Friday, May 8, 2015

The Two Questions of World Building

Everything, most especially art, revolves around questions. For instance, a composer of music for an orchestra must ask himself many questions: “What instruments should play when?” “Which notes should follow which?” “How will changing this section change the tone of the piece?” “What tone do I want in this piece?” “Why doesn’t this part sound right?
I could go on.

Questions are everywhere, even in writing. To be more specific, there are many questions when you build a world. We’ve already discussed the questions “Why a world?” “Where do I start?” and “What shouldn’t I do?” That’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?

Oh look, this leads to another question:
“What’s next?”
At some point, my advice to you will become null and void because you’ve reached a point where what you do next is based on what you’ve already done. If I try to give you advice on something that you don’t need advice on, it won’t do you (or me) any good.
So, before I try to give some pointers on some general world-building subjects, I want to introduce the two questions every world builder should ask themselves:

1. How?
This is a question that takes many forms. It’s important because the ‘how’ is what the reader will see. They’ll see how people react to their environment, how the environment is different from ours, how things must be fixed, how things work, and some on. If you look at the list I mentioned two weeks ago - the list I use as a starting point for building my worlds - most of the items on this list involve a lot of “How?”
A simple way to flesh out an area of world building is to pick it apart by asking this simple word.
For example, take the rather broad subject of Clothing from my list. You could ask: “How do people dress?”
Prepare for a bit of a headache. Unless your world is the size of a Pacific Island, then there will be a lot of diversity in this area. So instead of trying to tackle the broad subject with one question, try breaking it down into manageable chunks. I like to tackle this subject by country, since people in most countries have similar tastes in clothing. Then it’s a simple process of coming up with answers to questions such as:

How do men dress?
How do women dress?
How do children dress?
How does the climate in certain areas change their dress?
How do the seasons change what these people wear?
How much color do people like? Or lack thereof?
How does one’s social status change one’s sense of fashion?

I could go on, but that’s a good starting point.
You can extrapolate this sort of reasoning to other areas of world building: Government, religion, climate and weather, history, and more.

2. Why?
This question, I think, is the most powerful question, and the least visible. It’s also the most difficult to answer. It requires more than just a visible, logical answer. Asking “why” involves delving into people, and picking them apart. Wanting to know the answer means questioning motives, desires, and will.
It’s hard, but it’s rewarding.
The most difficult part of asking this question is that, often enough, the answer is “because”. And sometimes there’s no other reason than that. The action in question is an answer to itself.
But then, maybe it’s not. Maybe the reason the answer is ‘because’ comes from our subconscious desire to be lazy. “Because” is easier than any other answer.
Admit this to yourself. Give your subconscious a kick in the pants (as the saying goes… do subconscious wear pants?) and settle down to answer the question.

Take government, for example. There are a lot of questions you can ask that start with how:

How does the government rule?
How much of a say do the people get?
How much power does the king get, if there is one?
How are laws made?
How are they enforced?
How are judges, officials, and nobles chosen?
How often are there elections, if there are any?

And so on.

Now for why:

Why did the people choose the government they did?
If they didn’t choose it, why do they let this government rule them?
Why is [insert law] enforced? (Bonus: Who benefits from this law?)
Why is a certain lineage considered ‘noble’ or ‘royal’?
Why a [monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, democracy, etc.]?
Why this law, or that law, or that one?
Why are the leaders [oppressive, fair, right, wrong, evil, and good]?

These questions are a lot harder than the ‘how’ questions. Some of the first set can be answered in one word; others may take a sentence or two. But these last questions might take a paragraph or two, and some deep, long-considered thoughts.

In the end, both questions are important. You can’t have one without the other, and you can’t have a world without either. All it takes is a little time, a little determination, and a little kick in the metaphorical pants to get it done. And who knows, the answers might be genius.

What about you? What questions do you ask yourself when you build a world? Leave a comment and share!

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