Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Whys and Wherefores of World-Building

I was thinking this morning about why most of my fiction is set in dark places, often in a low-tech, post-disaster future. Since I’m next up in the Absolute Write January blog chain, and Thomma wrote about optimism and pessimism, I suppose it’s time to put a few of my world-building thoughts into pixels.

For me, I think the worlds I choose are simple laziness.

It might seem like creating the world of Will and Diana is a lot of work. It is. I’ve done years of research into what happens in both ancient and modern societies when governments, resources and economies falter and collapse. I read about matters as diverse as donkey cart harnesses, well-digging, how to build soil in the high desert, and how to survive in various types of wilderness environments. I read about economic inflation and deflation. I read about petroleum, coal, wind and water power. I read about how to make soap and batteries, and how to knit socks. I’ve studied the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy.

So, how can my choice of fictional worlds be laziness?


In a world without Google, cell phones, 911 and GPS, the possibilities for missed connections, ignorance and confusion abound. The angsty problems of our own time take a back seat to the very real issues of survival. With no ready information at one’s fingertips, courage and self-reliance are essential. Sure, a character with a cell phone can wander into a place with no signal or have their batteries die, but in our time, these matters can usually be resolved by a quick walk or car trip. In the worlds I like to create, I prefer that one not be able to google “how to milk a Nubian goat” when they’re starving. There will be no helicopters searching for you if you get lost. You're on your own. Figure it out or die.

Alternatives to a dystopian world would be historical or fantasy fiction, but for the most part, neither has much appeal to me as a writer. Still, I think anyone writing in these genres can appreciate the unique appeal of a world without GPS and where medical emergencies can’t be dealt with by dialing 911.

So yes, my fictional worlds tend to be dark, dirty, and difficult to live in. I give my characters few opportunities for angst. No one cares what shoes you’re wearing to the Apocalypse.

I’d love to hear back from some of my writing friends about why they choose the worlds they do!

Here's the rest of the Blog Chain-- Happy Reading!

living my life all over again
Spontaneous Derivation
Jenn Hollowell: Working Writer
Anything That Pays
Polenth's Quill
wfg thinks out loud
Spittin' (out words) Like a Llama
A Thoughtful Life
The Speakeasy
Virtual Wordsmith
The Writer's Round-About
My Copious Notes Blog
Tennessee Text Wrestling
Twisted Fantasy



Arachne Jericho said...

No one cares what shoes you’re wearing to the Apocalypse.

Total score!

I tend to stick around periods of relative stability with my fiction, but my characters tend to have more to worry about than their shoes anyways. Stories about the future, stories about now, stories about a steampunk past.

I swore I'd never write a story set in the same location and timeframe where I live, and yet I have an ongoing web serial about two musician-detectives in present-day Seattle.

If my work is apocalyptic in any way, it's that I usually like to bring worlds to a crashing end---that is, the world that people are used to seeing play across their lives, the world that is shattered by one ghastly thing after another that invalidates everything they've ever learned or loved before.

Or perhaps it's more comparable to taking one world and then jackhammering a more disturbing one into it.

I don't mind finding situations where technology isn't the complete solution. I think it's a challenge and quite cool; science fiction is preoccupied with both the advancement of science and its frustrating limitations in a world where people are still people.

Google can't prepare you for the day that your long-lost mother comes back from the dead to kill your daughter.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

Actually, you might be surprised what Google could tell you about dealing with that dead mother. The real problem is that while some crazed ghost is chasing the family around the living room no one has time to boot up the computer.

You bring up a fantastic question, why do I choose the worlds I choose?

I actually feel more like the worlds choose me. I have movie reels of my novels in my head. As their plots are developing it's like watching a dream. I see snippets and ultimately, those snippets provide the details of the world.

My current WIP is a run down, post war style, city. It could be my home city, Perth. In fact it probably is but it is morphed by many years of disaster, destruction, and lack of care. That's how I saw it in my mind as the story unfolded there.

Of course, another story I have in mind to write eventually is in a very different setting. It's glass and metal built over an ocean. (Think Stargate Atlantis.) It's futuristic to many degrees.

In both cases, the stories aren't about the location. They're about the people and the location provides a backdrop that reflects the lives those people know and understand.

I've no idea why each stories setting is as it is. I don't choose it for any particular reason unless there is a subconscious one.

Anonymous said...

So far, all my stories have been set in the present day, real-world... well, except for my trunk novel, a political thriller, whose world and setting was a slightly futuristic version of our own (I say "was" because it was written back in 2000, and funny, parts of it have already come true.) It'll never see print, of course... it's far too messy and I'm too focused on current and future projects to fool with. But it was a fun training novel. Kinda like training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle.

Re: world-building, the rough draft I'm revising is different in that it's a ghost story -- its world includes the supernatural, whereas my prior stories ahve been ultra-realistic in their setting. So that's been a fun change... and the next novel I rough-draft will have magical elements, too (though different than the ghost story).

I have in mind other novels, too -- one which would be historical fiction and would require a tremendous amount of research -- and another idea involves a dystopian future focusing on current trends toward ever-increasing government/corporate micro-management of people's lives.

*whew*, so many ideas, so few hours in a day... :)

Great post as ever, Bunnygirl -- as you know I am a tremendous fan of your work. :)

Polenth said...

I choose all sorts of settings. Alternate worlds, the real(ish) world, the future, the past... I think the point about a world where the answers aren't easy to find is a good one. The times I use real world or future settings, it tends to be when something new is being discovered. Not everything is on Google or will be in the awesome database of all knowledge they have in the future.

Arachne Jericho said...

Rebecca, 'tis true. :)

Thomma, yes, it's harder to write science fiction that remains fiction these days!

Polenth, the awesome database of all knowledge will probably be corrupted in some manner. Like Wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

"No one cares what shoes you’re wearing to the Apocalypse."

Well, in the first few pages of my WIP my character worries about the shoes she's wearing. So the above line cracked me up.

Unknown said...

I've mentioned in other blogs that I've been toying with the idea of getting back into fiction writing (February Fiction!), and your post is really inspiring that decision further. I've had various plots swirling in my brain for years . . . maybe it's time to bring them to life?

Thank you for such a great (and thought-provoking) post!

colbymarshall said...

Thank goodness so far my works have been in this world, in this day...not that I wouldn't ever write something set in a different time and place. It just hasn't happened yet :o)

Anonymous said...

“I’ve studied the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy.”
I have done the same too for many years but when it comes to using this in a fiction then I have a hard time. Thanks for your entry. I enjoyed it a lot but more than that I learnt a few lessons.

Anonymous said...

Hah! Your post was fun to read. Thanks. :)

I've also got to tell you that the kind of research you do sounds startlingly similar to mine. Except I haven't read about milking Nubians, although I have read that they're supposed to be the best.

I think this is one of the major benefits of being a fiction writer - you get an automatic built-in excuse as to why you've got to research all this esoteric and seemingly-unrelated stuff. And then you get to use it. :)

Anonymous said...

You know, it is funny that you wrote this. Just the other night I was watching a re-run from a show that was popular about 10 years ago. I found myself yelling at the TV, telling the lead character to grab a cell-phone.

It made me think.. a lot of the plots that I enjoy wouldn't work as well if the main character had GPS or cell-phones. Technology provides an easy answer to so many situations.

I can completely see why you want to keep your characters in a time without this glut of technology. It would certainly make your life harder (though their life would be easier .. and your story line would suffer). :-)

Beth is wfg said...

GPS and Cell phones (and technology in general) make our lives this why people create drama in their lives?
There's not enough real life drama for them?

I've had a hard time writing in anything but present day settings. I'd love to write a fantasy set in some far off medieval time period, but I think it's intimidating. I'm still stretching my writing muscles, trying to get the character interactions to work without having to spend so much time building a new world. Does that make sense?

VirtualWordsmith said...

Writing feeds my got-to-know-itis affliction.

Dorothy said...

I came by to thank you for your well wishes from a few weeks back. I'm just now getting to where I can sit at the computer for a few hours each day. That doesn't mean I accomplish anything, but I am reading and visiting quietly.
I'm just now getting around to thanking everyone for their prayers and thoughts, a few at a time.

I'm still not up to speed to do any writing. It's really frustrating to just sit, or have to stay in bed and just read, while I have so much to complete and to create.

I loved your story on Flash Fiction. I like your writing style and agree that a thousand words is a challenge. I can get as little as 1200 ususally, but I don't work at it very hard. I just try to write a story someone would be able to read in a few minutes from my blog. It's a learning tool, and I love the things short story writing and blogging are teaching me.

Thanks again for your thoughtfullness...D

Bernita said...

Really excellent points for creating the necessary reality.
Such worlds are fascinating.

Alice Audrey said...

Though you'll never see them, I actually have a distopian book or two under my belt. But they were set off planet. It's so easy to make a rudimentary setting where people have crash landed.