Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Guest, Steve Turnbull - The Culture in Worldbuilding - #WriterlyWednesdays 19

I very much hope you will join together with me today to welcome author Steve Turnbull to Tasha's Thinkings to talk about the mysterious culture of world building.

The Culture in Worldbuilding
by Steve Turnbull

When I built my first fantasy world for a book in 1992 I had already asked myself the question: "Why, in Dungeons & Dragons, if there are spells that can determine whether someone is telling the truth, is society still typically feudal? Wouldn't the fundamental nature of society be different?"

To which the answer is: "Yes, of course, it would. The ordinary man and woman would be enslaved."

What would a society be like where someone in authority could know the truth of your words with no real effort? You can't guarantee the goodness of those casting the spells. Nor whether they tell the truth themselves.

Here's a practical example of how the rules of a world affect behaviour: My wife and I ran fantasy Live Role-Playing events for six years. That involved us organising adventures and people dressing up and going on those adventures. Like a murder-mystery party but in forests with swords and magic.

In the world system there were the warrior types and there were characters that could heal damage. And, as time went on, a system developed for battles: The big powerful warrior (the "tanks") would go into battle with their own personal healer (maybe more than one) who would keep pumping spells into the warriors to keep them alive while they took down the bad guys.

Individual behaviour and social structure is a product of the rules of the world (also geography, weather and belief systems). And that leads us to the question of borrowing from other cultures…

Cultural misappropriation

Tea Ceremony by Chikanobu Toyohara 1838-1912
Cultural misappropriation is a thing, and has a definition: "elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture." (Wikipedia)

While you can simply yank something out of one culture and slam it down in the middle of another one, it instantly loses its meaning. Cultural entities do not exist in a vacuum. They are defined, supported and enhanced by the structure from which they come.

Cultural entities (whether a Japanese tea ceremony, or Native American Wendigo) cannot simply be transplanted, they have a value and meaning in the culture from which they spring, if you take them out of the framework they mean nothing. A "Japanese tea ceremony" among wizards in Monte Carlo would not carry the meaning it has in its own culture.

This means that if you are building your own culture it needs to have its own framework for the construction of its rituals, concepts and symbols.

Baking your own

I do not hold with the idea that a writer cannot write outside his personal experience. In fact it would be impossible to be a good writer if you didn't do that.

Male writers can write female characters, and vice versa. Young writers can write old people. Personally I write about cultures I have barely experienced and places I have never been to. I have not had any complaints (as yet).

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writers do nothing but write about things outside their (or anybody else's) experience.

When you create a new world you define the rules by which it works. Those rules have consequences both personal and cultural.

Worldbuilding is a matter of consequences and constantly asking the question "Why?" along with the equally important "Why not?"

In my Patterner's Path fantasy series everything in the universe is built from patterns. Magic is a fundamental part of that universe and patterns can be manipulated with magic if you know how.

For example, I stated that magic is a fundamental part of this fantasy universe. If that's the case, why can't animals do magic? Why not indeed. But if they can what can they do and what restrictions are there?

Clearly an animal does not have abstract cognitive thought so any magic would be at an instinctual level. So I have many living things that use magic as part of their evolutionary process. Wolves, as pack animals, have a strong mental link to one another. As a consequence they are effective hunters—and silent, they have no reason to bark or howl. On the other hand they cannot be tamed (so no tame dogs in this world) and if all but one of the pack dies the final one goes mad from loneliness.

Does this have a cultural effect? Yes, these wolves are so dangerous the packs must be wiped out if they stray into human territory—of course that is done by the well-armoured nobility of the land.
So we create a creature that is product of the rules of the world, and social behaviours of the humans it comes into contact with.

Know your fundamentals

I can challenge anyone to ask me any question about any one of my invented worlds and I will know the answer. This is not because I've thought of everything already. Worlds and Universes are big places and you can't know everything about them.

But if you understand the rules of your world and someone poses a question—or a question is posed through the writing process—you will know the answer because it comes from the rules. However it's your world and you're free to modify the rules to produce the outcome you desire (as long as you remain consistent).

I have spent two years writing steampunk stories set in a single universe where history starts to diverge from ours in 1843 (when partial anti-gravity is discovered). I have stories set in 1857, 1874, 1896, 1903, 1908-1911 and 1933. At each stage the difference in history and technology increase, and by the time we reach 1933 the world we know is barely recognisable.

This is only possible because I know the basics of my universe.

Fear not the change

Over the past year several other writers have been writing stories (for an anthology) set in the same universe. I have had to be able to answer their questions about the technology and the state of humanity from Czarist Russia to mining stations in the Asteroid Belt. It's been a challenge, particularly as I did not want to interfere too much with their story ideas.

So I changed things. As long as I did not damage the continuity of the existing stories I was free to make any changes I wished. For example, when I began I had only a vague idea of how the antigravity worked but now I have a very clear idea. To the point where even flying mountains become a possibility.
It's a wrap

I've mainly focussed on SF/F/H in this article, because that's where most obvious worldbuilding happens. But every story has some worldbuilding, the setting up of rules for the world in which the story is set. Sometimes the genre itself sets those rules. And once they're set you can't break them.

The keys to worldbuilding are consequences and consistency. Get those right and you'll have a world people can believe in and trust.

Author Info 

Steve Turnbull has been inventing worlds for over forty years—but writing about them for only half that. By day he works in software development which is another exercise in consequences. He is married with two grown children. He's counting the minutes to the day they can keep their parents in the lifestyle to which they wish to become accustomed.

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Book Info

Patterners' Path (fantasy)

Elona (

Two thousand years ago, fleeing their Slissac masters, the Taymalin stole a new land from its indigenous people.

A descendant of those invaders, ten year old Lady Elona of Corlain finds herself bound by a prophecy that says she will defeat an invading army. But that’s impossible: she’s just a girl.

Her betrothal to the Prince solves the paradox for the nation’s leaders—she can produce the heir to fight the prophesied war—at the cost of political enemies for Elona.

But six years later, as Elona’s behaviour becomes erratic, her carefully planned future shatters.

Voidships books (steampunk)

Broken Vows

And a free short story on Medium: After Curfew

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