Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 6, 2011

World Building: Part 1- Physical Setting

by Fae Rowen

I was shocked when Laura, Sharla and Jenny suggested I write a craft blog on world building.  Before you read any further, I need to confess something.  I've never taken a world building writing class.  But after three decades as a science fiction freak, it's no wonder I enjoy world building.  In fact, creating my own worlds may be why I write science fiction.

However, you don't have to write science fiction or fantasy to build your own world.  The world you build is the container for everything that happens to your characters.  You determine the size of the container, what's in the container, and more important--what's not in the container.

I'm in the process of beginning a new work so I'll share a little about how I put together my new planet.  There are rules.

Rule #1:  The setting is a character.  Your setting needs to have good things and challenging aspects, just like your hero and heroine.  Think pioneer women.  I can't imagine loading all my worldly goods into a covered wagon and heading west to battle unknown weather, native Americans, and terrain.  Prairies and mountains were characters in the lives of those Americans.  Heck, we've just celebrated the Fourth of July.  Can you say Mayflower?

We won't get into the people those settlers had to travel with, here.  Next week's blog will cover the cultural and social aspects of world building.  Today is about putting together a believable physical setting, whether it's a planet, an asteroid, a space station or a mountain cabin.  How exciting to control every aspect of your characters' lives from the get go!  Just be sure to use the setting as you would a villain or an ally.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses the game arena as a character, throwing challenges or rewards at her heroine.  (If you haven't read Laura's review of this amazing trilogy, check it out.)

You want to remember to account for the basic necessities to sustain life in your world:  food, shelter, light, warmth, air and water.  Then you can move to the interesting stuff like safety, animal or sentient life, and technology.  In my new world there is no human food.  Imagine the conflict that evolves around an annual food distribution.  To say nothing of the fear of no more food deliveries to the planet.

Rule #2:  Beware the laws of physics.  If you break one or more of the physical laws in our universe, you better have a darn good reason why your world works differently.  You must be able to convince your reader that the change is a real and consistent part of the physics of your setting.  Note, you don't have to be an astrophysicist to pull this off.  I'm not.  In my contest wins, editor comments about my world building let me know that my worlds are "solidly drawn" even if they are a bit "off."

While a planet with two or three moons and maybe a couple of suns would be interesting-- and my critique partner Laura Drake could paint wonderful scenery with amazing colors and shadows--the instability caused by overlapping gravity fields would be a major problem.  You'd be hard-pressed to convince me that such a planet wouldn't be pulled apart.  Likewise, random gravity might be an interesting concept, but you'll have to come up with plausible rules governing the phenomena.

Rule #3:  Although your world is governed by the laws of physics in your universe, you don't want to dump all the detail on the reader up front. 

As exciting as abandoned alien tunnels may be to explore during the book, you can drop a couple of hints about the map having an obvious mistake when your character gets a little lost to set up the discovery that the rock is alive and growing and changing.  Or perhaps the oceans are polluted and the mist from the water causes hallucinations, but the sea monster with venomous fangs is definitely real.

It's a good thing to expose facets of your setting throughout your story, but don't tell the reader about your world.  Show your character's daily life in the setting, or if your character is on this unknown planet, let the reader experience the differences as your characters discover them.  Save some surprises for your reader.  In this way your setting can be hero or villain--or both.

Rule #4:  Make a world that has everything, just like your dream vacation spot, or your worst nightmare.  Then work those angles on your characters.  They may not know anything but their own world, or they may be from elsewhere and know just how wonderful or how miserable their current surroundings are.  Drawing those comparisons will reveal layers about your characters by showing their attitudes and skills.

The world of my new book is beautiful, filled with crystals as tall as trees.  In fact, the planet has only crystals and water.  No plants, no animals, no indigenous life.   This world is a three-month (real time) journey from the nearest civilized outpost.  Why would anyone want to go there?  Ah--those reasons supply the social/cultural setting.  More on that aspect next week.

Rule #5:  If you choose to ignore Rule #4, change only one thing about our present world, but make it an important plot point.  Maybe the oceans have dried up.  How would that affect weather, food production, travel?  The reasons for the change would be considered back story, so don't fall into the trap of telling your readers all about the change.  Do describe the world as it is at the beginning of your story.  Maybe, as in Frank Herbert's  Dune series, your world is being actively terraformed to turn it into a more hospitable place for humans.  Your setting can have a character arc!

Don't forget to mine every ounce of gold from your world building.  After all, you placed all those wonderful nuggets there yourself as you built your setting.

What challenges have you overcome--or still struggle with--in your world building?  What are some ways you've used physical setting as a character?  Are there laws of physics that you need help with or ways to tweak physical phenomena?  Maybe you'd like to share a particularly interesting concept or questions you want answered in next week's blog.  Let those comments flow.

Next week:  World Building Part 2:  Social/cultural Setting

0 comments on “World Building: Part 1- Physical Setting”

  1. Rule #4 is especially important. I wrote one dystopian science fiction piece on what would happen if the world fell into its next Ice Age. Like overnight. And how this would affect folks who grew up in that environment never knowing what the world was like. Toward the middle, I found myself scrambling to figure out how they got clean water, how they obtained food, etc. Sure there was snow, but how did they purify it? And guns would have certainly run out of ammunition by that point, so they weren't really an option for a small clan of families fending for themselves.

    Anyway my point is that I wish I had planned that part out a bit more before diving head-first into the storyline. It caught me off guard and then I had to regain my footing again with the plot and pacing. This is a really useful reference though for building this type of world from scratch. Since I do have my sights on writing a full science fiction novel in the (hopefully not too distant) future, I'll likely be referring to this blog series quite a bit. 😉


    1. Thanks, Lena. I typically "live" in my new world for one or two months, while I'm editing the last work, before I start a new project. My friends complain when I get a far away look and ask, "Are working on your new book?" We're hiking, but, yes, I'm thinking about hiking on my planet and how it would be different and what my characters would have to deal with. And why they'd be hiking not riding in some great futuristic vehicle. It helps to really know my world and it's backstory before I start writing. Good luck on your novel. See you next week for society and cultural world building.

    1. HI Beth,
      Heck, there are some scientists out there taking all the fun out of life if you believe everything they postulate. Don't get me wrong. I love science for pure research as well as practical application, but it takes a long time to "grok" all the pieces of new discoveries. Will I let anyone steal my fun? Not likely. I'm with you. Lol:)

  2. I had an experience with an RPG group that created a world to play in. I got to create the map, which was pretty fun -- except that it ignored the rules of physics. Explaining it away by saying "It's fantasy!" only works to a certain point. If I can't *believe* in the created world, the story doesn't work for me.

    'Course it does give me lots of exercise rolling my eyes!

    I really enjoyed this post and your attitude about "show, don't tell." Looking forward to reading more!

    1. Thanks, Robin. I'm willing to suspend a lot of belief, but I'm with you--it "only works to a certain point." By the way, what calorie burn do you get with those eye rolls?
      See you next week for society and culture world building fun.


  3. Nice article! World-building really makes or breaks a good story, IMO. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on worldbuilding within a non- SF/Fantasy work. Until last year, I had written nothing but SF&F so world building became second nature. I was surprised to find that it is every bit as necessary when writing a romance (especially a historical) as it is with SF&F

    1. Funny you should mention world building in the context of a historical romance, Bren. I've got some upcoming examples in new week's blogs from some of my favorite authors. Who knew you could link world building and regency romance? You do, obviously. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Excellent blog post. I've read sci fi my whole life and finally wrote one last year. I loved creating the world. There's a sequel brewing in my head. I suspect it will make it to paper soon. :~D I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts in this series.

  5. Love how you point out that the world you've built is a character and can even have a character arc. Hadn't thought of it that way.

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