Vision: A Resource for Writers
Too Much Fun: A Review of Patricia C. Wrede's World Building Questions
By Meryl Anne Ferguson
Type "world building" into your search engine and the number of pages that come up is astounding. World building on the web is a popular hobby. Aside from the fascinating and complex worlds themselves, designed from scratch by passionate writers, role players, and world building enthusiasts, there are many pages offering assistance in creating your own individual world.
One site in particular stands out to me: Patricia C. Wrede's Fantasy World Building Questions. Wrede has written "twelve and a half" novels and several short stories, and has contributed to anthologies (http://www.dendarii.force9.co.uk/Wrede/biolog.html). In 1996, she published a series of questions (http://www.sfwa.org/writing/worldbuilding1.htm) on the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) site. These questions are designed to guide the author from beginning to end of the world creation process, not just of the physical world. The list covers science and geography as well as religion, trade, culture, government, and anything else you can think of for your world.
In her article, Wrede advises that the questions are "simply to provoke people into thinking about the ways their settings and backgrounds hang together ... or not." She also advises that you don't have to answer all of the questions, which was a relief given the number she has to offer.
With seven major categories, each broken down into a number of minor categories, and those containing a number of questions to answer, this is an exhaustive and exhausting list. It may be quite daunting to the novice world builder. However, if the list is approached in a step-by-step manner, it is easy to manage and helps develop your ideas by the simple process of asking a lot of searching questions.
Wrede uses a top-down approach, starting with the world itself. She covers the basics (gravity, landmass, satellites) and the "alternate Earth" setting, and asks some preliminary questions about magic and history. But these are only the beginning. Wrede's questions do not encourage simple yes/no answers; in fact, I would say it is extremely difficult to answer any of her questions in less than a paragraph. I recommend buying another notebook. You know you want to; what better excuse than wanting to fill it with an entire world?
With the basic questions out of the way, Wrede leads us deeper into our world by examining geography and history. At this point, I found that working without a map made it very difficult to answer the questions. Wrede makes no recommendations, but if I did these questions again I would definitely have my map in front of me, with the area for my story already outlined. My favourite question from this section was:
"Why did people settle in this country in the first place -- strategic location, trade route, water transport, minerals, good farming, etc.? Have things changed much since, or do they still depend on whatever brought them in the first place?"
A great feature of Wrede's questions is that they raise other questions about things that you might not have thought of. Possible plot ideas, new conflicts, and cultural idiosyncrasies all popped into my head at this point and my margins were littered with hastily scribbled notes. Whether this material will ever go anywhere I don't know, but it certainly helped to open up numerous possibilities.
The tendency for each question to raise other questions is a bonus, but I found it was also a problem. If you've ever done freewriting or clustering or any open-thinking techniques, you know how easy it is to follow a lead and find yourself miles from your original topic. Wrede's questions tended to do that and I found myself asking and answering questions that Wrede asks further down the list. What to do?
In the end, I stuck to answering only the original question, but noted down anything I thought of in case I wanted to follow up on it later, but you might be happy to follow your inspiration. There's no reason you can't skip a question later if you have already answered it.
The next section covered every fantasist's favourite topic: magic. Wrede asks the most important question first: what things can magic not do? Once the boundaries have been established, Wrede covers the mechanics of magic and magicians and their social status, then moves on to some searching questions about magic in day-to-day life.
The last three sections cover the minutiae of culture, and here Wrede really goes to town, asking probing questions about government, trade, social status and restrictions, and manners. She even goes into detail about diet. All of these questions, while not necessarily related to your story, can certainly provide that individual stamp you are searching for in your setting to build a solid background.
After going through the questions from top to bottom, I wondered how it would work the other way. So I started with an idea that I had had a long time ago, of a little town setting for my heroes, and tried it the other way, working from daily life back up to the world. To a point, it worked just fine; Wrede's questions in their complexity stand alone. The only problem that I had was that some of the questions required broader knowledge of my setting, but in that instance, it was a simple step to go to the section related to that area and flesh it out.
The strength of these questions definitely lies in the fact that they can stand alone and are not in any rigid order. In fact, just opening up a page and reading a question at random can start the brainstorming process, and I can see that the questions could be used in a world you have already made, if you suddenly found a lack of detail or knowledge about your culture or their environment.
Wrede's questions can be applied to any type of world: fantasy, mediaeval, alien society, or alternate Earth. So, no matter what your starting point is, these questions can help you flesh out your world, not into a thin anorexic country but a voluptuous world, lush, inviting and full of fascinating details.
If you're looking for a list to help you focus, then you may find it overwhelming. But if you want to dive headfirst into the long, complicated and extremely enjoyable process of world building, if you need to get your creative muscles working, then Wrede's work might be for you. In the end, it was a very enjoyable process for me.