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:
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 Days. She 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.