World Building is What You Make of It
World Building is one of the key components of writing science fiction and/ or fantasy. It does not matter if it is the world of the future, the past, a constructed world, or even our present world. In a recent post on the Skiffy and Fanty Show blog, Stina Leicht argues that world building is far harder than the average fan of science fiction and fantasy can imagine. I agree with her general idea. World building can be hard. But reading her post, I could not help the feeling that, perhaps, world building is made more difficult than it needs to be. That while the intention is to make a world as nearly real as our own, the result is that no story will be written. The point should be that a balance is needed.
Every writer is different. Some writers can create worlds with seemingly little effort. Or at least that is what it looks like. Other writers spend their entire working lives on a single construction to such an extent that the end result is a fully realized constructed world. One writer may be able to easily recall all of their background knowledge to create worlds while another writer may have to research and refresh their memories.
The genre that the constructed world inhabits is also a key point to be raised. What type of story is it? And what kind of world is consequently preferred? A historicist or hard fantasy epic may require extremely strict, or realistic, world building. (I really need to explore what hard fantasy is exactly). But an intentionally more mythic or literary type fantasy may be able to create a more impressionistic constructed world.
Now, what do I mean by realistic and impressionistic? Think painting. Realistic world building tries to create fictional worlds as real as possible. When you look at a realistic painting, sometimes it is impossible to tell the difference between it and a photograph. Impressionistic world building provides just enough text for the reader to create the world with their own reading experience. Though maybe a little more complicated than that. Each style has its own strengths and weaknesses. Realistic world building can result in fully realized worlds, or it can result in glaringly artificial worlds. Impressionistic world building can result in an equally fully realized world, but it can also result in total collapse if looked at too closely.
What style of world building is ultimately taken depends on the writer. But in recent years a clear preference seems to be for realistic world building (as reflected in the bulk of Stina Leicht’s post, though the film stills could be argued to be impressionistic examples). The reason for this is because of the prevalence of gaming for this generation of science fiction and fantasy writers. From my, admittedly limited, understanding, gaming world building conventions are generally similar from one game to another. And those conventions inform world building conventions in non gaming science fiction and fantasy. I may be mistaken, but gaming world building seems to be very “stat” heavy and that seems to have translated over to other forms of science fiction and fantasy. I’m just pointing this out, not condemning it. It’s just not my preferred method.
Research, no matter what, is essential to world building. But research takes many forms. There is active research where the writer intentionally looks for information on specific topics. There is passive research where everything a writer reads can be used as research. In fact, the writer is always doing research whether he or she knows it or not.
A writer, no matter what genre he or she writes in, is best served by being a jack of all trades. Having multiple areas of interest is key to creating worlds that have, at least, the semblance of existence.
Is using our own world a better option? I’m not so sure. There is less research. But there is less creativity. And the standards should be higher for contemporary or Earth based science fiction or fantasy.