World-building

Happy 4th Americans 🙂 

“There’s a world outside my window…”

I was peripheral to a discussion the other day asking authors to commend good examples of world building for a class on the same to wannabe writers. Unfortunately the discussion followed another in which a lady author told us that she’d looked at a number of sf author sites, and female authors were not able to put themselves forward the way males did. This unquantified generalisation resulted in someone else kindly explaining that it was solidarity with those who had been told boastfulness was immodest in a woman, so now I understand how this is so. The effect was that various female authors started putting themselves forward as world-builders par excellance… and not one male did. The law of unintended consequences triumphed again, and sadly, world-building and helping newbies did not.

You see, self-promotion may be part of being an author, but we’re really our own worst critics often enough. And the problem was no-one said ‘well, what _is_ good world-building?’ Because it’s easy enough for an author to judge if they’ve exerted themselves at world-building, and near impossible to judge if that world-building is good. That depends on the reader. And good requires a book world to feel ‘real’. 

In my humble opinion, as reader foremost, and writer secondly, good world building depends on three things: Firstly–that the writer has done adequate research or has the background to build a world in first place. Now, worlds are big, complex places, and if you’re starting from scratch and not appropriating large chunks of Earth’s biology, geology, geography, history and socio-political dynamics (just to start with), you need to be either a polymath, and a well-read one at that, or a very fluent liar (more on this anon.) Or preferably, both… Of course not all of any audience are going to well-enough versed in any one of the disciplines to notice that you’re a plonker (there is lot of ignorance out there. Some of it saying ‘great world-building’ in reviews) but inevitably there are SOME readers who are experts, and they only have to be experts in one of the disciplines you need to pick holes in your world. And wrong in ONE area mentally translates to wrong everywhere.

The mistake so often made is to conflate vast amounts of detail with veracity. For example I ran across (some years ago) a fantasy novel I threw across the room (TBAR) because the author (one of the self-elected great, who teaches worldbuilding) had worked out all sorts of details. And drawn a really pretty map, even including the fields… The trouble was the map – to anyone who ever used a map, who ever had an inkling of geography said… impossible. And to boot, non-arable without massive terracing. Certainly never going to support more than a very tiny population per square km (and yes, distances were included). The fields growing oats in a world totally unlike our own, would have fed one family. Maybe. When you added a load of peaceful lady knights in different castles who were great warriors and experts in martial arts… (thus displaying a nicely politically correct world which was as probable as no-one celebrating the 4th of July, as, sorry, feudal society didn’t get told it had to be PC and evolved separately in at least seven locales I can think of and… didn’t work like this. Being warriors requires a reason… and it’s not peace. And castles are not built to look ornamental and romantic either. There are reasons for Amazon corps to arise, and there are exceptional female martial-artists… but it ain’t peace and lurve either. Men are bigger and stronger and more aggressive on average, and therefore, without other major factors, dominant in conflict societies. There has to be a very good reason, pretty quickly upfront why the inverse could possibly be, or it is TBAR time. Sorry if it doesn’t fit your PC world-building.

Nor does expertise in say Norse myth or medieval English help that much… unless you are writing in a setting which uses those in situ. But for building a ‘de novo’ world, you need to be an expert in so much more (or research them or lie plausibly) Because a REAL world has real biology, real geology… and ignorance of these can make your world as real as a salary cut for politicians.

Which appropriately brings me to my second need for good world building. To be a fluent liar.

It’s happened to me a good 5 times (3 at cons) now and I believe it is an occupational hazard… you’ll get buttonholed by this rather bright-eyed guy (so far it’s been 4 males, 1 female for me) who will fix you with a crazed tremulous smile and a satchel… with three chapters of their manuscript and 5000 pages of ‘world-building’ background in it. They have entire languages, societies, maps by the dozen, complete histories…geology, physiology… you name it. Some are rather like their fave RPG or Tolkein, and some are truly wildly detailed exercises in imagination. FAR, far better researched than the lady knights or Medieval English… And yet those first three chapters suck most spectacularly. Even worse than the Lady Knights…

Quite simply the writer is making the same mistake as the Lady Knights, but with more material to do it with. They always put _everything_ in. The correctness of the detail might be better thought out… but it’s all there is. And sorry, with too much, and if you don’t bore me rigid, you will, sooner or later, get it wrong. The world is too big and complex for any one normal head, even in a lifetime, let alone the few months/years at most, generally put into these efforts.  And ‘wrong once’ in the reader’s mind, often just translates out as implausible and wrong about the lot. Find one mistake and they’ll pick until they find many.

The skilled liar knows that the well-cut garment is often a lot sexier than the nude. And a poor light hides a multitude of sins and cellulite. He knows enough detail, and puts just enough in sight to convince you that the liar (AKA author) knows the curves behind the cloth intimately. The liar knows that WHAT TO LEAVE OUT is as important as what to put in.

And why does it work? Because it is plausible, and internally consistent. The author may really know every detail about his world. Tolkein did. Diana Wynne Jones probably didn’t… . Good world-building, put simply, is a SMALL amount of well-crafted minutiae, and vast amount of plausible, logical internal consistency. Some of us need ALL the detail worked out precisely to make us that consistent. But don’t confuse doing that with being a good world-builder. There are those who can do without it, who make the reader fill in the gaps… and readers get it right for themselves. PERFECTLY right.  That was Diana Wynne Jones. Tiny precise details, and she was plausible and internally consistent most of the time, so you believed that she did have that whole world in her head. You just weren’t seeing more of it than needed for the story.

Which brings me to my third and final point – that which separates the Ok and even good world-builders from the truly great. The good show you a plausible internally consistent world, which you see through their writing and the eyes of their characters. The great — and they’re out there (and not particularly confined by gender either) create the illusion of bigger world outside that window that the reader sees. That is genius. It does get done. I’ve tried to work out just how to do it myself for years. A part at least is to bend the Chekhov rule, just a little. (Not smash it!) and allow detail that is germane but not directly so into bits of ‘irrelevant’ text. Like junk DNA… we’re not too sure what it does, but it’s POSSIBLY relevant so we keep it in mind. It’s a balancing act.

Great world-building… near invisible if done well. So who would you commend?

13 comments

  1. Both Elizabeth Moon and Lois M Bujold do excellent world building. Ms Moon is definitely the Tolkienesque variety who knows lots (though not always everything) about the worlds she creates.

    Bujold on the other hand is, by her own admission, a ‘just in time’ world-builder. Though you wouldn’t know it.

    1. Lois gets the ‘just a window into a far bigger world’ feel. I do get a little twitchy about her socio-political set-up in the Vorkosigan books, as I think it is unsustainable (I still find it better than David Weber’s, and that is certainly in the realms of good.) Elizabeth does her homework very well.

      1. Bujold’s Barrayar is definitely unsustainable. It is a government not of rules, but men(1). Aral, Cordelia, Gregor, and Miles are all good people.

        I think the glimpses from Barrayar’s past are given, at least partially, to remind us that this isn’t a GOOD SYSTEM, just a system where good people happen to be on top right now.

        (1) Using the expansive definition of the term, to include Cordelia and a few others.

  2. Any of the later Discworld books, and not just because of all the previous ones, either – and those with an interest in history can go chasing where and what Pratchett twisted to get his story.

    I have to admit I willfully overlooked a LOT of flaws in Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books – mainly because a world where people get to ride fire-breathing dragons? Heck yeah. World-building wise, that series wasn’t bad: it was the rest that bothered me.

    I’m going to wave my geek-cred here and say that Save The Dragons did a lovely job of suggesting multiple different worlds with very different cultures – as well as being a pee-your-pants funny book.

    1. Pratchett has ‘pterry was here’ grafitti all over history, biology, physics etc… and yet you’re barely aware of it, unless that happens to be your field. He’s a 10 in world-building.

      On that scale I’d rate StD (an acronym for the book that always amused me) as a 3.5 – while freely admitting bias. I guess I’m quite harsh, but I’d rate average books as 2.5-3

  3. Just thinking… Hal Clement, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, heck, even Asimov and EE Smith and so forth — the worldbuilding certainly isn’t invisible, it’s the point! I mean, sure, Ringworld is unstable, the Moties, and all the others, part of what they were doing was making a setting that was exciting and thrilling in itself. Consistent and so forth — but not nearly invisible? Now, the trick after creating the Moties is how do you introduce them (and their background) to us, the readers, without infodumps and other great breakdowns in the story. That needs to be smooth, well-nigh invisible.

    1. I battled to get into it, and gave up I am afraid. I know it is very successful, and supposed to be very good. Different books, different people.

  4. Sarah’s musketeer’s mysteries are outstanding examples of worldbuilding. I felt I was getting lost in all the little streets of Paris. In combination with a solid reader’s trance, it felt real.

    1. Yes, Sarah manages the ‘what to leave in and what to leave out’ balance very well indeed, as well as creating an atmosphere with small, precise touches.

      1. Eh. Mostly the leave out. And Pam, I was in the fifth book when I finally realized how much I’d gone wrong in the first book. Which is why I cleaned it up for vampire musketeers.

        This is the thing I had to learn with historical — you can only research so much. And that’s the sad part. you’re not even BUILDING the world, just writing in it, but it’s impossible to know EVERYTHING. I found with the first book (Shakespeare) to do a lot of general reading and then plunge in and do lots of bracketing [find out what the heck they used for bottle nipples. No rubber.] type of thing. Then research and put in just what’s needed, no more. For the rest, count on common humanity. I mean, everyone gets dressed in the morning, whether in jeans or a kirtle — just find what they wore then and run.

        This practice helped me write fantasy and science fiction. I need to get someone to do compilations of stuff, if series are going to go on, but for a couple/five novels it works.

Comments are closed.