Friday, March 12, 2010

WorldBuilding Primer by Rebecca Lynn

A couple weeks ago, I did a post on WorldBuilding and lo! and behold, one of my readers had a whole workshop prepared on the topic! Rebecca Lynn, a consulant and writing coach, offered to do a Bloggers Digest version of her workshop for us here (to be continued on her own blog). So thank you, Rebecca for sharing with me and my readers! My blog is now yours.


There are two general brands of world-building: Cosmological and Contextual.

Cosmological World-Building is all about the vertical, and structural part of creating a new world. Contextual, on the other hand, is horizontal, and more narrative. There is no "one magic way" to world-build. Since everyone has different strengths and a different personality, everyone will have a different approach. It's important to know what yours is, because the more aware and intentional you can be, the better world-builder you will become.

Cosmological World-BuildingThink heirarchy, think pyramid, think flow chart... whatever vertical picture works the best for you. When approaching world-building from the vertical dimension, remember that each level of the pyramid directly effects the level above or below it. So there are two basic ways to build vertical worlds.

Top-Down: Think big-picture, then focusing in. People who build top-down will start will bigger thoughts. Philosophical or theological concepts might form the basic structure, and then they'll dial down to the next level, until they eventually get to the practical details. They start on the 10,000-foot-level, and let the answers to the questions they find there (who rules this world, what is the relationship between good and evil, what is the basic philosophy of this country), then let those answers make the next decisions (how is the "good" country's government set up), and then the next (how does the ruler make decisions), and so on.

I worked with a writer who is very much a Top-Down World-Builder. He'd spent so much time creating the philosophies and big concepts of the world that he actually decided to build a whole board game before he wrote the book. Then, he was in the middle of writing, and he called me to see if he could run some world-building by me. We sat down for about six hours and hashed out the theodicy (system of reconciling the presence of evil) of his world. His desire had been to make certain that all of his philosophy made sense before he wrote himself too far into the novel. Classic Top-Down.

Bottom-Up: Think specifics, then moving to the general. Bottom-uppers will typically start with details. They like to research. They like to collect information and/or trivia. These are the types of world-builders who will spend their time mapping. They create languages for their cultures and people-groups. They research the difference between katana and naginata swords for their futuristic-set Samurai fantasy. They read books on how to build time machines for their steampunk novel. Then, from those details, they might move up the vertical ladder, getting up to cultural practices. For instance, they see an A&E documentary on royal marriages and are intrigued by the story of Katherine Parr. They think, wow, a woman nursing a king and falling in love with him, that would make a really interesting novel. So they research the details of medicine in the Renaissance era, then perhaps the royal family; they eventually get up to the big-picture (philosophies, religions, cosmologies). But maybe not.

I tend to be a bottom-upper. I have high Input, so I like to organize details. I love to research, and I generally come up with my ideas based on the details of something I read somewhere. I tend to do a ton of research before I ever start writing, because I'm an incubator. The story rolls around in my head, getting fleshed out from the details up to the bigger picture. When I wrote my first historical fiction novel, I researched for three solid months before I ever put anything on paper as far as a story goes. I had a basic plot outline in my head after about a month, but I mostly spent my time figuring out where my characters were going to live (before they even had names), what clans they would belong to, what language they would speak, what clothes they would wear. Eventually, and this was long after I'd started writing, I moved up the vertical ladder. But I am at my best when I'm down in the details.

Contextual World-Building
Whereas the structure is the key for the Cosmological, intuition is at the heart of Contextual world-building. People who tend toward this type of world-building are not bad at research, or at thinking. In fact, they may often employ both strategies to create more structure as they get farther into the process. (Although in my experience, Contextual World-Builders tend not to do all their world-building ahead of time like Cosmologicals.) Many of the writers I've worked with, coached, or critiqued fit into one of these Contextual categories.

Inward-Out: Think character-driven world-building. Often, innies start their entire story with the creation of a character, and then build the story around that character. Their characters are usually memorable, in my experience, and have characteristics (more so than contexts) that are unique. For innies, the decisions of how to create the world (from big picture to details, from plot to structure) revolve around the character. Think What Would _______ Do. They ask questions like, if my character is a witch, and a lesbian, does having her girlfriend around make her weaker or stronger, or perhaps if my character were to have a superpower, what might that be. Not always consciously, sometimes subconsciously, but always people-focused. They often create and name all their characters before they figure out anything else about the whole book. Then, once their characters and their traits are solidified, the other decisions get made from there.

One of my critique partners is an Innie. Mary is in the middle of a chick-lit novel that began with the creation of a very unique character. Let's call her Lilly. (I couldn't use her name, because even that part of her world is so unique, it felt like giving away part of her essence.) Mary is very much the What Would Lilly Do writer. In fact, when she first started writing the book, she really let Lilly direct the flow of the book. When she was about five chapters in, and the mystery started getting complex, I asked Mary what she was going to do for plot outlining. She said she didn't want to outline her plot because she felt like she didn't want to enforce something on Lilly that wasn't natural for her. Instead of stopping to do a plot outline, she wanted to keep writing. See where Lilly would take her. Given what I've read of the book, that's exactly where Lilly should be.

Outward-In: Think plot-driven world-building. Outies are very plot-focused, and they build the context around the plot. Details of world-building need to happen around the details of the plot. This is the type of writer who may read a piece of research and then put a slight twist on a real historical event. They might have a dream and then create a world around this great plot idea. The plot becomes the belt of the whole novel. It is the external boundary, where all details need to conform to the plot. They might ask questions like I want to write about the Scottish Wars of Independence, so who was ruling at that time or my Arthurian-based fantasy needs a political philosophy that meshes with the war between the punk-fairies and establishment-humans.

I worked with a screenwriter once who was a big-time Outie. He had been watching Heroes one day and came up with an idea for a future-based fantasy plot that was a combination of Freaks & Geeks, Heroes, and Empire Falls. We're sitting down to do world-building, and all his thoughts focus around the plot. Whatever questions I asked about the rules of the world, he interpreted his answers by the boundaries of the plot that he wanted to create. As he developed the idea further, he focused in farther and farther. He tended not to do character development--left that to his writing partner--but he loved the excavation of a good plot.

Stephenie Meyers is the most obvious Outie I've ever heard of. Her story of the creation of Twilight is practically legendary in the writing world. She had a dream about a boy and a girl lying in a meadow, having a conversation about how he is in love with her, but he can't stop himself from wanting to kill her. She woke up and wrote the story down, then created the world of vampires in the Northwest around this plot of a girl and her muzzled-killer of a boyfriend. I know I've worked with several other writers who work this way, and they all make the same types of decisions. The plot is the lens through which all their structure is created.

In the end, most of us use all of the strategies of these four types to some extent. But what is really important about how world-building gets done is the awareness of your strengths. Let me just say, world-building takes a lot of time. The more you can lean into your strengths, the more quickly your world-building goes, the faster your novel gets onto the shelves of bookstores. And, of course, each of these types of world-building has its strengths and weaknesses. We've talked about the strengths. Let's look briefly at the weaknesses.

A Top-down Cosmological might, for instance, try to include all that philosophical backstory in the early chapters of their fantasy. An Innie Contextual might write chapters they eventually take out because their characters are driving the story, and it turns out the scene with them watching old basketball videos might be important to character development, but not particularly relevant to moving the plot forward. A Bottom-up Cosmological might get so caught up in the details of their research that their plot gets too complex for a single novel. An Outie Contextual might make a decision to sacrifice a certain world-characteristic that would have made a much more engaging story because they want to stick to the original plot they created.

So knowing your preferences for the "how" of world-building is important because you need to know what to lean into and what to pull back on. Using all the strategies, on some level, for really solid world-building is important, in my professional opinion, as a coach. But the most imperative part of world-building is the doing. However you go about it, do it early and often. And you can stop by my blog all this week to pick up the rest of the discussion on the who-what-when-where-why of world-building.

Emily here again: Wow, Rebecca! Good stuff! And these are things every writer needs to consider, not just the fantasy/paranormal types, because we all have to create the special world of our story within the pages of our novels.

Please be sure to visit Rebecca's blog NewKidOnTheWritersBlock for the rest of what she has to say on this important topic!

P.S. Today is my day to blog with The Chatelaines. I'm talking about cyber-friendship and how it stack up with real life relationships. Hope to see you there.


EmilyBryan said...

I can't think worldbuilding without thinking about Avatar. My daughter brought a book home from Borders yesterday called The Art of Avatar. It was fascinating to see how James Cameron sketched his initial character types. And the way he tied his whole world together with bioluminescence. He definitely considered the big picture, because Pandora has such a well defined spiritual and cultural life, but the way the creators delved into the details of the flora and fauna was mind boggling. They wanted to be familiar, yet alien, in their creations and it's a delicate balance.

Jennifer M. said...

Fascinating! I never knew there was such a thing as world building, but it's nice to have a label for what I naturally do when I'm writing. I'm an innie contextual, and all these years I thought I was doing it wrong. I'd look at writers who started with the plot or the research or the larger philosophy of their made-up kingdom, and I'd wonder... why did it seem more important to me to create the character first? and then follow her around the world she lived in to see what she was like? Now I know! Glad I'm normal. ;)

EmilyBryan said...

Jennifer, we read to know we're not alone. Glad you found out you're normal here today!

Rebecca Lynn said...


I would love to get my hands on that book. I've often wondered about visual fantasy worlds like that, and what the inception for the idea is. Having seen Avatar, I wondered if he wasn't a vertical world-builder, because the philosophical/spiritual structure of the world *so* perfectly fits the plot. Of course, it's possible to get that with the contextual types, as well. It's just more common with the cosmological. I'm definitely going to have to check out that book. It would be a great resource for me.

Rebecca Lynn said...

Jen, you are completely normal. :-) And completely unique. That's what's great about "types". They provide us with a sense of normalcy while also allowing for development of our own uniqueness. Thanks for stopping by!

Sandy said...

World building reminds me of Avatar, too, Emily. It seems to me that world building is best when you can visualize it and that's the author's job.

Great post.

Rebecca Lynn said...

That's a good point, Sandy. Part of the importance of world-building is being able to provide enough visual cues to your readers that they can see what you see. When I world-build, I get this great picture in my head, and I create more detail about how things look and feel and smell. And when I think of some of my favorite worlds I've read, part of what I love the most is the author's ability to help me fully enter the world in their head. The more they know, the more they track, the better they can build that visual doorway.

Glynis said...

I am an Inward-out with a little bit of Innie. I love it, I have a title now! LOL.

I thought of an historical event, researched do get grounding for plot, and then allowed my character to take over.

Great post. Thank you Rebecca and Emily.

Rebecca Lynn said...

Glynis, I can definitely resonate with that. There's something really comforting for me when I can identify with a type. It makes me feel like I'm doing something right. Also, beautiful name. I always wanted to write a heroine named Glynis. :-) Thanks for stopping by!

Glynis said...

Thanks, Rebecca, the name is Welsh and means Pure, Holy or Valley.