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.