Friday, April 29, 2011

Y - The One Letter that's also my Favourite Question


I believe that “Why?” is the most important question of worldbuilding. It is, in fact, probably the most important question of any kind of planning. Why.

Everything in your setting should be connected. There’s a reason (if not multiple reasons) behind every action we take, every trend we follow, every dream we have, every political current that emerges. These reasons are often unconscious, but when you build your setting it is important to delve deep into its psyche. You can’t leave it to luck.

“Why” isn’t just about knowing how your setting evolves, however. It’s also a way to research it.

Let’s say your story demands your character is deprived of her belongings upon arriving in a certain society. Why would they do that? Perhaps it’s a society that frowns upon the concept of property. Perhaps they are afraid of strangers and take no chances. Or maybe it’s because she’s a woman.

All of these raise more question, though! Why do they frown upon property? Was there a tyrant in their past who grabbed all the riches? Are they afraid of strangers because they’re isolated? Why are they isolated (do they live on an island? Deep in a network of caves? In floating cities? Do they flee when strangers arrive?)  And last... why do women bother them? Is it simple an ultra-patriarchal society? Do they associate women with an evil of sorts? Or do they on the contrary believe they possess a power that allows survival despite having belongings?

I could go on endlessly. It’s what I do when I worldbuild. Knowing the causes of something informs me about it.

So don’t be shy. Use Why. Connect with your four-year-old self again! Your understanding of your WIP can only grow from it.


  1. So true! I often forget to question why things are the way they are in my book.

  2. There are a lot of dystopian books out right now that I wish had asked more "why" questions. The stories are still good but then you come to something within the society that doesn't make any sense...there's no logical reason they should be behaving the way they are.

    Why is a gret question to ask over and over again until you've exhausted the possibilities.

  3. Oh gosh yes. My developmental notes for any project consist *mainly* of questions. What if this and what if that and why would he and could she but then how would that affect...

  4. Sommer: I've always thought questionning the reason was especially important when the society or world you're building is wildly different from what we're used to see. It's cool to have behaviour that diverges from the norm, but readers will instinctively seek to justify it with something they can grasp. You have to provide *something* for them to latch on as a reasoning or they might stop believing.

    Margo: I always have a whole document called "brainstorm" which is full of questions. My raw ideas take that form, and when I do the initial brainstorm I try not to hold back.

  5. Don't be shy...use why. Love it! Because if the author doesn't know why, the reader won't, either.

    Pleased to meet you via A to Z.

  6. I think "why" really is the most important question! Especially when it comes to challenging our own assumptions and stretching ourselves as writers. Great post!