Thursday, March 17, 2011

World Building

The other day on my blog we were talking about Setting as Character. As I read your delightful comments, I started wondering how far off topic World Building was. Is that essentially what we were talking about? No. Setting as Character is one thing, but when I started mentioning dystopian novels and paranormal, I began to cross into another topic (or dimension--key weird music).

So let's talk about World Building, albeit briefly, because honestly, can you cover everything there is in one short blog post? I read this someplace else, so I can't give full credit for it (I apologize, I seem to have misplaced the link), but I feel that it really sums up what you need to do to build the best world possible: make your own rules and stick to them.

Of course, this implies that you need rules to begin with, right? Since you're in another world, or a world parallel to this one, or an alternate world to this one, or a futuristic world (etc, etc), that world and the characters in it need to act accordingly. These rules apply to government, magic, geography, marriage, language, rivalries, culture, history, etc, etc.

Implement these rules into the story. It isn't enough to just have these rules and write a rule book about them, we need to see your characters interacting with the rules. What is impeding them? How do they feel about the rules? Is it possible to change the rules? How do the rules effect their journey? How have the rules shaped them?

Based soley on World Building, my favorite books:

  • Terry Goodkind: Sword of Truth series
  • Beth Revis: Across the Universe
  • Julia Karr: XVI
  • Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
  • Libba Bray: A Great and Terrible Beauty
  • Scott Westerfeld. Anything he writes.
  • Diana Peterfreund, Rampant
In other words, anything over on my favorite books list. These authors have managed to weave a story so complex, and yet so easy to understand, that it's impossible not to be sucked in. They have other things going for them of course, but the characters interact with the world so well, you can't help but believe it, and imagine how you would have turned out if you had been in that world too.

Ok, so your favorite books? Based on World Building alone.

And, how much different is World Building from Setting as Character? Can you interchange them all the time? Some of the time? Can you have Setting as Character in a Built World, but not World Building in a Character's Setting?

Any great resources you've found for World Building?

Happy writing!


Stephanie Allen said...

World building might be my favorite part of writing something new. The discovery is always fun. (Although, it takes a pretty sizable Google doc to keep all my notes in line.)

My favorites? Well, I think Lord of the Rings is a duh. I also like A Game of Thrones. The Hunger Games. The Pendragon books.

D.M.Cunningham said...

The Monster Blood Tattoo series builds one of the best worlds I've read in a long time. D.M. Cornish does such an amazing job of creating a world of monsters and mayhem it brings tears to my eyes.

Bkloss said...

Great post. By the way, I agree--Terry Goodkind is excellent at world building. The Sword of Truth was so well planned/organized that it intimidated me to write my own world! And, for fear of sounding like a broken record, Lord of the Rings is my favorite here as well ;)

I think the line between World Building and Setting as Character is a fine one. The "world building" encompasses a broader spectrum--like you said "government, magic, geography, marriage, language, rivalries, culture, history". The "character" aspect is how all of those attributes actually plays out, ie how those dimensions change with respect to your MC. I think both parts constantly feed off of each other. Setting can't establish its character if you haven't already established the ground rules (world building).

One resource I've loved that's helped me with world building is Anatomy of Story by John Truby. He helps you figure out how to weave all elements into an organic story--including shaping your world. Great resource for writers!

Thanks for posting these discussions!

cleemckenzie said...

I thought Prophecy of the Sisters and Beautiful Creatures were top notch in the world building department.

Hadn't heard of Anatomy of Story, Barbara. Thanks for posting that.

Bkloss said...

Oh sure, cleemckenzie! I went through my plot with that book. It resulted in a re-write ;) Not that that would be the case for everyone. I, apparently, needed a lot of help!

Heather said...

Thank you for this timely post! I'm about to begin outlining a steampunk novel that has been screaming at me to write it. This will come in very handy! I love world building. It's a big part of the fun. My favorite book based solely on world building would have to be The Wayfarer Redemption by Sara Douglass. Though The Sword Of Truth would come in a very close second!

Touch of Ink said...

Like Steph, world building is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. What are the rules of this world? Why? How do people act or ignore the rules, and why? It leads to more complex plots than I would have had with just a straight outline.

One of my favorite world building books (that hasn't already been mentioned) is "The Enchantment Emporium" by Tanya Huff. She creates a world and because the characters live in it, they don't explain it. But she gives enough clues to the reader that we can figure out what (some) of the rules are.

I also love, love, love, Wen Spencer's "A Brother's Price". She's great at world building in general, but that one really stands out for me. (I kick myself that I resisted reading it for so long.)

Heidi W said...

It seems to me that world building and setting as character are opposite ends of the same stick. An author uses world building as a tool to create setting as character. Setting as character can't exist unless the author built the world.

All authors use world building (or in my obnoxious opinion they should). The world building process might be more complex in scifi, fantasy or historical, but regardless it is still there in all novels--though perhaps to a lesser degree.

The author that comes to mind for me is MT Anderson. I think of all the details that went into Feed or Octavian Nothing which created vivid worlds in my mind. In the non scifi area, Water for Elephants.

Misha Gerrick said...

LOTR is still my favorite book based on world building.

There are an infinite amount of things to consider when building a world as complex as ours.

The secret is to concentrate on the rules your characters are bound to bounce against.

On the other hand, it's interesting to see how deep the rabbit hole goes...

Nicole Zoltack said...

I agree with Misha,the LotR trilogy are my favorite books on world building.They are just so rich and full of details.

mshatch said...

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher.

Unknown said...

I have gone to great lengths in the process of building my world. The journey has been amazing, thought provoking, and down right ominous at times. What I've discovered?

You must know the lay of the land, because that is the existence out of which the rules are born. Once you understand these rules, you must develop the Characters, Groups, or Societies that will populate the world. Then you must understand their system of belief, which become the primary motivating vehicle for the spirit of your world and how the characters exist in it. It also structures the potential scope of your story.
It is no easy task to do it right.

As for my faves, LOTR. I mean, Tolkien spent 40 years on the languages alone. And though you might not think of it, Gone With the Wind (Although based in the Civil War) was largely like world building for the sheer wealth of information, personal complexity and scope of story. Then there is DUNE.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

The books with the best worlds are those in which you get the sense that the author knows a million and one things about this world but only lets you in on a few thousand of them, just the ones you need to know to understand the story. I want to feel like I'm getting one small, albeit detailed, glimpse into this parallel universe, like there's a whole lot of richness and depth below the surface that I'm not even seeing.

That's one of the many things I loved about the Harry Potter series: its well-built world. I always felt like J.K. Rowling knew so much more about it than what she put on the page.

(Along those same lines, I think it's important to step back once you've built the world and ask yourself, "Am I telling the best possible story in this world I've built? Are these the most compelling characters, the biggest and most important plot?" If not, you're kind of wasting your world...)

Becky Wallace said...

One thing I think we all should remember is that the hardest worlds to build are those loosely based on our own. For the world to be valid, it has to have some point of reference. If we make Earth completely alien, it's tougher to get the reader to buy-in. Whereas if you create your own planet, you don't have to adhere to any rules except those your create.

Julie said...

If you want a good example of a superb World Builder, you should definitely check out Brandon Sanderson. He is more of an adult fantasy writer (rather than YA), but he is SO original (which is hard to do with fantasy these days). I probably like his Mistborn series the best, but all his books are fantastic! He will keep you turning pages until the wee hours of the morning and at the end, you will inevitably feel that familiar flutter of panic telling you that the next book you read can’t possibly be as good!

Margo Berendsen said...

Just finished Pegasus by Robin Mckinley - wonderful rich world-building! Beautiful attention to detail, but also the world-building was almost all related to the plot, too, so it wasn't just random factoids

Sonia G Medeiros said...

Dunes my all-time favorite! I love world building. I don't want to world build as intensely as Dune or LOTR but I do enjoy it when another writer does. I've enjoyed delving into the history of the world I created for myWIP. I especially like mythology within created worlds.

Lindsay N. Currie said...

This is such a fantastic post - thank you so much for putting it out there!

I have a tendency to be drawn into settings that explore the "what if" factor. The ones that we can toss our characters into and see how they react, how their identities are formed or on the flip-side, warped by their circumstances. Especially if that "world" isn't that far removed from something that could really happen - something plausible. My co-author and I recently completed a YA MS that walks the fine line between speculative fiction and dystopian and for us, getting the setting just right was an integral part of the storyline.

As for favorite books in this area. . . I'd have to say Hunger Games. Between the nature of the physical arena to the millions of sets of eyes watching the MC fight to survive, I felt so claustrophobic reading it!

Unknown said...

The pencil drawing of Deryn riding the Medusa in this blog post caught my eye. You're 100% right, Westerfeld's world of Leviathan was incredibly complex - especially the British "beasties."

What readers also shouldn't miss about Leviathan is the amazing contrasting and mirroring Westerfeld did with the British and Austrian technologies: Mechanical engineering versus genetic engineering. If it's ok with you, I'll put a link at the end of this comment to a blog post I did last year in which I talked about Westerfeld's technique with Leviathan.

Setting has to be a character. While world-building is often associated with fantasy and science fiction, the truth is we build worlds in everything we write. Even if it takes place in rural Wisconsin, we still have to build that world. In those cases, we could call it world-rebuilding.

Here's an example of the importance of setting as character: The first two Star Wars movies (sorry I'm talking movies on a writing blog) had strong elements of steampunk and fantasy in the setting. They were well received monetarily and artistically (Star Wars won Best Picture and Empire is considered by some to be the best written).

But when Lucas abandoned the steampunk and fantasy elements of his original setting in favor of digital animation and science, his movies lost all artistic merit.

It was no longer Star Wars. A critical character was missing. The setting had inexplicably changed.

Whether it's a haunted house or a galaxy far, far away, setting must be our most dependable yet subtle character. IMHO.

Leviathan contrasting and mirroring

Rigzy said...

While it wasn't the most grabbing read, Myst, a book based off a video game of the same name by Robyn and Rand Miller, not only builds amazing worlds, but is in large parts about the necessity of world building in writing. The main character's father writes in magical books, then goes to visit the worlds he's created. But any incontinuities or gaps in his writing cause rifts in the worlds themselves, because they're not stable enough to hold up. It's really an amazing take on the art of world building.

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