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Friday, February 26, 2010

Worldbuilding: What’s the Point?

We interrupt your scheduled reading on worldbuilding for science fiction with a very important question: Why worldbuild at all? What’s the point?

Take a moment to really think about this. Write it down, even, if you like. What do we worldbuild?

Quite possibly, there will be as many answers to this question as there are readers of this post. Some of these might include things like this:

To make our story seem more realistic
To draw readers into the story
To build the inner logic of the story
Because it’s fun
Because if we’re writing in an alternate world, it’s necessary
Because if we’re writing in the ‘real’ world, it’s still necessary
Relatedly, so we know what the world we’re writing about looks like
To encourage suspension of disbelief – the more ‘real’ a world feels, the more likely we are to believe in it.

These are all fantastic answers. But guess what? None of them, not one, gets to the core of why we really worldbuild.

Why do we worldbuild?

To create conflict.

Sure, sometimes it’s necessary for us to do things like map out the character’s house so we don’t have the sun shining through the room’s only window to wake them up in the morning, and then later mention how they like to curl up in the afternoon sun in the room’s only window and read. It’s useful to have an idea of how the politics of a culture functions, and to know the reasons behind their value system, and the type of clothes that they’re going to be likely to wear, and, and, and…

But all that aside, there’s a reason for the worldbuilding that makes it into the book: conflict.

Conflict is the blood of fiction; without conflict, we have no story. Characters want things, situations conspire to withhold things, cars break down, demons attack, things happen. Conflict.

Some of you may be scratching your heads in puzzlement. How is worldbuilding supposed to create conflict? How can I tell? Easy. Ask this question: Does this make my character’s life harder? If the answer is a bwa-HA!-inducing yes, then that’s a piece of worldbuilding that should be allowed into your book. This is the easy test, and the only test, because there’s nothing inherently conflict-filled about any piece of worldbuilding, unless it relates to your character/s.

Some examples.

A pond full of alligators. Although you might think there is, in and of itself there’s nothing conflicty about this piece of worldbuilding. It’s just a pond, even if it does happen to be full of large mouths with sharp teeth. So, does this make my character’s life harder? If there’s an object they need that somehow gets in the pond, if they end up having to cross the pond, if they use the pond as a place to ditch a dead body with the cops will later have to try to retrieve or hunt down, the answer is a resounding YES!!

If, however, the character merely walks past the pond and contemplates the nature of teeth in mouths, the answer is more ‘Hmm, not really.’

A pen. In contrast to the alligators, a pen seems tame indeed. Hardly likely to be a source of conflict. So why include it? What if it’s not a pen at all, but a shot of poison? What if it’s a magical object that will come in handy later on?

Not writing fantasy or mystery? Still not a problem.

The pen has been moved on the desk, which is a signal someone’s been there that shouldn’t have been. The pen belonged to a great-uncle and is a constant reminder to your character of everything he’s trying to be – and failing at. The pen was a specially-engraved birthday present and your character is in big trouble because they lost it. And on and on.

This illustrates nicely the fact that anything at all can be a source of conflict, if it’s important to the story. And really, that should be the measure by which we judge everything we include in our story – is it important? Is this information really and truly necessary, or can we live without it? Is what we’re saying significant, and does it matter?

Take a look at your work and see – are you worldbuilding because you think it’s fun (which can lead to infodumps), or is what you’re building something that will enhance the story in all the ways that matter?

Worldbuild. Enjoy it. Just make sure you build your worlds with conflict.

Amy Laurens is a writer of mostly YA fantasy. She lives with husband and dog, one of whom bashes the laptop’s keyboard to get attention. Her story With This Ring is currently available at the Tower of Light Fantasy magazine, and you can find out more about her at http://ink-fever.blogspot.com

1 comment:

  1. :) Well said! Plus...if you don't worldbuild at all, there will be no story :)