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Worldbuilding: It’s More Than a Pretty Map

Gods-War-2I know authors (and readers!) who hate fantasy worldbuilding. They hate it with a fiery passion. They even go so far as to hand wave whole settings, writing books that feel more like a screenplay – all dialogue and fight scenes – and less like fantasy novels. I’d argue that secondary world fantasy writers in particular sacrifice a lot of tension and richness by doing this, but I understand their motives. If somebody said I had to write a story in a contemporary setting, I’d flee for the hills. We all have different definitions of fun. We’re all in this for different things.

As someone with a background in historical studies, I find the whole process of building new worlds fascinating. Where I’ve seen a lot of newer writers stumble is in making the setting overwhelm the characters. The world becomes so bulky and cumbersome that it drags the story along with it. I’ve heard it said that a great world will feel like another character in the book… but I tend to look at this a little differently. My worlds are never characters – but they do inform the characters. My goal is to create people that couldn’t have existed anywhere else. Their formative experiences, their goals, hopes, aspirations – all of those things are shaped by the world around them. If I can take a character out of my world – or even a country in the world – and they’re the same person in any other time and place as they are in the one I put them in, then I’m not doing my job right.

worldbuildingThat’s because when I say “world” I’m not just talking about trees and rivers. I’ll meet folks who have these massive maps full of valleys and mountains and hills and crazy names; they may even have gone so far as to figure out imports and exports, languages and swear words. But when I ask them about marriage ceremonies (or lack thereof), gender expectations (and number of), religious factions/tensions (there’s never “one” religion!) and cultural taboos, I’ll often get blank looks.

And I’ll worry that the book they’re writing may not be for me.

The choices we make when constructing new worlds matter. How much do they matter? Consider this: if you change just one thing – how about giant cats pull carts instead of horses? – then you have to figure out what else changes because of that. Are there giant litter-filled ditches along the streets for cats to relieve themselves? Are there giant dogs, too, and if yes, do they fight; do they fight with other beasts of burden? Is there a whole profession dedicated to clipping cats’ nails and teeth? Is cat-scratch fever more common, and what are the rules and laws related to injuries that may arise if a cat claws someone? Who raises the cats, how much do they cost? If you don’t have one, what does it say about your social standing?

gods_war-3As an author, I’d need to figure this stuff out. Not because it’d all go in the book, but because it could add a lot of flavor. Maybe that character I wanted to be a doctor actually specializes in cat scratch fever. Maybe a vital clue over the course of the plot is found buried in cat litter on the side of the road. Maybe my protagonist sees someone in rags buying four cats and wonders how they can afford such an extravagance, and so follows them, thus moving the plot forward.

Social conventions are far more important, I’d argue, than even economics and geography, though all should work together. Is this world a hierarchy? Does it believe humans can be bought and sold? And if yes, who? In fact, who or what is considered “human” in your books? And is war a blemish or a sacrament?

Daniel Abraham does worldbuildling right in his Long Price Quartet, a world where magic beings are bound by poet-sorcerers to complete everyday tasks. The social and economic effects of this type of magic become plot points in the story, not just background information or “Well, that’s cool” asides. They’re intricately bound to the narrative. If the world was different, the story and the people in it would be, too.

BrothelsThis also applies to things a lot of fantasy authors take for granted, such as brothels. I see brothels tossed into fantasy settings without a second thought by otherwise very savvy writers. Very few think to reimagine them the way that a writer like Jacqueline Carey does in her Kushiel books, where a house of pleasure becomes a holy place, and the sexual act a prayer to god. Carey achieves this in large part by throwing out taboos around sex and placing a greater emphasis on consent. She develops a religion of love and free will, and carries that through to its logical conclusion.

Some of my favorite worldbuilding authors – aside from the ones most folks think of first, like Jeff VanderMeer or China Mieville – are Angela Carter, Tim Akers, Martha Wells, Zachary Jernigan, Saladin Ahmed, Ian Tregillis, KJ Bishop, and Paula Volsky.

These are the sorts of folks who take a lot of time to work out what things in their worlds are the same as ours – and which are fascinatingly different. They convey a powerful sense of wonder that often leaves me breathless and hungry for whatever they’ve got out next. Best of all, they encourage me to re-imagine my own world, and interrogate my own assumptions about what’s “normal.”

MAPBUILD4Whenever I see a pretty map, now, I compare it to those first few pages of the novel it’s slapped at the front of. Is the world they’re building on the page as compelling as the map? Because if I don’t get the same sense of wonder from the prose as I do from the map, it’s a no-go.

Call me picky. Or a worldbuilding fanatic. But the most important marker of a successful fantasy novel, for me, is its ability to transport me somewhere else. To a place and among people I could never have imagined on my own.

Thanks to Kameron for stopping by Fantasy-Faction. Her first book in the Trilogy, God’s War, has been out in the US for a while now (picking up all kinds of positive reviews, including comments such as: ‘Hurley’s world-building is phenomenal’ & ‘the most inventive world-building I’ve seen’) and it was released by Del Ray UK just a few weeks ago. The Trailer for the book is below:




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15 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    What an article! Thank you so much for stopping by, Kameron. It means a huge deal and these thoughts offer some really good advice for my own writing endeavours. Oh, and congrats on the new book deal – I’ve just started God’s War, but already feel I can say it is well deserved 🙂

  2. […] “Worldbuilding: It’s more than a pretty map,” hosted by Fantasy Faction […]

  3. I guess something of a worldbuilding snob. I have very little patience for yet one more Tolkien-knockoff standard fantasy setting. You’ve put into words a lot of what I hope to see in the books I read as well as what I strive to do in the stories I write. Cheers!

  4. Nice article! I you really hit home with talking about how the world connects to the characters. I’m writing my first novel ever and the thing I hate most about word building (I have a love-hate relationship with it) is my imagination goes on these incredible tangents that will never make it into the book. I have a character that’s an escaped slave, but he enters at the point he’s rescued, so I don’t have an easy place to insert all of the complex slave-slaver dynamics I invented, nor the geopolitics and racial elements. So I get disappointed by all these complexities I invent that never make it on the page!

  5. Thanks, Kameron.

    Well, I’ve read books not living up to the map in front of them, its true. And there is more to worldbuilding than having a map. But, all other things being equal, I want the map 🙂

  6. You had me until you’re comparing the map to the first few pages. Some of us are leery of hitting the reader with major world-building elements right off the bat. We’d rather hook them with an interesting story and set up stakes for characters in the beginning, while weaving our world-building into the narrative throughout. My sense of it is that the richness of the world should arise organically during the story. One should avoid front-loading the novel with dumps of exposition–no matter how clever the content.

  7. Avatar Matt says:

    I love world building. It’s often more exciting than the story, but if I go to read a book and I see it has a map int he first few pages it puts me off completely. I don’t want my imagination so rigidly constrained. I’ll happily lose myself in a fantasy setting but I just want to be carried along by the story. I don’t see the logic in including a map. I stare at it. Should I be studying it? Is it important that I know that this battle occurred at this particular point? If its important why can’t they just say so in the story? I’m sure people love maps, but I just don’t get it

    • Avatar ScarletBea says:

      Matt, as someone who loves the maps, I’ll try to explain my position.
      A map helps me to organise my thoughts; it shows distances (I might be thinking that a place is very far away, and how on earth did they get there in 1 day, but checking the map I see where the places actually are); it adds a different layer to the descriptions in the book; it releases my brain to imagine how people and places look like, instead of constantly wondering also where they are.

      Your mention of “constrained imagination” for me is only applicable to images: do you go see the film or tv series of books you love? That is what really annoys me, and definitely “constrains” and “superimposes” on my imagination.
      Maps are lovely 🙂

      • Avatar MJ says:

        I have to agree with ScarletBea here. Although, this is something I’ve found enjoyment in in the past: Ignore the map until after reading the book. Let your imagination do whatever it’s going to do, then look at the map and see how close your expectations/imaginings were. One of my favorite books to do this with was “Eragon” by Christopher Paolini.

  8. Avatar John Wiswell says:

    How we express our worlds to readers is a bigger concern for me these days. If the story is going to have marriage ceremony elements, it’d be nice to see thoughtful and novel things put into practice. However, I’m definitely not the sort who wants to read exposition on those practices. There are many ways to expose elements of your world to the reader, and worldbuilding infodumps are my least favorite thing to read in all of Fantasy. They are lazy wikipadding, not fiction in motion. Exposing the novelties and depths of your world through demonstration, through seeing characters do things, or behave, or watching participants in an economy or religion, is great. But if the world isn’t moving, if I’m not witnessing what you’ve built, but rather am just being told it, then you are assigning the audience homework. There is an audience for that sort of thing, too, I’m just not in it.

  9. […] Related to the above: Why optimistic science fiction is dead and Worldbuilding: It’s More Than a Pretty Map. […]

  10. Avatar Derek Tyce says:

    If I had to choose between great worldbuilding and great characters, I’d choose great characters. Yet, with that said, great worldbuilding with great characters is a huge plus. There are many cases where wouldbuilding disrupts or dilutes the story, but when the author is able to produce a solid story, with believable characters and great worldbuilding, you have yourself a winner.

    Great post, Kameron! I also really enjoyed your guest-posts on Fantasy Book Critic and Suzanne Mcleod’s blog as well. Good stuff!

  11. Avatar Ingrid Wolf says:

    After too many fantasy books with rather similar and boring worlds, ‘crazy names’ and nothing beyond, I was beginning to think I hate worldbuilding too (with the only exceptions for JRR Tolkien and GRR Martin). Your article made me reconsider my idea of what worldbuilding is, and also provided some valuable tips for creating an interesting world myself – maybe someday I will do it. Thank you very much!

  12. Avatar Thabo Mashele Wells says:

    Thanks it was a huge help!

  13. Avatar MJ says:

    Love this article (and many of the comments) and I’ll definitely be finding one of your books to read. I will be the first to admit that my own attempts at true world-building haven’t gone so well so far, but this gave me some great ideas and reaffirmed my belief that a well developed and well written world is important.

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