If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos
It’s something that everyone who has ever told a story has done, but something which even storytellers don’t necessarily do deliberately or even realize that they are doing. Whenever we tell a story — even if that story is essentially true — we are creating a virtual world in which that story takes place, and which we are sharing with our listeners or readers and inviting them in to look around and sit a spell.
Those of us who participate in the pulp world are perhaps a bit more familiar with the concepts of world building than are followers of literary or mainstream fiction. Pretty much all of us are familiar with the work J.R.R. Tolkien put into building the history and culture of Middle-Earth long before he ever conceived of writing The Lord of the Rings. We’ve seen the Star Wars movies and the Star Trek television series, even if we aren’t the sort to dress up in a dreadful crimson buccaneer’s suit and go to a convention. More than a few of us have rolled various polyhedral dice or punched the buttons on game controllers to play games set in worlds very different from our own.
At the core of all these activities is world building. Someone at some point in the creation process had to sit down and create the rules of the world in which the stories were going to take place. Often, that happens while the content itself is being created, almost as an afterthought. This may very well be why a vast majority of genre fiction starts to look alike after a while; writers, artists and other creators simply adopt the world building done by other writers, artists and creators, often without deliberately considering what they are doing.
Then, there are world builders, creators for whom the act of creating a fictional setting is a satisfying creative endeavor in and of itself. The goal of world builders may be to create a world in which to set whatever stories they would like to tell, whether in a novel, screenplay or role-playing game, or it may be just the fun of building a new universe from the ground up.
What we’re going to do with this series is to outline the creation of a fictional world that fits in with the themes at the heart of Pulp Engine — genre fiction that is story driven and seriously fun.
Everything you know is wrong
One of the biggest errors beginning writers make — and not just beginning writers, but most writers, and not only writers, but pretty much everyone — is the assumption that the way one views the world is somehow an objective reality. That’s not true in the least. Everything we know about the world is filtered through our senses, which are all limited. The information we take in is further filtered by our preferences, by our beliefs and by what we want to believe is true about the world. In short, everything we think that we know as a fact is filtered through our limitations and our biases. It’s important to recognize this fact before one even starts the process of world building.
Once a world builder recognizes how his biases and perceptions influence his attitudes and his creative endeavors, then he can approach the central theme of his world building project — what are we doing here? The reason to create a fictional world as opposed to just reading newspapers and history books is that one can give it a certain flavor and texture that best suits the sorts of stories one wants to tell within that world.
Show, don’t tell
Rather than attempt to codify a method for world building, what I’m going to try in this series of articles is to actually create a fictional world, step by step. This will give readers a detailed example of one possible way to build a fictional world and show examples of how I deal with the various creative issues that come up during the project. This isn’t an example of the only way to world build, or even the best way, but it’s the way I’m going to do it, and maybe we can have some fun with it.
If one is creating a fictional world with the intention of using it as a setting for pulp fiction, then a very basic question one needs to answer early in the process is what sort of pulp stories does one wish to tell. There are the popular marketing categories, such as fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery and so on. Even within these categories, there are many subcategories to consider — there’s epic fantasy, which generally follows the outline set down by Professor Tolkien, or the currently popular urban fantasy, such as the Twilight series of young adult novels, while science fiction can be divided into hard science fiction that is centered around concrete scientific principles and space opera, which is more adventure oriented with the science and technology being little more than props to move the story along. Horror could fall along the lines of popular horror authors such as Stephen King or deal with more gothic, even campy, stories such as the classic Universal monster movies.
The genre one selects for one’s fictional world depends on a number of factors, primarily what sort of story one wishes to tell, but also what sort of themes one wishes to explore. Are you creating your world as a backdrop for a particular story that you have in mind, or are you creating a broad canvas upon which you and possibly others can weave any number of potential adventures?
Let’s take a look at my motivations for building my fictional world. What do I want to do? Well, I don’t have a particular story or even particular characters in mind, so that means the world I want to create should be a fairly wide-open setting that will allow me a lot of latitude for developing future stories. This sort of fictional world is also the best suited for inviting other creators into the mix, as it allows for a wide assortment of points of view and creative goals to coexist within the same world.
So, I’m going to create a world with a broad focus. Still, I need to decide what sort of stories I want to tell in this fictional world. To do that, it may be helpful to look back at the sorts of fictional worlds I’ve developed previously.
My first fictional world of any complexity and consistency was the setting for my first novel, an epic fantasy that I started writing when I was a mere pup of 14 and worked on on and off for the next 10 years. Although the novel was an adventure fantasy set in a pseudo-mediaeval world, I worked long and hard to give the world a lot of believable detail and history. I wanted the world to have a high degree of verisimilitude so that readers would be more likely to buy into the central conceits of my story. Being a fantasy story, one of the elements of the world was magic, but because I was trying to create a “realistic” world (that is, one with a relatively low threshold for suspension of disbelief), magic was relatively low powered. The book’s fictional world did not exist in a moral universe — that is, there were no forces guiding the characters and ensuring that good would triumph over evil and that sort of thing. Rather, although there were such things as prophecies that suggested how the future might unfold, they were more than a little vague and open to interpretation, and people acted with free will in pursuit of whatever goals they thought most appropriate. “Good” and “evil” were not objective realities, but moral relativities; the good guys could do things that were ethically reprehensible, while the bad guys may well be at least partially motivated by altruism and the desire to do what they considered to be good, or at the very least necessary.
Eventually, though, I felt the need to explore different sorts of fantastic stories, ones that took place in a less relativistic universe and one closer to that of traditional fantasies and even ancient myths and legends. At the same time, I was in the midst of discovering my lifelong fascination with the construction of exotic artificial worlds such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, John Varley’s Gaea and the giant planet of Patra-Bannk in Tony Rothman’s The World is Round. Combining my impulses toward fantasy and exotic world creation, I designed a closed universe that was a shell surrounding a star. The inside of the shell was covered with mountains, many of which were topped with world-sized plateaus, and the star was variable, brightening and dimming to create the sense of a day-night cycle. It was an interesting exercise, but it was unfortunately rather too alien for the sort of fantasy world I was looking for, one that very closely mimicked our own.
Of course, the best way to mimic our own world would be to mimic our own world, and do it blatantly. One thing I got from my closed universe experiment, however, was a great sense that this world was all there was. In reality, our world is one small speck surrounding a fairly pedestrian star out in the boonies of a pretty typical galaxy, of which there are billions more. A dynamic element of myth and legend — and the contemporary fantasies built on them — is the concept that, while the world is more vast and unknown that we could imagine, it was also smaller, more intimate and palpably finite. I eventually realized that there was already a perfectly fine model for a fantastic universe that allowed all the natural elements of our world that I wanted while at the same time provided the sense of a closed world that I wanted — the Ptolemaic model that was the standard model of the universe until Copernicus came along and knocked our world, and ourselves, out of the center point of existence.
So, my next fantasy world creation project used Ptolemy’s model, with the world at the center orbited by the sun, the moon, the planets and finally the sphere of fixéd stars. It worked out so well that, once I tired of that project and wanted to move on to something else, I basically carried over a lot of the universal structure I created to my next fantasy world.
Just as not every pie can be apple, though, not every story that entered into my head could be told in these fantastic worlds. I would occasionally want something more along the lines of a sweeping space opera, and sometimes I’d want to tell a story that took place in the real world, or at least something that could pass for it on the surface. I created several space-opera themed backgrounds, and also a contemporary setting that was nominally a place in the real world, as long as one didn’t look too closely.
In these various projects, I’ve built worlds for fantasies, for various flavors of science fiction and even stories that required a contemporary real world setting. I’ve stuck my fingers in all sorts of different pies, and even a cobbler or two. All of these past projects will come into play when I decide what sort of world I want to build for this project.
The devil is in the details
Even more important than the genre of story one might want to tell can be the scale. While it’s true that you could tell any sort of story you want to in any sort of background you choose, the scale of story you want to tell influences a lot of what you will want to do with a created world.
For example, if the stories your interested in telling are small, intimate tales of people discovering themselves and their lives in the shadow of the place they were born and will ultimately die, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to detail the history of the universe back to the first burp of the Big Bang – those details may inform the stories in some way, but for the most part, they simply aren’t needed. Likewise, if you want to put down vast epics with casts of thousands, then you’re likely not going to have the time or resources to develop the minute details of every little corner of the world.
This is a problem I’ve faced in the backgrounds I’ve created for role-playing games, for example. I would create worlds with such a volume of detail that my players would often become intimidated — here they had come over to play a game, and I was basically giving them homework so they would know all the neat background information for the fictional world their fictional characters would exist in. Likewise, I would play in games put on by my friends that were little more than beer-and-pretzel pickup games they would make up off the tops of their heads, and the details would be so skimpy so generic that these games could seldom hold my interest for long.
In fiction, I’m sure that we’ve all encountered works by authors who have put so much effort into creating their settings that, rather than getting us into the stories in a clever, artful way, they start off their tales by having us slog through vast swathes of turgid exposition. This comes very much from the same impulse that drove me to hand out small encyclopedias to my RPG players. “Look at what I’ve done — isn’t it cool?”
Detail can add verisimilitude to a story, helping the setting, the characters and the plot all come alive. Too much detail, however, can bury the story in trivia that does nothing but distract the reader from the story. The trick isn’t necessarily to not develop those details, however; the trick is in selecting which details to include in one’s story, plus when and how to introduce them.
In college, I studied playwrighting (yes, it’s playwrighting, not playwriting; a play is wrought, like a piece of iron) under Professor Stephen Archer. Professor Archer spent a lot of time in his classes talking to us about developing characters, because at its core any play worth writing had to be about the characters. He told us that, before we ever started actually wrighting (or writing) the play, we needed to know our characters inside and out. We needed to document every significant detail about their histories and personalities. We needed to know who their parents were, whether they had siblings, what their relationships with their family members were like, where they went to school, what sort of music they liked, what they wanted to do when they grew up — a vast store of details about even the most insignificant character. And, perhaps most importantly, Professor Archer drove home to us that it was entirely possible that absolutely none of that detail would actually make it into the finished play. That wasn’t the point of developing these facts and elements of the characters; the point was that we, as the wright (and writer) of the play had to know these things in order to know what our characters were going to say, what they were going to do, how they would react to whatever situation we put them in.
I would argue — in fact, I have been know to argue — that in some types of stories, especially the sort of genre fiction that we all know and love, the setting, the world in which the story takes place, is as much of a character as any person who appears in the story, and to know how a particular story is going to develop and resolve itself, an author has to know his fictional, created world as much as any of the characters who live within it.
The journey of a thousand leagues
So, what am I going to do, then, for this particular project, this new and unique world I have set forth to create?
The first question I ask myself — because some question has to be first, and this is as good a one as any, and better than most — is, “What is the scale of the stories I want to tell within this fictional world?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about epics recently — great big stories with great big casts, dealing with great big issues of life, death, love, finding one’s purpose in the world, the big questions we all face, but within the context of great conflict and big, dramatic emotions. These are not just the stories of people getting by in the world; these are stories of people whose actions can literally change the face of existence in some way. It might be oxymoronic to say that I want to strive to create an intimate epic, but that’s basically the ideal I’m going for. One way to do that, perhaps, is to start small, and work one’s way up to greater and greater detail.
Next, I want to take a look at genre, and the choices of genre available can be readily informed by the scale on which I have just decided. The sort of intimate yet epic scale I’m going for lends itself easily to fantasy; perhaps I’ve listened to too much Wagner, but I can’t read Tolkien, Jordan or even Moorcock without expecting these characters to burst into song at any moment.
Of course, that also begs a bit of a question. I’ve done traditional, standard, pseudo-mediaeval fantasy backgrounds before. Several of them. So, in fact, have a lot of other people. Way, way too many people. There is just nothing but gristle left on those bones, I fear.
And, I shouldn’t have to point out, but will anyway, I’m not a mediaeval person. Very few of my potential readers are likely to be mediaeval people. That means that we don’t think or act like mediaeval people. That also means that the creating such a fictional world requires all the more work in order to create the illusion of a world that bears more than a passing resemblance to mediaeval Europe, while at the same time struggling to find some way of doing something fresh and new with it.
When all is said and done, however, why does fantasy have to be set in a pseudo-mediaeval setting? Why does it have to be set in any sort of pseudo-historical era at all? Look, I’m a contemporary person. I grew up in contemporary culture. So have my potential readers, mostly. We have enjoyed the benefits of a culture that has gone through millennia of evolution to produce the liberal Western democracy that we take for granted daily. And perhaps the issues that I may wish to address in my fictional world deal with issues not completely dissimilar to the issues our contemporary culture faces today, but translated through and illuminated by recasting them in the form of a fantastic adventure.
In my world building exercises, I have created contemporary backgrounds, but these have all been basically real world settings, perhaps with a twist here and there. Why not, for this project, go a step or two further? Let’s say that, this time around, what I’m going to do is to create a fantasy world, just like Tolkien did with Middle-Earth, Jordan did with the setting for his books, any number of writers of the years have done, but instead of recreating mediaeval Europe, I’m going to recreate a fictional analog for our world now – an advanced technological civilization with a complex, conflicting history. Some elements of the setting may resemble the real world, some may resemble science fiction, but there will also be fantastic elements in there, as well. It won’t be our world, but it will be pretty recognizable.
So, that’s the scope of this little project, then, to build a pseudo-contemporary world with fantastic elements. It certainly isn’t an original idea, of course, but it has the benefit of being something that I’ve never done before, at least not to this extent.
And, with that, our world building project begins. God help us all.