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How do you World-Build?

Worldbuilding (which I’ve also seen written as ‘world-building’ and ‘world building’) is the process of creating an alternate world that is believable, agile to the needs of the plot and characters, and authentic. It is present in most fiction but takes pride of place in fantasy and sci-fi.

Through my Indie reading, I’ve discovered several premiere worldbuilders. Diana Peach, the author of The Rose Shield Trilogy and more, comes to mind, as does Michael Smart, author of Davidia’s Seed. These two do such a wonderful job of building their alternate universes that I feel like I’m there, living under its cultural rules. Michael agreed to discuss with me how he goes about his worldbuilding. The bolded questions are mine. What follows is Michael’s answer:

Michael agreed to discuss with me how he goes about his worldbuilding. The bolded questions are mine. What follows is Michael’s answer:

How do you come up with the world building?

For me, it’s a two-part process. The first part, visualizing and understanding the world, and its inhabitants – my characters – come easy for me believe it or not. The second part of the process is more challenging – translating all that into a plausible and captivating narrative.

What tricks do you use to be sure your worlds are authentic and believable?

The authenticity stems from my background in Anthropology. I’m accustomed to seeing culture and evolutionary diversity as byproducts of the physical environment. Also, as a pilot and blue water sailor, I’m constantly aware of our planet’s dynamics and its influence on topography, weather, ocean dynamics like wave formation, tides, and ocean currents, all influenced by our sun, moon, the earth’s rotation, and its position and orbital path in the solar system. All of those factors are real, and I extrapolate them to the world I’m creating. A planet which will support life, especially human life, or carbon-based life, will have an atmosphere and water and environmental dynamics influenced by its star or stars, the number of moons, the planet’s rotation, orbit, and position in the system. And of course, all indigenous organic life will have evolved to exist under those particular set of circumstances.

If there is a trick, it’s not allowing the world building to overpower the narrative elements necessary for any setting or place, no matter the genre. The elements readers relate to, like the sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations of a place, and of course the characters.

What are the most significant characteristics of a failed world-building effort (i.e., not providing enough infrastructure)

I think the biggest mistake is attempting to overexplain the minutia of the world or its infrastructure with a lot of exposition and technobabble. Small, simple, everyday details that translate the world in ways readers can relate to are much more effective. For me, one of the finest examples of this was Frank Herbert’s Dune. Water, or the scarcity of water, was a huge environmental factor on planet Arrakis, and the little detail that the Stillsuits worn by the indigenous population preserved and converted body moisture into drinkable water conveyed so much more about the environment, the people, and the culture, than an exhaustive explanation of how the suits worked.

Michael and I started our conversation about world building because of the paleohistorical fiction novel I’m currently working on (due out next summer). Michael asked what challenges I faced recreating that unknown habitat.

The world I am building is to serve earliest man, 1.8 million years ago during the Plio-Pleistecine. That era has no written words, no folkloric stories, no anecdotal experiences. Everything we know about it is extrapolated from the artifacts of the times–rocks, bones, stone tools, and placement of these in the environ. Here’s how I describe it in the forward:

For these answers [to my main character Lucy’s world], we look to a multidisciplinary assortment of scientists. Paleobotanists study plant seeds buried with her bones. Paleoanthropologists examine the condition of her teeth and calcification of her skeleton. Paleontologists study the tools she created and infer their use. Paleogeologists dig through the layers in the land, the geologic content of rocks and soil, the detritus surrounding the ossified skeleton. Paleoclimatologists recreate the composition of ancient atmospheres. By melding their collective research, Lucy’s life comes into focus, as though a mist has lifted, revealing her existence on the savannas of Plio-Pleistocene Africa.

My goal, which may be different from other world-building writers, is to explain how my main character survived the world built around her. This was a time where man wasn’t king, when her predators were vicious, violent, and unrelenting. As Terry Pratchett says:

“…there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber…”

Here is my preliminary assessment about how man survived to dominate our world today:

Lucy is a scientist, forever seeking new approaches to problems. She was the first primate to use tools to make tools, to control her environment and make choices rather than submit to instinct. She uses her capacious brain to thrive in the most dangerous habitat known to mammals. She spends considerable time foraging for food (evolving from a plant-eating herbivore to a decidedly-unchoosey omnivore was a brilliantly adaptive move for early man), sleeping, caring for her young, and avoiding predators. Because she is so much more efficient at these jobs than any other primate, she possesses surplus time and uses it to invent tools to enhance her quality of life and communicate with her band.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this fascinating aspect of fiction writing.

More on world-building:

Gizmodo’s 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding

The Ultimate Guide to Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding Checklist

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and  Twenty-four DaysShe is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

84 thoughts on “How do you World-Build?

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  5. Hi Jacqui – it’s so important to remember all the things, so being organised at the beginning of any project makes absolute sense … the bible idea, together with the encyclopedia ensures we keep on the right track. Total sense … cheers to you all – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

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  7.     That’s quite a feat: visualizing and understanding another world. I’m in another world but I find it hard to visualize and explain why dreams are illusive and rarely give the time of day. Hmm, plausible ocean dynamics — now that’s a tough one. I’m trying to create artificial tsunamis launched from opposite directions to form an interference pattern and standing waves that form a standing wall of water that will block the Gulf Stream. It’s hard to picture it in detail, but I suppose the less detail the better? I don’t want to “overwhelm the narrative elements.” And of course I’m bringing back an Ice Age.
        I guess it’s good if I don’t have to over explain, because I can’t but I’m not sure how to make the impossible seem plausible.
        I hope I’m not doing too much “deus ex machina” when something doesn’t seem possible. Maybe the responsibility is spread around when there are many Gods.
        It’s very interesting how well you plan. There’s a lot to think about. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. RE: “Michael agreed to discuss we me how he goes about his worldbuilding. ”
    Did you mean “with me”?
    Sorry if you’ve already seen this, or it’s something else. Just thought there was a typo…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting… particularly the part concerning the two processes involved when it comes to World- building…. By the way, I watched yesterday a documentary on the Roswell issue and I am just thinking that a world- building might have occured in that case, as well… at least to a certain extent if we assume the official version (Mogul Project) was true. 😀 Great post, Jacqui…. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I researched this when I was preparing my fantasy genre overview for A to Z, saw it strongly in action with both Smart and Peach’s books, and then realized it’s actually part of historic fiction (as well as fantasy and sci fi). Now, I’m doing more research!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Jacqui, this is an excellent post which I’ve read slowly, savouring it. It was interesting to learn about Michael’s process for recreating a new world – and had to smile at how the ideas come to him easily! And how the hard work starts with conveying this world to the reader. The Dune example is great and having read the book this is one element I recall well – so much better than pages of exposition. I think a background in some area connnected to th idea is a huge help. Also exciting to hear more about your latest work, Jacqui. 😀😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read all of his books. Though the Bequia Mysteries are about present-day life on a Caribbean island, there’s as much world-building there for one like me who’s never been. Still, it’s much more important in his sci fi and Diana’s fantasy. It fascinates me how it’s done.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post – you’ve reminded me of the world building session I attended at EasterCon in London a couple of years ago. Now I must dig out my notes and take another look…
    I’m intensely focussed on my characters when I’m writing, so I build my cultures first, and then consider how they might have developed from the surrounding physical conditions of the world. I then write that knowledge into the background narrative by mentioning small details (of things that are different to our world) and how they impact my character’s lives.
    Kinda back to front, really, but it seems to work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jacqui, I so enjoy our blog conversations and hope to continue having these chats with you. There’s so much to talk about when it comes to writing. I’m looking forward to chatting with you about Lucy, and I’d love to have a conversation about writing Science Fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. What a fascinating interview with Michael Smart. He states what I feel about inventing, that just enough to place the reader in the environment is sufficient to allow us to get into the story. Vibrant characters in any environment overcoming a challenge will always capture my attention. Try to lock me into endless paragraphs of how stuff works and I’ve turned the page – or many.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I would agree that the right details are the key to successful world building. It doesn’t make sense to include bits that don’t enhance the understanding of how the world works or who the character are that live in it. Great post.

    I think the difference between using world-building and world building has to be whether it’s used as an adjective or a noun. I’d choose “world-building techniques,” but write, “good world building takes thought.”

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks so much for the mention, Jacqui. Yay! Great post and I agree with Michael that choosing the perfect details (versus all the details) is what brings the world to life. I always strive for two things that are somewhat related – plausibility and integration. All parts of a world impact other parts. History, religion, resources, geography, culture, magic (if any), and technology all bounce off and shape each other. I write an extensive “encyclopedia-like” backstory on all aspects of a world prior to beginning to write. Most of it never shows up in the story as exposition but it does in attitudes, relationships, and conflicts, and as part of descriptions. A fun topic. 😀

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  16. I’ve done a little SF world building in short stories and they employ a few significant things that are different from our world, but lots of similarities so the reader can identify with characters and situations easily.

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  17. World building is fun. I recall attending SF conferences in the 80s where the fashion was to have a “world building room” where attendees would gather to add details to the world being created. I’ve always found it best to make a few simple, basic assumptions that are important to the story and build out as needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. “Small, simple, everyday details that translate the world in ways readers can relate to are much more effective.”–True of so much of writing, and yet it can be surprisingly tricky to do. Great interview.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Since my stories have (so far) been based on secret societies within our own, normal world, I haven’t had to do a ton of world-building. I spend a lot of time on the rules and magic powers of those societies, but I don’t have to build a world from scratch. thank goodness. I’d probably spend so much time dreaming up the world, I’d never get around to writing the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Very interesting – and quite an act of writerly bravery to world-build by the sound of it. I think you would definitely have to know what you were doing for it not to interfere with the plot. Neat links too.

    Liked by 1 person

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