Monday, September 7, 2009

Building a World

Have you ever read a book that seemed to take place in a white room? You couldn’t picture where the characters were, what they were wearing, or what they were doing? If so, you’ve experienced the results of poor worldbuilding.

“Worldbuilding” is what speculative fiction authors call the creation of a made-up world for a story. If the world is close to our own, worldbuilding may be relatively simple. For example, Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books (and the related TV show, “True Blood”) are set in present-day Louisiana, but with a twist: Vampires, shapeshifters, and other supernatural beings exist. Before writing, Harris had to work out the implications and ramifications of this veering away from reality.

When a story is set far in the future or in a fantasy world, the writer has more work to do. Here’s a sample of what the writer must think about when creating a world: technology level, social structure, class structure, religion and gods, system of ethics, species and races of inhabitants, climate, geography, natural resources, economic system, history, living arrangements and homes, foods eaten, politics, relations with other regions including trade and warfare, and fashion.

And of course, these all must interlock naturally. If the people of the world live in small nomadic bands and have no pack animals, the author can’t given them things that require a wide or deep infrastructure (cell phones, coin money, steel bridges, a complex multilevel social structure) or possessions that are too heavy to carry on the back or a sledge.

But spec fic writers are not the only ones who need to worldbuild. Historical fiction writers need to present an unfamiliar setting well enough that it comes alive for readers. Even someone writing books set in the contemporary world may have to do some worldbuilding. Many readers may not have been to Louisiana or Turkey or Russia, so writers need to include sensory details of these places if they’re in a book.

Even a book set in a well-known time and place needs details to augment the reader’s knowledge. The author must decide, for example, whether her contemporary Los Angeles is the noirish Los Angeles of Robert Crais, the wacky and sordid Los Angeles of Joseph Wambaugh, the glitzy Los Angeles of Zoey Dean, or a Los Angeles of the author’s own imagining.

Writers can find the nearly exhaustive list of Patricia Wrede’s worldbuilding questions at

Win a book! I’ll be having my second annual birthday contest at my personal blog, For Love of Words, on 16 September 2009.Two commenters will be randomly chosen to win a book of their choice by anyone I’ve interviewed at my blog (which includes Novel Spaces’ own Farrah Rochon) or a copy of my October release, Like Mayflies in a Stream. Please stop by on the 16th to celebrate with me and possibly win a book.

I’ll be blogging on Novel Spaces again on 23 September, when I’ll talk about setting as inspiration. I look forward to seeing you then!

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm seeing this with two different things I've been showing a writing group. One is set on earth, the other on Talera. Some folks remark really being better able to visualize the earth book, but I'm not sure if it's because of my weakness in descricption or because no one in the group reads fantasy.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, how frustrating. Do you have a fantasy-reading friend you can show the Talera book to?

Carleen Brice said...

Excellent post, Shauna! I'm on my 1st draft of a book and I can see lots of scenes happening in "white rooms." Got to go back and remedy that!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks, Carleen! Good luck decorating your rooms.

My first drafts often suffer from "white room" syndrome, which is a little odd because my final drafts are almost always heavy on the worldbuilding.

Liane Spicer said...

I have the utmost respect for SFF and historical writers who take me so completely into their worlds that I have to look around and adjust when I put down the book. Those of us whose worlds are contemporary have a lot of ready made structure; building from the ground up must be quite a challenge.