Writing Excuses 10.21: Q&A on World Building

We went to you for questions about world building, and you had some really good ones. The questions are listed below, and our answers are secreted within MP3 file.

  • Has there ever been a piece of world building that you didn’t include, and regretted not including?
  • How do you remain consistent?
  • How do you decide between writing a secondary world fantasy, and creating an historical fantasy?
  • Can you avoid cultural appropriation while still using elements inspired by other cultures?
    • (This one is getting a can of worms: there’s an entire episode on cultural appropriation coming up)
  • What’s the minimum amount of world building required?

Our next master class episodes are on description. Take a scene that includes some things that you’ve world-built, and rewrite that scene using completely different words.

A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.21: Q&A on World Building”

  1. Going to be honest… but this “culture appropriation” thing really feels nonsensical to me… It’s wrong to change aspects of the world to make something new and beautiful? Why should I care if I offend someone in mexico if I mention a character making tacos, and those tacos are made the “wrong” way?

    I… it just seems way oversensitive to be worried that some stranger is going to be morally upset over my work.

  2. @RolexBoy: There are plenty of people who feel the way you do, and there are plenty of books that sell just fine despite egregious appropriations of non-Western cultures.

    I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t care about, but it’s something plenty of readers in the English language market care quite a bit about, and the growth of the global marketplace pretty much ensures that this trend is something that will only increase. We have far more contact with each other’s cultures than we used to.

    The matter is complex, and very nuanced, and that’s why we called “can of worms” on it. We’ll do an entire episode on this, and hopefully do a better job of answering the listener question that raised the issue.

  3. This episode isn’t showing up on my subscription through iTunes. Is something broken on your end?

  4. I always come to podcasts a week or two late, so never have a chance to pose questions before these Q & A podcasts.

    The one question I have left re: worldbuilding, which doesn’t seem to have been addressed on any of the recent podcasts, involves the milieu story. I’m curious if that type of story allows more in-depth worldbuilding — even development of the world that isn’t directly related to the plot; e.g., for setting up the general mood of the place or a more complete framework.

  5. Something I’ve wondered for a long time: Why call it “world building,” which has always struck me as unnecessarily grandiose? We used to just call it “setting,” yes? I have many books on writing from before the turn of the century and most of them talk about character, setting, and plot as the elements of fiction. Is there a meaningful difference beyond jargonization that’s escaping me?

    1. World building is a far less ambiguous term, and it is grandiose because it needs to be. It’s not jargonization, either: when we use it, everyone knows what we mean, or they twig to that meaning quickly. “Setting” is vague, and general, and doesn’t begin to describe what goes into creating new worlds with their own mythologies, laws of physics, and so on.

  6. I apologize in advance for this, but my inner biology nerd won’t keep quiet…

    Which sex of a given species courts the other has nothing to do with the relative sizes of the sexes in question; there’s plenty of species of spider where the females are much, much bigger than the males but the males still seek out the females and perform courtship rituals. So what does determine who initiates courting? Bateman’s Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bateman%27s_principle).

    To summarize; the gender that bears the smaller cost of reproduction is the gender that initiates courtship. Those little man-spiders don’t have to do anything other than show up, do a (surprisingly adorable) little courtship dance, have sex and run away before the lady-spider eats them afterwards. The cost to the females is higher than for the males, so they’re the ones who need to be convinced to have sex.

    That’s not always the case though; in a number of species the males bear the higher reproductive cost. Wadepipers were the example I remember from class; the males incubate the eggs and raise the chicks. As a result of this, the females fight over the males and initiate courtship.

  7. Another way to put the difference is to say that setting is about selection and world building is about construction.

    E.g. if a sci-fi story you may put some characters on board a spaceship in distress who have to find a way to escape. That’s the setting. The specifics of the technology they use to attempt their escape is world building. The physics – is there FTL travel or communication involved, etc, is somewhere in between.

    WRT the physics of sci-fi (or spy-fi), I’d call the general choices “setting”, e.g. the movies Gravity or Kingsman are (loosely) based on today’s real world, Star Trek is based on an instantaneous communication and not-instantaneous-but-faster-than-light-warp-drive-style-travel setting. The specifics of how the Kingsman organization operates, or how the Star Trek technology works, constitute the world-building.

  8. I’m looking forward to the cultural appropriation podcast as I’ve run into a similar issue with my world building, specifically when it comes to the inclusion of non-human sentient species. In my setting I have a centaur-like people, and because they are nomadic desert dwellers I based some aspects of their culture on the Bedouin. I am worried that readers will associate these aspects of their culture with the fact that they are non-human. Is there a way to avoid this, or should I just stick to using human characters if the story still works?

    1. For me, the right way to do this is to look at why Bedouin culture is the way it is, and to then apply the setting-appropriate pressures to your centauroid nomads. As an example, the tent styles used by the Bedouin might be dispensed with entirely by creatures whose sleep positions differ greatly from humans. Don’t just use “Bedouin” as a paint job on your aliens.

      There’s also the question of why the centauroids are in the story to begin with, of course. If the story requires large, hardy aliens whose story purpose cannot be met by humans (regardless of culture) then you’re less likely to alienate (hah!) readers with aliens who seem like stand-ins for humans of some stripe or another. Note, however, that we’ve seen Fremen, Aiel and more recently the Krasians as very Bedouin-ish stand-ins, (Frank Herbert, Robert Jordan, and Peter Brett respectively) and critics of those works often cite cultural appropriation as a flaw. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, you should be aware that this is a road other authors have been down. In each case I believe there was a strong story purpose behind those cultures, but some will argue that they each serve the same story purpose: “harsh conditions yield hardy people.” Were I in your shoes I would want to make sure that I had something different to say.

      Finally, your human characters would almost certainly have at least a passing familiarity with Bedouin culture from Earth. You can solve a lot of problems by hanging a lantern on the Centauroid culture with a discussion among the humans that runs along the lines of why these creatures are NOT like the Bedouin, despite parallels.

  9. Thanks Howard, that’s really given me something to think about, particularly your comment about the tents. A species which evolved in the desert would probably have physiological adaptations which would make specialized clothing unnecessary. For example they might be able to close their nostrils to keep out sand, so they wouldn’t wear kufiya type headdresses, or they might have an efficient fat storage system which would allow them to live by foraging rather than needing to raise animals to eat (can you tell I’ve been reading about camels?). I’ll try and extrapolate culture from their biology and environment instead of matching them to their closest Earth analogs.

  10. You came, you asked, they answered?

    All against the white dimness of an unresolved world, hiding in the mists of the internet… BUT you are the world builder! You know when to sketch a tree, talk about smeerps, or even paint the wonders of a technicolor sunset on the flat panel screens! Now, read all about it, right over here:


    Also in the archives, for those who prefer their bits that way.

    And rewrite! Yes, Howard is calling for revision!

  11. If this has been answered before please forgive me, but I’m wondering how you would go about the worldbuilding for a multi-book series (more along the line of cosmere, or multi books with different characters). Do you build the universe then find ideas that fit inside it, or get the ideas and make them fit?

  12. Great podcast as usual guys!

    Contrary to an earlier comment on the thread; I came on to the website to say how much I appreciated the cultural appropriation mention and would like to second Mary’s call for a dedicated podcast (also a great way to get some different voices on the podcast). Along with the usual’s as well of course!

    Has anyone watched the speech given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche regarding the single story? It’s absoultely fantastic and really opened my eyes to the importance of writing different cultures respectfully and with the right level of effort – even in a fantasy context. I’m not sure we can get away with the over-simplification of cultural (and race) in stories anymore but then I think that’s quite exciting :)

    Ok …back to it!

  13. Yeah! I’m glad you’re doing a cultural appropriation podcast. I want my cultures to feel like they aren’t based on the typical pseudo-Europe that most fantasy is based on, but I worry how to do that in a way that doesn’t come off as disrespectful or appropriative (if that’s a word) or if I even can since I’m a Caucasian North American.

  14. Mary, as you’ve no doubt noticed there are multiple opinions on whether cultural appropriation is valid as a concept at all. Will you have anyone on to reflect that point of view?

    1. It’s certainly a valid term in communication theory. I’ve noticed some people who don’t seem to understand the difference between cultural appropriation and mutual exchange, and I’m hoping that this podcast can clear that up. Can you give me a link to a scholar who says that cultural appropriation is not a valid concept?

  15. Perhaps “valid” wasn’t the right word, so let me come at it from another direction. This may indeed be a completely benign concept in academia, but in practice, every encounter I’ve had with the term “cultural appropriation” involved people telling others what they may or may not write about, and attacking those who did not cooperate. I’m concerned that you’re going to approach the issue from an overly academic viewpoint that ignores this concern, or worse, dismisses it.

    1. @Anthony: A discussion of your concern is its own 20-minute episode, and it’s not what I’m personally interested in hearing or participating in.

      Those with expertise in the matter of Cultural Appropriation have a wealth of information to provide, including research techniques and writing techniques, and I want to hear what they have to say without bogging them down in a discussion of whether they should say it at all.

      I like learning. I might not like what I learn (as is often the case when I learn to my great dismay that I’ve been writing clumsily, badly, or even wrongly for some time) but I always like learning.

  16. First time commenting here. I really enjoy listening to your podcast.
    I didn’t notice the lack of bikes on Partials, but I come from a ranch where bikes are pretty useless. (You’ve got to detour to stay on the road when you could cut across the pasture if you walked.) In a post-apocalyptic world, bikes might not work well if there’s lots of rubble in the streets, so don’t beat yourself up too badly over the lack of bikes.
    By the way, my brother and I really enjoyed the Partials trilogy, bikes or no bikes.

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