08 Oct 2007
Last week I wrote a bit about how to tell when to stop and when to keep going when you are doing worldbuilding. The next question, then, is what do you focus on. To put it another way, what should your goals be? The reason why it is important to talk about goals here is that it is another way to keep you from doing too much worldbuilding (by too much, I mean that it keeps you from actual writing). I could go on, but I think that you probably get it, so I’ll get on with the article.
Goal #1 - You need a place for stuff to happen. Frankly, having everything happen in an empty room or a misty plain will probably make for a boring story (not necessarily, of course, but if you go that route, make sure that your prose not only jumps off the page, but latches onto the reader’s imagination like a facehugger from Aliens). This is probably the easiest goal to meet (and obvious to boot), so I won’t say much more about it.
Goal #2 - Your world should help to distinguish your work from that of other writers. You don’t want people to pick up your story and immediately think that its happening in a clone of George R.R. Martin’s universe. How do you do this? Add local flavor (a little goes a long way), mess with the system of government (this is fantasy, so it doesn’t have to be a monarchy), the basic rules of the world (what if the forests were made of giant ferns instead of trees, what would people build stuff out of? How would it affect society?), or some combination of the three (or other elements, its up to you). The key here is not to add shallow flavor, you don’t want something that looks, smells, and acts like a horse but is called a wulleyup, it doesn’t add anything to the story, and readers will probably reject it.
Goal #3 - Make it a place for a story to happen. Even stories that are very character driven rely quite a bit on the world for plot. The world you create should not be at a state of peace, but rather should have conflict built in (and trust me, even in a perfect society, there will be conflict somewhere, if not everywhere). This will provide for better characterization fodder as well as subplots and world story arcs, all of which are good.
Goal #4 - Make it work. You want readers to have to suspend their disbelief as little as possible. I’m not saying that you should not have magic, but rather that once you get the reader to buy into the magic, you don’t want to have to invent a new kind of magic to explain something that could have easily been explained by the first. What I’m getting at here is that the key to all of this is internal consistency. Ideally a story should have a few basic premises that people have to accept, and everything else is derived from them (in addition, when a reader sees other stuff built on top of an original premise, and it works, the net effect is to reinforce the original premise).
I think that is about as much as I want to go through today, and next time I’ll try to touch on some specific things that you should shoot for. Until then, feel free to give me your thoughts on the subject.