Worldbuilding Wednesday #6: “Wrede and Write”
By now, I’m sure that most of you have read Patricia C. Wrede’s classic list of fantasy worldbuilding questions; if you haven’t, I would recommend following the above link and giving them a glance-over. At the very least, they’ll give you some good inspiration for things you should think about while building your fictional world. They’ve been around forever, and many people have found them very helpful. That said, I have to admit that it was only very recently that I’ve discovered how to use them myself.
After initially discovering them, (and being initially very excited to have found them), I tried many times to use them as a tool for creating fantasy worlds from scratch. I thought I’d start with Question 1 of The Basics (“Are the laws of nature and physics actually different in this world, or are they the same as in real life? How does magic fit in? How do magical beasts fit in?”) and systematically go down the list, answering all the questions. At the end, or so I thought, I’d have a completed world ready to go.
Well, maybe that’s how other people use the list. I don’t know. Perhaps that’s how the list was originally intended to be used — I doubt it, but maybe. All I know is, it never worked for me. I would start at Question 1, and get a few questions in, and then stall, crash, and burn.
Sometimes I would stall at the first question, having trouble deciding whether or not my world would differ from Earth, and where, and how much. Sometimes I would get a little farther in. But eventually. I would hit a wall, where I couldn’t answer the question and couldn’t think of how to create an answer to the question. Maybe I’d skip it for the moment, and move to the next — only to hit another wall a few minutes later. Eventually I’d abandon the exercise, and not once do I remember ever thinking a world I’d started via the questions was worth revisiting or continuing outside of them.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out why that was. But recently I’ve realized that, for me at least, the questions are not a system for creating a world from scratch. Instead, they’re much more helpful to me as a checklist after I’ve already built the world. They can illuminate holes that need to be filled in a worldbuilding project. They are helpful with revising and touching up my world at closer to the end of its construction, rather than creating it at the beginning. Once I have the world more or less in shape, I can go to the list and say, “What does this country import? Export? How important is trade to the economy? How is currency exchange handled, and by whom? What is the system of coinage, and who mints it?” And, if I don’t have an answer for it, that’s something for me to think about. The answer might change the way I look at the world; it might have far-reaching repercussions. Or it might just be a detail that I mention in passing in my notes and never use where anyone else will see it. Either way, it makes that part of the world a little more real for me, and hopefully that gets passed on to the audience whether or not they know about the one small detail.
So, having discovered that I was using the questions at the wrong end of the process, I can now say that they are indeed as good a resource as I first thought upon discovering them years ago — just not quite in the way I expected back then.
Your mileage may vary, of course — you may find them helpful in completely different ways than I do. If you do, let me know how you put them to use?