Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.8: Worldbuilding Q&A #1

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and DongWon

We invited attendees at WXR 2018 to ask us some general worldbuilding questions. Here’s what they asked:

  • What cultural stuff do you need to know during the writing process?
  • How do you treat overlaps between real-world religions and fictional religions when the fictional religions are part of the story’s fundamental conflict?
  • How much worldbuilding do you have figured out before you start your first draft, and how much do you discover on the fly?
  • What’s the point in a book beyond which you shouldn’t introduce big worldbuilding elements?
  • How do you ensure that the world comes through as a character of its own?
  • How much change to terminology is too much?

Credits: This episode was recorded live by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: What do you do about time in your universe? Spend some time considering how it is demarcated in your setting.

Thing of the week: Spinning Silverby Naomi Novik.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:

Q: What cultural stuff do you need to know throughout the writing process?

A; What are the axes of power in the world. Economic status, social hierarchies, which ones will your character intersect with in the story. What cultural stuff do I need to make the world feel real? What cultural stuff drives the conflict in my story? What cultural stuff impacts the characters to give them character arcs? Specificity! What practices are embodied in your story, where did they come from, why are they used? What is likely to come up, what do I need to think about to make it interesting and varied.

Q: When worldbuilding religion, I often find that portions of the fictional religions have overlapped with real world religions. How do you treat those overlaps with respect, especially when problems with the in-world religion are part of the story’s conflict?

A: Being a real-world religious person with a deep and abiding respect for the multiple sides. Multiple viewpoints wherever possible. Tell somebody’s specific story, not a story about a class of people. 

Q: For your worldbuilding, how much do you have figured out before you start your first draft, and how much do you discover later as you write?

A: It depends. Do it in layers, a broad overview, then dig in where needed, with research in the recesses of your imagination. Frontload where possible, but go back and patch and connect, too. 

Q: Much like how it can be bad if you introduce key characters too late in the narrative, such as the last one third, what would you say is the threshold where you should have introduced all major worldbuilding elements? Halfway or something else, and does it change based on genre or intended audience?

A: Tie the new worldbuilding elements to character conflict and development, and you can keep doing it. Introduce the new elements slightly before they matter. Introduce the element for a different reason.

Q: I was wondering how do you ensure the world comes through as a character of its own?

A: It doesn’t always have to be a character, sometimes it’s just an important setting. Name it, then give it a personality. How does the POV character interact with the environment? Is it an antagonist, or a sidekick? Give the world scene time of its own. Look at how the setting influences plot and character decisions. Pay attention to the language you use to describe the environment.

Q: When worldbuilding in science fiction or fantasy, how much change to terminology is too much? For example, a new calendar system, units of measurement, or currency?

A: Some worldbuilding elements are more easily grokked than others. Hemi-deca blerks! What do you want to say about the culture? 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode Eight.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Worldbuilding, Questions and Answers.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Howard] And you have questions. By you, I’m speaking to the you in the audience of WXR 2018 attendees before me.

[Whoo! Applause]

[Howard] This episode was recorded live on a ship in the Caribbean. We’re pretty in love with this model. It’s a lot of fun.

[Mary Robinette] This… I really like the way we have built our world, I have to say.



[Dan] Although technically, we’re in the Gulf of Mexico, not the Caribbean. Just pointing out the errors in your worldbuilding. Consistency is key.

[Howard] We’re on the water, and it’s pretty.


[Mary Robinette] That piece of the worldbuilding is all I actually need to know. Which is often the case with worldbuilding.

[Howard] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] But the nice thing about this is that we have a live audience, which means that we can go to them for questions. Shall we start with your first one, or do you have other things to do?

[Howard] Nononono. That’s just great.

[Christopher] Hello, my name is Christopher Adkins. What cultural stuff do you need to know throughout the writing process?

[Dan] Cultural stuff?

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I like to think about are what the axes of power are for the world? Because those are going to affect the way my character moves through the world. The economic status, social hierarchies, those are the things that I think about. I only think about the ones that are… My character’s going to intersect with in the story. So in short fiction, I’m likely to kind of think about the axes of power. But probably only a couple of them are going to come into play in the story. So there’s only going to be… Those are going to be the ones that I will really define.

[Howard] I… The things that I need to know about cultural stuff upfront is do I need cultural stuff in order for the world I am building to feel real? Do I need cultural stuff in order for there to be conflict that drives my story? And, do I need there to be cultural stuff that impacts my characters in ways that gives them character arcs? I approach it first from narrative. From there, there’s a bazillion stuff I’ll end up needing to know.

[Dongwon] I’ll just say, specificity is really important in building culture. Often times, if you’re modeling a real-world culture, what you want to do is make sure that you have specific practices that are embodied in your work. But also make sure you know where those come from and why they’re used, right? Where I see this going off the rails a lot of times is they’ll take a practice without understanding the role it plays in the society, and therefore undermine the purpose of that practice or end up saying something insulting about it by accident. So what you want to do is do your homework, pick something very specific, and then figure out how to transform it so that it fits your world without being in direct contradiction to the purpose and the point of that practice in the first place.

[Dan] Before I start to write, I will come up… I will think about the things that are most likely to come up that I will need to describe on-the-fly, and I will kind of prep them in advance. So when I wrote my cyberpunk series, I had a whole list of technologies and companies that made them. When I… In the fantasy that I’m currently writing, I figured out, well, in this country, these are the kinds of foods they eat and the kinds of jobs they have. Just because then… If I don’t do that, I know that everyone is going to be a lumberjack eating stew.


[Dan] So having something ready to go, so I can be more interesting and more varied, helps me a lot.

[Howard] Hearty stew.

[Dan] Yes. With crusty bread.

[Mary Robinette] By contrast, I don’t do that at all. I will square bracket it when I get to it, and then invent it on the spot. But I am lazier than Dan is.

[Howard] I find that difficult to believe, but let’s go to our next question.


[Xander] Hi, my name is Zander Hacking. When worldbuilding religion, I often find that portions of the fictional religions have overlapped with real world religions. How do you treat those overlaps with respect, especially when problems with the in-world religion are part of the story’s conflict?

[Mary Robinette] That’s a good question.

[Dan] That’s a really good question.


[Howard] I have a question. Is Zander Hacking your real name, because if I tried to use that name in a book, no one would believe it.

[Xander] It’s actually Alexander Hacking, but that’s way too much effort.

[Howard] It’s still too awesome to be real.

[Dan] I can say it, but Mary Robinette wouldn’t.

[Howard] Honestly, one of the things that helps me…

[Dan] You just said you were lazier than me.

[Mary Robinette] [Tee-hee-hee]

[Howard] One of the things that helps me a lot with regard to writing fictional religions and paying respect to real-world religions is being a real-world religious person who has a deep and abiding respect for the varying epistemologies that exist in the world. I believe that I can learn things by faith, by scriptural study, by revelation, and I believe that I can learn things in no other way than through science. It’s a weird fence to sit on. Not always comfortable. But it’s one I’m on. So anytime I’m writing about a religion, I’m writing it from this inherent understanding that there are multiple sides to what is going on.

[Mary Robinette] I think the multiple sides is a really good point. I try to remember to represent multiple viewpoints where possible. Because we all… Even people within the same denomination, going to the same church and the same building, will have different relationships with faith. So I tried to make sure that that is represented in the page, that it is not a monolith. I also try to remember that things are interwoven, that nothing exists by itself. So making sure that I’m thinking about the way it stretches out into the other parts of the culture is, I think, one of the ways I can be respectful and also make it feel more organic.

[Dongwon] To build off of Mary’s thing a little bit, when you have that fictionalized religion, it is probably… Has a real-world analog, but the thing to remember is you’re not telling a story about that entire religion. You’re telling a story about a person who intersects and lives within that culture or that experience. So don’t think of it… Where you’ll get in trouble is when you’re trying to tell a story about the whole class of people as opposed to telling about somebody’s specific story. That person has a place, they were raised a certain way, they have certain feelings about the religion in which they exist. Those are not going to be 100% representative of the monolith of the organization, right? So remember you’re talking about an individual. Invest them with as much specificity and as much physicality as you can. Then that will help you make sure that you’re articulating a perspective and an experience, rather than saying… Or rather than criticizing the whole group or criticizing a real-world religion in that way.

[Gail] My name is Gail. For your worldbuilding, how much do you have figured out before you start your first draft, and how much do you discover later as you write?

[Mary Robinette] I vary a lot, depending on what it is that I’m writing. I often treat worldbuilding when I’m doing something that’s completely made up the same way I treat historical stuff. Which is that I think about it in layers. I kind of get a broad overview, and then will dig in. It’s just that the research that I’m doing is in the recesses of my own imagination. But I… Sometimes I get very, very specific, and other times I write into it… I discovery write my way in, and then hit something that’s an odd juxtaposition, and try and figure out why it’s that way. For me, it depends on the story.

[Dan] I like to frontload things, as I said before. But, because I like to do that, I have noticed how often I go back, which is every single story, every single book. I’m still going back and patching holes and making things connect that didn’t connect before. So it’s really just kind of a half-and-half mix, almost, I would say, for me.

[Dongwon] I recently had a conversation with a client who was in the early stages of developing a project. I asked him about it, and he took a deep breath and paused and said, “Well, at the beginning of time…”


[Dongwon] I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a long conversation.” I think what Mary said is very valuable, that it varies a lot project to project, even for one writer. Sometimes, you will need to start at the beginning of time and build up your whole cosmology, and sometimes, you can just jump right in and figure out things on the fly. So I think it depends.

[Howard] With the early Schlock Mercenary books, I was making up the worldbuilding as I went on a weekly basis. With the one that I’m working on right now, book 18, the piece that I already know is that Galactic civilizations come and go  in cycles. There are lacuna during which there is no Galactic civilization for millions of years. What I don’t know is exactly how many of those there have been, and what were the characteristics of each of those, and what was the trigger event that ended each of those. Those pieces I am definitely discovery writing as I go. So when you ask the question, well, at the beginning of time… I’m working my way backwards to that.


[Cooper] Hey, my name’s Cooper. Much like how it can be bad if you introduce key characters too late in the narrative, such as the last one third, what would you say is the threshold where you should have introduced all major worldbuilding elements? Halfway or something else, and does it change based on genre or intended audience?

[Dongwon] I would say I think this is more flexible than most people think it is. The best piece of worldbuilding I’ve seen in recent media is the TV show Stephen Universe, which, at every major turning point in the show, has completely upended my understanding of the world and the cosmology of that series. The reason it never feels like a problem is they always tie it to character conflict. Every time they introduce a new worldbuilding element, one of the major characters is having some personal crisis or some personal conflict that ties directly to the thing that they’re introducing. So when you meet more of the Gems or when you meet the Diamonds or whatever it is, it always feels like a character development, and therefore you can add more to the world as you go without disrupting that, if you keep it really grounded in how the characters are experiencing that and how they feel about the world around them.

[Dan] I try to make sure to introduce new character elements or new worldbuilding elements, I mean, slightly before they matter. So that when they show up, they don’t feel like, “Oh, Dan needed to explain this thing, so he changed the way horses work,” or whatever. But I’ll tell you a couple chapters earlier how horses are different, and then it will matter a couple chapters later. So if I’m always… The worldbuilding’s always a couple steps ahead of the story itself. Then you could introduce something all the way at the end of the book, and it would still feel natural, because we’ll know about it before it matters.

[Mary Robinette] I do that, but sometimes… Often, the way I’m doing that is that I will use it at the point that it matters, and then go back and find spots…

[Dan] And fill it in. Exactly.

[Howard] Doctor Who is kind of a delightful mix mash of doing it in many different ways, and sometimes a way in which they do it is exactly right, and sometimes the way in which they did it… I find it very dissatisfying. There have been episodes where there is a new reveal about world technology, world whatever, that happens after the Doctor has announced it is important. Often, I find that unsatisfying, but sometimes it’s just beautiful, because it wasn’t the point. The point was something else. The point of this is… Doctor Who is good lesson material for learning a lot of these things…


[Howard] And also, there are reasons in which to do it in lots of different ways, and they can all work.

[Dan] That’s a good point to bring up, is that in those instances where it works really well, it’s often because it… That element was introduced for a different reason. So the reader is not saying, “Oh, look at this very telegraphed this-is-going-to-be-important.” It’s already important, but for something else. So you’re serving two purposes at once.

[Howard] Let’s pause for a book of the week.

[Amal] The book of the week is…

[Howard] Oh, go ahead and introduce yourself.

[Amal] Hello, my name is [Amal Massad?]. I am giving you the book of the week. So the book of the week is Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. It is a development of a short story that she first wrote in an anthology called The Starlit Wood. It’s a fantastic reclamation of the Rumpelstiltskin story from a Jewish perspective, because Rumpelstiltskin is a famously anti-Semitic folktale. So what she has instead is this absolutely fantastic reversal, where she has a Jewish money lender who is a woman who gains a reputation for being able to transform silver into gold through the practice of her skill. This attracts the attention of these really scary fairies called the Staryk Knights. They decide that they want to test her. So it’s this fantastic reversal where the supernatural element is taking the role of the king in the original story, and it’s in this really wonderful world that she develops with a… Draw… Inspired by a lot of Eastern European folklore and stuff. The worldbuilding in it is tremendous. It’s got this fantastic rumination on capital and labor and transaction and that sort of thing. But it’s also full of female friendships. If you read Uprooted and thought I really liked that book, but I wish there had been more women in it being even more friends, you should definitely read Spinning Silver. Because it’s so great.

[Howard] Thank you, Amal. That was Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Now we have our next question.

[Cory] Hello. My name is Cory. I was wondering how do you ensure the world comes through as a character of its own?


[Mary Robinette] Wow, that’s such a good question that we’re all sitting here going, “How do you do that?”


[Dan] Well, I’m actually sitting here wondering if I do that. There’s a lot of works that I can think of, books and movies, where yes, the setting is a character, to the point that New York is really a character in my story has become a cliché and a trope. I don’t know if it needs to be every time though. Sometimes, the setting can just be important to the characters without being a character it self.

[Howard] At risk of telegraphing some of our episodes on marketing and career building, if your setting is an important marketing point… For instance, Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. Being able to say, “This is a Cosmere book,” is going to sell the book into an audience that would have been reluctant to pick it up if it hadn’t been a Cosmere book. So having a name for it, so that it kind of becomes its own character, is useful. That’s reverse engineering it. I’ve named it, therefore it must have a personality.


[Mary Robinette] But I think that when you do have a book where you want the terr… Or a short story where you want the environment, the worldbuilding, to be a character… I mean, naming it helps, but giving it a personality is, I think, really hitting it on the nose there. It is, for me, the times that I do that, it is about the way the character, my POV character, is interacting with the environment. The environment will take on the role, somewhat, of an antagonist, sometimes. Or somewhat of a co-partner. A sidekick. Depending on what relationship my character has with the environment. So I will look at pla… Ways that the worldbuilding can be a barrier. I will look at places where the worldbuilding can be a help. More specifically, I look at my character’s relationship with that, and how they feel and think about it. That’s, for me, how I can make it, rather than just a place they inhabit, another… A character that’s on the page, a personality. The other thing that I’ll say is that I’m much more likely… When I do this myself or when I’ve… I notice it when I read other people’s… To give space for the world without my character in it. So it’s as if it gets its own scene time, own stage time.

[Dongwon] One way I think about it is, does your setting have agency? Right? That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily conscious, but is it influencing the plot decisions and the character decisions? Design spaces are incredibly important. We are all currently on a cruise ship, which is extremely deliberately designed space, designed to promote certain kinds of interaction, and certain kinds of movement. When you become aware of how you’re being moved through the ship, and why you will walk across on certain decks and not on other decks, you can sort of start to see how the setting can shape the plot of your story. When… That’s why cities often become this sort of character role in a story like that, especially in… Heist stories often have that as well. The Bellagio in Oceans 11 becomes a character, because the physical attributes of that building become very important in determining how the characters will move through it and accomplish their goals or won’t accomplish their goals. So if your setting is influencing plot, if it’s influencing character decisions, then it will itself start to feel like a character, in, I think, a really exciting way.

[Mary Robinette] Along those lines, I think one of the things is to pay attention to the language that you’re using to describe it. So when we’re talking about it, it having a personality, New York’s a great ex… Is the example that everyone returns to, that it’s gritty, it’s stark. Those… The vocabulary that people use to describe those settings is very different than the vocabulary that one would use to describe Disneyland.


[Mary Robinette] So, paying attention to that…

[Dan] Not the way I do it.


[Mary Robinette] YES.


[I have questions now. I have so many questions.]

[Howard] Well, there’s this…

[Dan] We should all go to Disneyland together.

[Howard] There goes our Disney sponsorship.

[Dongwon] I would recommend you all start listening to the podcast 99% Invisible. I apologize for pushing another podcast. But if you want to really understand how design spaces influence character and plot decisions, than that is a great place to start.

[Andrew] Hello, my name is Andrew. When worldbuilding in science fiction or fantasy, how much change to terminology is too much? For example, a new calendar system, units of measurement, or currency?

[Howard] [Bwoosh! Oh, wow.]

[Mary Robinette] This is something I struggle with.

[Dan] Oh, yeah. Some of those…

[Howard] So very fraught.

[Dan] Some of those are easier to talk about than others. Units of measurement, for example… If I don’t understand what a blerk is, then telling me that the city is five blerks away doesn’t really tell me anything. Whereas I don’t need to know how much money a blerk is worth if you say the bowl of soup is worth five blerks, then I kind of get a sense of it. So there’s… different kinds of worldbuilding elements are much more easily grokkable than others.

[Howard] So the distance to the city is a soup?

[Dan] Yes. How far away is the city? Well, about the cost of a bowl of soup.


[Howard] Or a hemi-deca blerk.


[Mary Robinette] But actually… The thing is…

[Dan] Did you just well, actually us?


[Mary Robinette] No. I but actually’d you. Which seems more appropriate.

[Dan] Okay. There we go.

[Mary Robinette] The thing is that when we are talking about units of measurement… This is where I look at whether or not I need to shift it. I look at whether or not there is an underpinning that has shifted. So are units of measurement are things like… There’s the… If we have an Imperial inch, that tells you that there’s an empire. If you don’t have an empire, then having something that weighs an Imperial inch is not a useful thing. So I will sometimes look at that, at whether or not there is something in the unit of measurement that doesn’t fit with the world. The months, for instance. August, September, October. Those… That implies that there was a Rome. So I’m much more likely to shift something like that then I am worrying about whether or not I need to have something weigh… The five feet tall versus five blerks tall.

[Dan] I love how something can weigh an inch and also weigh five feet tall.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] I love this. And also the city is five blerks away.

[Howard] It’s about soup height.


[Mary Robinette] About soup height.

[Dan] We’re getting into so many like really… I almost wonder if we need to can of worms this, which we haven’t even done in years. Because even the October, September thing, there’s an entire school of thought in fantasy that the book was written in its own language, but it’s been translated into English. So we just are calling it October, because then our readers can understand it. There’s a lot of worldbuilding elements like that, that some portions of your audience are going to care about deeply, and others are just going to gloss right over and go, “Okay. That’s fine.”

[Dongwon] It’s really a question about what are you trying to say about your culture. Because the choice of a foot versus a meter says something about the culture that you live in. Does it come from somebody who’s trying to scientifically impose a unit of measurement, or is it, “Oh, my foot is roughly that large, right?” That tells you a lot about the history of that culture, what they prioritize and what’s important to them. Names of the months are the same thing. Those come from specific places. So when you’re making those choices of choosing to invent a new system, that better be a very relevant piece of worldbuilding and a really important concept for how this culture operates. You want to pick things that are very close to your central metaphor that drives the book that you are writing, and make sure that you’re picking new invented terms that have histories and meaning for very good reasons. Be very… You can only change so many things before people start going, “I don’t know what all these words are.” So be very deliberate about which ones you invent new words for, is my advice.

[Mary Robinette] The thing that I’m just going to add on to that is that if you want to avoid using August… If you decide that that doesn’t fit into your world, it’s not that you have to invent a new month. You just need to not refer to the month. Like, oh, summer vacation is in August. It’s like, no, summer vacation is in summer. That kind of thing is often an easier thing for your reader to grok than actually doing inventions.

[Howard] Our mastering engineer, Alex, has very carefully edited out all audible sounds of dismay as we had to cut off the questions because we’re out of time. So my notes here say that your homework is toss something to Mary.


[Mary Robinette] That’s right. So, we’ve had a number of different questions come up. I’m going to leave you with the most difficult one. Which is, what do you do about time in your universe? So what I want you to do is you’re just going to think about calendars. You’re going to think about in your world, what are the things that change, what are the markers? Is this a culture that marks things by the moon? What if there are two moons? How does that influence what their calendar system looks like? I’m not asking you to actually put this into your story, but I just wanted to take time and think about how the culture and your worldbuilding deals and measures time.

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.