A World of Your Own: Worldbuilding part 3.

So we’ve touched on the importance of world building for any story–now it’s time to talk about creating your own fantasy worlds.
This is something I’m genuinely interested in, but have never really looked into until recently. The first novel I’d planned–started more than ten years ago and never completed–took place on a created world I called Gi. It had its own mythology, races, geography, and system for magic. I created it from the ground up, but I never had a process for doing so–I just did it. And because of that, there are numerous inconsistencies.
Now, I’m trying to rebuild that world in anticipation of the “Universe” I want to create as a setting for novels and short stories. The Astrologers–featured on earlier posts on this blog–is the first in this revamped world.
But how does one go about creating a whole new world? As you can imagine, it’s not too different from world building a non-speculative universe, as described in my last post. The difference here is that you have a lot more leeway in what you create, and how everything fits together.
That, however, creates an issue: the more freedom you have in creating your world, the easier it is to develop inconsistencies, as I did. It’s easier to forget a small detail you mentioned several stories ago, or give a character a name that doesn’t really fit into their culture. An especially important danger is changing something major part way through your project (i.e. ‘retconning,’), and forgetting to also change all the little things it affects.

Again, consistency is the most important thing!

So, of course, the main thing is being consistent. However creative your universe is, it should be self consistent. Your people behave a certain way; the geography makes scientific sense; characters of the same race share cultural values, language, and attitudes. World building is a large project, but as long as you’re being consistent, it’s not really that difficult.

What’s different?

The easiest step to take from there is to decide how your world is different from the real world. Does it involve magic, and if so, how does it work? Is this a completely different planet, or are you using Earth as a “template” and changing details? Dos the history of your world follow a similar pattern as our own? Are there comparable social groups? What sort of natural resources are important, and are they different from what we find on Earth? They say you have to know the rules before you can break them, and it’s the same idea here: start with what you know, and go from there.

How different?

This is where you can start getting really creative. Once you know the similarities between our world and your created world, you can start to take liberties. Really, you can go crazy here; the idea is to create something entirely unique, so the more creative you are, the better. You don’t have to think up the details right now, just the major points. In fact, getting mired in details is where I got into trouble with Gi as explained above: I wanted to add all these neat little examples of my creativity that it eventually collapsed upon itself because there was no unifying structure beneath them. So this step should be more conceptual than practical: decide what you want to accomplish with your world, what it will mean to the story, and how you can go about accomplishing that.

Details, details, details…

This is where the job gets challenging–though not difficult, as this should still be fun! There are a lot of websites around that can help you figure out what details to include, and to what extent. Maybe your story centres around a sociopolitical climate–so the variety of food people grow isn’t all that important. Perhaps you want to develop a deeply intricate religious culture, so mythology and theology should be key points of research for you. Or maybe you want to just write a hack and slash adventure, so thinking about politics or religion or history is needless.
But there are certain things you should generally be thinking about, without which you’re not really building a world in the first place. I’d say the most important–and the place to start–is your map. ProFantasy.com has a great suite of software that can help with this; it’s not cheap, but there is a free trial that can get you a quick ‘n dirty map. Or, draw your own.

The next most important piece of the puzzle is who populates the world. Are they humans? Elves, dwarves or orcs? Something entirely different? These are the characters in your story, so get all the details set down early. This is where you’ll thing about languages, culture, mores, history, recreational activities, societal taboos…and so on. You could go really deep here, to the point of creating detailed anthropological histories if your people or creating a language from scratch–and the deeper you go, the more involving the world will be. Just remember to be consistent!

After that, there are a lot of smaller details to think of. What’s the climate? Flora and fauna? Popular entertainment? Important cultural concepts? This is where the world really comes alive. One recent example I can think of is from the special features of the Game of Thrones DVDs, where they talk about creating the Dothraki language. They started by accepting that horses were crucial to their cultural identity, and developed the language around that concept. They ended up with a rich language that made cultural sense.

These details are also where you can get absolutely lost. Keep your notes tidy, and organized. When you come up with a new idea, edit it until you’re sure it fits in the world–and if it doesn’t, rework it until it does. If you need to change a pre-existing concept to allow for a new idea that would otherwise contradict it, make sure you erase it completely, or allow for an explanation if inconsistencies arise.

There are tons of resources for world building online, so for more information, I’d reccomend a Google search. But to start you off, here are a few great ones:

  • 30 Days of World Building: This is a step by stepguide that promises, as the title says, to help create a new world in 30 days. It’s a comprehensive list of things to think about–comprehensive enough that there are some steps you may not need, depending on how detailed you want to be. But definitely worth checking out. You can also download the guide for free in ePub, MOBI or PDF format.
  • Fantasy World Building Questions: This website breaks the creation process down into a series of categories, such as Geography, People and Customs, and Commerce. It’s a solid list, and by going through it all you will end up with a nice comprehensive world.
  • Paeter’s Brain: Free Worldbuilding Tools: A quick post about world building from a Role Playing Game perspective. It includes links to a couple wikis about various RPG settings, which could be good inspiration for your own world. There’s also a link for a town generator, and a city map generator.
  • Speaking of RPGs, I’m a big fan, and a member of a website called Myth Weavers. They have some great tools to help DMs build their own worlds; here’s an example of the wiki. Now, you may be asking yourself why this matters if you’re writing a novel–but really, most of the process is the same. A DM has to create a cohesive world for his players to play in. In fact, building a solid world is in their absolute best interests: because each of their players has a mind of their own, they’ll test the limits of the world in every way possible. A writer would do well to follow the DMs example.

That’s it for today, and for this mini-series on world building. But don’t worry: this is a topic we’ll come back to again, I’m sure. My created world is in something of a crisis, and will need some heavy work–and what better place to troubleshoot the process than a blog about writing and publishing?

In the meantime, if you have any other resources or ideas on world building, please share in the comments below!

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