Friday, April 24, 2015

Where in the World to Start

Let us now assume that you have decided to create a world for your novel(s). You have grand visions of Tolkien-ish grandeur and C.S. Lewis-like wonder. You want the world to be so vibrant and deep that the reader will lose themselves in it and want to live there forever and-

-hold it, cowboy, you need to create the world, first.

That’s right; well, we’ll just throw a few things into a cauldron and see what comes out, right? I mean, nothing could possibly go wrong, and this world will be so deep and meaningful and real. Right?

Queue Moriarty:

Truth is, it’s going to take a ton of work. A world’s worth, to be honest. Before you’re suddenly buried in an avalanche of decisions and creativity, however, why don’t we start at the very beginning, hm?

Where do you start?
Let me give you a sort of ‘base check-list’ that I use when I am starting to worldbuild:
  • Language
  • Culture
  • Planet
  • Architectural style
  • Natural resources available
  • Religion
  • History of the world
  • Government type
  • Law enforcement
  • Justice system
  • Rules of technology
  • Rules of magic
  • Economy
  • If you're going to do something big, how is it done?
  • Food and how is it acquired
  • Agriculture
  • Inhabitants
  • Occupations
  • Castes?
  • Weather
  • Crime
  • Disease
  • Health care
  • Life expectancy
  • Morality
  • Clothing
  • Social relations
  • Slang
  • Entertainment
  • Family structure
  • Geography
  • Social do's and dont's
  • The biggest crimes rampant
Are you a little less eager, now?

I said I wasn’t going to overwhelm you yet. My bad.
Let’s be honest, that’s a big list. I want to narrow it down for you, into three big starting places:
That’s more doable, isn’t it? Now let me explain why I choose these three broad categories. Each of these things could be broken down farther, into smaller and smaller details and more and more specific groups. I’d encourage you to do that. But don’t get ahead of yourself, you’ll end up at the bottom of your Anegran Sea* before you can blink twice.

Always start small. That’s what you should take away today. Start with the area which is involved directly in your story. It’s perfectly fine to have half a dozen countries that will only ever show up as names of far off places in your novel. That’s often a sign of good worldbuilding1. You should never, however, ignore the story for your world. The setting that your characters will describe to the reader is infinitely more important.

With that out of the way, I will give you a tip: there is no right way to build a world. Got that? Whether or not you take what advice I give you here is up to you. For all you and I know, my advice won’t help you in the slightest. I say there is no right way because there are wrong ways. But I won’t address those.

When I start building a world, I start with one of three things:
1. A brief, vague history
2. A map
3. A culture
I’ve noticed a lot of writers start with one of these, or a combination of two, and add other things as they go. Most of my worlds2 start with a map.
(unlike other pictures, that one actually is mine… fancy that)

The map doesn’t have to be pretty (see mine as proof), and it’s even all right to whip one up in Paint and use green and blue and squiggly lines:

(…I don’t really want to claim that as mine, but I guess it is)

I’m a very visual person. Having a map in front of me does much more for me than would a list of dates and names from the past. Some people like to create a culture and base the map around it, and that works to. Whatever way works best for you. I like to start with a map before culture for several reasons. The main reason, however, is that I can look at the region a culture is located in and decide how and why it acts the way it does. 

For instance, suppose you created a region of a fantasy world with very little wood. There is an abundance of reeds, marshy areas, iron deposits close to the surface, and wide open plains.
Now, how would a people group live and interact in this area?
Most likely, they would build their homes from reeds and mud, while the very rich might use stone for more lavish and/or religious sanctuaries. The people would eat fish, marsh birds and eggs, tubers, and potentially some livestock like chickens and sheep. They would resemble the ancient Egyptians along the Nile, in some ways, and like the Babylonians in others. Assuming a humid and warm climate, they would favor light clothing and bright colors. Workers would be heavily tanned from working outdoors, so pale skin might be considered a sign of delicacy, noble birth, or beauty. If there is a major river nearby, the people might worship some kind of water god, along with a sun god. This people would have strong agriculture, and a weak military.

Look at that! I’ve taken a tiny section of geography and formed a culture based simply on the surroundings. Obviously, this culture isn’t very detailed or fleshed out, but for five minutes it’s not too shabby.

Maybe you don’t want to start with a map. That’s fine. Perhaps you have a fabulous idea for a super unique culture already, and you want to form the map around them. Go for it. Like I said before, there is no right, set-in-stone way to build a world.

Now that we have a place to start, it’s time to start creating. We can branch off and map nomadic wanderings, draw up plans for technological growth, make charts of magic systems, form societies based on the type of cheese people like, and more.

Wait… what?
Looks like we need to discuss this world building thing a bit more. Maybe next week.

*We’ll address fantasy names at some point.
1I say often because some books rattle off a list of country names and expect you to be impressed. Don’t be, until the book proves there’s more to those countries than a name.

2Yeah, I have way too many worlds for my own good…

Friday, April 17, 2015

Why a world?

Last week, I went on a tangent talking about Segways and universes without really explaining what the Segway led to. Of course, you probably figured it out. I’m going to spend the next few weeks talking about worlds in fiction, and how to create one of your own.
Shocker, I know.
(image found via Google search)


Every good story has three things: plot, characters, and setting.
All good stories use each of these things to create a compelling tale that you, the reader, can’t put down. The vibrant fantasy of Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson), the charming Alabama county in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), dangerous high seas in Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson), and IT’s domain in A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle). Dozens of stories contain worlds that whisk us away from our own (boring or not) lives to places we wish we could go.
Each of the stories I mentioned are in different genres. Two of them are even in our world. They prove you don’t need another world to make the setting of a story great. However, sometimes that other world is exactly what your story needs.

Now what?
What do we do, knowing we need a setting just as much as a plot and characters? We could just base our alternate history steampunks in London, our fantasies in England and Scotland and France, our sci-fi in future America. Those are all good and well, perfect for some stories.
But why not make our own?
If the universe we looked at last week inspires us so much, why not try and make world for our novel? Why not a universe?

The negative answer might be: “because it’s impossible to make a world”, or perhaps “that’s too much work, Nottinghamshire will do just fine for my dragons and magic”.
Sure, sure.
We can’t make a world that works just as well as our own. No one can work out every single detail, every single life and death and balance and imbalance. Not a single universe a writer creates will be infinite.
But we can sure try.

Other worlds draw our attention, don’t they? Tolkien’s Middle Earth almost screams at us to take a look, see how colorful the past is? “Check out my history,” Middle Earth begs, “come see how brilliant it all fits together.”
And we do. Most everyone* will willingly delve into this vibrant world painted through Tolkien’s epics. Hobbits and Elves and Ents and Orcs and magic Rings pull us in and set us down in the center of the Old Forest, daring us to find Tom before dark.

Narnia whisper through the wardrobe: “come and see”.
Mazes demand to be solved.
Games dare us to be the last one standing.
Prophecies warn of impending doom.

History, magic, technology, culture, races, governments, animals, food, geography, cities, dragons, cyborgs, danger, darkness. Worlds we don’t live in offer their best, and we dive into them willingly.
They look like they do it with ease, offering us magic in one hand and evil sorcerers in the other. But then we try and create our own, and suddenly everything becomes overwhelming.
How do you reconcile four timelines?
How can my magic work?
Is time travel feasible?
What if this culture frowns upon walking?
Does History have to be complete?

Our minds shut down, and we give up. It’s too hard, we say. Let the geniuses make worlds, we’ll stick with Hampshire and Londontown.
Not today.
Not while we have something to say about it.
Today we’re going to refuse to settle.
Pick up the pen, the pencil, the keyboard, the dry-erase marker. Gather your spare notebooks and Word documents. Set aside the outlines and rough drafts and formidable forests. Pull on the welding mask, get your hands dirty. Start building.

*I say most because some people don’t. To each their own.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Worlds torn Asunder

This ought to be short and sweet, considering several things. 1) I’m currently busier than oxen pulling a plow during planting season, and 2) I consider this post a Segway into longer posts.

With the reasons behind us, let us begin the Segway.

Okay, fine, the real Segway:

I love the universe. It’s pretty awesome, when you stop to look at it. Distant galaxies, stars and supernovas and black holes and comets and dust clouds and really, really cool looking infrared pictures. The complexity and strangeness of the science behind it amazes me, from the grand scale of galaxy clusters to the tiny (by comparison) workings of a few planets orbiting a backwater yellow dwarf star.
Imagine with me (imagining is a lot of fun, isn’t it?) for a moment you stand outside the universe. You can survey every speck of it at once, on a broad scale. Now, zoom in.
No, no, no, not on /that/ galaxy, that other one.
Yes, there. A pretty looking galaxy, with a spiral-y look to it. The inhabitants call it the Milky Way, poor little mortals. Zoom in further, because our imaginations are cameras with infinite resolution, and we can do that. You’re now looking at an out-flung arm, toward a solar system that isn’t very large or spectacular or worth a tourist stop. Adjust the focus, and zoom in on one little world, a planet called Earth.
Now imagine (because we can’t just stop there) that you can see all of time stretched out before you. Focus on the past (it’s much easier to comprehend and all that), look at this planet. Look at how complex lifeforms are, how diverse the ecology is, and so forth. Spend some time considering the complexities of the society of humans as time progresses. It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

All right, you can take your 3D glasses off, and stick your imagination back in the – wait, one last thing:
Before you go, before I just drop you off with a cliffhanger that really makes no sense and doesn’t tell you at all what I’m Segway-ing into, imagine one more thing with me:

What if you could create a world?

To take this further, what if you could make it just as complex and real as the one we live in?

*as usual, I hold no copyright to any pictures or gifs I post, I find most of them in my perusing around the internet, or thanks to Google.