My World is Made of Clouds, and Winged Horsies Live There











 I once taught a class at my daughter’s middle-school on world building.  Like cooking (which can compass chemistry, anatomy, and organizational skills), world-building can demand a wide range of disciplines. More, certainly, than the 5th-to-8th graders in my class were expecting.

I’m  not sure what they were expecting, but I was trying to get them to think interconnectively, to understand that history depends on geography depends on geology; that mythology springs from climate, geography, and predators; that the kind of homes you live in depend on what the climate and materials and threats are.  That it’s all connected, and the richest, best built worlds understand that and sketch it in from the start.

Many of the students got it–it’s a peculiarly slippery idea for middle-schoolers, who are at the point where their brains are making the leap from concrete to abstract thinking.  With the ones who got it, there was an almost audible “Huh!” when the connections snapped into place, and it was as intoxicating for me to watch as for them to experience.  Some kids had more trouble with it.  And a few did not get it–not only didn’t get it, but actively resisted when I insisted that their worlds make sense.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it’s entirely possible to create a universe in which the physical and biological constraints can be jiggered so you have winged horses–Pegasi, if you will.  But I don’t think the winged horses will live in the clouds, because I can’t think of any reason for them to have evolved in the clouds.  But when the student who espoused the cause of the Pegasi was asked to account for how the horses had evolved in the clouds, she scowled.  “Take the week,” I suggested.  “Bring in a history of the horses that accounts for how they wound up there.”  I got the distinct impression that I was No Fun.

When she came back the next week she had come up with, not an evolutionary history of the Pegasi, but a mythology: the horses had been brought to the planet by people from another world.  “Why did they bring them?” I asked.  No answer.  “Given that clouds are vapor and ice, where do the horses, um, roost?  Do they have extra thick coats to help deal with the chill of the clouds?” “It’s more like fog,” my student said.  “It’s not cold.  There’s a lot of sunshine. And they can stand on the clouds.”  Again, I was No Fun.

It was like that for the whole length of the class.  The other kids came up with landscapes and politics and, in one case, a lavish history of bloody warfare between two races who looked like monsters from an SF movie and appeared to live only to kill.  But they were thinking about how everything connected, not always correctly, but getting the idea of how very much worldbuilding depends on everything, rather than a single conceit.

I don’t want to beat up the Pegasi girl: she worked hard, and clearly liked inventing a world.  She drew lovely pictures of the Pegasi in their clouds, eating cloud-stuff.  She had some word-crafting ability, which I tried to encourage.  But she was also stubborn, and couldn’t think outside the box, or rather, see that the box was larger than she’d originally thought, and had six sides to it.

At the end of the class I had to give out grades.  I was a fairly easy grader–all I was asking, in the end, was that the kids try to take the assignment seriously and think, really think, about what the effects of, say, geography on biology, politics, and agriculture. I gave the girl with the Pegasi a B-: she had worked hard, coming in with new pictures and descriptions every week, but she had completely dodged making any of it make sense.

Worldbuilding requires a broad set of tools.  And one of the most important tools is understanding that nothing, not even winged horses, develops in a vacuum.  



Madeleine Robins blogs here every 7th and 21st of the month, and more regularly at Running Air.  Visit her bookshelf.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


My World is Made of Clouds, and Winged Horsies Live There — 7 Comments

  1. Lately I have been quoting Deep Throat, the Watergate informer: Follow the Money. People do not do things for nothing — there is always a payoff, in dollars or some other positive effect. Neither do societies, species, businesses, criminals, predators — almost anything you can name is driven by a profit motive. What benefit are raccoons deriving, from washing their food in water? There must be a payoff that made developing that behavior worth while (I think it has to do with getting sand off). What is Cigna getting, by sinking millions of dollars into lobbying Congress? They are not spending this dough for fun, are they?

    You can tell, alas! that many of our great fantasy worldbuilders did not think about this at all. What -do- Orcs live on? Is it really possible to sustain an entire society in Moria purely on mining?

    Following the money always leads you to someplace interesting.

  2. I got the impression the Orcs ate each other. (There’s hand-waving about how they reproduce, too, so where the fresh supply comes from, who knows?)

  3. Yes, and it cannot be a perpetual motion fur farm, Orcs living solely on Orcs. There must be nutrition coming into the system from some other steady and reliable source, otherwise you would not have swarms of them.

  4. Rats, mice, insects? Plant them and let them feed on dirt? (got that image from the Jackson films)

    See, that’s where the inveterate worldbuilder starts to get punchy, because hand-waving leads to such…intriguing suggestions.

  5. The economy of the Elven kingdoms is even more problematic. Remember that the Elves prefer forests, a landscape not well suited for farming. Who is raising the grain for the flour that goes into the lembas? The flax or wool that is spun and woven by Galadriel’s maidens into the Elven cloaks? We know that the Woodland Elves import their wine from the lands of Men — but with what do they pay for this wine? It is a brisk and steady trade, so they must be supplying quite a lot of something. (It is no use to tell me that Elven lore is an equivalent exchange.)

  6. I love you guys.

    When I worked in comics, some of us used to have discussions about the backstage support trade for superheroes: who builds the Lairs, the Fortresses, the Legion Clubhouses? The trope about the tailor to the superheroic stars is pretty well worn. But the thing I always worried about was the cleanup and insurance needs of superheroes. Every time a bad hat shows up in Metropolis or Gotham or New York and lays waste to the main drag, someone has to go through and dispose of the smashed cars, broken glass, and orphaned office equipment left in the wake of Big Punch Outs with supervillains. And what kind of insurance do superheroes have to carry these days? Talk about needing tort reform…

  7. You’ve seen the web sites devoted to superhero shopping? You can buy a nice Antarctic underground lair for only One Billion Dollars!