So last time we chatted about worldbuilding I mentioned that I think that it is a skill – but a skill like some of the management professions. Worldbuilding is the ability to combine skills, knowledge, and so on to produce a setting. The worldbuilding skill lets you build a world, relying on various other things you know and do and can find, much as a manager rallies people.
Now as noted I think it’s a skill that can be identified and thus improved – which is fairly obvious as we can compare world quality and seek to improve the quality of those we build. But there’s only so much you can do with your worldbuilding ability before you have to improve what it relies on – all the other things you know and can do.
Much as a good manager needs good people a good Worldbuilder calls on a huge amount of other talents to make their setting. In fact, that leads to a problem I want to address . . .
Different Foundations (Not of the Asimov Kind)
So let me get this out of the way: worldbuilding relies on rallying your different abilities and knowledge to build a world. That means that no one does it alike, no one is the same, and everyone has advantages and problems. This makes improving oneself rather complicated.
Tolkein’s worldbuilding was the result of knowledge of myth and a love of creating language, and possibly his desire to make thesauruses cry. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a mix of sharp wit, cultural knowledge, parody, and an understanding of the human condition. The world of Psycho-Pass is one focused on extrapolating technology and psychology.
(This is just about solo worldbuilding, look at the crazy-quilt composite worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and WH40K).
Every worldbuilder is different. They have different inclinations and abilities to call on. They also have different gaps. What you, as a worldbuilder are good at and bad at is going to be different than anyone else on the planet. You will do some things better than anyone else – and find ways to screw up no one else could imagine.
Because everyone is so different, this makes it rather challenging. You wish to improve the various knowledges your worldbuilding calls on – but where do you start when there’s no obvious path?
What Do You Improve?
So, beyond your core worldbuilding skills, what others should you get, develop, improve, or at least get to functional mediocrity? This is a challenging question and an overwhelming one.
It’s overwhelming because:
- Where do you start? There’s so much you could learn and there’s not really a clear path.
- Role models can be challenging to look at because even if you admire them, you’re not them. I may love Grant Morrison and Terry Pratchett and so on but I’m not them. Even if some of them pointed to clear paths, they may be too radically different from you.
- There may be so many gaps. Even if you want to fix something, where do you start?
Ages ago I just would have shrugged and said “I dunno learn things and have fun with it.” But in time I can see it as a real issue.
However, having watched authors, friends, and myself work on worldbuilding, I have found a few major rules that’ll help:
1) Go with what you know. You will never ever know everything you need to be perfect, so work with what you know and with improving what you know. Build on your strengths.
By improving your strengths, be they genealogy or language, you are working on improving skills in a less-stressful, more personal way and using what you’ve already got in your head. In many cases, diving deep into one subject connects you to others past a certain point, just as Biology and Chemistry come together, or psychology and history intertwine.
2) Fill in the gaps when you need. Admit when you have gaps and work on filling them in – don’t ignore them or be ashamed of them. Just learn to realize when you don’t know something it’s OK to fill it in – and it won’t be perfect, just good enough to do the job.
This means you learn to fix gaps in knowledge without worrying about it – and develop your research skills. If anything, research is a another “metaskill” like wolrdbuilding every worldbuilder should have.
3) Have fun. Part of #1 is to run with what you know and enjoy and use that to be a better worldbuilder. The enthusiasm an take you down the rabbit hole more than once into some interesting and useful areas of knowledge.
By building and using what you enjoy you’ll be a better worldbuilder. It also relieves the pressure and keeps things from being too formalized – which can kill imagination.
4) Use everything. Learn to rally everything you know, learned, understand, or even have vague knowledge about. Building a world is a gritty, hands-on business, so when you have something that pops into your head use it. I’ve used everything from my knowledge of cooking to obscure historical tidbits.
Leveraging everything you have calls upon all your diverse levels of knowledge. I turn, it may lead you to new areas of skill improvement, or ideas of what you can improve. It also may help “fill in gaps” in other areas - maybe your knowledge of music is lame, but your experience with a real-life band lets you write about musicians well.
When you choose what worldbuilding skills, working with what you have, having fun, and learning to fill in your gaps (and finding what you need to fill in) is a good rule to use for improving the knowledge and abilities that let you worldbuild.
Accept The Gaps
You also have to accept you can’t know, understand, and so everything.
This is challenging. We’ve seen very talented worldbuilders who seem to know everything (to us). We’ve seen amazing creations that humble us. We figure we’ll never be as good as them.
The truth is you’ll never be like them – because we’re all different. But as good? Not so. We’re all good in different ways.
Even the authors I greatly admire are ones I can also target for criticism (I shan’t for the sake of propriety). I’ve written on this enough, been obsessed with worldbuilding enough, that the gaps jump out at me. It’s only my own sense of enthusiasm that keeps me from constantly picking myself apart when I make settings or give advice, because I’m not perfect.
You are going to do some things poorly, you are going to do some things mistakenly, and you’re going to make some doozies of errors. You can’t prevent this.
You can’t prevent this because you’re human, you don’t know everything. Building a world is playing god(dess) and you’re only human, so your qualifications are somewhat limited.
So what you can do is get better as worldbuilder, get better with all the skills and knowledge you call upon, and keep moving on. You can do more good and screw up less.
I’d even say that barreling ahead helps reduce errors. If you stay engaged, keep making good settings, keep working t it, all your other advantages may help make up for, cover up,or even repair your gaps.
Worrying about it constantly isn’t going to help – that just wastes time and energy.
Things You Might Want To Improve
OK, I gave you advice on what to improve skills-wise, but here’s a grab-bag of things I think help worldbuilders in general. Consider it inspiration if you’re really looking for where to start
- Biology – Biology of any kind gives you knowledge of a variety of things from how people react to drugs to obscure things about diseases. It’s great for designing races as well.
- Chemistry – Most people don’t know much about chemistry, but it’s a fascinating fields – considering so much of the world is chemistry. Good for worldbuilding when you want to deal with specific reactions, chemical issues, etc.
- Culture and Traditions – Wether it’s relevant to your story or not, knowledge of a given culture helps you understand people. It also gives you ideas for building fictional cultures, of course – if nothing else you may get inspired by the cultures you do know.
- Economics – Economics is an ill-appreciated area of knowledge, and its practitioners don’t always engender confidence. But as its an area few people understand, understanding it is great for designing settings as you’ll have knowledge of something that others don’t, letting you create suprising depth.
- Food – Most writing on food I find is poor as most people don’t know food, from how to cook to its history. Knowledge of food helps you flesh out cultures, produce believable writing on issues like diet and famine, and more. Just ask yourself how much of history is merely people trying to eat . . .
- History – Knowing the history of anything helps you not just use that knowledge, but use the general understanding of people and situations. History gives you a sense of cause-and-effect, which is a huge part of world building.
- Literature – Like music, literature gives you an understanding of people and how they communicate. Also probably a pretty good thing to know about if you’re a writer anyway.
- Medicine – Medicine tells you a lot about how people get hurt and sick and well as treated. That in-depth knowledge can be useful for worldbuidling, writing on diseases, or understanding injuries and their recovery. Many people have erroneous assumptions about medical issues, so it also helps you make more realistic worlds – in surprising ways.
- Music – Music is a huge part of cultures and most people take it for granted – understanding it means you don’t. I’d also add the history of music is often fascinating and inspiring.
- Psychology – Knowing people is great as you’ll probably be writing people. It also introduces you to a variety of colorful and interesting people (sometimes the very practitioners themselves) that can inspire you.
- Religion and Philosophy – Most people know less about religion and philosophy as it’s filtered through their own religion and philosophy. Knowing how people think, worship, deal with ethics, etc. gives you a lot to call on for worldbuilding, and a perspective that keeps you from being trapped by as many assumptions. As religion and philosophy is a core part of many cultures, it also gives you a big leg up on designing cultures.
- Zoology – Zoology is a gold mine of ideas for worldbuilding, from writing about real animals to extrapolating fictional ones. Just general reading on zoology can give you plenty of crazy ideas as planet Earth contains and has contained some pretty wild animals. An evening spent just watching nature documentaries can let you populate several alien worlds.
So there’s a few things I figure you may want to know as a worldbuilder. I hope it inspires you.
Concluding And Moving On
You’ll never get all the skills you use to build a world together. You have to focus on the right ones to compliment your general worldbuilding skill. Accepting your limits lets you charge ahead with what you do best.
After all, I’d say the worldbuilders so often invoked were very much themselves – and it seems to have worked for them.
Besides being yourself is the one thing you can do right.
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.