Worldbuilding: Research, Common Sense, and Imagination

Worldbuilding. This is popular topic that I’ve been asked to write about, but to be honest, I’ve been wary of doing so. You see, I create whole worlds for fantasy stories or science fiction stories. I easily create entire means of transportation, technology, civilizations, and cultures, but I do not sit down and say, “Okay, so, if this planet is that far from the sun, the temperature of that planet will be this many degrees, and its days and nights will be this long while its seasons are that long.” Nor do I map out every single detail of everything in this new world. I’ve observed many such discussions in writing groups, and I’m always overwhelmed by all the detail (I totally applaud those of you who can go to such great depths of your story because I would get lost, but each person is different). There are a lot of great sites and blog posts that go more that direction. Here are a few examples:

Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions

Building Fantasy Worlds

Storywonk: Worldbuilding

Again, there are many more posts and sites dedicated to this subject. You’ll simply have to look them up.

Now, my own approach worldbuilding a little more simple. However, allow me to explain a few things. First of all, scientists in this world don’t know everything. Yes, they know a lot (more than me!), but they don’t know everything. There are minerals out there we’ve never encountered, occurrences on other planets or even moons we can’t explain. Yes, we do our best to apply what knowledge we have and make logical explanations, and this is good, but we will never really know unless samples are brought back to us for further studying or we go there to study. We don’t know what other worlds (even outside our solar system) are really like. We can do calculations, make careful observations, and explain things in a logical way, but we won’t know for certain if we’re absolutely right until we go there (I’m not really talking about Mars or the moon really but rather someplace further).

Now, having said all this, when creating worlds, I don’t stick to merely what I know. Yes, there are essential elements every planet should have like gravity, but I’m not going to go and determine just how big the planet it, how close it is to the sun in order to determine what the gravity is like on that planet. Why? Because it’s not important. Not to my stories at least. If my characters are traveling from planet to planet, they have a task to do and something to accomplish, and it’s not studying a new planet (unless that is their job). If gravity is important to the storyline (since it could have an affect on fight scenes or such if necessary), then yes, I’d do some brief calculations, bounce some ideas off more scientific-minded individuals, and figure out what I need to know about the planet’s gravity hold. However, if the character is going to that planet to meet with someone, get information, and then get off, there is no need to spend all that time developing a world where your character will only be for at least a day or so.

Basically, if it’s not important to the story, I won’t worry about it. I’m not going to spend pages and pages describing every detail of the planet. My characters are moving from point A to point B, and what they see along the way is what you get to see too. If a character happens to tell a story about the planet’s past, then the reader gets to hear that too. Otherwise, I keep moving.

What about civilizations and cultures? Well, what do you want your character to encounter? You can look around at the different civilizations of the day (both modern, extinct, and mythical) and come up with something unique. This would shape their buildings, social habits, and even politics. Let’s say you want your characters to run into some Viking-like society, so do some research to understand their habits. However, because these aren’t the Vikings, you have the liberty to use your imagination, get creative, and make up stuff. Mix and match cultures to come up with a wild blend of your own.

It all boils down to a single point: what do you want your character to encounter and how is it different from everything else in all other books out there?

Now, it may sound like I’m completely dismissing thorough research in worldbuilding, but I’m not. You can’t just slap together some details and hope your readers understand the world you’ve created. No, if you want to create a strong image for them, a world they will remember, you need to take a moment and imagine what the world looks like—imagine it clearly, so you can explain it clearly.

For instance, I have this one country in a world that has unusual meteorologic occurrences. It is a desert climate, but during the day there is a thick cloud cover of angry clouds. It always looks like it is going to rain and be a terrible storm. However, as the sun is setting, the clouds begin to pull back, and there is a break in the clouds where the sun can shine upon the land briefly before it sets. And then at night the skies are clear—the stars are bright. However, the next morning, the clouds are back. It is the only place in that world that this occurs. I cannot explain it scientifically, but this is what the story wants, and I do not argue with the story. If I do that, it will fight back by giving me Writer’s Block. I can see it clearly in my mind, and I write it.

One thing I’d recommend everyone to do a bit more research in is the structure of the government (any government in any age). See how the lower class is treated by the middle class and higher class. Observe who creates the laws, who enforces the laws and how, and who might be the exceptions to the law. Note punishments and how justice is served. Look at the educational system—see how the children are raised to think or not think. I say you should study these because these are fundamentals in how a culture is run. You may study multiple cultures and take a little here and something else from over there and create your own system, and that is fine. However, it is important to have a good handle on these elements because your characters will likely run into people involved in these branches (they may get in trouble with the law of that world), and instead of freaking out and then spending hours on Google before you finally toss the question to your writers group of how things should proceed, you will already know and can move on.

Use common sense (for instance, what goes up must come down—if you’re someplace with gravity), but also use your imagination. Don’t worry about all the logistics and if the critics or experts will say, “That’s not even possible!” Because you know what? They may be right. It might not be possible, but your story is fictional, and you can make it however you want it. Go ahead and create mushroom trees and purple skies, but remember, you don’t want to bog your readers down with description after description. It’s best to show the world as your character is passing through it. You can find all my different posts on description here: Cinemagraphic Writing: Description

Now, the only exception to this entire idea is if you have a character who is a scientist—someone who can scientifically explain just about anything. If you have her in your crew, you will probably want to know as much as you can about anything because she will talk, and you want her to sound intelligent and accurate.

If you’re the kind of writer who must have ever detail of the atmosphere of your world figured out, that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. I highly admire your determination to get all the facts absolutely right. However, if you’re the kind of writer who is overwhelmed by having to know ALL these facts, and you’re about to panic, take a deep breath. I’m giving you permission right now to not worry about all those details. Right now, focus on the immediate environment your characters are in (is it desert or mountain? Medieval or futuristic?), do your best to describe that, and move on with the story. Focus on the story. You can always go back and add more detail during the revision process.

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7 comments on “Worldbuilding: Research, Common Sense, and Imagination

  1. Jay Dee says:

    Your opening paragraph actually described my worldbuilding. I’ve developed a sci-fi world, and since I have a degree in physics and astronomy, I wanted to do things scientifically. I’m aiming for realism, which is why I was so detailed. However, I also have a fantasy world in development, which will not be done at the same level of detail. I don’t have to. It’s fantasy.

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