Why world-building is important, and what things you should consider.
|The following article consists of approximately 2,700 words. Sorry if you think it's long winded, but the idea is to provoke you into thinking, and by necessity that means throwing in what look like random thoughts and ideas. They're not.
In one of my stories, I’d created a richly detailed, homogeneous and holistic world. The story involved two opposing Machiavellian plots, and naturally enough, the conclusion would result in the triumph of one over the other. I had absolutely no desire to return to this world with another story. In fact, I was dead set against it, on the principle that further exploration of that world would undermine the perceptions the reader had built in their own head.
Unfortunately (or not), the world was so rife with story possibilities, that eventually one of those began to nag me. It wanted to be written. I refused to budge for a long time, but some persistent arguing on its part eventually convinced me that the story was right - it needed to be written.
Still only partially enthused, I decided to at least invest some time into investigating what could be done, and the route I chose to do this was additional world-building. If you are going to revisit a world, you need to bring fresh detail to the new story, so you can’t just rely on your old notes. After more than a month of intense world-building, I was now as enthused about the story as the story itself was.
Psychologically, of course, it was my instinct telling me that this was important. Always trust your gut, it doesn’t over think things and cuts to the heart of the matter.
Good world-building can make or break a story, but you should never underestimate the potential it brings for suggesting and revealing story ideas. Just as you can spin a story out of in-depth character creation, world-building can do the same. Further, it has the potential to suggest not one, but many stories, and provide a platform for many stories yet to come. Raymond E. Feist has written dozens of stories in his world of Midkemia. In fact, he’s only written one novel not set in that universe, a contemporary adult fairy/horror story.
So how do you go about world-building? That’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string; there are many ways to do it. Some people like making it up as they go along, and as you can tell, I like to do it before I start working on the plot for my story. There are only two things you need to know though, and knowing and understanding these is all you really need to achieve world class environments within which your story will unfold.
The first is that world-building is actually research. The more depth and detail you create, the better you will understand that world, and that means you will be better positioned to exploit it. The key word in that last sentence was ‘exploit’. If all you intend to do is ‘use’ your world as a setting for your story, then the reader is unlikely to engage with that world. It’s a bit like creating characters - you want it to resonate with the reader so they become immersed in it. Look at Star Wars (the original movie). The story itself was a fairly humdrum fairy tale. What made the movie special were the advanced special effects, which at a rudimentary level make the world believable, and the fantastic world the story unfolds in.
The second is that your world must be both homogeneous and holistic. If your story is set in 2050 and you decide that steam trains are the norm, because you like them and think they’re romantic, you’ve made a serious error. Everything in your world must have a reason for being there, and it must make sense within that world. If your story is set in the late 23rd century when people have developed technology that removes excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, artificial coal substitutes can be manufactured, and that the world is a happy little place where the romanticism of steam trains are just part of a drive toward an idealised pastoral lifestyle, then it makes perfect sense.
As for the holistic nature, you have to remember that not only must each thing in your world make sense within it, but that everything is connected to everything else. You can’t have smart phones without digital computer technology, and you can’t have computers without a techo-industrial manufacturing base. Digital and other long-range near-light speed communications affect commerce, the availability of information, consumerism, life-style, politics, religion, research, and engenders new industries.
That said, there is always a little wiggle-room. Electronic digital computers are made from either diodes or more commonly, silicon chips. Silicon chips contain millions of tiny transistors, which act as (depending upon your point of view) gates or semaphores. These construct logic circuits which can be programmed. However, transistors are strange little beasts. A simple transistor consists of a semiconductor material with three or more electrical terminals. A current applied to one pair of terminals controls the current through another pair, and since this output can exceed the input, can be used to amplify a signal (as they do in transistor radios) or signal a different state (0 or 1). Amplification actually means that the output exceeds the input. This isn’t just weird, it breaks the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed.
The idea for the transistor came out of quantum theory. They have a mantra in this field: if you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory. The first law of thermodynamics cannot be broken, else the universe would quite literally destroy itself, either by exploding from an excess of energy, or withering from its decay. So where is the extra energy from the transistor coming from? Nobody knows. Quite literally, nobody knows. Nobody knows how or why transistors work, yet somehow we were able to predict they would, and the modern world is now utterly reliant on them.
Quantum computers also work via the grace of quantum mechanics. Want to know if a fifty digit odd number is a prime? You can write a program to test each possible divisor between three and the number divided by two less one (the minimum number of tests), sit back and wait several hundred years for your PC to make up its mind. A quantum computer actually tests all possible answers at the same time, returning true if a divisor succeeds. It relies on things such as superposition and entanglement, which I won’t explain here, but neither are truly understood in anything beyond principle. Another case of the unexplainable proving not only interesting, but useful.
Therefore, your world-building can rely on ‘unexplained’ technologies. Science fiction is littered with examples, from hyperdrives for interstellar travel and subspace for communications, to time travel devices and reanimation (thank you, Mary Shelley, for scaring me witless when I was nine years old).
Remember that you don’t have to be constrained by binary computers either. In 1958, Sergei Sobolev and Nikolay Brusentsov, determined to make a cheap, reliable, energy efficient ternary computer out of off-the shelf components available in any electronics store. In a binary computer, a bit has two states, defined as either on-off, yes-no or 0-1. Ternary bits (known as trits) have three states, referred to as yes-no-maybe, yes-no-undefined, (-1,0,1) and variations on that theme. They couldn’t use transistors, meaning silicon chips were out, so turned to LEDs, which can have three states.
What’s so important about ternary computers? Firstly, they can do anything a binary computer can: they can emulate a binary computer, simply by ignoring one state. Secondly, they are far more precise. What’s one divided by three? “One third!” I hear you cry. Right, but what happens when you type that equation into a calculator or computer? All you get is an approximation. A ternary computer though, can give you a precise answer - one third.
Using LEDs, ternary computers are much slower than binary ones based on transistors, but there are areas of research and calculation where they are increasingly being turned to because of that unmatched precision. In engineering, medicine, chemistry, astrophysics, data modelling and other arenas, the ability to divide by odd numbers is a powerful tool that can quite literally change the world just as assuredly as the advent of the electronic binary computer.
The point I'm making with transistors, quantum and ternary computers, aside from the fact that you can have 'unexplained' technology, is that very small things can have radical impacts. A drop in the birthrate, a one degree change in global temperature, the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor will also have drastic effects on the world. Within ten to fifteen years, the world will run out of a rare metal named indium. You might not have heard of it, not many people have. It is one of the rarest metals on the planet. When it runs out, unless a new technology is developed that works without it, you can kiss your smart phone goodbye. Stupidly, we don't (and in fact, deliberately can't) recycle indium from old phones. Without indium, there are no touch-screens.
Take a look at the world you are building through the lenses of technology, lifestyle, politics, religion, economics, infrastructure, society, prevailing attitudes and anything else you can think of. Make sure they have a reason for being the way they are. In The Handmaids Tale (Margaret Atwood), there is an explanation for how and why a pseudo-religious group have taken control of the United States (renaming it Gilead).
Having them in charge is important because it is the dystopian world they have created that provides both the backdrop and the reason for the story, but you can’t just say that this is the way the world is - you have to give a reason for it becoming that way, else it doesn’t make sense and the reader is left dissociated with it. Knowing and understanding how it came to be this way makes it real for them. Atwood achieves this beautifully by slowly revealing the circumstances of how it all came into being, and how that underneath the surface, it is really all just a lie, a power-grab by some self-serving men who want women relegated so they’re no longer competition.
Once you have the important elements, start drilling down, filling in more and more detail by exploring each of the aspects of your world, seeing how each affects the others. If ideas for various plots (not necessarily sufficient to base a story on, but interesting nonetheless) occur to you, weave them into your world. As you add more and more detail, yet more detail will occur to you. In the end you will have a world so richly detailed that you will thoroughly understand it in a way that your readers never will, and this will show in your writing.
As I mentioned before, world-building is research. When you come to write your story, you have already done a heck of a lot of the research you need. Use your story to exploit the world you’ve created. Let me give you an explanation of why that is important.
Imagine a crime story, set on a base on the Moon. Someone has been murdered, and a detective of some ilk has to solve the case. Aside from being an enclosed environment, there is nothing about this story that couldn’t have been set on Earth. It could have been set in a secret research facility under lock-down outside San Diego. If you are going to set the story on the Moon, you must exploit it. Use the fact that stepping outside is fatal, as is breaking a window, unless you are wearing an environment suit. You may have standard Earth gravity inside the complex, but outside it is much lower. If you don’t have some form of gravity manipulation inside, take advantage of that.
Here on Earth, punching someone hard on the nose will stun them. Under Lunar gravity, your punch is only one sixth as effective, since throwing the punch will also throw you back, something that Earth’s gravity counter balances. Fist fighting, which always tends to end up as wrestling, is far more likely to turn into a wrestling match sooner on the Moon.
In low gravity environments, smoke and flames behave ... weirdly. On the International Space Station there is no up or down. Therefore, heat cannot rise. It radiates. Flames looks like balls enveloping their source, and can even become detached from the source. Smoke is even weirder. Like flames, smoke has a natural tendency to simply form a growing sphere, but it is also subject to air currents, and it is not unlikely that you’ll end up with small globes of smoke drifting around completely detached from the fire that birthed them.
Exploitation of the world brings awe and wonder, making your story all the more memorable. Ask yourself a question: who remembers the plot after they’ve put the book down? Plots fade from memory, but the world you’ve created, if well thought out and exploited, will always endure.
I watched a youtube video yesterday, where someone explained a story (as if he was the author trying to sell it to a publisher in 1851) like this:
“There are no women in it. There are lots of men and a boy, and they’re on a ship. All we do is watch them go about their daily routines. There is a distorted sort of love, but it is unrequited.”
A truly unmemorable story, right? Actually, this is Moby Dick. What makes the story so memorable to all who have read it, isn’t the obsession Ahab has with the white whale, it is the way the environment - the world in which the crew live - is exploited to its full capacity. The hardships of living on a whaling ship, the hazards, relationships, disputes and all that comes from living in a confining environment, these are what make the story compelling. That and truly believable characters, but even they make no sense outside of this environment - they are a product of it.
If you spend a couple of hours a day, every day for a month, building your world, you will end up with something rife with story ideas. One suggestion I’ve heard, is to think of it as setting the stage for a table-top role playing game - you have absolutely no idea what the game is going to be (the story), you’re just creating the environment in which it will take place. Don’t forget that you can add people too, individuals who help breathe life into the world.
By the time you’ve finished, if you haven’t had at least three story ideas, you probably only entered into it half-heartedly. The good news is that it is fun. A lot of fun. A little hard to get started at times, but eventually you’ll be rolling along nicely and thoroughly enjoying yourself. It can even become addictive.
It isn’t just for sci-fi and fantasy either, every story requires a world to take place in, and often this means some form of microcosm, especially in contemporary stories.
It is not only an essential tool in the authors tool box, it is a highly productive one that will stimulate your imagination, offer possible story options and lots of story potential. It will inform your writing, give you confidence, and if exploited well, will excite your audience. It will help you evolve as a writer, and your stories will improve dramatically.
Take your seed story idea, create your rich and diverse world, then start working on the plot and the characters that drive the story forward.
Still think it’s something you don’t have to put much thought into?