Tag: World building

Fantasy Tropes and Cliches – Beginning with the World

When someone says “epic fantasy” there is a general idea of what it will entail: woods and forests, elves and dwarves, adventurers and magicians and fighting and quests. All in a medieval-style setting. Possibly with dragons. 🙂 Tolkien is much to blame for this. But he isn’t alone.  Book after book after book falls into these same cliche’d storylines. Often, it is the plot that we blame.  We say it is poor storytelling.  But beyond plot, another way that we promote fantasy tropes and cliches is in our very worldbuilding.  Medieval setting? Elf land, dwarven mountains, major port city, a desert land occupied by nomads…all are things we have seen over and over. So perhaps, the best place to start when addressing cliches isn’t in the story, but the world itself.

🙂 Sarithus on Deviant Art says this all in a very simple, very amusing, and very true map. We give you the “Map of Clichea.”

Map of Clichea by Sarithus

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#Writing and #Worldbuilding Resources

WorldBuilding Moon, Cityscape and Book

World building is one of those parts of writing fiction that people either feel comes naturally to them or that they struggle incessantly with.  I can’t say I’ve met anyone who says, “Oh yeah, it’s just another part of writing.” One of the activities we are doing in our local writing group is having presentations and guided discussions as a way to share information and resources and learn together. I just led tonight’s talk on worldbuilding.  We talked about how we did it as individuals, what we struggled with, what we enjoyed and how our writing process was impacted (i.e. are you a plotter or pantser and how did that play in).

Just thought I would leave some of links that we used below:

Worldbuilding Information and Resources

 Collected for Cat Vacuuming Society Writing Group (7/9/15)

30 Days of Worldbuilding Exerciseshttp://www.web-writer.net/fantasy/days/
These are short, 15-minute exercises that can help you make crucial decisions about your world, and what you want your story to say about it.

Jump-Start your Imagination Creative Writing Exerciseshttp://howtowriteshop.loridevoti.com/2011/02/jump-start-your-imagination-creative-writing-exercises-for-worldbuilding/

7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding http://io9.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537
When worldbuilding fails, it can wreck your whole story, and leave your characters feeling pointless.


Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuildinghttp://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/09/17/25-things-you-should-know-about-worldbuilding/
Worldbuilding is one of those topics that bakes my noodle every time my brain chooses to dwell on it. I have a whole bucket full of opinions, many of them in stark disagreement with one another. World-building covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.

Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions on SFWAhttps://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
The list of questions is meant to aid authors of fantasy fiction who are seeking to create believable imaginary settings for their stories. While many may be helpful, they will not all apply to every story. The idea is simply to provoke people into thinking about the ways their settings and backgrounds hang together.

Worldbuilding versus Storytelling (Or Does the Phantom Menace have Better Worldbuilding than Star Wars: A New Hope) – http://io9.com/does-the-phantom-menace-have-better-worldbuilding-than-1026016172
The original Star Wars doesn’t explain. You’re just thrown in the deep end with a space battle. In The Phantom Menace we have trade disputes and negotiations. Does the prequel then have better worldbuilding than A New Hope?

Hunter Liguore’s World Building Through Map Makinghttp://www.draftjournal.com/content/draft_exercise-liguore.pdf
Let’s say you’re writing a story about a family that lives on a farm in the late 1800s. (Think O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.) Your main character works in town, two miles from the farm. If you were to make a map, you would immediately mark these two locations. But what else is there? What surrounds the farm? What might your character encounter on that two mile journey? Some questions you might ask yourself.

WWW: Let’s Worldbuild

I’ve done an exercise like this at a CVS meeting, and I figured I’d give it a try here to see how it works.

Here in the DC area it’s been constantly overcast since Saturday. During that time we’ve had periods of fog, rain, we’ve got some snow predicted for tomorrow, and in between those it’s just been a mottled grey overcast sky. The only break is night, though the nights are without stars or moon. So let’s use that as our starting point for a planet. Ignoring the underlying science behind why the sky is constantly overcast, we’ll take it as a given that the sky is constantly overcast. That part we’re not concerned about.

So one planet. During the day the sky is overcast heavily enough that the sun cannot be pinpointed. The cloud layer uniformly illuminates during the day. There’s a single sun (though this scenario would be interesting in a binary system) so there’s an even day night cycle with some seasonal drift.

Let’s put on this planet an intelligent race and advance them to, roughly, the atomic age. They can understand and utilize the power of the atom, for better or for worse.

Now that we’ve got a planet, and we’ve got people on it, perhaps a few questions.

  1. What is their view of time?
  2. What is their view of their place in the cosmos?
  3. How might they react to a visitor from above the clouds?
  4. How might they react to traveling about the cloud layer?

I’m going to start with the second question, even though I numbered them myself and could have made that question the first question. I’ve seen a similar set-up in science fiction where a planetary system is placed inside a nebular cloud with no view of the outside cosmos. The conceit is always that the species feels alone in the universe. But within the nebular cloud the species would at least be aware of their sun, their satellites, and any other planets in their system. With this constant overcast the planet is more thoroughly isolated. Instead of feeling that their solar system is all that there is, a species growing up on this planet would likely feel the planet is all that is. To the point that the question “is there something out there?” is meaningless in a way we can’t really grasp.

Think about it this way. The broadest cosmological question that we ask as a species right now is whether ours is the only universe. It’s not something that a lot of people think about, and it requires a lot of theoretical notions of the nature of reality, but at least the question flows from a series of abstractions. We know we’re on a planet, we know it is part of a larger collection of planets called a solar system, which is part of a collection of solar systems called a galaxy, which is part of a collection of galaxies called a universe. So is there a collection of universes called a multiverse? And what would a collection of multiverses be? We ask these questions, but that’s because we have a series of intermediate steps to build on. So this clouded planet might not ask “is there something out there” because “out there” is a concept completely foreign. There’s nothing to abstract from.

So we’ve created a completely insular planet. No general concept of “out there,” viewing itself as all and everything. I wonder if such a society would develop space travel, just because there’s no clear place to travel to. Or would there be those who abstract from city to country to continent to planet to…is there something out there bigger than a planet?

I’m going to stop here, because I intended this as an interactive sort of thing. So what would you add to the culture of this planet? How did society evolve? And if you want to tackle the question of space travel, either to or from the planet, what does it look like? What are the repercussions? Let’s build something up in the comments, and see where it goes.

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WWW: Troping The Generations

I’ve been thinking about generation ships lately. Not because I have any interest in setting off across the stars, then dying, so that my great great great great great great great great great great great *deep breath* great great grandchildren can land on a new planet and have to scramble together creating a meager existence on a hostile rock dozens of light years away from a planet they never knew. Largely because there’s not one in the works. Unless you know something I don’t know. Do you?

Sorry, got distracted there. No, I’m thinking about generation ships because I’ve got some plot ideas. Three that I think are the foundation of a trilogy of novels, and a few stray ideas that might work their ways into short stories. But this isn’t about my ideas for generation ships, this is about ideas others have had. Looking at the stories out there, two tropes stand out.

Trope the first. Passengers on a generation ship forget they’re on a generation ship. The original Star Trek did it in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” an episode title so long that it was quicker to look it up and copy-and-paste the title. Heinlein used the trope in two novellas that became Orphans of the Sky. It’s the central theme behind the novels Non-Stop and Captive Universe. This is, in shot, your go-to story when creating a generation ship plot.

And I understand it. There’s a built in twist, at least when the story is being told from inside rather than from outside. There’s the internal conflict of what to do with this information. There’s the potential external conflict if a small number of people are the holders of this knowledge. There’s the potential for plots where the ship that no one knows is a ship is disastrously off course, so you get the one-two discovery punch. There are fascinating stories to be told within this structure. However, entirely because of these stories, it strikes me that the first essential thing anyone on a generation ship would learn is the nature of their ship. Because widespread ignorance of this fact leads only to troubles several generations down the road. 2001 isn’t about a generation ship, but it did teach me one thing: don’t trust the ship’s computer to do everything.

Trope the second. Monocultural generation ships. Really, within science fiction there’s a wider monocultural trope. It can be a generation ship, an off-earth colony, a starship. Anywhere that a writer can put a community that starts with a small seed has that opportunity to be a monoculture. In the above mentioned Captive Universe, the culture is Aztec (thus giving us the one-two punch of tropes). In The Dazzle of Day, recommended to me by several Twitter users when I asked about generation ship stories that don’t use the forgetting plot, the generation ship is populated entirely by Quakers. In the Doctor Who episode “The Beast Below” it’s a generation ship entirely populated by the Welch and English, with another ship of Scotsmen existing somewhere never seen on-screen.

Again, this is a great trope. Ideas like these are reused because there’s a lot of story-telling potential. It’s an opportunity to examine what is typically an isolated minority on Earth and see how that culture responds to being at least dominant, and often all-encompassing. What becomes of that culture when allowed to purify itself down to the roots? What happens when someone speaks out against that culture?

I’m not saying that every generation ship story falls into one of these two categories. The starliner Axiom in Pixar’s WALL•E has a hell of a lot of problems, but it’s not monocultural (unless “fat American slobs” is a monoculture) and the passengers clearly know they’re on a generation ship, even if they treat it more as a cruise ship. They know they came from a place called Earth, and they expect to go back there one day. In its own way the Axiom is an odd version of a generation ship, as it’s going out and back. Clearly it can and will return to Earth at any time, just as soon as the planet is no longer toxic to human life. It’s a fascinating set-up, and while I like the story told in WALL•E, there are other stories that could be set on the Axiom.

And I think that’s what’s drawing me to generation ships, and to the idea of setting multiple stories on a single generation ship. It’s easy to take a story out of a moment of time within a generation ship. The moment of departure. The moment of arrival. The moment of someone discovers the nature of the ship. The moment the cute little robot brings a plant in a boot to the ship. By coming up with several stories, I hope to have some fun looking at the ship and the society therein evolves over the journey. But…wow, does that make for a lot of world building.

I’m going to close out by asking for recommendations! I’d like to see what other people have done with generation ships, specifically looking at generation ship, or intergalactic ark stories that don’t conform to trope the first above. I asked this on Twitter and already got the recommendations of The Dazzle of Day, Journey Into Space, and the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. Any others I should be reading? Any that I should absolutely still read even though they do trip trope the first? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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WWW: Worldbuilding Through Textbooks

I’ll admit, I’m a bit obsessed about checking blog stats over at my site.  Numbers of visitors, hits, pages per visit, Google search terms, I eat it all up.  The other day one of the Google results stood out: “what were the two reasons that north carolina entered into a period of transition?”  It looked so much like a homework question that I put it back into Google.  Right as rain, I came across the textbook that the question came out of, as well as sites such as Wiki Answers that had the same question posted.  That put me into Grumpy Old Man David mode, so I looked up the questions two chapters further on, and decided to write a post that had entirely wrong answers for all of them.

And then on Saturday I got a hit for one of the new questions.  Awesome!

I tell you that story not to gloat about catching a middle school student doing their homework on Google (bah, punk kids on my lawn), but to pass on something rather accidental that came from the exercise.  When I first answered the questions, the answers were unrelated to each other.  For example, I said that the two actions Congress took at the beginning of WWII that affected North Carolina were ceding the state to Germany and then immediately invading to practice for D-Day.  But that didn’t work with any of the previous questions.  So I went back and changed the answers until they formed a single narrative.

At which point I realized what I was doing.  World building.  Specifically alternate history world building.  Now I want to write a story in the world I created, which is a dieselpunk time travel story with a little bit of secret history built in.  It was such an unintentional thing, but it turned out to be a really fantastic approach.

In my case, I got questions out of a middle school North Carolina history text book, but that was only because that’s what got me into it with that original Google hit.  I’ve not yet tried branching out, but I suspect that middle school books might be the right level for this exercise, as they focus on broader looks at history.  High school history focuses on tighter details.  And while I did this with a history book and turned it into an alternate history exercise, I suspect it might work with a biology or geology textbook for the purposes of different planet world building.

I’d be interested in seeing if other people have tried this approach, or might give it a try in the future, see if it’s something where I got lucky and ended up world building, or if this is a legitimate approach.

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Wednesday Writerly Words


Okay, those weren’t actually writerly words at all, but the World Cup makes me think of two things.  First is how sports that are so popular in the rest of the world can be so unpopular in the US.  And second is about a former member of our writing group who disappeared to cheer for the US in 2006 and never came back again.  I’m horrible with names, but what I do remember is Silent America.  He created a future world that immediately intrigued the group with that one throwaway detail, one he admitted he never planned to revisit, the fact that somewhere along the line, America just went silent.  This world he built was beautiful and well thought out, and probably the best bit of world building I’ve seen, published or not.   And I walked away from it with two lessons:

1)  While world building is necessary for just about any story not set in the time and place your readers live, don’t let it get in the way of the story.  Yes, there are books out there where the plot is just a thin pastiche spread out to give the author an excuse to show off his world, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

2)  Much like Silent America, your readers may latch onto something you didn’t intend them to latch onto.  In my own work, it’s the talking teddy bear in Capsule that was very much meant to be a cute image and then go away, but apparently haunts nightmares now.  And that’s okay, I love it when someone asks a question I never intended them to ask.  Just remember that, while answering these questions can sometimes lead your story to new and interesting places you didn’t intend, you are under no obligation to do so.

DL Thurston can be found at http://DLThurston.com/blog Rust is available now for Kindle, ePub readers, and iBooks, coming soon to Sony Reader.

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