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

16.50: Worldbuilding Finale: Making Deliberate Choices

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Fonda Lee, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler

Here at the end of our 8-episode intensive series on Worldbuilding we discuss stepping away from the defaults, the clichés, and the tropes, and choosing every element deliberately. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the tropes. We’re just suggesting that they be included only after deciding we actually want them.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: An essay question: What are your armored bears? What element of your work-in-progress makes you most excited about worldbuilding and why?

Thing of the week: Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Making thoughtful, deliberate choices in worldbuilding, along with cool and fun stuff. Think about how your speculative elements reinforce plot, character, and theme. Don’t just fall back on the familiar, make sure you have a good reason for including it. Pick your time and cultural analogues. Interrogate your defaults. Be aware that the defaults, the cliches, the trope elements carry a kitchen sink full of implications. Balance what you are borrowing from real world analogues with what you are building from the ground up. Make sure you keep the kernel of cool in your writing, even while you make all these deliberate choices. Look for your armored bears! 

[Season 16, Episode 50]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Worldbuilding Finale: Making Deliberate Choices.

[Fonda] 15 minutes long.

[Mary Robinette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Fonda] I’m Fonda.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Dan] We have been talking about worldbuilding for seven weeks now. Now, here in the eighth episode, we’re very excited to kind of tie this all up with what we hope is a very intelligent bow. What do we mean, Fonda, by making deliberate choices?

[Fonda] So, what I hope I’ve done over the course of the eight weeks that we’ve been talking about worldbuilding is encourage listeners to really examine why we worldbuild and how we worldbuild and how it serves the story in ways that are not just it’s cool and fun to worldbuild, but are actually really thoughtful and deliberate. I have often taught writing classes, workshops, at different conventions and venues, and sometimes early career writers will submit work, and very frequently I see them fall back on worlds and speculative elements that are familiar and that are default. Because we’ve seen and absorbed them so much before. Like medieval European analog, or a magic school. Fantasy races like elves and orcs and so on. Those are all perfectly fine magic worlds, but what I really would like to encourage writers to do is to ask yourselves well, why am I making worldbuilding choices, and what are those speculative elements that I’m including because they really reinforce plot and character and theme? Why am I choosing something as opposed to I’m just falling back on something that I feel comfortable with or that I’ve seen other people use before.

[Dan] This is something that I talk about a lot, the idea that a cliché is not bad because it’s familiar, it’s bad because it’s thoughtless. All of these elements that we see so often repeated like elves and orcs and magic schools and things like that, they’re not flawed things you should never put in your story. You just need to be sure you’re putting them in for the right reasons. That you have… You’re not just using them because they’re familiar and you don’t want to think about it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s that… The metric of “Write what feels good. See how it moves you.” is useless because… Not completely useless. But it’s a… It’s very wiggly wobbly, because frequently something feels good because it’s familiar. When we’re talking about right reasons, it’s again, that’s a wiggly wobbly thing, because different stories have different reasons and different this is right. So there’s not… It’s not as… It’s not an easy metric to go by. So what you want to make sure you’re doing is that you’re doing it deliberately and with intention. It’s the intentionality that we’ve been talking about for the past several weeks.

[Fonda] Yeah. I especially want to encourage people to think about what time, and what cultural analogues they’re choosing to use and why. I, earlier on in the master class, in the previous week, I talked about my aesthetic reasons for wanting to write the Green Bone saga in a latter half of the 20th century analog. There’s also a thematic reason why I did that, because one of the big themes in that series is the tension between a very old culture and tradition with all the forces of modernity and globalization and the conflicts that are inherent there. So I chose a time period that is uncommon in epic fantasy, because it reinforced a theme that I wanted to be at the front and center of the whole trilogy. So, just think about, like, what is it that you’re trying to do with that story, that you want to leave with the reader, and bring that into your worldbuilding choices.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a thing that we talk about a lot when were talking about a default character. We’ve talked about this in previous episodes, the unspoken default, and that in modern-day America at this time that we are recording, that’s a 30-year-old white man. People will say, “But, why have your character be… Be… I don’t know… Be a woman? Why can’t you just…?” The question that I find myself asking is, like, I’ll go ahead and put down whatever my defaults are. Then I’ll go back and interrogate them. That also includes where I’m setting it. So why am I setting it here? What does that buy me? Because I’m going to be spending a lot to build this place, spending a lot of words. So what am I buying with that? Is there a reason that I’m doing it here? Sometimes that reason is this is a place that I’m comfortable, and I’m going to be doing something more challenging in some other part of the novel. That’s not a ridiculous reason to set something someplace that you’re familiar. Especially if you don’t enjoy research. But it is a deliberate choice at that point. You’re making it on purpose instead of just falling into it by accident.

[Howard] Now, one of the things to be aware of as well with the defaults… The defaults, the clichés, the trope-tastic elements, whatever those may be, is that… Its kitchen sink effect. They don’t all fit. If you put all of the things that you love from various Western themed fantasy stories into one story, and then begin exploring the implications of any of them, actually being thoughtful about them, they will crowd some of the other ones out. They… It doesn’t all work together. It’s one of the reasons why highly derivative stuff feels so flat, because it feels like, “Oh, you just painted a Disney version of Tolkien as a backdrop for characters to act against. The dragons would be eating the sheep. This doesn’t make sense.”

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to pause us here…

[Dan] Let’s pause here…

[Mary Robinette] To talk about the book of the week. Because it’s actually right on point for this. It’s Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. It’s inspired by pre-Columbian Americas. It is, at its heart, an epic fantasy full of the kind of political machinations and prophecies that you get from other epic fantasies. But she’s made deliberate choices to pull from a different mold, from a different palette than most of the epic fantasies that you read. Because of that, she’s got access to all of these different areas, different intersections of politics and culture that’s rich and thematicly give these additional layers that… So she’s buying a lot. It’s not just, “Oh, cool. This is a different setting. That’s neat.” Thematically, narratively, there’s so much richness to this world. She’s able to… She’s doing one of the things that we talked about in a previous episode by having her POV characters come from very different worlds and different cultures. Some of them are outsider characters. I think, actually, all of her POV characters are outsider characters in one way or another. Your able to get this really broad, rich, just gloriously textured landscape that the characters are moving across. It’s a beautiful book. It’s one of the Hugo finalists this year. As we record this, it’s still just a finalist. But who… It’s so good I would not be at all surprised to see this one walk home with the rocketship.

[Dan] Cool. That is Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.

[Dan] Now, Fonda, let’s get back to something that you mentioned earlier. You talked about making deliberate choices about what kinds of real-world cultural analogues to… That may or may not show up in your story and in your worldbuilding. So let’s talk about that a little bit. Without getting into a massive discussion of appropriation. Let’s just set a baseline, do your research and be respectful. Talk about this idea of real-world cultural analogues.

[Fonda] Yeah. One of the choices that I want all writers to consider is how much, when you’re creating your world, how much are you importing from the real world versus building from the ground up? Maybe I can illustrate this best with the example of this term Asian fantasy. So my books, the Green Bone saga often get described as Asian fantasy. Which is a term that I can understand the usefulness of this term from a marketing perspective, but I am not fond of it. Because it is used as an umbrella term to encompass a lot of things that are potentially very different, completely different types of stories. As an example, let me contrast a few books. There’s a new novel, She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. It is a story set in ancient China, and it is based on a real historical figure, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. It obviously changes some things about our real history by re-imaging the identity of this very real person. So that is borrowing a lot from our real world, and then telling a story within it. Then you have The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso which is set in a secondary world that is very reminiscent of the Philippines. K is from the Philippines and the story is a secondary world that is like if the Philippines had not been colonized. So you have very strong cultural cues, including what the characters eat, the way they dress, that say that this is inspired by the Philippines. On the other hand, you have my series, the Green Bone saga, which is in a secondary world that is not based on any one specific Asian nation, because I wanted the story to be in a place where there was this magic element, and it was this isolated culture that was on an island. So the fact that there is magic Jade would have influenced their entire development. It could not simply be Japan or Taiwan with the serial numbers rubbed off. Like, it had to be its own thing. So that influenced my worldbuilding choices, and I made really deliberate decisions when I was writing the story not to use words that tied it to specific places. I never use adobo or sushi or dim sum. Like, I never use words that would make you think that this is based on a specific place. So that’s an example of three books that fall, from a marketing standpoint, under the same term, but have made very different worldbuilding choices in service of different narratives.

[Dan] And are going to appeal to very different audiences.

[Howard] When I think of worldbuilding, I’m often… And the clichés, I often force myself to question the boundary states that I’ve created around given terms, like… The example I’ll use here, what does it mean when a place is crowded? My house has, I think, 2500 square feet, and there’s five people living in it. There are people who would say that that’s crowded. But I spent some time reading up on and looking at pictures of Kowleen free city, which was in the… In this area between two political entities. It was essentially 60,000 people or 40,000 people living in a space the size of a… The footprint of a football stadium. That… Was crowded. It was literally one of the most crowded places on earth. I looked at that and realized, okay, the boundaries that I’ve got in my mind for crowded are light years away from that, whatever that is. I perform these interrogations anytime I’m creating something to make sure that I haven’t used the word like crowded to mean something that it doesn’t really mean.

[Dan] Now, as we talk about making these deliberate choices, whether they are for narrative or aesthetic or thematic reasons, we don’t want to lose the idea that your worldbuilding should still be cool. That there should still be awesome stuff that makes us want to love that book or wish we could live there. So, how can we do that? Fonda, give us some homework along these lines.

[Fonda] Yeah. I… To your point, I want to kind of bring the whole master class back around to, like, why do worldbuilding? We’ve talked this entire time around how it should support your narrative, your plot, your characters. It all should work together seamlessly and be this perfectly balanced three-legged stool. But I want to come back to the fact that many of us worldbuild because it’s really fun. When you are a novelist, and you’re going to devote years to a project, and spend so much time in this world, you need… There needs to be something about it that is so compelling to you that you’d rather spend time in this fictional world in front of your computer than out in the real one. So I often ask writing students, “What are your armored bears?” I’m… I point them to Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. Right? That is a series that has really meaty themes. I mean, it is interrogating organized religion and oppression and some pretty meaty stuff. But what do we… What is on the cover of the book? What is on the movie poster? It’s the armored bear. Because armored bears are just really freaking cool.


[Fonda] So that is my cool theory of literature, that you’ve got all this awesome worldbuilding that ideally just support your narrative and does so much heavy lifting and is meaty and rich and nuanced and full of texture. But there has to be that kernel of cool that just draws your reader in, draws you in, and keeps you there.

[Fonda] So, my homework for the week, and to close out this master class, is I want you to consider for your own work, what is your armored bear? What element of the story your writing right now makes you most excited to worldbuild and why?

[Dan] Sounds good. We would… At least I would love to hear what some of you come up with. This is a really great way to end this. So, thank you, Fonda, so much. This has been an absolutely wonderful master class. I’ve learned a lot. I hope the listeners have as well. So, you are out of excuses. Now go write.