Since one of my current projects, alongside the resurrection of a positively ancient project, have had me wrapped up in all sorts of nitpicky details, I figured I’d talk about it a little here today. So the subject of the day is “world building.”
Those of you who are creative sorts are probably already aware of the concept, but for those who haven’t heard of it, world building is the creation of a setting or other universe essentially from the ground up. It’s not generally necessary for nonfiction writers, only slightly necessary for those who take the “real world” and tweak it a tad for fiction, and the root of the whole exercise for fantasy writers or people who take massive deviations from established history and function.
It’s also – at times – a bloody nightmare.
One of the two projects I’m working on is the “easy” kind. High fantasy. No relationship to the “real world” at all. That might sound like it’s the more difficult route; I mean, you have to come up with everything all on your lonesome. In some ways, that’s accurate; you have to craft the history of an entire universe, cover all the bases like geography, geology, weather patterns, whatever Big Bang-event created it, the things that live there, the nations they’ve formed, the interrelationships between those nations, rituals, rites and cultural norms, the level of technology and magic (plus explaining how those interrelate or don’t, and possibly the mechanics behind them), what religions they have (and how many of them are “true,” and what dominion the higher or lower powers claim over the world and so on.
Yeah, that’s a lot of work, but here’s why it’s the “easy” way. It’s yours. You can do what you want to it, pull things completely out of thin air, erase or rewrite large swaths of it due to the whim of the moment, and have no consequences or responsibilities except to make sure it has a cohesive feel when you’re done. If I want to diddle one aspect of it, it doesn’t mean massive rippling changes through the entirety of the work – or those changes are what led to the initial diddling – and nobody can say “That’s totally wrong,” because it’s all made up. Again, so long as the final outcome has a cohesive feel, until I put out the official bible of that universe that covers all the ground rules, basic history, and known aspects of the denizens, no worries.
My other project is very much the definition of the “hard way.” It’s a (mostly) realistic noir-type setting with a “default era” of the mid-to-late 60s. Maybe a higher crime rate, but for the most part people and the world are stylized renditions of that era. Now, really, that wouldn’t be so hard. Until I added what had started the madness. Zombies.
Okay, they’re not really zombies, at least not the way most people picture them these days. This was the first set of changes. I decided they were disease-related. That they weren’t particularly contagious, at least not on the level of your typical zombie movie where a drop of blood or a bite was going to “turn” you. I further decided that for the most part, the deaders – as they are known in-universe – are just like you and me. They have some different dietary requirements, a lot of them don’t look so hot, and there’s occasional mental problems, but they have jobs, they have families, they have to deal with prejudice and discrimination and most of them just want to live their “lives.”
Problem #1 crops up: Since I’m trying to root this reasonably well, giving it a realistic feel and abiding by the concepts of medicine as we know them, I need to decide what this disease is and why it does what it does. Many hours of scouring WebMD and Wikipedia later, I find my answer: Leprosy. Fascinating things I bet you didn’t know about leprosy: It slows function of many metabolic processes; some varieties attack protein and inhibit the uptake of protein in the body; it’s got some fascinating interactions, both positive and negative with a lot of other diseases (rabies among them). Wasn’t too hard to take the leap from a mutant strain of leprosy to something that would arrest/stop aging and death (due to a ridiculously slowed metabolism), prevent proper healing (due to same), render the victims with deadened senses, particularly touch and taste (since it tends to attack nerve centers), and explain that whole “flesh eating” thing (gotta beef up that protein intake.) Excellent!
Problem #2: You have to come up with how that change occurred. Digging around some more, I discovered there was a lot of leprosy going around during the Civil War; sometimes entire companies were afflicted. Given the harsh conditions at the time, the first experiments with new treatments and the significant interaction of a number of peoples from a number of environments, you had a ripe little spot to introduce a mutation or resurgence of a new strain of something. Great. The reduced level of communications and information sharing, combined with the deaders’ pain tolerance and reduced survival requirements, would ensure that some of them survive; communicability via exposure may be minimal, but open wounds (and the infection that comes with them), lack of proper treatment procedures and the stereotypical “soldier coming home” moments would give it a chance to get into the general populace. Add in that leprosy is strongly suspected of having several hereditary and genetic factors, thus implying the deaders’ blood families would likely have a higher chance to contract it, and you’ve got your recipe. Then for added entertainment, I discovered (after a long and fascinating conversation with a veterinarian) that rabies has some interesting effects on lepers; when added to their arrested metabolism, that would lead to them being carriers who may suffer from some of the symptoms – madness/rage, high communicability, impaired judgement – but wouldn’t be hampered much by the downsides or death. That created a “subclass” of deaders; Yellers (as a bad derogatory pun on Ol’ Yeller, also tied to the sound many rabies-infected deaders tend to make, and as an inadvertent but amusing coincidence, liquid rabies virus tends to be yellow in color.) That helps ensure the spread (yellers making wounds and spraying blood and spit everywhere, potential sexual assaults, difficulty tracking/subduing them) as well.
Problem #3: Now you have to count the cost. I’ve just introduced some (theoretically) undying individuals with odd dietary requirements into the setting. One can’t just fast forward to 1960 and say “It’s cool, zombies live with us.” Maybe someone can, but I can’t. I have eighty-some years (that had some major historical events and shifts, amazing advances in technology and medicine and plenty of crazy movements) to explain how things shifted from that one alteration. Plus, the US doesn’t live in a vacuum. How does this affect the rest of the world? Canada and Mexico are sure to have a few, and the Brits likely took some back with them. The French and Irish probably had some exposure as well, and where does it go from there? So I started with “let’s have zombies hanging out, doing their best to live normal lives, in New York” and ended up with “Crap. I have to rewrite nearly a century of human history.”
That led to research on medicine and technology, what the important discoveries were and when they came about. Then I had to evaluate most of them and decide how significant they were and how likely they were to remain unchanged with the introduction of the deaders. Some I kept. Some were modified. Some were junked, having been areas that would have had no interest or focus for a society with a zombie problem. Then you have to look over and see what effects that has. Think about it; if Coca-Cola hadn’t stopped putting cocaine in the soda, what does that lead to? The list grows.
Then you realize, oops. You may have covered that, but what about the deaders’ history? What about their medical needs, or the technology that would advance because they’re around? Plastic surgery and food and diet suddenly become big factors, so are likely to be much more advanced than they would have been otherwise. Medicine has probably branched into separate paths, since most of what works on “normal” humans isn’t going to work – or will have unreliable or unpredictable effects – on people who are metabolically challenged. The social issues of the day are going to shift – leading to the creation of “lifeism” and all the social and religious persecution that comes with it – and what’re the effects of that?
Problem #4: History. Just like they’re going to alter the tech level and the social issues, history is likely to have been quite different from that flashpoint. So you have to do the same thing with all the major (and some of the seemingly minor) historical events from your flashpoint forward. How’d World War 2 turn out with deader soldiers? What was the Third Reich’s stance on the deaders? Were they rounding them up alongside Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals? (For the record, they were… and it ended badly for them.) With the tweaks that came from that logic train, I end up with the war being over significantly faster, which means the US didn’t get involved. Then you have to contemplate how that ripples through, changes the relationships of the nations as we know them. Did we still make the atomic bomb? (For the record, in my setting, no. Britain did, with captured Nazi scientists. They later used it on Ireland to quell rebellion. The United Kingdom in this setting is much more “United…” But it’s probably not a place you want to be.) That’s before you get into the real messes, like Africa’s assorted nations and near-constant civil unrest and Dictator-Go-Rounds. And one wonders what happened to the Nazi studies on deader physiology…
Problem #5: Find the loopholes. I sort of covered this back at Problem #1 and #2, with how such a thing could come about and why it continued, but it bears repeating: Find the loopholes. You’ve got your flashpoint that inspired the change to the world we know. You’ve carefully gone through and tried to cover all the bases the ripples have created. You’ve designed history from that moment forward and are happy with the result. But you have to make sure it’s not something that could have been curtailed with ridiculous ease, because then you have to explain why nobody did. For my example, what if someone had just shot “Subject Zero” and buried him in a mass grave? Since it’s not actually “resurrecting” anyone, that would have derailed my zombie apocalypse right there; had I continued with it, it would have become unbelievable – to me, who is a great fan of saying “What the hell? How stupid are you!” at horror movies , and potentially to my audience. My answer was that a whole company had developed the mutated strain. Attrition, the needs of war, and the initial lack of awareness that it was anything other than the “standard” leprosy that already affected several of the soldiers of the day ensured it found greater exposure. The horrid medical and environmental conditions of the day also helped contribute to the spread. By the time it was widely known something was “wrong,” there were too many of them, in too many places – many of them decorated war heroes, who had as-yet not engaged in any behaviors that would condemn them completely – to put in effective containment.
Now, all that said… I think I still enjoy Rotten Apple, both in the (still ongoing) process of building up that world and the tales I can tell there, more than I do Milefront. But as someone who’s written several novels, who puts these hideously long posts on here nearly every day, and who is known to give long rants and wordy reviews on Facebook and Goodreads, it’s also positively exhausting at times. So caveat scriba. This is a mountain, and it takes forever to climb.
So what’s your opinion? What things have you tried when building your worlds and settings, either from the ground up or by modifying history as we know it? What do you think the pitfalls, pleasures and pains of the process were? Did I miss anything? Drop a note below. Until next time! (When I might post some of my notes from Rotten Apple, or I might whine some more about people. I don’t know yet.)