Monday, March 18, 2013

Forging a Universe: The Whats and Whys of Worldbuilding


For a long while now (hell, since I started this thing), I've been wanting to do a blog series on worldbuilding. It's easily one of my favorite parts of writing speculative fiction, and depending on the genre you're working with, it's also one of the most important. In fact, just about every author of fiction employs worldbuilding to some degree, even those who frame their stories in the real world. It's just that science fiction and fantasy writers have done a little more to quantify the process, given that it permeates our work so obviously.

Starting with this entry, I'm going to embark on a monthly journey into the process of crafting a universe. I'm going to break down what I (and many others) consider to be key elements of building a believable world, giving you a few glimpses into my creative process along the way. Since this is far too much ground to cover in one post, this series will last as long as I need it to. But before jumping into the deep end, I'm going to use this introductory post to cover the simple whats and whys of the process.

What is Worldbuilding?


It's widely believed that the term itself was coined sometime in the 1970s, conjured up at one of the various workshops and conventions where science fiction writers would gather, make merry, and discuss the craft. For the most part, it means exactly what it sounds like. It's the construction of the world (or universe) in which your story takes place. It's the process of filling in the details of setting and backstory that make up the playground you toss your characters into, then weaving these elements into a coherent backdrop that frames and complements your narrative.

That sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Generally, it is. But before an author can break the process down into manageable bits and pieces, he must decide which approach to take, as there are essentially two methods of worldbuilding: the "top-down" method and the "bottom-up" method. Those of you who've spent time as Dungeon Masters in the tabletop roleplaying world might recognize these as the same "outside-in" and "inside-out" methods that Dungeons and Dragons encourages for designing adventures.

Top-down worldbuilding is what I think of as "the mapmaker's approach." It begins with as broad a perspective as possible on your world and its inhabitants, defining things like physics, ecology, and geography first and foremost (assuming you're working with a single planet—if your story spans galaxies, you may be plotting cosmology at this stage as well), then building your way toward the culture and history of the civilizations therein, before finally working out the background of the main characters and their plight. This method is usually favored by outliners, since it involves a lot of work prior to writing the story itself. Some famous examples that were likely born of this approach include:


As it sounds, bottom-up worldbuilding is pretty much the opposite, and I tend to think of it as "the Columbus method." Here, you begin with the story itself, crafting characters and plot at the outset and essentially filling in the rest along the way. The writer doesn't bother building the greater world their characters inhabit until it becomes essential knowledge for the reader. In this way, it's possible to avoid the dangerous temptation of worldbuilder's disease (in which one spends more time working on the backstory than the actual story) and focus on moving the plot forward. However, it also comes with the danger of in-world inconsistency and plot holes, which become easy to fall into if you're making things up as you go, and will require backtracking to correct. As you may have guessed, this type of worldbuilding is usually favored by discovery writers. Famous examples that likely came from this approach include:


It's also very possible to use a mix of both approaches, though it's less common. This is often the result of multiple creators working within a shared universe, such as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I've used both methods myself, though I tend to use the former for novel-length work and the latter for short stories. Ultimately, which approach you take will depend entirely on you, your story, and your writing style.

Why Worldbuild?


In a work of science fiction or fantasy, particularly the sprawling realms of epic fantasy or the infinite worlds of space opera, worldbuilding is the glue that holds your setting together. If plot and character is the meat of a story, worldbuilding is the fire you cook it over. The stronger a fire you build, the better that meat will taste when you're done. Good worldbuilding enriches the reader's experience, teasing and tapping that hunger for more that every good book gives you, even while you're reading it. It pulls you in and makes you forget that you're sitting on a couch with a book in your hand.

Obviously, this is all just one part of what makes a compelling story. There are many elements that help to transport the reader into your universe. But good worldbuilding will make that universe feel real. If you don't spend the time and effort necessary to flesh out your world, readers will notice. No matter how good the rest of your story is, if you try to pass flimsy worldbuilding in front of their eyes, chances are it will pull them out of your work the same way poor special effects can detract from an otherwise good movie (here's looking at you, cartoon wolf from 300).

Knowing all that, the question then becomes why wouldn't you worldbuild, at least to some degree? We certainly have enough things competing for reader attention without giving them an unnecessary reason to put the book down. So take advantage of this fantastic medium and grow some flesh on your story's bones. Use the awesome powers at your disposal. Forge a universe. Craft a realm. Build a world.

photo credit: Pensiero via cc

17 comments:

  1. I'm one of those who gets too easily sucked into creating my world and then forget about the story. So I've started leaning more toward the bottom-up method, where I fill in the rough outline to begin with, and only add to it as I need. There are definitely dangers and pitfalls in this method, but it's actually safer for me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can definitely see why that might be the safer route! With my short stories, I almost always go bottom-up, simply because of the comparatively small return on the huge investment of time it takes to worldbuild from the top-down. But when it comes to novels, top-down worldbuilding becomes one of my favorite parts of the process, and I definitely have to watch out for that trap.

      Thanks for reading, Louise!

      Delete
  2. The top-down is definitely the route for me. I'm just finishing my 4th installment in my fantasy series and I'm at a stage where I know my world just as well as the real world - and sometimes I'd rather be there than here :). However, in my first installment, the danger that swept me was the fact I wanted to include everything in the first book. My series is a collection of stand-alone stories set in the same world, and despite knowing that there would be many books for me to write, I still wanted to include even the tiniest of details in book one, no matter how irrelevant it was. I think that boiled down to excitement over the creation of something new, but that excitement has dimmed now and the other three aren't so much of a world-info-dump.

    Great post. Look forward to the rest

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's definitely another danger inherent in the top-down approach. You spend so much time building the part of the iceberg that is never seen. It's definitely tempting to push that sucker up more than you need so more of your work rises above the surface. It's something to watch out for, for sure!

      Thanks for stopping by, DRC.

      Delete
  3. I like this post! I enlist these two approaches with software design. Top down, you consider the platform first, the user experience and aesthetics, then you work on functionality for your design. With bottom up, we build the fields and files into a normalized database design. Essentially the characters and plot come first, then you design the application around these elements.

    I've done both successfully with software design, you'd think one could finish a novel. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, indeed! The "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches can be applied to all kinds of development and design work like that. It's useful to analyze the approaches and acknowledge the differences before you dive in. Keep at it; I'm sure you'll finish that novel! ;)

      Thanks for the comment, Diane.

      Delete
  4. OMG I love this post, the whole series, the CONCEPT and the work behind worldbuilding!

    I'm a plotter and outliner, but even though I've done a lot of worldbuilding before starting to write my novel (like real 3D star charts, calculating actual distances and FTL time between star systems, sketching up colony sustaining technology on an inhospitable world, not to mention the alien societies and technologies etc. etc.) I also did a lot of worldbuilding as I wrote my first drafts. Especially the details.

    To give you an example, in the case of the human colony on an inhospitable world, I knew the basics before I wrote the scenes happening there. Then in my second draft, I've rewritten those scenes and extended them with plenty of technical, sensory and topography details (plus a couple new scenes). They went from "script-style" with notes for myself, to actual rich scenes with a sense of placement and otherworldliness. (I hope, *cough*)

    Worldbuilding is a really HUGE part of my writing, and it's why I love science fiction more than all other genres. It's a lot of fun to create worlds. For me, the most exhilarating part of it all is to embed it into the actual scenes. It feels like putting together a puzzle...

    Thanks for an awesome introduction into worldbuilding, J.W. I'm really excited to read your new blog series!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a great example of how to successfully combine both approaches, hopefully while avoiding the pitfalls and dangers that each brings to the table. I'm with you—worldbuilding is one of the most enjoyable parts of the storytelling process, especially in longer works. Doing all of that pre-work for the top-down approach gets me excited to dive in and play with the world I've created.

      Glad you're on board for the series, Vero! Thanks for reading. :)

      Delete
  5. I think I do a little of both. Some things will be planned ahead of time while others emerge as I write and I incorporate them into the world.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The combination approach is definitely doable, and works best for some authors, especially if you have a series that sprouts from a standalone novel or that sort of thing.

      Thanks for the comment, Alex!

      Delete
  6. I probably haven't done a great job worldbuilding until I started writing and thinking about my current novel. Since I've been designing it for a few years, it feels pretty in-depth by now, which makes me super happy. I tend to build as I go and end up not having as vast a universe as I'd like to. I'm not sure if I'd consider myself having taken the top-down approach because I thought of the story and characters first, but I ended up worldbuilding the most with this one.

    I believe the best spec fic has the best and most unique world building. It's kind of a necessity for this genre. In the same vain, I wouldn't expect a mystery novel to do well if the mystery aspects were crappy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I absolutely agree, Cathy. Worldbuilding can be one of the first failure points of an otherwise good speculative fiction stories, especially longer works where the author is expected to really take the reader in and show the world off.

      Thanks for stopping by, and good luck building that universe!

      Delete
  7. Great post, man!
    I do both, though I do incorporate more of the top down method than I used to. I draw maps now! (Which is so much fun for me even though I don't always have them completely filled out until I'm halfway done or more.) I always make sure I get the specifics down to avoid said inconsistencies from the bottom up method. After that I dive in. I have to say, I've never been tempted to worldbuild myself into oblivion, though it sounds like a lot of fun. I'm too impatient for that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mapmaking is a very fun part of worldbuilding, even if your maps are not fit to be seen by another soul (like mine). One of the installments of this series is going to cover mapmaking, and common geological mistakes that fantasy writers make when they sit down to draw those maps.

      You're lucky that you've never come down with a case of worldbuilder's disease! It's tough to pull yourself out of. ;)

      Thanks for reading, Krystal!

      Delete
  8. I love worldbuilding and I did design a map for Fireseed One, my futuristic thriller. That said, once the worldbuilding is complete, I have to make sure to spend ample time developing the characters who will populate the world. Each part is a formidable task!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely, Catherine. Your world can be the most interesting thing every put to paper, but the story will still fail if the characters are flat.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  9. I'm huge on world building myself, so I approve of this post! You're absolutely right about grabbing the reader's attention, JW. If you don't there are a slew of guys waiting to do so, and chances are they're going to do it by the world they create.

    Great post--and I think you nailed it with the Mass Effect example!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for reading!