Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Worldbuilding and Art


Lots of things going on this week! Here's a sample.

I'll probably be on a couple of program items at ConDor in San Diego in March


about The Dresden Files and Buffy and Angel and other fantasy/horror/sf TV shows.

Oh, don't miss THE DRESDEN FILES -- hot stuff there. (it's world has vampires of a sort, and Dresden is a hunk with the Relationship potential of HIGHLANDER (the TV series, not the movie).)

While the programmer for ConDor was sending last minute panel ideas, I got an email from a reader of my review column.

He wrote concerning my column on String Theory (SF/Fantasy review column roves the known and unknown universe for topics). January 2007 starts a series of columns on The Soul/Time Hypothesis, a Kabbalah based concept deeply connected to the capacity to love.

This writer refers to www.psychotronics.org as the place to find out more about his work. I haven't looked at it but he's been seeking scientific proof of estoeric theories so that website could be a wonderful worldbuilding jumping off point. He found my column in The Monthly Aspectarian.

Meanwhile, I got a note from Joan Slonczewski ( http://biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/slonc.htm ) that she'd just reread House of Zeor and found it had been an influence on some of her work when she'd read it years ago. Her comment is at

And also this last week I got 3 new stories from one of the Sime~Gen fan writers, D. Dabinett! They will be going up on the Companion In Zeor webzine site soon.

The new stories are a spinoff of the other novels she has in Companion In Zeor starting with Issue #13 only these new stories focus on a junct Farris Channel. To find the Dabinett novels A NEW BEGINNING -- scroll down this index:
http://www.simegen.com/sgfandom/rimonslibrary/cz/ --

These novels take place in the Interstellar Era -- but this new series leaps to another planet that is at the stage Earth was in during House of Zeor. Fascinating alternate-alternate Universe worldbuilding! And I believe every word she writes!

The Sime~Gen Universe stories (House of Zeor being the first novel, not the first published story) has intense and detailed worldbuilding behind it. Writing a Sime~Gen story is more a matter of what to leave out than of creating more universe around it.

So Linnea's comments on Worldbuilding just rang a bell with me.

Studying The Matrix film for the scriptwriting course I'm taking, The Dresden Files (books and film), and commenting on student writing, while reading also for my review column -- I find myself haunted by a question.

What is the objective most fantasy writers aim for when they are building one of these elaborate, intricate, multi-level fantasy worlds?

Generally these new fantasy novels start very poorly with long, loving, lists of irrelevant details about the world that the writer believes you must understand before you can see how interesting the story really is. Mostly that's not true, and I tend to toss those books aside. (Contrast that with The Dresden Files or Buffy which leap write into the story and build the world incidentally as you go along.)

For these new Fantasy novels, the worldbuilding becomes the POINT rather than the telling of a riproaring good story.

Linnea is careful to point out how vital worldbuilding is to even contemporary writing -- but that background IS background not foreground.

In the newest huge, thick, "fantasy" novels the backgrounds seem to have become the foreground and the world itself the hero, rather than some character with a problem.

Well, that's OK -- I'm a worldbuilding fanatic and it's fine by me that the details of Creation should become the point of the story.


If the "way things work in this reality" is in fact the point of the story -- what is that point?

Where is the ART behind the worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding, to me, is what you do to sink the boring philosophy into the subtext and keep it out of the way of the story. Why do these writers build worlds?

The purpose of building an artificial world in which to tell stories is to make a new, creative and original comment on the true nature of the "reality" we live in via daily consciousness -- without ever articulating it in the story. That is the purpose of worldbuilding is to SHOW rather than TELL something profound about our true reality.

Yes, worldbuilding is mostly science if you're creating an alien planet or a future earth post catastrophy etc. But storytelling is an art -- and the scientific choices you make for your created world have to be artistic in nature.

Art is a SELECTIVE RECREATION OF REALITY -- not a copy of reality.

What I have noted absent in a whole stack of new Fantasy novels that I've plowed through looking for books to review -- is the ART. I can't discern the writer's selective process in their worldbuilding.

In other words, the poetic dimension is missing from their worldbuilding -- and in the reality I live in, the Divine Creation appears to have been arranged by a master Poet.

That poetic harmony in worldbuilding is what lets me suspend my disbelief because it makes the constructed world similar to everyday reality -- no matter how bizarre the construct.

Can anyone recommend a Fantasy novel or series of the last year or two that has poetic precision and selectivity behind the worldbuilding? Can anyone interpret the thematic significance for me? Point me at a good book!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. In the newest huge, thick, "fantasy" novels the backgrounds seem to have become the foreground and the world itself the hero, rather than some character with a problem.

    JL, I've just read your blog and I think I need to read it at least five more times for it to sink in but I have to comment (because I'm still on deadline).

    BRAVO! (stands and applauds)

    Yes, this is exactly the opposite side of the coin and proof that Middle Ground is where writers need to be. Don't ignore world building. Don't overdo it. To quote (genuflect) CJ Cherryh: Follow no rule off a cliff.

    I, too, tire quickly of SFF novels in which the world encompasses the first 5 chapters. I, personally, don't open my eyes each morning and think about the molecular breakdown of my body or the percentage of (name that compound) in the air I breathe. When I watch Fox & Friends I don't ruminate over the history of my country for the past 200 years. A fleeting thought about a particular historical figure may come to mind, but I don't think for hours on it.

    I doubt many of us do. So I have a hard time relating to characters who do.

    Also, since I'm not a world, I have a hard time relating to a book in which the world is written as a main character, as you point out.

    The world is the influence, not the substance of the story.

    I want to hear about a character with a problem. After all, I am a character with many problems. My problems, yes, are to some extent influenced by the fact I live in Florida. But I'm not Florida and to introduce myself first with a preamble about the Everglades and alligators and the Seminole Wars would have absolutely no bearing to what and who I really am.

    I don't know why some SFF novels do that. Boggles my little pea brain. ~Linnea

  2. I've assumed this world-building overkill is par for the course in the Fantasy genre and have given up on it almost completely, except for Tolkien. I do read once in a while if it looks like there really will be a compelling story to it. I'm planning on reading 'Protector of Flight' by Robin D. Owens this week.

    'One Good Knight' by Mercedes Lackey only spent the first six chapters setting up, but it was worth it after that. I love mythology and this one felt very Ancient Greek. Beautiful. Multi-dimensional characters and twisting plot.

    When I first read the title of this entry, I assumed you were going to talk about about how art influences our storytelling. I was all ready to prattle on about Classic Art and how I love mythology. I can stare at a painting for the longest time and watch a story unfold in my imagination. Are you familiar with 'Cupid and Psyche' by Francois Gerard? It inspired the secondary plot to Star Captains' Daughter. art.com is a favorite hang-out for me.

  3. Just to play devil's advocate...

    someone, and I want to give credit to Orson Scott Card, but my memory fails me, and it could have been Zuckerman, wrote that there are four types of novel:


    At the moment, I perceive that the most popular and successful authors write novels of Event (action adventure, with lots of plot etc).

    I love to read that sort of book! (Of course they also have the M.I.C. elements, but the Events are the most memorable parts of the story.)

    From what I read, quite a few editors are beginning to look for novels of Character, and this is a new development!

    (I like to think that that's my forte: Character-driven, with well-researched supporting milieu, plus ideas, events.)

    It could be, that the intention of the "fantasy novels... (with)... the world itself (as) the hero" were intended to be that way. The author and his/her editor may have wanted the books to be novels of Milieu.

    If (it's a big IF) we accept that there are four types of novel, then maybe we shouldn't judge a Milieu novel by the same standards that we'd judge an Event novel.

    Some people don't like Horror, and other people don't like Romance. Maybe some don't like Milieu, and some don't appreciate Character (or Idea, or even Event).



  4. Anonymous11:17 PM EST


    I just posted on this same subject on my own LJ!



  5. Linnea:

    When teaching worldbuilding, I generally work hands-on with the writer, refusing to accept explanations of the "world" until the "character" comes to a point in life where "world" is the answer to one of the story questions -- motivation, origin of the problem, menu of possible solutions, sift/sort on that menu to choose the first one to try.

    Gene Roddenberry taught me not to ESTABLISH anything about the "world" until it's absolutely necessary to tell the story.

    I learned (from failures) to choose which of all possible details to establish by looking at the THEME -- choosing bits of the world I'm depicting that fit the "art" of the story.

    Of course, the whole world lies somewhere in my subconscious -- but the writing requires that choice.

    Kimber An: No, actually what you're looking at with the spate of huge fantasy novels is writers who don't know how to control their backgrounds or don't have the strength and discipline.

    To see what I'm talking about, read Marion Zimmer Bradley's CATCHTRAP (circus novel set in the 1940's about the true nature of Art and where it comes from -- just happens to have gay lead characters.)

    Don't give up on Fantasy! To me it's the necessary leven in a cake of SF.


    You're somewhat on target here for what I was talking about.

    There is a very legitimate, vastly artistic, tremendously satisfying type of novel that is based on the Milieu.

    But the essence of story is CONFLICT and all such stories must start not by describing the milieu but by setting out the CONFLICT that will drive the plot.

    For example -- First-In Scout lands on a planet that has an intelligent forrest that tries to take over her mind. That novel is about the intelligent forrest.

    Or fantasy -- something has leached the magic out of the land and the story begins as the water treatment plant fails.

    Or DARKOVER -- Terrans arrive on Darkover to find people living there who are of Terran descent and don't know it. What the Terrans don't know is that THESE Terrans are interbred with Chieri. What the Darkovans don't know is that the Chieri are ancestors of the Terrans of Earth.

    And all of this has to do with the Starstone technology that almost destroyed Darkover.

    So long series generally have to have the Milieu as the central character who has a CONFLICT.

    What's lacking in the kind of novel I was talking about was A CONFLICT. Sometimes there is a pea soup of conflicts. Sometimes there's no conflict. Sometimes there's a conflict but the main characters aren't involved. Those Sometimeses all get the book set aside and not reviewed.

    Let me check that out.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  6. HERE'S WHAT I WROTE TO GABE after reading his long post on Worldbuilding in long fantasy novels:

    Thank you for dropping that note on my Tuesday Feb 6th blog entry at

    You are correct, we're actually talking about exactly the same thing!

    You wrote here:
    "Vance was a masterful worldbuilder. With just a few well-chosen words, he was able to paint whole vistas, to give the impression of a rich, detailed, thriving world. Within the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did the same thing. An evocative phrase here and there, an allusion to the past... these are the broad brushstrokes that create vivid worlds."

    I couldn't agree more - Vance is one of my all time favorite writers.

    In the rest of your post, you address the problem of being the writer trying to unfold a STORY, with plot and conflict etc., and stopping to create elaborate details of the world because the world is so interesting.

    You might want to see my answer to some of the comments on my blog post.

    As Gene Roddenberry taught me (I am not name dropping when I keep repeating this -- I've been taught it's not right to leave out the reference to the person who taught you something when passing it on) - DON'T establish details you don't need right now for this story.

    You may think of them and use them to amuse yourself, but don't write them into the story (yet). You can always change it later if you haven't established it -- and chances are you will need to change it to make the plot work.

    You're probably a better plotter than you think you are -- but you put brick walls in the way and smash yourself into them because you've already let the worldbuilding come into your conscious mind.

    Writing is ART -- and I was taught by Alma Hill (my first professional writing teacher) that WRITING IS A PERFORMING ART. It's not like painting -- it's like playing piano in concert! Or like acting. Or singing.

    So in the process of learning to write, you TRAIN the subconscious mind to pre-synthesize the worldbuilding and characterization and even the relationships and conflicts that drive the plot, just as a pianist trains their hands to know where the keys are.

    The pianist learns the score by repetition, and by wrote. And becomes able to play the score by repetition of scales and drills.

    With the basic skills drilled into that unconscious part of the mind -- the ARTIST then sits down to PERFORM the score, infusing it with meaning, feeling, dimension and depth -- using the score to communicate with the audience on a huge variety of topics.

    Yeah, BANDWIDTH! Writing is a high bandwidth performing art -- you pack huge amounts of information in every word, every comma.

    You can't do that with the conscious mind. It's the unconscious that has that kind of synthesizing power -- but it can't do it unless you train it.

    The subconscious is not smart. It can't learn. But like a dog, it can be trained.

    What you're looking at in these huge fantasy novels that seem to go on and on about the world before starting the story -- is lack of a trained subconscious mind.

    If you want to become able to dash off a straight narrative story set in some bizarre world -- train your subconscious. Don't let your conscious mind know what that world is like, or how it works.

    Set yourself into the head of the main character with the conflict, walk into his story and DISCOVER that world a bit at a time with your reader looking over your shoulder.

    When you do that, it will seem that you are "making it up as you go along" -- but if your subconscious is trained (i.e. has been trained like a pianist's fingers and ear) you will actually be performing the magic act of sounding this or that note at just the right time -- and for the right length of time.

    Does any of this make sense to you?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg