Worldbuilding 101: Strange New Worlds

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Lecture notes on a writing workshop conducted in May 2012 at the Creative Arts Seminar run by the Gifted Education Branch of Singapore's Ministry of Education. The workshop was geared toward secondary school students, focused on the concept of worldbuilding within science fiction and fantasy, and lasted for a duration of three hours.

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Worldbuilding 101: Strange New WorldsJason Erik Lundberg, facilitator Creative Arts Seminar Sec 2/3 WorkshopWednesday, May 30, 2012Workshop DescriptionSpeculative ction often takes place in otherworldly settings, such as Tolkeins Middle-Earth, the planet Pandora in the lm Avatar, or a slightly different version of the world we know. The details that go into the imagining of a fantastical setting allow the writer to both ground a narrative in reality and challenge the notions of that reality. This workshop will give participants the skills to be able to create their own strange new worlds as the backdrops for their ction.Wednesday, May 30, 2012Who Am I? Writer Editor Publisher InstructorWednesday, May 30, 2012From n00b . . .Wednesday, May 30, 2012. . . to published authorWednesday, May 30, 2012Why Setting?Science ction and fantasy offer one distinctive and signicant element that is lacking in mainstream ction: the creation of an imaginary setting. The reason many readers choose speculative ction over mainstream is because they want to leave the cares and concerns of everyday reality behind and be transported to a completely different world.. Bruce BostonWednesday, May 30, 2012Why Setting? In mainstream ction, setting is often used only as abackdrop for action and characterization.In speculative ction, setting is intimately related to plot, character, theme, and the story as a whole. character must come from setting, and will be informed by it on every level. an innite number of characters. While story comes from character motivations, One setting can inspire an innite number of stories ofWednesday, May 30, 2012Why Setting? Wednesday, May 30, 2012Example: 1984 by George Orwell The world is in a state of perpetual war, even Outer Party members live in squalid poverty, Ingsoc and Big Brother insist on totalitarian control down to the level of thought, life is bleak and sterile. Winston Smith is complicit in this system, yet remembers the world before the rise of Big Brother and wants to return to that world; this informs every one of his actions throughout the novel. Place Winston in any other setting, and he would be a completely different person.Worldbuilding def.: Process of constructing an imaginary world, usuallyassociated with a ctional universe. It describes a key role in the task of a SF writer: that of developing an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, ecology, and so forth. place (1984 eg. Air Strip One / Ingsoc / Big Brother) Macro-setting: the overall world in which the story takes Middle-Earth, Lord of the Rings (Tolkein); Ankh-Morpork,Wednesday, May 30, 2012Discworld (Pratchett); Tatooine, Star Wars (Lucas); Pandora, Avatar (Cameron); Bas-Lag, Perdido Street Station (Miville); Ambergris, City of Saints and Madmen (VanderMeer)Worldbuilding Must be a believable setting (note: believable is not thesame as realistic) In science ction: climate, physics, geology must be consistentwith what we know of the universe In fantasy: enough analogous details to the real world even ifmagic exists, so as to not throw the reader out of the story Easiest type: The Real World (mimetic) Next-easiest type: The Real World But Slightly Different(magical realism, near-future SF) Harder type: Invented World (secondary)Wednesday, May 30, 2012Worldbuilding Avoid Used Furniture (Bruce Sterling) Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather thaninvent a background and have to explain it, or risk reinventing the wheel, lets just steal one. Well set it in the Star Trek Universe, only well call it the Empire instead of the Federation. the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a Rigelian hooker. eg. Space Western: The grizzled space captain swaggering intoWednesday, May 30, 2012Worldbuilding ExamplesLeaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time. from Invisible Cities by Italo CalvinoWednesday, May 30, 2012Worldbuilding Examples Beluthahatchie by Andy Duncan The Scar by China MivilleWednesday, May 30, 2012Spectrum of the RealMyth/ Legend Fantasy Science Fantasy Science Fiction Steampunk Near Future SF RealismSlipstreamSlice of LifeWednesday, May 30, 2012Writing Exercise First, take a few minutes to think about your macro-setting; this can be one youve already used before in your ction, or can be completely new. Close your eyes if you need to. Next, on your paper make a list of the things that differentiate your setting from the real world. If magic exists, does it have a system of rules, or is it taken for granted? Finally, take 10-15 minutes, and write a half-page description introducing your macro-setting (in the style of the previous Calvino quote). Dont just rattle off your list; describe the setting as if a visitor encountering it for the rst time.Wednesday, May 30, 2012Micro-Setting The more specic places where each scene takes place(1984 eg. Winston Smiths apartment in Victory Mansions, his cubicle in the Ministry of Truth, the Chestnut Tree Caf, Room 101). This will be what you will actually include in your story;your macro-setting details will never be explicitly stated, despite the exercise you just did, but should be kept in the back of your mind as you write.Wednesday, May 30, 2012Micro-Setting In mainstream ction, I can say museum or Americandiner or hawker centre and a reader with enough contextual knowledge will get a picture of that place without needing too much detail. departs from the real world, you will need to use concrete telling details to both give a sense of that difference and to infer or hint at more large-scale implications of the macro-setting. In speculative ction, however, because your settingWednesday, May 30, 2012Writing Exercise Keeping your macro-setting in mind, brainstorm for a few minutes about the possible micro-settings in which a scene could take place (caf, spaceport, high-rise apt, jungle glade, etc.). Make a list of these on your paper. Next, choose the micro-setting that seems most interesting to you and with the most potential for narrative conict. Finally, take 10-15 minutes, and write a half-page description introducing your micro-setting. Try to use as many of the ve senses as possible to bring the setting to life.Wednesday, May 30, 2012Plant & Animal Life Lets start with the easiest way to populate your worlds: oraand fauna Think about your macro-setting On your paper, make two columns: one for plant life, one foranimal life If your setting is close to the real world, think about the part ofthe world in which it is set; for example, Singapore is very different climate than Alaska. Take 5 minutes and list as many things as you can in each columnWednesday, May 30, 2012History You dont have know the entire history of your world (like JRR For science ction, this will help your reader to recognize theyour setting Tolkein, who plotted out thousands of years of backstory), but you should at least have an idea of the past few decades (at least) before your story takes place changes that have taken place between now and the time of your story For fantasy, it will deepen the verisimilitude and believability ofWednesday, May 30, 2012History Take 10 minutes and brainstorm on some key macro-size events These events should have some bearing (whether directly ortangentially) on your main characters life that took place in the recent past before your story starts; write these down on your paper Remember, these are big societal events (like the invention ofWednesday, May 30, 2012medical nanobots, or a regime change in ones home country)Culture and Religion We cant escape our culture and our beliefs (whatever theymight be); they inform how we act and think Think about your own core Singaporean values, and comparethese to what you know about the culture of California, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, etc. There are of course many micro-cultures in each of theseexamples, but the denizens of these cities all share cultural commonalities as well.Wednesday, May 30, 2012Culture and Religion The same goes for religion; Singapore is proud of its multireligious melting pot (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Bah' faith, Judaism, Jainism, folk religion, atheism, agnosticism, secular humanism) Taoism and folk religion (ancestor worship, burning of joss paper) like this, or could have a large majority of one religion (like Northern Ireland or Indonesia or Bhutan) eg. The Buddhism practiced in Singapore is often conated with Your world (which may only be the scope of one city) could beWednesday, May 30, 2012Culture and Religion Take 15-20 minutes and write half a page to a page of cultural/religious backstory for your setting Dont worry about trying to cram all of these details into a laterstory; some may not even be applicable, but its good to at least have them in your head, as it will inform how your characters act, interact, and reactWednesday, May 30, 2012Final Thoughts Write your story; with a solid setting, create your characters,and esh out your ideas into a complete narrative you love, you must persevere Keep writing; its easy to get discouraged, but if its something Read widely: in, out, and between the SFF genres Further Reading: Turkey City LexiconWednesday, May 30, 2012Final Thoughts Website: jasonlundberg.net Also on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc. Discounted copies of my books for CAP attendees: Red Dot Irreal: $15 (reg. $24) A Field Guide to Surreal Botany: $10 (reg. $15) Both together: $20 (50% off reg. cover price)Wednesday, May 30, 2012Best of Luck to You AllWednesday, May 30, 2012

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