the answer key. Those rectangular mountains in Mordor have bothered me for ages, but if there’s a real explanation for how they could happen . . . (Dammit, Jim, Tolkien was a linguist, not a geologist.)

Of course, not all readers would even know whether my world made sense. If I were writing an adventure-fantasy series like my doppelganger books, I could probably convince myself not to worry about it (too much). Unfortunately, the narrator of this series is a natural historian, traveling around the world for the scientific study of dragons. For that story to work, the biology has to work — and the biology bone is connected to the ecology bone, and the ecology bone is connected to the climate bone, and so on down through geography and all the rest until you find yourself contemplating plate tectonics.

I should have stuck with historical fantasy, man. However much effort it is to look stuff up, making it up is way harder.

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  1. 1. Katya

    Yeah, but making it up is *so* much more fun! Do you ever find yourself asking “Since when does fantasy have so much science?” Good to know I’m not the only one who goes completely overboard with this stuff.

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Please, please update us on this. With respect to a previous survey, (of what I’d like to read here) your endeavor is exciting and could be invaluable information. I would really like to hear what hits and what misses for you in this construct.

  3. 3. Nigel Mitchell

    Honestly, I think you’re overthinking it. There will be some people who sit down and work out the numbers and say, “Ah-ha! She got the planet’s rotation wrong!” But there will never be enough to satisfy them. Most people won’t know or care whether the details add up. As you pointed out, some of the most famous examples of world-building in SF/F have flaws. All the average reader cares about is whether it feels realistic and is internally consistent. If you do too much world-building, you end up spending more time on that than on writing. And of course, you’ll want to show off your work and end up spending chapters explaining your world’s climate instead of what the characters are doing and feeling. World building can be fun, but also a trap

  4. 4. Laura

    And I thought only newbies wrote themselves into corners.

    Good luck with that.

  5. 5. green_knight

    You can get angularity in mountains in two different ways. One is tectonic movement – best in sediments like sandstone and chalk where you can just sheer off a bit and stack them up again. (Get anough fault lines and whole blocks can drop or rise)

    The other option is to go for something like basalt. Basalt forms angular columns (google ‘Giant’s Causeway’). I don’t think you’ll get square on this planet, but what you need is the right mineral, in sufficient amounts. You want very large magma chambers very deep underground, so the whole thing crystallizes in monumental cystals – very, very slowly. (Surface rocks are small-grained). You might have to handwave the mineral in question a bit, but if you have something that will break away in reasonable straight lines, apply the right tectonics, make it rise to the surface and weather its protective layers away, anngular-looking mountain structures aren’t entirely impossible, though you’ll have to be careful not to distort them too much – I see it as a localised phenomenon.

  6. 6. sim

    In a fantasy milieu, I wouldn’t bother. The best examples of the genre make their own rules. Middle Earth, Narnia, Discworld, and so forth. Just as long as everything is consistent.

  7. 7. sim

    In a science fiction work, the numbers and physics are important. Venus is not the Bradburyian jungleworld of constant rain. Humans cannot be bacteria-sized using regular organic molecules ala James Blish. Mercury rotates contrary to Niven’s first short story. Now, when they were written, sure, that was as accurate a supposition as you got in SF. But science marches on and we know a lot more than we did, so SF writers have a higher ladder to climb, as it were. We can’t all be Robert Forward, but we can try to get as much right as we can.

  8. 8. Satima Flavell

    I feel the same way as you, Marie, and feel relieved when I read articles by people who love and respect history and believe it’s important to create secondary worlds that hold water to the last drop. I’ll look forward to the new series!

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    @5 G_K, are you aware of any lunar enfluence on magma flows, as with tidal flows? Is that even possible? Aways wondered about the two moons orbiting Arakis?

  10. 10. Hayley E Lavik

    I second #2, I would love to see more updates on your process as you go through this. In late high school, early college, I entertained a career in geography long enough to get more classes than necessary under my belt. Ever since, I find I spend far more time than necessary on my world-building, fretting over climate and mountains and tectonic movement, and the sort of things I may not simply think to think about, such as your mention of coal deposits in relation to industrialization.

    So if you feel inclined to share any of your research material, there are definitely readers here who would love to hear about it :)

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Oof. Wasn’t able to keep up with comments as they came in, so I think I’ll have to answer these in a couple of batches . . . .

    Katya — it depends on the fantasy, of course. Some things need a lot more underpinning than others; a dreamy fairy-tale retelling, for example, probably doesn’t need much in the way of plausible forest ecology. :-)

    Elias — I may well post more come next month, but in the meantime, my LJ (swan-tower.livejournal.com) will have much more in the way of regular updates.

    Nigel — it’s because of the kind of story this is. Given that my characters will be scientifically investigating their world (for nineteenth-century values of “science”), it behooves me to make sure that science hangs together with vague plausiblity, even — or perhaps especially — for the readers who know something about the topic. (Speaking from experience, there’s an extra little thrill when you know a subject and can tell the author is getting it right.) And it’s also a process thing; I need to know this stuff so I can shape my story appropriately, even if I never tell the reader about 90% of it directly.

  12. 12. Marie Brennan

    green_knight — no, not angularity of the mountains themselves; I mean the rectangular layout of the ranges, where they meet at near-ninety degree angles, E/W intersecting N/S. It’s suspiciously tidy-looking on the maps, and if there’s an in-world explanation for why Mordor is walled off so squarely, I haven’t encountered it. (Tolkien being who he was, it might be buried in one of the posthumous volumes his son edited. Or it might not: this wasn’t his specialty.)

    Sim — ah, but Middle Earth, Narnia, and Discworld are all different types of fantasy from what I’m writing (and different from each other at that). Discworld actively revels in stuff that makes no sense. If I have my characters scientifically studying their world, then either I need to have it conform to the science of our world (with carefully-chosen exceptions), or I need to invent their science along different lines. Having done the latter for the Onyx Court books, I’m not keen to tackle it again so soon . . . .

    Hayley — as mentioned in the previous comment, I tend to witter on about this stuff in my LJ, once I get going on the book. So if you want to know more, feel free to check that out.

  13. 13. Becca Stareyes

    As a planetary scientist*, I have to say, I delight when ‘realistic’ worldbuilders** ply their craft. Because geology and climatology is neat (and I find a lot of inspiration from real-world stuff).

    * I study rings, and occasionally small, icy satellites in the outer solar system. All I know about terrestrial planets is from listening in and a single class on planetary geology that I audited — and plate tectonics didn’t play much of a role, since Mars and Venus both have stagnant-lid tectonics instead.

    ** As opposed to high magic stuff where the explanation might well be Magic or, in the case of Discworld, Laws of Narration.

  14. 14. Alec Austin

    While I think the degree that you’re getting into planetary geology is a bit of an outlier as these things go, I think that the impulse to “get things right” in fantasy as opposed to just hand-waving it is an admirable one, especially in the context of writing a novel that’s about the scientific process.

    I think that there’s actually a strong argument to be made for writing “Hard Fantasy” – not in terms of a slavish adherence to the mathematics or physical laws of our world, necessarily, but in terms of thinking through the implications of physical and metaphysical choices. I think I may have mentioned this before, but the opening of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn drove me straight up the wall, with its skies cloaked in ash clouds and farms that were somehow still producing photosynthesizing crops.

    To put thing another way, many readers may not mind that sort of thing happening via authorial fiat, but what it communicates to me is usually that the author didn’t care enough to examine the implications of their choice. When throwaway details imply stories that would be awesome and interesting to me than the story an author chose to tell, I start to question their competence; and, like you, when I read someone’s work and seeing them get it right, my elation knows no bounds.

  15. 15. Marie Brennan

    Becca — Nifty! I’d never even heard the term “stagnant-lid tectonics” before. Now I’m wondering if there’s any reason one can’t pair that with a habitable world; presuming it means what I think it does (that the surface has ceased moving and locked down), is that incompatible in any way with life?

    Alec — oh, I freely admit I’m going too far. The tone of the post should be read as “auuuuuugh somebody save me from myself,” not “clearly this is sane and rational!” As for hard fantasy, my thoughts on that are here. I usually think of it more in terms of the social sciences, but it can, when desirable, apply to the natural ones as well.

  16. 16. Andrew Griffiths

    Personally I love world-building: laying out continents and currents, mapping biomes, and then developing the cultures that live there. It’s a lot of information to take in but there is a saving grace: since everything is connected sometimes you can fudge a section if you’re confident enough with the connected elements.

    It’s always a thrill to see writings talking about these things, you’ve just hooked yourself another reader. :)

    (Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle Earth took a stab at explaining some of Mordor’s odder features. I can’t remember her suggested explanations off the top of my head but I thought I’d mention it.)

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Andrew — Oh, it’s definitely fun. But it’s also a bottomless pit, if you don’t catch yourself during the fall!

  18. 18. Phiala

    I’m a bit behind on reading things, but I thought you might be interested in the series of worldbuilding articles I wrote for Science in My Fiction.

    I’m not going to link them individually because I don’t want to be flagged as spam, but there’s plate tectonics, global climate patterns, species names, biomes, and a couple more specific “weird” systems such as caves and deep oceans. All are written for SFF authors/readers interested in knowing more about the ecology of worldbuilding.

    I’m a professional ecologist and writer, and think this stuff is neat. :)

    The next one, the first week of June, will be on island biogeography and how to make places feel different.

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Phiala — terribly belated, but thank you so much! I’ve bookmarked that for extensive reading. :-)

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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