Monday, August 20, 2012

Building Worlds With Words

I woke up a couple days ago and realized I enjoy worldbuilding. That's the part of writing craft (especially important in speculative fiction) that sets the stage for the action of the story and, probably more importantly, helps shape and define characters and their motivation.

I love writing dialog, building story tension, and revealing plot twists, but for some reason I'd always had this notion the worldbuilding aspect was laborious. Something that took time away from writing the "fun" parts.

But I was confused. I think it was because I love that adrenaline rush I get writing a particularly tense scene -- you know those scenes where your fingers can't fly fast enough to get it down? Or, as a reader, where you realize you've stopped breathing and are hanging on every word?

While it's true that those types of scenes typically contain only subtle worldbuilding, if any -- and only a masochist would slow down her writing flow to force herself to write description -- that doesn't necessarily make worldbuilding a chore.

I think that my own, previously unacknowledged love for WB is the whole reason I can't seem to make myself fast-draft. Yes, I do sometimes get in a groove and leave the details for later. But as a writer I  have an erratic rhythm. Sometimes I need to really slow down and get into descriptions of my world and its landscape, culture, politics, psychology, etc., to fuel my creativity for continuing the story. It was true for GHOST PLANET, whose world is really a character in the story, and especially so for my current WIP, which is largely set in a sensual, vibrant oasis on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

And yeah, it's only a paragraph or single line or even single word carefully placed here and there, but it's like the sauce. The ingredients (character, plot, etc.) are critical, but they don't hold together without worldbuilding.

So in tribute to this personal revelation, I've decided to conduct an informal study of worldbuilding. Off the top of my head, here are some titles that really nailed WB for me . . .
  • Maia by Richard Adams - It's a sexworld, pure and simple, but incredibly complex and richly drawn, from culture, to landscape, to politics. 
  • Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster - I read this Star Wars-based novel in 6th grade and its swamp world stuck with me all this time. You might be tempted to think that LUCAS actually did the worldbuilding, but this story has its own rich setting. (A bit like Dagobah, but the book came out before Empire.) There's romance too. Though it turns out to have been incestuous later. (Interesting commentary about that here and here. But I digress.) 
  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling - OBviously, said Sherlock. 
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - English countryside, boarding school, big old spooky house, brooding gentleman who moonlights as a gypsy, and a beautiful crazy woman in the attic! Dark, dark, dark and lovely. Wuthering Heights was probably more atmospheric, but I connected more with Jane's world.
Give me some more! What are your favorite fictional worlds? If you're a writer, did you have a particular story with worldbuilding you loved to write?

And I have to give a nod to SF Signal, which has a thought-provoking (and much more clever) post on worldbuilding that got me thinking about this topic: Worlds Are Conjured, Not Built.


  1. Splinters of the Mind's Eye was one I read and loved! For me, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dark Crystal and The Lord of the Rings were my favourite fantasy worlds. The Crystal Singer (Ballybran and the other worlds Killashandra visited) and Drowntide (a marine world with a play on mermaids).
    But when writing, the world building is the part I love. I can't draw, so I sketch in those worlds in words and then shaped them around my characters.

  2. Lord of the Rings, how could I leave that one out! And some new ones for my list too.

    That is a GREAT analogy. I have some transgenics in my current novel that I keep wishing I could draw.

    After so many years - and especially after the Star Wars saga unfolded in a way that made Splinter seem to be based on flawed information - it is amazing to me how many people still know and love this book!

  3. This post and discussion inspired me to read up a little more on Splinter. I did not realize that Foster actually wrote the original Star Wars Episode IV novel, and collaborated with Lucas on fleshing out the Star Wars world.

  4. Oh my. So many worlds, so little time. Here are a few faves just off the top of my head.

    Probably my favorite novel for fabu-tastic world-building is (sorry to sound like a broken record here), Dragonriders of Pern. This dangerous but fascinating world of killer thread, Weir politics and telepathic dragons and riders that can jump "between" to other dimensions captivated me.

    Another (no surprise here either) is Dune. Warring planetary fifedoms, the mysterious Freman, mind-altering spice addiction, and monstrous sandworms all contribute to a rich universe with some very imaginative twists.

    The Outback Stars features a complex future that fuses Australian mythology into a future where giant military settlerships traverse an ancient alien transportation web that humans know very little about.

    Definite honorable mentions are Ann Aguirre's Sirantha Jax series, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, and Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command universe and Dock Five series. I also loved the 900,000 year old civilization in a tropical Antarctica that was so richly drawn in Rene Barjavel's The Ice People.

    As a writer, I (naturally) love all the worlds I create, but Draxis is probably the setting I'd most like to become immersed in.

  5. More great additions, thanks, Laurie!

    Confession: I have never read Dune! It is on my ever expanding list.

    It's been ages since I read Dragonriders - would love to read it again.

  6. LORD OF THE RINGS above all. i think I lived there on and off for years. Loved DUNE--vividly drawn down to the last detail. Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS probably created the space outpost world for everybody for years, both in books and movies. I was a huge Dickens fan in high school (yeah, I know, I'm weird) and Edgar Allen Poe, too. Those two know how to set a scene! More recently I've been lost in 18th Century Scotland and North Carolina with OUTLANDER and the very hot, hip urban paranormal romance world of J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Great post, Sharon!

  7. Poe, absolutely! Which reminds me - LOVECRAFT. Wow, that guy had a true talent for making you feel like things were crawling around under your skin.

    As for Outlander . . . ah, Jaaaaaamie. Was it about other stuff? ;-)


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