Feb 22 2010

World-building wanderings

Published by at 9:06 am under set and setting,Writing

I was having a conversation with Nathan yesterday about a potentially collaborative series project, and we came fairly quickly up against one of the first questions that will decide a major piece of the story’s setting. Does the idea premise in question happen more scientifically (where it could be our Earth but later than now or earlier than recorded history) or more magically (where it’s more of a parallel-Earth setting or a clearly fantasy world). Obviously, if you aren’t writing some form of speculative fiction, this might not be the first sticking point in building your story’s world, but I thought it an interesting example of some of the weird fun that crops up when creating worlds for stories to live in.

One of the interesting bits is that in this example, it doesn’t really matter to the overall arc of the story which path we choose, but the specifics of how the story takes form — the details — are hugely affected by the world-building choices we make here. The choice might not affect the basic story concept, but it affects nearly everything about how the story manifests.

Sometimes you start with a sketch of a world, build some details, and then find an interesting person or people in that world to create a story around as you learn more about the world. Other times you start with a strong character that is obviously not of the world as we know it, and you have to discover the world that character comes from through exploring that character. Both approaches, in the end, can net you a finished story set in another world, but the process will be different along the way depending on which you choose.

Have you tried either of these approaches? What worked well, what was difficult?

Also, just because you’re creating a world from scratch doesn’t mean you can haphazardly create whatever you like to fill it. Readers can often sense when something is pieced together without a lot of coherency backstage, and it’s an avoidably easy way to lose your reader’s interest. Do your research! You’ll often do even more research on a project of this type than you would for a story largely set in the Earth we know.

Why? Well, think about it. If you’re doing a standard medieval-fantasy world, instead of reading all the other published fantasy authors who likely also skimped on their research, read things like A Medieval Home Companion, or any number of other books giving historical or cultural data from around the time in Earth history that most closely mirrors the development of your fantasy world. And how about that warfare, so common to both science fiction and fantasy settings? Unless you’ve had some decent military training, watching war movies on DVD will not fill in the required gaps in your knowledge, nor will an introductory Wiki article. (No, not even the very pretty Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Make yourself go research accounts from war leaders of the time period similar to when you’re writing (when possible), as well as read more general books like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War.

An excellent link to finish this off for now is over on SFReader.com: David Walton is a writer who has compiled –and organized by topic category — dozens of articles from several talented and published writers spanning most aspects of the writing-and-publishing industry. There are over a dozen articles linked in his “Ideas: World-Building” section. (NOTE: Some links are broken.)

What are your thoughts or questions about world-building? Stuck spots, cool creations, favorite methods, etc?

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “World-building wanderings”

  1. Derekon 22 Feb 2010 at 10:07 am

    Aha! World-building! =)

    Figured I might as well chime in here as I am smack dab in the middle of building a very complex world. Just out of curiosity, is this for the Continuous Coast or a different project entirely (and I will understand if you do not wish to discuss the details)?

    As you know, ours is most definitely a magical/fantasy world. Our beginning point was really a kind of mixture of both of your proposed approaches. I would say we started more with a vague idea of the events that created the world and then Kevin created an epic poem centered around one of the world’s first heroes as a jumping off point. After that, work on a time-line of events up to present day has really helped to give the world more solidity and has sparked a lot more ideas than anything else at this point.

    As for what is difficult? It is ALL difficult! LOL. That is the reason it has been a long time in the conceptual stages of development because we had to scrap almost all of our original work on the project as we felt it was just too “slap-dash”. We were trying to take on too many different things at once and had to finally stop ourselves and take a step back for a while to make absolutely sure that this project was of the highest quality we could produce.

    And you hit the nail on the head too: COHERENCY!! Sometimes, that can be the most tedious part of the process is finding creative ways to interlock different stories and creating fluidity.

    Thank you for the link as well, I’m going to eat some breakfast, then check it out! =)

  2. Pamela Deanon 22 Feb 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I always start with the character. This is less a policy than a law of nature. When I was asked to write for the shared world of Liavek, in fact, I really panicked, because the world was already there and things were the wrong way around. It was not natural, trouble would come of it! I had to come up with a character who hated Liavek and didn’t want to be there, before I could do anything. She came around eventually, after five stories.

    I have tried, cautiously, to start with a world, but it never works. There has to be a character, who, once involved, usually begins explaining why whatever concept I had painfully come up with about the world is Just Wrong. It’s easier not to try that approach.


  3. Reesaon 22 Feb 2010 at 7:46 pm

    @Derek – This was for a different idea entirely, and I’m not taking on any new projects until I clear a few off my drafting table, hehe. But CC is still kicking around the noggin and I’m still brainstorming ways to re-purpose it with a new creative team. It was a good first try, and we learned a lot that will usefully apply to its rebirth as well as future collaborative multimedia projects.

    Figuring out where the focus points need to be on a large project is usually fairly challenging. I know that’s a large chunk of what I’ve been struggling with in the whorehouse novel. And remember, worry about coherency during the revision stages, not the creation stages!

    @ Pamela – The few times I’ve started with a world idea instead of a character idea, I found that there was only so far in the world development I could go without also having characters living in it. If I tried to push past that point without the characterization, the world took on a 2-dimensional feel rather quickly. I could get broad conceptual themes, some background world specifics, possibly even some of the current socio/econo/political climate…but once it got down to specific factions, or a particular city, or figuring out where, ya know, the story was, then I had to find the characters. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, I always enjoy your comments!