Worldbuilding Basics (Part Two of Three)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I tend to think of the world building process as Decision>Question>Implication. You come up with your premise and begin asking questions about what the premise requires your world to contain, then you explore the ramifications of the choices you’ve made and the questions you’ve asked.

It’s important to remember that world building choices extend in all directions. And what I mean by this is that they come from somewhere, they affect the world and characters in the present and they drive the story forward in specific ways. Once you’ve made a decision as to where your story idea springs from, be it a character, situation, or some other detail that inspires you to write the story down, then the process of building the world begins.

Let’s take a basic, fairly simple idea and start from there: a child has wings.

The process of building in the details starts in the past. Was the child born with wings? Did they grow over time or suddenly? Do we know what the cause of the colour is? Is it genetic? Were the wings grafted on? Are they biological or some kind of technology? Was there some kind of genetic manipulation? Was it a spell or a curse of some kind? How long has the child been living with them? Is it something new that they are dealing with, or are we meeting them when they’ve been dealing with it for a long time. Making these decisions define the the parameters of the universe your characters inhabit and how your story unfolds from there. Is it a universe of science or one of magic? If the wings were created artificially, is the process well known or something clandestine that should have remained secret? These questions about the causes that led to your narrative decision provides the foundation for choices you’ve made and where they’re going to lead.

Once you’ve established where the world building choice has come from, then you can cast your eyes around our little winged child and see how they fit into the world around them. Is this a world where having wings is revered or hated? Are they something rare? If so, how do others around them treat them? Or are there many people with wings? Are they a vast underclass ruled by a powerful, wingless minority? How does our child feel about having wings? Are they proud? Ashamed? Do they know how to use them yet, and if so, how proficient are they? Is the child protected by their parents or some kind of guardian? Or are they facing their fate alone? These are the questions that let you establish where your world is, in the moment your story begins.

Once the story begins, your world unfolds ever more specifically, and it raised more questions. If the world reveres children with wings, do the powers that be want to take the child and use them for their own purposes? Do they want to hunt the child down and eliminate them because of the threat they present? Is the child’s journey one of discovery and self acceptance? Or are they needing to learn humility in the face of their advantage over a world of people who don’t have it. Again, the decisions you make about the way the world works inform how your narrative unfolds. And if the story needs to go in a certain direction, then your universe and the choices you’ve made have to reflect that. And that sometimes means going back and making adjustments to the choices you’ve made as you go.

For me, as a writer of science fiction, many of not most of the choices I have to make in building my worlds have to do with technology and how it’s used in the world. And that raises a second point, beyond the directionality of world building choices, and that’s the question of whether a technology evolves slowly or quickly.

Look at the world around us. What aspects have remained relatively stable and unchanged? What aspects have changed so radically that someone from a hundred years ago wouldn’t know what to do with them? A chair is a chair, its basic function remains the same, though the designs and specifics may have changed. A person from a hundred years, or even several hundred years ago might be surprised by what the chair is made of, or what colour it is, but they will recognize it for what it is. Even cars, though they have evolved greatly from old Henry Ford’s day, is basically the same premise.

But a car that flies? That would be a game changer. That would be something that clearly articulates to your reader that they are in a world that is very different than our own. And that loops back to the question of implications. Does everyone have a flying car? And if they do, how people not crash into each other constantly?

Good examples of the ubiquity vs. novelty dichotomy are communications technology vs. something like escalators or elevators. Communications technology has changed radically in as little as the past twenty years. We’ve undergone a seismic shift from having land lines to flip phones (which were remarkably like the communicators on Star Trek) to smartphones that are pretty much handheld computers (another technology that has evolved and changed rapidly)  Writing a story involving technologies like these, that evolve so quickly, you have to take into account that rapid change when you are postulating advances in these areas, and the time frame in which they’ve occurred.

Technologies like escalators and elevators haven’t changed much since they were invented, mostly because they fulfil the need they were created for without needing much change. If you wanted, you could create a society where people move from one floor of a building to another by strapping on jetpacks, but that’s such an inefficient and potentially dangerous technology that it’s not immediately apparent or logical as to why they would do it. Which is not to say that a writer can’t make that choice. But it opens up another world-building challenge in that you need to come up with a compelling and internally logical reason why this culture abandoned a stable, reliable technology for one that doesn’t, on the surface, make a lot of sense.

This same principle of fluid vs. static states can also be used to make decisions about other aspects of your world as well, such as governments or economies. Does your story take place under a stable government that has existed (for better or worse) unchanged for along period of time? Or is it happening in an environment where leaders and methods of governance are constantly changing? Either of these choices will affect how your story unfolds and the actions your character might be radically different in those different environments. Similarly, if the character has easy access to funds in a stable economy, that makes a difference in how they deal with the world than if they are constantly struggling for money.

So, once you’ve built your world, you need to tell a story. Some thoughts on that next week.

Next: World Building: Part Three

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