Thoughts On World-building -- Dianne Pearce

my desk: brownie doll, clock, RBG doll, dog photoI was invited to be a speaker on a few panels last weekend at the California Creative Writing Conference, one of which was on world-building.

I'm old. I admit it. And back-in-the-day I don’t remember us calling it world-building. Part of that is, I think, because all authors of all stories world-build to a certain extent. For me, the world begins within the character. And, crazy as it may sound, I think of that when I look around me, right now, at my little desk in the corner of my bedroom. And there is the Brownie doll my brother gave me for Christmas when I was six. And there is my movie poster from The Darjeeling Limited. And there is my orange cherub lamp, on my wooden desk with the pipe legs, and I sit in a wide-backed wicker chair like a minor Bond villain. It is my world. It exudes from me, which sounds slightly gross, I know, but it does. I have moved house a fair amount of times in my life, and, once in a new place, tend to shake the whole thing up at least yearly, so, though some things, like my beloved Brownie (because it was one of the best presents ever, from a beloved and gone big brother) remain constant in my world, a lot of other things shift, and they affect me, and how I write and interact with my world.

When I was asked for advice on world-building, that was my advice. You want your character, your main, most vital character, to be someplace that either suits her/him/they perfectly, or chafes horribly, or somewhere in between. Part of what the character can and cannot do relies on the world in which the character lives, yes, but you may already know, as the creator, what the character can and cannot do, and then you must craft the world to make it happen. Sometimes people start with the world, and then people it; but, in my view, that's heading into it the wrong way. Start with the people first. Someone left alone in my room could make a pretty accurate guess about me, right? Because a stranger didn't make the room and then put me in it. I came there first, and then I feathered the nest.

The idea of world-building has become a hot, trendy, thing to say, "I world-build." "I love world-building; it's my favorite part of writing." "I need an editor who 'gets' world-building." 

World-building is fun, but the fun of world-building in-and-of-itself should not be the point.

Try to let the world come from the character, either in response to, or in opposition or indifference to, the character's needs. It's not just a party trick. It should build the character, enrich the character, grow the character. Like the hermit crab, which can inhabit many things and call each home, some worlds will fit your character better than others.

One of my favorite series, the Easy Rawlins mysteries by Walter Mosley, has a historical setting, Los Angeles in 1940s to the 1960s. It's historical, so there has to be some accuracy, but Mosley also has to build it; we have to get what it's like to be a Black man in Los Angeles trying to make it on his own terms. I certainly don't know that world, and Mosley makes me feel it in my skin in a way that simple history never could.

For Easy to be who he is, he must fight the good fight, and the world is there to make it a fight, to make it a sacrifice that most of us would want to stop and reevaluate the value of making. Easy's character does not give him that luxury, and so the world has to chafe and confound this very good man who deserves much better. It's Easy's unending good, and his righteous BS detector, in this unfair and inhospitable world into which Mosley has placed him, that make me love him, and really want him to succeed. Mosley also teaches me, in an incredibly profound way, how much Black lives do matter, and how hard it is to be a Black man in the United States, much more fluidly than many other mediums that are trying to do the same thing. That is an amazing amount of grace to bestow on the world, honestly, to entertain and enlighten at the same time. I become more of a human, and a better one, when I enter Mosley's world. That is some good world-building there Mr. Mosley.

And maybe this is one of the elements I love about The Darjeeling Limited, that people can be super curious about other cultures, and that we can also bumble through them, taking what we want, and ignoring what we don't; right? And The Darjeeling Limited shows that, making no attempt to soften or excuse it. In fact, the guys are boorish asses. So while you get to “see” India in the film, you don’t feel a part of India; you feel like you’re outside of the struggle, watching, because the guys are irrevocably the guys, spoiled brothers acting out their frustrations with their parents’ egocentrism. And so, while that “world” may seem like it is India, it is actually the interior lives, and family life, of these guys. But, Anderson is smart, because putting them in India, and having the audience watch them take what they want from it and ignore what they don’t, it paints the guys, their world, who they are. It’s like you can add a cut out flower to a collage, and you have a flower, or you can cut out a flower-shaped hole in the collage, and you have the absence of a flower, negative space. The guys are being negative space in the world of India.

During the panel this past weekend one of the panelists mentioned looking around this world for different or unusual things to use when building your book's world. And sure, do that, but be careful not to take something that is unusual for youbut usual for someone else, and exoticize it. It is important, whether you feel me or not, to understand that. White people have an extra responsibility to do that, in my view. Sensitivity readers are a new thing, and for another post, but I think they are a wonderful idea, because, while I love the guys in The Darjeeling Limited, I don’t want to be them. 

So, if I could have a wish list for you, what I want you to take away is this:

World-building is great, fun, and often enhances books quite a lot.

World-building can be doing a really good job of describing a character’s work cubicle and how that cubicle affects the character, or it can be creating a whole place in a whole other galaxy. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is only the second thing.

And approach all your world building with sensitivity, and question yourself: Are you using someone else's culture to build your world? Are you just building a world because it's fun, without benefit to story or character? Are you certain there is one way to do it, and only one? It's hitting the scene like a fad, or new invention, but it's been happening since writing has been happening. The problem with fads is that some people are going to jump on the bandwagon and do a poor job of it. Don't you be that guy. You be better.

Of course, that's just my $0.02.

I just worked with a woman on editing her wonderful book, huge, definitely fantasy world-building, and the world she built is commenting on this world, and that is what is so brilliant about her writing. It's one hell of a ride, and the end blew me away, and it all made me think about how we're doing things here, and what we're getting wrong in our real world.

I wish that kind of writing, that kind of world-building, on all of us. 



Peter Leyland said…
World building, what an interesting idea Dianne. I'm not a fictional writer but I read a lot of it and it struck a chord. I know and like the the Easy Rawlins books by Walter Mosely so I could see the connection you were making for writers. I was just completing a reread of Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, another black American writer, and he perfectly recreates the gay world of 1950s Paris for the tortured love story of David, Hella and Giovanni.

Thanks for the post.
Dianne Pearce said…
Aw, thanks Peter! I love Baldwin too. He was a sharp author. And I agree, non-fiction writers also have to world-build. How else can we enter someone else's head?
I'm so grateful for the read! Thank you~
John Tures said…
I just learned a new term: "World Building!" It just so happens I'm kicking around a fourth book, inspired by an exercise I did with my students, called "Time Machine." I asked whether they would want to go to the past or future, which time frame, and would they want to stay. So many answers came back that they wanted to go to the late 1980s/early 1990s, and they wanted to go back in time to see their parents and how they were in college! So my fourth book will combine those...taking my book series character, make a prequel of how they all met, set in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I can't wait to start world in New Orleans during this time frame. Time to learn about that time, and do a little memory lane time. Appreciate it, Dianne!
Dianne Pearce said…
Thanks so much John! I appreciate you reading :)

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