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Monday, September 07, 2009

World Building: Thoughts and Practices

World building is one of those things you have to do, even if you don't want to. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or something else entirely, you'll always find yourself attempting to build your world, whether at the micro or macro levels. Creating characters is a form of world building, and if all you do is create unique characters for your novels, then you are as much a part of the process as someone who builds entire worlds (they just have to spend more time creating things from scratch, while you, perhaps, can sit around in the comfort of the world you know).

I've often approached world building from a relatively minimalist position. While I enjoy fantasy worlds with richly developed worlds, sometimes such things can get in the way and what should be a riveting novel can turn into a foray into the author's world building practices. Nobody wants that. Tolkien, for all his brilliance in creating the most fully-realized fantasy world in the history of the genre, was occupied by unfortunate flaws in style and character development, some of which were a product of the times. I prefer to keep things localized. Whether it is the most efficient method, I don't know, but it seems to work well enough for me. I don't occupy myself with excessive amounts of ancient history, because, as much as that might be interesting, it is not relevant to whatever story I am writing at that moment.

When I build worlds, I start with names and general ideas, work my way to a map, and then go wild until I feel that I know enough about the world to be able to write in it. Sometimes it works well, depending on how interested I am in a particular world, and sometimes it doesn't. But when it works, it really works. I have three fantasy worlds that I developed this way (Traea, the world in which The World in the Satin Bag is set, a world where I've set many of my "quirky" fantasy stories, and the Mundoscurad, the most recent, in which The Watchtower is set.

There are an absurd amount of different methods for world building, from genre specific to author specific. Writers of all genres, particularly newer writers, are always looking for the "best way," not realizing that the "best way" is really non-existent. Reality dictates that what might work for some, may not work for you, and vice versa. Ken McConnell, for example, said via his Twitter that, "sometimes it's the little things, like word choice that can set the tone and enrich your world building."

So what do you do when it comes to world building? How do you find the right method for you?

Trial and error. Not the answer you were looking for, were you? Tough. So much of writing involves trying something to see if it works for you. If it doesn't, you drop it and try something else. Trial and error is a writer's third or fourth, or maybe tenth, best friend (no doubt writers have a lot of best friends).

But that's neither here nor there. I want to hear about your world building methods. How do you approach creating new worlds? What works for you?

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  1. As a long time, on again/off again gamer, I'd suggest turning to the RPG world for help. There are all kinds of resources out there to fire up your imagination. For example:
    Medieval demographics
    Name generator
    Odd stuff

    And here's an excellent guide to world building:

  2. Search other blogs ask others in the same field for some help. I believe in writing what you are feeling on that particular day. If you feel like writing about a different world go ahead. I find that sometimes when I've had a bad day I need to write about a different world. And sometimes I need to write about things that take place in the real world.

  3. I usually start with the characters. I ask myself what I want them to be able to do and what they'll need in order to do it. I build the world around that. I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about things that interest me, (architecture, clothing styles, technological developments, magical systems, etc.), and deciding how they'd fit into this world. Are there areas where I can borrow from our own world? Could I maybe blend this particular era with that one to get something that fits with what I need? Is this real-world culture similar to what I want to do with this group of people? How do I need to modify it to get what I need?

    So basically I cobble a bunch of stuff together, then smooth away at it until it's nicely blended.

  4. Anonymous10:08 PM

    When I build worlds, I try to set them up so they are "big" and "conceptual" I don't hone in on any details about my character or situation at all because I want the world I'm creating to work for more than one project (potentially) and I don't want to be known as the guy who writes about something completely new each project.

    I start with drama, such as: "How old do you need to be to vote and why?" or "What would an alien attack on Earth leave the planet looking/feeling like? In what shape would we be?" and then start to make decisions. None of the decisions made effect only ONE character so it stays large and conceptual.

    Once I've set up a world, I then use it like a story telling bible and start from scratch with telling the story referring to the bible as needed.

    You know, in my opinion, you can write perfectly good fiction (wonderful fiction sometimes) without any world building at all! Why? Because of all the pre-made world building thats been done for centuries in prose that has been written before ours and has permeated societies subconsciousness.

    I'm talking about things like Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and countless others that I'm unable to name like newer properties such as Babylon5 and Harry Potter.

    The CHILDREN OF THE GODS Podcast does a great job of this. I'm not putting its writing down when I say they seem to purposefully stay within the boundaries of pre-permeated established worlds (space opera) and avoid the trappings that often fall upon such genre fiction. I admire the writing for that, its like its a different kind of skill set...

  5. I have just had my book, Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings, published in the USA. It is the first book in a fantasy trilogy and I created the world by basing all that happens on my own experiences in this world but then applying new and different perspectives, powers and capabilities on events. These follow a set of rules I call extended reality and are based on what would happen if ....... ! My characters are all based on people I know to ensure I maintain behavioural credibility for them as the story develops. I think it works but you must judge for yourself by reading it.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings

  6. Anonymous1:21 PM

    ^subtle advertising there.

    Also, Mr Advertiser, you've been scammed.

    Also, Mr Advertiser, if you can't write characters not based on someone you know, I'd seriously worry about your imagination and writing ability.

    I build in a similar way to Memory, in that I start with characters, pick a few things I like in a world and then make it work. For TBoE I wanted it to be old, but not castley, so I picked a Rennaisance-y feel for it. Beyond that my worlds tend to build themselves. I don't think I've ever sat down and thought 'ok, I'm going to create something here'. I don't even create a map until I start thinking 'I have no clue where this is in relation to where they want to go'. It's all pretty practical.

    Of course now I've reached a point where I've written myself into a corner and wished I'd planned more. :p

  7. seekerpat: Thanks for the link suggestions. I am sure someone will find them quite useful! And I agree that the RPG world can be helpful, though one should be cautious not to overuse such "elements."

    Kelly: Thanks for your input.

    Memory: Ah, maybe I should attempt that approach...

    BlaqueSaber: So, you take a semi-Tolkien approach? I disagree, however, with your assertion that much of the worldbuilding has already been done for you simply because big, recognizable universes already exist. One still has to mold a world out of recognizable elements, otherwise you'd be plagiarizing...

    Chris: Thanks for stopping by! Unfortunately, it does look like you were scammed by your "publisher." Rather unfortunate.

    Ellira: Thanks for the info in that link. Very useful. I've tried your approach before, though not so much with characters. You and I both know I have problems with characters...

    Thanks everyone for your input!

  8. Anonymous1:53 AM

    No, What I was trying to get at, was that it is possible to write decent fiction that doesn't really need tons of world building because simply hinting at elements that are all ready so prominent in society takes the reader there anyway.

    Its not that its not necessary to do any world building at all ever.

  9. BlaqueSaber: Oh, I totally agree with you there. But I would argue with you about the prominence of Tolkien-esque elements. Maybe your point is that trying to define Tolkien-esque elements is largely pointless, since readers already know them. But then that might be more reason to do something new or different or at least altered in shape.