Many writers have stories to tell, but they don’t want to deal with publishing or marketing their work. That was me roughly three years ago. Continue reading
“You see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It was 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.
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.
In reply to Old Spice: Fictional characters, and their influence on humans. (With considerable assistance from Wikipedia.)
These are my opinions and not necessarily the politics of this site.
I find many parallels between the so-called Orange One (I see his thatch as more yellow than orange) to The Yellow Kid of Sunday supplement fame. The Yellow Kid was, from what I glean, a harmless sort, but other details are amusingly relevant to Our Golden-Shower-of-Propecia-Encouraged-Hair Leader.
A bit of background:
The Yellow Kid was the name of an American comic-strip character that ran from 1895 to 1898 in Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World, and later William Randolph Hearst‘s New York Journal. Created and drawn by Richard F. Outcault, it was one of the first Sunday supplement comic strips in an American newspaper.
He was a bald (having to do, it has been suggested, with the prevalent lice of his milieu) barefoot boy who wore an oversized yellow nightshirt (Trump with his really long tie? And I’m sure I’ve seen him in a bright yellow tie, marvelous-marvelous) and hung around in a slum (with Trump, a moral slum) typical of certain areas in late 19th-century New York City. Yellow’s Alley was filled with equally odd characters. (Trump’s soon–alas–to-be-cabinet, and his staff.) He habitually spoke in a ragged, peculiar slang. (Sounds on the money to me.)
The two newspapers which ran The Yellow Kid quickly became known as the yellow kid papers. This was contracted to the yellow papers and the term yellow kid journalism was at last shortened to yellow journalism, describing the two newspapers’ editorial practices of taking – sometimes even fictionalized (ROFL) – sensationalism and profit as their priorities.
The Yellow Kid’s image appeared on mass market retail objects such as billboards, buttons, cigarette packs, cigars, cracker tins, ladies’ fans, matchbooks, postcards, chewing gum cards, toys, whiskey and many other products. (Steaks, golf clubs, universities?)
He was the first to demonstrate that a comic strip character could be merchandised profitably. (I’m not so sure about the steaks, but certainly politically.)
Historians attribute The Yellow Kid success to the fact that he was a children’s character marketed as an anti-establishment symbol packaged for mass consumption. (Anti-Washington gull – not to be confused with gall, though that applies also – marketed to the simple-minded.)
Outcault having been lured to the Journal, the strip continued to be drawn for the World by another artist. Pulitzer and Hearst both fought to give their competing Yellow Kids more and more page space. The Battle of the Yellow Kids represented a trend in the decline of journalistic integrity (decline of journalistic integrity. Check.), of which both the World and the Journal had been guilty for years.
One vocal critic, New York Press editor Ervin Wardman, had tried many times to pin a name on the papers’ sensationalistic, exaggerated, ill-researched, and often untrue reporting, calling it new journalism and nude journalism. With the epic battle of the comic strips, he had a name that stuck: Yellow-Kid Journalism, which was eventually shortened to Yellow Journalism.
From now on I call DJT The Yellow Kid. (Carl calls him Mango Mussolini.) I like that one too. Us flotsam from the sixties might enjoy: Not-So-Mellow-Yellow.
Donovan’s lyric with revisions (I don’t think he would object):
I’m just mad about Bannon, Bannon’s mad about me. I’m just mad about Bannon. He’s just mad about me, the not-so-mellow-yellow (Quite rightly!) tremendously smart fellow. (That I be!)
I’ve decided that my verse needs some thought. It’s too much like the rabble-rouser stuff I put into Sly’s mouth. I’m laying it aside for now. I do get carried away with myself at times.
GMTA is ‘Netspeak for “Great Minds Think Alike.” There are umpteen great minds recognized on the ‘Net. Many of these GMs are not writers and can sometimes give us a story idea we might not think of.
Robert Oppenheimer, for example, once answered a student at Rochester University who asked whether the bomb exploded at Alamogordo was the first one to be detonated, “Well — yes. In modern times, of course.” How can a sci-fi writer not wonder about that other detonation? There is a story here!
Or if you prefer to write fantasy, try thinking, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” -Tupac Shakur.
A fight scene might benefit by holding in mind the thought, “They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor bastards.” -Creighton W. Abrams, Battle of the Bulge.
Need a cast of characters? Start with, “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.” -Charlie Chaplin
Sometimes, a good idea is right in front of you. “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called Mother and Child Reunion. It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, I gotta use that one.” -Paul Simon
And here’s an idea for a short horror story. “Sometimes when you’re burying a guy alive, for a moment or two you start feeling sorry for him. And then it passes and you keep on shoveling.” – George Carlin.
Where do your story ideas come from?
Lots of great ideas here but they are only ideas unless we put the time, effort & sometimes money into them to make them happen. Take the idea of WritersCo-op.com becoming a kind of wiki created by writers who have something to offer other writers. That would take time, effort & eventually, money.
Time, first. Members can keep posting articles until we have enough to seed a wiki. Then effort. I think I can find writers to create a wiki but that must be done. And we’d probably have to pay a server host to maintain our site online. I’ve set up websites since 1998 and I know we could find a home on the ‘Net for our wiki at a cost we’d be happy with.
The beauty of this path is that we do not have to decide right now. We can keep on blogging as we are doing.
When we have enough blogs, or articles, we can consider turning the site into a wiki.
If we end up with a wiki, we’ll figure out a way to fund it.
We can become a site where any writer could log on and find information on just about anything they are looking for regarding writing – from creating stories, to practical working advice, to shopping for agents, working with an editor, the publishing process, marketing tips – all on one website created by other writers:
The WritersCo-op Wiki.
What do you think?
A Chrome search for the phrase, “Glabelhammies trend higher,” on Google returns the notice that, “Your search – Glabelhammies trend higher – did not match any documents.” The same search on Internet Explorer’s Bing returns 15,200,000 results, none of which has anything whatsoever to do with Glabelhammies. Billions of web pages without a single mention of Glabelhammies and Google knows it – that’s impressive. When researching a story element, Chrome & Google do a good job of focusing on the element being researched.
For scenics, nothing beats Google Earth’s ability to show you the scene being described. This is important for writers who haven’t been there and for readers who have. Especially if you want the reader to remain immersed in the story when your character stands somewhere famous and looks around. Millions of book readers have been in Times Square, so, better Google it with Street View before you describe it. Nevertheless, Google Earth will not show where the Glabelhammies trend.
The basic limit to Internet research is exactly what makes it so useful. The ‘Net contains existing knowledge. To go beyond existing knowledge, try good old fashioned primary research. Primary Research means collecting information that does not yet exist. There are three basic approaches.
Observation is the key to seeing real life. Details caught by your eye the way you see things can help your writing show what no other writer has and make your story original.
Explore anything new that pops into your head. Accept your creativity and mentally walk into the unknown to develop an idea.
Construct new story elements. Give the reader something they’ve never read by first researching all the old ways that a part of the story has already been told. (Use the Internet) Then get imaginative.
Of course, we already know all of this. The useful question here is “how.” How do we observe real life, how do we explore creative ideas and how do we construct new story elements?
How do you, yourself, collect information that does not yet exist? Anything you can share in the comments below may help others. I know I benefit by learning from other writers. Thank you!
OKAY, let’s get the (explanatory) blonde joke out of the way.
“This blonde girl asked me what ‘IDK’ stood for. I said I don’t know. She said, ‘OMG, no one seems to.'”
She was, of course, right about a lot of things. If there were a Medieval map of the Internet, vast areas would be marked “IDK” for voids and “Here There Be Dragons” for misinformation. We don’t know a lot of things.
But don’t blame the Internet. History is riddled with gaps and untruths, eye witnesses get it wrong and experts grind their own axes. We never really knew all the facts. The problem is that now the Internet is widely accepted as the fact-checker. The Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikis.
Not that this matters so much to creative writers. We seek truth, not facts. Information changes but truth only varies within the constancies of human behavior. The great themes of literature haven’t changed since Enheduanna wrote about lovers among the reeds along the Euphrates River thousands of years ago. Only the settings change, like the scene in time travel movies where the traveler remains fixed against a background of civilizations changing, falling and rising. Aren’t unchanging human truths what really matter?
We need facts to anchor our fiction. Do our “facts” have to agree with what readers find on the Internet?
I don’t know. I’m a writer. I make stuff up.