On Being The Lord of All Creation

Shasta Dam under construction, California

“God, I hate building foundations. Let’s skip this shit and go straight to picking out paint colours.”(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s talk world building.

Most of what I write is speculative fiction, specifically fantasy and horror, or some mash-up of the two. I dabble a bit in science fiction as well. An important aspect of these genres is the world in which they are set. It’s different than ours in some notable way: magic, aliens, magical aliens, magical alien ghosts that come out of the walls and eat your face. Something.

So world building is necessary, in varying amounts of detail. An urban fantasy can be very close to our world; it just has a twist. Ditto for most horror. Science fiction and other world fantasy, on the other hand, often require more work.

And, man, is it fucking surprising how many authors don’t put in that work. I read more fantasy than sci-fi, and if I read about one more poorly developed pseudo-medieval England, I think I’ll develop a rage tumour.* There’s nothing wrong with those settings when they’re done well. But so often they’re not. They’re just the default setting for fantasy, and, frankly, lazy.

The problem is that too many writers look upon world building—that is, creating a solid foundation and setting in the midst of which your story takes place—as a fucking drag. Too much work, when what they really want to be doing is developing characters and refining the plot. And those things are important. But I invite those complainers to consider this question: what person, real or imagined, is so divorced from their world that it has no affect on them? No one, that’s who. Even a character who has made an effort to cut themselves off from their world must have a pretty goddamn compelling reason for it. Consider what that is, and you might just have yourself a whole new subplot.

See, that’s the key. If you really love your characters, and want to make them as real as possible, then you have to consider how they were shaped by their world. Did they grow up poor or wealthy? What does that mean in the context of this world? Born in the country? What country? Is it mountains, or forests, or desert? What kind of education did they receive out there? What’s the most dominant influence on a person’s status: family, religion, caste, ability, geography, or something else altogether?

And this is just the tip. Questions are like cockroaches: get one, and you know there’s a dozen others hiding somewhere, waiting for the lights to go off. But answering them will give your characters life, and new adventures.

Now, you can go too far. That’s when you get World Builder’s Disease, in which an author spends so much time on the world that they forget to make characters that don’t suck, or plots that aren’t crappy. But that’s a post for another day.

So stop looking on world building as a chore, and treat it like another form of character and plot development. Those people you’re making grew up there. They love it, or hate it, or treat it with a vague indifference for a reason. Their world view was shaped by the intricacies of their societies and their environments.

Just like yours.

(PS: for speculative writers, there’s an interesting resource called 30 Days To A World. It’s a series of exercises that helps you develop a world from the ground up**, no matter how far you are in the plot process. Try it. If nothing else, it’ll give you some new questions to ask.)

*Treatable these days, but the treatment involves a lot of cotton candy and kittens. And bourbon.

**You’re on your own for the ground down. I’ve yet to see a development plan for lava and mineral strata.

Things I’m Judging You For Right Now


The Attack Bees of Violent Judgement are immune to your feeble pleas for mercy. But they do like rum. Fucking drunk bee minions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Related to fiction writing, that is. That other stuff is between you and God/The Universe/The police/the neighbour with the restraining order.)

1. Passive voice: I had to put up with enough of this shit in academia. Any attempt to inflict it on my current life will result in the offender being dragged outside and beaten with a thigh-high stocking filled with kitchen utensils.* Knock that shit off. (Edit: some people would like clarification, so here you are. Don’t write, “Jimmy was hit by the car.” Write “the car hit Jimmy.” The first example adds useless words and slows the pace. End side-bar.)

2. Sock Puppets: I’m on to you. Don’t pretend that side character with an inexplicably long monologue only vaguely related to the plot is there for the story. It’s just a way for you to make a point, and a clumsy way at that. You want to make a point, go start a blog like every other maladjusted twat with an axe to grind. I can even give you some tips on how to get started.** But don’t drop that crap on me in the middle of a story. I haven’t been to Sunday School in eighteen years, and I’m not interested in going while I’m trying to read.

3. Tokens: If I see one more shallow, thinly-veiled attempt at inclusion in a work of fiction, I will set the Attack Bees of Violent Judgement on the offender. Gay characters, transgendered characters, polyamourous characters, characters of varied ethnicity, background, or sexuality—they should be characters first. Not shills, not a way to show how cool and accepting you are. If they exist only to fill the mandated ‘not a straight monogamous white dude’ quota, get the fuck out. It’s insulting and annoying.

4. Paper Tigers: If someone’s going to be a bad guy, then for the love of Crom, make them a goddamned bad guy. Don’t pull their teeth. Don’t force them to make choices that help the heroes just because you want the story to go a certain way. If your heroes can’t handle the villain, then they’re not the people for the job. They should go home and hide under the bed while they wait for the real heroes to turn up and kick some ass. Or die horribly. I’m not picky.

5. Born This Way: Related to number four, don’t show me villains without cause. The secret to creating good villains: they should believe they’re doing the right thing. No one sees themselves as the bad guy. Give them a reason why they want to turn the population into viscous gene-spliced soup, and use that. “Because they’re the bad guy” does not cut it. When I come across this crap in a story, I feel like the author believes I’m too stupid to question a character. And then I stop reading.

6. Sad Panda Assassins: Okay, this is kind of specific, but I’ve seen it a few times, especially in fantasy fiction. A serious thought on the sanctity of life and the wrongness of their actions is fine once or twice, but every fucking time? Dude either needs to shut up or find a new profession. Possibly as a flagellant.

Right. That’s my little list of vitriol and bile for the day. So, what’s annoying you about fiction lately?

*Any volunteers willing to check the internet and find out if this is already a thing? I’d do it myself, but I’m all out of mind-bleach.
**Step One: Embracing Your Maladjusted Twat-ness. It’s clear I already have.