For the past couple of years there has been a fascination with world-building in genre fiction, with many discussions on forums, blog posts, and panels at conventions. Its become the Need-to-Know thing about writing SF and Fantasy, with half the world wanting to learn how to design a fictional world and the other half happy to tell them.
I think the whole conversation is missing the point. As the Monk With No Name might say, the question you should have asked is ‘How do I Write about Worlds?’
This is because writing, in the end, is what it is all about. The point of building a world is not that you simply create one, it’s that you then write a story, or stories, set there.
You may well be able to design the most beautiful world in all fictional creation, but if you can’t then describe what happens there in an engaging and compelling way, then it’s like designing an aeroplane and not knowing how to fly. You can show people around the thing, and it might be lovely indeed, but you can’t take them anywhere.
The idea that if you could only get all the rules about how to build a magnificent world then you too could write a good book, is simply wrong. Knowing the rules* won’t help you write like Tolkien, or Hobb, or Holdstock, Vance, Martin, or any of the other renowned world-building authors.The old saw about good and bad plots and writers is just as true for worlds – a good writer will bring a mundane world alive, a bad one will take something magnificent and turn it into a walk across an empty car park.
How do you learn to swim? First of all you have to get into the water. Designing a perfect swimming pool won’t help you. Though if you want to push the metaphor, a nice pool might tempt you to dip a toe more than something full of dirty cold water will, (Not that worlds should be nice, they should be more like the bad pool you’d never swim in, full of half-seen motion and threat; or a hollow drained space with leaf-litter, broken sunglasses and loose change in the bottom; or so big you need a ship to sail across it – and it’s a lake of frozen ice or mercury, and it’s not a ship, anyway,it’s a submarine. And the pool is underground, a flooded cave system full of cannibal bats and white-eyed mermaids.)
With world building the Devil really is in the detail because you don’t need most of it. Unwanted detail is a dangerous trap. Both Klingon and Dothraki started off as a handful of words and phrases, the fuller vocabulary and language structure only came later, when it was needed (which was outside the original concept in both cases). The real risk of focussing on world-building is that it will absorb you completely and simply become another form of prevarication. As a result you run the risk of never getting around to telling your stories.
Rather than spend days, weeks, or even months designing a world, its cultures, history, myths, magic, science etc, try this: Start with a handful of over-arching concepts that inform the stories you want to tell – then let the specific detail of the worlds you build come flow from those, and from your own background, both fact and fiction. Your life, those of people you’ve met, the hundreds and hundreds of stories you’ve read, and all the non-fiction too (because the real world can come up with madder stuff than you’ll ever imagine). Bubbling up out of this great big melting pot in your subconscious will come all the ideas and suggestions you’ll need. Maybe not on demand, but certainly when you need them. This is what ‘Write What You Know’ means – writing about what you’ve lived, seen, felt, experienced, read, and learned, and your opinions of all that. Put these ideas up against each other and see how they fit, push them to the edge, and then take one more step and push them over.
Writing a story is like going on holiday. You plan where you’re going to go, and you might have a good idea about what you’re going to see and do, but until you arrive you won’t know the memorable detail, the colours, scents and textures. All that will reveal itself to you when you arrive. Just like writing about a world, you neither need nor want to know all of that in advance.
One thing I learned from writers I loved, the ones who left me aching for more of the beauty and dread of their worlds, was that they treated description like seasoning. I re-read some of their books to see how they did it, and I learned from that too. Good world writing doesn’t come at you in great big chunks of exposition, paragraph after solid paragraph (sorry, Mr JRRT), it’s a spice, sprinkled through the text like a dusting of cayenne pepper. A phrase here, a few sentences there, stirred through the whole mix to give highlight and contrast, depth and structure.
Like all seasoning, you only ever use the right amount, at the right time. And like all cooks, you need to take that recipe and make it yours.
* And there is a fundamental flaw in thinking there are rules. (Except, that is, for Rule #2.)