When I’m on a panel, or giving an interview, or answering a reader’s question, I often find myself saying that I’m “putting on my Anthropologist Hat.”
You see, I spent ten years studying anthropology — first as an undergrad, then as a graduate student, before I left school to write full-time. It kind of left a mark. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, I tend to think about them like an anthropologist: I look at the worlds, how they’re put together, how they shape the characters’ actions and the stories we’re telling. My very favorite kinds of stories are the ones where those things are intertwined; you couldn’t transplant that tale to another world because it’s too firmly embedded in the specifics of its own setting.
Because of this, I get a lot of questions from people about worldbuilding. But it’s hard to answer them in anything like a brief fashion, because the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the art bone’s connected to the religion bone, and so on. Get me started on worldbuilding, and I could keep talking for a long, long time.
. . . hey, there’s an idea.
Welcome to my brand-new worldbuilding series!
Every Friday I’ll be here with a shiny new post about some aspect of worldbuilding. My intent is to explore not just the obvious things people tend to think about (like “what kind of gods do they worship” or “is there a king”), but all the chewy little details we often overlook. Like coinage: does the society even use coins, and if so, what are they like and how do they get used? Or divination: lots of societies used to pay close attention to omens on a daily basis, and some of them still do. Or postmarital residence patterns: patrilocal, matrilocal, avunculocal, neolocal. (I mentioned that I majored in anthropology, right?) The thing about these chewy little details is, they can provide you with interesting new conflicts or ways to approach old conflicts. Sometimes you can build a whole story around one of them — or you can slip it into the background, just making it clear from how you describe things that in this society, married couples go to live with or near the groom’s mother’s eldest brother. (That’s avunculocal residence — uncle-placed.) You know how they say we only use ten percent of our brain? That isn’t true — but writers probably use ten percent or less of the cool ideas human beings have come up with over the millennia. There is so much more out there.
To keep this series rolling, I’ve set up a Patreon account, where you can chip in however much you feel like. For those who are new to Patreon, it’s a subscription approach to funding rather than a one-off deal like Kickstarter; in this case you’re subscribing on a monthly basis. The posts will be here regardless, but backing the Patreon gets you extra goodies: for each essay I post, I’ll send all backers one of my photographs from around the world, as a visual complement to all the words here. Depending on what level you choose, you may also get ebooks, the opportunity to request specific topics, an additional non-public essay, or even the chance to have me critique your own work. Check it out!
To finish out this introductory post, before I start getting into the nitty-gritty, I want to talk about the scope of worldbuilding.
We associate it primarily with the genres of speculative fiction for a good reason: in science fiction and fantasy, much more of the world is subject to invention. But if you think about it, every piece of fiction includes some worldbuilding, however minor; if it didn’t, we’d call it nonfiction. Writers of mainstream literary fiction make up towns. Or they set something in a real town but an imaginary neighborhood. Or the neighborhood is real, but the local coffee shop the protagonist frequents isn’t. Even if I set a story in Dallas, Texas, on the street I grew up on, in the house I lived in for eighteen years, and put my protagonist in my old bedroom, I’d still have to make decisions about what’s in that room, and how it changes as the story goes along.
In speculative fiction the worldbuilding can go a lot further than decorating your protagonist’s bedroom. If you’re writing urban fantasy or near-future science fiction, the world may be mostly like it is now — but there’s still the question of how the magic or the technology works, how it affects society, what cultural tics have built up around it (like slang or new superstitions), and so on. The more you diverge from current reality, the wider the scope of your potential changes gets . . . until at the far end of the spectrum, your secondary-world fantasies and far-future science fiction, pretty much everything is up for grabs.
And I do mean everything. If the world you’re writing about is not our own in any time period or alternate track of history, then who’s to say anything is the same? You might have adar and kimmet and renitin trees instead of oaks and maples and birches. Or maybe the closest analogue to our concept of “tree” is an ambulatory organism made of living crystal. In your invented world, the very ground the characters walk on might be a woven textile they have to maintain or they’ll fall into an abyss. Maybe gravity changes direction based on the phase of the moon. Maybe electromagnetism doesn’t work at all. OH MY GOD, WHERE DOES IT END?
It ends where you want it to — which for most of us is going to be long before we get to the point of throwing electromagnetism out the window. My personal tendency is to leave the natural environment (from the laws of physics up through ecology) more or less unchanged, unless I have a narratively good reason for doing so. In the Memoirs of Lady Trent, for example, obviously the dragons are invented, as are the roles they play in their environments, because that’s the whole point of the series . . . but the plants and all the other animals are real, and all of them, dragons included, behave in ways that are realistic to our own planet. Why did I draw the line there? Because my heroine is a scientist investigating the world around her, and that means I need the world around her to hang together in a plausible fashion. Which is a lot easier to pull off when you can look at actual facts, instead of having to make up an ecology from scratch.
Where the variety for something like this comes in is at the level where I say, “Okay, which environment?” Just because most of my readers live in temperate climates doesn’t mean I have to use that as my model. The same goes for human society and the way it’s put together. Sometimes you’ll want to invent a wholly imaginary system of government, but more often you’ll wind up writing about at least partially based on a real-world example. (Especially because you may think you’ve invented something that never existed, only to find out that people have in fact done that already. Remember: billions of humans have formed societies with each other for thousands upon thousands of years. It’s like giving typewriters to a million monkeys; eventually they’ll write Hamlet.) So while some of my posts in this series will suggest ways to go haring off into the wild speculative yonder, I’m going to focus more on talking about the huge array of real-world possibilities that could inspire you.
If this sounds like the kind of thing you enjoy, keep watching this space, and check out the Patreon page to support it. I’m especially interested in having readers request topics, because there is so much to talk about, it’s hard to decide which direction to go in first!