Writing Excuses 10.21: Q&A on World Building
Q: Was there ever a world building element you missed and regretted it?
A: A post apocalyptic story without bicycles. Aliens with dominant females, but courtships still conform to human genders. Having a race of aliens with mouths over their eyeballs, which makes it hard to convey emotion through facial expressions.
Q: How do you deal with consistency?
A: Your job is to extrapolate, to go where the reader never expected. Try changing one aspect, and exploring ramifications of that. Hang lanterns on inconsistencies! Let characters be mistaken! Also, use inconsistencies and mistakes as happy accidents, that you use.
Q: How do you decide when something should be a hidden version of our world or [it]… needs its own universe?
A: Use historical backdrops because of the tension between the actual history and the story you are telling. What is the story you are trying to tell? Does awareness of our history enhance the story, or distract?
Q: How can you write a world inspired by an Earth culture without cultural appropriation?
A: When you are inspired by another culture, you will probably make someone angry. Accept that. Then consider the metaphor of a British dress made from an Indian sari — when the exciting, interesting parts of your story come from somebody else’s culture, you need to think about it. How well is the culture represented? What is the context of what you are borrowing? Can-of-Worms!
Q: How much world building is enough without being too little?
A: Do enough world building to answer your reader’s questions. To fulfill the type of story and the plot. Let your character’s passions and conflicts drive your world building.
[Mary] Season 10, episode 21.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on World Building.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have gone to you guys for your questions on world building. Question from Lana Wood Johnson. “Was there ever a world building element you missed and regretted it?” I’m assuming it’s a world building element either did you ever forget one or that you had a chance to put into one of your books and regretted not putting it in?
[Brandon] Go for it, Dan.
[Dan] Well, I wrote a post apocalypse story in which nobody rode a bicycle.
[Dan] Looking back on that, I feel like an idiot.
[Brandon] Yeah. Bicycles would make a lot of sense.
[Dan] Yeah, they would. They’d be, I think, the form of transportation. But, no. Oh, well.
[Howard] There was the spoke plague.
[Dan] The great spoke plague of 77.
[Brandon] Those… I never really regret, because I always just write them down for the next story. Or I work them in somehow somewhere else. The ones I’ve forgotten? Well, I’ve forgotten how good they were, so…
[Mary] The one that I did… I have a story called The Bride Replete and it’s a… I decided… It’s all aliens all the time, so I decided that my… On this world, the females were the larger and the dominant, and yet in the courtship scenes, I still have them conforming to gender types in terms of who has…
[Brandon] Who courts?
[Mary] Who courts. I was like, “Oh, that’s stupid. Incredibly stupid.”
[Howard] I think the one piece of world building that I regret the most… I mean, it wasn’t an omission, it was the decision to try to make a race of aliens who had their mouths positioned above their eyeballs.
[Brandon] I love those guys.
[Howard] I love them too. But I realized that whether I drew them frowning or whether I drew them smiling, I could not tell what the facial expression was. Because you’re… Because of the way we humans read faces. If I had to do that over, I would definitely do it differently, because it robbed me of the ability to convey emotion in the pictures.
[Brandon] You just have to find a different way. You would have to like…
[Howard] I tried doing it with hand gestures, because they have a hand on top of their head…
[Brandon] Didn’t work?
[Howard] That totally didn’t work either.
[Dan] Plus, you never drew them with their eyebrows full of food.
[Mary] [garbled] That’s a missed opportunity.
[Brandon] All right. Next question. Sam asks, “How do you deal with consistency?” I’m thinking this means in world building, how do you remain consistent? Actually, an excellent question because it is tough. I have to say to my students, “Your job is to extrapolate.” That’s the point of this world building is to provide interesting moments, but to extrapolate and go where the reader thinks you’re going to go and the places they don’t think you’re going to go but they say, “Wow, I should have thought of that.”
[Mary] One thing that I will say is that the more things you change, the farther it will get from our world. So then the harder it will be for you to be consistent. This is not a… Please don’t make a lot of changes. It’s just an awareness that sometimes when you are starting out, it is easier to look at it and say, “I’m going to change this one aspect of the world.” Then the ramifications of changing that one aspect will change everything else.
[Brandon] That’s… Honestly, that’s a really good suggestion. If you can consider the ramifications of the one change, you can keep that in your head, your readers can keep it in their head, not everything has to be Dune.
[Howard] With regard to consistency, the Schlock Mercenary story I’ve been telling for 15 years now and there are inconsistencies. A lot of them, I’m able to hang lanterns on by just saying, “You know, when the character last quoted this particular maxim, he got it wrong.” Because I quote stuff wrong all the time. What really happened is no, the new wording is better and tighter and that’s the wording that I’m going to use. So just allowing the characters to be mistaken about things.
[Mary] Allowing the characters to be mistaken about things… I use that. Although sometimes I use it on purpose. The other one is I will sometimes use these inconsistencies and mistakes is what they call in painting a happy accident. It’s like, “Well, so this is inconsistent. But what… Is there something in the under structure that would actually cause it to be this way? Have I made a mistake or is this something I can use?” For instance, I… In the first novel, there’s a world building mistake. In Shades of Milk and Honey, which is that I have Mr. Ellsworth using a warming charm to heat his flask when he’s hunting. But I’ve also said that these are incredibly dangerous. So… But at this point, it’s canon. So how do I deal with it?
[Brandon] Just run with it.
[Mary] What I do is that I have commentary later about how dangerous it is, and if you can’t do too much of it and “What, you’ve never wondered why there’s so many noble sons who don’t have children?”
[Brandon] Right. Right. It’s a different kind of dangerous. You’re thinking it’s going to explode, but in reality… Yeah. That’s really clever.
[Brandon] This is a great question here, particularly with things you were talking about in some of our podcasts on this topic. Mary asks, “How do you decide when something should be a hidden version of our world or how do you decide if it needs its own universe? I’m worried that a historical backdrop can feel like a windowdressing.”
[Mary] Oh. So when I am using a historical backdrop, the reason I’m doing it is because of the tension between the actual history and the story that I’m trying to tell. So for me, the historical setting that I’ve chosen is not windowdressing, it is absolutely integral.
[Brandon] Of course. I think they’re worried about when they say something it’s a hidden version of our world… Or I suppose you can determine that in two ways. In my head, I was thinking, “Oh, it’s something like they’re writing a fantasy world, but it’s really our world, using our cultures and things like that.”
[Dan] Well, historical fantasy is becoming a really big thing, too.
[Brandon] It is, it is.
[Dan] So that’s one where you have to decide do I want this to be a really weird version of Europe or do I just make it its own thing?
[Howard] Gay Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium could have been written as a historical fiction centered around… Was it Constantinople? But it wasn’t. There were some things that I really loved about it that just wouldn’t have fit if it had been a historical… Or an alt history.
[Mary] Yeah. He’s a really good example of someone who just says, “No. Secondary world fantasy, and yes, I’m influenced by, but…” I think a lot of it comes down to what is the story that you’re trying to tell. If that story is going to be enhanced by an awareness… A reader’s awareness of some of the history of our own world, use it. If it’s not going to be enhanced by it and it’s going to be in your way, that’s when you really start looking at moving to a secondary world. If the history is getting in the way of the story that you want to be telling.
[Brandon] So here’s a question that someone else asked that we touched on. You mentioned cultural appropriation. They asked, “How can you write a world…” Like Guy Gavriel is a great example. His worlds are inspired by an Earth culture, yet how does that not become cultural appropriation?
[Mary] Okay. So here’s the thing about cultural appropriation. When you are inspired by another culture, the chances are that you will make someone angry. You will have to own and accept that. So I’m going to do a slightly longer spiel.
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] I’m going to use a metaphor, which is the dress that is on the cover of Of Noble Family. I made that dress. That dress is made from an absolutely gorgeous sari that is hand beaded by unknown artisan in India that I have no way to thank or acknowledge in any way. What I did taking the sari is that I took this perfectly good Indian garment, and I cut it up and I made it into a British dress. I receive all of the credit for that dress. Though what makes it special and beautiful is the hand beading. I cannot acknowledge the person who did the beading. So this is one of the things that happens when the exciting aspects of your world… Or of your story, everything that is exciting and interesting about your story comes from somebody else’s culture. You have a… You may have a problem. The question then becomes should I have made the dress? Because I am cutting this thing up. For me, when you are looking at this and you are trying to make this decision, a lot of it comes down to how well that culture is represented. So if that… If the sari was a one-of… Well, it is a one-of-a-kind.
[Brandon] But… Right.
[Mary] But if it was a museum piece, if it was 500 years old, I absolutely should not have cut that up. That would have been horrible. If it was out of a factory and there were billions of them, no problems cutting it up. It’s sitting in a weird gray area. There are people who will tell me I should not have cut it up. There are people who will say yes, I did… I was completely fine because sale rack, it was made to be worn, and… But that line is going to be different for every situation and every reader. So what you have to do when you’re trying to make this decision is to look at the context of the thing that you are appropriating. If it is something that is… If it is something where there is a high degree of visibility, then you are likely to be safer in adopting some aspects of that because your readers are likely to have encountered it in its original form. It is something that is not very well known, then you need to be very careful because chances are you will be the first and only experience that your readers have.
[Howard] At risk of oversimplifying… I’m going to go ahead and oversimplify, because of something that you said earlier that stuck with me. If the geewhiz of your world building is “Oh, geewhiz, this is just like Imperial China,” instead of “Oh, geewhiz, this is a space opera with neat things and there is a fun historical China flavor to it,” I think that’s where you got the problem.
[Mary] Well, I would also say that you have the problem with the fun historical China flavor as well. But… We could do an entire podcast on cultural appropriation. I would love to can-of-worms that and at some point…
[Howard] I think we need to can-of-worms it.
[Mary] Bring in some other people to talk about it.
[Mary] The question is that it’s going to differ and… Actually, here, let me give you a short, pithy answer. Think of it like quoting sources in mater… If you’re writing a book and you quote 10% of something, it’s… You’re probably okay, might be in fair use. If it’s… You’re quoting 50% of it, you’re not citing your sources…
[Dan] That’s plagiarism.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week.
[Mary] Okay. The book of the week is a book that I narrated. It’s called A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert. I was reading… Narrating this book and thinking I want every writer I know to read this book. It’s fantastic. This is the story of Rose Wilder who is the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame. Rose Wilder was an incredibly successful author writing during the Great Depression and she was supporting herself and her family and five extra children on her writing income while battling depression and… And this is the kicker, she ghost wrote Little House on the Prairie. She ghost wrote all of the books. So this is a heavily researched fiction… It’s completely fiction, except that it’s based on her letters and journals and it’s beautifully constructed.
[Howard] It kind of straddles the line between historical fiction and creative nonfiction.
[Mary] Yes. One of the things that it says in the forward is that it straddles that line in exactly the same way that the Little House on the Prairie books did, which is that they are completely based on real incidents, but tweaked for dramatic purposes. But it’s wonderful, in particular because of the portraits that it paints of a writer’s daily life, someone who writes full-time for a living on a typewriter, and the revision process and the collaboration process with her mother and her relationship with her agent and just… I want every writer… Just go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse with a 30 day free trial… A 30 day trial, you can get a free copy of it. Even if you don’t do this, if you already have a membership, if you’re going to pick up a book this year, please pick this one up. I’m a big fan of it.
[Brandon] Excellent. Well, we’re almost out of time, but I want to do one more question. “Not everyone enjoys world building, so I wanted to go the bare minimum. How much world building is enough without being too little?”
[Mary] Well, it depends on the kind of story you’re telling. There’s this thing called the contemporary fiction.
[Brandon] No, I mean…
[Mary] I know what you… Yeah. I’m sorry I gave you a facetious answer.
[Brandon] The question was from Scott King.
[Mary] Sorry, Scott.
[Brandon] Any responses?
[Howard] I… There’s the whole sub genre of magical realism, where you’re writing a book that is set in the real world and there’s magic, but the magic is also explainable as reality. So the world building that you’re doing is just… It’s almost like inventing superstitions that can be applied.
[Mary] Without using the genre trick of getting out of the genres where you have to do a lot of world building, the actual trick is that you have to do just enough world building to answer your reader’s questions.
[Brandon] Right. And to fulfill the type of story you’re trying to tell, the plot that you’re working on. Like we said…
[Howard] I think that’s what we talked about all month.
[Brandon] We talked about let your character passions and the conflicts drive your world building. In that case, if you’re not interested in world building, they’ll have their passions and their conflicts lie there, and you can probably go more sparse. You don’t need to be writing 400,000 word Way of Kings novels. There are lots of fantasy writers who are doing much shorter works. Now this is the challenge of writing fantasy as short fiction. Because of this world building that sometimes you feel like you need to put in. It absolutely isn’t necessary. There are great fantasy stories that don’t involve this type of world building at all. So maybe read some short stories. Ask yourself what are they doing to kind of make this more sparse?
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses…
[Howard] Oh. Do we need to do a writing prompt?
[Brandon] Oh, we do. I forg…
[Dan] It isn’t Writing Excuses yet.
[Howard] You forgot it, but I didn’t forget it, because I have it.
[Brandon] I put the thing down.
[Howard] Next… Our next series of episodes, the next chapter in this master class, is on description. Right? We’ve been doing all this world building. Take some stuff that you’ve world built, take whatever the geewhiz or the MacGuffin is, and a scene in which it appears, and rewrite the scene describing this technology in a completely different way. When I say completely different, you can reuse articles and pronouns. You can reuse MacGuffins and character names. But all of the other stuff, all the stuff you’re using to color this in, tell us what it is, do it differently.
[Brandon] All right. Now you’re out of excuses. Go write.