Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Worldbuilding Traps

by Mary Altman

“Worldbuilding is a technique widely used by authors to create diverse and believable constructed worlds in which to base their stories” (Wikipedia.com).

There’s a lot that can be said about worldbuilding. It is one of the essential tools in an author’s bag of tricks—the base on which the entire story is built. Without careful forethought and meticulous planning, a complex novel can easily unravel.

Worldbuilding is important in any genre, but it is especially crucial in speculative fiction and paranormal novels. Once you introduce an element that is totally your own creation without the accompanying “rules” of reality (such as Earth’s gravity and other scientific facts), it is up to you as the author to create the rules, put them into play and make certain they are followed at all times.

As I mentioned, there’s a lot that can be said about worldbuilding including how it works, how it shouldn’t work and a few genre cheats and shorthands that have evolved which help an author out (known as the Black Box). But what better way to start talking about worldbuilding than to skip all of that completely and go immediately to the things that really bug me as a reader and an editor?

1) Planets that are treated like one country. The rule of writing is that every rule can be broken, and this is no exception. There have been fantastic stories which included entire planets (small planets, large planets, colonized moons…) under the control of one political system and one ruling hegemony. However, if not done consciously and well, it strains credibility that one government has managed to take and maintain control over an entire planet. Think your world through and take the time to consider varying nations and cultures.

2) The complete lack of a political system. This one bugs me even more than #1. Even a poorly thought out political system is preferable to nothing at all. How is the society working? How are things accomplished—roads built, orphans housed, other planets bartered with? Even if your answer is “they aren’t”, you need to know that—and know how it will affect the story.

3) No economy or agriculture. People have to eat and the food has to come from somewhere. City-planets full of technological marvels are interesting to read about, but I always find myself wondering how they manage to sustain life without so much as a corn field.

4) Societies that mirror modern American mores for no reason. It’s easy to fall back on the familiar, especially when you’re putting so much hard work into the science and political structure of your world. However, I tend to find it off-putting when alien races (and paranormal beings) react to the world with a decidedly modern moral compass. Consider building unique taboos and moral codes to bring dimension to your cultures. (Editor Meghan would like to add that stealing from Ancient China or Japan is now a speculative fiction cliché, so beware of that pitfall as well!)

5) The presence of an “Old Earth” fan. Having a character who just loves “Old Earth” and who constantly references television shows and “ancient” pop culture is no longer new or amusing (unless you write so well that you can make it new and amusing again). It’s a genre cliché to have a futuristic character with a broad 1960s-2000s Earth pop cultural knowledge, and it often smacks of lazy writing.

6) Ultra-stereotypical paranormal creatures and names. Demons do not need to be named Luc or Lucian or Damon or Devlin. No, really, they don’t.

7) Breaking rules in order to serve the plot. This is the case of the werewolf with an ultra-sensitive sense of smell…until the plot calls for the heroine being able to sneak past him without being detected. Readers get angry when you break the rules you’ve created—when you violate your worldbuilding. Sit down and think through every scene in order to create a way the heroine could sneak past the werewolf and cleverly bypass his sense of smell. It will keep your rules intact and create a potentially interesting plot element.

I could probably go on for pages, but you get the general idea. Worldbuilding is absolutely crucial to genre fiction, whether it’s fleshing out paranormal creatures, adding details to a modern setting or literally creating a world from scratch. Keeping in mind questions about politics, economics, culture and scientific possibility will help build the rules that govern your specific world—and knowing the rules means you know exactly how to break them without making readers (and your editor) scream.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for a great post!

So many books have terrific worldbuilding, which left me completely gobsmacked when I ran into number 5 on your list recently. For a book released this year. By a multi-pubbed science fiction author.

I was so angry because it took me out of the story completely and I had to stop reading. "Old Earth" fan is fun the first time around, but it's so distinct that it should be used sparingly.

So this post made me feel better because I thought it was just me.


Anonymous said...

i hadn't thought much about this topic, but it's really quite interesting. i have always been more of a multum in parvo type of writer, but when you "go big," you have to get the rules right.

the "old earth" fan rule is hilarious -- i can see some old codger on the doorstep of a general store on planet x saying, "weeeeeeeel, back on old earth we didn't have no fancy rocket packs, and we liked it!"

Dawn Montgomery said...

Very well written post. The one government over an entire world drives me insane.

I'd like to add to the list...just one thing. It drives me crazy when I read a fooglesnap and realize based on description that it is supposed to be a cat. Orson Scott Card nailed it when he said "call a rabbit a rabbit." Why come up with ridiculous and hard to pronounce names (which usually is a fantasy problem) for things that are, essentially, the same thing.

"Old Earth" yes, it has to be done VERY well to keep me interested.

I cut my eye teeth on sci fi and fantasy so world building is extremely important to me as a reader.

Kate Willoughby said...

Mary, you're a gal after my own heart. It drives me batty when authors break their own rules or create rules that are implausible.

Your number 6 is a pet peeve of mine. I think that using apostrophes in fantasy/sci-fi names has become cliche.

As you know, I've recently built my own world in which there is a Universal Wish Federation that employs fairies to grant wishes. It's been fun and challenging to create the rules for that world. More than once I've come up against a rule I established that I had to work around, but I like it. It stretches my imagination.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your first point. A newly colonized planet should have one government. If a group of people travel from Earth to form a new world, they would have one government, at least, at first.

Later, people could move on and create other governments or there could be a split and cause a civil war. People coming to a new planet would have a reason to start a new world, an agenda, and it is absurd to think that a few hundred or so people would not live under the same government until their colony grows.

A large piece of land doesn't mean lots of governments. If man landed on Mars tomorrow and established a permanent base there, how many governments would exist on that base?

I am not talking about the people on that base coming from USA, Russia, Japan and other countries. I'm talking about the base itself. One government, I hope.

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