For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing. When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them. Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).
How do you go about creating a whole other world?
Well, here’s how I do it. I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course. What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work? Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited? If it’s limited, what has held it back? Go from there. Keep asking questions. Keep answering them. If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime. If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.
Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me. If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.
How do you get ideas for the setting itself?
For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy. That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting. It’s research, but it’s fun research. How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??
Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy. Even dreams, sometimes. One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream. The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it. Thank you, subconscious. Thank you!
Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?
No. Absolutely no. I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick. Nobody needs to know all that crap except me. And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them. But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world. You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know. And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it. So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap. Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc. Make the story and the setting inseparable.