Wednesday, June 15

Going Beyond the Default in Your Worldbuilding

By Juliette Wade, @JulietteWade 

Part of the How They Do It Series

Creating a rich world makes for a great novel, no matter if that world is based on fantasy or the world we know. But all too often, we rely on the default setting for our genre--such as medieval Europe for fantasy--and we rob ourselves of the chance to craft something unique. To share some tips on creating interesting world, please help me welcome worldbuilding guru, Juliette Wade.

Juliette hosts the Dive into Worldbuilding show on Google Hangouts, where she uses her academic expertise in anthropology and linguistics to take discussions of worldbuilding topics beyond the default. Her short fiction explores language and culture issues across the genres of fantasy and science fiction. She has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy&Science Fiction, and Analog magazines.

If you're a fan of worldbuilding and want to take your skills further, you can also become a part of the Dive into Worldbuilding workshop. Join Juliette's Patreon and get brainstorming prompts, research links, exclusive peeks into research topics, or even get Juliette to help you with your work directly.

Take it away Juliette...

Janice asked me to come by and talk about going beyond the default in your worldbuilding. So what exactly does that mean?

To answer that question, let's start by talking about what "default" means. On your computer, it means an application that your computer opens automatically, without you having to do more than click. In your brain, it means the idea that you go to first, without having to think.

It's a bit more complex than that, though, because your brain is a complicated place. If I asked you to "draw a dog" and gave you only ten seconds, you'd probably draw the icon of a dog. The image would be the one that you've seen most often in cartoon form rather than any unique dog you know. Conceptually, we have prototype ideas--my sense of the dog prototype would be an animal roughly the size of a beagle, short-haired, with flop ears and a straight tail. On the other hand, of course I know that chihuahuas exist, and Great Danes and Great Pyren√©es, too, and that these are also dogs… but it takes more time for me to think of them.

Ideas also come in sets. Take the idea of a house, the cartoon prototype with a single door and window and a peaked roof. Those features--the door, the window, the roof--come in as part of the prototype. We probably also would imagine that this house would have a lawn, or if we elaborated it a bit more, maybe we'd think it had a garage…

Where do these idea sets come from? They come from our personal experience. And not only our personal experience of actual dogs and houses, but of books about dogs and houses, and oral narratives about dogs and houses, and even pictures or movies we've seen about dogs and houses. Also, friends. And patriots. And manners. And castles. And, and, and.

These are our defaults--our prototype-sets, built up over time by the things we've seen and the stories we've heard. We have lots and lots of them, not only for objects, but for events, and types of people, and social groups.

So what does that mean for you when you are worldbuilding? I guess the first piece of advice should be, "If it's the first thing you think of, it's probably not the right thing." The more generic the detail, the less interesting your world will feel.

That's not very helpful advice, though. Let's say you have an initial thought; take your time, and evaluate it. Think about whether it's common, or something that readers have seen many times before. Change it a little, or maybe even a lot. Once you have a detail or two to give you a way in, use idea sets to your advantage.

Say you've decided that people don't drink alcohol here. Take some time to figure out where that thought leads:
  • Is that a universal truth, or do some people drink and some people not drink? 
  • What kind of law, belief, or reasoning would cause a person to fall on one side of that divide or another? 
  • Is the problem a lack of resources, a lack of appropriate climate, or a lack of technology to get the fermentation done? 
  • Or are there unexpected magical or social consequences for drinking?
No detail of worldbuilding stands on its own. They can all be stretched--stretching your understanding at the same time--out into the interconnected webs of resources, climate, culture, and language. Because of the complexity of those connections, we often aren't aware of them all at once. This is where the problem of subconscious worldbuilding comes in.

For every conscious decision we make, our minds will rapidly fill in a whole raft of surrounding detail, and often we'll start writing it into the story without realizing we're doing it. Any one person's experience, or perception, is not the kind that an omniscient narrator would have. For example, if I'm awake in the daytime, I won't be aware of much that happens while I sleep. If a nobleman has been trained only to consider noble people as worthy of engagement, he won't know much about what others think or do, even if they're in the same room with him.

Biases in our own perception can creep easily into our storytelling, especially those that come from our experience of storytelling itself. These are things like the unnaturally large number of male characters in fictional settings, or the lack of representation for marginalized groups like people of color, disabled people, or LGBT people. Biases of perception can cause similar biases to appear in your worldbuilding without you even realizing it.

How do we address our blind spots? Well, we need to take time, do research (especially from primary sources), and listen for the voices that fall outside our prototypical concepts. Capture something you've never looked at before, or a story that is new to you. Realize also that the characters in your story will have limitations, and blind spots of their own due to their physical abilities and their social position in the world you've created.

A default, or a prototype, can be very helpful to us as human beings. After all, we need to generalize concepts that can help us to assess what goes on in our lives. Quite often, we need to be able to think quickly (if I see an unusual-looking lion, I still want to be able to avoid having it eat me!). However, those defaults don't make good tools for worldbuilding, because every world is unique, detailed, and complex, in ways that prototypes can't be. So when you are building, take your time; observe; think; find those hidden exceptions, the unusual details, the experiences no one has yet spoken about. It will be worth your trouble.


  1. I'll be searching for those hidden exceptions. Thanks for the nudge. My WIP world is 11th century west US. No recorded history to research, I've got to build the world based on the local people's oral traditions, then think outside my own preconceptions.

  2. I love writing geo-fiction. I especially enjoy the research stage. I could spend hours in the library paging through books searching for ideas. My problem is getting the ideas from my head on paper in a manner that does not put the reader to sleep.