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Thursday, November 12, 2015

World Building

Charity recently posted about world building, and her post inspired this one.  *Waves at Charity*  There have been times when I’ve come across a manuscript where the world building wasn’t quite what it needed to be.

I once received a submission that was actually a pretty interesting and compelling story.  However, the author needed to go back and flesh out the world a bit more.  The story was set in a future U.S. that had already been through a war.  Certain areas had been nuked.  The survivors had primarily banded together into two groups in two different regions.  Think of how the Mason-Dixon Line is supposed to sort of separate the North from the South, and you have a basic idea of what I mean by two different regions.  Well, one of these groups is composed entirely of females.  There are no males allowed, relationships can only occur between two women.  If a couple wants to have a child, they have to be registered and go to the clinic.  All embryos are female and no male DNA is used in their creation.

The other group is composed of male/female pairings, but it’s in the extreme, because the men are completely in charge.  Women do have jobs and things like that, but in the long run, they don’t have much say in matters.

As I mentioned before, the story itself was interesting, but the world had some issues with being believable.  For one thing, why weren’t there any groups of people who didn’t fall into either of the above categories?  Even though there were the female only communities, why weren’t there any similar communities strictly for men?  Why weren’t there any communities who had male/female pairings, but where women and men had equal rights?  Surely, the war didn’t twist everyone into believing the two extremes.  You find out later that there is a resistance, a group who believes that neither of the two societies is right, but why did they have to be a resistance?  Why weren’t they just a third society?  What made people believe that either of the two extremes was right in the first place?  What made people decide they had to split into those two distinct societies?  The entire U.S. wasn’t laid to waste during the war, so it’s not like there were very few inhabitable places left.  Why didn’t those who disagreed with the two extremes go out and form their own societies?  Why did they have to be underground as a resistance?  This author did receive a rejection, but I was very detailed in the issues I noted in the manuscript.  I explained that this world just wasn’t believable, because there wasn’t enough of a background to give the world plausibility.  While the author didn’t need to drown the readers in the backstory of it, they did need to give some plausible reasons for this world to form.

The questionnaire Charity shared during her post is a great place to start.  Sure, it’s detailed, and some of the questions wouldn’t apply to every story, but just reading through the list of questions shows authors the things they need to think about when creating their world.  The author can get away with not explaining some things by having their characters say, “That’s just the way it’s always been.”  However, that will only get you so far.  The author needs to think about whatever’s being questioned in their world and decide if something is insignificant enough to say, “That’s just the way it’s always been”, or if it’s important enough to explore why it’s always been that way.  And if it hasn’t always been the norm, to explore why it became that way.

You need to make your world work, and even if it’s an odd world where social conventions don’t make sense to us, it has to make sense within that world.  Readers have to be able to see the connection.  Even if it’s not something they could ever agree with, they need to be able to see how it was possible for it to become normal for your world and its characters.  The same is true if you have fantasy elements in the modern world.  How does the magic work?  What is the price for using magic?  If there's a prophecy, who made it and why?  Try to look at your world from an outside perspective and make sure things will make sense to your readers.  This is another thing betas are good for catching.


Diana Wilder said...

This was a good post, and you put your finger on something that always troubles me when I encounter it: the not-quite-fleshed-out society. Why is it that way? How does it work? Why isn't there (name the thing you would think would be part of it)? One famous Sci-Fi/Fantasy series had quite a few blips in the world the author built. People swallowed them anyhow, and the books were fun, but I always had a reservation...

You mentioned a questionnaire that Charity shared during her post, and I can't seem to find it. Can you point me in the right direction? As a world-builder, I like all the guidance I can get.

Angela said...

Here's the link to Charity's original post.


If you read through her post, the "Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions" link takes you to the SFWA site where you can find the questions. Also, Charity put the questions in a word document, and she has a link to that document near the end of the post. It says "You can get it Here". Click on "Here" and you can download the file.

There are some excellent questions in the list!

And is it okay to ask what series you're referring to? If you'd rather not say, that's fine. I was just curious! :)

Em-Musing said...

Great thought/world building provoking post. And yes, please post the questionnaire again?

Diana Wilder said...

@Angela -

I was specifically thinking of Anne McCaffrey's PERN series, which I first encountered in college when she only had the three dragon novels and the one harper one. She started backtracking and made slips. I do have her earlier ones and still read them from time to time.

Do pick up the 1977 hardcover reissue of Ursula LeGuin's book ROCANNON'S WORLD and read her introduction to that edition where she talks about things she would do differently and, as well, the difficulty in creating a world. She says, rightly, that once you have something in your world, you are stuck with it and must work with it. A delicious piece of writing.

Angela said...

Em, did you see the link in my response above?

Diana, I had a feeling you were talking about PERN! There were some issues, but I loved the world, warts and all. I haven't read all of them, but I was introduced to the world when I was in high school and I found the Harper trilogy. I just loved Menolly (not sure if that's the correct spelling!) and her fire lizards. Especially Beauty.

I'll definitely see if I can find that reissue of Rocannon's World. That sounds very interesting!