An encyclopedia of canon is a priceless resource. Writing a story is one thing; creating a world is something else. Something greater. Something harder to pull off. I’ve recently discovered what I should have probably already known: establishing all the little details of a world won’t happen overnight.
Here are a few more things I discovered:
Not everybody agrees on the meaning of “canon”.
It’s not exactly surprising to find insufferable pedants among a bunch of writers. But it can be fun to discover places where said pedants disagree with any significance. The definition of “canon” is one of these places. Some folks say it means “established as true to the story”. Others mean it for a general reference to the official body of works, with no regard to orthodoxy or continuity. Still others use it as a catchall phrase for worldbuilding.
When I say “canon” I kind of mean a hybrid of these things. I mean all the little notes about characters, motivations, places, technologies, systems of governance . . . all the stuff that I consider a part of the world that I’ve created, regardless of whether it actually appears in the story itself.
I got too much of it.
Everything I want to write about won’t fit into the story. One day, the whiskey monster and I burned a few minutes figuring out every character’s favorite color. I have absolutely no reason for this information. For some characters, I have countries of origin. I decided that a couple of my characters have birthmarks. One guy hates bugs. An entire planetary government is ruled by a religion that, in part, eschews the color Yellow as profane, but it doesn’t play any part in the story.
I didn’t spend hours on any of this. They were mostly the product of idle moments between tasks, when I jotted down a note about something that sounded fun. Most of it will never get into the story.
Tracking the details of canon is surprisingly difficult.
I blame this difficulty on brainstorming. I think of different ways to solve a problem or back up a motivation, and later on I forget which decision I finally made. Other, whiskey-fueled times, I come up with stuff that may or may not survive sober reflection. And did I mention I have a lot of it? And it’s all made up.
I started out with notepad, but it became tedious to scroll through pages and pages of things. Then I started using a Word document with bookmarks, and that worked for a time. But then maintaining the bookmarks (and the cross-referencing) became too much of a chore, and it stopped being fun. Finally, I took a cue from Wikipedia and wrote my own little wiki program in C#. That’s been working quite well for now.
It’s a good source for subsequent problem solving.
I spent a lot of time building up something of a religion among an alien race. History and beliefs. Forms and functions. Evolutions and departures. Phrases and behaviors that bleed into the general zeitgeist. That kind of thing.
I also had a character who I originally planned to have originate in a secluded tribe from the alien homeworld, who’s actions were generally opaque and often unexpected. It became more and more difficult for me to write this character, as the more I got into the story, the less sense it made that (a) such a disconnected tribe would exist, and (b) that such a character could arrive at present circumstances from the homeworld. But I’d already written much of the character, and had more plans.
I turned to my established canon for inspiration, and rediscovered this sketch of a religion. So why not? The character became an avid follower. Most of the character’s actions still fit the bill of such a follower, and I was actually able to detail the religion further while backfilling other motivations. Problem solved.
Stuff that won’t fit into the story is still important to the story.
For instance, I have an alien race that evolved in swamps and marshes. I have a (very) rough idea of how this evolutionary timeline played out. What other denizens of the marsh might have looked like then, and what they’d look like now. What kind of things might parallel humanity’s evolution, and what kind of things would depart from it.
As the story stands, there is no mention of this evolution. And, really, why bother with that? It’s entirely unnecessary to the story. They certainly don’t live in marshes anymore.
On the other hand, It’s so important! Among other things, such an evolutionary origin helps define the alien’s physiology. I didn’t just want weird looking aliens for the sake of looking weird, I wanted reasons. Sketching out an evolutionary history provides these reasons, and (I think) ties together a much more believable alien form.
Out-of-story canon gives reasons to the stuff that does make it into the story. Things become less random and arbitrary because of it.
I have more to the list, but that seems like enough for now. Part Two next Monday, I think. Stay tuned.