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Last post in this chain we looked at one approach to the “how-2” of world-building.  Today, just some more or less random musings on this part of our craft.

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There are without a doubt other approaches to world-building, including the “make it up as you go along” approach.

Don’t let all the structure of the last post mislead you.  My experience is that the world-building process is nowhere nearly as organized as all that post would indicate.  Most authors that I’ve heard mention the subject tend to have some degree of organization (usually notebooks or spreadsheets), if for no other reason than so they can find that decision they made six months ago.  And I know of at least a couple of special cases where a group of people brainstormed and designed a detailed story universe that was shared among them.  But that level of detail and control is probably unusual, unless you’re doing work-for-hire for TV, movie, or game tie-ins, in which case someone else has already built the universe and all you have to do is figure out how to tell your story in it.

I’m certainly not that ordered.  In fact, I tend to be very intuitive; jumping to a decision or a conclusion, then looking backwards to figure out why that would be a good idea is not unusual for me.  On the other hand, I typically don’t totally make it up as I go along.  I usually make decisions about the big obvious stuff up front, then fill in additional details as I write the story.  (Sorry, I don’t outline well.  Or often.  Or at all, most of the time.)  And yes, I do tend to carry it around in my head, only making physical notes of really abstract or subtle points.

I suspect the majority of writers are more flexible than rigorous.

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Keep in mind that every change to the starting default should have a price.  If we change one aspect of the world, what will be affected by it?

  • I mentioned in a previous post that in the biological “world”, there are desired constructs that might be possible, but only with trade-offs in other areas that might be prohibitive to you or your characters.  (See Robin McKinley’s new novel Pegasus for an example.)
  • If you’re going to use a magic system, where does the “power” come from, and how does it get renewed?  For the story to ring true, there has to be a cost to it.  Supermen of any type are boooooring.  But a character who pays a price–perhaps a heavy one–to do something super . . . what can you the writer do with that?
  • If a character gets a super-normal ability, what does he/she lose or impair to have it?  For example:  DNA modification produces human level intelligence in elephants:  what do they give up to have it, and how do they feel about it?
  • Etc.

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A few thoughts on research.

  • Yes, research is necessary.
  • Yes, probably lots of research is necessary.
  • But “Sometimes plausibility is more important to a story than sheer accuracy.”  (Tim Powers, Soonercon discussion, June, 2011)
  • Do Not do your research in other fictional works, lest you trip over another author’s missteps or “plausible” decisions.
  • Wikipedia is not 100% reliable.  It can point you in certain directions, but do not accept anything it says as valid unless you know from your own personal knowledge it is correct or you have verified it through other research.
  • Actually, the Wikipedia point may be true about the Internet in general, considering how many times I find the same paragraphs (word for word match-ups) posted in multiple locations.  Frequency of occurrence does not necessarily equate to accuracy of content.

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As I said somewhere back up the chain of posts, this series is not an all-encompassing list, partly because each world-building exercise is different from the last one.  You may find other items you want to add to it.  You may have your own list you want to compare to my list.  That’s all good.

If you haven’t seen it before, author Lee Killough wrote an excellent  short book on world-building entitled Checking on Culture. (  She goes into a great deal more depth than I have, and I freely confess to having learned a lot from it.  Even though it’s slanted toward science fiction and fantasy, the general teachings in it are universally applicable, and I highly recommend it to and for writers of all genres.

Next post:  Oops!


First published on 6/22/2011.