As I am knee-deep in fleshing out the world of Titania for “Lander”, the sequel to “Skythane”, I thought it would be fun to share how I create worlds, especially on the sci fi/fantasy side.
I usually start with an overarching feature that makes the world interesting to me, and I hope to my readers as well. In Skythane, it’s the concept of a broken world – a half-sphere hanging against the inky blackness of space.
In my forthcoming “The Stark Divide”, it’s a man-made cylindrical world that arches up all around the reader, almost claustrophobic in its embrace, especially for those who grew up under Earth’s own blue sky.
And in “The Autumn Lands”, it’s the surprise about the two worlds and how they are connected.
But as they say, the devil’s in the details. Once you get down to ground level in any of these stories, you have to start building a world from scratch that will be both familiar and tantalizingly exotic to the reader. Throw in too much alienness and it becomes a struggle for the reader to relate. Make it too mundane and the reader will be bored.
I’m an additive writer. Some of my friends write ungodly-long stories, and then slice and dice them, removing scenes surgically, working like Michelangelo to reveal the sleek sculpture hidden beneath layers and layers of marble. You know who you are.
I’m more like a painter. I start with a basic idea of the world itself – how it works, what it looks like from the air. As I write the first draft, I start to sketch in the details, sort of a pencil version of what the world looks like, smells like and feels like.
I often make sketches to help me visualize the setting and the action. Here’s one for the first few chapters of “Lander”:
Yes, I am also a talented artist. *bows*
Over the course of several more drafts, I add more details, mixing common things you’re familiar with in slightly new ways – box corn, for instance, a genetically modified square corn; or the poor swamp bear who stares up forlornly at our party from the midst of a flood. Each brush stroke adds a little more color, until the final work – assuming I’ve done my job right – feels complete and immersive.
I love world building in the stories I read, especially sci fi and fantasy. But I’ve had to learn to avoid (or at least minimize) data dumps – you know, those bits where an author spends a page (or three) describing in minute detail the way their special world works.
I still remember one of the Earth’s Children books where author Jean M. Auel spent almost 30 pages cataloging her knowledge of ancient herbal lore.
To be effective, good world-building needs to happen within the confines of the action of the story, slipped in so that you barely notice the craft of it.
How about y’all? How much world building do you like as a reader? And as an author, how do you accomplish it without being heavy handed?