Posts Tagged ‘worldbuilding’

Stories I’d Like to Write: Fantasy That’s Really Scifi

Okay! This is the last one of these for now.

I love fantasy that is high fantasy, but as you get further into the book or series, hints start to be dropped. Ruins that sound familiar, or hints that there was a previous civilization that has since collapsed.

I think this may be because my very first high fantasy series–the Shannara books, by Terry Brooks–does this. But it’s very subtle. You can read most of the Shannara books without this being obvious. It’s only when you take the series as a whole that it becomes more apparent.

But also, yes, lots of other series do this. Some more obviously than others, some more successfully for others. The Pern series, for example. Dragons! Adventure! But all happening on what’s essentially a failed human colony, Pern standing for “Parallel Earth, Resources Negligble.”

I have actually done this a bit myself already, though not quite how I would like. In City of Hope and Ruin there’s talk of an older civilization, a more powerful civilization, that collapsed because of war (more specifically the bioengineering and biological warfare tactics of that war, though that’s beyond the characters’ understanding, at least for that book). But that’s a completely secondary world.

I feel like to do this trope properly, it’s got to be Earth in the future. An Earth where humanity causes (or, I guess, experiences at the very least) some great calamity, something that has society collapse and humanity change. It’s dystopian, but not exactly. Like, the fact that this is our world and something happened to it isn’t normally important to the plot of the story. It’s background. It’s setting. Maybe some artifacts or something might feature in the plot every now and then, but for the most part it is a fantasy world, doing fantasy things.

And I like that! I like that it’s not necessarily important, it just is. It’s like…an extra dimension to the world.

That being said, I do think you can overdo this. And it may be a bit overplayed as a trope, especially recently where everything has to be dark. You know what I mean. I recently finished the first season of the Shannara TV series, and the post-apocalyptic parts were pushed much more than I remember. Maybe they were always there, and I just skimmed over them in the text, or maybe it as just more apparent because, you know, visual medium and all that jazz.

How do you feel about this trope, squider? Overdone? Fun worldbuilding? Favorite example?

Creating a Fantasy Pacific

Heigh ho, squiders, we’re still in the straits of Nano. As of mid-afternoon I’m at a little over 24000 words, so almost halfway, a little ahead of schedule. Not as ahead of schedule as I wanted to be, but eeehhh, not terrible.

(In a perfect world, I write 2K a day, which gets me done about November 25th, and then I don’t have to panic through Thanksgiving. This has happened approximately 3 times out of the many years I’ve done Nano. So.)

We’re into the middle of the story, which has me feeling a bit flail-y and mostly wishing I’d stuck to my normal outlining method. But we are where we are, and now there will be dinosaurs, because WHY NOT.

Tuesday we talked about the Hope’s Redemption, which is the main setting for the story. To continue the theme, I thought we’d talk about the setting of the setting, or the ocean on which the Hope is voyaging.

While Altruia, which is the continent that everyone calls home, is vaguely the size, shape, and climate of Europe, I’ve decided to go with the Pacific for the inspiration of the ocean, for one main reason:

The Pacific is really big.

Even in a modern boat you’re not getting across that sucker that fast. The Atlantic is piddly. The Indian Ocean is decently big but surrounded by a lot of land, so not ideal for shenanigans. And the Antarctic is cold.

Plus there are other neat features of the Pacific:

  • There is a section of the Pacific near the Galapagos called the Doldrums where the wind just…doesn’t blow and ships used to get stuck there for weeks at a time
  • There are thousands of miles between the west coast of North/South America and any islands
  • Most of those islands are piddly
  • Teutonic plates, so volcanos and seaquakes and fun
  • Big and deep and who knows what lurks within

Now, that, being said, the Pacific doesn’t tend to get some of the worst weather systems that, say, the Atlantic or the Indian Oceans get, but the nice thing about fiction is that you can kind of pick and choose what works for you. And then there’s things like currents and maelstroms and hurricanes, which could be anywhere.

(And rogue waves, and contamination that looks like blood, and waterspouts, and weird magnetic disturbances, and converging weather patterns, and tsunamis…)

Anyway, part of the mythology of this world is that Altruia is home to a giant forest, with trees stretching hundreds of feet into the air (roughly modeled off the Giant Sequoia, though they’re deciduous and sequoias are not) and the humans are from a continent to the west. The remains of a fleet of ships reach the shores of Altruia about 300 years before World’s Edge starts, and no matter how anyone tries, they can’t get back home again (or at least, no one’s ever reported back that they have).

But neither do new people come from the west. So basically, this has to be the worst, most impassable section of water.

And goodness, does that sound fun.

If you are on my email list (or thinking about it), know that I am in the process of overhauling it and it is taking much longer than expected. I’m putting together free shorts at the moment, and then I’ve got to edit all my automations and sign-ups. So bear with me on that!

Happy Thursday, squiders!

Language Barriers in Speculative Fiction

Hey hey, so apparently I was going to write this post two years ago, got as far as “WOO” and never went back to it. Good job on focusing, me.

Language barriers are something common that you find in science fiction and fantasy stories. It makes sense, especially if you’ve got cultures that have never met before, and it can make for interesting conflict if characters can’t understand each other. Especially when dealing with alien races, you can even make up new ways of communication that may be impossible for other species to learn.

On the other hand, sometimes you need characters to be able to communicate, even if you’ve set things up so they shouldn’t be able to because of whatever reason.

Let’s go over some of the most common ways to get around language barriers. And feel free to let me know your favorite and least favorite examples of overcoming barriers and what worked (or didn’t) in the comments.

Common Language

The idea here is that there’s a common language that different species all learn so they can communicate with each other, even if they have their own language otherwise. This is your “Galactic Standard,” as it were. Of course, for this to work, your various species need to similar enough that it makes sense that they’d all be able to make the same linguistic sounds, etc.

One Person Understands

This is where you have a character that speaks its own language which is incomprehensible to the reader/viewer, but luckily there’s that one other character who knows that language and can translate or have one-sided conversations that essentially get the meaning across. Han Solo with Chewbacca, for example, or Rocket with Groot.

Universal Translator

These are magic devices that automatically translate any language it comes in contact with, as long as said language has been encountered before (to add some leeway for when you want a plot that hinges on miscommunication). A lot of the time, these can also pick up new languages after a few minutes of listening. A LOT of science fiction uses this idea, though you do occasionally come across the fantasy equivalent (such as a spell of understanding).


Maybe characters can’t understand each other, but hey, using telepathy can help even the most disparate of species communicate! (Assuming, of course, that their patterns of thought are at all similar.) This mode can often rely a lot on visuals and emotions rather than words.

Immersion/Building Understanding Over Time

For a more realistic approach, if your cultures aren’t meeting for the first time, you can assume they have had interactions for a while and might have started to pick up each other’s language. (Some people show this through some characters/species speaking with an odd grammar, though be aware this can get tedious to read.) Alternately, people can pick up languages through immersion, which is where you’re immersed in another language for a long period of time. This forces you to learn the language through everyday interactions, and also helps you learn how to convey ideas when you don’t have the vocabulary yet.

Of course, both of these methods require time, and if you need two characters to be able to interact to stop the universe from imploding in the next week, well.

Do you have a method I’ve left out, Squiders? Examples, good or bad? Thoughts on storytelling that relies on disparate characters being able to understand each other?

Depth of Setting

Well, Squiders, I’ve talked about Holly Lisle’s revision class before and how helpful I have found it when putting together my own revision process. I still reference the class often, even though I’m working on my fourth revision since I took it the first time.

There’s one lesson, Lesson 7, that deals with setting. As I mentioned sometime recently, setting is something that I’ve only recently come to appreciate as an author. I normally skip lesson 7. I did it the first time through the process, but found it unhelpful, and so skipped it for the next few novels (which were, coincidentally, Shards and City of Hope and Ruin).

But as you guys know, I’m working on the revision of the first book of a high fantasy trilogy, one I’ve been working on for more than half my life at this point (sheesh). I decided I needed to do lesson 7 for this one because of the complexity of the setting. This first book takes place entirely within a non-human species and their homeland, and it’s been hard work over the years dealing with mythology, customs, geography, history, and all the miscellany that comes with building your own society from scratch.

You see, lesson 7 is about setting, but it’s not about the layout of your world–it’s about how your world works. The customs. The philosophy. The way your magic system works and its limitations. What items are available to your characters and why they’re needed/make sense. The objects that make up your world–the doors, the buildings, the plants, the animals.

And I got to tell you, I put this lesson off for a long time. I reached it at the beginning of September. I read back over the lesson. And then I avoided it for approximately three weeks. The thought of having to go back into the story and pull out what made the world work–or didn’t–was overwhelming.

But I finally got my act together and went into it. And I’m so glad I did. Just by going through how the world was designed to work and how it was presented in the current draft actually helped me work through a ton of worldbuilding issues that I’ve been struggling with for years. I hadn’t expected that at all, especially not with how useless the process was with my YA paranormal.

It just goes to show you, again, that each novel is individual and has its own needs.

Of course, now the next step in the progress is to consolidate everything that’s wrong with the novel (the list is practically novel-length itself) and then put together a plan of action for fixing things (and, to be perfectly honest, rewriting most of the dang thing).

Ever tried something in revision that proved to be way more helpful than you expected? Thoughts on setting/worldbuilding?

Don’t Skimp on Setting

So, I got an email this morning from a semi-local school about doing an author talk to their kids in November, and it first it was like, Hey! Cool! Someone thinks I’m neat! But now that I’ve looked at it closer, it seems to be meant for another author (one who actually writes children’s books and so makes infinitely more sense than me, who writes mostly adult fantasy). So now I’m left to wondering–did they get the wrong email for a parent and/or teacher? Did they BCC a bunch of other authors in case the original one is not available and/or interested? Should I respond? Should I leave it be?

And if I was just accidentally emailed, what are the odds that it be by someone local looking for someone of my profession?

Questions, questions.

In other news, Turtleduck Press will again be taking up residence in the Author’s Row at MileHiCon in Denver, Colorado at the end of October. I shall be about for most/all of the weekend if you are a Coloradoan or close to Colorado and want books/sigs/landsquid, etc. In addition, TDP’s newest anthology, featuring space princesses (eeeeee), will be out on Nov 1, so we’ll probably have something special for that at the con. Or I’ll at least draw you a space princess if you bring something for me to draw on.

Right, now that that’s done with, let’s talk about setting. Poor setting. I think it gets glossed over and forgotten by a lot of authors. I certainly used to be that way. What did it really matter where a story took place? Stick it in a generic school or forest or cruise boat and get on with the action and the mystery and the suspense, right?

Luckily, I’ve learned better, though I will admit it took me longer than it should have. At first glance, setting seems like a backdrop. Just a stage for your story to take place on. I’d like to think that was me just being young and inexperienced, unaware of how different people could be from  me and how people lived differently throughout the world.

Your setting does three important things:

  • It creates your characters
  • It creates your world
  • It creates your plot

First off, characters. Characters are characters, right? What does setting have to do with them? Well, where your character grows up affects them as a person. Someone living in a crowded, rundown tenement is going to have different experiences and a different viewpoint than someone who was born on a spaceship and has never been planetside, than someone who grew up in a comfortable house in the countryside. People–and characters–are created by their environment, and your setting sets up a lot of a character’s background and, hence, their characterization.

World is probably obvious. Your setting is part of your worldbuilding, along with language, customs, economy, geography, etc. But a society that lives high in the mountains and has to mine water from clouds is going to need different worldbuilding than a culture that lives in a bubble under the sea. Not only that, a well-thought out setting will have things unique to it, things that directly inform culture and society, and your world will seem richer and deeper when those things are pulled into your story.

Plot! The great thing about setting is that sometimes it can pull in plot and subplot elements. Going back to the well-thought out setting mentioned above, the setting itself can provide inspiration for conflict, and not just the “Dear God, we’ve got to get over this mountain to the valley beyond where the only remaining magical healing plants grow,” though that’s certainly something to do with it. But if you’ve determined a resource is short, different groups of people could fight over it. Or your character needs something, but it’s only located in their enemy’s territory. Or your character is very tall yet all the doorways in your setting are very short, because the people who lived there memories ago only came up to your character’s chest.

I’ve heard it said that your setting is almost another character, a living, breathing entity that grows and changes.

So don’t skimp on your setting. It’s what makes your world real, what gives your story life.

Thoughts on setting, Squiders? What do you think I should do about the school email?

Thoughts on Worldbuilding

Afternoon, Squiders. Not much has happened since we last spoke, which I find frustrating, but I have finished editing my short stories and have sent the whole lot out on rotation (which I haven’t done in a while). So here’s a whole new element that I have learned about co-writing, because while I have cowritten novels before, I have never had one published before.

Anyway. I’m running my writing group’s storycraft meeting tonight on worldbuilding, which I’ve made an outline and discussion questions for, but I find myself very curious as to how the meeting’s going to go.

My initial thought was that worldbuilding was a specific enough topic that we could get through it in a meeting, but broad enough that it would carry us the whole time without worry. But I’ve been reminded again just how massive the concept of worldbuilding is.

It’s probably because, despite my best efforts, my own worldbuilding is a bit hodge podge. I always think I have enough in place before I start, and I always discover things I have forgotten, usually by the second page or so. You might remember back to Nano 2014 when I had plotted out my space travel technology and the schematics of the ship, planned out my universe and my culture and my history, but hadn’t figured out whether or not the doors of the spaceship opened automatically.

Wikipedia says people tend toward top down worldbuilding (entire world, history, etc.) or bottom up worldbuilding (things only specific to locale of story). Both have their downsides and of course, you should probably do both or a combination. I would say that I generally trend toward the top down but not always. I wonder if it’s obvious from my stories which type of worldbuilding I did for that particular story.

I could probably do a storycraft meeting on each aspect of worldbuilding.

How does your worldbuilding tend to go, Squiders? What do you feel is the most important part of your worldbuilding, and what, if anything, do you find you tend to forget? (I am notoriously bad about economics in my worlds.) Readers, any worlds that you really love, that feel almost real?

Using Worldbuilding to Bring Your Story to Life

I’m into the final revision on this co-written story coming out in May, and there was some commonality among comments from the editor and our beta readers:

  • The setting reads a little generic
  • My main character’s initial plan seems a little confused
  • Why are the two side characters not seeing what the main character sees, re: danger?

Now, this may look like a bevy of issues, but they all have their root in one thing: worldbuilding.

As a quick recap, Wikipedia defines worldbuilding as “the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe.” All fiction requires worldbuilding, but it’s mostly associated with science fiction and fantasy.

The thing is, everything else stems from your worldbuilding. Your characters, their motivations, the plot, the setting–so if you’re winging it or are a little unclear on something, that’s going to be painfully obvious in your narration.

I’ve found, when creating secondary worlds, that it’s hard to get it right the first time. That, despite thinking things through and planning things out, there’s always something that you’ve forgotten, or that gets fleshed out through the actual writing. Or, in this particular case, you notice something your co-writer is doing that would be excellent to incorporate into your own stuff.

The good news is that everything is fixable. By fleshing out your worldbuilding, you can make your settings feel real, your characters relate-able, and your plot cohesive. The better you understand it, the better the underlining structure of your entire story is.

That’s why stories where the worldbuilding was an afterthought or deemed not important feel contrived and derivative. There’s a key element missing from them that all the pretty prose and excitement in the world won’t fix.

The good news for me is that now that the first draft is finished and that I’ve done some additional worldbuilding in spots that I identified as lacking, those beginning problems can be solved with some tweaks to bring everything into proper alignment. And it sounds like everything else is pretty good to go.

Have you found issues stemming from improper or incomplete worldbuilding, Squiders? Have you ever read a book with obvious worldbuilding fails?

Creating New Worlds

I was out with some of the guys from my speculative fiction writing group the other night (and let me tell you how lovely it is to belong to a group where everyone writes science fiction and fantasy, though the members are mostly male and it skews toward scifi) and I overheard a conversation between two of the members about how much of a pain it is to have to create new worlds.

I was busy editing, so I didn’t say anything at the time, but now I say: So?

Yes, it’s hard to create a new world from scratch. To have to create cultures, species, animals, religions, gods, technology, magic. To create languages and mythology. To strike a balancing act between making your world believable and making it accessible to your readers.

Here’s the thing, though–any story, whether it’s set on a planet around a distant star or just down the street, needs world-building. Even if you’re working with the real world, you still need to choose settings, decide where buildings are  in relation to each other, set up utilities for your characters, choose their cultures and beliefs, etc.

There is the added benefit that you can call a chair a chair because everyone knows what a chair is, but you also run the risk of getting things–that your readers know–wrong, which will distract them from the story.

Besides, it’s fun to create new worlds. I love it. I write pretty evenly in high and urban fantasy, and there’s a special spot in my heart for the world-building necessary for the high fantasy. The landscapes, the layout of the land, new cultures and how they relate to each other. And, of course, the mythology. To be able to create a cultural and mythical background to explain why a culture functions they way it does–I live for that.

Besides, isn’t part of the point of writing or reading speculative fiction exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations?