Worldbuilding

14 Mar
Photoshop’d two internet photos of Dubai, for fun.

This is the first in what will be a series of blog entries on the topic of worldbuildingTo view the others, just use the “Key Words” pull-down menu on the lower end of the right sidebar, scroll down and click on “worldbuilding.” 🙂

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You know, I have this horrible habit of typing W-O-L-R-D at the start of “worldbuilding.”  It’s annoying.  Does that ever happen to you?

What is worrrrldbuilding, exactly?

I’ll give you a brief definition of what I think it is: Worldbuilding is simply the process of constructing (creating) and establishing the necessary background information for a story’s world.  And what kind of background information is deemed necessary, you might ask?  Well, that would depend on what you are writing.

For me, I am working a story in a world that does not exist, so I did some extensive legwork on building that world before diving into it because I needed to figure out what the reality of this new world was like before trying to present it to a reader.  (This is probably one of the few smart things I did before jumping headfirst into my first novel, heh.)  I had to develop a thorough understanding of what made it different from our reality then figure out how to render this through storytelling.  Even after exploring the same world for years, I still feel like there’s more left to discover–which is part of the reason why I want to write more than one book that takes place in it.

If I was writing historical fiction, though, I imagine my worldbuilding process might involve a lot more research on real-world locations and details and less pulling semi-original invented ideas out of my brain and making them happen.  I think there’d be less creativity going on with the worldbuilding and more trying to get the facts straight.  If I were writing fiction set in an alternate history, my worldbuilding process would probably float somewhere in the middle of these two methods.

In any case, research would still play a role, however large or small.

Worldbuilding As an Organic Process

Like achieving focus in one’s story, I believe worldbuilding can take place in both the planning and implementation stages of writing a novel.  During the planning stage its all about the development of ideas; during the implementation, or writing stage it’s about establishing, within the story itself, whichever details the writer feels are needed in order to best tell that story.

You can plan ’til your heart’s content, but there are some things you just can’t plan for.  They just come to you suddenly like a voice from heaven, imparting you with epiphanic artistic insight, and sometimes more like a freight train out of hell (or out of a certain dream sequence from Inception), derailing everything you thought you knew about a setting, demanding that you alter some minor (or major, yikes!) world detail to better fit the developing story.  And not all the stuff you meticulously plan out is going to make it into the novel anyway.   Still, it’s good to know your story’s environment and history before trying to render it and have your characters interact with it.

That’s how I understand it.

So that was all the boring, establish-the-platform stuff.

Now, on to all the fun stuff.  (Note: I’m going to be writing this series in a way that a first-time writer might be able to follow, though I’m aware the majority of my readers have already gone through this process at least once.  Hopefully everyone can get something out of it, though.)

Where To Begin?

Wherever you want to, really.  I started off just journaling about locations I had in mind.  I also collected images and played around with Photoshop for a while (this was when I was first learning to use it) to come up with setting concepts, so that can help sometimes.  I haven’t been able to visit all the locations I developed for my first novel, but I at least know they exist.  My characters sometimes make references to places I plan to take them to later on.

At one point I discovered an amazing author named Holly Lisle.  I have just gobbled up all the stuff she puts out there for writers.  I’ve actually only read one of her novels *guilt, guilt*The Ruby Key (which was great fun, btw, and the cover art is just gorgeous; had it as a desktop wallpaper for a while), but that’s beside the point.  The point is she gives some really helpful advice and offers some great tools that writers can use to help them develop their stories.

Check out her $10 clinics on building cultures and languages, easily downloadable as PDF files.  (She also offers some bundles, which can save you money if you decide to buy more than two or three.)  I’ve found these to be very useful, actually.  I printed them out and keep them in binders on some nearby shelves for easy reference.

Don’t wanna spend any money?  Well, there’s plenty of free stuff out there on the internet that covers worldbuilding.  Trust me.

There are a few aspects of worldbuilding I’ve enjoyed more than others–those being languages, institutions and organizations, magic systems (I don’t actually use the word “magic” at all in my fantasy novel, just “elementalism”) and locales/settings, so I plan on talking about the processes I’ve used to develop some of those areas.  Maybe you’ve used/will use similar processes.  Maybe yours are radically different!

How would you define worldbuilding?

You can find a lot of definitions of worldbuilding on the internet, but I’m more interested in what the term means to you, fellow writers.  Maybe you’d disagree with how I’ve defined worldbuilding.  Maybe it’s too simplified or general.  Perhaps there is even more to it.

So, what are your thoughts about worldbuilding?  What is it?  What is it not?  Is worldbuilding something that every fiction writer should consider doing before writing a novel?

And also, how much detail is too much detail?  How much is not enough?

(Feel free to pick and choose what you want to answer, as always.  I’m just throwing stuff out there.)
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One Response to “Worldbuilding”

  1. Anthony Lee Collins June 2, 2011 at 11:31 AM #

    Interesting question for me, since I spent one (long) novel creating a world, and now I’m writing mystery stories set in that world.

    I don’t want to make people read the (long) novel in order to enjoy the mystery stories, so I have to put in enough background as I go along so that it makes sense. But I also have to be careful not to throw in too many background details, since the focus has to be on the mystery, after all.

    I’m also excluding some of the more fantasy-type elements from the stories (mysteries have to be fairly realistic, or the reader doesn’t know what’s possible and what isn’t). They’re still there, but mostly off-stage as it were.

    For example, my detective character just had a conversation with the girl who’s in charge of this world, and I didn’t mention that the girl has an unusual physical appearance and superhuman strength. It’s not relevant to the mystery or to the conversation, so I left it out. 🙂

    Like

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