J.B. Simmons writes thrillers with an apocalyptic twist, and political philosophy clothed in fantasy. His latest novel, Unbound, tells the story of a rich kid from Manhattan with nightmares of a dragon and the world ending in 2066. In his Gloaming books, J.B. carries the torch of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis into an underground city with an exiled prince. J.B. lives outside Washington, DC, with his wife, two toddlers, and an intriguing day job. He writes before dawn and runs all day. His secret fuel: coffee and leftover juice boxes. Learn more at www.jbsimmons.com. * * * * * What kind of worldbuilding is the hardest? All of it. I’ve created two different worlds in the past few years. One is high fantasy, and medieval in style. The other is on good ole planet earth, but set in the year 2066. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the challenges of worldbuilding exist for every book that departs from our present reality. The world must be crafted with care, because a few slips can destroy it for readers. Building Worlds (for the writers) Every novel is set in a fictional world. But the more time and space vary from today’s earth, the more important it becomes to make the book’s world believable. Readers have to believe before they’re going to care. First, writers should build the world in their minds, laying the mental foundation. You might follow the Creator’s example: start with the heavens and the earth. Add a little light and dark, water and land. Then toss in some plants and animals. People and buildings make good additions, too. Next, ask lots of questions about what you’ve created. Try these for starters:
- Do normal laws of nature apply? Any exceptions?
- Which virtues are overlooked? Which vices praised?
- What’s the weather like?
- What languages do the people speak? How about the animals, the robots?
- Swords, guns, or nukes?
- Standard breakfast menu?
Think that last question is a joke? Maybe a little, but what someone eats can reveal a lot about a world. Here’s an example from Unbound:
I had seven minutes until my wake-up alarm, but I started my morning routine anyway. Thirty seconds in the shower chamber, one minute to slip on my black suit, and then my food arrived. Real eggs and coffee. My mouth watered. It had been too many mornings of pills and smoothies. This was a day for real food. I took my time with each bite while watching the video briefings.
As I wrote more about the year 2066, the words helped fill in the gaps. I typed lots of silly details that didn’t make the final book. They helped me flesh out a future reality, which you can read more about in my blog post on Writing the Future: Real Technology in Fiction. The editing and pruning of extraneous fact got harder as topics grew in complexity. For example, how could I show how international security might be different in 2066, without writing an entire history of the next five decades? I used tidbits like this: A spinning holograph of the White House appeared before the instructor. “You know,” he said, “the President used to live in this house a few blocks from here.” Laughter rolled through our class. There were fifty of us in the room, and most looked like old bureaucrats. “I know, I know, hard to imagine,” he joked. “The President, living out in the open like that, with everyone knowing where he was? Well, life changes when you have power and responsibility. The world is watching, and it’s our job to watch the world. Starting today, you used to stay in hotels, just like the President used to live in the White House.” The holograph blinked off. I hope that reveals something about this future world. Maybe it leaves you curious about why the President no longer lives in the White House. The editing process should seek the delicate balance of revealing the world while enticing readers deeper into it. Destroying Worlds (for the readers) Fictional worlds are fragile. They unravel every time a word, or a mental picture, makes a reader trip. The great challenge is that different things trip up different readers. Yet it boils down to four common issues. 1. Too much detail. You might guess this from a book’s thickness. Hefty fantasy epics often pile on the detail. This can be incredible, engaging, escaping. But it can also drag. Here’s a classic example: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. Talk about a world builder! Tolkien invented languages. He wrote history. But I think we’d all agree that The Lord of the Rings is a better read than The Silmarillion. This doesn’t at all mean The Silmarillion is poorly written or bad, it just has A LOT of details. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:
“[I]t is told among the Eldar that the Valar endeavoured ever, in despite of Melkor, to rule the Earth and to prepare it for the coming of the Firstborn; and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it. And yet their labour was not all in vain; and though nowhere and in no work was their will and purpose wholly fulfilled, and all things were in hue and shape other than the Valar had at first intended, slowly nonetheless the Earth was fashioned and made firm. And thus was the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar established at the last in the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.”
Do we have to know that history of Middle Earth to enjoy The Lord of the Rings? No, but we benefit from the clarity of the world in Tolkien’s mind. This clarity helped him write a story in a believable world full of elves, hobbits, and dwarves. While The Silmarillion may never be a Hollywood blockbuster, it is the foundation that helps the world of Middle Earth long live on. 2. Not enough detail. These are the thin books. Sometimes they pack heavier punches, like Hemingway. It helps when the story is contemporary, so that the world-building touch is lighter. But the touch is still there. You see proof when you pick up a bare book written fifty years ago. Are there unexplained details that don’t make sense in today’s world? They probably made sense when they were written. Some readers of my Gloaming novels craved more detail about the world. Perhaps the books are an oddity: compact epic fantasy. So readers who are accustomed to longer epics understandably could want more. But other readers praised the action and picked up on my hint that this was to be a “simple yet luxurious backdrop” for a deeper struggle:
Almost every building was built of bright white walls and steeply pitched, slate gray roofs. Against that simple yet luxurious backdrop, the thousands of merchants and craftsmen of the city had developed their own colorful pennants, which they proudly flew from their rooftops and windows. The building’s strong foundations and ornate decorations reflected the city’s culture—bound by generations of custom, but individually distinct and free. Every twisting road had known hundreds of stories and names.
This, again, is the balance writers must seek. It’s a little like Goldilocks’ porridge. Not too much detail, not too little – but somewhere just right. 3. Inconsistencies. These are the nuclear bombs of worldbuilding. No one likes inconsistencies, and readers are geniuses at detecting them. If a castle had a crumbling southwest wall in the first chapter, that crumbling wall should darn well matter when an army is gathered outside it ten chapters later. The best way to iron out all these points is to give your near-final book to beta-readers. They won’t let inconsistencies slip. No one does. 4. Unbelievable events. Like the Creator, when you build a world, you have the power to change it, even destroy it. With this power comes great responsibility. An important rule of thumb is: once you’ve made your world’s rules, don’t break them unless you have a very good reason. (Hint: there’s a very good reason coming in the Unbound trilogy.) In the end, the best worlds make us believe the unbelievable. That’s why we read after all, to visit worlds we love and carry back memories into the world where we live. Let’s make our worlds count — J.B. Thanks, J.B. for visiting with us today! Q: If you’re a writer, what are your favorite ways to approach worldbuilding in your novels? And as a reader, are there any particular books where the worldbuilding completely drew you in?