World building for junior planetary engineers

I’ve seen lots of information on world building that helps an author lay out the rules of their universe. There are tons of things to consider: climate, currency, social castes, political systems, and on and on. One can draw maps and list all kinds of flora and fauna and cuisine. It’s all good.

What I rarely see is information on how any of that contributes to the story beyond setting, such as why or how, let alone how much.

I had a lively discussion recently about just this thing. I’d given some chapters of a fantasy to a beta reader (poor thing) who came back with a recommendation for more world building details. Piqued that my genius would be questioned—after all I had tons of just such info in mind—I reread to see what I had (or had not) done. She was right. I’d fallen to the low end of the world building spectrum because I hadn’t used my ideas effectively.

· Low end of spectrum: the Stingy Approach. Don’t introduce anything unless you absolutely need to.
· Gone crazy end: the Victorian Bordello Approach. Don’t bother with the plot, the fun is in the gizmos and webbed feet.

Needless to say, there is a happy medium. However, the underlying problem in my story was that I had not thoroughly examined what role the world building elements in my book played.

Example: let’s say our fantasy society has an economy based on solar power. That could translate into: their jobs, where their family money came from, do they live above ground or under it, are there medical consequences, what crops do they have, can anybody access the power, has it affected population migration or birth rate, do they sell the power somehow? Why did they go to solar power and how did they learn the technology? Does it have spiritual or religious implications? What about the rest of the ecology?

Once the author has deeply pondered this squirmy mass of connecting ideas, the trick is then to drop in just the right details, as if in passing, to imply all of the above. Reference it as a fait accompli the way we talk about catching the city bus. After all, one’s point of view character probably lives in that world.

Example: They wouldn’t ponder the caste system of their planet. They’d simply kick the scum into the gutter and move on. Show, don’t tell.

It’s a casual slight-of-hand that makes the difference between the plodding obviousness of bad sci-fi and the opportunity to draw a reader deep, deep into the playground of your imagination.

To take this one step further, one has to ask why a certain element is pertinent. How do the two-headed dog packs on planet x affect the choices available to the protagonist? Where does it impact the central story conflict? Does it say something important about the state of society?

Example: planet x is a mining planet digging up a dangerous mineral. The resource conglomerates are telling the inhabitants the two-headed dogs with five tails are a naturally occurring species, but really their ancestors were cute little boxer pups and these are a mutation caused by the mining operation. Our hero discovers this secret just after his wife conceives. Cue plot motivation.

So, that is the worldbuilding lesson I learned. If I had done my homework, I would have known when and where to use my fantasy elements with the precision of a master chef seasoning a dish. Scrap that. They would have been essential ingredients to the meal, driving my characters and their actions.

Now let’s see if I can take my own advice 😳

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