Monday, July 13, 2009

World Building For Writers, Or Why Everyone in the Galaxy doesn't Speak English

(Lecture #1 from a class I taught in 2008)
Lesson One: Building Your World Where Everyone Definitely Does Not Speak English (even if they do…)

There’s a misconception out there in the galaxy and I want to correct it. The misconception is that world building is only for science fiction and fantasy writers. See, you thought I was going to say it was that everyone speaks English. Thanks for reading the title, but that’s not the misconception I’m going to start with. It’s that world building is a sci fi geek’s playground.

It is. But it’s also yours, no matter what genre you flail around in.

“But I write chick-lit,” you wail as you flail. “And she writes police procedurals. And he writes horror set in Chicago.”

“I don’t care,” sez Linnea. “If you write commercial genre fiction, you need to pay attention to world building.”

And the reason you need to pay attention to world building is because writing guru Dwight V. Swain ::Linnea genuflects:: said we need to. And he’s right. (If you’re not familiar with Swain, you should be. His Techniques of the Selling Writer, first published around 1965, is dang near the bible for most of the published authors I know.)

The reason every fiction writer needs to pay attention to world building is because every fiction piece is set in a “story world” and that story world—even if it is based on a real place—is still being interpreted through the characters’/author’s eyes.

Let’s take West Long Branch, NJ. Never been there? I was born and raised there. It’s a sleepy little town a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean just where the state of New Jersey dinks in. I know it really well but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that the way I knew West Long Branch isn’t exactly the same as the way my best friend Claudia knew it. For one thing, I was an only child of financially comfortable parents. Claudia was the middle child in a divorced family. She was about a year younger than I was, and was a grade behind. Her heritage was Italian. Mine was Polish.

The reality is that even though we lived across the street from each other for almost twenty years, how she processed her experiences were different than the way I did. She had to deal with parental discord, as her mother usually pulled some stunt every time Claudia’s father came for visitation. I never experienced that—I watched it as it happened to Claudia but the emotional impact wasn’t mine. However, I had parents who owned a business. I was a “latchkey kid.” Claudia’s mother was always home.

So my experiences of my “world”—West Long Branch, circa 1965—were affected by my background, family and heritage, just as Claudia’s were. Loud voices in her house were common (she had a larger family that included two brothers and her parents were often fighting). Loud voices in my house would signal something unusual. I didn’t like to watch monster movies because I was often alone at home. Monster movies never bothered her because she had the company of her brothers. Thunderstorms, honking horns, the love or hate of going to school differed between us. Yet we grew up across the street from each other, breathing the same air, drinking the same water.

Which brings me to what Swain teaches about a story world:

a. Your reader has never been there.
b. It’s a sensory world.
c. It’s a subjective world.

It is critical you understand these three points as you world build. Even if your reader has been to that exact town or city, the reader has never been there INSIDE YOUR CHARACTER’S SKIN. Your reader may be a Claudia and the character is a Linnea. Or the other way around. The key here is that your character(s) bring their own unique viewpoint and interpretations into every locale, setting, scene, place, planet, space station, level of hell, heavenly cloud or whatever—and that character’s viewpoint will literally color the scene.

If you write it well.

If you cheap out and go for generic Manhattan or generic West Long Branch or generic Rigel IV, then you’re failing in your duty as a writer and a world builder.

Remember that no matter where you place your story, the reader has never been there, it’s a sensory world and it’s a subjective world. You need to use those three parameters for every book, every locale, every world you build.

For even if you’re a triple PhD scientist and you can describe in minute and excruciating detail the geo-thermodynamics of a particular distant star…it don’t amount to a hill of beans (to the reader) until that particular distant star is SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHARACTER. And the character has some opinion—some reaction, some response, some interpretation—of that star. Or of that city. Or of that office. Or of that castle dungeon.

Good world building is not just an accurate travelogue or detailed list of the flora and fauna. Those kinds of things—while necessary—are static and impotent until your drop your character(s) into the story.

Your character makes your world come alive. Your reader sees the world through your character’s eyes, hears its sounds through your character’s ears, deems a thunderstorm or ion storm good or bad through your character’s opinions and experiences.

Your character also influences how the story world is experienced in the sense that a twelve-year old’s take on Manhattan would not be the same as a forty-three year old’s. A twelve-year old might marvel at all the sounds and the lights and the cars. A forty-three year old might see another goddamned gridlock.

Unless the forty-three year old was a forty-three year old Amish farmer.

Ah, see the difference?

Your story world is a subjective world.

Linnea’s first key to great world building is personalization.

Linnea’s second key is Dwight V. Swain’s item b: it’s a sensory world. But that should come naturally when you’re immersed in character.

For all my time being alone as a child, for all my fears of monster movies, I love thunderstorms. I find them invigorating. I know they terrify a lot of children (and dogs).

One’s man trash is another man’s treasure. When we get to the sensory aspect of world building, it’s the stench of the trash and the glitter of the treasure the reader wants to experience. The easiest way, the very best of bestest ways to bring a reader into whatever world is your story world is through the senses. What does the space station Cirrus One SMELL like? What does your character HEAR on the streets of Manhattan at three in the afternoon? At three in the morning? What does the sand FEEL like under your character’s bare feet as she trudges down the beach towards the dead body? The sand in St. Petersburg, FL—so soft and fine it’s referred to as “sugar sand”—is different than the blacker, grittier sand on the Atlantic beaches of Ft. Lauderdale.

If your character grew up in St. Pete, she might not give much thought to the sugar sands there. She’s used to it. However, if she grew up on the Jersey Shore (like I did), she’d notice the difference immediately.

You cannot separate world building and character building. IMHO.

And it’s through character that you reveal your story world.

In the opening scene of THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES, I have my female protagonist, Commander Jorie Mikkalah, find herself in an unfamiliar world. No big deal for Jorie. She’s an intergalactic hunter. She constantly finds herself on strange worlds. But ah, this strange world is Bahia Vista (ie: St. Pete), Florida. USA. Earth.
So familiar to me, author. So unfamiliar to Jorie, character.

In ZOMBIE BLUES I had to erase everything I knew about a town I’d lived in for over ten years. And I had to see it, fresh and unfamiliar, through Jorie’s jaded eyes. I’m adding some snippets here, snippets I spent some time on as I built JORIE’S world out of my own. Do you recognize things that are commonplace—to you—and foreign to my intergalactic heroine?

Chapter 1

Another dark, humid, stinking alley. Another nil-tech planet. What a surprise.

Commander Jorie Mikkalah cataloged her surroundings as she absently rubbed her bare arm. Needle pricks danced across her skin. Only her vision was unaffected by the dispersing and reassembling of her molecules courtesy of the Personnel Matter Transporter—her means of arrival in the alley moments before.

The ocular over her right eye eradicated the alley’s murky gloom, enhancing the moonlight so she could clearly see the shards of broken glass and small rusted metal cylinders strewn across the hard surface under her and her team’s boots.

Another dark, humid, stinking, filthy alley. Jorie amended her initial appraisal of her location as a breeze filtered past, sending one of the metal cylinders tumbling, clanking hollowly.

She checked her scanner even though no alarm had sounded. But it would take a few more seconds yet for her body to adjust to the aftereffects of the PMaT and for her equilibrium to segue from the lighter gravity of an intergalactic battle cruiser to the heavier gravity of a Class-F5 world. It wouldn’t do to fall flat on her face trying to defend her team if a zombie appeared.

She swiveled toward them. “You two all right?”

Tamlynne Herryck’s sharp features relaxed under her short cap of dark red curls. “Fine, sir.”

Low mechanical rumblings echoed behind Jorie. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder, saw nothing threatening at the alleyway opening. Only the expected metallic land vehicles, lighted front and aft, moving slowly past.

Herryck was scrubbing at her face with the side of her hand when Jorie turned back. The ever-efficient lieutenant had been under Jorie’s command for four years; she knew how to work through the PMaT experience.

Ensign Jacare Trenat, however, was as green as liaso hedges and looked more than a bit dazed from the transit. ….[snip]….

“Transportation.” Herryck thumbed down Danjay’s data on her scanner screen. “Land vehicles powered by combustion engines. Fossil petroleum fueled. Local term is car.”

Jorie had read the reports. No personal air transits—at least, not for internal city use. Damned nil-techs. A four-seater gravripper would be very convenient right now. She resumed her trek toward the alley’s entrance, waving her team to follow. “Let’s go find one of those cars.”

“City population is less than three hundred thousand humans,” Herryck dutifully read as she came up behind Jorie. “The surrounding region contains approximately one million.”


The stickiness of the air and the sharp stench of rotting garbage faded. Jorie paused cautiously at the darkened alley entrance, assessing the landscape. The street was dotted with silent land vehicles, all pointing in the same direction, lights extinguished. Black shadows of thin trees jutted now and then in between. The uneven rows of low buildings were two-story, five-story, a few taller. Two much taller ones—twenty stories or more—glowed with a few uneven rectangles of light far down to her right.

Judging from the brief flashes of light between the buildings and tinny echoes of sound, most of the city’s activity appeared to be a street or so in front of her. At least Ronna’s seeker ’droid had analyzed that correctly. Materializing in the midst of a crowd of nil-techs while dressed in full tracker gear had proven to be patently counterproductive.

A bell clanged hollowly to her left. Trenat, beside her, stiffened. She didn’t but tilted her head toward the sound, curious. As the third gong pealed, she guessed it wasn’t a warning system and remembered reading about a nil-tech method of announcing the time.

She didn’t know local time, didn’t care. Unlike the Tresh, humanoids here had no naturally enhanced night sight. It was only important that it was dark and would continue to be dark for a while yet. She and her team needed that, dressed as they were, if they were going to find out what had happened to Agent Danjay Wain.

The bell pealed eight more times, then fell silent. A fresh breeze drifted over her skin. She caught a salty tang in the air.

“…is situated on a peninsula that is bordered on one side by a large body of water known as Bay Tampa.” Herryck was still reading. “On the other…”

Gulf of Mexico, Jorie knew, tuning her out. Data was Herryck’s passion.

Zombie hunting was Jorie’s.

But first she had to appropriate a car and locate Danjay Wain.

Let’s go over some of the things in this opening scene. A PMaT, an ocular, a F-5 world are all things that are commonplace to Jorie. So as an author, I need to have them FEEL commonplace to the reader because the reader is Jorie at this point. But I also, as author, know my readers don’t have a clue in a bucket what a PMaT is. Or an ocular.

So rather than info-dump—a huge no-no—I show these items in action as best as possible:

The ocular over her right eye eradicated the alley’s murky gloom, enhancing the moonlight so she could clearly see the shards of broken glass and small rusted metal cylinders strewn across the hard surface under her and her team’s boots.

So the reader, while not familiar with a Guardian ocular, at least understands it’s something to do with vision, something that helps the character see in the dark.

I could have written:

The ocular over her right eye was invented forty mega-years before by a gifted scientist who was hired by the intergalactic government to produce vision-enhancing equipment for the Guardian Forces. The ocular used reverse optometric filtration technology to… and so and and so forth.

But that begs the question: would Jorie really know all this? Would she care? Would she be THINKING THAT RIGHT NOW?

Do you know who invented the microwave oven? Do you THINK OF THAT PERSON every time you make popcorn? Do you CARE?

No. At least, I don’t. I can’t even tell you who first created the QWERTY keyboard. And even if I did, I’m more concerned with the keyboard on my laptop functioning properly than I am with its inventor.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make with world building is to drop into an Encyclopedia Brown persona when writing, believing the reader NEEDS TO KNOW the technology when all the reader needs to know IS WHAT THE CHARACTER KNOWS. Jorie doesn’t know who invented the ocular. She doesn’t care. She only cares that it works as it should.

Isn’t that true with most of us and our technology?

Show your “unfamiliar ” (to the reader) in action. Do not lecture the reader. Put the damned ocular on the reader’s eye and let them be the character, experience the experience. The unfamiliar to the reader is the ordinary to the character. We don’t—at least most of us don’t—stand aghast and a-goggle at the microwave as it cooks. At the radio when sound comes through the speakers. We take it FOR GRANTED.

Be very aware of what’s normal to your characters and have them take it—if not for granted—at least comfortably.

Be very aware of what to your character is not normal. Let the “sensory” and “subjective” tell the story there.

Here’s a snippet of what happens when Jorie and her team steal a car:

Tam Herryck, rummaging through the vehicle’s small storage compartment on the control panel, produced a short paper-bound book. “Aw-nortz Min-o-al,” she read in the narrow glow of her wristbeam on her technosleeve.

Jorie leaned toward her. Tam Herryck’s Vekran was, at best, rudimentary. “Ow-ner’s Min-u-al,” she corrected. She took the book, tapped on her wristbeam, and scanned the first few pages. It would be too much to ask, she supposed, that the entire universe be civilized enough—and considerate enough—to speak Alarsh. “Operating instructions for the vehicle’s pilot.” As the engine chugged quietly, she found a page depicting the gauges and read in silence for a few moments. “I think I have the basics.” She tapped off her wristbeam, then caught Trenat’s smile in the rectangular mirror over her head. “Never met a ship I couldn’t fly, Ensign. That’s what six years in the marines will teach you.”

The vehicle’s control stick was between the two front seats. She depressed the small button, eased it until it clicked once.

The vehicle lurched backwards, crashing into one parked behind it.

“Damn!” She shoved the stick again and missed a head-on impact with another parked vehicle only because she grabbed the wheel and yanked it to the left.

Herryck bounced against the door. “Sir!”

“I have it, I have it. It’s okay.” Damn, damn. Give her a nice antigrav hopper any day.

Her feet played with the two pedals, the vehicle seesawing as it jerked toward the open gate.

“I think,” Herryck said, bracing herself with her right hand against the front control panel, “those are some kind of throttle and braking system. Sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I know that. I’m just trying to determine their sensitivity ranges.”

“Of course, sir.” Herryck’s head jerked back and forth, but whether she was nodding or reacting to the vehicle’s movement, Jorie didn’t know. “Good idea.”

By the time they exited onto the street, Jorie felt she had the nil-tech land vehicle under control. “Which direction?”

“We need to take a heading of 240.8, sir.” Herryck glanced from her scanner over at the gauges in front of Jorie, none of which functioned as guidance or directional. “Oh.” She pulled her palm off the control panel and pointed out the window. “That way.”

They went that way, this way, then that way again. Jorie noticed that Trenat had found some kind of safety webbing and flattened himself against the cushions of the rear seat.

“What do you think those colored lights on their structures mean?” Herryck asked as Jorie was again forced to swerve to avoid an impact with another vehicle, whose driver was obviously not adept at proper usage of airspace.

Jorie shrugged. “A religious custom. Wain mentioned that locals hang colored lights on their residences and even on the foliage this time of the year. Nil-techs can be very supersti—hey!” A dark land vehicle appeared on her right, seemingly out of nowhere. Jorie pushed her foot down on the throttle, barely escaping being rammed broadside. There was a loud screeching noise, then the discordant blare of a horn. A pair of oncoming vehicles added their horns to the noise as she sped by them.

“Another religious custom,” she told Herryck, who sank down in her seat and planted her boots against the front console. “Their vehicles play music as they pass. And they’re blessing us.”

“Blessing us?”

Jorie nodded as she negotiated her vehicle between two others that seemed to want to travel at an unreasonably slow rate of speed. “They put one hand out the window, middle finger pointing upward. Wain’s reports stated many natives worship a god they believe lives in the sky. So I think that raised finger is a gesture of blessing.”

“How kind of them. We need to go that way again, sir.”

“I’m coming up to an intersection now. How much farther?”

“We should be within walking distance in a few minutes.”

“Praise be,” Trenat croaked from the rear seat.

Jorie snickered softly. “You’d never survive in the marines, Ensign.”

Jorie is doing the best she can—based on her previous experiences and personal knowledge (remember Claudia and Linnea?)—to interpret the world she now inhabits. And she’s doing it in a race-against-time scenario (always useful) so there’s not a lot of time to ask questions or find out answers. She’s learning on the fly, in a subjective, sensory manner. And so is your reader.

So to recap Lesson One, remember the three things the are the foundation of all good world building:

a. Your reader has never been there.
b. It’s a sensory world.
c. It’s a subjective world.

Questions? Comments? Please don’t be silent or I will come a-hunting.



  1. Anonymous2:38 PM EDT

    Excellent points!

    And ... this "blessing" scene always reminds me of the California Howdy as experienced by the Beverly Hillbillies (in the movie) ::snickering::


  2. Wow, Linnea is catching the long-blog syndrome maybe from me? is a recent post I did after a long series on World Building. As I was exploring the techniques of world building, others on this blog batted that ball around too -- so look back over the last year or two of postings here and you'll find a complete textbook on worldbuilding.

    I think Linnea may have posted the last chapter on that subject.

    This really covers the subject.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg