I have posted here before about worldbuilding, and no doubt I will again. Only a month or so ago, Benjamin Tate gave us an excellent guest post on the subject. But I have been thinking about worldbuilding in a new way since beginning work on the Thieftaker books, which are my first set in a “real world” place (namely pre-Revolutionary Boston).
When I began the project I thought that I wouldn’t have any worldbuilding to do at all. The world didn’t need to built, right? It was real — the history had been written, there were maps, drawings, written descriptions. I didn’t have to come up with street names, I didn’t have to imagine a political system or religions or any of the other things I come up with when I do worldbuilding for my imagined worlds. It was all there for me. Well, except the magic system, which I had to develop on my own. And I also needed to fit my own characters and imagined plot lines into the existing world and history. But aside from all of THAT there was nothing to be done, right?
In recent weeks I have come to the conclusion that every author of fiction does some worldbuilding. I don’t care if you write “literary fiction,” mystery, romance, SF, or fantasy, you still have to establish a world for your narrative. You can call it setting, ambiance, context, scenery — whatever. It’s worldbuilding. And good worldbuilding is an ongoing process that involves much more than simply laying the groundwork for your story. Worldbuilding in a real world setting means doing research, figuring out how your characters and their lives fit in with the existing setting. So, for instance, I had to learn about the neighborhoods of 1760s Boston. I had to figure out how people got their food, how they kept their homes warm in the winter (if they did), how they traveled from one part of the city to another. I had to learn all that I could in order to make Boston seem like something more than a place mentioned in a history book. In writing the Jane Yellowrock books, Faith needed to find out all she could about about post-Katrina New Orleans. Yes, she already knew the region. But she needed to learn it again, street by street, house by house at times. And then, just as I had to insert a magical subculture into my real world setting, she had to create a vampire subculture in hers. (And she did it brilliantly, by the way.)
Still these are examples from our genre that demand additional worldbuilding beyond simply “learning the place.” Surely a mainstream novel — no magic or vampires or photon torpedoes — set, say, in New York City wouldn’t demand worldbuilding. Would it? Yes, I think it would. There are people who haven’t been to NYC, people who this mainstream author hopes will buy the book. So the author has to make the city come alive for these readers. They have to be able to see and smell and hear the city. They have to get a feel for the main character’s neighborhood; they have to feel at home in the MC’s apartment. That is worldbuilding. And that is why I say that worldbuilding is an ongoing process.
When we develop characters we figure out as much about them as we can prior to writing our story or novel. We create character sketches, figure out the important details of their lives, etc. But we don’t stop there. We continue to develop those characters throughout the story. We should do the same thing with our worlds. Let me put it this: You can set up your world and then just forget about it for the rest of the time you’re writing your book. And what you’ll end up with is something like the dioramas that you see in the background of a display at a natural history museum. It might be pretty. It ought to be accurate in what it represents. It will certainly look better than a blank wall. But it’s not compelling or exciting; it’s not alive.
On the other hand, you can continue to tease out details of your world throughout your story, making the setting as much an actor on your narrative stage as your characters themselves. Let’s go back to Faith’s work for a moment. This passage from Skinwalker took my breath away:
The smell of seafood, spices, hot grease, and people filled the air. Food and liquor, exhaust and perfume, vamps and witches, drunks and fear, sex and desperation, and the scent of water. Everywhere, I was surrounded by water, the power of the Mississippi, the nearby lakes, the not-too-distant reek of swamp. The overlay of coffee with chicory, the way they brewed it here. The scent combinations were heady.
The streetlights hid as much as they revealed, like an aging exotic dancer hiding behind fans or party balloons. Music poured from bars and restaurants, rich with jazz licks and dripping with soul.
Wow. That is some kickass worldbuilding. I’ve been to New Orleans. I’ve seen and it and smelled it and tasted it and heard it. And that is exactly what it was like. Except, of course, I haven’t been to Faith’s New Orleans. There were no vamps and witches when I was there. But she works it all in seamlessly, melding the New Orleans we know with the one she has imagined to create something visceral and real and utterly compelling. This is what worldbuilding is supposed to be. It’s not something she did, described for us and then forgot about. It is immediate and constant. It is a process. We feel the energy of the place, we experience its sights and sounds and smells, but we also feel Jane’s frustration at what remains hidden. And we sense as well — hinted at in that passage about all the city is concealing — the seediness of the city, the sadness of an aging beauty that has seen and lost too much.
When we convey imagery from our world we reinforce our worldbuilding, but we also ought to reinforce our narrative, our character work, our themes. Telling our readers about our world for its own sake doesn’t accomplish anything from a storytelling point of view. What makes Faith’s worldbuilding work so well in the passage above is the way she uses the worldbuilding to deepen every other element of the novel. Guy Gavriel Kay is another author who does this extremely well. His worlds are incredibly rich, and as he reveals more and more about the places he has created, he ties mythology and religion, history and politics to the struggles of his characters and the conflicts driving his narrative. Worldbuilding for him is not merely a body of background work, or a few bright details thrown in as an afterthought. It is integral to all that he seeks to do with his books.
So as you work on your worldbuilding, think not only about what you need to convey to your reader about your world in order to make the story clear. Consider as well how you might use details from your world to reinforce the growth of your characters and the course of your plot. Use imagery — try to make at least some of the similes, metaphors and analogies you use in your prose relate back to your worldbuilding, as Faith does with the fan dancer. Use the language of your world — the turns of phrase and expressions used by the people in it — to reinforce important elements of its history and culture, as I suggested a while back in my post about curses. Or delve deeper and find ways to parallel older myths and historical events with the plot lines of your own story.
When I pick up a fantasy novel, I want to be transported to someplace wondrous, someplace that fires my imagination. When I write my own stories, I try to give that same experience to my readers. And so I try to weave my worldbuilding into every aspect of my storytelling, and in doing so I hope to make my worlds come alive.
What fantasy worlds have you most enjoyed visiting? What have you done with your own worlds to make them feel real and vibrant?David B. Coe