World Building, part 1: Why Bother?

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about World Building.
When I first heard this term, I figured that it wasn’t relevant to writing unless you were literally building your own setting–as you would in a fantasy or certain science fiction. New races of characters, unique religions, fanciful creatures, maybe a new language, that sort of thing. But the more I thought of it the more I realized that world building isn’t about creating a totally new world at all–it’s really about creating a cohesive and consistent setting for your characters and story to live in. Although the term normally applies to speculative fiction, I think it’s a necessary part of writing in any genre.

I started thinking about world building when I began fleshing out an idea I had for a novel, many years ago. It began with reading about the theories of Richard Hoagland, who believes that the supposed face on Mars was built by an ancient civilization on that planet. (If you haven’t seen the pictures, go here; NASA has photographed the same area more recently, conclusively showing that it’s not a face–but that’s outside the scope of this article.)
It made me think: if a civilization did exist on Mars, what would drive them to build a giant face? As I was also reading a lot of mythology at the time, I immediately thought it would have to be for religious reasons. I created a mythology for this fictional civilization, and eventually had the workings of a novel.
In creating that world, I started with the mythology and cosmology. That gave me a cultural foundation. Then I drew a map, which turned out to feature three distinct geographical areas–which led me to create three races. The geography of each continent informed their individual cultures–the resource starved Ozym, for example, had to fight for their survival, and thus developed a violent martial culture. And so on. I ended up with what seemed to be a nice, cohesive world.
Then the novel got set aside. I picked it up again years later–and set it aside again after several months. I had four or five false starts before I realized the problem: I could never finish the book because every time I started anew, I brought in all these new ideas. I thought I was developing the “world” of the book, but really I was muddling it. It had collapsed under its own weight, because it wasn’t consistent. By then, making it consistent seemed such a large job that I set it aside once more, convincing myself that I didn’t have time during my University years.

Now I’m ready to start planning for it again. I still have that foundation, but have decided to pare it down to the beginning, and start with a more or less clean slate. What’s more, I want to let the world develop more organically, which I plan to do by first writing a series of short stories in this setting, and seeing where it goes. The Astrologers–which you can find posted in a rough draft in previous posts here–is the first.
But how do I keep from having the same problem as before? I think the main issue was that I was always adding what I thought were cool ideas. This time, I need to concentrate on what the story of the world is going to be about. There’s no sense having flashy plot points or cultural idiosyncrasies if they don’t make sense–or have a definite purpose–in the World.  I’m reminded of Anton Chekov’s shotgun effect: he said that if you introduce a shotgun in the first scene of your play, someone had better use it by the end. Otherwise, why bother including it?
So my first rule of world building is that every piece of the puzzle has to fit–and not only that, it has to make internal sense. It’ll be like editing; if you find a character that doesn’t add to to overall story or theme, you cut it. The same goes for world building.

And that’s why I said above that world building is important for all genres, not just speculative fiction. Are you writing a story set in 1912 New York? Fine, make sure you don’t mention Babe Ruth playing for the Yankees–he was traded in 1918. Is your novel about the Napoleonic Wars? Having a knowledge of the French language will add a great amount of depth. A sociopolitical thriller in Ancient Rome? Keep in mind that slavery was not only condoned, but expected of certain classes. Knowing your World–whether you create it yourself or not–is crucial to writing a good story. If you don’t have an accurate setting for your characters to play in, it won’t seem real. Or, worse, people will pick up on inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and will be pulled out of the story while they try to imagine why you didn’t do your research.

I’ll be writing more on world building as I learn more about the process, so stay tuned!

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