Marlee Jane Ward explains how to build a realistic world when writing speculative fiction.
I’ve got worlds living inside my head. I’ll tell you what, it sometimes gets real crowded in there. Sometimes something I see or hear or read slots a big chunk into an already existing world in my mind, and this spins off threads and fragments of what it could mean for that world.
…And that’s how I do worldbuilding. Ta-da!
But really: Charlie Jane Anders says: ‘One thing about worldbuilding: the more you explain, the more you have to keep explaining.’
I’m of the ‘light touch’ crowd when it comes to world building. I’m passionate on my views about worldbuilding because I’m RIGHT. And the reason I’m so passionate (right) about it is because I TRUST MY AUDIENCE. They’ve got imaginations. They can fill the gaps, and make it more colourful for doing so!
The first rule of worldbuilding: avoid infodumps. I can’t say it enough. AVOID INFODUMPS! If you’ve got more than a paragraph of exposition in relation to your world, I hate you. No. But kinda.
Avoiding infodumps can be hard, especially in a radically different sci-fi or fantasy world where there is a different history and rules that need setting out. But conveying this in huge chunks of text is going to alienate the reader, or worse: totally bore them. You can know the history, politics and economic structure of your world, but your job is to weave that carefully through the narrative, the dialogue, and the way the characters interact.
Don’t rush to tell everything you know about your world. This goes back to the old writing rule of show, don’t tell. (That is a lie, though. Sometimes tell. Mostly show.) Show what you know of the world by the way your characters move through it, peppering it lightly with little details. TRUST that your reader will be able to imagine the world! They’ve got the goods; that’s why they’re reading in the first place.
Now we’ve covered what NOT to do in regard to worldbuilding, let’s talk about starting. My first suggestion is to read. Read everything you can! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and had it spin off a world in my head. For instance, I was reading ‘Shade’s Children’ by Garth Nix, and I thought to myself – ‘What would a world look like after something like this?’, which became the inspiration for my story, ‘The Beasts and the Birthday’.
I read as widely as possible, and not just speculative fiction. My main sources for inspiration come from non-fiction and long-form articles on all different types of subjects that I read online.
When I’m writing something dystopian, I often take a current concern from today and play it to its final conclusion. If a concern is real to you, your exploration of it into the future and to its extreme conclusion will capture interest because it is important to you. (Though, science fiction stories should not try to predict the future. They are a way to explore possible futures.) In my book Psynode (SHAMELESS PLUG!) I wondered what Sydney might look like on the path to end-stage capitalism. That’s a decent way to kick off a world and get your imagination laying down the blocks of a setting.
Over-arching types of world building are generally known as ‘Inside out, or outside in’, which comes from Dungeons and Dragons. You either start at the wide view and create a world from the top down, or you take a small chunk of a world and build it up to suit your purposes. Both have their issues. Outside in (or ‘top-down’) makes for a world that is sometimes too big for a story. Inside-out (or ‘bottom -up’) can create inconsistencies because the bigger picture is sometimes not thoroughly explored. Personally, I’m an ‘inside out’ kinda girl – If there’s a map of your world, I’m done.
I like to make a world that functions around a character or a story, rather than conjuring up an entire continent when all I need is one town. I know what the continent looks like (probably) but my reader doesn’t need to. They can take what I’ve given them and use it to imagine what the rest of the world might look like. Ultimately, the consensus suggests combining both methods for truly successful worldbuilding.
One more thought on the matter: The world needs to serve the story, not the other way around.
Think about it: a writer takes their reader into a trance state using worldbuilding, compelling plot, action, description and character in a balance to keep the trance going. Have you ever been completely lost in a story, had hours pass without you really knowing? That’s that trance at work and that’s what you want to achieve with your own writing.
Don’t jar the reader out of your world or leave them wanting by not showing enough.
Don’t overload the slate either.
Creating a balance within the world keeps the reader in the trance and following the story. Worldbuilding is what you can’t walk around. It’s the rules of the world that your character can’t escape from. Sometimes the world gets in the way of what your character needs to do and the more that happens, the more believable the world.
Finally: the worlds in your head won’t exist unless you get them out. Get them out! AHHHHH! But really, you’ve got this amazing responsibility to the worlds you conjure. Give them substance, life! Write them out. Don’t let them die.
Marlee Jane Ward
Marlee Jane Ward is a writer, reader and weirdo from Melbourne. You can find her short stories at Interfictions, Terraform, Apex, The Sockdolager, Aurealis, Mad Scientist Journal, Slink Chunk Press and the In Your Face and Hear Me Roar anthologies. Her debut novella, Welcome To Orphancorp, won Seizure’s Viva La Novella 3 and the 2016 Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction. It was shortlisted for The NSW Premiers Award, an Aurealis Award, and the Norma K Hemming Award. The sequel, Psynode, was released in May of 2017. In 2017 she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. She likes dreaming of the future, cats, and making a spectacle of herself