Swatties build worlds

“What is Ash Ketchum eating?” asked Rachel Davis ’19 during her Peripeteia workshop devoted to examining worldbuilding in fiction.
“I suppose the writers thought no one would think about implications of casually eating meat in a world of non-sentient animals? But people like me do and then you’re watching Pokémon and you’re like, ‘This is ruined forever,’” said Davis.
The class, titled Who Washes Elves Socks?, was held in SCI 145 on Sunday afternoon. A comprehensive assortment of candy was strewn across the front table, greeting the participants as they arrived.
In her talk, Davis began by reflecting on the reasons people build complicated, consistent worlds in fiction. Drawing from Tolkien essays, she described worldbuilding as a way of enchanting readers and adding meaningful context to fantasy and science fiction narratives.
Worldbuilding, according to Davis, consists of a wide array of subjects. Fantasy and science fiction authors can construct entire languages, outline different sets of physical laws, or just emphasize different philosophical values to bring their fictional environments to life.
“If you can major in it at Swarthmore, you probably need to think about it when you are building a world,” said Davis.
She then went on to describe three different processes people use to begin building worlds. The first is referred to as the top-down approach, and it begins with the detailed creation of larger environments and eventually aids in the development of characters. Next, Davis described  the bottom-down approach, starts with distinct characters and goes into the details of their lives and environments. The final approach, deemed the “willy nilly” approach, involves doing both at once.
Participants in the class noted that each approach had unique advantages and drawbacks. Top-down approaches tend to be incredibly time consuming with unnecessary planning, while bottom-up approaches tend to lead to inconsistencies as the story progresses and may not have a larger picture. The “willy nilly” approach, while potentially compensating for the disadvantages of the others, can be disorganized or inconsistent if not planned out carefully.
“If I’m writing a story with a fictional universe, I have a whole folder with files and documents, one for names, one for different geographic locations, etc. It can be hard to get it to cohere. It’s like drawing a line from two different starting points, hoping that it’ll meet in the middle,” said Davis.
Davis went on to describe a common mistake authors make when building worlds, which she referred to as the “As you know Bob,” in which exposition is clunkily shoved into the story through unnatural dialogue.
“It happens when you heavy-handedly explain something that should just be natural to the characters in the world,” said Davis. However, she also noted that stories without clear, explicit exposition can be incredibly difficult for readers to follow.
In the second half of the workshop, the attendees were split into four groups and tasked with describing the environment and cultural practices of the fictional Wagquy people, described as “fearful, silky and sweet.” Each group was given a series of questions ranging from “What kind of government does this society have?” to “What is the recipe of a common dish in this society?” to ‘What is the most taboo thing a person in this group could say to another person?’
“I thought it was interesting to hear what other people were coming up with,” said Katherine Anderson ’20, a workshop participant who had extensive prior creative writing experience. “There are a lot of different ways to worldbuild, and there’s not necessarily a right way and a wrong way.”
Davis was inspired to lead the workshop from a lifelong fascination with creative writing, fantasy, and science fiction. “I’ve been a writer since as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved the creation of worlds. My dad jokes that I should’ve just majored in world creation.”
Overall, Davis hoped that participants of the workshop would take away the importance of simply writing without self-criticism.
“Everyone in the workshop did an amazing job, but I did notice a lot of hesitation,” said Davis. “When you write, you can do anything. Your society can worship green apples, blue can be an unholy color. Just write, just put all of your ideas down. A lot of times you can come up with something wonderful and creative that way, rather than second-guessing yourself at every turn. You can make it make sense.”

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