Saturday, May 2, 2015

Five ways to NOT build your world.

Before we begin, I want to apologize for being late. Yesterday ended up being the busiest week of my life since sometime in oblivion, and this blog (*hides face in shame*) didn’t even cross my mind.

Now, last week, we had a nice, one-sided discussion about where to start world-building. That’s all very well and good, since I was nice and vague and tried to be nice about it. I even told you there “is no right way” to build a world. Such a nice guy, aren’t I?

Shall we put that aside for a moment?
I have a secret to share:
There are bad ways to build a world.

Phew. Everyone can relax, now, put down your pitchforks, tar, feathers, etc. I’m done. Sort of.


So fancy, I know. This is the part where I ramble a little about what I’m about to list. Where I tell you everything you need to know, and hope I don’t do it in a way that makes no sense whatsoever. And then I provide a dramatic cross into our first item in the bulleted list:

1. Make a language
- Disclaimer, I am not saying you should never have another language in your world. In fact, I almost encourage it. But unless you have extensive knowledge of phonetics, grammatical and alphabetical organization, and several years of tinkering, your language isn’t going to work.
Because if an excerpt from your language looks something like:
“Aubgei Die aeogi kg’jekl, bor pue?”
No one is going to fall for that. If you make your language by smashing keys together and assigning that jumble a definition, every fantasy and sci-fi reader will spot it from miles away. They’ve read Tolkien. Let me show you:
(Translation: “not all who wander are lost”)
Does that look like a language made by smashing a keyboard with a large panda’s face?
Of course not.
So to sum up this bulleted point and bring us to the next one: don’t make a language for your world unless you know what you’re doing.

2. Name towns similarly
- Go grab a map of your state/province/country/district of Panem. Open it up to the side with all the names of the roads and towns and hamlets with two people in them. Skim the names of these places. How many of them are identical? Maybe two or three, unless you’re in England. How many end in the same syllable? Very few, unless once again you live in England.
Case in point, yes?
Be a little creative with naming your towns, cities, capitals, districts, states, countries, world, regions, forests, and deserts. But don’t smash your panda’s face against the keyboard, and don’t make them all rhyme.
Please and thank you.

3. Sprinkle in races willy-nilly
I’ve read a few sci-fi books in my time, and the good ones always had at least one form of alien or non-human race. At the very least, they had humans who had ‘evolved’ to some higher form and be able to do things like telepathy or spontaneously combust for no particular reason.
But when you read the bad ones, they have just as many races. Maybe more.
The difference, I’ve found, is that these other races have reasons for existing. Good authors never add something just to add it. There is motivation behind them, sound reasoning, and a history of their own.
Creating diversity in your novel (sci-fi or fantasy) is excellent, and a good way to do it is through races. However, if the only reason you have twenty-seven forms of “Actyl-pads” is to impress the reader… they won’t be impressed.

4. Build History around prophecy
-Prophecies tend to get a bad rap in fiction these days. I don’t want to discuss the storytelling implications of prophecies today, but instead the world-building implications.
No good fantasy is without a vivid past. Wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, evil sorcerers, massive monsters of ancient times, and dark prophecies fulfilled at every turn.
Let me stop you right there.
If prophecies as a plot device are a cliché, then prophecies that are in the past are twice the bucket of cow brain*. These prophecies tend to have little impact on the actual story, except for those times when they pop up in information dumps to show us how all the kings and armies and wars of old were all guided by some blind old man sitting on a mountain sipping an endless supply of nettle tea. He speaks a few rhyming sentences, and BAM. The world is going to fall apart unless everything kills everything else.
Oh yeah, that makes sense!

Or, we could look at the history of our world, and see what governed people’s choices. Certainly not a blind old man on a mountain.

5. Simple geography
-I know geography is hard. Learning geography from our world is hard, much less creating an entire secondary planet with diverse topography. But how often do you see this sort of world:

~large grassy plains where the main character lives
~nearby (despite the size of the plains) is a dark forest filled with some form of evil
~also nearby is a single mountain, with a blind old man on top of it, who sips nettle tea
~maybe there’s an ocean or desert on the other side of the perfectly circular plains from the mountain.

Before you plot out geography, make yourself (and your reader, and me, if you want) one simple promise (say it with me): “I will not make this geography simple or redundant.”
There, that’s not so hard, is it? Go grab an atlas, and open it up. Yes, I know they’re scary. But get the biggest, most detailed one you can find. Flip to one of those maps that label the tectonic plates, if there is one. Otherwise, find one with the mountains on it.
I’m not asking that you plan the tectonics of your world. Don’t, unless you know how. But look at how mountains are formed. The ones that sit all alone are volcanoes, and the rest are all in big ranges along – you guessed it – tectonic plate edges. ‘Faults’, as the technical term goes.
Now open to a page that shows where deserts and forests and things are. Look at how they’re distributed. Look at how jungles are closer to the equator, and frozen tundra is always further away from the equator than deserts are.
When you piece your world together, take the time to step back and consider it as a whole.

What about you? What world building techniques stand out to you as poor, weak, and amateur? Leave a comment and share!

*pardon me as I try out an idiom used by a tribal group in my latest world.


  1. Awesome post!
    I have such a terrible time with making my own world. It always ends up as a big, boring island in the middle of the ocean. Literally.
    This post really helped me, though. Thank you!

    1. Thanks Livvie! I'm glad it was helpful to you! :D

      I understand the hardship with building worlds. I used to have an awful time with it. Practice makes... less awful, you might say. ;)