Worldbuilding. Probably one of the most used, yet often misunderstood words in the writing sphere. But it sounds grand, doesn't it? World Building. Say it with me. World BUILDING? The godlike act of bringing forth a universe from one's imagination. And that is what many think about. Detailed settings like those of Game of Thrones or Star Wars. Settings which have their own wiki's dedicated to their histories, races, etc. People making hour long videos essays on their backgrounds, and so on.
But the veneration of these fictional worlds have given fans and aspiring writers alike the illusion all it these facts are as intended and not, as is usually the case, made up as the creators went along. That has created pitfalls for aspiring writers that they never climb out off. An act of creative suicide I'll call building a world.
There are so many elements that affect how fictional worlds are created, and many, if not most of what we call lore, was not intended from the outset. So many things that are now considered canon were often necessary, or more dramatic, born from necessity. Especially when set in a visual medium.
This is how the Transporters of Star Wars were created. No budget for filming starships models? No problem.
Here are some a cheap film and sound effect and a reusable set.
The same happened with genre tropes, like those set by Bladerunner for Cyberpunk. Does our model city look like Christmas decorations bought from Walmart? Just make it dark, add smoke, rain, some cheap neon lights, and there you go.
That's the problem with all these clean and sterile 3D environments in movies these days. There is no grit. No improvisation which made the noir films so special. Hell, even scrap yards and the like, look as these been arranged by interior decorators. They just don't look lived in. Not to mention they use similar lighting, textures etc. I love the movie Alita and its amazing animation, but its city looks like a rustic tourist trap compared to the hell hole it was in the manga.
But those are the visuals, Bonsart. Surely, none of this goes for writing? Well, I would have to disagree with you there. And, no. I'm not talking about word count.
In this series of blogs, yes series, I want to take through the (my) process of World Building.
But first, what are we talking when I say, World Building. Those who watch my videos on Radio Retrofuture probably know this already, but I'll repeat myself once more to those who are new here. There is a difference between building worlds and world-building.
Why is this difference important?
Once somebody asked me about a world they were creating. A Steampunkish city set in the middle of nowhere. It had this extensive history. It would continue various cults and have these massive factories where laborers were being exploited, because of course, lost on clockwork... I don't remember the details, because let's face it. It is like hearing about somebody's vacation to a spring resort. I'm sure the weather was nice, the beach wonderful and the drinks great. But I don't care. Let alone if it is a fictional resort that I'll never be able to visit. No matter how expansive the history of the place, why should I care if I can't connect with it in any way.
So, I asked him. Imagine I wake up in your city. What would the room I slept in look like? No answer. Ok, what if I need groceries, where do I go? No answer.
And the most terrible thing about it was. He had very interesting experiences in his daily life I rather hear about than his fictional world.
Another example. I made a video about Guns of Icarus. A multiplayer game about Steampunk airships. At the time, I wanted to make Lore videos on Steampunk properties, but I lack the manpower to do so. Research is one of the issues but also combines all the facts into a cohesive story that people care about. That excites them and makes them wonder how it ends.
The problem. The World Building had to be based on the gameplay. Yeah, the creator send me documents containing 'Lore', none of which is contained in the game and didn't tell me anything about characters, economy, daily life, how wars are fought, etc., etc. It contained stories from its world's mythology... Riveting stuff. Oh, and the basic concepts on the factions. Blurbs essentially. Ideas that were never explored.
I nearly quit that project because I had to make everything up. I had to think of characters, friends, and foes. Their motivations. The context of the war and its politics... We are still pretty damn proud of the result, I'll tell you that much. Its probably one of our best videos, and barely got any views.
The problem was not that they hadn't done any work on the 'worlds'. The problem was, did they do too much and lose sight of why people love fictional worlds and settings to begin with. Relatable characters. Characters we want to learn more about. Characters we want to be like. Characters we want to see succeed. The worlds happen to be the place where they happen to interact with.
Image Star Wars without Luke Sky Walker. You wouldn't have Star Wars, would you? Luke is the driver of the story. We follow him and his friends on his quest to defeat the Empire and bring balance to the Force. And he needs his friends. He needs their help. It's not like Rei for the sequels who can do everything by herself. And even worse, none of the other characters can do anything without her. Or so they say.
Point is, the Star Wars universe is not special. It's the characters that make it special. You could have replaced the space ships with fantastical sailboats. Called the Sith the Fluberjerbs. The Force called the Schwartz, and still tell the same story. Star Wars is not written to be Science Fiction after all. But that's a discussion for another time.
But if 'building the world' is not the same as World Building, what is it?
Imagine if you will standing in a street of a fantastical city. There are non-human creatures all around going on the daily business. Then you nearly get run over by a baboon riding his tricycle to work, a paper bag suspended from his steering wheel that contains his gluten-free lunch. Some delinquent dwarfs are shaking down a troll kabab-store owner. Some peasant Vulcans are admiring a storefront displaying the latest in mud-encrusted filthy peasant-wear.
This to me, is an example of world-building. The act of describing characters interacting with the world around them. These are examples of daily life and interactions that characters experience daily. Like a troll owning a kabab-store.
Myths. The history of global politics, on the other hand, do not get in the way of a character getting groceries. Polio does. Shortages, not having money, street violence. Those are the things a character might have to deal with when walking on the street.
Even if you don't know anything about this world while reading you wonder: What the Hell? Baboons on tricycles? Describing the strange as it happens is much more powerful than writing a ten-page essay explaining how the baboons got here. It's a fact now. Coghole baboons on tricycles. And nothing you'll write from now on can convince your readers that baboons act otherwise. Because this is what the characters see and interact with.
Past events in that world tend not to be one of those, unless time travel is involved or something. A character might wonder why the god some people worship is a garbage can on legs, but then the character is interacting with it by asking the question, and listing to the answer. Actions, interaction. Motivations that drive the plot forward tell us more about a setting then any hour long video essay.
And there is the pitfall. World Building is a tool. A way to make people care about your world. 'Building the world' can help with that. For example, why do people dress the way they do? Fight wars the way they do? etc. But building a world is often treated as a goal into itself because of all these essays and 'lore' videos. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy a well told explanation of of how a world works, but with that I would like to know: Why I should care?
I hope this explains what I means with World Building and Building the World. I should probably start calling it, World Building and World Design, or Setting Design? Let me know what you think.
In the next blog we'll discuss the corner stone to my theory of World Building... Sentence construction. I sure you are on the edge of your seats.
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