How now all.
So, a question that comes up an awful lot is, “how do you create the world you write in?” The answer is fairly simple (though a bit involved); All writer’s world build, even if they’re not aware they’re doing it, and each does it a little differently.
For this post, I wanted to examine what world building is. We’ll get to how it’s done at a later time.
World building is the creation of a unique and specific environment for the character(s) to move through. At its heart, this is the setting, and some stories require the author to deviate from reality. If done right, it also produces the conflict which in turn helps drive events. The problem is that once you start bending the rules of reality, you create new rules, and these can be easy to forget if you don’t take really good notes.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to focus on Speculative Fiction, and for our purposes, this includes several different genres: Science fiction, Fantasy, Post-apocalyptic, and Dystopian among them.
When we break it down, there are five types of world building categories that these tales fall into.
- Relational: This is the type of world building that produced Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county, and Harper Lee’s Maycombe county. Namely, they created the community their novel was set in. This focuses on the characters, their relationships and interactions, as well as the institutions within the community, and how these affect each other. This is set in the real world, and is bound by real world constraints.
- Transformational: This is the radical change from the real world. Typically, this is post-apocalyptic fiction, where some disastrous event has forever altered the world as we know it. William Forthesythe’ One Minute After, tells the story of an America without electricity after an electromagnetic pulse. The society the characters live in is similar to our own, but this is because the characters intentionally chose for it to be so. This is a part of the conflict in the novel; whether or not they can hold onto these ideals of civilization in a desperate and depraved world. Others go further; S.M. Sterling’s novel Dies a Fire removes not only electricity, but rewrites the laws of physics, so gunpowder and explosives do not work either. This sends civilization not just back into the 19th century, but back into the 12th century, complete with feudal lords.
- Comparable: J.K. Rowling’s world of wizards, or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere tell stories of a world that exists parallel to our own, but outside the keen of the average person. This allows the reader to access the world new world by its relation to what is known. Typically, the lead character is new to the world, and so the reader learns along with them as they experience things.
- Structural: This too has a transformational event at its heart, but it is now far in the past. The world has moved on, leaving the ruins of the old behind. Steven King’s Gunsligner series, Suzanne Collins Hunger Games and Terry Brook’s Shanarra are examples. Here, the landscape and the structures create ample room for conflict. This is also a way for the author to create entirely new structures and worlds, but still being able to connect back to the world the reader knows.
- Mythological: this is completely removed from the world as we know it, due to the creation of an entire mythos and / or adjustments to reality. Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Blake’s “Continental Prophecies,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Frank Herbert’s Dune are prime examples here. The world(s) they describe is different in almost every aspect. The landscape, the language, the abilities, the customs, the norms are all different. This gives the writer complete control to do whatever they wish, but they also tie themselves into the rules they create. The worlds they create may be based on the known (Tolkien = Icelandic Eddas, Judeo/Christian Mythos), but those aspects as used more as molds that give a general outline. Borrowing cultural aspects from the known world helps the writer ground the reader and enables them to process the new reality. In my series, Chaos of Souls, the characters are angels that have been fragmented and their souls reformed to create new beings. As a result, they retain a great deal of their angelic abilities. Their magic flows from themselves, and from the world around them.
The process differs depending on which type of story is being told: specifically, whether it is Science Fiction or Fantasy. While they are often lumped together for marketing purposes, they are fundamentally different in their worlds (universe, multiverse, dimensions) are created.
Science Fiction = Technology (even if it does not exist, yet). This is the product of the Mind of Man, where humanity has overcome the limitations of the environment through the use of his technological creations. Star Trek had warp drive, Clarke had a Dyson Sphere, and Weber had mechanical avatars. The mind is the pinnacle of creation and the driving force of human advancement, and often the problems will have a technological solution. As such, it is often used to subjugate the environment and bend existence to its will. While the rules of physics may be bent, stretched, or extrapolated upon, they are never truly broken and replaced.
Fantasy = Magic. This can take any form, or have any source, but in essence, it is outside the character, even if their body is the conduit for it. Divinity & miracles, are a form of magic, because they are powers outside the technological realm, and outside the individual. Goodkind called his magic Han, Jordan called it the One Power. It does not matter where it comes from, but, it comes from somewhere outside of the character. This is the product of working in harmony with existence to manipulate the environment. This is more primitive, and can even be unconscious in the character, and often throw the rules of physics out the window.
So, there we go. We have a theoretical framework to work off of.
See you next time.