Worldbuilding Done Right

Happy Wednesday, gang. Don’t forget you have the rest of the week to enter my little giveaway! Just link back to this blog and show me in the comments that you did, or sign up to receive email updates, and you’ll get entered to win a Kristin-made craft!

Secondly, be sure to check out my new post over on Spellbound Scribes, Casting from Hell, in which I discuss how sorry I feel for actors that would portray my characters. Those poor suckers would be crying all the way to the bank.

Thirdly, check out Liv Rancourt’s new post, Anita Blake, Christian Warrior?, sparked by a comment she left in Friday’s discussion of Religion in Urban Fantasy.

Phew, that’s a lot of business for one day. Now, back to regularly scheduled programming.

Does anyone else remember when Battlestar Galactica was the best sci-fi show EVER? (Oh, good heavens, no, not the original one—the new one that aired from 2003-2009.)

Alcoholic, cancer patient, daddy-issues, sociopath, hallucination, sleeper agent: now there’s a slice of humanity. Image via Battlestar Wiki.

In the early seasons, the characterization, the suspense, and the knowledge that no one was safe drove the show to unbelievable emotional heights, and then it jumped the shark and everything got weirdly religious and super-depressing.

Yep, that’s a teaser for an upcoming religion-and-sci-fi post.

But the main thing that made this show so engrossing was almost unnoticeable, even though it was visible in every single shot of the show: the worldbuilding. You can see it in the aesthetics (there are no square corners), the costumes (female pilots wear the same thing as male pilots), the language (“Frak!”). It’s everywhere, and it makes this world complete.

Take the episode, “Water,” one of the most tension-fraught television episodes I’ve ever watched. In the midst of the paranoia and worry over the future, Commander Adama and President Roslin stop to have a conversation about books.  They discuss A Murder on Picon, just one of the many examples of arts and literature in this universe, and both know the book—wildly different characters have common cultural ground.

And that’s how it should be done. Check it out: you won’t find better worldbuilding on television.

What are some other examples of stellar worldbuilding, readers? I love me a brave new world to watch or read.

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Between This World and the Next

How much time do you spend worldbuilding?

I’ve found that I have such a vivid mental image of my world when I’m writing that I don’t include enough worldbuilding detail in the book itself. When writing Shaken, I knew I’d have to do a rewrite for scene-setting detail.

I started doing this deliberately. New writers tend to overreach and spend way too much time describing. They give detail about the world around the characters, the characters’ appearances, sunsets, food… It’s especially bad in fantasy. Call it the Tolkien or the GRRM effect: new writers describe everything at great length.

Ultimately, the world is in the details. You don’t need five pages describing the landscape of your Hoth-inspired ice planet populated with woolly-mammoth people. Your woolly-mammoth girl main character might not spend hours reflecting on the landscape around her; neither would she explain to the reader the oligarchical structure of their woolly-mammoth society. She would take those things for granted. But you can give the reader a sense of the world with the little details, like how she dresses her long coat-hair or what she feeds her pet sabertooth tiger.

Long descriptions have their place, but they need to actually add something to the book instead of just indulging your poetic leanings.

Let’s talk about urban fantasy, though, because worldbuilding can get tricky there.

How much do you blend your personal world with our shared world?

Kim Harrison, I think, does an excellent job with this. The Hollows United States is recognizably the world we live in, but it’s also distinctly different from ours and has its on unique interior culture. Small references to things like “Bite Me Betty” dolls and Hollows-world musicians make it separate from our world and more fantastic.

A problem I had with Zoo City was that it was way too steeped in our world. When I’m reading, I want to feel like I’m escaping our world, not seeing all its ugliness in combination with all the flaws of an alternate world as well. I suspect the book won’t age well, because it’s too dependent on current pop culture to add context for readers.

Is this a personal preference? How much worldbuilding do you like to read? How distinct do you like fantasy worlds to be from our own?