Monday, 26 April 2021

Building Worlds

by Jeanette O'Hagan

In Maps of Fictional Worlds, Austin Kleon says ‘every tale has a setting, every tale creates a world in the reader’s mind.’

All Writers World Build - At Least a Little

Setting and world building is particularly important for fantasy and science fiction writers and other speculative fiction genres. That doesn't mean it's not important for historical novels or even memoir and biography, where the writer recreates an authentic version of the past. Or in detective and mystery novels were the setting adds to the tone and can almost be another protagonist. Even contemporary novels are a mix of the real and the invented, if perhaps on a smaller scale - a neighbourhood or house rather than a universe or planet. 

Most of my stories are set in another world - Nardva - though recently I spent far too much time working on an alternative history scenario set in Africa for a short story.  

Neil Gaiman said ‘Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been.’ And sometimes it can show you the place you have lived your whole life with different eyes.

Just as contemporary fiction often needs to invent elements of their fictional world, so too even the most fantastical world draws inspiration from our world. And in that sense, writers walk in the steps of our own Creator who spoke the world into being. 

How do we build worlds?

World Building Principles

Describe not only what the world looks like – but its sounds, textures, smells, tastes, the ambiance, cadences and rhythms. Describe the big features but don’t forget the little things, the everyday things – what people eat, the little rituals and gestures, the graininess of the world.

Beware of dumping huge slabs of description and information (info dumps). Interweave or drip feed world building, the setting and necessary information through the characters' dialogue and their interactions with the world. 

Don’t allow the worldbuilding or setting to overwhelm the plot or the characters. Beware straying off on tangents (things that fascinate the writer - like the sewers of Paris for Victor Hugo in Les Misérables - but don't carry the plot forward. Show the world from the characters' perspective. 

Use telling details - small, succinct references that identify the time, place and purpose. And as Charlie Jane Anders indicates a small descriptive element (Heinlein's ‘the door dilated’) can convey a wealth of knowledge. 

A fictional world should be consistent and coherent – even in a magical world, the magic has rules which the author establishes and must follow. Any exceptions need to be foreshadowed well before they are pulled out of the hat to save the day.

Think beyond the surface to how the world works – what infrastructure and economies support its societies, who does what, what motivates its characters, what are its conflicts and power struggles?

The world is complex, dynamic and interactive. History, geography, ecology, and cultures all interact. Societies are rarely monolithic and are usually in flux. Altering one thing can have significant effects with ongoing ramifications – as our own histories show with say, the introduction of prickly pear in Queensland in mid 18th century, the potato famine in Ireland, or the effect on cultures and commerce of something seemingly so mundane as sugar, tea or coffee.

Remember to research. In historical fiction, one researches the manners, technology, geography and historical events of period of the novel. In contemporary fiction, one might research the place, laws, contemporary events etc. For mystery, maybe police procedures, the legal system, weapons or stages of death. For science fiction, it might be physics, space or the possibilities of technology. 

Research is still important for fantasy - for my books I’ve researched geographical land forms, weather and climate, how far and fast people and horses can travel, the phases of the moon (there are two in Nardva), sailing craft, fighting techniques, architecture, marriage costumes, poisons, underground caverns, and whatever else my various characters and world needs at the time.

Make maps, draw buildings, make notes, keep journals, collect images, facts, artefacts, mine history and other cultures for ideas, ask questions and daydream to your heart’s content. I've used Minecraft to 3D model the Golden Palace in the Akrad's  Legacy series and the Caverns for the Under the Mountain series.  One resource I'm exploring at the moment is World Anvil - a great way to have all the elements of the world in one place.

Remember to avoid stereotypes and clichés,

Don’t forget to have fun.

Where to Start?

Are you a Planner, a Pantser or Tweener?

Some writers spend days, weeks, years determining every planning very detail of their world before writing the first word of their story (a top down approach).  J.R.R Tolkien started by inventing whole languages and took years to write his work. The advantage of this approach is a consistent, rich and rounded world that can feel as real as our own. The disadvantage is that sometimes the world builder never actually writes the story. Or the characters may take second place to the world concept.

Others plunge into the narrative with the details emerging from the story telling (a bottom up approach). The advantage of this approach is that the story gets written and characters are developed. The disadvantage, is that when rules and properties of the world are created on the fly, inconsistences can creep in and cause all sorts of bother. 

Then there's the tweener (in between) approach perhaps establishing some big picture elements at the beginning and then painting in the smaller details as one writes. Or maybe a spiral with drafting some key elements, then with more detail emerging while writing, going back and expanding the world which then inspires more stories. 

Go build!

Fictional worlds, even fantasy ones, are reflections and refractions of our own world. They help us escape for a time into another place, they help us see our own world through other eyes, but they also help us explore the meaning and contingencies of our own lives and selves.

What are your favourite fictional worlds? 

What challenges and joys have you experienced in creating and researching your world or setting?

Images and artwork by Jeanette O'Hagan (All rights reserved)

Jeanette O'Hagan has spun tales in the world of Nardva from the age of eight. She enjoys writing fantasy, sci-fi, poetry, and editing. 

Her Nardvan stories span continents, millennia and cultures. Some involve shapeshifters and magic. Others include space stations and cyborgs. 

She has published over forty stories and poems, including the Under the Mountain Series (5 books), Ruhanna's Flight and Other Stories, Akrad's Children and Rasel's Song (now available on pre-order)

Jeanette lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

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  1. Thank you, Jenny! This is great. World Anvil looks like it would be worth checking out. Minecraft is also a great idea to get an actual 3D idea of what places look like. I never thought of that. 😊
    I'm currently reading The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni and she's done an amazing job at world building!
    I probably haven't done as much as I should world building for my novel, most of it is in my head. Maybe I should start writing these things done, lol.

    1. Fantastic. Glad it helped, Kirsten. And yes, write it down. Probably doesn't matter so much for book one, but with later books, you'll be glad you keep a record. I had fine building parts of my world in minecraft - and it did help with logistics. All the best with your novel.

  2. Another excellent craft post, Jenny. Place influences so much in our writing, whether subtly or overtly or somewhere in between. Even poetry which evokes strong imagery requires a sure foundation in place, whether it's a physical location or a rabbit hole of mind or emotion.

    Interestingly, I discovered the importance (and power) of place initially through my choice of location for the inciting incident in my novel. Likewise, location strongly influences the conflict in other ways. As contemporary fiction, I found myself walking the tightrope between using real places that can easily be identified by those who know,(or think they know) and not letting that become a distraction. One example arose from my early beta readers: I'd spent time establishing that a particular Anglican Church in Canberra had a carillon - that is, a set of bells in their tower - and that they played those bells at certain times. I even phoned the minister there to determine if, and in what style (tune, or slow peal etc) they played them on Good Fridays. Nevertheless, a beta reader (not someone I knew) declared that the 'only carillon in Canberra was the tower that stood in Lake Burleigh Griffin". Though I knew otherwise, I decided to ditch the church bells rather than create a potential distraction.

    I loved discovering your world of two moons which you created superbly.

    1. Thanks, Mazzy. And thanks for reading and appreciating my books set in Nardva :)

      I feel said that the carillon bells are gone - though I guess if they're not necessary for plot and character development, they can be safely removed. (Reminds me of Dorothy L Sayers Nine Tailors where bell ringing was integral to the mystery and murder.

      Even so, you can't please everyone. One of my writer friends wrote an excellent historical novel set in Russia during WW2. A reviewer ripped into her for getting the timeline of the train travel completely wrong, even though my friend had spent hours reading the actual diaries of the actual women. Probably the reviewer wasn't taking into account wartime conditions and delays. Sometimes people think they know more than they do. And of course, you could always invent a fictional Anglican church with bells.

  3. I don't build fantasy worlds - they're just not me. I think you've done a great job with yours though, Jenny. Regardless,I feel the setting and its reality are very important to a novel and I love writing about settings. I have to be careful or I use too much description. Although I often choose settings I'm familiar with, I have to research all sorts of odd things - like were there Eskies in 1973, what does a drowned body look like after a few days etc. I enjoy every minute of it.

    1. Thanks, Jeanette. I loved the sense of place and descriptions in your Lantern Light. I felt I'd been transported to time and place and the setting was very much part of the story.