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I'm part of a writing group in my area that will be hosting a retreat in a few weeks. I've been asked to do a panel on worldbuilding. I have a few ideas of my own, but I would really like to ask the community here for assistance. I really love what this community does and how intelligent and well-reasoned it is, and I plan on referencing it in my panel. But this seems like a meta question to me... or maybe it's just a question that needs workshopped more. I'm not sure. Anyway. I'll stop stalling and ask:

What are the basics of worldbuilding? When I think about building my world, I think about the material I've built houses out of, the writing system I've detailed, the climate in various parts of the world - but I've been building this world for years. All of that seems so advanced and, at least at first, unnecessary. How do I cut back to basics and begin from the beginning? When you're a new writer, looking at a blank page, how do you know what to work on to create an immersive world that will engage your readers and not leave gaping plot holes?

As a corollary to that, is there anything you should avoid as a new writer with a new world? Any big pitfalls that tend to open up as you start to get excited about the process of creating the world?

(Also, I went through and wrote all of this and my answer and now I'm wondering if I should even post it because it looks like I have enough material for my panel already. But you guys will probably have even better ideas! And I can't bear the idea of just deleting this, so here you go!)

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Here's what I have so far. I'll be running the panel as a Build-A-World workshop using audience ideas, so we can practice doing all this stuff.

Start with One

Take a single idea and see where it leads you. Say "It's like Earth, but..." (or perhaps, "It's like Middle Earth, but...") and then focus on that "but". Don't start with a bunch of different ideas that don't fit together very well. If you have a story about talking dragons and then a set of time-traveling wolves show up, you've just added a second idea that completely changes the game.

If, in the process of Step Two, you think of more ideas that fit well with your world, go ahead and add more. But for our initial attempt, we're starting with one idea and one idea only.

Follow Ideas to their Logical Conclusion

Every change has consequences. If it's like Earth but snow is acidic, that changes not just the way people act in winter, but the way they build their houses. Acid-resistant materials become highly important, and architecture has to be designed in a way that funnels deadly snow away from sidewalks. Instead of letting snow sit heavily on rooftops and parking garages all year, perhaps the city funds teams of specially trained snowfighters to clear and safely dispose of recently fallen snow. And depending on if this is a recent change or if it's always been true, the effects might even be more far-reaching.

That's a stupid example, but the point is that even a simple change can have far-reaching effects that can completely transform your world. It's essential to think about what those effects are and how they occur.

First, determine if this is recent change or if it's always been the case. Second, try to figure out how it changes things. Ask, how does this idea affect:

  • A normal life
  • Jobs
  • Cities (building and planning and living in them)
  • Relationships
  • Other stuff I haven't thought of yet

I don't know how to keep this part from getting too nitty-gritty. Maybe I shouldn't worry about that?

Create a Unique and Realistic Culture with Diverse Influences

Going off our acid-snow idea, people would be more likely to live near the equator, where it never snows, then in Canada or Greenland. But that doesn't mean nobody lives there, because people are crazy and adaptable. So now we have at least two cultures that would develop naturally; one in the warm heart of Brazil and one in the frigid depths of Greenland.

(I really hope my retreat group comes up with a better idea than that one.)

  • What are the people who live here like?
  • What do they look like?
    • Just because Hollywood thinks White is Default doesn't mean we have to. I'll talk a bit here about creating a multi-colored world and about avoiding racial stereotypes.
  • Where do they live?
  • What do they do for a living?
  • How do they spend their days?
  • How do they feel about the central idea?
  • How do they feel about outsiders?
  • What kinds of stories do they tell?
  • What is the predominant religion? What about splinter factions and competing religions?

Most importantly, remember that a culture isn't a monolith. Inside American culture, you'll find people who fervently disagree on the proper usage of texting, vaccinations, and guns, to pick three topics completely at random. So let's add some more diversity.

  • How do people in this culture differ from one another?
  • What are some main points of friction for different groups in this culture?
  • What are some good reasons they have to disagree?
  • What are some principles that almost everyone will agree on?

Display Real People living Real Lives

Sure, there's an elite group of people whose job it is to delve into the snow and retrieve the priceless Ice of Cooling. But you also need a clerk who notes when they leave and what they bring back. For every Evil Organization, you need an Evil Janitor who dumps the ash trays and disposes of the bodies.

And everybody has a mom. Most people even have dads and grandmas and cousins. You don't need to list their entire family tree when you create them, but consider them in the light of having people who care about them.

Choose a person who isn't a main character, but who the main characters will have to interact with.

  • What do they look like? Gender? Skin color?
    • Ethnic identity? Political and/or religious affiliation?
  • Why are they here? Why are they interacting with the characters? What's their goal?
  • What do they care about? What do they want? What do they want to avoid?
  • What secrets do they have?

When you can do this two or three times for the same character and have totally different characters who still make sense in your world and culture, you've #nailedit.

Now I've gone and written all this stuff and I feel like I'm back to square one, Too Specific, again. Hah.

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Worldbuilding is the process of building the stage your actors perform on

There are things to act and things to be acted upon.

The characters in your story are things "to act" and the world is the thing to be "acted upon". Roughly, the world is the stage your characters perform on. That's it. Sure, the characters may burn down the set and break all the props but they are still doing that on the stage you designed for them.


The Worldbuilding Process

Authors are in a uniquely powerful position in that they are only constrained by their own ideas and their ability to convey those ideas. They work in pure thought-stuff unconstrained by the laws of physics.

Start with the kind of story you want to tell, sci-fi or fantasy. Here, I will refer to sci-fi stories as ones that could plausibly happen in our universe with our understanding of physics. Fantasy is everything else. Star Wars is fantasy. Lord of the Rings is fantasy.

Next, pick what you want to explore in your world. Perhaps an alternative history where a West Virginian town is magically transfered back to 1632 Germany. Or, what happens when dragons are introduced in WW2? (my answer is they aren't that effective.) Most of the time, you will want to reuse a standard set of world mechanics that people are familiar with. This saves on world expository since most people already have a pretty good idea of how Earth works. Many times on WB, we get questions like 'My world is like Earth except...'

Follow through on your changes. If you've made a change that significantly alters how your world operates compared to baseline, you'll need to follow through on that change. If faster than light travel is possible, try to work out how that will impact trade, military and politics. If you can, try to get at the second order effects, ie, the things enabled by the things your change enabled. Note that second order effects are notoriously difficult to predict because of the complexity involved.

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, I see. Yes, I love it. A guiding philosophy was just what I needed. $\endgroup$ – Jerenda Jan 4 '17 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Jerenda if it's not too much trouble, I'd be curious to hear how your panel goes. $\endgroup$ – Green Jan 4 '17 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ It's on the 14th & 15th in Utah. I'll be sure to come back here and update after. :) $\endgroup$ – Jerenda Jan 4 '17 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Jerenda excellent. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Green Jan 4 '17 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for second order effects! $\endgroup$ – Inbar Rose Jan 9 '17 at 8:49

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