I had a different post on world-building ready to go last Monday, took a read through it before posting and realised that anyone whose brain isn’t affected by ADHD (hello!) would probably see it as a pile of gibberish and roundabout logic. (The fun part about having ADHD: abstract reasoning makes analysis of multiple factors easy. The un-fun part of having ADHD: rote memorisation doesn’t happen because we’re too involved in finding the why and how of event chains. This is how I nearly failed History but passed Human Geography at uni.) So I’ve pulled it back a level and split the topic into parts that will hopefully be more comprehensible.
I tend to go a bit in-depth when working out world backgrounds, and it’s occasionally a challenge to set the bar on how far “too far” is. I used to be heavily involved in the roleplaying scene in EVE Online (not so much now, although I will still RP on occasion), and that game’s loosely-defined world makes a great playground for mental exercises in civilisation development theory (the possibilities are literally endless, even discounted hypotheticals are useable), although it’s an extreme challenge to realise the idea that Person A and Person B from Planet X will likely not have the same cultural experience if they come from different towns when other players insist that culture is uniform across a multi-system empire. There’s a perpetual rift of disagreement between those who see vagueness as a creative licence and those who see vagueness as a brick wall beyond which nothing can exist.
In this day of digital, where I do all my writing on a tablet and artwork in Photoshop, I still prefer to start off on a piece of paper. There’s a flexibility and comfortable blankness to it in which literally anything is possible, which a computer just can’t replace. If I could draw what’s in my head in three dimensions in the air, it would be even better. I’m in total envy of Tony Stark’s holographic computer interface in the Iron Man films.
The down-side of creativity is that we always start with the things we know and our personal experiences. This isn’t always because we particularly want to: the introduction of too much alien information can drive away a potential audience. A lot of science fiction and even fantasy takes place on worlds which are not Earth in the slightest, however the cultures represented have a lot of basis in Earth-cultural history and the method of expressing time passage is often closely related to the current Gregorian calendar and clock.
In fact, let’s start with that. How much of the way we tell time is dependent on philosophy?
Quite a lot, actually. Philosophers were the original mathematicians and astronomers; their purpose was to understand the world around them. It’s no coincidence that in our mathematics a circle has 360 degrees, while our year has 365 days; the magic factors everything is based on are 4 and 6 (ie: four seasons, twelve months, 24 hours, you get the idea). If you grew up on a world with a longer or shorter year, a different moon cycle (or no moons), and a longer or shorter day, your mathematics will have a significantly different basis. The fantasy world I’m working with right now has a year which breaks down into factors of 7 and 13, rather than 4 and 6; it has a marked effect on everything related to time. And let’s not even get into the naming conventions; if your planet never had a Caesar, you’ll have no idea why 31 days in the middle of summer are called July. Or August, for that matter.
As a result, writers skew things a lot so that the differences aren’t too jarring for a less-abstract audience. Weeks may still have 7 days, years may still have twelve 30-day months and recognisable seasons. Anachronism stew is as old as art, and is likewise used as a vehicle to increase contemporary audience comprehension and empathy. And it works because, despite knowing that the subject may be as foreign a setting as you can get (frequently backed up with maps of the world at the start of the book), we still expect certain things from given settings. It’s possible to go more extreme in visual mediums such as film, comics and games, where creators don’t have to rely on the audience’s brains being able to visualise the differences, but creators will still limit themselves consciously. That’s not to say that using familiarity-based anachronisms can’t work well. Warhammer 40K makes fantastic use of them, and Raymond E Feist’s Riftwar Cycle jogs easily between fantasy and sci-fi. It really is all in the delivery and the underlying foundation.
I like pushing limits, although I’m detail-oriented to the point of obsession (helloooo ADHD, again); I’ve had to train myself to take a step back. It’s similar to working in digital art programs: when the whole picture is viewed, nobody’s going to notice the detail-work in the corner you had to zoom in to 600% for, and it might even make that part of the image worse than if you’d left it out entirely. While it may be fun and engaging for the writer to spend pages of detail on how a certain piece of technology works, it might leave the reader flipping ahead in the book to get back to the story; the material is better left in the appendices than in the middle of the story.
I’ve seen an infographic online of an iceberg equating to the writing process, building 90% of the world and then hiding it from the reader. After all my trials and errors in the past, I can confirm that the iceberg analogy is accurate. It’s one of those notorious situations where if you put the effort in, nobody will notice it, but if you don’t, then its lack of presence is obvious. There’s a certain amount of grief in knowing that a significant chunk of your hard work will go unrecognised; it’s one of the reasons prequels and sequels happen.
Or you can sit on the internet and blog about it, and maybe someone will actually read it and understand that what you were really doing all those afternoons spent browsing wikipedia was, in fact, productive.