Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Categorized: World-Building

It’s Squatter’s Rights Wednesday! I’m back, along with Denny Basenji, opinions on words, and a new haircut.

Also, I do know that I owe everyone my freshman year high school photo. I will post that on Friday. *pinky swear*

So, today, I’m talking about world-building for epic fantasy and science fiction. Of course, there are specifics to each genre that could merit their own blog post (and will eventually get their own blog posts), but for today, I want to talk about what they both have in common, especially when it comes to creating a world that is paradoxically both alien and familiar, comfortable and unpredictable, and just as human as you or I – tentacles notwithstanding.

Two Peas in an Alien Pod

Why are epic fantasy and science fiction similar, you ask? Well, let’s start with the most fundamental problem both face. It’s a misconception on the part of writers that regularly drives me to call upon the holy, withering powers of the Red Pen of Wrath.

 

The problem is this: a premise is not a plot.

I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. I would get the coolest idea for an epic fantasy story with dragons, or a magical sword, or…or…a shy, downtrodden young girl who comes into her magical inheritance and has to save the world. Or, even worse…a space opera or an oppressive alien society bent on conquering a post-apocalyptic Earth…

You get the idea. And, that’s all it is. An idea. It’s a premise, a setting, the faintest concept sketch of a backdrop. It is not a plot. While the plot and characters are shaped by the world we build, we must first have a firm idea of the actual story we want to tell before we go indulging in literal flights of fantasy.

The best, most enduring, and most powerful epic fantasy and science fiction tell stories that are rooted in deep philosophical and ethical questions about how humanity (no matter what the species “we” are in the story) makes choices when pushed at warp speed into a magical corner.

A premise is great, but what is the burning reason why we need to write this story using this setting? If we can answer this question, then we are on the right track and are good to keep going with our world-building.

Culture Shock

Let’s just put it out there from the get-go.

Fantasy that uses the ‘faux medieval fallback’ is lame. Worse, it’s lazy, and I am not going to waste the precious hours of my life reading that crap. If an author can’t be bothered to build a world that goes beyond throwing in some Lord-of-the-Rings-style magic into ‘The Princess Bride,’ then, I can’t be bothered with his or her book.

Science fiction that so blatantly ignores human nature is also lame to the point where it can undermine the believability of an entire premise. For example – and yes, this is going to be controversial, and don’t flame me if I got it wrong because this is based on a memory from years and years and years ago – when I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Picard said that we had evolved beyond the need for money, I laughed. And then, I got mad. Seriously??? I don’t care if it’s dollars or hotel points on Risa, you cannot convince me that given the nature of the personal and psychological problems the TNG cast dealt with demonstrated that humanity had evolved beyond our basic competitive biological nature. We would need some serious genetic rewiring in order to let go of our need to gather and accumulate resources. When I could forget that little issue, sure, the whole premise was great. When I couldn’t? It was like a bad itch with no ideological cortisone to hand.

The absence of technology does not mean a society has to be simplistic with two-dimensional characters like the mustache-twirling villain or the reluctant young hero with chronic self-esteem issues. Conversely, the presence of technology doesn’t automatically cancel out all of society’s more complex, sticky social issues.

Good world-building in these genres should be an uncomfortable process. It should poke and prod at the difficult questions we tend to avoid on an everyday basis. We know we are doing it right when we feel a kind of culture shock, just like when we wake up at 3:00 a.m. in a strange hotel room on the first night of a trip to a foreign country. Sure, it’s a bed and a room, but something about it just feels fundamentally different, no matter how much it is the same.

The More Things Change

When we are creating a future or fantasy world, we obviously have to cover all the bases of politics, religion, education, economics, industry, regionality, food, etc. It’s the kind of exercise in thinking, imagination, and logic that forces us to play every idea six moves out to see if it still works and what else it might effect. However, almost more important than the differences we create are the similarities that we keep.

Not everything needs to be changed and/or renamed. That’s not world-building. That’s complication, not complexity. It’s also the biggest and easiest trap for us to fall into.

A world that is over-complicated and needlessly different puts and keeps distance between the story and the reader, and that’s not even dipping a scaly alien toe into the issues of character development.

So, how do we determine what needs to be changed? Some of it comes from the necessities of the plot, and some of if comes from the implications of physical realities of the setting itself (Dune is a great example of this). At the end of the day, though, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions every time we want to change something:

  • Is it relevant to shaping the character’s personality, motivations, and decisions?
  • Is it necessary to the plot on a macro or micro level as a source of conflict?
  • Can it be used as a stressor to up the tension or accelerate the pace?
The Sand Prince by Kim Alexander

One of the absolutely best examples of this that I have recently read is Kim Alexander’s The Sand Prince. It’s not just epic fantasy and an astoundingly exquisite example of world-building. It’s a riveting, meaningful story with characters I identify with and have come to care about deeply. If you read it (and you should), look at the way she uses food and colors to drive home desperation, hopelessness, anger, and stress. That’s just one small way she uses details to up the stakes for her characters and relentlessly drive the story toward its riveting climax.

And on the Seventh Day, Cait Taught a Class

If you’re feeling exhausted and perhaps even a little overwhelmed by this post, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Even God needed to rest on the seventh day, proving once again that world-building is hard.

However, even God had a system for creation, and I am teaching a tiny, pale version of that on Friday, July 28, 2017 from 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Class Title: Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $35 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 28th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Science Fiction and Epic Fantasy are the double agents of the literary world. They simultaneously provide exotic escapism while at the same time serving as a ruthless mirror of contemporary society.

Whether it’s magic or technology, these genres bend rules and toy with the impossible.

However, it is also perilously easy to fall into the trap of bending every rule to make it easy for yourself, your plot, and your characters. When the fantastic becomes too fantastical, your world begins to lose its magic, and readers begin to distance themselves from the emotional impact of the actual story.

This class will cover a wide range of topics, including:

– Etymology: If you are going to make up names for people, places, food, customs, magic/technology, etc., you need to understand the fundamental rules of creating language.

– What’s normal and carries over from our world/time and doesn’t need description vs what is different and should be described

– How much magic or science do you have to know in order to build your world effectively?

– How to keep it real: tips and tricks for keeping your characters relatable to readers, even if they have tentacles/magical powers/chip implants.

– Spotting tired tropes and DOING BETTER. Make your fiction unique. No retreads! “Oh no, not another young, timid girl who becomes magical/laser-wielding social warrior!”

In a world of a gazillion forgettable fantasies and sci-fi stories, let Cait help you take your WORLD & STORY to a WHOLE NEW LEVEL. When world building is done right? Fans will be BEGGING to do fan fiction with the worlds you create.

World Building GOLD

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story. 

World Building PLATINUM

You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

Register Here!

***

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA Today Best Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

There is nothing wrong with sitting in a bar on Halloween wearing steampunk. Even if no one else is.

It’s me! I’m back! It’s another #SquattersRights day on Kristen Lamb’s blog, and today, I’ll be talking to you about steampunk (and no, you do not capitalize it because it is just another genre like horror, fantasy, or romance).

Some people like to credit Will Smith with ushering in the great age of steampunk because of that stellar cinematic festival of delight: ‘Wild Wild West.’ However, they are wrong. Steampunk originated with the original badass Victorians who actually used steam and their imaginations to dream up some crazy shizz.

What’s that I hear? The cat call for me to name them?

H.G. Wells. Jules Verne. You might even argue that some of Edgar Allan Poe’s lesser-known stories dipped a timorous toe into steampunk.

So, what is steampunk? Ha! Trick question. I’m not going to define it because there are far too many sites out there that spend blog post after blog post debating the finer delineations and spraying down commenters with flame throwers. I could say it’s kind of like pornography. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

What I will do is share with you some of the key characteristics of steampunk and how to avoid the world-building pitfalls that make readers flip tables and leave books in the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile. Obviously there is a lot to world-building that is common to all genres, but a few things are specific to steampunk, and while they are part of what make the genre so fun, they also require more work than most we generally think. At least, if we want to do the job well and play the role of frantic slave to KENP. (See my manifesto, er, blog post over at caitreynolds.com)

Victorian, Schmictorian

The first question we have to ask in creating a steampunk world is just how Victorian do we want to get? An undeniable part of the charm of steampunk is the contrast between the stodgy, fussy prissiness of Victoriana and the wild, unexpected consequences of ‘steam science’ upsetting the well-ordered apple cart of society.

You probably know what I’m going to say here. Wait for it…wait for it…

That delightful contrast can only be created if we do the research.

Boston in 1875 was a very different place from London in 1881, and even more different than Paris of 1890. I’m not talking just about the style of dress, which went from bustles to leg-o-mutton sleeves. I’m talking about political movements, social changes from abolitionism to colonialism, the development of the modern police force and formalized investigative techniques, and that little tiny detail of scientific progress and industry.

A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that just because they are writing steampunk, they can get away with not doing research. They couldn’t be more wrong, and it shows in their shoddy, unbelievable world-building. Even worse is when writers mention something that they think would be a cutting-edge invention, yet the invention had in reality already been around for several years.

Without a firm grounding in historical knowledge, steampunk produces characters that are anachronistic (I’m looking at you, feisty heroine who doesn’t want to get married and wants to be an inventor), a society that is a poor pantomime of actual Victorian manners and beliefs, and steampunkish inventions that are trite and unexciting.

Feathers and Flying Machines

Dirigibles, ether, and time travel machines are some of the stock technical steampunk ‘accessories.’ It can be a lot of fun to figure out how to reverse engineer today’s gadgets and make them work using the technology, tools, and material available in the 19th century.

But, creating the technological and mechanical anomalies of steampunk is a delicate balancing act. If we fall off to one side, we risk over-complicating things with gadgets that are irrelevant to the plot. If we fall off to the other side, we fail to come up with anything really interesting or useful to the story. So, how do we avoid doing this?

There are a couple of things we can do.

First, decide exactly what year we are writing about. I don’t care if I pick it out of a hat, but if 1877 is the year that comes up, then that is what I am going to use. Why? Because I need to the year I’m going to base all my research on. In addition to all the general historical research I’ll do, I will go further and read everything I can about the state of science, industry, and transportation in that year. By doing this, I’ll know precisely what scientific advancements they had achieved, how they traveled, and what machines were being used and invented. I’ll also read about the state of medicine to know just how badly I can injure my characters or how sick I can make them while giving them a fighting chance at recovery.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed at this point, so instead of trying to upgrade everything mechanical to steampunk, I’ll narrow it down to two or three things that I want to be fun and different – always provided that they are relevant to the plot. I’ll figure out what the machine does, what it doesn’t do, what can break it, what can fix it, and what powers it. I’ll give it some features that are futuristic or advanced, but I will also set firm limits on what it can do.

All of this has to be based on facts, with logic and rules guiding the creation of the steampunk features of the story. Because of the complexity of world-building, steampunk requires an almost religious adherence to logic in order to keep the reader from getting lost in confusing details and conflicting ideas.

Oh, and while I’m at it, let’s just get one thing perfectly clear: there is no reason for characters to wear hats and gloves inside the home, nor would any self-respecting woman wear her corset on the outside of her clothing. It’s not just being a stickler for historical details. It’s about logic.

Now, if my characters need to wear a wrist brace, I will make sure that the gadgets or weapons on the brace are absolutely necessary to the plot and will come in handy late by being either exactly what the character needs or exactly what he/she doesn’t need (therefore creating more fun…er…conflict). This also goes for goggles.  Characters are not going to wear their goggles on their heads or hats unless they are actively in the middle of something that would require them, or they soon will be. While outlandish steampunk fashion looks cool on book covers, a more reasonable nod to reality makes for a more enjoyable, organic story for the reader.

Gaskets and Gaiters

Naturally, this is merely a fraction of what I have to say about steampunk world-building. Given a chance, I can rant by the hour. In fact, Kristen has given me a chance to rant…er…instruct by the hour. I’m teaching an entire class on steampunk!

Click on the image to register!

 

Class Title: Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $35 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY July 21st, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

Who doesn’t love some steampunk cosplay? Corsets, goggles, awesome hats…

Steampunk has become one of the hottest genres today, crossing the lines of YA, NA, and adult fiction. It seems like it’s fun to write because it’s fun to read. However, there’s a world of difference between the amateur steampunk writer and the professional steampunk author, and the difference lies in the world they create.

  • Is your steampunk world historically-accurate enough not to jar the reader out of the narrative with anachronisms?
  • Does your world include paranormal as well as steampunk?
  • Are the gadgets and level of sophistication in keeping with the technologies available at the time?

Steampunk is not an excuse to take short-cuts with history. Good writing in this genre requires a solid grasp of Victorian culture and history, including the history of science, medicine, and industry. This shouldn’t scare you off from writing steampunk, but it should encourage you to take this class and learn how to create a world that is accurate, consistent and immersive.

This class will cover a broad range of topics including:

  • Polite Society: Just how prim and Victorian do you want to get?
  • Science, Technology, Medicine, and Industry: How to research these without dying of boredom?
  • Creating the Blend: How to drop in historical details without info-dumping, and how to describe and explain your steampunk innovations without confusing.
Register here!

****Just FYI, in an effort to combat spammers your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me! And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

For the month of JULY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NEW CLASSES WITH USA TODAY Best-Selling Author CAIT REYNOLDS!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

     

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear July 15th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

Classes with Award-Winning Author Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40

Method Acting for Writers: How to Write Deep POV August 1st (TWO WEEK CLASS) $85

Beyond Lipstick and Swords: Writing Strong Female Characters   September 9th $40