This is my World Now: Calming the World Building Terrors
by Elizabeth Mae Lewis, 15 May 2014
She moved through the lab, her heels clicking against the crystalline tiles even as she stepped slowly along the length of the table. The vial she’d just received slid easily into place and filled the last empty spot in the machine she’d been building for seventy years. No one could stop her now.
Hey look! I’ve created a world there. It is just a small flash of a room and a person, and this opening scene could go in any number of directions. Is this woman old, near her death, or is this a future where everyone lives to be seven hundred years old and she’s just starting out? That would certainly change the expectations of what this machine might be doing, right? But there’s more to it than just that. Is this woman even human? Is this scene taking place on earth or on a space station?
This moment of possibilities is where world building takes its first great leap. I could probably talk about it for days, the excitement, the frustration, the easy mistakes and the unexpected successes of creating something strange and unique, but let’s just look at a few important things to keep in mind when you’re starting with a new world.
Problem number one: I have to build an entire universe!
Stop. Breathe. It’s okay. Accept that it’s not possible to deal with every aspect of a world in one novel. Politics, religion, gender roles, economic distribution, the environmental impact of society: all of these and more are possible areas to explore, but diluting your story by trying to hit every point won’t make it better. Instead, concentrate your efforts on what is crucial to your conflict.
In my novel the main source of tension is the main characters’ coming of age and their meeting, or failing to meet, their expectations for their adult lives, so I put a great deal of planning into how children in this village grow and find their place in society. But even though my story is tilted toward the sociology end of things, this doesn’t mean that I can ignore everything else. For instance, the interactions of my villagers with the nearest tribe are not always so friendly, and that’s where I need to slip in ideas about the politics and their economic situation. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to outline the governing systems of both tribes, every position and their responsibilities, all the way back through their history. I don’t need to do all that extra work. Once I have the general shape and feel of their governments I can fake the rest. Learning to fake your level of knowledge well enough to convince your readers is a crucial writing skill that will make your life so much easier.
Now, there are some things that can’t be avoided in world building. Fiction is a descriptive medium, so it’s probably necessary to tell your readers at some point what your characters are wearing and what the buildings around them look like. How in-depth you get with these things depends on your tastes, your writing style, and the story you’re working on. Give it a try, it’s fun! If you add too much, cut some out, and if it’s too sparse, shove some new details in; it’s your story. You get to decide if it’s important that your readers know that your main character is wearing a white buckskin dress trimmed in purple velvet with seven pure silver buttons or if it’s just important to know that she’s not wandering through town naked. Those are two very different stories. Listen to your characters. Listen to your conflicts.
Problem number two: How do I know what I need to build?
There’s no easy answer to this one, but don’t worry. I always start with what interests me. I create festivals or magic or familial expectations and keep going until I’ve got a world that feels real and I’m just too excited to wait any longer to jump in and tell one of the stories I’ve stumbled across in the process.
The best part of writing is that you’re not stuck on a one-way street. You can go back and fill in what you need at the beginning when the middle doesn’t make sense without it. And the coolest part for me is that after I’ve spent weeks creating this world, my brain knows more about this world than it’s telling me. I’ll get to a tense scene between two characters with no idea why they’re upset and then my brain jumps in with “they’re a non-violent society! He’s freaking out that she hit someone!” and bam, I can finish the scene and then go back and slip in the foreshadowing needed to make that scene feel natural.
Problem number three: I don’t know everything about everything.
Seriously, guys. Challenge yourself when you write, but don’t challenge yourself off a cliff. Take that leap to create characters who are different than you and interested in awesome things, but if calculus terrifies you then writing from the point of view of a theoretical physicist may not be the best plan. That is, of course, unless you want to learn enough theoretical physics to fake it. In that case, grab a math book and a slinky and learn something. Go you!
No information you learn is ever useless.
Writing fiction doesn’t get you out of doing research, especially if you write science fiction. The word science is in there for a reason. But don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit that you’re clueless. Do you remember all those high school and college science requirements? I’m so using that knowledge!
In my current novel I’ve created a bioluminescent world, and I need to understand the internal chemical reactions and the energy levels of the color spectrum to make sure my plot makes sense. I could fake it, if I had to, but what’s the harm in reading about something that I’m obviously interested in and taking that extra little time to get it right? And do you know what? After reading a few books I understand enough about light waves and energy levels and luciferins to have my villagers glow red to conserve energy and purple or blue when they’re excited. And now, when I get to work on my novel, I’ll know that I have that right and won’t feel bad when all of the machinery they use and the crops they harvest and the biological basis of their healing capabilities remain shrouded in darkness. Remember, you don’t have to do everything; you just have to do enough to convince the readers that they can trust you.
So where does this leave you? It leaves you with a blank page ready for your world. Take something you find fascinating, build your world around it, find the conflict that makes you squeal with glee, and go for it. Learn what you need to, fake what you can get away with, ignore what you don’t care about, and tell an amazing story.
Elizabeth Mae Lewis received her BA in Creative Writing and Philosophy from Lycoming College and her MFA from Emerson College. Besides teaching herself to love running and to not fall over while practicing yoga, she is currently working on several young adult novels, one fantasy and one magical realist, that appeal to her desire to find the strangeness in the world.