World-Building – Process

What goes into creating a world and sharing it with the reader?

Aside from blood and sweat?

Research
Research everything. You may not use everything you’ve learned, but your increased subject matter expertise will come through in your writing and (probably) you’ll have more confidence in what you’re writing. One of my greatest joys is having veterans and specifically helicopter gunship captains contact me after reading The Augmented Man to ask where I served and/or where I learned to fly. Anthropologists and other social scientists constantly read my work and ask if I worked with one culture or another. Such questions let me know my research paid off; when experts talk with you as if you’re an expert, you’ve done your job convincing the reader they’re in good hands reading your work.

On the other side of this, I’ve heard authors say that when they get to a point in their writing where something occurs they don’t understand or know or aren’t sure how something happens, they write “[XXX]” (or something similar) and move on, looking things up later.

Such writing shows (in my opinion).

I’m told that my work is so tightly written that it’s tough to remove stuff without throwing everything else out of whack. It’s like Story-DNA. Sure, you can switch a genome here or there, but that one genome and its placement affect the entire story. You may change hair color from chestnut to dark brown but now you’ve got three fingers that look like toes and a penis growing out of the middle of your forehead.

I stop writing when there’s a piece of something – tech, location, language, culture, anything! – in which I feel my knowledge is lacking.

And I always feel my knowledge is lacking.

Revealing the Story’s World
Reveal as the story requires. That’s the author’s job. Don’t front load, don’t back load, definitely don’t waste the reader’s time or stretch their patience, and always keep them moving forward through the story. This is something I wrote about in World-Building – Getting Readers Interested in Your World.


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World-Building – Miscellaneous

Something is crucial to your world-building if your story is dramatically changed when you remove that thing.

 
Not everything tied to world-building is major. Except when it’s a central element to a story, meaning removing it dramatically changes your story.

That noted, here are some miscellaneous world-building items to be aware of.

Fun (Sports, Leisure, Music, Free Time Activities)
“Fun” is based on culture and language. A funny joke in English bombs in Mandarin and is completely flat in Hopi. All “leisure” time activities will be culture based, and much of that will be predicated on climate/weather.

However, leisure time concepts may translate well. Fishing is both a vocation and avocation on Earth. Imagine a water planet or a planet where the dominate life is aquatic in nature. They may go mammaling. Transpose everything from this world’s fishing to that world’s mammaling and you could have a fascinating first-contact story.

A telekinetic culture may have sports like ours but players will be heavily penalized if they use telekinetics. They may be allowed to bludgeon opposing team members with their hands and feet (if they have them) but hurling rocks at them telekinetically results in a 3-game penalty.

Music is heavily culture based, but beyond that we have “music” because our environment supports the transmission of longitudinal (compression) waves. Western music is based on the thirteen notes but non-western music systems vary on the number of notes and variation is reflected in the difference in tunings and instruments themselves. Other worlds may support lifeforms with hearing vastly different from ours, hence their music will be vastly different. If those cultures developed in environments that don’t support longitudinal waves, is there music at all? Or what would they have that we’d consider “music”?

Leisure time activities tend to be sensory-dependent as a rule (hence music would be different if the other culture’s ears weren’t designed to detect longitudinal waves). A Jovian would “paint” using radium-based “paints” as their “vision” developed on a planet where our visible spectrum couldn’t penetrate the clouds and the planet radiates like a sun-in-the-making; they wouldn’t have eyes like ours, or what served as eyes would be radiation detectors (perhaps Geiger counter like stalks?).

Life forms


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World-Building – Belief Systems

Belief systems are part of the anthropologist’s triad – culture, language, myth (belief). These three are so intertwined I can’t imagine studying one without drawing deeply of the others. Our personal library contains ~300 books on different belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems. If you count ebooks, the number goes over 1,000 volumes (and note my bias there).

But what about using belief/faith/mythological/folkoric systems as part of your world-building?

Margaret Atwood postulates a radical cultural change brought on by an exaggerated belief system in The Handmaid’s Tale, and that culture’s language evolves to sustain the belief system. Probably the best known blend of culture, language, and belief system is in Tolkien’s Trilogy. Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series does an excellent job of blending these elements, but it’s all predicated on Helliconia’s weather (and perhaps you’ll appreciate how intertwined everything is when one builds a world from scratch).

Create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.

 
But again and to me, it comes down to “create a mythology only if such is necessary to move the story forward or is integral to the plot.”


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World-Building – Weather

I’ve yet to encounter a created world that does not make use of climate and weather directly or indirectly.

That includes this one. Consider the history of earth and the interdependencies between life and climate become obvious (I hope). Read anything by Brian Fagan and you’ll get a taste of those interdependencies beautifully written.

Examples from Fiction
Climate/weather directly affecting the story and and done well, Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series. Directly and done fairly well, any mythical apocalypse or creation epic. Directly and poorly, Medea: Harlan’s World. The first time I became aware of weather/climate/environment/meteorology as a crucial story element was in H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon; the Selenites’ civilization literally stops due to an eclipse.

Every mythology I’ve read has weather as either a deity or an elemental. Some cultures use climate as one of the “great makers.” Northern aboriginals include Ice as an elemental force. Some eastern cultures include Metal (usually some form of iron) as an elemental force.

All of these can act for or against humans, however, and that’s key. Consider weather/climate as part of a story’s setting and every Man v Nature story takes a bow. The Perfect Storm, White Squall and many of the movies listed here wouldn’t be worth seeing without the weather’s role (many of them aren’t worth seeing, period).

And again, weather/climate isn’t playing an active role in these stories (at least the one’s I’ve seen or read). It is there to help or thwart the protagonist(s) from succeeding.

Specific to weather/climate/environment as a story’s setting, if setting isn’t important – and I can’t imagine it not being important. Perhaps I have a different concept of “setting” – then mention it as little as possible, or only mention the aspects of that setting that are necessary to the story. Katherine Mansfield is a master of putting only the necessary setting elements on stage.


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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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