A couple weeks back I made a post on what I think of as the bricolage theory of worldbuilding. In part that was in response to a post by Kate Elliott that comes as worldbuilding from a different angle.
The questions she asks—like “Who is invisible?”—I think are interesting for readers as well as writers. Down in the comments, you can see my response: I point out that her questions are excellent for the writer who does worldbuilding from the top down. In other words, create the world, and then people it, and find a story to tell. But for those of us who tend to see the story first, then have to discover the world through revising a zillion times, it might be more useful to approach the question from the angle of, Who in this scene is invisible, and why?
When I talked about this with a couple of writers, one pointed out that long lists of worldbuilding questions are great for Writer A, but for Writer B, the eyes simply glaze—or anxiety takes over. “Oh noes,” Writer B howls, tearing her hair. “I have to do all this in order to spin a tale? That’s worse than a homework assignment in high school, because I have to make it all up!” All the fun of writing has just zipped right out the window.
For that writer, my suggestion is to boil it down to one question: Who is doing the work?
This runs parallel to historical bricolage. For every king leading a battle, there are those invisible people who trained that hero and those warriors, who made their battle gear and clothing, who furnished the beautiful castle the hero lived in, who raised their animals. Who tended the crops they are trampling through, who trail behind trying to cook the food they will eat.
By asking oneself Who? interesting layers of story might be uncovered. For example, the “who trained the hero” in a story set in Roman times might be Greek slaves. How much of Greek culture shaped that hero? The “who made the furniture” might be prized Renaissance artisans. Were they lured by promises of wealth, or captured and made to work?
Cultures are also shaped by their understanding of other cultures, either elsewhere or previous. I was startled into a new way of thinking as a college student by a professor who declared that Western culture of the twentieth century, in future, would be regarded as the people who could only make war and trash. We’d developed maximum efficiency in killing our fellow human, and planned obsolescence and assembly-line manufacturing was the direct cause of crummy furnishing, clothing, houses, and fast food, which in turn proliferated the rapidly growing waste dump. The 20th C’s footprint was not exactly artistic from that perspective.
That’s culture. Back to people, specifically the invisible people—the servants, and the old, and the women, most often.
This doesn’t mean the writer must stop the story to recount the biography of the kitchen crew. But a glimpse of the action from the perspective of the cook who has to provide provender for all those warriors, or the little kitchen slavey who has never held a weapon but is still sent to the front to keep the hero’s dishes clean in his tent, could make the difference between Yet Another Battle Tale and a story about a world that feels lived in.
Then, of course, the perspective of those who are usually silent can change everything. For example, what would the Iliad read like if retold purely from the point-of-view of Helen of Troy?