-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?
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:
- Architectural style
- Natural resources available
- History of the world
- Government type
- Law enforcement
- Justice system
- Rules of technology
- Rules of magic
- If you're going to do something big, how is it done?
- Food and how is it acquired
- Health care
- Life expectancy
- Social relations
- Family structure
- 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.
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…