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Martha Wells

My Flying Lizard Circus

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Worldbuilding Tips

These are a few things that I try to bring up when we're discussing basic worldbuilding:

If you're writing a culture with a lower level of technology, or with a different emphasis on technology, you have to re-think your automatic assumptions.


If your people don't have clocks, or anything else that measures minutes or seconds, or if time-keeping devices aren't commonly available, they are not going to say things like "I'll meet you in fifteen minutes." Even if there's a water clock somewhere, they still aren't going to worry about how many minutes and seconds things take to do.


If there is no light source, no moon, no stars, and your characters aren't nocturnal, then they can't see in the dark. In modern cities and suburban areas, we're used to a lot of ambient light from street lights, cars, building lights, etc. If your city doesn't have those, or your people are out in the country or inside an enclosed space, it's going to be difficult to impossible see. Your characters (unless your people have physically different eyes) are not going to be able to make out a lot of detail or color at night without a light source.

When you make mistakes like this, like having someone who's never seen a clock say "I'll meet you in fifteen minutes," it's like your world is slipping out of character.

It can also show that you're not paying enough attention to thinking from your character's perspective, and what their specific experience would be as a person raised in the culture you created. It can also be a sign of a mistake that newer writers will make, especially if they're pushing themselves to write quickly: you aren't thinking of what the character would do or say in that situation, you're thinking of what you would do or say in that situation.

Thinking is pretty much the key. If you have a plot or character point that feels awkward or forced, or a situation that can only work if your world slips of out character for the duration, then focus on that and think about what you could do differently. The chances are really good that your solution will be more interesting than the boring thing you thought you had to do.


All stereotypes are bad. Not just the obvious demeaning racist and sexist etc. stereotypes, but all stereotypes, any stereotypes. "Funny" stereotypes and "positive" stereotypes are not funny or positive, they are offensive, personally offensive. If you use them, there is someone who will read it and think you are an asshat and that they will never read your work again. They are a sign of sloppy writing and sloppy thinking.

Think about every character, even minor characters, as real people, with feelings, attitudes, a past, a future, a perspective and an agenda of their own. You don't have to tell the reader all of that, or even any of it, but you have to know it, because it should color how that character speaks and acts.


Someone posted this on Faceplace, I think: Are you really, truly an author? Try this little test This is not really a test, it's a list of characteristics and traits that...is sort of uncannily accurate in most respects. At least in my respects.

I'm way behind on things I want to post, including a kitten report, the Clarion West Write-a-thon, book recs, and so on, so I'll try to catch up next week.

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I had an interesting thing come up with my editor: part of the novel involved being out on the river when there's no moon...and the editor wondered how people didn't see them. This is because she's a city person. Until you've been out in the countryside (or on the water) with no moon, you can't really grasp how very very black it is out there....

...and I ended up changing it a bit because I suspected that most readers don't grasp that difference either.

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Exactly! We spent a week in the Outback that happened to fall during the new moon. You really couldn't see five feet in front of you...

I almost got lost in the desert at night once because there was no moonlight, which was a good lesson in this. (Fortunately I was able to climb a hill without falling into a cactus so I could see the ranch lights.)

A couple of days ago, I went through a mss with 'Find', hunting down examples of 'second' and 'hour' and replacing them. ;o)

(Oddly, I never seem to use 'minute'. Go figure.)

Yep, it's an easy slip to make.

I did it mostly because I recall you remarking on this very issue in the past ;o) So, thanks!

Good worldbuilding advice. :)

About stereotypes, I think a lot of people aim for archetypes (which, unlike stereotypes, aren't bad!), but don't make the characters individual enough, and then end up with mere stereotypes ...

Enjoyed this post quite a bit (psst, review the beginning words "This a few things"). Especially regarding stereotypes. There are too many stories out there in which authors write characters who are funny or functional as you please, yet are not real characters at all. Rather, they're caricatures (or worse) of the real characters we want to read about. Personally, I like characters to be real people... it just so happens I prefer that they have lengthy, attractive tails.

Edited at 2012-06-28 07:07 pm (UTC)

I prefer them with tails, too. :) (Thanks for letting me know about the typo; I usually write these up before 8:00 in the morning, and I'm not always typing what I think I'm typing.)

June 29, 2012 Links and Plugs

User charlesatan referenced to your post from June 29, 2012 Links and Plugs saying: [...] ha Wells on Worldbuilding Tips [...]

I still remember the author who had a man tell a woman that if she wasn't ready by prime he would leave without her -- and he actually expected her to be ready when the church chimed. As if she had a way to find out!

"Moment" has its advantages over "second" in that it's never a precise unit of time.

40 years or so ago, when most of the campgrounds we stayed at did not have electricity on sites, we got lost for half an hour; wandering around and around the same loop of dirt road because we couldn't tell the turnoff from an unoccupied site. And we had flashlights!

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