Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Master World Building

Master World Building with Deby Fredericks, Christine Morgan, Chris Bruscas and Vicki Mitchel

I'm pretty sure some folks were missing.  I don't remember this being such a big panel!  Anyway, I felt massively under-qualified to be giving 'master' level advice, but there I was.  It turned out to be okay.  There were a couple of folks with years of gamemastering (don't laugh--the best game masters are excellent world-builders) and the authors had a broad range of publishing experience, so I felt like I fit right in.  Except for the part where I came in late.

It boiled down to the fact that the master world builders make the world feel real.  In a short story it's a little easier.  The readers of short stories don't expect a completely fleshed-out universe full of countless worlds.  But they still expect a sense of uniqueness and a sense that this is a real place where real beings go about their business.  Key observation:  The characters and their problems will suggest the environment/world as much as the descriptive passages.  You know how creative writing instructors tell you to describe the surroundings in terms that suggest the character's mood or circumstances?  It goes the other way too.  The way the character acts and feels will suggest what the world is like.  

In novels, a fleshed-out world is expected.  Where writers fall down is not in ideas, but complexity.  Think about planet Earth.  We have thousands of cultures, political and geographic boundaries, societies that have evolved from the climate and the kind of neighbors (or lack thereof) they have.  If there's a rich diversity of mutually-respectful tribes or clans or races, what has kept them separate?  Why aren't they essentially a mono-culture?  Is it biology?  Are there political stressors, cultural taboos, or are they educated to have preferences/biases?  If one group is at war with another, what happens when refugees from the opposite side show up in town?  Are they killed?  Taken in as fellow victims?  Are they tolerated but viewed with suspicion and allowed to starve?  Think about Chocolat and how many cultural and social things are going on in that story, from the origins of the little girl to the effects of a war long passed to the treatment of elderly diabetics to influences of the church and on and on and on--and yet it fits together as a cohesive whole with a strong theme.  

When I have a story idea, I try to figure out where that character would come from.  What would her family background be?  Is he local or is he a foreigner?  Is she from a hot climate and is used to siestas?  Is he the product of a sea or air or space faring society?  Is she from a marginal, subsistence society, or a rich, technological one?  Is he from a society in flux or under pressure, or is he part of a superpower nation or federation that's been stable and straining under the weight of its own government?  

From the pure world part of the world-building, it's a good idea to educate yourself about our world at just about every level.  The moderator asked us all for our top three suggestions on college courses that are the bare minimum requirement to get by.  Other than the thought that a keen observer who travels a lot can get by without a lot of book learning or classes, the list came out to be: anthropology, world geography, astronomy (especially focused on our solar system,) geology, biology,  and sociology.  (I may have missed a couple.  History comes to mind and I don't know if any of us thought to suggest it as our top three.)  He then asked for suggested books.  We came up with  Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches by Marvin Harris, and An Incomplete Education by Judy Jones and William Wilson.  (At least that list is shorter!)  

I pointed out that when authors go forth to research and read, to keep in mind the sources of information.  I really admire Desmond Morris' work, but when I last read The Naked Ape, I was struck by the gaping holes and erroneous thinking surrounding his observation of homosexuality.  Some of it might have been correct, but I realized that I needed to do some filtering not just of that section (where science and psychology hadn't explored very far) but all of it.  We've come a long way since the 1960s.  This is true when reading primary sources from various periods clear through modern studies--who is writing this, why, and from what perspective?  Being a critical reader helps in more than one way.  Not only does it create a healthy skepticism (it's very easy to lend unearned authority to written work) but it teaches an author how to recognize our universal and sometimes invisible biases and turn those around to inform character and world development.  Characters can be very well-meaning, educated, wonderful people and still be blind to the rosy tint on their glasses or the sense of superiority with which they carry themselves.

World building isn't restricted to fantasy and science fiction.  Even when a novel is set here on our world in modern times, Texas is different than Mongolia is different than Hong Kong is different than Antarctica.  Writers can't ever take setting for granted.  They may not have to describe a mailbox in detail, but they'll still have to give the reader a strong sense of place, of unique culture, of conditions that are tied to the story because that story couldn't happen anywhere else.  Master world builders have living, lush settings that connect to plot and characterization. 

Most of this won't end up on the page.  But if you have a character travel, run across characters from other races, cultures or social strata, adventure through more than one season, or discover a new or unique anything to him (be it a cave, a butterfly, an isolated group of people, an artifact or whatever) the experience on the page will lack depth unless you have a sense of how weird, rich and deep the real world runs and therefore how weird, rich and deep your world should be by way of description, implication and character reaction.  To do anything less is to cheat your reader of the glorious possibilities, and nobody likes a cheater.


The Moody Minstrel said...

I've been building my story/game setting world for more than thirty years now, and the end is still nowhere in sight. The more I come up with, the more I realize there still is.

Kami said...

It's a lot of fun, isn't it? I've gone the other way, where I keep coming up with new universes to play in. Each has depth, and the older ones are the deepest because I keep thinking about them, but I haven't stuck by one.

I guess I'll always enjoy chasing butterflies.