World Enough, and Time


Vision 14


World Enough, and Time


Elizabeth Gohr

Copyright © 2003, 2015, Elizabeth Gohr, All Rights Reserved


Time is subjective, to cultures as well as to individuals.  How do people handle time in their daily lives? Do certain concepts of time universally exist, or does your story demand new concepts?  Are there significant events that will be remembered and relived on schedule?  What about clashes between time concepts of different cultures, or stresses caused by changes in how different generations view time?  All of these thoughts have lead me to believe that time is an essential part of worldbuilding.

As in any kind of worldbuilding, if the background details are compelling, your readers will believe.  But allow an inconsistent assumption to slip in -- say, have your Regency dandy pull out his pocket watch and wonder why his companions are five minutes late -- and they will start to wonder. 

The need for care in handling a historical era, like the attitudes of a certain culture, should be obvious.  But time issues can crop up whenever or wherever you set your story.  Let's look at some details about how this might affect your world.

The Basics

Subjective time can trip you up.  Would the characters in your story notice time the way that you describe it?  If you're working in a historical era, an unfamiliar culture, or an invented world, plan to do some research.  Even if you're setting the story in your hometown, you are likely to find people and cultures that look at time in a different way than you do.

What struck the false note in my Regency example?  The answer lies in anthropology and cultural history.  Extrapolation from facts doesn't always work when it comes to attitudes.

Clocks accurate enough to display minutes or seconds were developed in the 1660s (a fact).  The new devices revolutionized oceanic travel, but the rest of society made little use of minutes and seconds in their daily routines.  Although people had more accurate clocks, they did not begin to use them the way that we do until the mid 1800s.  In the early 1800s a member of the leisure class normally would not worry about five minutes.

Here are some broad guidelines for cultural attitudes towards time:  Pre-historic people were hunter-gatherers and time was equivalent to space -- a solution to a bad situation was to go somewhere else.   Agricultural people became tied down, gained in abundance, lost in the development of banditry, and were the first people with government and taxes.  Industrial people traded all their seasonal problems for working for the clock.  Finally, post-industrial society is experiencing a reshuffling of time priorities once again.

Even if you write in the present, historic cultures exists everywhere -- on local farms that supply produce, in the migration of workers following low-paying jobs and homeless seeking a place to exist, and in every school that still teaches 'Get a good job and you don't have to worry about anything else.'

Biology is another science to look for basics.  Humans have biological clocks tracking intervals on the order of seconds, minutes, days, months, and years, and these clocks work at various levels of accuracy.  Be aware of the physical abilities of the character, his tools, and the time focus of the culture for casual mentions of time.  Extraordinary humans pursuing extraordinary goals can always be eccentric -- as long as you know how you're pushing the limits!

Subjective History

The objective history of your world is often portrayed from the subjective viewpoints of your cultures.  History as told by a nation, religious group, or other social group will contain a lot of clues to how its members will interact with the world. 

A writer will use the characteristics of a culture, including its time sense, to develop problems to put into the path of major characters.  In Flight of the Old Dog, the hotshot Russian pilot has to respond to a radio command to check in rather than take a shot at the American bomber.  Russia's historical reality says that soldiers cannot be allowed to stray without periodic confirmation that they are under control.  Dale Brown, the author, used a cultural restriction to add unexpected yet believable difficulties for the antagonist.

Even small groups will have different views of recent history.  It is always fun to have groups meet, and compare notes.  In The Lord of the Rings Frodo thinks the Ring and his quest is a deep secret that he shares only with Gandalf and Sam; but his friends are observant and have formed a conspiracy to help him out, with a spy revealed to be in both camps:

"Sam!" cried Frodo, feeling that amazement could go no further, and quite unable to decide whether he felt angry, amused, relieved or merely foolish.


Time and emotion are practically married.  Look at all the clichés featuring the pair, such as 'Time flies when you're having fun'.  The interaction of time and emotion in your world may help you show motivation from another perspective.

Group emotions can affect the entire world.  The anticipation of the millennium may bring religious or technological hysteria.  One culture may observe that other cultures are taking over the world -- and if the culture is that of the Elves as in The Lord of the Ring, its emotional reaction may be withdrawal rather than violence.  Groups of people, like mobs, tend to be primitive in their reactions, adding more color to your world.

Think about cultural attitudes towards the future, the past, the present, and cyclical events.  The self-satisfied time view of the Regency era allowed the upper crust to believe that the Season, when marital concerns were worked out alongside the work of government, was the most important event of the year.  Mary Balogh shows the power of this belief when she has the most headstrong, managing, convention-flouting character succumb to the emotions and beliefs of her culture in Lady with a Black Umbrella.  Her reluctant suitor, after asking Daisy to marry him and having spent two pages trying to convince her, comes up with the winning argument -- the need to salvage her sister's Season:

Daisy was tapping one finger against her lips.  "What if we were to pretend to be betrothed?" she said.  "That would serve, would it not?  Rose would have her season and meet her eligible gentleman.  And at the end of it you could go back to the way of life you enjoy, and I could go back home to look after my people again.  Everyone would be happy."

"And you would be seen as a jilt at the end of it all," he said.

Daisy made a dismissive gesture.  "What foolishness," she said.  "Do you think I would care for that?"



As the elderly relative of social emotions, expectations are habits of thought turned into custom, and assumptions about the framework of the past, present and future.  Life assumptions, for example, can develop into unmet expectations: A young person shows unexpected wisdom, or an older woman meets a man and gets married against the expectations of society.  Work up typical expectations for the lives of various parts of society, and you'll know exactly when your character is going to challenge assumptions.

The social calendar in general holds expectations that are tied to the season or the clock. Are there leftovers from an earlier time?  If not, get some! Any culture will have rituals that no longer make much sense. 

In The Flight of the Old Dog, Dale Brown tweaks expectations of the generation gap and the preference for the newest and best.  McLanahan, an upcoming young navigator, encounters much older General Elliott:

[McLanahan] glanced back at the B-1B Excalibur model.  "This thing?  No.  Too high-tech for me."

"Most young B-52 troops are standing in line for a B-1 assignment," General Elliott remarked….

"They've condemned the B-52 a little early.  She's still got a lot of fight left in her."

Elliot raised his eyebrows.  His thoughts exactly.



You have your writing plans, your characters have their own plans, and entities larger than your characters also have plans.  Various groups are trying to shape their part of the world the way they think it should be -- and they'll recruit or oppose your characters.

The first thing to do is figure out what these groups are and what their plans are.  The second thing is to figure out how, when, and where these plans are going to clash with everyone else.

From individual to family to work group to religious organization to national leadership to terrorist organization -- they all exist for a purpose.  There are more groups in a world than I could possibly mention, each with a goal, opinions about how to reach the goal, thoughts on how they're doing right now, and so forth. 

It might seem that intricate developments of this type belong to certain genres -- the suspense novel, murder mystery, or such -- but building group plans and interactions helps enlarge even a straightforward quest.  One main difference between a simple tale like The Hobbit and an epic like The Lord of the Rings is the way the quest is shown to affect the lives and plans of groups as well as individuals. 

Look at all the groups who are affected by the passing of the Ring, until the war is shown to be completely world-changing: from the Elves looking to depart the world and instead getting drawn into its troubles; to the Ents, older than old, rewriting their ancient knowledge; to the two kingdoms of men, shaken and changed; to the hobbits of the Shire, facing the effects of the war even in their remote corner of the world; and finally to the disruption of Frodo's own future.

If your story is not epic, there are still uses for group time plans.  Techno-thrillers often use the device that some crisis is happening and someone finds out, but the decision is made to handle it secretly within a particular group.  The reader's attention becomes focused on the crisis: have the characters figured it out correctly?  Will they have the resources to handle it?  Are they going to have to bring outside help in?  Will they be discovered keeping secrets from their allies or supporters? 

Going on from here

As writers we spend a lot of our time looking for conflicts to make our stories move in interesting and enjoyable ways.  Worldbuilding helps us keep those proposed conflicts consistent and believable.  Building time into your world not only makes the story more consistent, but also creates and exposes fault lines where interesting conflicts might happen.

Think about time and history, emotional connections, cultural expectations, and the plans of groups when you develop your world.  It will allow your world additional complexity to fill the story like the various rhythms of a symphony orchestra filling a concert hall.  Make enough time as well as place and your story will have enough room to unfold to its full potential.

To explore further:

The September 2002 issue of Scientific American magazine

The Smithsonian's summary at this web page :  


Flight of the Old Dog by Dale Brown, Berkley Pub Group, ISBN 0-425-10893-7

Lady with a Black Umbrella, by Mary Balogh, NAL, ISBN 0-451-16222-6, currently out of print

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, mass market box set, Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-34042-6