In my previous post, I mentioned that I don’t start writing a story with the intention that it will become a fantasy. It’s something that forms over time. So what happens when I’ve realized that I’ve walked straight into worldbuilding? The Earth didn’t forge its various terrains and oceans in just two days. The human race didn’t separate into different cultures and languages overnight. Similarly, I don’t create my worlds in mere hours. So how do I sort out what’s what?
As with most things that have to do with writing, this will vary from person to person and will be largely dependent on the world itself. However, here are some basic approaches that I use when I start the worldbuilding process:
1.) Ask why.
If you ask why, you need to be able to supply an answer. Why does this race do this or that? Why are there three moons instead of one or two? Why are there four dialects of this language? Why do these people have that specific belief?
I think that asking why can help you fill in the particulars of your world. These little tidbits might not all be listed in your prose (hopefully they aren’t), but having the more delicate details in the back of your mind while writing will help you to weave them into the actions or thoughts or surroundings of your characters or story, giving the reader a realer sense of your world.
It’s possible that you’ll never exactly explain how those three moons came into existence. Or how the river in the west is the most important water source for your people. But there may be ways you write that give the reader a sense of these things, and that is what is most important.
2.) Start with the characters, not the world.
Characters are going to know more about themselves than you do; they are going to let you know what they believe, how they think, their powers, strengths, and weaknesses. From there, you can start to construct the more intricate details: politics, religion, magic.
I call this my “internal to external” approach—working from the inside out.
If you’re having trouble asking yourself why and getting an answer that satisfies you, then try asking your characters instead. You might be surprised by what they tell you.
3.) Brainstorming, outlines, and pre-writing, oh my!
After I’ve gathered the initial plot, the characters, and have some idea about the various races, then what do I do?
I have a bunch of halfway made and quickly abandoned world outlines scattered around my computer. Usually they were ambitious plans to construct the world first and write later, but at the end of the day, I simply refuse to make outlines. I don’t tend to pre-write much. I don’t even write down the laws of my world. I realize that this might be an intricate part for some writers (or even half the fun!), but I like some things to come as surprises. If there is a “trivial” tidbit of history that I might forget, I might make a note of it somewhere or maybe even make a timeline, but in general, I keep most of it in my head.
That doesn’t mean I don’t brainstorm, however. As my writing friends have come to realize, I like to talk about the world. I like to bounce around ideas with them and ask: does it work? I see it all—very realistically—in my mind. Sights, sounds, and tastes. I watch my characters interact with one another. I listen to their histories. I get to know the world by trying to live in it myself.
Which brings me to my next point:
4.) Put yourself in the world.
This may seem like a given, seeing as this world is springing from your imagination to begin with; however, I have to stress that this could be the most important factor. If the world isn’t real to you, then how do you expect to make it real to your readers?
Walk the streets in your head, taste the food, get to know the culture. If it’s a windy region of the world, feel how the wind strikes you. How does it smell?
Plenty of your world’s secrets will be something so engrained in your head—something so natural to you—that you may not even realize they are a part of your world. But they’ll be so real to you that you’ll write them into your prose the same way you might write about a city you know in real life. Naturally, realistically, leaving little room to doubt its existence.
5.) Take it in stride.
So all in all, I write my worlds with a mixture of the above-mentioned tactics, using some more than others. In the end, my advice is just to write. Write, write, write. Your world will come forward on its own. Ask questions, but don’t suffocate yourself trying to answer them. You’re not writing a science article for a magazine. Be realistic, but don’t be afraid to stretch the boundaries of human imagination. And, finally, don’t get so caught up in worldbuilding that you don’t write the story itself.
Remember: Anyone can create another world. Anyone can write down complex facts. But without the plot and the characters and the story to give it life, the world still isn’t real.
On a final note, here is an excellent article by Patricia C. Wrede that gives a list of various questions you can ask yourself when you set out to create a new world: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
Good luck to you on your worldbuilding journey. Do you have any tips, suggestions, or personal worldbuilding experiences you would like to share? Feel free to leave me a comment. I would love to read your thoughts!