Sunday, March 6, 2011

World-Building Questions: An Introduction

Watch out guys, I’m on another kick.

So last Friday, the topic for #steampunkchat was world building. I love world building. I think it’s the best damn part of speculative fiction, and it’s why I love a lot of my favorite book. Building an engaging and interesting world is one of those things that I – and hopefully, lots of others like me – strive for.

But: world-building is tough. Really tough. I mean, tough enough that I kind of file it in the “intermediate to advanced” level of fiction writing. If that makes any sense.

To me, beginner level stuff is the advice you get everywhere; the character, plot, craft, and scene advice; all that bread-and-butter foundation that you have to know if you’re ever going to get anywhere with this whole writer thing. You find hundreds of books on that, because everybody has at least one of those problems at some point in their writing lives.

However, when you get to the intermediate level, people start to specialize. It’s kind of like how all pre-med students are pre-med until they actually get to medical school, and then they’re on track to becoming neurosurgeons or pediatricians or biomechanical engineers or whatever other special medical thing they wanted to do.

In short: Not everybody needs world building. Not every story needs it. Hell, if you're writing Harlequin romances or gritty modern-day cop dramas, it'll probably just bog you down. But if you do need it, well, you really, really need it.

But, since the demand is so much smaller, there isn’t as much info out there to help people with world-building as there is for beginner-level stuff. What's more, most world-building advice is genre-specific, playing off of established tropes. The best I've found is this article from the SFWA and a couple of sci-fi books on literally building new planets.

Both of those resources are great; but they’re also a little overwhelming, especially if you’re not working with the established genre tropes. Books on setting are also less than helpful, since it’s mostly about description and scene settings.

At the same time, discussion of world-building online – like the one on #steampunkchat – tend to focus on only one aspect, which is equally frustrating, because there isn't one aspect to world-building. There are many different factors and they can be tackled from many different angles.

Hence the upcoming series of posts.

What I’ve done here is try to boil down all the different aspects of world building to a few simple, generic questions that can be used with any genre, setting, and/or high concept.

They’re divided into several loose categories (I’m not sure how many) that can be tackled in any order. I’ve also included both real-world and fictional examples of these aspects put to work.

Will all this information necessarily make it into your novel? No. Is it important for you to know anyway? Hell yeah. Being able to answer these questions at the drop of a hat keeps your world consistent. They’re not binding – if you get an awesome idea, you can always readjust the world to fit it in – but they are important to know if you want to build a rich, realistic, and engaging fictional world.

So...stick with me, everybody; and as always, feedback is appreciated. I have no idea what I'm getting into with this, but I hope somebody out there will find it helpful.

Part One: Economics

1 comment:

  1. If you're looking specifically at steampunk worldbuilding, I just posted a breakdown of my own setting on my blog, along with some musings on steampunk automata intelligence. Mainly, I approached it from a "what would people actually do with this technology?" rather than just grafting something cool onto the world and assuming it has no social consequences.