The Skill List Project: World-Building Specifics

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, we began looking at the skills involved with world-building. I offered some general principles, including that the worlds we build should be convincing, interesting, and useful to the story we’re telling. Now let’s get down to specifics: how do we meet those goals?

Chicken, Egg, or Chickegg

Which comes first: the story or the world? This varies from story to story. All stories start from a seed—some notion that sparks our interest—and sometimes the seed is an idea for a world. We might, for example, come up with an interesting magic system, an alien race, or a social structure. We might want to write about the aftermath of some history-changing event or the birth of something new in the human condition. Such ideas dictate some aspect of the world that we’re going to write about; they don’t tell us everything, but they give us a start.

On the other hand, many story-seeds don’t come with worlds attached. We may have some vision of a character, or a relationship between characters; we may want to address some theme like “greed is self-defeating” or “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”; we may just say, “Wouldn’t it be a blast if everyone suddenly got superpowers?” Such seeds don’t immediately imply much about the story’s world. In that case, you have to build a world where the seed can grow in appealing ways.

Either way, a seed is only a starting point. You have to develop your world from its first small inklings into something that can actually support a story.

A Matter of Scale

Worlds operate at multiple scales. There’s the high-level stuff—special characteristics like the presence of magic or FTL, and any other headline attributes that distinguish your world from the here-and-now. Then there’s the low-level stuff: what you might see when you walk into a room. Between these two extremes is a spectrum of scales, some of which may be relevant to your story and others not.

The different scales are interconnected, but there’s room for huge variations. After all, the rules of physics are the same all over Earth, but vast differences exist between cultures and individuals. Your high-level concepts can result in many different lower-level manifestations. Even if you choose to work on a small canvas (e.g. setting your entire novel in a single village or spaceship), your patch of the world will still have a range of possible ways it can look and feel.

You don’t have to think of all the possibilities right away—not when you’re in the planning stage. But you have to start playing with your options. In particular, you have to dig deep into the consequences of any differences between your world and the real one: how they affect people, their societies, the environment, and so on. Most important, you have to look at how these consequences will affect the nature of your story.

Let’s look at developing an example. I’m doing this impromptu, just to show how I’d approach it; this is only to illustrate the interplay between world and story ideas, how I’d kick things around if I actually intended to write something. So suppose aliens land on Earth tomorrow, and suppose they have very good teleportation technology: they can instantly beam anyone or anything anywhere within a range of 100,000 miles. What kind of a world results?

My first question is why the aliens came. If they’ve come for conquest, there’s no question they’ll win. They can sit in high orbit and destroy or steal any object they want. They can teleport the hearts out of people’s bodies until the survivors surrender. Frankly, this scenario doesn’t interest me; alien conquest has been done to death and I wouldn’t want to write such a story unless I came up with a really interesting new wrinkle.

So let’s rule out conquest. I’m also going to rule out other aggressive motives (e.g. the aliens want to dine on human flesh, or to convert humans to their religion). Boring! Let’s say the aliens have come to study Homo sapiens response to novel stimuli. They’re going to do this by giving us their teleport technology, posting full details on a public web site. (Either the aliens get their kicks from giving dangerous tech to “primitive” cultures, or they have some ulterior motive I can figure out later.) To make things interesting, let’s say that teleport devices can be made from easy-to-obtain parts, and can be assembled by anyone with modest technical know-how.

Suddenly, many people have access to unlimited teleportation. Undoubtedly, some folks will start hopping into bank vaults and filling their pockets. A few others will start killing—if you can teleport a victim’s heart out of his or her body, what’s to stop you? Expect the deaths of most politicians and many other people in the public eye. Expect bloody reprisals. Expect chaos. I’m not saying that most people would immediately resort to murder, but some certainly would, and how can they be stopped?

Would that be an interesting story to write? Maybe for some writers, but not for me. So I’ll have to modify my original premise. There have to be limits on the teleportation process: enough to avoid total chaos. What would those limits look like…

You get the idea. I invented a high-level concept. I played with it to the point where I could extrapolate consequences, but I didn’t like the results. Therefore I decided to go back and make changes: an iterative process of trial and error until I reach a set-up that appeals to me.

Notice that this “world” is actually our own, except for the addition of the new technology and the presence of aliens. I followed up on those additions to see what their effects would be. I’d do the same if I were inventing a whole new world…except that the process would be more complicated, because there’d be many more differences from modern-day Earth.

Also notice that I’ve only been talking about high-level differences. What would the low-level differences be? Well, rooms would no longer need doors. In fact, there might be a surge of people building hidden rooms, on the theory that thieves can’t steal your stuff if they don’t know where it is or even that it’s there.

There’d also be lots of armed guards hired by VIPs: if kidnappers can enter any room, the only way to protect yourself is to have bodyguards who’ll neutralize intruders as soon as they appear. Wealthy and important people will never be able to be alone for fear of kidnappers and killers. How will that affect society? Politics? Personal sanity? What’s the psychological fallout of never being alone? And what’s the social fallout of being led by people in that position? Hmm…

Do I Want to Say More?

I’ve barely touched the surface of world-building, but I’m loath to go deeper. There are so many ins and outs that a few short blog posts can’t possibly do the subject justice. As I said in last month’s entry, it’s better for you to learn as much as possible about how the real world works, and to read a lot of SF to see how what other writers have done.

So instead of continuing with world-building, what shall I look at next? How about the skills associated with telling the reader about your world: i.e., exposition. (Oh noes, the E word!) In the meantime, I hope that all you commenters will share your own views on what is and isn’t useful when it comes to world-building.

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  1. 1. Mary

    I usually start with a moment — perhaps as long as an event — which gives me a glimpse of character, plot, and world, but needs serious development from there. But the world-building is as much predicated on the character devolopment and the plotting as on what was implicit in the first moment.

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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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