What is world building?
Any act of creative writing is an act of world building. The moment we begin to tell a story, we are inviting our audience into a world that is not theirs. It may have enormous similarities to that of the audience but it is not theirs. Even when I meet someone and describe what I did at the weekend, I am introducing them to a world of my experiences.
Young children are great world builders. Any game of imaginative play, whether its cowboys and injuns, mummies and daddies or the re-enactment of a favourite TV show, is the creation of a world that is not this one. In the individual child’s head, that box is a spaceship, that sofa is an alien beast and the cupboard under the stairs is a cave of wonders.
I believe that, even without realising it, the child playing let’s pretend gives their world rules. A child who is pretending to be an Arctic explorer is not going to equip themselves with a magic wand. The child who is on a magical adventure with cute animal friends is not going to need to fill up their car with fuel. They can if they want to and it’s great if they do but the point I’m making is that the child’s play is guided by rules. Unspoken, malleable rules but rules nonetheless.
In fiction writing we build worlds and we give them rules and writers frequently have to be more specific about them than children. Children don’t need to worry about continuity, believability or maintaining the trust and goodwill of a readership. Writers do.
One of the first rules we often give ourselves in world building is genre. If I choose to write a Western, then I’m not going to have any magic swords in my story. My Golden Age detective story is not going to end with the detective abandoning the case in order to run off with the beautiful heiress. If we use genre, it comes with expectations.
I remember reading a novel by a much-loved Northern Irish thriller writer in which the hero sees his old girlfriend years after she was supposedly murdered. The hero wondered if he was seeing ghosts but, with the expectations of the genre reader, I knew that this was not a ghost story but a fiendish mystery except… it turned out she was a ghost. I was not happy and I have yet to forgive that particular author. Genre mash-up is fine, brilliant even, but readers don’t always welcome it.
Genre is only one kind of boundary that writers set themselves. They may set themselves physical boundaries. Any author who says they are writing something ‘set in New York’, ‘taking place on one of Jupiter’s moons’, ‘set in the 1920s’ or ‘taking place over the course of one weekend’ is drawing a line around what is or is not permissible. The author isn’t doing this to hamstring themselves. The writer wants to know the boundaries of their own playground and the reader wants to know exactly where the writer’s game is going to take them. There is a cleverness and attraction to fiction that keeps things really tight. Consider the success of the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, Saturday by Ian McEwan, the TV series 24 or the film Phone Booth, all of which pretty much keep to the promises made by their titles.
Sometimes, the word ‘sprawling’ is used on book blurbs as a positive word, a description of a novel’s scope. Most of the time though, ‘sprawling’ means unfocused, meandering and uncontrolled. Just like genre mash-up, sprawling novels can be brilliant but that’s the exception, not the rule.
For writers of science fiction and fantasy, world building is about nothing less than defining the rules of reality. For the science fiction writer, what technology works in your chosen setting, which interpretation of modern scientific theories hold true, how much pseudo-science is permissible are all questions that need addressing. The science used in science fiction doesn’t have to be correct but it has to be consistent. Bad science fiction makes rules and then breaks them. Bad science fiction lacks internal logic and insults the reader. In his introduction to a book of science fiction detective stories, Isaac Asimov makes the point clearly. A science fiction mystery cannot be solved by some pseudo-science babble that makes a joke of the mystery and a fool of the reader; the rules of each story’s setting must be shared with the reader so that they too can solve the mystery if they wish.
For the fantasy writer, world building is more than just drawing a map and coming up with some cool place names. A fantasy world has a history and, to varying degrees, must be able to function as a world. The fantasist Diana Wynne Jones plays with these notions in her satirical non-fiction, The Tough Guide To Fantasyland. If there is magic then it must be a system of magic or the author will tie themselves in impossible knots. Bad fantasy (and some good fantasy) is filled with the lampshading of magical inconsistencies. If a wizard-type was able to use a spell to get them out of a fix in chapter two but the author doesn’t want them to simply repeat the trick in chapter eight then they may well invent some spurious reason to get their way, whether its magical amulets, phases of the moon or the intervention of evil pixies.
World building becomes even more critical in collaborative writing. A child playing let’s pretend by themselves does not need to articulate the rules of their world and can change them on a whim. When children play imaginative games in pairs or groups, they either need to lay down some ground rules or the game will quickly end in disagreement. I remember as a child playing soldiers in the schoolyard and spending an immeasurable amount of time arguing over exactly who was dead and who wasn’t. There are great skills developed in those arguments/discussions. Most of us, as children, learned how to express ourselves, negotiate and compromise. Those are skills collaborative writers also need but it would be a lot easier if the collaborative writers don’t have to call time every few lines just to discuss the rules and boundaries of their shared world.
Rules for your world
Collaborators need agreed rules. Some rules are unspoken and can remain that way. For example, unless there’s a specific need within the text, one can take it for granted that the physical laws of our universe hold true. However a surprising amount does need to be laid down beforehand. In an imagined setting, whether it’s another planet, another world or just a fictitious rural village, the physical layout and resources of the place need agreeing. Does the planet have a breathable atmosphere? Are there dangerous animals in this world? Does the village have a post office? A lot of fantasy novels have maps at the front. I would wager that all writers of fantasy epics have hand-drawn reference maps in their writing desk at home.
Even fiction set in our world is actually set in a version of our world. Novels do not take place in our actual reality. Any creative act that is not the cold documenting of objective fact is an act of world building. One could go further, in the philosophical footsteps of Bishop Berkeley, and argue that even the act of observing the real world is to place a frame on it, to change it, to create it.
My world is different to your world. The world of one collaborator is different to that of another. That’s part of the magic. I live on a certain street, I interact with certain types of people, I am exposed to certain cultural media and life experiences. I may accuse a person of looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. They may accuse me of being a cynic. We live in the same universe but our perspectives are different.
Collaborators must bring those together if they are going to write together.
Things to consider about your world:
· Do you live in a world where difference is celebrated or suppressed?
· Do you live in a world where the government can be trusted?
· Do you live in a world where the pursuit of material wealth is encouraged?
· How do people talk to each other in your world?
· In your world, are families a blessing or a burden?
· Is your world going down the pan?
· Do you live in a world where people can live ‘happily ever after’?
You need to build a world and define its rules if you are going to collaborate on a novel. You might start with some broad stuff (e.g. “There’s only one pub on the island”) and build on that later (e.g. “The boat from the mainland comes every Tuesday at 10am”) or you may try to get everything sorted before putting pen to paper. Either way, collaborators will have built a world soon enough and have rules, written and unwritten, to govern it.