New Worlds: Worldbuilding as a Habit of Thought

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

One of the funding milestones for this Patreon is a fifth essay in the months that have five Fridays. Since we cleared that milestone right off the bat (woot!), here’s the first of the extras!

Up until now, my essays have mostly been focused on concrete facets of human society, because I find it’s helpful to stop and take stock of all the little details that slip by invisibly on a normal day. But little details without any kind of organizing principles behind them just turn into a random pile of stuff, so the purpose of these bonus essays will be to step back and discuss worldbuilding on a more theoretical level: the concepts and patterns that turn trivia into a world, and how you can make use of those in a story. To launch us down that road, I want to talk about worldbuilding as a habit of thought.

It’s very possible that some of you have already looked at the essays posted so far and despaired, because how can you possibly keep all of these things in mind as you write? In just a few short months, I’ve already dug into everything from seasonal patterns to the meaning of personal names to counterfeit coinage to sumptuary laws. In upcoming months I’m likely to discuss funerary rites, divination, cartography, hair care, and how people curse. The list of cultural details you might work into your setting is essentially endless. Are you supposed to work out every last aspect of the world before you can start writing the story?

Obviously the answer is “no,” because working out every last detail of the world is impossible. (At least if it’s meant to be a realistic-seeming world, rather than some odd surrealist allegory-type thing.) But some people do take an exhaustive approach to this process. Patricia C. Wrede has a set of worldbuilding questions on her site that digs into this on a more granular level than I’ve seen anywhere else — though if you know of one that’s even more thorough, let me know! For some writers, it may work to go through that entire list or something like it and answer every last item, maybe even before they start writing.

That isn’t what I do, though, and it isn’t what I recommend. (Not least because it can turn into a really great tool for procrastination: I can’t write yet, because I haven’t yet decided what style of footwear is in fashion this season in the capital city!) Rather, I view Wrede’s list of questions — and this Patreon — as a tool for training yourself into certain habits of thought.

Think of what happens with your prose over time. For most of us, when we start out writing, we just kind of fling down words as they come to us. But over time we start to notice cliches, stock expressions, images we really love and use way too often, my god how many of my last ten sentences did I start with a participial phrase . . . so then maybe you spend a while focusing really hard on your prose, not letting any sentence slip by unexamined, constantly prodding yourself to find new ways to say things — some of which probably succeed better than others. Taken too far, this turns you into the proverbial centipede who forgets how to walk the moment he tries to think about how all those legs move. But when you come out the other side of it, your habits have changed: you have a larger stock of images to choose from on the fly, a subconscious awareness of when you’re repeating yourself, and every now and then you pause mid-scene to hunt for a better way to construct a key line. Overall, writing more vivid prose has become a thing you do reflexively, rather than one consciously chosen word at a time.

In worldbuilding, the same can be true. You’re in the middle of a scene in your fantasy novel that features a greedy trader, and when you reach for a descriptor to convey why the viewpoint character finds him so unpleasant, your imagination offers up a stock image: the fat, greasy merchant, whose overweight body is supposed to represent his avarice. Offensive stereotype ahoy! How else can you show this guy’s nature, without resorting to “fat = bad”? Something deep in your subconscious stirs. Rich merchant. Aristocratic society. Sumptuary laws! You delete the lines about his weight and instead describe how the fabric or dye or embroidery of his clothing crosses the line that’s supposed to separate him from his social superiors. Now his greed is being expressed through actual behavior, and you’ve added a layer of richness to your world in the process. You don’t have to write out the twenty-seven sumptuary laws of that society before you get started; you just need some part of your brain to remember that’s a thing, and trot it out when the occasion presents itself.

That’s what I mean when I say worldbuilding is a habit of thought. The more you make yourself aware of the building blocks that make up human culture, the more likely you are to notice when there’s an opportunity to do something interesting with one, either in passing or as a major plot point. The more you make yourself aware of the different shapes and sizes and colors and materials those building blocks can have, the more vivid and memorable your world will be, because it isn’t constructed out of the same identical red bricks the reader has seen in a hundred other novels. You stop thinking in defaults, start thinking in specifics.

It can still help to work on this as a focused exercise, the same way it can help with your prose. Sit down with Wrede’s questions and see how many of them you have answers to and how many you don’t; see how many of those answers are just the first thing that came to mind, instead of something further off the beaten path. Maybe one of those questions will give you a really cool idea, and when you think about that idea it changes other parts of your world, and the next thing you know your story has developed a whole new dimension that wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t put thought into the sewage system of your Mars terraforming colony.

But the rest of the time, just let this sink into the background, a new habit that shapes how you tell your stories.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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13 Responses to New Worlds: Worldbuilding as a Habit of Thought

  1. A friend of mine used to say that world building was like wax: rub it into the grain of the story but don’t let it leave a sticky residue.

  2. I think in spirals. Start with one thing in your story that is very different from the here and now and follow the if-then chain outward, everything connected and leading back to the beginning. In multibook series I have been known to shoot of side arms to that spiral as places for new information present themselves.

    It’s a tool that fits my brain,.

  3. Pingback: First of the New Worlds bonus essays is up! - Swan Tower

  4. Alix in MV says:

    if you hadn’t put thought into the sewage system of your Mars terraforming colony

    I’m not a professional writer, but now I’m obsessed with this problem as a thought exercise. THANKS. XD

  5. Sherwood Smith says:

    I think of it as the bricolage effect. (In fact, I recollect writing about it here.) You want the world to be lived in, so you research for those details, without bogging yourself down. (Though I think that works strongest when one is doing general reading in interesting areas of history/economics/linguistics/etc)

  6. Mary says:

    I think the best rule is to read lots and lots and lots of history — all types of history, but with an emphasis on primary source — not so much to learn stuff as to knock your block off, so you don’t resort to modern society by default.

    • Angie says:

      History’s great (history major here) but anthropology is also awesome for worldbuilders. Even freshman level anthro will give you a bunch of little bits of how this or that people you might never have heard of before do things. There are economic systems you won’t hear about in any econ class, like reciprocity systems, or potlatch cultures. There are kinship systems that are different from anything in European or even the major Asian cultures, like sibs and moieties, or matrilineal cultures (which are not the same as matriarchal). There are different styles of ornamentation that have meanings we don’t expect, or don’t have meanings we’d assume as a given. (Penis gourds, anyone? And no, the biggest gourds don’t necessarily imply high status men.) History and anthropology both are gold mines for worldbuilding writers.