Whenever a writer creates a story, no matter if it is romance, thriller, science-fiction, fantasy, or even historical nonfiction, they engage in world building. For some genres, the world is 80% to 90% already fixed in place. After all, if the author produces a thriller about an out-of-control president trying to become dictator in 2017 America, most of the “world” is already known and accepted by the readers. The writer doesn’t worry about what the outer buildings look like, how the city/state/country operates, or even what currency is used.
However, the author still must build a “world” in terms of the president’s inner sanctum, his personal taste in clothing, his support people, and what objects, rooms, or architectures have deeper meaning in this novel. For instance, does the White House really have a Kennedy Rumpus Room (as in Mars Attacks) or a secret tunnel for sneaking out? I love watching the old show, West Wing, but figure the workrooms of the White House probably don’t really look like the show’s depiction, which were created for easy filming.
The world-building phenomenon doesn’t stop with the written word. Any avid role-playing gamer, video game developer, or even architect understands the importance of planning the big picture and the many details that go into a given place and time.
Incredulity in the Setting
Of course, the farther the story stretches away from reality and the here-and-now, the more the author must create the setting. Historical texts, science fiction, and fantasy all must include a clear and defined world that not only engages the reader but also makes sense. Sometimes making sense is the hardest part.
Readers and TV/movie viewers all have a disbelief point (called my bullshit line) where they inherently know something in a setting doesn’t work. For instance, using poultry for financial exchanges may work in a fantasy novel, but trading chickens for ship parts looks stupid in science fiction. Plus, carrying baby chicks around in space suits while experiencing zero-g is difficult and silly. The movie, Life, (reviewed in a previous blog) is a great example of crossing the bullshit line.
Common Rules of World Building
The disbelief point comes from breaking concrete rules of all worlds. Bypass those rules and the story becomes stupid/silly/terrible very quickly. Here are a few overarching principles that should never be crossed or ignored.
Science is true and usually unbreakable everywhere and every when. Therefore, living things should die/freeze in space, people can’t fly without assistance, and bullets, gasoline, poisons, and magic should all work in predictable ways. This includes NOT standing near a pool of gasoline and igniting a match unless you want to lose all your body hair. The vapor is more ignitable than the pool.
People must wear clothes that make sense. Going around naked causes sunburns. Wearing diaphanous material in a winter wonderland is dumb even indoors. Heating costs and buildings always leak. People must also eat food and drink water daily, so going for days without any sustenance should create horrible effects.
Magic must make sense for the situation. It should have an effort cost and not act like a gun with a never-ending supply of bullets (a fault of many television shows). Don’t use it for the answer to everything. Magic should also follow scientific principles. For instance, if you put a cream pie into a “bag of constant falling,” you will decapitate yourself (or someone else) when you open the bag again since the cream pie is going at a tremendous speed. This idea came from a Dungeons and Dragons adventure with physicists (fun folks who like to get creative with their weaponry).
Although I agree with the idea that high tech advancements become indistinguishable from magic to a primitive race, high tech must also make sense. One machine doesn’t do it all. Personally, I don’t believe in the machine-turns-to-god idea. High tech should also have a cost for using it and a possibility of breakdown.
Consistency of the Story
Any established rule of the story’s world must not be broken later, at least not without a tremendous cost. If an angry mob storms the palace because of a class system of cruelty and poverty, one man giving a speech isn’t going to stop the bloodshed. Stopping to sleep in ancient ruins should include nasty things like bugs, snakes, or mice in the overgrown areas. They don’t have to attack the characters, but the place isn’t going to be a pristine wonderland either.
This blog only represents the highlights of a deep and complex part of writing great stories. World building is both fascinating and daunting in its depths but critically important in that the writer must understand of the grand ideas and minutiae details of his or her world. In the coming weeks, I’ll post a number of blogs on world-building specifics along with some thoughts based on my own novels. Please feel free to add your input, ideas, or stories of the complexities of your worlds.