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World Building Wednesdays: Aesthetics


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aes·thet·ic

noun
\es-ˈthe-tik, is-, British usually ēs-\

 1
plural but sing or plural in constr : a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty
2
: a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight <modernist aesthetics> <staging new ballets which reflected the aesthetic of the new nation — Mary Clarke & Clement Crisp>
3
plural : a pleasing appearance or effect : beauty <appreciated the aesthetics of the gemstones>
In world building, this can be a very difficult thing to create, since it can be the most shallow (what you “see”) and the deepest (the symbolism behind what is seen) in any construct. In the simplest of terms aesthetics area of expertise is the “look of the thing”: colors, shapes, sizes, and materials. This is one of the reasons why Fantasy Counterpart Culture is such a common trope in speculative fiction, it is much easier to borrow existing cultural patterns and used them as short hand than to come up with your own. Entire sub-genres are built largely on a given aesthetic set, such as the film noir of cyberpunk or the industrial machinery/Victorian fashions for steampunk.
Developing a distinct aesthetic set for your story is not just a matter clothing and architecture. Thing of the look of everything, starting with the environment: grimy city slums, icy moon orbiting a gas giant, thick tropical forest or vast dune covered wasteland. The environment will give you a rich palette to work with. Take Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn.  The story is set in a world where giant volcanoes dot the horizon, spewing a constant rain of ash on the landscape. Everything is touched by the ash and gives a sense that everyone, be he slave or noble struggles to survive under the crushing weight of a dying world.
The environment also has another impact on the culture. Most cultures build their own aesthetics in ways that complement or contradict the environment in which they are a part off.  Paints, building materials, and shapes are influenced by the world around us. A seaside culture that depends on sea trade and fishing would probably use fish motives and the color blue as part of their ornamentation. If he setting is tropical, many of the homes would have open spaces (windows, interior gardens, balconies) to ease air flow. The same culture my value rare items such as rare silks or the color purple (both were rare in Ancient times and highly sought after). These are not color or materials typically found in that culture, which makes them even more valuable.
Aesthetics, be they environmental, cultural or personal can also provide (although they are not obligated to) layers of meaning. The first layer relates to the reader of your book. Aesthetics can set the tone of a given work and even be used to distinguished one character from another, in the music they like or the clothes they wear. The second layer is within the story itself, as in, what does the aesthetics mean to the story itself and the characters. The elements that change continuously add dynamism to the story while those that endure can inject a sense of history to the society in question.
A word of caution, like any other form of world building, establishing the aesthetics of a book can be another form of info dumping. Every word spent describing a thing is a word not used to move the story forward.

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4 comments on “World Building Wednesdays: Aesthetics

  1. Well said. Aesthetics is a very real and very tactile way to ground the reader in the story. But, like you said, it can benover done to the point of being a distraction.
    I agree, in sci-fi or even fantasy, the worlds, or spaceships can become like characters. Firefly, for example. The ship,mSerenity, was the ninth crew member.

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    • Interesting that you mention Serenity. If you look carefully at the setup of the ship, each section was distinct, from the cockpit to the kitchen and the engine room. The look of each section reflected, with a few details who occupied it, its function and the relationship with the rest of the ship.

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  2. Really enjoyed this post.

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