Worldbuilding: Why It Ain’t So Easy

21 Nov

So, I appeared at an event at the San Marcos Library on Sunday where I’d been asked to give a talk about research. During the question and answer section, someone asked me why I would go to all the trouble of setting a fantasy in the real world? “Why do that when you can just make stuff up? That’s easier, after all. It’s a short cut!” 

Yeah. Um. Not so much. First, writing isn’t easy, nor is making up stuff. Worldbuilding is hard work — very difficult, detailed work. If you’re not thinking about the worldbuilding aspects of your story that much, then what you’re doing is probably derivative, and that’s not good. It’s far easier to work with environments with which the reader is already familiar than it is to make up a foreign world and make it plausible. There are certain cues that keep readers anchored in the imaginary, and it’s important to know what those are. There are thousands of details in everyday life, with years and years of history behind each little thing that people take for granted. Let me give you an example:

Okay. If you think that creating thousands of new words, including grammar construction for a fictional language, is a short cut, I hate to see what you’d call the long road. Oh, sure. You don’t have to do that. I know I’m not for the current work in progress. The main reason I’m not is because I’m dyslexic, and I’m very, very much not a linguist. However, language is an important part of a world setting. If you don’t have something in place giving the impression of a unique language, your imaginary world is less likely to feel foreign. There are ways of getting around that, of course. Some people string together a few syllables and call it done. That’s a valid solution. However, it does have it’s pitfalls. (You could accidently come up with a real foreign word that is rather rude, for one.) Now, I chose to borrow words from (for example) Latin and Finnish[1] and warping them a little bit. It’s cheating, but it helps me, and SF/F has a long history of doing such things. Still, I have to be careful about what I borrow and how I borrow it. See how complex this is? And language is just one detail.

The One Ring in Black Speech

There are many other aspects of worldbuilding that are every bit as important to making an imaginary world feel realistic:  economics, politics, government, geology, technology, ecology, biology, history, climate, culture, literature, energy, medicine, architecture, entertainment, fashion, music, art, food, religion, transportation, national exports and imports… not all those subjects are going to be of interest to the writer, and not all are going to feature as a mainstay of the plot, but they will affect the story in subtle ways, and they are interconnected. People living in sub-zero temperatures aren’t going to wear thin silk loin cloths. If they wear fur, then where are the animals from which the fur is derived? If it’s winter all the time, what do they eat? Is it logical for a river to run through a desert area? People living in a medieval monarchy aren’t going to have the same rights we take for granted — even those who live in a modern constitutional monarchy. Yes, the likelihood of a reader knowing the science behind all these details is pretty low, but if you make too many of those mistakes it will become noticeable on a subconcious level. This will eventually kick the reader out of your story.

To make this simpler, let’s compare the story’s world-setting to a house. Every house has rooms. Those rooms can feel homey and comfortable — lived in. They can also be made to feel empty and soulless.[2] In addition, each room serves a different function. For example, a house without a bathroom isn’t functional. Even if the bathroom doesn’t serve an important role in the story, if it’s missing, your reader will notice. Worldbuilding very much follows the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. If you visited a friend who claimed to be an artist, you’d think it very strange if there was no art on the walls and no evidence of an art studio, art supplies, or art in progress. Here’s a visual comparison of two classic SF scenes. One is from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the other is from Bladerunner.

2001eehellsq6       PDVD_048

Both are office settings, but which one feels more real, more comfortable? See that lampshade in the background? The one behind the policeman’s head? It’s comprised of black and white images from an actual buffalo hunt. They’re filled with dead, skinned carcasses. The characters have been calling replicants “skin jobs” since the start of the story. That lamp was chosen specifically by the production designer because of what it says about the scene, and thus, the story. You only see that lampshade for a few seconds. There isn’t even a close up of it. And yet it adds so much depth to the setting without once being referenced by any of the characters. It creates a sense of place and history. It makes the office feel lived in. It makes a commentary about what is happening. (Decker is being assigned to a hunt.) Mind you, not all worlds need to be as cluttered. You can do every bit as much with a few powerful strokes of the word-brush. The spare, anticeptic office setting in 2001 serves a purpose every bit as important as the crowded one in Bladerunner does. The point is, each was done for a reason, and that reason is to serve the story. It isn’t laziness.


[1] Finnish is the language upon which JRR Tolkien patterned Elvish, after all.

[2] Those are the writer’s choices, by the way. There are perfectly sound reasons to leave a world blank, but blank makes us feel uncomfortable, uneasy. Ray Bradbury uses this to good effect in Fahrenheit 451.


7 Responses to “Worldbuilding: Why It Ain’t So Easy”

  1. sftheory1 November 22, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Interesting post and argument. I agree that world building, either on Earth or a constructed world, is more difficult and complicated than non writers imagine. But there is also a danger of doing so much research in so much depth that the world bogs down or even swallows the plot. A writer also needs to determine when a balance has been achieved.
    Another interesting conundrum lies in how “real” or “mythic” the constructed world is intended to be and how that affects world building.

    • stinaleicht November 22, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      oh, absolutely. i agree! i’ve seen quite a few beginners get bogged down in the details of their world and lose their plot in the process. but that’s why i chose the bladerunner example. the images of the buffalo hunt are there, but they aren’t referenced by any of the characters because they see them every day. there’s no reason comment. they’re just there. in the background. and that’s how a lot of worldbuilding works. the ‘show don’t tell’ rule is a very good one for worldbuilding. however, as you say, there’s a balance to it.

      • Nate November 22, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

        You’re right balance is key. I hear a lot of people commenting about how you shouldn’t do too much Worldbuilding as it ‘bogs down’ and takes over your story.

        What they fail to realise is that this is not down to the amount of Worldbuilding a particualr author has done but rather the amount of Worldbuilding they are trying to cram into that particular story. Character and narrative should be king when it comes to telling a story; setting adds flavour.

        The world, and so the worldbuilding, should be there to serve the story that is being told.

        It’s not about how much someone has or hasn’t done. It’s about the author knowing how much should be told and how much is simply bad writing disguised as ‘worldbuilding’.

        All the best,
        The Worldbuilding School

        P.S. The TED talk on Conlangs is brilliant! I found it the other week and was really impressed by the animations. Also its quite easy to listen to and understand 🙂


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