The Skill List Project: World-Building Preliminaries

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said we’d look at that favorite topic of SF books and con panels: world-building. How do you create a useful, convincing, interesting world in which a science fiction or fantasy story can take place?

Obligatory Preliminaries

World-building means imagining a world that’s different from our own. Your world may have much in common with the real one—many SF stories are set in the present-day or very near future, where almost everything looks the same as the world we know. But something must be different or else the story isn’t SF…and world-building requires you to show readers what the difference is and then to explore the consequences.

This is a huge topic to deal with, and I can barely scratch the surface in a blog post or two…but let me start with a number of things that must be said.

  1. In order to build a fictional world, you have to know a lot about the real one. This means becoming familiar with real-life science, history, economics, the arts, different cultures, different landscapes, different ways of making a living, different methods of survival, different folklores, and on and on and on. At some point, you may have to do in-depth research on specific subjects, but before you can even get to that point, you need a wide breadth of general knowledge. It is painfully obvious when a writer doesn’t know enough about the world. Don’t be that person.
  2. You also need to have read a ton of science fiction and/or fantasy. By seeing how other people have built cool worlds, you can develop a feel for the possibilities. Consciously study how other writers have succeeded; when you read a book with a memorable world, examine what the writer did. Make a list of details that made the world come alive, or scenes that presented the world in vivid ways.

    Take the time. Write things down. If you were training for some other (non-writing) profession, you’d read textbooks and make notes. If you’re training to be a writer, stories and novels are your textbooks, and you have to read them analytically. (Notice, however, that I’ve put familiarity with SF after familiarity with the world. It’s painfully obvious writers know nothing except what they’ve picked up from Heinlein or Tolkien.)
  3. Absorb what other writers say about world-building. Pick some writers you like and follow their blogs or Twitter feeds. Go to SF conventions and listen to what writers say on panels. Read how-to books and essays (but not too many—it’s easy for would-be writers to get lost down the rabbit-hole of preparing to write, without ever actually putting words on paper).

All these things have to be said before I can give my own take on world-building…and I’m tempted just to leave the topic there. Anything I say in the rest of this post won’t help you as much as the three points above. But I suppose there are a few other things I ought to say on this subject.

Useful, Convincing, Interesting

At the beginning of this post, I asked, “How do you create a useful, convincing, interesting world in which a science fiction or fantasy story can take place?” Those three adjectives are all crucial to world-building. Let’s look at each in turn.

Useful: Never forget this point: you’re writing a story, not an atlas. If the story doesn’t work, your world doesn’t matter. Your world has to serve the story, not the other way around.

Of course, when you’re first developing the story, there’s often a give-and-take. You have some ideas for a possible story; you have some ideas for a possible world; you toss them together and see where they lead. During the development process, the world may even come first: you have a mental image of how a world might be, and you come up with a story that arises from that image.

But however the process starts, it has to end with producing a story. In case of an irreconcilable conflict, the world is expendable; the story isn’t. You may have to change any or all details of your world if they stand in the way of getting your story to work. Your world has to be useful to the story.

Convincing: The world has to be “believable”. Many times during this series of postings, I’ve stressed that believability is a fluid concept which depends on the nature of your story. Readers will allow more slack to comedies, exuberant space operas, pulp adventures, etc., and of course, all fantasy, in some sense, defies “reality”. Even so, your world has to hang together—you can’t afford to have readers calling bullshit on you.

Think things through. Avoid inconsistencies. Foresee the side-effects of things like magic or new technology. Not only will these principles keep you out of trouble, your stories will be richer if you delve deeply into the background and consequences of your world’s uniqueness.

To pick a simple example: on your world, what do people eat? How do they obtain that food? Whose responsibility is it? What is the place of food suppliers in the social structure? What happens to the garbage? And the sewage?

In some worlds, these questions are trivial to answer: if, for example, you’re writing about the near future of our own world, you might decide that things are basically the same as today. But if you’re writing about the pre-industrial past or an alien planet, the answers to such questions may affect everything you write. For example, how many desert worlds have we seen where there are lots of inhabitants but no way to grow crops? How does that work? Good SF writers find ways to solve that problem; bad ones may not even realize the problem exists.

Interesting: “Useful” and “convincing” are essential; “interesting” may not be so important, but it’s still a big plus. If you’re going to invent a new world, what’s the point of letting it be boring? Give the reader some eye-candy (or ear-candy, or brain-candy). Show us something we haven’t seen a thousand times before.

There’s a danger in trying too hard—new writers sometimes go overboard with weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But there’s even more danger in not trying at all—giving us lifeless imitations of other writers’ worlds. A writer should bring something fresh to the table: some non-formulaic addition to the SF conversation. Only a few writers have the gift for truly original world-building ideas, but every writer can develop the skill to build worlds that aren’t the same-old same-old.

On That Note…

On that note, I’ll draw this post to a close, but it looks as if I’ll have to say more on this subject—specifically, how do you go about building SF worlds? I’ll try to float some answers next month…but in the meantime, I hope that other skilled writers will make my life easy by filling up the comments with their own insightful tips. Please?

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There are 3 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Wolf Lahti

    I see so many books where the characters exist in a vacuum, and all their needs (weapons, food, and other supplies) come from some unmentioned magical place.

    My latest WIP is set on an alien world where the sentient race is exclusively nomadic – there are no cities or even villages, really. But in the opening scene, swords play an important part, and I realized I needed some kind of metallurgic industry for these to exist. Copper can be found on the surface (or at least without a lot of digging) in many parts of the world, but that makes a pretty poor blade. Manufacturing steel is a heck of a lot more complicated. At the very least, I needed charcoal burners, a profession that does not lend itself to a wandering lifestyle.

    That’s one small example of how just a little thought can lead to the need to fit in puzzle pieces you didn’t at first even know you had.

  2. 2. Mary

    I particularly recommend reading primary sources. There is no substitute for reading people who think very differently from you.

  3. 3. Scott Seldon

    I almost made the mistake in my stories of giving my characters replicators to get food from while making them traders. What are they trading if they have the technology to make anything they want? Well, if the replicators are limited and don’t produce good food or products, but are useful for a lot of situations, then there is still something worth trading. The replicator becomes nutritious and editable rations, emergency parts, etc, where the traded items are complex medications, electronics, intricately manufactured parts, and grown food supplies.

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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