Research, world-building, writing technique

So You Want To Build A World

“You see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It tbpolaroidwas a bit of a botch job you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use ‘em to get stinking rich?”

–Randall from Time Bandit


So you want to build a world, eh? Are you ready to be God? Because that’s what you’re doing. Creating a world, populated with millions of beings. They’re your responsibility now. What happens to them—well, that’s on you, isn’t it? And more than that, you owe it to your readers to create a functional world, an elegant mechanism guided by a clear plan and exquisite craftsmanship, a Swiss watch kind of a world.

Or—maybe not.

I know. A lot of writers LOVE world building. They revel in creating dossiers, elaborate histories, mythologies—even whole languages. It’s part of the fun. And backstory can certainly add depth and richness to a narrative, making it more believable, more real, more engaging.

But how much is really necessary? All fiction writing is world building. You set the stage, you paint the backdrops, you provide the props. You populate that world with living, breathing people, give them history, put flesh on those dry paper bones so that they rise up off the page. And no matter how closely your fictional environs hew to the real, recognizable world, it is new. You built it.

Of course, mostly when writers talk about world building, they mean a different world, and more often than not, they mean speculative fiction. I’m including fantasy under that label, as well as science fiction. Fantasy, of course, is replete with maps and legends. Sci-Fi is lousy with parallel histories (what if the Dutch empire never fell?) and distant planets where the not-quite humans behave in curiously human-like ways.

It’s tempting to want to create full and complex histories for your worlds, those impeccable mechanisms, but how much of that is really necessary? Elaborate backstory may engage you, the author, but how much does the reader really want? Or need?

Generally, it’s the small details that grab our attention and lock us in. When Robert Heinlein, in Beyond This Horizon, wrote the famous sentence “The door dilated,” the intention was to inform the reader—in a casual, unobtrusive way—that we were in a future world. The door opens like the dilating iris of an eye, and no one comments on it or wonders at it, because it is not, in this fictional world, remarkable. It’s rather a joke these days—because honestly, what a ridiculously elaborate way of opening a door—but that tiny sentence accomplishes a lot, and does it with panache.

And that’s admirable. I’m not opposed—at all!—to complex writing, but the ability to draw a reader in with an elegant, concise bit of description (three words!) is something we can all envy.

I’d like to hear about any examples of world building that you found particularly effective and inventive and memorable. I’ll start with a few of mine:

In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany, the novel’s most prominent alien species doesn’t just enjoy food at mealtimes, they also enjoy licking small rocks. Rocks are served with meals, and the natives savor the taste of different minerals. The novel’s human protagonists also take part in rock licking, because it’s polite. Stars in my Pocket is a big, complex novel with scads of world building—but it’s this one detail in particular that remains with me, even decades later. It wasn’t important to the plot at all, but that single, concise detail locked me in. I knew I was in another world.

(This example also highlights another important point: don’t neglect the mundane things of life. Food is primary to all life as we know it, but all-too-many science fiction writers reduce food-of-the-future to cubes of protein-rich gelatin or synthetic versions of chicken curry and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Dull. Unless your world is a grim dystopia where dull food symbolizes the dreariness of life, have some fun. Eating is too sensual and visceral an experience to be wasted on drab victuals.)

Another example of notable and elegant world building: in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, characters speak English, of course (it’s American television, after all) but they are always dropping in bits of Mandarin. It’s never explained, never even really commented on. Everybody just knows a lot of  Mandarin, particularly swear words. All of which suggests—simply, elegantly—that the political landscape of the Earth has changed a lot. (There are websites out there dedicated to translating the Mandarin bits of Firefly, much of which is hilariously weird and inappropriate, from “Filthy fornicators of livestock!” to “Stupid inbred stack of meat.”)

If I’m making any kind of an argument here (and that’s certainly arguable), it’s that less really can be more when it comes to world building. You don’t need to provide a treasure trove of details, just a few that sing out to the reader. They’ll fill in the rest with their vivid imaginations. And you don’t need to work out everything to be convincing. We live in a world where we frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. If you really think the world is a rational, well-ordered place, I’d suggest that maybe you aren’t paying enough attention. It’s comforting, I suppose, to believe that some kind of higher order underlies the fabric of creation, but—rules of physics and mathematics and biology aside—there isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence to support that belief. Your world might be more believable if it mimics this uncertainty, if everything doesn’t fit together just so. The universe, as Time Bandits tells us, is a bit of a botch job. And God (god? who?) is, undeniably, inscrutable. Since you are God now, I invite you to follow his (her?) example. Nobody likes a tight-assed, control freak deity. Let your world breath a little.


18 thoughts on “So You Want To Build A World

  1. mimispeike says:

    I’ve read very little of extreme world-building fantasy. And I can’t name a piece that impressed me on the level you mention, nods at the the hobbies, the annoying relatives, the: Crap! Did I put the ground tsur-tsur in the fridge this morning, or did I leave it on the kitchen counter? (I love the lick the rocks thing.)

    Lord of the Rings had some of that, I’m sure, but I read it fifty years ago, can’t give examples. The Mandarin of Firefly, great! And great insults are definitely something to collect. Wonder if Carl has a lengthy list of that.

    I like stories told at street level, and full of the bumbling that plagues our, and surely, any advanced species. Too much super-duper gizmo/gadgetry turns me off immediately. And too much overview, lacking the intimate, does the same. I need characters to be human, even if they’re not.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. GD Deckard says:

    One of my favorite world builders was Heinlein. The man could create a complete story in a single paragraph from which the world, the plot and the characters naturally followed, as he did in the beginning of Glory Road when our hero read an ad for employment:

    “ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English, with some French, proficient in all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, apt. D.”

    From this source came everything in the world that followed. It was a world not constructed of setting, society or technology, but defined by the sheer spirit of adventure.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. World building? I wonder if it’s a function of the writer or the desires of a fan base that really comes into play today. If you start with Tolkien, the master world builder, you need to remember that he approached his initial writing as a mental exercise in philology. (I’m working off memory here, so I can’t guarantee that all of what follows is correct). Wounded in WWI, he passed the time in the hospital constructing a fictional Nordic language (elvish), and much later on passed the time constructing a mythology to go with the language. Most of this initially appeared in the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. Long story short, by the 1960s when the Trilogy took off there were Tolkien clubs on college campuses where the members spoke elvish to each other. Next came StarTrek . When my son was in middle school I bought him a StarTrek computer game. Thought we’d play it together until I found out that it included an entire disk devoted to an English-Klingon dictionary (with pronunciation prompts). You had to learn Klingon to play the bloody game (he did, I passed).
    My point is that fans (derived, of course, from fanatic) love this stuff.
    As a writer I strive for consistency, so I keep notes. From my book, Agony of the Gods, I can tell you the contours and décor of the dining room in Central, but I don’t have a map of the place. I can give you a reasonable description of the Maestro’s world in much the same way a Hollywood back lot used to give you a sense of a small western town (don’t look behind the facade!).
    So unless you’re enslaved to fans demanding more and more detail, world building is often a case of a lot less there than (seems to) meet the eye.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Atthys, you asked us to cite an example of successful world building. Here is the opening to Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? In the first two pages of Dick’s novel we are given a master class in theme, plot, characterization, dialog and mood.

    A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised – it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice – he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicolored pajamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes, blinked, then groaned and shut her eyes again.

    “You set your Penfield too weak,” he said to her. “I’ll reset it and you’ll be awake and – ”

    “Keep your hand off my settings.” Her voice held bitter sharpness. “I don’t want to be awake.”

    He seated himself beside her, bent over her, and explained softly. “If you set the surge up high enough, you’ll be glad you’re awake; that’s the whole point. At setting C it overcomes the threshold barring consciousness, as it does for me.” Friendlily, because he felt well-disposed toward the world – his setting had been at D – he patted her bare, pale shoulder.

    “Get your crude cop’s hand away,” Iran said.

    “I’m not a cop – ” He felt irritable, now, although he hadn’t dialed for it.

    “You’re worse,” his wife said, her eyes still shut. “You’re a murderer hired by the cops.

    “I’ve never killed a human being in my life.” His irritability had risen, now; had become outright hostility.

    Iran said, “Just those poor andys.”

    “I notice you’ve never had any hesitation as to spending the bounty money I bring home on whatever momentarily attracts your attention.” He rose, strode to the console of his mood organ. “Instead of saving,” he said, “so we could buy a real sheep, to replace that fake electric one upstairs. A mere electric animal, and me earning all that I’ve worked my way up to through the years.” At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).

    “If you dial,” Iran said, eyes open and watching, “for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. I’ll dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up to now seem like nothing. Dial and see; just try me.” She rose swiftly, loped to the console of her own mood organ, stood glaring at him, waiting.

    He sighed, defeated by her threat. “I’ll dial what’s on my schedule for today.” Examining the schedule for January 3, 1992, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for. “If I dial by schedule,” he said warily, “will you agree to also?” He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.

    “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” Iran said.

    “What? Why did you schedule that?” It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. “I didn’t even know you could set it for that,” he said gloomily.

    “I was sitting here one afternoon,” Iran said, “and naturally I had turned on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big news item he’s about to break and then that awful commercial came on, the one I hate; you know, for Mountibank Lead Codpieces. And so for a minute I shut off the sound. And I heard the building, this building; I heard the – ” She gestured.

    Empty apartments,” Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And yet, for this day and age a one-half occupied conapt building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs one could find buildings entirely empty . . . or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.

    Hardly deathless prose but it does the trick, doesn’t it? With a few deft strokes of characterization and telling detail we’re hurled into Dick’s fictional dream right from the first page. Note the wry humor: “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression” and “that awful commercial came on . . . for Mountibank Lead Codpieces”. Funny, yes; but we also learn an immense amount about this particular dystopian world: people dial up (or is that dial in?) their moods as easily as a modern tween-ager thumb-texts details of his or her mundane life to all and sundry; men seem to need to protect their sperm against the ravages of radiation. This is grim, sardonic humor done with a purpose.

    Consider also the very first words of the book “a merry little surge of electricity” as compared and contrasted against “Iran opened her gray, unmerry eyes” in the novel’s second sentence. Energy is merry; Iran’s eyes are not. What is Dick telling us here in the very first two sentences of the book?

    And this: “He felt irritable, now, although he hadn’t dialed for it.” The fact that Rick experiences an an undialed-for mood is so extraordinary an occurrence that the author remarks on it!

    On a minor note: How did you picture Rick and Iran in your mind’s-eye? It’s hard to get these two into focus, right? The only thing we’re told as we’re launched headlong into narrative is that Rick is wearing “multicolored pajamas” and that Iran has “gray, unmerry eyes”. What does Rick look like? What is Iran wearing . . . or not wearing? Does it matter?

    Philip K. Dick: Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? (The novel that was adapted into the neo-noir film Blade Runner. If you haven’t seen the 1992 director’s cut you haven’t seen the film.)

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      OK, like with my comments on zombies, I’m about to expose my ignorance. What are androids? Are they not machines? Why would an android need a lead codpiece?

      This reads to me like a way-too-cute teenage take on sci-fi. Yes, he’s built a world, quickly and economically. To me, it reads like dystopian Disney. I find it more amusing than unsettling. But you have made your point. We do not have to do the long-form world building. I have to get some of this into my own approach. Thanks for the lesson.


      • Hi, Mimi! Re: your questions:

        (1) An android is simply a robot with a human appearance.

        (2) An android wouldn’t need a lead codpiece. The future Earth Dick is describing is comprised of 99%+ humans. Androids–who can pass as human–are hunted down and killed when they attempt to infiltrate and assimilate.

        (3) The commercial referenced by Iran is aimed, of course, at the 99%+ humanity inhabiting the Earth in Dick’s post-apocalyptic world.

        I won’t comment on your comments.

        Liked by 2 people

        • mimispeike says:

          I realize he has legions of fans, and I have only read a snippet. I almost have a compulsion to make a fool of myself, no? I’ve done some research.

          Sam Jordison says: (He was once not a fan of sci-fi.) “. . . doubting critics, I should admit that I was once among their number. I know the ignorance of which I speak. I also know the cure: to read the Hugo award winners from 1960-1963. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land are classics by any reckoning, and they all influenced culture and literature far beyond the confines of the SF community. The Man in a High Castle is better still. It has helped shape an entire field of modern fiction: alternate history. It’s the definition of genre-defining.”

          I was really really into sci-fi once. I read tons of it. When I remember what changed my mind, I’ll tell you. Something finally turned me off.

          Liked by 1 person

          • atthysgage says:

            I consider myself a science fiction fan, but rarely read the traditional stuff. Some of the classics I read once, long ago, but not since. The people who really got me into it were Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, James Tiptree, Ursula LeGuin. All have dabbled with classic sci fi — space ships, alien cultures, etc — but mostly they wrote what should be called speculative fiction, which is a very wide canvas indeed.
            i always like the weird, cross-genre hybrids myself.

            Liked by 2 people

  5. We seem to have wandered far afield–from citing an example of world building into a more generalized discussion re: the merits of science fiction. No thank you. Pass.

    De gustibus non est disputandum.

    BTW: I will never do this to anyone:

    “I hate genre x.”

    “But this is an excellent example of genre x!”

    “Perhaps. But it’s still genre x. Which I already told you I hate.”

    All I ask is that a reader deal with the text itself and not what they have either injected into or subtracted from a text. A drive-by misreading of a text is unfair to both the writer and the work. Belittling, dismissive comments meant to malign and marginalize a text that is critically regarded as a cornerstone of canon speaks more of the reviewer than the reviewed, methinks.

    Does that mean we should all agree on the greatness/proper reverence due any particular text? Not at all. But criticisms of any given text should be cogent, apropos and pertinent to what’s printed on the page in black and white. Else, as the engineers say: we have an excess of noise-to-signal ratio.

    PS. What hope for a close reading, constructive criticism and/or basic fairness to an amateur or semi-pro writer posting WIPs here if a reviewer should so casually maul and distort basic facts about a text? And flaunt both their contempt and willful misreading of such a work? How is this helpful–to either the drop-in reading public or the reviewed writer? There has been talk in the past of raising our profile, of attracting others to our little corner of the internet. I ask you: What conclusions might an intelligent, informed and talented writer looking to join a supportive and career-advancing writers co-op draw of us?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    This is so much fun, I have to share it. Last night I started reading I Capture the Castle – and I love it. I found it, by accident, in our emails at work, I think I confused it with The Man In The High Castle. I brought it up on the screen and started reading. It’s not that at all, of course.

    I looked up reviews today. Great reviews, most five star. A few four-star. A few two-star. I’ve read the two-stars. This one is hilarious, and pretty accurate, but it makes me love the book all the more.

    My name is Cassandra Mortmain, I know it sounds made up but it’s true. I’m 17 and bright as a button and never been kissed because it’s the 1930s. My family are effortlessly bohemian, we all live in a crumbling castle – oh yes, quite literally! – and we have no money at all and we have only barely heard of the twentieth century. How poor we are since father stopped earning any money. He used to be a genius but now he does crosswords. We eat the occasional potato and scrape plaster off the walls for pudding. We have thought of cooking one of our dogs but that would not do. Also, something you should be aware of, although you will find out pretty soon I believe, is that I suffer from acute logorrhoea, which is a debilitating condition that impels its victim to write a never-ending journal into which is debouched every last possible banal but extremely charming detail of one’s life and that of one’s immediate family, which is, the pulchritudinous Rose, my 21 year old sister, my doughty schoolboy brother, my poor damaged papa who wrote one brilliant book once but has since sunk into a kind of bewilderment, and his nude model youngish wife, the unusual lute-playing nature-communing Topaz whom we love immoderately in spite of her frank farfetchedness, along with various cats and dogs with classically-derived names and a servant boy called Stephen who gauchely is in love with my 17 year old preciousness and whom we do not pay but who contrives to be preternaturally handsome and work for us for free. Anyone might think I have made all this up out of my own coquettish head!

    The review goes on like this for quite some time, and it is priceless.

    Tonight I’ll type Man In The High Castle into our database, see if we have that one. I’ll look for Androids also. I’ve found many big first-run hits in rerun or resize by different publishers. A lot of Hilary Mantel, for instance.

    Another lucky find last night, a hard copy, out of our free-for-the-taking shelves of trad-published titles recycled as e-books: Le Guin’s Worlds of Exile and Illusion. Speculative world-building, I’m on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Some great comments here, which of course leads me to a bit more bloviation on the subject.
    I think we need to differentiate between world building and world modification. For instance, Carl’s example from Philip K. Dick’s book is a case of modification – take something we’re already familiar with and drop in hints that it’s different. Let the realization grow organically as the story proceeds. So we recognize the husband waking up while the drowsy wife stays in bed (could be a story from any genre), but then we see that things are different – a society totally dependent on drugs (not an unexpected view coming from Dick, who was very often chemically altered himself). Oh, and there’s been a war which seems to have killed a lot of people. All small shifts in reality which lead the reader along. It’s the very familiarity which can make the realization of what’s changed so horrifying or thought provoking.
    One of my current favorite writers along this line is Paolo Bacigalupi. His early works are considered YA, but man it’s nothing like what I think of as YA. In Ship Breaker he basically takes the model of the breakdown of society and growth of piracy along the Somali coast and places it along our Gulf Coast following on-going climate change. In The Drowned Cities he pictures a former US with local warlords controlling armies of child soldiers (African brush wars anyone?). Could it happen here? Maybe.
    On the other hand, over the top world building makes for enjoyable adventure stories, kind of like a computer game with really good graphics. Often these stories are written to offer pure enjoyment, and not much else. It’s all just window dressing for a rather standard story line. Does anyone remember that back in the 70s or so it became very in to have made-up languages? Obviously a poor copy of Tolkien, but lots of books had foreign words tossed in (without the societal implications or humor of Atthys’ Firefly example). Some of the better writers put a glossary at the end of the book (but who wants to keep flipping back to find out what globglick means?) Others just tossed in words with the assumption that the reader would figure it out by context. In that case the only thing I tossed was the book.
    Of course we’ve now reached the real over the top cases (which Atthys alludes to) with maps, dictionaries, etc. As I previously wrote, the fans often eat this stuff up. But I often find that despite all the detail these books are often very derivative. They always seem to be medieval worlds inhabited by orcs, elves, dwarves and heroes (with the occasional dragon to be slain) – nothing like being original! Yes, the maps show different topographies and locations, but so do maps of Brooklyn and Queens.
    I guess there are probably some good ones out there (and if there are, I’m sure you guys will let me know :)’ . But in sum, give me world modification any day. It makes me think and sometimes scares the hell out of me.
    Oh well, at this point my mind is shot – anyone read the latest HALO novel?

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Building on the conversation so far: It seems to me that whether we are talking about world building or world modification (to use Doc Tom’s phrase) what we are really discussing is a matter of verisimilitude: the appearance of being true or real. Understood as such, world- building/modification becomes an exercise in literary trompe-l’oeil (an art technique that uses realistic imagery in one dimension to create the optical illusion that pictured objects exist in full 3D.)

    How much piquant, picaresque detail is therefore enough to successfully pull off this illusion? The answer is: more than any one author (or team of authors) could generate in a lifetime.

    Hear me out: I submit to you that without the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief—their willingness to co-create alongside the author and willingly enter into another’s fictional dream—no amount of world building detail will ever be enough. (Or, perversely/conversely; an irritated, bored or otherwise hostile reader may complain of too much detail: “I don’t need the author to describe every blade of grass to me!”)

    Now, once a willing suspension of disbelief (WSD) is entered into, magic may occur. Assuming, then, that a WSD is entered into and successfully sustained, how much world building detail is/was/will be required?

    At the risk of answering in a tautology: the amount of world building necessary to successfully carry off the illusion is exactly the amount that is required—no more and no less.

    Personally, I would rather an author go a tad overboard with info dumps/extraneous detail than risk the illusion tearing through insufficient or improperly thought-out details. I suspect that I am in the minority here. Even so, I sometimes grin when an author launches into a page-long info-dump re: the details of sword smithing, 1940s-era car restoration, FTL engines, etc. It’s all right, I think to myself, if that’s what it takes for you to convince yourself that you have the necessary authority and means of sustaining my WSD, go right ahead on [sic]—pump your confidence up on the page by over-sharing your background research—then get on with the story. So long as you believe, I believe!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. As Atthys says, all fiction is world-building. The question is how recognisable is the world to the reader. If I say, ‘John walked down Piccadilly one bright day in December,’ many readers get an instant image of the scene. Except those who’ve never been to Piccadilly. But I won’t bother to describe Piccadilly. What I might do though is try to bring it alive by including a few concrete details – a passer-by, a shop window etc. They could be on any street, and that’s enough. The reader who knows Piccadilly just has an advantage over the one that doesn’t, but not so great as to make a big difference to the enjoyment of the story. I read The Quiet American before I went to Vietnam and found it excellent, but reading it again afterwards I just related to it a bit more.
    I’m woefully ignorant of sci-fi, but I like Tom’s distinction between building and modification. Though it surely gets blurred at some point. Because there have to be some recognisable elements – otherwise you’d have to write an encyclopedia. I like stories which are just crazy from the outset like Douglas Adams or – oh, I don’t know, just off the top of my head, Bob vs The Aliens?

    Liked by 2 people

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