Feb 22 2010
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?