Last night at my writers’ group, one of our members (Andrew Franke) led a discussion on worldbuilding. He said your “world” is like the “canvas” on which the artist paints.
The gist of his talk was that:
1) worldbuilding is important
2) for all writers—of any genre
3) and that the author needs to understand his/her world fully, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need all the nitty-gritty spelled out on the page.
It occurred to me, a great example of this would be J.R.R. Tolkien. As a linguist, one of the first things he did when creating Middle-earth was write an entire language for it. He created timelines, family trees, the calendar, the alphabet, other languages used in their world, and one can find it all in the over 200 pages following The Return of the King, along with an overall index. Impressive! No wonder he’s so popular. 😉
However, even though Tolkien shares all this information by way of appendices, none of it is essential for the reader to know in order to understand or enjoy his series.
Since worldbuilding is most commonly talked about in the science fiction/fantasy realm, Andrew pointed to SFF authors Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kate Elliott as examples of excellent worldbuilders. He also mentioned Tom Clancy for a non-SFF author as well Neil Gaiman who writes, well, everything.
ASKED AND ANSWERED
Q: How much does the reader need to know?
A: This depends on your genre and the story itself. And, unfortunately, the author is usually the worst judge of this. That’s where beta readers and critique partners come in!
Q: How much must I know?
Q: Can I start writing before knowing these things?
A: Sure. Everyone’s process is different. Some like to build everything before writing Word One; others craft their worlds as they go along. The key is to make sure everything about your plot is believable within the world you’ve created.
So, what is this “everything” you need to know?
Andrew drew questions every writer needs to ask himself when creating a world (from author Holly Lisle’s “How Much of My World Do I Build”):
- In what way does my universe differ from the mundane norm? (e.g., use of magic, presence of fantastic creatures, imagined institutions, historical people or races, etc.)
- What is the nature of the difference? How exactly will these special features manifest?
- What are the rules by which my world operates? (e.g., special physics, natural laws, social laws, etc.)
- What effects will these rules have on the culture and the story?
- What are the laws of my special physics?
- What is the nature of the people who will use these laws? How do they differ from regular people?
Having attended one of Orson Scott Card’s writing workshops, Andrew also told us about OSC’s “1000 Ideas in 20 Minutes” worldbuilding exercise wherein he has his classes answer:
- Why did this change happen, and what brought it about?
- Who enjoys/benefits from/favors this change?
- Who dislikes/suffers from/disapproves of this change?
- What are at least three ways the average person’s daily life is different?
- What are at least three ways that “official” public life is different?
- What are at least three ways that people’s behavior has changed as a result?
He recommends OSC’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy to writers of any genre, saying that although there are chapters which deal specifically with SFF writing, the crux of the book is about how to write good fiction.
HELPFUL WORLDBUILDING LINKS
Here, you can find a ton fantasy worldbuilding resources.
This gives you a very thorough worldbuilding worksheet. It has a section on magic, but the contemporary writer can easily omit those sections and successfully set their realistic stage.
Here, you’ll find Stephanie Cottrell Bryant‘s “30 Days of Worldbuilding,” which is a tutorial of 15-minute exercises to help you create your world. It’s called the “Magical Worldbuilder,” but it’s easily adaptable to writers of all genres.