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Thursday, October 25, 2012


Solid, consistent worldbuilding creates a culture that adds valuable texture to a story.  By the same token, careless or confusing worldbuilding can confuse readers and detract from the plot. 
So let’s look at the process of creating a setting. 

1.  Pick The Setting.  This doesn’t mean merely choosing a spacefaring society or a post-apocalyptic or medieval or urban or rural backdrop.  It includes choosing the cultural details that will enrich the characters’ quest.           

Joss Whedon’s series Firefly is set in a spacefaring society with varying levels of sophistication and urbanization.  Some planets are high-tech and urbanized while others resemble America’s Old West.  It’s not totally American-influenced, though, because people curse in Chinese.  According to a Firefly interview video on science.discovery.com, the show’s backstory posits that the United States and China were the only surviving superpowers.  The clash of cultures and choices of government is an ongoing source of conflict in the episodes. 
Laura Anne Gilman’s Retrievers and Paranormal Scene Investigations series take place in a modern, urban setting but incorporate magical creatures out of myths and legends, like angels, fauns, brownies, demons, and dragons.  Gilman also distinguishes modern magic, or electrical current manipulation, from the older magic of the world’s wild places.  The result is a setting that not only conveys layers and textures in a few words but sets the stage for conflict as humans try to control or eliminate the fae. 

2.  Keep It Simple. Whedon and Gilman pull in different cultural influences but not every possible one.  They picked and chose the ones that would most complement their stories. 

Jessica Andersen uses Mayan mythology to power her Nightkeepers’ magic.  This fits beautifully with her overall plot, the Nightkeepers’ efforts to avert the 2012 apocalypse the Maya foretold.    She doesn’t bring any a lot of other cultural influences.  Maybe that’s as well because the plots involve escalating stakes from one book to the next, travel to far-flung locations, and a lot of explosive action. 

Linnea Sinclair’s science fiction romances take place in a futuristic society with faster than light space travel.  This world includes alien races but is, in many ways, an extension of our society.  The clashes that occur and the obstacles her characters face often arise from the power structure and from issues within that society. 

3.  Remember the Stakes: The bigger, the better on this one.  Sustaining a fantasy or science fiction series always requires high stakes.  The bigger the stakes, the wider the potential consequences, the more scope the series has as it builds.

The Retrievers series revolve around escalating conflict between humans and fae incited by a secret organization who wants to control those with magical gifts, known as Talent.  As the conflict escalates, it takes its toll on the relationship of the heroine, Wren Valere, and her partner and lover, Sergei Didier. 

In Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series, which just concluded, the characters fight for the freedom of peoples and planets.  The struggle periodically forces Jax and her lover, March, apart and creates uncertainty in the relationship.

Although there are still paranormal romances where the risks and rewards are mostly personal, the subgenre increasingly involves high stakes.  Alexis Morgan’s Paladins are protecting the world.  The Nightkeepers are the world’s only hope of avoiding an apocalypse.

4.  Choose the Characters’ Gifts: If the story is science fiction, maybe the characters don’t have any unusual gifts.  They could be part of the military or a rebel alliance or the crew of a starship going where no one has gone before. 

Giving them some special ability, however, broadens the scope of the possible.  If the heroine is a Jedi who can move objects with the Force, she may not need to engage hand-to-hand.  If she’s one of the few who can navigate grimspace, as Jax does, her ship can escape pursuers who lack such a navigator.  If the science officer can render people unconscious by pinching their necks or obtaining information with a mind meld, that gives the author options to explore.

There’s one important caveat to this.  As Hugo and Nebula Award winner Orson Scott Card notes in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, magic needs a price. If the hero can use his telepathy or telekinesis or magic indefinitely with no price paid for it, the magic system seems less believable.  The conflict also suffers because omnipotence is boring.

Any magic system needs both rules and limits.  Once those are set, the author should stick to them or have--and share--a very good reason why this instance is an exception.  The world can be whatever the author wants it to be, but it needs internal consistency.  If a character can translocate in book 1, but not in book 2, the reader needs to know why, and the reason needs to apply the next time a similar situation arises.

That brings me to the last step: 

5.  Use What You’ve Created.  Obvious, right? Maybe not.  If an author creates a world with, for example, influences of French culture, that world might have a judicial system based on the Napoleonic Code.   It might use red, blue, and white stripes on its flag, and French phrases may pepper the language.  That may be all that appears in the first book.

Down the road, though, the French cultural base opens the door to bring in other French customs.  Salic law, the prohibition of inheritance via the female line, comes from the French.  If a world is established as having strong French influence, and if earlier stories contain nothing to the contrary, the author can later tell us this doctrine is part of the world.

Conclusion   Worldbuilding is important in every genre to some degree or other.  In paranormal romance, fantasy, and science fiction it’s vital.  I hope these tips will help you create your story’s canvas.  

Thanks to the FF&P chapter for having me today and to Nancy Lee Badger for setting this up. 

Book blurb for Renegade
As the mage council's sheriff for the southeastern United States, Valeria Banning doesn't just take her job seriously, she takes it personally. So when a notorious fugitive and supposed traitor risks his life to save hers, she has to wonder why. To find the answer, she’ll have to put everything on the line, starting with her heart.
As a mage, Griffin Dare is sworn to protect innocents from dark magic, which is how he finds himself fighting side by side with the beautiful Valeria Banning. But when the council finds out the two have been working together, the pair must run for their lives--from the law, the threat of a ghoul takeover, and a possible council mole.
Author bio:
Nancy Northcott’s childhood ambition was to grow up and become Wonder Woman.  Around fourth grade, she realized it was too late to acquire Amazon genes, but she still loved comic books, science fiction, fantasy and YA romance.   A sucker for fast action and wrenching emotion, Nancy combines the romance and high stakes she loves in her new contemporary mage series.  Her debut novel, Renegade, is a November 6, 2012, release from Grand Central Forever Yours.



Nancy Lee Badger also writes as Nancy Lennea said...

Great tips to write by, Nancy. Thanks for sharing!

Carol A. Strickland said...

World building is one of those things that, once you start, you keep waking up in the middle of the night, filled with insight about oh, THAT'S why the character did/said something so odd—because in their world, such-and-such would make it quite reasonable. Then you stay up for a while just to enjoy the concept as it begins to embroider upon itself.

As for Orson Scott Card's advice, it's excellent, but the reason I stopped picking up his Alvin Maker series was because the title character became omnipotent and thus boring.

Nancy Northcott said...

Nancy, thank you. I appreciate that.

I'd like to know what works for other people, too.

Nancy Northcott said...

Carol, that happens to me, too. It's amazing what can bubble up from the subconscious. It happens with characters, too. Things sometimes just pop out of a character's mouth, and I realize it plays off the backstory in a way I didn't plan.

EilisFlynn said...

Nice examples! I think Whedon's world building was also the reason why you didn't see any Asians. In anything he does, come to think of it.

Nancy Northcott said...

Eilis, thanks! You make an interesting point. In a universe where people speak Chinese, you'd think there might be people of actual Chinese ancestry.

jo robertson said...

Nancy, what an informative and interesting topic. While I don't write sci fi, I can see that your principles translate to all genres of writing.

Plus, I like learning about the sci fi books, and while I usually don't read them, I adore watching them on the telly or in movies.

Nancy Northcott said...

Jo, thank you. I think basic worldbuilding principles apply across genres, though different genres emphasize different areas. In RS (and some historicals), weaponry might be very important. In historicals, the author needs to know how clothes are put together, if for no other reason than knowing how to get the characters out of them.

Pamala Knight said...

Nancy, THANK YOU! That's a great and succinct rendering of world building. It's good to keep stakes, environment and cultures in mind when either using an existing world or creating a new one. Thanks for showing us the way and for all the great examples.

Anna Campbell said...

Nancy, what a fascinating, thoughtful post. I love the examples you give. I agree with you that there needs to be space for the hero to be defeated if he takes a wrong step - otherwise the stakes are lacking. Even Achilles had his heel, after all! I love talking world building - it's something writers do in historical romance as well. Can't wait to read Renegade!

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Hi Nancy! I loved the post! I'm with Carol in that I gave up on OSCard's Alvin Maker. :> And love the examples too, as Jo mentioned.

Worldbuilding is really cool, isn't it? I love to do it and hope that I remember all this great advice the next time I need it! Ha! (Then again, you're my friend, so I can just pick your brain! SNORK!)

Great points, and fun post!

Nancy Northcott said...

Pamela, I'm glad the post was helpful. I love your avatar picture. Is that Scotland?

Nancy Northcott said...

Thanks, Anna. I agree that every genre requires some form of worldbuilding, and I love the example of Achilles!

Thanks for the shout-out for Renegade. I hope you enjoy it.

Nancy Northcott said...

Jeanne, I'm glad you liked it. Of course, you can pick my brain whenever you like. I've picked yours often enough, most recently, of course, when I was working on Renegade. :-)

Toni Kelly said...

Thank you Nancy for these great tips and food for thought. The examples especially helped visualize what you meant. Congrats on the soon to be released book.

Nancy Northcott said...

Toni, thanks! I'm very excited about the book. I'm glad the article was helpful.

Vonda Sinclair said...

Fascinating post! I love worldbuilding!

Cassondra Murray said...

Hi Nancy!

Love this. Good stuff on worldbuilding. And since I've seen your Protectors series, I know you put a lot of time into your own. It's a very cool world, and very different from what I've seen before.

Can't wait to see the finished version of RENEGADE.

Nancy Northcott said...

Vonda, thanks! I love worldbuilding, too. Playing around with possibilities is such fun!

Nancy Northcott said...

Hi, Cassondra--thanks for the shout-out and for your contributions to the worldbuilding on Renegade. I hope people will agree that it's different. We'll soon see!

Donna MacMeans said...

While I write historicals which involve a different sort of world building, I love the creative worlds of science fiction, fantasy and paranormals. I'm certain yours will be one of the more memorable ones. Can't wait for this books release!

Nancy Northcott said...

Donna, thanks! I hope you like Renegade.

Historical worldbuilding has a different focus, as you say, but it's still important. I love the obscure social details you find.

Jamie Quaid said...

Solid, succinct info, well done! but I have utterly no idea what your captcha is portraying. sigh
now on try #4

Nancy Northcott said...

Jamie, thanks! I appreciate your perseverance in posting. Captcha codes can sometimes be very tough to read.

Nancy Northcott said...

Thanks to everyone who stopped by today! I enjoyed chatting with you.

Mary Gillgannon said...

Very well-done with interesting advice and examples. I printed it out to give me ideas when I get back to my fantasy.