I have the good fortune to be in a writing group, and we discuss things! And I think those things are important, so here is a brief look at what we chatted about. And a picture so you can see how not organised we were.
One of the first things we discussed was how much world building you actually need. Because there is such a thing as world-builder’s disease, and it does stop you writing.
That’s what Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient is up there for.
If you’re telling a Milieu story, your world is the most important thing in there. So you’re going to need to do a lot to ground it.
If it’s an Idea/Issue story, then you need to set up the different realities of your issue in the world, but you can get of more lightly.
Character your main focus? Then you’ll need enough so you know what made them who they are, what pushed them to do what they’re doing, and what sort of worldly obstacles they might face in addition to whatever your antagonist is doing. And if it’s a character story with the Hero vs World set up, you’ll need a bit more just to make it clear the antagonist is the setting.
Event stories need enough so you what lead up to the event, what the players are, and the outcomes of the event on the world.
What came out of that was the ideas of what tools you can use to really get started.
Don’t explain the every day. You don’t explain to someone how to open a door, unless you’re being sarcastic or there is an unusual situation at play. You don’t explain how to put on shoes and walk. There will be a lot of things that have mechanisms the characters are completely unaware of but they use the things every day. Like computers. And the Internet. And all sorts of things. What is normal for your characters?
What do your characters swear on/bu/to/as an expression? This will tell you so much about your characters, and their world, and add a little grounding to your world without exposition. And swearing is always a bit of fun. I am terrible at it, but it’s a skill to work on.
The style of language, like how formal or informal they are, is also important. It comes through in dialogue and helps make characters distinct very quickly. And remember that the tone of the narrative voice also informs the reader too, so keep that in mind.
How do they expression affection/respect/contempt/etc without words? What are the gestures or alternate phrases they use instead of just saying things bluntly? My Dad says ‘the car needs a wash’ instead of ‘I love you’, and that’s something that really changed my relationship with him when I realised that. Which means knowing that for your characters can be really important. Talk about ways to build conflict through innocent miscommunication.
That got us talking about what people need. And there are some great things we talked about, and they feed in through all the things we’d talked about earlier.
Knowing what the social norms and taboos are will help create social conflict, inform your language and characterisation choices, and make the world more real. A lot of cultures have similar basic norms and taboos, so you can create a sense of understanding or dissonance with your reader depending on what you want to do.
Stories about how the world works; creation myths, morality tales, explanations about how the world works and why, what things are safe and what are not and why. These all shape the world the characters deal with and what they know, what they will question and what they won’t, and how you can undermine or strengthen those understandings. We love cognitive dissonance, so it’s great to know about this stuff.
What do people gossip about?
Who are the cultural ‘bad guys’ that things get blamed on? Who are your scapegoats?
What are the essential elements? Water, food, electricity, magical ore? What do they need for daily survival, for social climbing, for trade and work? This will help work out what things could add pressure to a ticking clock scenario for you. If they don’t find the oasis, they will die of thirst in three days if they don’t get eaten by sand worms. Talk about motivation to find a resource!
Social status is also basically about resource management, so work out what they are trading to get power. How do they get higher on the social ladder? What does the social ladder look like in the first place? This is a big question, accidentally, but it does give you a heap of information. Keeping it tight to the characters will stop you falling into the huge mess that is society building.
Another thing that came up was the idea of ‘nuclear story telling options’, which I acquired from J. Daniel Sawyer. They’re things that change the world irrevocably. Nuclear power is one. The Pill, reliable birth control. Widespread literacy. These things have changed the shape of the world so much that it will not have the issues expressed the same way they were before the change. If you have things that reshape the world, they’re great to know.
And, of course, knowing the historical events and a large scale level, and the local level, will also give you an idea of what things have changed or are in the process of changing.
To get unstuck from a character doing something you have no idea about, we got two ideas.
Unleash your inner 5 year old! Ask, and answer, ‘Why?’ to a level of at least five ‘why?’s. Getting past the first three, you’re really starting to get some depth in your answers.
If… Then… is another idea. If something happens in a particular way, then something will happen in reaction. If a character does something, then it means something about who they are and what they have been through. Fantastic tool for depth, and you can go forwards or backwards with it, or sideways, to find out enough to get you unstuck.
And, of course, there was a lot of discussion about resources we’ve used and liked.
Brandon Sanderson 321 YouTube series: For world building and general writing things.
Chaotic Shiny: Random generators galore, and some neat packs you can buy to have offline.
SFWA World Building Guide: They know what they’re talking about. Here’s a starting list of things to look at.
Fantasynamegenerators.com: Does what it says, gives you names. Because that’s a frustrating stuck point. There are also a lot of other things to look at, so explore away!
Springhole.net: More generators, because we love them.
Every Day Novelist podcast – J. Daniel Sawyer: He’s got some great ones on characterisation, and is where I got nuclear story telling options from, so I recommend him.
Tiddlywiki: For all your wiki needs so you can keep your notes organised. I am working on one, and it’s so unbelievably helpful. No more wondering whose cousin is who, it’s in the wiki!
I hope that is helpful, because let’s be honest, world building is really important and you can get a lot done with a small amount of focus if you know how much you need in the first place.