Friday, July 22, 2011

Settings and Worldbuilding

I got a bit distracted with the excitement of winning a blog giveaway last week, but here I am, back to blathering about stuff I like and don't like to see in novels. So far I've talked a bit about protagonist and plot... what's next? Ah, yes. The setting.

Patricia C. Wrede wrote in her blog post, Big Three Redux, that most writers can easily pick out their strongest and weakest suit among the three biggies of character, plot, and setting. When I read that, I immediately thought, "She is so right! I bet I'll totally suck at setting." (I did not, however, think I had any strong suits to speak of — because I'm just super humble like that. :P)

When I think of settings, I think of those long descriptions I skim so I can get to the good parts — you know, action, dialogue, things happening. I only need a general gist of where the scene takes place, and my mind fills in the rest. I mean, cool settings are neat, but they don't make or break novels for me the way fascinating characters or mind-blowing plots do. So yeah, I don't pay much attention to settings. Which means I probably won't be good at conveying my mental image of a scene to readers. Definitely something I'll have to work on.

But there's more to setting than making sure scenes don't take place in a void, now that I think about it. After all, why else would I be so drawn to fantasy, if not for the secondary worlds full of magic or talking animals or unfamiliar cultures? Why am I so excited when aspects of a secondary world are not only fun and quirky but also clever and sensible? I might not be very enthusiastic about flowery descriptions of rooms and landscapes, but I find worldbuilding fascinating (probably why I adore Juliette Wade's blog).

And a little intimidating, too. I mean, have you seen this list of fantasy worldbuilding questions?? And readers expect everything to make sense and be internally consistent! (Well, I kind of do, at any rate.) Every plot point I think up results in tons of implications about how thing work in the world in which the story is set, and getting them all to form a cohesive whole, with plausible causes and effects, can be so overwhelming that the task seems impossible.

Still, that doesn't stop me from dreaming of crafting a fantasy secondary world with its own histories and cultures, and then having the world evolve over several books. I'm not a fan of trilogies or storylines that require multiple books for resolution, but you know what I think would be super exciting? A series of standalone companion novels that take place in the same world, though in different eras. I'd want to see how technology and magical knowledge advance, how fashions and speech patterns change, how borders and international relations shift. I want the characters' actions to affect not just themselves, but the characters that live in the world after them.

Of course, none of those things should take center stage; they'd be part of the worldbuilding, and only recognizable to those familiar with other books in the series (ideally, that is). Character and plot should still take center stage (since they matter more to me), but I'd love for there to be subtle references and connections. Like if one character's joke becomes the basis of a popular idiom generations later. Or if a decision made by a character in one installment effects the tense political climate in a book set years after the incident. Or if an innovation that defeated the villain in one book brings about drastic changes in the lifestyles and attitudes of the people who came after. You get the idea.

Doesn't that sound fun? But, alas, this will probably involve wayyyyy too much work. There are authors who have pulled it off, but when I think of the outlining and planning ahead and research and familiarity with the social sciences required... I think I'm crazy for wanting to make things so complicated. But hey, as long as I'm dreaming, might as well dream big, right? :)

Despite my grand plans, I'm going to start small. I've already decided the one non-negotiable thing about the world I'm going to create for my characters: it will be a world where people who look like me exist, and matter. And we'll see how things go from there, based on what I learn about the world from the plot and characters.

Hey, this might actually be fun! Well, until I hit a wall while trying to fit everything together and then want to pull out my hair. But I'll worry about that when I get there. :P

How about you? How much attention do you pay to settings when you read? Do you enjoy worldbuilding?


  1. Worldbuilding is a must for anyone writing dystopian or fantasy, or both! It's wonderful to step into a new word, and that's why Harry Potter was so successful. If it's done well, it can be great, and add up to lots of new ideas.

  2. That's true, but it's definitely not easy! A lot of times I've read books
    where the world didn't make that much sense to me, and it kind of pulled me
    out of the book. I understand the appeal of a great world, but I enjoyed
    Harry Potter for the clever plotting more than for the incredible world
    (though that was certainly a plus). I know, I'm kind of weird like that. :P

  3. All those things do sound incredibly fun, but also take time, like you said. I'd love to be able to build a world like JKR did, but I think I'll have to stick with dropping occasional setting details, because I totally agree with you -- I skim over huge paragraphs of setting. :P

  4. There's a giant struggle going on right now between my laziness and my
    vision of an awesome world where everything is planned out and makes perfect
    sense. :P

    I agree with your strategy. It's important to be selective with details and
    keep in mind what the viewpoint character would notice. Huge chunks of
    description make my eyes glaze over!

  5. I like setting to reveal something about the character looking at the setting, or to illuminate aspects of the plot. Setting for setting's sake tends to produce boring chunks, like you said, unless the author is really really really good at evoking unique details.

    And yeah, that's a grand, unique dream! World building on such a huge level would be epic, but it also takes time. I really wonder how many years JKR spent building before HP & Sorcerer's Stone even came out. And JRR Tolkien spent decades creating his fantasy world even before LOTR. I don't know that I have the stamina for that kind of thing!

  6. I just saw Alien for the first time last night (finally) and the setting knocked me out. From the amazing interiors of the space vessels to the surface of a strange planet to the android to the reproductive life cycle of the alien itself, a futuristic world revealed itself in tiny pieces throughout the film.

    Very cool example of atmospheric world-building that still kept the focus on the characters.

  7. Great points about relating setting to plot and character! And yeah, it's
    crazy to think about how much work and time those authors put into creating
    their work. Epic, for sure. Yeah, maybe I'm not cut out for that... but it's
    fun to daydream! :P

  8. Hm, never saw the movie (despite a friend's best efforts), but I did hear a
    lot about how brilliant the setting of that movie is through Alexandra
    Sokoloff's blog ( Maybe I
    do have to check it out after all! Though it does sound like a
    creepy/scary/tense movie and I'm a huge pansy when it comes to things like
    that, so I might have to think about it a bit more... hehe, we'll see.
    Thanks for the comment! :)

  9. So funny that you wrote a post about worldbuilding today. Last night, I finally figured out how to connect two plot-lines in this story that's been stewing in my head for months. I had this great world and premise, and then I just got too caught up in the worldbuilding. It was fun though and still is, but you're right. It takes so much work and thought.

    This is the first time I've done so much intentional worldbuilding for anything, and it's because like you, I want the internal logic to be there, for the rules to be set. I'm a pantser (not a plotter), and that extends to my worldbuilding too. So usually, I just take my vague idea of the world and start writing and build as I go, but that gets messy if you're trying to lay groundwork or have consistency. Haha.

    But to answer your question, when I read, I do pay attention to worldbuilding. How much it matters depends on how integral it is to the plot. Like in the Hunger Games, some unnamed disaster results in the Capitol and the Districts, then they're own near civil war history results in the Hunger Games. The explanation is painted in broad strokes, but I can accept the logic of how Katniss' society was set up/came to be. However, the broad strokes of the worldbuilding in another YA dystopian, Divergent, didn't do it for me. While the society split into factions is an interesting concept, I found it hard to believe in the logic of how our society turned into that one (since it's set in a future-Chicago). I ended up really liking the book, but I still have reservations about the worldbuilding. I probably would have believed it more if the book had been a dystopian fantasy or something and not supposedly based in our society.

  10. Congrats on winning that giveaway, Linda!

    "I want the characters' actions to affect not just themselves, but the characters that live in the world after them." Yes, yes, yes! Great post today. :)

  11. Congrats on figuring out that plot-lines! :D

    Wow, I'm amazed that you can be a pantser with both worldbuilding and plot!
    I think if I did that I would get all my ideas mixed up. How do you keep
    track of them?

    That is SO TRUE about The Hunger Games and Divergent. A lot of book
    reviewers pointed out the weak worldbuilding in Divergent, and I agree, but
    I don't think it's the main reason for why I didn't like Divergent as much
    as I like The Hunger Games. If I'd absolutely adored Tris or found the plot
    mind-blowingly awesome, I think I could have forgiven the implausibility of
    factions in Chicago. As it is, I did enjoy Divergent a lot though I can't
    claim it as a favorite, but the worldbuilding isn't the main reason. I guess
    that's what I meant when I said that setting doesn't really make-or-break a
    book for me.

    Thanks for the insightful comment! :)

  12. Thank you, Carrie! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

  13. Thanks! Trust me, pantsing world-building results in having to change a lot of things or making things you've previously written no longer plausible or possible. So yeah, it's a mess and I don't really recommend it. Generally, I have a few things stay very consistent, but those are usually integral to the function of a character or plot-line. Everything else is in flux, and it's also why some of my world "rules" are super vague - like how long certain characters have lived or when certain things happened. It's fine for now, but I know I'll have to fix it all later. Haha.
    Basically, I don't recommend it.

    As for HG and Divergent, I definitely liked HG more and think it was a better overall package. For me, the strength of Divergent was its themes on choice and morals and identity/individuality and the character development. I went from not really liking Tris to being really invested in her growth. She seemed real to me, and I liked a few of the side characters. But yeah, the plot was serviceable but not mind-blowingly awesome. I enjoyed reading Divergent and would be ok with recommending it, but I loved the Hunger Games. :)

  14. LOL! I see. No worries. I like having things figured out ahead of time. :P

    I totally agree with your last sentence. That's how I feel about those two books, too! And I love the way you analyzed the strengths of the Divergent. I hope I get to see more reviews from you! :D

  15. Your link to fantasy worldbuilding questions was great - I clicked on just one of the topic headings and the first question had me discussing it all day with my boyfriend (the only one I'll talk to about a pre-beta draft.)

    I'm the opposite with trilogies/series - I hate stand-alones!  I just can't let go!  :D  I get so attached to characters and worlds that I want it to go on indefinitely.  I could read a 48-book series and be happy lol.  (Definitely a Sweet Valley and Babysitter's Club fan here, but that's probably a decade before your time.)

  16. Hehe yay for awesome discussions! Glad you enjoyed the link. :)

    LOL definitely not a decade. I did read quite a few BSC books when I was
    younger but I wasn't obsessed or anything. I don't mind those sorts of
    series since each book is kind of its own story. I mostly hate
    cliffhanger/unresolved endings, haha. And my way of not letting go is to
    reread my favorite books about five gazillion times. :P

  17. This sounds really cool, linda! I hope you do try to write something like this some day. I think it would be a very interesting read. The Dragonriders of Pern series does tackle generations in one world, so it does do something similar. World building's not my biggest draw to stories, either, but I do love a well-built fantasy world :)

  18. Thanks, Kat! I hope so, too. :) I think I've only read one or two books in the Pern series (and it was quite a while ago), so I didn't notice the multi-generational aspect. Maybe I should check out the series again. Thanks for the heads-up! And yeah, I am soooo impressed by authors who build amazing fantasy worlds. There are so many aspects to juggle!