Vision: A Resource for Writers
Enough, and Time
ime is subjective, to cultures as well as to individuals. How do people handle time in their daily lives? Do certain concepts of time universally exist, or does your story demand new concepts? Are there significant events that will be remembered and relived on schedule? What about clashes between time concepts of different cultures, or stresses caused by changes in how different generations view time? All of these thoughts have lead me to believe that time is an essential part of worldbuilding.
As in any kind of
worldbuilding, if the background details are compelling, your readers will
believe. But allow an inconsistent
assumption to slip in -- say, have your Regency dandy pull out his pocket watch
and wonder why his companions are five minutes late -- and they will start to
The need for care in
handling a historical era, like the attitudes of a certain culture, should be
obvious. But time issues can crop
up whenever or wherever you set your story. Let's look at some details about how this might affect your
Subjective time can
trip you up. Would the characters
in your story notice time the way that you describe it?
If you're working in a historical era, an unfamiliar culture, or an
invented world, plan to do some research. Even
if you're setting the story in your hometown, you are likely to find people and
cultures that look at time in a different way than you do.
What struck the false
note in my Regency example? The
answer lies in anthropology and cultural history.
Extrapolation from facts doesn't always work when it comes to attitudes.
Clocks accurate enough
to display minutes or seconds were developed in the 1660s (a fact).
The new devices revolutionized oceanic travel, but the rest of society
made little use of minutes and seconds in their daily routines.
Although people had more accurate clocks, they did not begin to
use them the way that we do until the mid 1800s.
In the early 1800s a member of the leisure class normally would not worry
about five minutes.
Here are some broad
guidelines for cultural attitudes towards time:
Pre-historic people were hunter-gatherers and time was equivalent to
space -- a solution to a bad situation was to go somewhere else.
Agricultural people became tied down, gained in abundance, lost in the
development of banditry, and were the first people with government and taxes. Industrial people traded all their seasonal problems for
working for the clock. Finally,
post-industrial society is experiencing a reshuffling of time priorities once
Even if you write in
the present, historic cultures exists everywhere -- on local farms that supply
produce, in the migration of workers following low-paying jobs and homeless
seeking a place to exist, and in every school that still teaches 'Get a good job
and you don't have to worry about anything else.'
Biology is another
science to look for basics. Humans
have biological clocks tracking intervals on the order of seconds, minutes,
days, months, and years, and these clocks work at various levels of accuracy.
Be aware of the physical abilities of the character, his tools, and the
time focus of the culture for casual mentions of time.
Extraordinary humans pursuing extraordinary goals can always be eccentric
-- as long as you know how you're pushing the limits!
The objective history
of your world is often portrayed from the subjective viewpoints of your
cultures. History as told by a
nation, religious group, or other social group will contain a lot of clues to
how its members will interact with the world.
A writer will use the
characteristics of a culture, including its time sense, to develop problems to
put into the path of major characters. In Flight of the Old Dog, the hotshot Russian pilot has to respond to a radio command to
check in rather than take a shot at the American bomber.
Russia's historical reality says that soldiers cannot be allowed to stray
without periodic confirmation that they are under control.
Dale Brown, the author, used a cultural restriction to add unexpected yet
believable difficulties for the antagonist.
Even small groups will
have different views of recent history.
It is always fun to have groups meet, and compare notes.
In The Lord of the Rings Frodo thinks the Ring and his quest is a
deep secret that he shares only with Gandalf and Sam; but his friends are
observant and have formed a conspiracy to help him out, with a spy revealed to
be in both camps:
Time and emotion are
practically married. Look at all
the clichés featuring the pair, such as 'Time flies when you're having fun'.
The interaction of time and emotion in your world may help you show
motivation from another perspective.
Group emotions can
affect the entire world. The
anticipation of the millennium may bring religious or technological hysteria.
One culture may observe that other cultures are taking over the world --
and if the culture is that of the Elves as in The Lord of the Ring, its
emotional reaction may be withdrawal rather than violence.
Groups of people, like mobs, tend to be primitive in their reactions,
adding more color to your world.
Think about cultural
attitudes towards the future, the past, the present, and cyclical events.
The self-satisfied time view of the Regency era allowed the upper crust
to believe that the Season, when marital concerns were worked out alongside the
work of government, was the most important event of the year.
Mary Balogh shows the power of this belief when she has the most
headstrong, managing, convention-flouting character succumb to the emotions and
beliefs of her culture in Lady with a Black Umbrella.
Her reluctant suitor, after asking Daisy to marry him and having spent
two pages trying to convince her, comes up with the winning argument -- the need
to salvage her sister's Season:
As the elderly
relative of social emotions, expectations are habits of thought turned into
custom, and assumptions about the framework of the past, present and future.
Life assumptions, for example, can develop into unmet expectations: A
young person shows unexpected wisdom, or an older woman meets a man and gets
married against the expectations of society.
Work up typical expectations for the lives of various parts of society,
and you'll know exactly when your character is going to challenge assumptions.
The social calendar in
general holds expectations that are tied to the season or the clock. Are there
leftovers from an earlier time? If not, get some! Any culture will have rituals that no
longer make much sense.
In The Flight of
the Old Dog, Dale Brown tweaks expectations of the generation gap and the
preference for the newest and best. McLanahan,
an upcoming young navigator, encounters much older General Elliott:
You have your writing
plans, your characters have their own plans, and entities larger than your
characters also have plans. Various
groups are trying to shape their part of the world the way they think it should
be -- and they'll recruit or oppose your characters.
The first thing to do
is figure out what these groups are and what their plans are.
The second thing is to figure out how, when, and where these plans are
going to clash with everyone else.
From individual to
family to work group to religious organization to national leadership to
terrorist organization -- they all exist for a purpose.
There are more groups in a world than I could possibly mention, each with
a goal, opinions about how to reach the goal, thoughts on how they're doing
right now, and so forth.
It might seem that
intricate developments of this type belong to certain genres -- the suspense
novel, murder mystery, or such -- but building group plans and interactions
helps enlarge even a straightforward quest.
One main difference between a simple tale like The Hobbit and an
epic like The Lord of the Rings is the way the quest is shown to affect
the lives and plans of groups as well as individuals.
Look at all the groups
who are affected by the passing of the Ring, until the war is shown to be
completely world-changing: from the Elves looking to depart the world and
instead getting drawn into its troubles; to the Ents, older than old, rewriting
their ancient knowledge; to the two kingdoms of men, shaken and changed; to the
hobbits of the Shire, facing the effects of the war even in their remote corner
of the world; and finally to the disruption of Frodo's own future.
If your story is not
epic, there are still uses for group time plans.
Techno-thrillers often use the device that some crisis is happening and
someone finds out, but the decision is made to handle it secretly within a
particular group. The reader's
attention becomes focused on the crisis: have the characters figured it out
correctly? Will they have the
resources to handle it? Are they going to have to bring outside help in?
Will they be discovered keeping secrets from their allies or supporters?
Going on from here
As writers we spend a
lot of our time looking for conflicts to make our stories move in interesting
and enjoyable ways. Worldbuilding
helps us keep those proposed conflicts consistent and believable.
Building time into your world not only makes the story more consistent,
but also creates and exposes fault lines where interesting conflicts might
Think about time and
history, emotional connections, cultural expectations, and the plans of groups
when you develop your world. It
will allow your world additional complexity to fill the story like the various
rhythms of a symphony orchestra filling a concert hall.
Make enough time as well as place and your story will have enough room to
unfold to its full potential.
To explore further:
The September 2002
issue of Scientific American magazine
summary at this web page : http://www.americanhistory.si.edu/media/pr991118.htm
Flight of the Old
Dog by Dale Brown, Berkley Pub Group, ISBN 0-425-10893-7
Lady with a Black
Umbrella, by Mary Balogh, NAL, ISBN 0-451-16222-6, currently out of print
The Hobbit and The
Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, mass market box set, Ballantine Books,