Vision: A Resource for Writers
Devil's In the Details
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.
what's all this about teeth? Weren't we talking about worldbuilding?
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
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.
are a few places to start.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
Stays the Same?
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.
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.
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?
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.