Two touchstones for worldbuilding

Another WIP Wednesday, and today I’m going to talk about one aspect of the fantasy genre you just can’t escape from: Worldbuilding. This is perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of writing and reading fantasy for me. I just love the opportunity to explore amazing worlds, and when an author gets it right, it’s a transcending experience.

But it is hard work to do well, and the story suffers when you try to cut corners. I speak from recent experience, because I’ve just come out of the worldbuilding arena, after being forced in there by some vague and sketchy ideas masquerading as a rather important plot element!

As a result, I’ve come up with the following two touchstones for worldbuilding:

1. No room to be lazy!

To effectively write in a fantasy world, your worldbuilding needs to be rigorous — but not necessarily in every aspect of the world. Readers will fill in the gaps for common concepts. The main aspects you need to concentrate on are those which define your world and make it unique.ย  If these are elements which drive the story, then even more thorough development is required.

This is what stymied me recently. My story is heavily dependent on the politicising of certain cultural beliefs in a made-up land, and I realised I didn’t understand these people well enough myself. I knew the hand-wavy basics, but I hadn’t quite figured out where their deep-seated beliefs had come from. I was being lazy and trying to plough on with the first draft on the assumption that ‘it just was’ and I’d figure out why later. Nope. It all came out as rubbish, because how can you know how characters will act without understanding their faith?

2. Peel back the layers of history

What I’ve found is that when it comes to plotting in the absence of adequate worldbuilding, a cascading series of questions leads you to delve back and back and back to find the route cause of what you need to know.

Example: I’m having plot problems and I write down the question: “How did they pull-off D?”

In order to answer this, I need to know the answer to: “How does one become F?” And in order to answer that, I need to look even deeper into the cultural intricacies I’m trying to ignore.

Thus it was back to worldbuilding for me. For this type of thing, I usually start far back in the annals of history and look at how a culture develops over time. There are impacts of other cultures, advances in ‘technology’ (for want of a better word — we’re talking a pre-industrial society), the injection of an occasional leader who catalyses significant change, wars, trade . . . and this helps me to understand the what, how and most importantly the why.

Of course we all know the iceberg rule when it comes to worldbuilding — only 10% is ever revealed in the story — but I truly believe it makes for a more richly woven tale. Moreover, there many aspects of worldbuilding I’ve not mentioned here. These two touchstones are merely those which have struck me this week.

So now over to you! If you’re into fantasy or any kind of speculative fiction — what are your thoughts on worldbuilding? Any special tips or processes you’d like to share?

And if you’re not into SF — How do you think worldbuilding differs in non-SF genre fiction?

13 comments

  1. I’ve been taking my novel through a downloadable course that meticulously lays out a specific and rigorous process for doing a revision. Coincidentally enough, I’m just getting started on the lesson where I’m supposed to thoroughly assess my novel’s worldbuilding.

    I can tell it’s going to be a big job. I’m to assess everything from how the different sets are dressed to what customs the people follow to how my world’s metaphysics function. I’ve had some rough ideas for how most of the key metaphysics work, but now is the time to really think them through.

    It’s cool, but challenging. It’s fantasy, so I get to invent most everything, but I still need a distinctive Eastern flavor. It requires lots of Googling for information.

    Anyway, this was a timely blog post for me ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Metaphysics is certainly a challenge – I presume for the magic system? I have a metaphysical explanation for mine. But yes, it’s hard work. No getting around it, unfortunately. I empathise!

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      1. Yeah, there’s magic, communication with the dead, and the spirit world. I suppose I have a lot of the important details figured out already, so hopefully the finer details will fall into place fairly easily.

        I look forward to reading your work and learning more about your magic system ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. I think one thing the greats of fantasy have in common is the ability to assess their worlds and choose precise details that bring the world to life. It can be something as simple as an exclamation, “Light!” or “Blood and ashes!” (Wheel of Time) or a subtlety spread around many different characters and descriptions without being stated outright (like an aversion for the North. Of course, doing all that takes heaps of time and researching your own world to get it right.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Emmie – and I completely agree with you. But although it’s hard work, I do love worldbuilding and figuring out what you need to make up and what can just be left as a given… it varies with each world and/or culture.

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  3. Oh but I feel your pain in #1 – tried to get through without a whole lot of pre-planning and ended up with…what? A mess? Confusion? A whole lot more work to do? How ’bout all three.
    Thanks for articulating things so well.

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