Monday, October 18, 2010

The Setting is in the Details

I haven't been blogging for a long time, but it should be increasingly obvious that I love worldbuilding. There is something magical to imagining a time and place separate from our own, where everything works differently and which has its own, unique culture. I am, and will always be, fascinated thick and complex web of connections that emerges between various spheres (political, cultural, geographical, etc.) as you define your new world.

No matter how much time you spend playing around your world, adding new regions or races, or explaining the cultures in it, however, it will lack a little something called life.

Nothing will bring life in your world like actual writing.

I think it's when you write that the details of your world will emerge. They will evolve from your planning and give concrete shape to what you created. And the best way to make your world shine through without exposition is, I believe, in the details.

Our beliefs and our culture is reflected in how we talk and act in our everyday life. Subtle details spread over the course of an entire novel will have more impact than any exposition, not to mention they won't stilt your story.

Here are a few examples of what I call 'details':

Salutations and warding gestures. Here we wave at each other, or we do the christian crest to ward off ill thoughts (I apologise if that is not the correct term. It is a direct translation, and despite my best attempts, I could not find the 'official' name on the internet). Other worlds with other religions may have different sets of gestures, more related to their beliefs.

Swear words and other expressions. Many English swear words will be related to sex, whether it is direct or indirect. Here in Quebec, they are distortions of church words (and are often called Church Words). Swear words (and any other expressions, really) depend a lot of where you are. If you can come up with one that reflects your culture and could be yelled in a moment of frustration, go with it!

Clothing and architecture patterns. How easily can you identify a historical period by the clothes worn? By the buildings? There have been distinct variations throughout history, and when you research them, you realise there are always cultural reasons behind them. Think of how your society's belief will influence how they build and what they wear. As an example, my expansion-obsessed culture will be wearing ample clothes, with hanging sleeves.

Historical/Religious/Geographical references: There are many terms used in our daily vocabulary that are references to past events or to important figures. Don't be afraid to event some, but make sure they are easily understood. If the first time you use a name, what you are trying to say is obvious, you are establishing a life to your setting outside of this novel. That's good, but do be careful not to make obscure and impossible-to-get references. If they sound like an inside joke, you're doing it wrong.

All of these don't have to be planned in advance. Some can be, but in my case it often comes up naturally, and I write them down in a separate document to keep track. After all, I wouldn't want to confuse two elements, and I like to reuse key details until the reader remembers them!


  1. I like world building too. This is a great list, by the way. I'm always worried that I'm thinking up something unique that has already been done and I don't know it!

  2. Lydia, thinking up of something that already exists isn't bad in itself. Heck, it's bound to happen! Using details is one way to make your setting unique.

    Good writing is as much in the execution than in the ideas. :)