Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Devil's In the Details

By
Kat Feete
©2003, Kat Feete  

have crooked teeth. It's something people notice about me, because most people of my age and social class have been subjected to the torture devices known as braces at an early age to fix this minor cosmetic point, and so nearly everyone has straight teeth. In England, by contrast, almost no one commented on my teeth. Braces aren't common there. In Victorian England, a bare hundred years ago, it was no exaggeration for Dickens's old flame to refer to herself as "fat, forty, and toothless," because most people lost their teeth well before their fourth decade. Dental hygiene was almost unknown. Forget straight teeth; if you had straight teeth, it was because they were dentures.

But what's all this about teeth? Weren't we talking about worldbuilding?

Well, yes. But to talk about worldbuilding, I need to talk a bit first about assumptions -- because the fastest and easiest way to kill an alien setting is to assume.

We all remember the big things: the cultures, the religions, the aliens or the elves, the spaceships or the magic. But too many people think that these are all there is to worldbuilding, and it's important -- essential -- to examine our assumptions about the little things, too. The big things are the bones of a world; the little things are the flesh. Don't make the mistake of hanging somebody else's skin on your bones. To do so is to create a world of exotic trappings populated with transplanted twentieth-century humans.

Here are a few places to start.

Food

It doesn't matter whether you're writing a medieval fantasy set in the magic kingdom of Tekianon or an SF thriller set in 3000 AD on a planet orbiting Polaris. Your characters need to eat. But what they eat and where it comes from are essential parts of your worldbuilding.

I don't mean creating exotic foods for your characters, although that may be a useful side effect, but rather thinking about the basic facts of life. Think, for example, what food supplies were like before the invention of refrigeration. Think about how monotonous the diet of most people -- even aristocrats -- was, especially in the medieval period.  Consider how easily that fragile food chain could be broken by a bad harvest or a pest problem. Science fiction writers may think this doesn't apply to them, but it does. Population pressure combined with increasing insecticide and herbicide resistance in the pest populations, decreasing yields due to overworked, monocropped soil, and the escalating loss of farmland to desertification and urban pressure... all of these things may make famines more, not less, likely in the future than in the past, and considerably more devastating.

The state of your agriculture will affect not only what and how often your characters eat but also what shape your economy is in. Farming, in whatever form it exists, is the root of any economy. People like televisions and silk skirts, but they eat every day. You need to know where on Earth (or off it) all this food is coming from.

Medicine

No matter what era you write in, health and hygiene will affect your character's daily lives. In the past, people have used all manner of means to cure disease and injury -- from balancing the Four Humors to herbal medicines to faith healings to brutal battlefield amputations. In the future, they may be carrying around entire hospitals inside their bodies with the help of nanotechnology or creating sophisticated bioweapons - or they may have been thrown right back into the dark ages by antibiotic resistance. What constitutes a serious injury or illness? Sooner or later, somebody's going to get hurt, and you're going to need to know how hurt he really is.

Basic hygiene affects characters even more than medicine. There have been eras where people routinely emptied their chamber pots into their drinking water supply (which is why people in those eras were drinking wine for breakfast), eras where drinking water was piped in lead pipes, and eras where it was considered unnecessary to bathe more than once a year. This will affect the look (and smell) of your characters and your cities. For science fiction writers, characters may have destroyed their immune systems by living in utterly sterile cities and houses (this is happening now, to some degree, in Japan) and rendered themselves hypersensitive to non-sterile environments. Or they could be living in a tight space station where one person with a cold is an utter disaster. The future holds at least as many new problems as it does new solutions.

Information and Travel

How quickly information travels, how much can be counted as common knowledge, how difficult travel is... all of these things have an immense effect on a society. The printing press may have been the greatest revolution of the millennium. How common are books, in your world? How many people are literate? (Don't, by the way, assume that your aristocracy is entirely literate; in the past it has often been the middle class who most eagerly sought out knowledge.) To what degree is the average citizen aware of politics? The future, too, may hold problems of these sorts and elaborate safeguards for withholding information from "the masses" -- or your people may be so swamped with information that they sink into apathy, concentrating on a few things that interest them, and remaining entirely ignorant of the wider picture.

Travel was, in the past, difficult, dangerous, and agonizingly slow; in the future it may be nearly instantaneous -- or even slower. How quickly can your characters travel between cities, between countries, between worlds -- and how interested are they in those other cities, other countries, other worlds? How swiftly can news travel? How much are people allowed to travel? In the past commoners and serfs risked becoming criminals if they left their home village; in the future ID cards and electronic monitoring could render travel nearly as dangerous and unlikely.

Clothing

Clothes make the man -- or the woman. What clothes your characters wear can tell you something about their culture, their climate, and their economy, because clothes are first and foremost functional. Their most important function may be to keep the wind off, or it may be to tell others how rich and important their wearers are.  Clothing may be used to conceal a body's sexual attractions, or to flaunt them; to allow their wearers to work freely, or to show that the wearers can afford to be trapped in cloth prisons that will allow them to do no work at all. Or that they can afford to have their wives so pampered.

Experiment with clothes. The old standby of pants and shirts is fine, if it's appropriate, but be aware of the wide variation of styles people have worn through the ages and through different climates. What will the clothing for your mythical world look like? As for clothing of the future... don't limit yourself to a few outré colors and shapes; think about it. How about clothes with the equivalent of a Discman woven into the fabric and headphones in the collar? Talking clothes? Clothes that can be reprogrammed day by day, letting you buy a single suit that will last you a lifetime -- or, conversely, clothes designed to be worn for a day only and thrown in the recycler at night? What sort of new clothing will people develop for life in freefall?

Architecture

Like clothing, the shape and style of a house is primarily a matter of function, but that doesn't mean that it is limited to one function. Large houses have typically meant wealth and power; decoration, from the simple lines of Greek temples to the ornate monstrosities of the Victorians, can be used to indicate taste, love of beauty, or a simple, childlike desire to show off. The design of houses says much about the values of an age: look at our own sprawling suburbs and think about what that says about us -- the good and the bad. Similarly, the great churches of England may speak of an obsessively pious age, but they also speak of the aftermath of the Norman invasion and a great many new overlords looking nervously out over a land filled with bored, hungry Saxon peasants thinking up interesting new uses for the common axe.

And, of course, it is very important not to forget another function of architecture: keeping the rain out. Think about the general climate of your world and plan accordingly. Hotter climates tend to prefer low, sprawling buildings, sometimes with interior courtyards; houses of colder climes huddle in on themselves, growing up rather than out and tending more towards small, easily heated rooms. Think, too, about what your buildings are made of. It is embarrassing to write a grand house burning scene and then look at your map and realize that there isn't a forest on the same continent. For the science fiction writer... well, the possibilities of housing are even more unlimited than the possibilities of clothing. How much, or how little, space do your future people have, and how will they use it? Will they live in spacious, computerized houses, or will they get by in windowless coffins that are all they, as citizens of an overpopulated world, can afford?

What Stays the Same?

By now you may be staring in bewilderment at your little world and wondering where to start. There are so many details. How will you ever work them into your story, much less make them up? It's enough to make any aspiring writer slink off to try her hand at Hallmark cards.

First, calm down. There is no point in putting all this detail into the story, and you certainly don't have to know everything about your world down to the origin of your characters' shoestrings. A thumbnail sketch will suffice.

But what point is there in fighting so hard to make a new, different and unfamiliar world? What can you, or your readers, identify with in these alien worlds?

The people.

Never loose track of that. You may not recognize the food, but people, by and large, stay the same. They will be greedy, gentle, terrible, kind, and cruel... sometimes within the space of the same day. They will laugh, hurt, rage, love, and cry. That is the strength of fiction: to take the familiar and set it against the backdrop of the fantastic, where it can shed its drab drudge's clothing and become the princess it truly is.  

Go. Build. Pay attention to the details, but don't get lost in them. Your story is like a gemstone. Give it the proper setting, and it will shine.