At the most recent meeting of my Transplants Writer’s Group, we discussed world building. The group consists of two literary fiction authors, a non-fiction author and me representing speculative fiction. One of the comments that came out was, “It’s hard enough writing in a world I already know. I don’t know how you SF guys do it.” This surprised me because I LOVE the world building part of writing. Most of the discovery and research I do before I start a project is all about world building. The other surprising assumption was that world building wasn’t as important for non-SF writing. This is not true at all. Every writer does world building.
World Building is Universal
There may be more time spent creating a mining colony on a distant moon than a theater in a small Midwestern town , but the act of selecting the world your characters will inhabit is no less important.
World building is all about limiting your options. When you select your world, you immediately start filling in those blank pages even if they’re just in your head. The world in which you tell your story will limit the characters that inhabit the setting and the story you can tell. Let’s throw in some characters and see what happens.
Let’s add some sentient cockroaches to the lunar mining colony and a troupe of acrobats to the small-town theater. Already I’m thinking that these roaches are a genetically altered servant class that function as zero-g janitors. The acrobats are aging, down-on-their-luck Vegas performers that grew up in the small town. You can see how the setting can inform the creation of the characters.
Now, what if we flip them? A troupe of decrepit acrobats ends up on a distant mining colony and a hive of sentient roaches inhabits the dusty space under and old theater. The constraint that the world places on the characters will make us ask the most important question. Why. Why are the roached in the theater self-aware? Why did the acrobats choose to travel through the blackness of the void for months to land at a desolate mining colony?
At the worst, answering these questions will force you to think deeper about your world and add even more constraints. The setting will just get richer. The answer to these questions, at their best, will grab the smoky tendrils of story that are floating around in your head and start to weave them into story and plot.
I think that world building in literary fiction, at least for new writers, can be seen as less important because it’s set right here, right now. All of those stories rely on the world to inform the rich setting we demand as readers
I had intended to dig deeper into the type of world building I do for SF, but I think I’ll save that for another post. I need to write down some ideas about why those acrobats are there.