Review Sidebar: Worldbuilding
by Max Florschutz
Hey all! My name is Max Florschutz, and I'm the author of a couple of Science-Fiction and Fantasy books you might have heard of, like Colony and the more recent Shadow of an Empire. Today I'm going to talk a little about worldbuilding.
I love it. I'm just going to open with that. Part of the experience of opening up a book is discovering a new world to get lost in. Seeing all its nooks and corners, figuring out how all the pieces stick together, and discovering fantastic places or people. As an author that makes one of my primary responsibilities to the reader to make those people and places come to life. To give them dimension, depth, and character. For characters, sure, that's a given ... but in many books, the world in which the story takes place is just as much an important "character" as the characters themselves are. Shadow of an Empire wouldn't feel the same, for example, without the harsh desert landscape that the protagonists journey through (and sometimes battle against). Colony wouldn't be the same without the world of Pisces that much of its story takes place on, complete with its people, culture, and unique requirements for living there.
So it is with just about any other story. A setting really does matter: A good setting can be the difference between an okay story, and a great one. I like to use video games a lot as examples, mostly because they're so visual they're an easy bridge, but if you look at standout games such as Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime, or even the first Halo, one similarity you'll notice between them is that the world they take place in leaves an impression on the player. The village in Resident Evil 4, for example, oozes atmosphere and contributes heavily to the tone of the game's opening areas. Now, I'm not here to talk about games, rather books, but the illustrating principle remains the same: the setting, IE the world in which your story takes place, can leave a vast, massive impression on the reader. The more sense this world makes, and the more it fits together ... the better off your story will be.
Now, a lot of different writers and creators go about achieving this "togetherness" a lot of different ways, but the point of this sidebar is for me to share my methods and what matter most to me, as well as how I sit down and work out that process. And for me, the process of building a world for the characters to inhabit is one of the most important and early parts of the process, because that world will shape everythingthe characters do and say.
On a side note, this is why some "epic" books out there come off flat: Their world is generic, and therefore the characters actions and reactions, no matter how well-written, don't have much to play off of. Think of it like a pinball table: A good player (character, for a story) can "succeed" on any table, even if it's just a flat surface with a few bumpers and the flippers, but a good pinball table? It has bumpers, ramps ... all sorts of bits of scenery and mechanics for the player to interact with. And yes, that last bit is important enough to warrant a highlight. "Poor" pinball tables are often explained as those where the elements are just flashy and for show, or don't interact with one another. The great ones? All those elements of the table don't just provider interaction with the player, but the can interact with one another as well. For example, bouncing off of a series of bumpers to end up on a ramp that sends the player to another part of the table—the player has to interact with the bumpers first to get to the other elements, usually with some sense of skill (or dumb luck).
So, when I sit down to work on a story? The world had better be one of the first things I look at, because it's going to be something that directs and interacts with the characters on all levels.
For example, the first thing I did with Shadow of an Empire was work out the magic system. I sat down and built on the initial idea I had (gifted folks who can absorb and then emit the basic forms of energy), writing out the different kinds of energy at their disposal, and how an individual used their powers. From there, though, I wasn't done. In fact, just laying out what the powers were was barely half a job. I next had to sit down and say "Okay, we have people that can absorb and emit heat energy. How would this change the society in which these powers were discovered? How long ago were they discovered?" From there I worked backward and forward, reaching into the past (Where did these powers come from? When did they first arise, and how did people react?) and into the "future" (How would culture look if these powers had been around for several hundred years or longer? How would people refer to them? What would religion think? What would science think?).
Why start there? Because such a system would change the world, which meant it was going to be one of the most important things that shaped the world I was about to write. For example, a culture in which people can absorb and emit heat would sidestep some of the problems of creating steam engines, such as a high-energy fuel source—which meant that steam power was going to rule the world I created, and be a bit more capable and important than steam power in our world ever was (as well as hang on longer over alternatives). Likewise, since this heat was so important, cities would likely spring up around areas with access to heat in addition to other things ... Which lead to the capital city of the Indrim Empire being founded on a host of geothermal springs for that readily available heat energy (Just toss your heat-absorbing employee in a hot spring for a few hours!).
However, I didn't stop with the big changes. As I sat and worked out the larger pieces (the Indrim Empire, its history, how people reacted to the gifted, etc), I also started working out smaller, more down-to-earth details. Culture and clothing, for example. Folks who can absorb light through their skin and emit it later, for example, are going to want to wear clothing that protects but also exposes a larger amount of their skin to light. People that can control that visible emission are probably going to create "art" with it (and then there were light-dancers). People who can absorb sound will be in high demand by those who don't want to be overheard, or even by those who just want to keep something loud quiet.
And it didn't stop. I came up with slang names for each type of gifted, sometimes more than just a few. And in figuring out how these gifts changed the society of the world I was building, I was able to answer other questions about the world as well. Government, religion, markets ... the list goes on.
Was all of this important? Well, yeah! It outlined the world that the characters lived in, the world that they interacted with and were acted upon on a daily basis. Greater steam power meant that steam trains were the lifeblood of this empire. Roads between towns? Not as much of importance, at least in outskirt areas of the civilization. The presence of that magic also meant that their steam trains could be much larger and more powerful than ours. And is that important to the story?
Well ... yeah. It was. Not only as an element of the setting, but the characters themselves took trips aboard the trains, traveled on them, and even faced death on them. They interacted with them.
Pisces (from Colony) was a similar situation where worldbuilding was concerned. I had to sit down and ask a whole host of questions, from logical applications of the technology present in the story to how people living on Pisces would find solutions to certain problems. Sands, or even what those problems might be. Extrapolation, in other words. How is this fixed? What could someone else do with that? Etc, etc, etc. Again, there was a whole host of things to consider with how sweeping differences could occur, or what they were.
Oh, and did I mention the research? Yeah, research plays a big part in this. I won't go into details, but a lot of this development often involves sitting down and reading/looking up information on whatever it is I'm creating. For example, the jump drives used by the subs in Colony actually stem from a real-world "supercavitation drive" technology that involves ... well, exactly what it was in the story: Use of an electrical field to create low-drag vacuum bubbles around something. In the real world thus far, that has meant torpedoes that surpass speeds of 320 KPH. Sometimes worldbuilding has meant digging into real-world approaches, events, and people to see how similar problems were dealt with or solved. Can an old-world solution to long-distance communication, for example, work in a new way within what I'm working on? It may seem like an odd question, but in Shadow of an Empire, there is a mention of a group of folks experimenting with shockers' electrical talents to send electrical signals down lengths of wire ...
Which, by the way, is a one-off line in the book, but was there for another reason other than just "I thought of this." It was there to make the world feel organic. Which leads into this next part of what I do ... After I've got the big stuff figured out (like the magic, and how that changed the society, and the history), I start thinking about the important small stuff. One of the key ones?
Money. No joke, with Shadow I sat down and wrote a whole system out. Why? Because part of worldbuilding is the small details, the little tiny ones that we all know of but don't always acknowledge ... until they're missing.
Money? That's a small detail ... but think about how much of a day to day life can revolve around money. How it's used, who uses it ... even how to pay for a sandwich.
If that still seems odd to you, think about it this way. When was the last time you commented to a friend about their lunch, and they replied "Yes, I bought it with money!"
Seem weird? That's because it is. Most folks don't talk like that. If they tell you how much it was worth, it'll likely be something like "Yeah, and it was only like four bucks!"
Spot the slang is in that last sentence? If you're thinking "bucks" then you're right. "Bucks" is slang for "US dollars." Now how many of you have read a book where a detail-oriented character simply says 'I gave the waiter some money to cover my meal" or something similarly vague? I've noticed it before. The issue there is that the one doing the worldbuilding didn't think of the small but important details in their world, like cash.
Think of it as the difference between a picture of a scene that doesn't move, and a video of a scene where the flowers gently sway back and forth in the breeze. One feels more real than the other. Similarly, the small details of worldbuilding can go a long way. In my Being a Better Writer articles, I've sometimes referred to this as 'remembering the butterflies near the flowers.' A character that says 'Give 'em five bucks" to pay for information feels a little bit more real than a character that says "give them their money" because readers use money on a daily basis. Even if the form of currency isn't quite the same, just having the characters stay consistent with it can really ground a reader in a story.
In summation? I work out all the big, large pieces of the world first, but then after that I sit down and poke at all the details to make sure they all line up with one another, or at the very least exist beforehand so that if they do come up in my story, rather than panicking and making something up on the spot that feels "rough" by comparison, I can simply nod, check my notes, and then roll right on with my story. I have the large bits, and the small bits, and if I've done my job right, they'll come together without grinding against one another (unless, you know, that's part of the plot).
And again, this stuff isn't window dressing. It's not flashy lights that the characters just walk past. The characters live in the world I build, which means that the story, their day-to-day actions ... all of it will be shaped by it. Amacitia Varay is a serial killer that uses her power over sound to hunt and deceive her victims, and likewise the peacekeepers responsible for hunting her use their own powers (as well special tools just for dealing with gifted criminals). The city around them is shaped by these powers. And they make choices based on that city (that holds true for Colony as well, but with science and location rather than magic powers).
Okay, this is getting long (though it is my process), so I'm going to wrap this up with a final point to make: I've had some that aren't writers say that my worldbuilding process sounds too detailed, like too much work. Some even say it's "wasted time I could spend writing."
I disagree, obviously. My rebuttal would be this: If I weren't using what I spent so much time worldbuilding, then yes, it would be wasted time. If I wasn't using my worldbuilding to shape the story, wasn't putting it into effect? Yeah, no disagreement.
But that's not what happens. Instead, I spend a good amount of time (usually a week or so) working out all these details, big and small, about the world. Then, when I drop my characters into this setting, they can interact with it, be shaped by it, shape it in turn, etc etc etc, because it's all already there. There aren't any "blank" spots in the setting that stump the story, because even if things bounce in a new direction, I still have all the tools and elements that shaped the rest of the world to work off of. And what results ... well, it's a world that feels real, from the characters to the setting. It feels like a place that could exist.
That's a win for me and my readers.
A quick summary, just as a recap: The world and setting can be as much a character for the reader as the characters. What's more, they should both act on the characters and be acted upon by them, rather than just be there. I worldbuild by starting with the biggest elements, such as magic or an underwater planet, and extrapolate what sort of "world" would come from those elements. I also work out the tiny details, like money. The little stuff. I do research!
And then? I get to writing, and bring that world to life.
If you liked the sound of what you read here, feel free to swing by my site, Unusual Things, and check out Being a Better Writer, a weekly series on ... well, it's not a misnomer. Writing tips, advice, and so on. Plus books, some of which have been reviewed by your reviewer!