Worldbuilding Q&A

Last night, my pal Pam Bachorz and I were supposed to participate in a chat on worldbuilding at Unfotunately, neither Pam nor I are a member of that particular organization. We were confused and thought we were participating in a Twitter chat using the hashtag #yalitchat. Oops.

Anyway, I felt bad that we missed out on the chat and so I thought I’d give anyone who wanted to chat and wasn’t able to the opportunity to try again. So this week on the blog we’ll be doing a worldbuilding Q&A. Go ahead and ask your questions in the comments, and I’ll answer them in the comments. And maybe Pam will come by, too. I don’t know. I haven’t asked her yet.

And to make it extra fun, I thought we could do a giveaway. Everyone who asks a question is entered into a contest to win either a copy of RAMPANT or ASCENDANT (winner’s choice).

Before we start, I thought I’d give a little overview about my personal take on worldbuilding. Worldbuilding, in my mind, is not something that belongs solely to the realm of speculative and paranormal fiction. It’s something that every writer worth his or her salt engages in. Intricacies of setting, of the relationships between characters, of the world they live in — that’s all worldbuilding. If you set your story in an office building and the office manager decrees that Fridays are casual dress days, that’s worldbuilding — you know why? Because then when you have your main character score an interview for a much better job on a Friday afternoon, you have to find a way for her to sneak her suit in so everyone else in jeans doesn’t get suspicious about what shes up to. Which brings me to:

Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #1: There must be rules.

Vampires are allergic to sunlight. People who know how to use The Force can move things with their minds. You can use magic to do anything but bring people back from the dead (this appears to be one of the few rules in the Harry Potter universe). “There can be only one.” I don’t care what the rules are, and I don’t care if the reader knows them all — or any of them. Maybe figuring out the rules is part of the fun of reading. (Wait, I take that back. Tell the reader at least one or more of the rules. Give the poor guy a toehold!) But the writer had better know the rules. Which leads me to…

Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #2: Break the rules only at great peril — and if you have it under control.

The best known examples of doing this the right way are in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy used to explain the rule of its world in the start of every episode: “Into every generation is born a slayer, one girl who has the power to blah blah blah the vampires.” ONE. One Slayer. If Buffy dies, a new slayer is called. That’s the rule. Except, Buffy brilliantly bends that rule, because prophecies are for losers. People don’t die the way they used to, and what’s technically “dead” isn’t permanent in today’s world. So when Buffy briefly drowns at the end of the first season, another slayer is activated. And then there are two, which makes for a LOT of lovely plot twists in seasons two, three, and four, when you see what happens when two very different slayers are at odds with one another.* And then they break the rule all over again in Season 7 when Buffy decides that the whole idea of a bunch of potentials waiting around for a Slayer to die is ridiculous, and gives them ALL Slayer powers, which leads to a big awesome battle at the end of Season 7, and which I’m sure leads to some good plot twists in the comic books — I haven’t read them — but did lead to one very interesting episode of Angel wherein Angel and Spike are forced to battle a crazy and abused Slayer. So yes — that one broke the rules in a good way.

But, you have to lay the groundwork for breaking that rule. You have to have Buffy go, “Let’s cross the streams and see what happens,” (another excellent rule-breaking moment). It has to be important and it has to be game-changing. Otherwise, you’re going to alienate your reader. You’re going to have midichlorians on your hands, or you’re going ot have that random moment where Neo controls the robots in the real world and then NEVER DEAL WITH IT EVER** and your die-hard fans are going to be saying, WTF, George Lucas? WTF, Wachowskis?

So, to reiterate, if you’re going to break the rules, you better know what the rules are, how you plan to break them, and how you plan for that to complete change the game in the world you’ve created. Which leads me to

Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #3: There must be a reason.

Not only must there be rules, there has to be a reason for those rules. It doesn’t have to be a good reason, or a fair reason. (The rules in my killer unicorn world are misogynistic and dangerous, and that’s kind of the point for me.) But there has to be a reason, if only because you must have a reason to mention every thing you mention. There has to be a reason you made them vampires. If not, why aren’t they just men, or elves, or ageless liver-eating mutants who live in air ducts? If there’s a magic wishing well on the princess’s property, she’d better, at some point, do something more than draw water from it. This is not unlike my favorite advice from Chekov about the gun on the wall. There HAS to be a reason. There has to be a reason that you made the choice you did. Sometime in the future, I will be discussing this in great detail. And there must be a reason that your magical element has the rules it does. It doesn’t have to be a good reason. Maybe the vampires in your book are not allergic to garlic, but you wrote that in because you really like the idea of Dracula working in a pizza parlor and taking a nip of the guests who’ve had too much chianti, which, naturally, wouldn’t be possible if they couldn’t deal with garlic. In the movie The Lost Boys, there’s a rule that says there are “half-vampires” who have all the qualities of vampires but don’t become full-fledged until they kill someone, and can be turned back if you find the head vampire and kill him. This is a weird and unusual vampire rule (though not entirely unlike Mina Harker’s experiences in Dracula, where she is freed from her trance only after the death of Dracula), but is very important to the plot, since the main character is one of these half-vamps, and so is his sexy girlfriend.

And here’s an example of how solid worldbuilding can help you in your writing. In an early, early draft of Rampant, (it wasn’t even going to be called Rampant then) I had magical closets. That’s right: magical closets. The characters could stand in front of the closets and think about certain things and when they opened the closet doors, the things they needed would be inside. This had a lot of backlash for them, in that if they stood in front of the closet and thought about how dangerous unicorn hunting was and about all the hunters who came before them who’d probably died for the cause, then opened the door, they’d drown in a pile of bloodstained clothes belonging to old hunters.

This was a Bad Idea. As the worldbuilding for the story solidified, I realized that to keep it under control, I had to limit the rules of the magic in the world to two things: hunters and unicorns. Everything everything everything had to be about the relationship between a hunter and a unicorn. Not clothes or wood, not things magically appearing or disappearing. If I wanted magic in the actual setting, I needed to relate it back to my primary magical constructs: The body and soul of the hunter, the body and soul of the unicorn, and how those two things intersect. Therefore, if I wanted magic, it had to be magic MADE from that mystical connection between hunter and unicorn. If I wanted magic in my nunnery, it had to be because the walls were made of unicorns, and the hunters (and only the hunters) could feel that. But once I had nailed down that this was my primary, inviolate rule, it became pretty clear that the magical closets and their room-of-requirement style voodoo had to go.

Which leads me to my last big rule:

Diana’s Personal Worldbuilding Rule #4: The more fantastical the fantastical elements are in your story, the more you have to ground everything else.

This is where I’m especially glad that I use the term “personal.” Your mileage may vary on this, and lord knows there are many beloved stories where this isn’t the case. But as my friend Carrie Ryan says, you get a certain number of gimmes in a book. Use them wisely. If you try to shove too much magic into a story and you fail to ground it in reality with either setting, characters, background info, laws of physics — what have you, people aren’t going to buy it. And gimme points aren’t even. Someone writing a book about vampires has a lot more gimme points left over than I do, writing a book about unicorns. Because people are familiar with vampires — to say “oh, this is a vampire book” might be only one gimme point out of a hundred. For me to say “oh, this is a book about killer unicorns” — people are already skeptical going in. That’s 40 gimme points. I only have sixty left to play with.

So what do you do? You limit the magic. You make the characters oh so much more human and lifelike. You don’t all of a sudden introduce elves or magical closets on top of whatever else you have going on. You make sure that your reader has something safe to retreat to whenever the supernatural element of the story starts to erode their willing suspension of disbelief.

So those are my first few rules. Question away!


* That a new Slayer isn’t called when Buffy dies again at the end of the fifth season always made Sailor Boy and I wonder if the “Slayer Line” isn’t now flowing through Faith — which would make sense because Faith was called after Kendra died, and the “extra Slayer” is really Buffy. But all that was negated in season 7.

** I really REALLY hate the subsequent Matrix films.

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30 Responses to Worldbuilding Q&A

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  2. Christina G says:

    Great post. Please expound further on the role of logic in worldbuilding. Real-world logic is theoretically suspended to the degree the writer has explained their fictional world. Yet reader criticisms abound even when it comes to fictionalized logic where a writer lays down their own parameters. Random example, many criticize Meyer for her sparkling vampires, the reasoning being Dracula would never glitter, so her vampires are therefore invalid in the bloodsucker realm? To me this argument is nonsensical as different writerrs create different worlds with different rules. Is there something Meyer should have or could have done in her worldbuilding to avoid this type of feedback? Hope this post made sense!
    Looking forward to Ascendant!

  3. Hi,
    Great article. Can you think of a literary example, in which the world-building rules are broken effectively. I have read very few.

  4. Diana says:

    Christina, the truth of the matter is that no matter what you write, someone is always going to have a problem with it. I think that this criticism you mentioned against sparkly vampires is nonsensical as well. Meyer laid out the rules of her world. Like them or not, they don’t have to be another vampire writer’s rules. The vampires in Buffy, for example, don’t turn into bats or wolves as Dracula does. I have a friend who writes vampires books and she gets letters from folks wondering why they don’t change into bats, as other vampires do. Well, it’s not a power that her vampires have.

    There are some people who just aren’t going to buy the image of unicorns as non-gentle creatures. Those people are not the audience for my book. That they criticize its fundamental premise has nothing to do with me or my ability to worldbuild.

    Getting criticism from some source or another is par for the course in the life of a writer. Not everyone is going to get what you write. So the important thing is to stick to trying to provide answers for the sensical arguments, and ignore the nonsensical ones.

  5. Diana says:

    Marlene, by literary do you mean in a book? Or do you mean NOT genre fiction?

    A great example from a book would be in the novel Dune, by Frank Herbert. The entire novel is premised around the fact that there is a faction of society (the Bene Gesserit) who have for untold generations been trying to breed a male version of their most powerful witches (the Quitsatz Haderach). To this end, they have arranged countless marriages and divined countless childbearing techniques and seeded countless myths into native populations in order to protect their breeding stock and proote this plan. They supposedly know exactly who to mate and who to mate that offspring with to get their precise genetic qualities needed to create this “messiah.”

    One of these women decides to go against the plan and instead of having a female child, has a male child who, a generation early, becomes the Quitsatz Haderach. This significantly changes the world. The whole novel is about this broken rule and what ends up happening as a result.

  6. PurpleRanger says:

    Your first footnote is the generally accepted explanation with BTVS fans.

    I thought you said crossing the streams was a BAD idea, Egon.

    If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, you’ll note that just about all of them find some loophole in one or more of the Three Laws.

  7. Julie Leto says:

    I think JK Rowling summed up her rules best in Gamp’s Law and the Elemental Exceptions, which are food, love, money, life and … one more. 🙂 But the most fascinating of her laws is that magic messes up human devices that Muggles use to “copy” magic like televisions and telephones and computers. I thought that was a brilliant way of keeping those pesky annoyances out of her stories. I mean, it kind of would have ruined the whole story if Hermoine could look everything up on Google instead of running to the library!

  8. Allison says:

    “ageless liver-eating mutants who live in air ducts”
    *shudders* That is the CREEPIEST EPISODE OF TELEVISION EVER. To this day I get creeped out by air ducts and vents and anything remotely similar.
    Oh, and I agree with the thing about Buffy dying a second time and that the slayer line is probably going through Faith now. Yeah.

    My question: How do you KEEP TRACK of everything? Spreadsheets? Detailed explanatory notes? Maps? YouTube videos of interpretive dance?

  9. Diana says:

    PR, the loopholes are why I remain very frightened of the evil robot eye that appears every time I boot up my DroidX, or, as I like to call her, “Hallie.”

  10. Diana says:

    Julie, I also like that explanation as to why the wizards must use magic versions of the things we have. I think a clever author can pretty much come up with any explanation she likes for the things she wants in her story — you taught me that. The question is what it turns her story into (like my situation with trying to find what exactly were the parameters of magic in the unicorn world. Was it an all magic world like Harry Potter, or was it our world with this very limited, finite amount of magic in it (more like Indiana Jones). I went with Jones.

  11. Diana says:

    Allison, My personal creepiest X Files episode is the one with the serial killer. Years later, when he tried to date Lorleai Gilmore, I was like — NO! RUNNNNNNNN! That’s Donnie Pfaster!

    As for your question of keeping track — it depends what stage I’m at. Like most writers, I carry a notebook with me at all times so if I’m caught by sudden inspiration (“Oh, so this is how X fits into my story!”) I can write it down and not forget. However, after a while, after I’ve written it, it becomes part of the world and I don’t forget, the way you don’t forget gravity. I can close my eyes at see the layout of the Cloisters.

    But this is my process. In fact, one of the notes I commonly get from my editor is about how I need to put in more about the rules of the world — it might be clear to me, but it needs to be more clear to the reader.

    I know other people who do keep big binder story bibles. I think Holly Lisle has some good essays on that — you should check them out.

  12. Cassandra says:

    Both you and Carrie Ryan are excellent at drawing a reader in. You manage to show us your worlds, unicorns and zombies, respectively, and we instantly care about the main characters from the first pages. Do you have any tips on how to balance worldbuilding, getting action in, and creating characters that readers care about in those first few pages?

  13. John says:

    I agree with logical grounding to better off-set the fantastical. There must be some idea of logic – even if it’s a world’s logic as opposed to ours. I love that you managed to write a story that takes unicorns and integrates them into real life. So cool.

    So, what is your favorite example of world-building in a novel? Least favorite? And what do you think YA fantasy/paranormal books do well with in regards to worldbuidling? Where do they fall flat?

  14. Diana says:

    Thank you, Cassandra!

    I think the most important thing to do is get your reader invested in your character, always. If they care about the character, they will hang on while you explain the world.

    I also think you shouldn’t throw too much of the world at them all at once. It’s called infodumping and it usually bores folks. They aren’t there to read a treatise, they are there to hear a good story. Of course, your mileage may vary on this one. There are some hard-SF writers who have made entire careers out of doing exactly the opposite, though — you may not remember the characters, but you remember every piece of the world, which they throw at you fro the first paragraph with all this crazy jargon and whatnot. And some readers (like Sailor Boy) really LOVE that aspect of it. So that can also be a creative choice.

    As for how to do that in the first few pages, it’s funny you should mention that. The other day, Carrie Ryan and I were discussing this fantastic essay by debut writer Beth Revis, whose first chapter for her upcoming book, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, is blowing everyone away.

    It’s a GREAT essay on getting back to the core of the chracters and emotional hooks. Action for action’s sake isn’t hooky, but bring it back to the core of those characters and what is important to them, emotionally, and you’ve got something. You can sprinkle in worldbuilding just enough to get their interest piqued, and then go back and subtract and add as needed. It’s not important that the reader understand everything on page one. The process of discovery is part of the fun.

  15. Diana says:

    Oh, John, you don’t REALLY expect me to answer that question, do you? 😉

    I definitely don’t have a “favorite” worldbuilding example. I read so much fantasy and speculative fiction. Any list I make is going to necessarily leave out a ton of writers who have blown me away and jarred me upon return to reality. There are contemporary writers I think consistently knock it out of the ballpark, like Holly Black, Scott Westerfeld, CL Wilson. There are works whose world remained lodged in my mind like some kind of alternate reality (Tlon-style, if you like Borges): FEED by MT Anderson, or HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY by Justine Larbalestier. I think whenever a writer creates something that can live inside your head like that long after the book is done, they are doing it right.

    On the flip side, what I hate is lazy worldbuilding, and unfortunately I see a lot of that in the “paranormal” craze that’s popular in YA and romance right now. Where writers say “Oh, I’m just going to do a vampire or a dystopian world” and don’t give any thought to what the ramifications of that are. Their vampires are just cut and pasted onto the page, with no explanation of why they are there or what they are (the “reason” rule I talked about in my post). Or they have no interest in following rules at all. f you read FEED, you can see that the dystopia has been thought through — it affects everything — even the language the writer uses to tell the story. In some of the copycat books coming out now, the characters seem to exist in a bubble — they are like costume dramas. You can’t imagine how this dystopia survived for more than a month or two.

    I read one recently where it seemed like every time the writer was confronted with a plot development, she threw in a new rule to explain that twist, even if it contradicted former rules of the world. This was not done as a big reversal, a’la Buffy, above, but casually, to explain some minor lazy thing the writer wanted to include.

    For instance, if your world is predicated on the idea that there is no vegetable life, a big reversal would be to discover that someone is keeping a secret garden and this is a Very Big Deal and the characters have to find a way to hide the garden or to use it to repopulate the world with plants or something. Laziness would be mentioning that someone’s favorite food is salad, and then trying to explain it away by saying that oh, on your birthday once a year you’re allowed to have salad from these special grow-pods and then NEVER make that a part of the story ever again.

    I do not think this is endemic to YA, however. It’s something you see in every facet of the market. When there is a craze, sometimes crap gets published. And a lot of times, people disagree with me about whether or not it’s crap. 😉

  16. Dawn G says:

    Just out of curiosity, which comes first: the world or the characters? In other words, how much do they impact each other in the creation process? Obviously, a world of water would have to have characters who were either fish or could breathe underwater, therefore the world does impact the way the characters are presented but not necessarily who they are.

  17. phyllis towzey says:

    My favorite alternate reality books are ones like RAMPANT and TWILIGHT where so much is life as we know it — except the thing that isn’t. For me, it really adds something extra when the world at large doesn’t know that “something extra” exists, so your characters have to manage simultaneously to live in the ordinary world and the alternate reality.

    I also do really enjoy the books where the whole world is just different and everybody knows it (like CL Wilson’s and Alyssa Day’s books), but, to me, there’s something really compelling about stories that have that extra layer of secrecy built in.

  18. alaska. says:

    I am curious about the level of research that goes into world-building, and the decision to make a reality based world rather than just something completely different (like, umm, Dune, I guess, vs. Uglies).

    I really appreciate the level of historical accuracy in your series (as a former history major, you don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to throw a book for manipulating history FOR NO REASON), which ties into one of your rules of world building.

    But does it make it a lot harder? Do you sometimes regret it? How hard does world-building become when you are basing things on actual historical fact, so that your story just kind of slices into it, like a missing scene?

  19. PurpleRanger says:

    But how do you get the sky just the right shade of purple?

  20. Stephanie says:

    In my writing, I have the tendency to over-describe the world. I also hate the kind of lazy writing I’ve been seeing in paranormal YA books recently and I don’t want my writing to be like that. However, I’ve been told in the past that I sometimes drown the reader in description when all they really want is to get back to the action. It’s so hard to strike a good balance between description and action.

    Do you have any advice on balancing all the elements of storytelling and not over-describing?

  21. April Xu says:

    Wow, thanks for all this great advice 🙂 I was wondering how you could prevent your world from being too similar to other authors’? And my second question is would it be difficult to read a vampire/fairy/werewolf/garden gnome in a world that is too abstract or different from a traditional vampire/fairy/werewolf/garden gnome world?

  22. Diana says:

    You’re right Dawn, in saying that what’s really important is who the characters ARE (rather than whether they breathe water or whatever). There are lots of stories about underwater creatures, but it’s who, say, Ariel the Little Mermaid from the Disney film IS that drives the story — i.e., she’s a mermaid princess, but she’s obsessed with the world on the land. If the story were about any of her mermaid princess sisters, it would be about something else entirely.

    That being said, whether you *start* with world or characters in the brainstorming phase is up to you. For me, I started with the idea of writing a book about killer unicorns. But I didn’t have a story until I decided that Astrid was the main character. I could write a hundred books about killer unicorns nad unicorn hunters (and you can read how diffrently the situation can play out with a different character involved in my stories in ZOMBIES VS UNICORNS or KISS ME DEADLY. Astrid, despite the fact that she knows about her family heritage, is an “outsider” character — she learns about the world she lives in at the same time you do. (Cf. Harry Potter).

    I’m a big believer that character + situation = plot. What happens in Rampant happens as it does because of who Astrid is. She’s a reluctant hunter, she’s a scientist, she’s someone who very strongly feels a sense of protection and duty toward other human beings.

    But it doesn’t have to happen that way. Take Meg Cabot’s Princess Diary series, which is very “fantastical” even without magical elements. Meg has said many times that though what everyone else likes about her books is the princess part (Which, believe me — creating a country for your main character to be the princes of definitely takes some worldbuilding!) the thing that drove her to write the story was the part where Mia’s mom dates Mia’s teacher. So at its core, The Princess Diaries started out less about the whole “princess” situation as it is about who Mia is as a person.

    The book I’m working on now, which is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Persuasion, obviously started out with who the characters WERE already in place — Anne Elliot, the sensible, thoughtful, intelligent and forward-thinking daughter of a vain and spendthrift minor noble, and Captain Wentworth, the daring sea captain who she once rejected but never stopped loving. The trick there was finding a world in which those characters could exist and have a story that plays out the same way as the original.

  23. Diana says:

    Phyllis, I think that’s considered open world and closed world fantasy — well, not Wilson because she’s high fantasy. Open world fantasy is where everyone knows — like True Blood. Closed world fantasy is more like Buffy, where only a limited number of people know the truth.

    Rampant actually starts as “closed world” fantasy because it’s something that’s just starting to happen. But there was a time when it was open, just as there was a time in the world where everyone really did believe that unicorns were real and they were in possession of unicorn horns and not narwhal tusks. And by the time of Ascendant its become open-world. People everywhere are aware of what’s happening. (See also my story in ZOMBIES VS UNICORNS)

  24. Eric Luper says:

    great post and great comments!

    BTW, my anti-spam word was BONEGRINDER! Cool!

  25. alaska. says:

    also, do you think there’s a difference between writing dystopian novel vs. either today-set-novels or historical fantasy? does the world building take a different slant if you are working with past events, or is it kind of just the same? i guess i am thinking of your novels as compared to say, westerfeld’s leviathan?

    (anti-spam word: enyo! need to order ZvU now!)

  26. Tiff says:

    Fantastic post and comments – pretty late to the party, but I wanted to add that I really agree that world-building is a part of any fiction writing. For me, what really comes to mind (and maybe this is just because I just finished it!) for breaking all the rules is Six Feet Under. I often felt that the way Nathaniel Sr. appeared at random moments, and indeed, the way the dead-person-of-the-week would sometimes speak to the Fishers was totally random. It’s true that there were very basic rules, but I feel like Alan Ball just took us on a ride, and if there were occasional communes with the dead, or random musical-ish moments, well, we have to accept that in order to keep watching. And I think it’s a perfect testament to character + situation = plot, because I really don’t think that a person can watch the entire show without getting heavily invested in the characters.

    All that to say…I feel that grounding characters and making an emotional connection with your audience is really the key to any kind of fantastical worldbuilding. To that end, I guess my question is (I know, finally!), how much of worldbuilding is instinct for you, and how much is planned out? Do you reason out all of your character/plot/world decisions before writing (a la rule #3), or do you just write and then come back to problems? Do the magical closets just write themselves out when you realize that it’s not necessary to the plot, or to your ability to create a connection with your audience?

    Kind of a personal question, I guess.

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