This week: World Building for NaNoWriMoEdited by: Robert Waltz
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The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes.
― Lloyd Alexander
One of my challenges [as a writer] is to make sure that I'm giving the reader details that the character cares about rather than details that I care about. I'd say that's key to world-building.
― Jessica Andersen
When you get some free time, write. When you get some lazy time, plan. When you get down time, world build. When your time comes, shine!
― Ace Antonio Hall
For some of us, NaNoWriMo starts soon. If you're participating, and writing fantasy or science fiction, you've probably given your world - or worlds - a lot of thought already. Even if you're not doing NaNo, though, worldbuilding is a basic, foundational step to writing in a believable setting.
So I've come up with a quick guide to the essentials of worldbuilding. It is quick, as befits NaNo, but it can be used as a starting point whenever you're using a world that's not our own as a setting. This is not meant to be comprehensive; think of it as the basics of the basics.
It's written that God created the world in seven days.
With this, you can do the same. Kind of.
Day 1 - Decide whether your world is part of our physical universe or not. If it's not, like Pratchett's Discworld or, perhaps, one of the Elemental Planes, this guide probably won't be as useful, but it could still give you some things to think about. If it is, there are certain physical constraints you have to abide by in order to make it believable; for instance, any celestial body of any reasonable size is going to be roughly spherical. What's a reasonable size? Well, our moon's gravity is about 1/6 that of Earth, and it's basically spherical. Mars' moons, much smaller than ours, are not. The rest of this guide assumes a world in our universe.
Day 2 - Let there be light (We're not actually deities, so we have to wait for Day 2 for this). Your world probably orbits a star or stars, as Earth does. Even if it's the moon of a much larger world, as Ganymede orbits Jupiter, it still gets its energy from a star. What kind of star is it? Large and red? Blue, like Sirius? A double star? Or is it similar to ours? Each stellar type has its own "habitable zone;" as a rule of thumb, the hotter the star (more blue), the further away its habitable zone is. This will also help determine the world's orbital period, or year - planets further away orbit more slowly. Also, consider the shape of the planet's orbit - Earth's is nearly circular, so its orbit doesn't contribute much to seasons, but the orbit of Mars is far more elliptical. All orbits are elliptical to some degree.
Day 3 - A planet's day can be defined as the length of time it takes for its rotation to bring the same longitudinal meridian back to facing its star (there are other definitions, but we'll go with that one). Earth's day is a day. Mars' day is a bit longer, but only a bit. Our moon's day is about 28 Earth days long (again, it's measured relative to the sun, not the Earth). Venus' day is similar to its year. As you can see, there's a wide range of possibilities here. So, how long is your world's day? Also, this is the time to think about axial tilt. A tilt of near zero degrees would eliminate the idea of seasons on a planet with a nearly circular orbit. A tilt of 90 degrees is the other extreme. Earth's is around 23.5 degrees, and that has a major effect on seasons north and south of the tropics. The other result of tilt is that daylight varies throughout the planet's year at any given location - the further north or south you go, the greater the variation. While we're at it, does the world have a moon or moons? Remember, too many large bodies in close proximity may look cool on book covers, but the situation is totally unrealistic.
Day 4 - As I mentioned a couple of newsletters ago, water is essential for life as we know it. We live on a planet whose surface is dominated by water, but that might not be a necessary part of a life-bearing world. But think about how you want your world to be set up, continent-wise. How much of the surface is water? Is there one continent, or several? Or none, maybe scattered islands and archipelagos. Remember, the difference between an island and a continent is pretty arbitrary. Maybe your world doesn't have one world-spanning ocean like ours, but seas separated by land - in which case, the characteristics of each sea may be very different. Any world with surface water is also going to have a hydrologic cycle: evaporation, rainfall, drainage. Give some thought to how rivers might flow across the land. Are there areas that don't drain to an ocean, as is the case with most of Nevada (for example)? Or maybe your geography is such that there are no major rivers. This is also the time to think about weather patterns, which are beyond the scope of this editorial, but you can get some ideas by thinking about how weather systems move across the Earth - just keep in mind that when it comes to weather patterns, we have exactly one example to follow.
Day 5 - With some thought having been given to the planet's day, year, geography, and climate, we can now think about what sort of life forms, if any, exist on the world. A dry world would probably have very different ecosystems than a wet one. On Earth, life started in the oceans, and stayed there for most of its existence. And in spite of the prevalence in modern thought of the cartoon fish with the feet that crawls up out of the water to take its first breath of air, remember that the first life to colonize the dry areas was probably from the plant or fungus kingdoms. Also, remember that it's unlikely that any world would have just one biome; the "desert planet" or "forest moon" paradigm so common to both SF and fantasy is unlikely on any life-bearing world. At the very least, there should be different life forms adapted to the cooler regions than to the warmer ones.
Day 6 - Presumably, you're setting your story on another world that has humanoid life on it. Possibly even humans. How did it get there? Evolution, divine intervention, or colonization? Don't necessarily make that part of your story, but it should be something you keep in mind. The key aspect of humanity, for our purposes, is that it affects its environment by means of technology. It forms civilizations, performs agriculture, uses animals. What are the patterns of civilization on your world - is there one center of civilization, the rest being wilderness? Or has techology-using life spread across the globe? Is there only one species of tool-user, or more than one, to introduce conflict and/or diversity?
Day 7 - Again, we're not actually deities, so we don't get to rest on the seventh day. Now is the time to focus in on individual civilizations. Treat them the same as you would actual characters - they will have traits that can be qualified, such as "warlike," "nature-oriented," or "stoneworking," to name but a few. Also, think about what kind of social stratification exists, how they pick leaders (or have leaders thrust upon them), and what level of sophistication they have in their art and engineering.
And that's your seven-day world. Of course, most of these things can be expanded upon, as necessary for plot, theme or mood setting. As in reality, world-building is never really complete, not even when you take a break to, you know, write the actual story.
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Last time, in "Star Trek" , I engaged in fan-boy raving about a certain science fiction TV show.
Elfin Dragon - contest hunting : I'm with you on loving Star Trek. It left its mark on us like no other TV show/Movies ever did. It got us to dream and think about the possibilities about not only what's out there but what we're capable of here on Earth. Almost every item dreamt of on set is now used in real life. The small communicators are cell phones. The disks used for informations were the advent of floppy disks/cd's/dvd's (and any other small storage device). We have lasers which are capable of being used for many different devices (I wouldn't be surprised if they became some sort of weapon). Automated drones, satellites. And we know scientists are working on teleportation devices, because they know everything is made up of atoms which can be manipulated. Even us.
Star Wars was a fun series of movies, but it never got us to really dream big. Star Trek is the very foundation of everything we've dreamt of in the last 50-60 years. So thank you Gene Roddenberry for bringing such wonder, imagination and creativity to our lives.
They say "life imitates art," but I think it's more proper to say "life imitates science fiction."
slavezero: I am one of those weirdos who dress up and go to conventions. Not in Star Trek attire. Usually, I can be found dressed in superhero outfits. But hey, I take no offense! Maybe you know this, I don't know, but they call it cosplay.
Great Newsletter! I really liked the Gene Roddenberry quote.
Hey, no judgement. Was joking about the "weirdo" bit. Just not my thing. I will say this, though - having seen clips of the crowd at sporting events, I'd say jocks long ago lost the right to laugh at us nerds for dressing funny.
StephB : Happy 50th Star Trek! Great NL. I think Star Trek was a true inspiration - old and new. While I prefer the original Trek and TNG, everything Trek is fun. Thanks for sharing!
Not just an inspiration for science, but for humanity. Few can achieve that.
And that's it for me for October! See you next month. Until then,
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