World Building: On Making It Work

I ran across this great post by Malinda Lo over the weekend while looking for ideas. Malinda Lo is a YA author writing huge titles such as Ash, Huntress, Adaptation, and Inheritance. I ran accross her blog posts initially on tumblr where her focus on Asian media representation and LGBTQAI in literature caught my attention. In this particular post, Lo focuses on five main points of world building: Rules, Rituals, Power, Place, and Food. She starts with a great statement about being aware of your own cultural assumptions and how it may reflect in your created world, giving examples such as a world inspired by medieval Europe doesn’t need to have all its prejudices.

malinda Lo
YA author and prodigious blogger Malinda Lo. Fighting the good fight and co-founder of Diversity in YA

I’ve run across many of these types of posts over the years, instructing on how to build worlds. Many focus on similar elements — something about the peoples, something about the cultures, and something about the place — and I came to the shocking revelation that I do absolutely none of that.

Malcom Reynolds firefly
Capt. Malcom Reynolds of the Serenity from Firefly, just as confused as I was.

I’ve always had a knack for building new worlds on the fly and people seemed to think that they were believable and well thought out. When forced to sit and explain how I was able to do this, I always came up with different answers and none were satisfactory.

Then I had a breakthrough after reading Malinda Lo’s post. As Tim Gunn might say: I make it work.

tim gunn make it work
Fashion icon Tim Gunn with his signature line.

I had this horrible habit growing up: I was a chronic liar. I would lie about everything and for no reason other than to mess with the person I was talking to. Once we were walking, my friend asked me why people get nose piercings. I made up a convoluted story going back all the way to the beginnings of ancient civilization and it went through to the future and somehow ended up with constant communication with aliens. One time there was a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker and they went on a journey through Africa, Europe and through Asia before ending up floating right where they started only to go on the journey endlessly.

And people would listen to me.

I would often encourage questions, answering immediately in a way that they sometimes knew was made up (I had convinced many a people of very weird things without realizing they mistook my jokes as fact). I never paused to think. That and the certainty with which I answered often led to misunderstandings.

So now, I think that has directly influenced the way I go about creating worlds, and writing for that matter. Unlike Cheri — my Yoda writing master — I am very new to writing actual, readable, complete stories. But in my short experience, I have found that when I want to create a story, my mentality is one of “NEVER LOOK BACK.”

I move through a piece chronologically, discovering events unfolding almost in time with the protag. It follows the way that I think of things. Before I can start writing, I have to have a good idea of the world that I want to build and what kind of systems are in place and the story and characters comes last.

speedpaint
Speedpaint gif from Priscillalives. Painting the scenery in which a story can grow.

I also tend to take leaps of assumptions. These can range from the inane i.e. my people live in houses, to the crazy i.e. blood-bending-magic. Rather than going back and fixing everything previously thought of, I move forward. So if they live in houses and use blood-bending-magic, what kind of people would they be? How would this magic change their social structures? How would this kind of magic even work?

And as I write, I answer these exact questions so that everything falls together. Making sure to answer my own questions makes me feel more confident about answering the reader’s doubts about the world and how characters would interact with it.

Cultural assumptions was another great point by Malinda Lo. Again, I never think about it much when creating my worlds. I usually form the people around the governing systems: if my country’s main focus was this, what kind of people’s would live there. This is strongly influenced by being raised in Hawaii. We learn very early on that people from different cultures put emphasis on different things and that every culture developed in different ways. With this wealth of knowledge, I tend to borrow points-of-views directly from cultures I’m familiar with as long as they fall inline with the world.

mean girls she doesn't even go here gif
Iconic scene from Mean Girls. Characters have to work in their worlds!

And I, again, NEVER LOOK BACK. With centuries of history I can pull from along with my own creative mass of grey in my head, there is no question that cannot be adequately answered. Settling with a sub par answer is NEVER the answer. Every book and reader all deserve better.

I’m not trying to say I am better than all these other world building posts, rather that I am different. I’m sure guidelines work in general, but your way of building worlds is just as valid as any other provided one thing: if the readers can lose themselves in a created world, believing everything your character comes in contact with, your world is valid. So in the end, the most important this is to make it work.

Do you find that world building guides help you? Or perhaps there is one in particular? Let us know in the comments below! Cheri will be back on Saturday dropping more knowledge (and perhaps with a surprise we’ve been working on). We hope to see you then!

-Chebk

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