Wednesday, February 3, 2010

World Building is not about funny names

While this post is going out to the Sci Fi, Fantasy and Paranormal writers primarily, I think the other writers may be able to really draw on the material and use it for their advantage.

One of my biggest problems, when it comes to this genre of writers stems from the world building. Too often, the writing is far from accessible to the reader. Sure the readers of this genre might be able to figure it out, but the rest of us can't. I often think of those guys with THE GEEK SQUAD that eat, drink and sleep computers so well that it becomes difficult for anyone to have a clue what they are talking about. World building is crucial to these genres and as a writer, it is you job to effectively use it to tell the story.

Remember, world building is not the plot of the story but the scenery and backdrop. Your characters work through their stories with the world surrounding them. It isn't the reverse.

When I think of this, I try to break it down into a couple of concepts: ACCESSIBLE, REALISTIC, NOT THE DOMINANT FORCE.

Let's start with accessible. If your world building requires a dictionary (of course specially designed by you) a translator or any other support material, it is far from going to work for the average reader. When we read a story, we don't want to have to stop all of the time to figure out what you are talking about. Sure the names and places may be unique, but if we can't do something with them, the story is lost.

I often joke about this with the McCaffery Dragon rider series. I always found it funny that all the names were so hard to pronounce and were stuck with that silly apostrophe F'nor, F'lar and so forth.

While your friends who read the same material may know what you are talking about, the rest of us don't. In many ways, think writing a technical manual for the common every day person. Same thing here..

The next level is realism. While this world is made up of your thoughts and ideas, remember the readers are still operating in the real world. This means the stories must be believable and actually work. In this case, I think of the werewolf stories where the characters mysteriously shift form and their clothing somehow disappears or re-appears. HOW??? I did read one of these stories and the characters methodically hid their clothing and then shifted. Of course, then I had to deal with a naked guy in the middle of Los Angeles, but the writer was clearly trying to get close with this.

Finally, the world building cannot dominate the story. In this case, you historical writers need to listen up. Remember the story is about the characters, and not the world building. You should not have to spend so much time on "painting a picture" for the reader. In the case of the historical writers, remember the story is about your character, not the history surrounding the character. Work in the details but don't go overboard.

I guess what I want to say here is to take the time, before you dive into the story, to really think through this world you have created. Will your readers see it the same way you do? Does it work?

And yes, you steam punk writers, this goes for you too!



  1. Scott, this is so true. You've hit several nails squarely on their heads with this post. I've Tweeted a link to it.

    I know there's some great fantasy and science fiction out there, but I can never wrap my eyes around it because they keep tripping on misplaced apostrophes and unpronounceable words.

  2. I write fantasy/historical romance. I try to keep my fantasy realm with the same characteristics of the world as it was known in that time period. I don't like to stray too far from realism- as funny as that sounds when you have a sorceress for a heroine- as I like to keep my protagonist grounded in reality so readers can relate with her on a basic level.

  3. It's an interesting post for me to read, a my current WIP takes place in the future, and I keep reading that if your story is set in the future, it's got to be classified as sci-fi. And I keep feeling it's not sci-fi because there's been no world-building. I don't have new languages and a bunch of weird tools to fine. I've got a couple of advancements, a few societal things to make note of, but people are just people.

    It's interesting that some sci-fi may go too much in that direction

  4. I'm so glad to hear someone say this. There is a quote in the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that's about Ursula K. Le Guin that I've always kept in mind when writing fantasy or sci-fi (I only know the quote because it's at the beginning of a book I own).

    "She has given much to the genre, not least by showing (through example) how the traditional novelist's interest in questions of character need not be alien to SF."

    Pretty much says it all. Just because it's set in a different world there is no reason for it to be alien or have a purpose that is that different from a non-fantastical novel.