Worldbuilding Is About Making Choices (and Understanding What Those Choices Mean)

So this week I want to look at worldbuilding, mostly because that’s where I’m at in terms of THE NEXT BOOK.

Unlike The Biographies of Ordinary People, where the world of the story was not only “the real world” but also a specific place in a specific time period, THE NEXT BOOK… well, it isn’t set in the small Missouri town where I grew up during the time period in which I grew up, so I’m having to do a little more thinking about where this story takes place and what that means.

Before we get into that, I want to share this excellent conversation on worldbuilding, from The Ezra Klein Show:


Speculative fiction author N.K. Jemisin, who recently won her third Hugo Award for the third volume in the Broken Earth Trilogy (volumes 1 and 2 also won the Hugo, and it was the first time an author won three years in a row), takes Klein through the initial steps in creating a world.

Klein, like many of us, bases his world on something he’s already familiar with — in this case, the Black Rock Desert where they host Burning Man. But even if you know an area’s topography, and even if you know what it feels like to watch the stars come out over the playa, you still might not know how the society who lives in this similar-but-fictional desert gets their food. Or how they practice basic hygiene in a land with very little water, and what that implies about beauty standards and what they find beautiful.

Jemisin urges both Klein and, by extension, all of us to think seriously about the worlds we are creating. Does a desert society need to develop a relationship with a society that has water? What does that relationship look like? How are governments organized? Who is systematically oppressed, and in what way does that oppression benefit those in power? What happens to individuals who try to step outside of the roles society has set for them?

Jemisin also urges us to do our research. Even if we are writing books set in non-Earth worlds, there’s still a lot we can learn from how societies on Earth have interacted; like, if you want to know how a desert society and a water society might interact, there are real-world analogues throughout history that you can study.

She recommends Jarod M. Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I will admit I only read half of before I had to turn it back into the library (it’s not a quick read).

I’ll pair this recommendation with a different type of worldbuilding guide that I am also only halfway through: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel.

This book, written in Lonely Planet-style, takes readers through what they might expect to find in your typical, cliché, not-fully-thought-out fantasy world:

HORSES are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the DARK LORD are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a VALLEY while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horse can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no STALLION ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. It also explains why the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS and the DESERT NOMADS appear to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.

I’ll stop here for today, because I’ve given you a pile of resources and a 90-minute podcast to listen to (and please please please listen to all 90 minutes, the last bit goes into the ways Americans rank each other and there is this whole section on why people feel nervous around their favorite authors that I very very much want to unpack*).

One final note, which will lead us into tomorrow’s discussion: just because you’re setting your book in “the real world” doesn’t mean you get to skip the worldbuilding process. My NEXT BOOK is real-world-based, but I’m still asking myself questions like “will this take place in an actual time period e.g. 2018 or a generic present, and what do both of these choices imply for the story and how it might resonate with a reader?”

That’s where we’ll start on Tuesday. ❤️

*I don’t think we get nervous around authors because we’ve culturally decided authors are more important than other types of people, as Jemisin argues (and finds baffling) — or, more specifically, I don’t think we get nervous around our favorite authors just because of that. There’s also this element of “you have created something that became very important to me, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your work, and I know I only have 10 seconds to do this before you move on to the next person in the signing line and/or before it becomes socially inappropriate for me to continue talking to you in the airport/supermarket/wherever.”

Plus there’s often an extra dash of either “I have a parasocial relationship with you thanks to what you’ve posted about your life online, and maybe if I say the right combination of words you’ll find me interesting too and we can be friends”** OR “I don’t want you to know how much I know about you from reading your Twitter because I don’t want to come across as a creep or weirdo, so I am going to try to avoid making that obvious and that’s also making me nervous.”

**I have navigated the fan-friend route, though it did not derive from a single ten-second conversation and I doubt it ever could; it came from repeated positive interactions, the way most friendships form.*** It was also unexpected, in that I did not go in with the goal of forming a friendship. We just kept ending up at the same professional and social events, and there you go.

***NO YOU CAN’T FORCE THE REPEATED POSITIVE INTERACTIONS, THIS IS CALLED STALKING.

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