Hugo award winning author N.K Jemisin was recently on Ezra Kline’s podcast, where she talked about world building and did a world building exercise. It’s a fun and fascinating episode and my fellow fantasy writers should definitely check it out, find it here
Jemisin has a very wholistic approach to world building, starting not just with the geography of her worlds, but with the atmosphere and gravity. After settling on the basics, she zooms in on an ‘element X’ the thing that the work is going to explore and makes the world ‘fantastic’ in some way. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms it was enslaved gods, in The Fifth Season it was the earth magicians known as Orogenes.
Jemisin has a masterful talent of taking her ‘element x’ and extrapolating it out. In particular the effect ‘element x’ would have on societies, the way people would react to it and build their cultures around it. She’s a writer who has thought long and hard on her world building process. Listening made me realize that I don’t have as tight grip on how I build worlds.
World building for me has always been fun. I world build on walks while listening to music. I world build at night to try and help me fall asleep. Once I have the energy going and the bare frame of the world, it’s easy and exciting. One thought leads to other; ‘They make their soldiers from a living pit, how do they make the pit? Do they also make living tools?’ And everything just keeps building.
But I realized that I’m much more genre focused in my process, even to a creative detriment, than N.K Jemisin is. Grant it, I’ve only written two novels, (find out more about the good one here!) and one of them is a direct reaction to the High Fantasy genre. But a lot of times when I start my world building I start it from a place of genre knowledge. I look at other people’s work, I write in reaction to them. I think about the tropes I like and want to emulate or explore and what tropes I don’t like and want to subvert. In other words, I don’t approach my worlds so much as worlds to begin with, but rather as stories.
Now as I world build I do start to gravitate away from the confines of genres. The Dairkkul started as a reaction to typically demonic, evil factions in Fantasy stories, but evolved to be their own complex people. Mostly this came from considering their ability to shape life out of Doom Cotta and the problems and moral quandaries that ability created. But even as I started to write the Dairkkul and decide their noble houses I still leaned on my genre knowledge and the overall ‘theme’ I wanted them to exhibit.
In general theme and genre define my worlds more than a logical or focused extrapolation might. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Ghets is meant to be a playground where I can fool around with fantasy tropes with semi-self-aware characters. And there are always questions that writers can’t answer or even address in their worlds/stories, because it will break them. But I do think that there is something to be gained by throwing genre away.
To create new, interesting worlds, we need to do more than just remix the tropes we love. I’m not saying we should abandon genre completely. Emulating and reacting to other’s work is the foundation of art and it’s good to know of the novels that are similar to your own. But rather than trying to figure out the box we’re writing in, it might be better to start with the world first and then let the natural formation of that world and it’s reaction to element X decide the theme and genre. Maybe for my next work I’ll try it more Jemisin’s way.
My fellow writers, what’s your take? How do you approach world building?