You want to build a world for your creative needs? A book? A game? A comic? Cool! You’ve come to the right place. Or rather, one right place among many. Let’s face it, there’s plenty of ways to get to the same result in this particular equation.
It’s a hell of a daunting task to build a world. Just look at our own “vanilla” variety. We’ve got a finite amount of land, people, cultures and what have you, yet it’s still an impossible task to know everything there is to know about it at any given moment. And it can feel like that’s the kind of omniscience you have to possess in order to breathe life into the one you’re molding from pure imagination, yeah?
How do I hold all these CONCEPTS?
Take a breath. It’s not that kind of gargantuan gig. You can do this.
In this series, I’m gonna break down in simplest terms how I go about fleshing out a world for any project I’m working on, from the minute to the sprawling. Let’s start off simple with where you might be right now: staring at the blank page, watching the figurative tumbleweeds scuttle along, propelled by the fresh breeze that whispers “Uh … what now?”
There’s seemingly a lot to cover. And, really, there can be. Art, history, war, religion, linguistics, politics, economy, cartography; you have to become a full blown anthropologist-historian-archeologist-scholar Voltron-thing to make a world.
Confused? Don’t be. Because here’s the trick behind it all: no matter how in-depth or how loosely-sketched your world is, you need only ever make enough in it to be able to answer one simple question at any given time:
Hush now, flat-faced feline. We’ll get through this together.
Let’s step back a moment, and let that gestate in your brain matter a bit. We’ll start back at that metaphorical blank page. Brush away the mocking tumbleweeds, ignore that asshole breeze, and just confront your initial concept. You need a world. So, pick a point with which to begin, first.
Could your catalyst be linguistic? For Tolkien it was. Languages and names were the precursor, and the world and characters sprang forth from that to explain those choices and concepts to the newcomer. We’ll cover fictional languages later, but for now just ruminating on that can give you somewhere to begin.
What about your story idea? That could be your starting line. That being the case, the world you make would effectively be the stage you’re setting up. A world tailored to suit the story allows you to pick and choose your battles when it comes to crafting what you need. Less is more.
However, there’s something to be said for having something and not needing it. This is the playground I usually stick around in. Because anything extra, even if not explicitly shown, can be felt. It’s flavor. And, yes, it can still satisfy the “show don’t tell” rule that we writers love to lay about with in heavy strokes.
But you can also hint at things that will become prevalent later, or better yet, leave the audience with a desire to know and explore and imagine all on their own. This is the underlying strength of the world-builder: the idea that you can connect a lot of the dots yourself, but with a little extra effort on your part behind the scenes you can let the audience fill in a lot of the colors themselves.
You HAD to know this was coming.
Now let’s go back to serving the “Why?” bit. This is going to come up a great deal throughout these articles, because being able to answer that question is not only essential for your world, but it will often open up avenues for the creator to explore as well. That will pay out big dividends in filling in that blank page of yours. What keeps you thinking keeps you crafting.
Let’s go thought-experiment on this business:
“They speak this language.” Cool. Why? What’s the culture? How does where they live influence it? What’s the underpinning structure? Do they favor certain concepts in their root words?
“This country is locked in perpetual winter.” Awesome! Why? And how does that affect their attitudes to the rest of the world? Are they always in ice because of geographical location? Geological calamity? Magic? Mad science?
“These people follow this religion.” Great! That opens all kinds of doors. So why do they believe that? What’s the history behind it? How does their faith impact their lives? Their art? Their approach to non-believers?
“This is their technology.” I do love me some tech. But why this level? What came before? Was it a response to their environmental needs? What are the downsides to this level of sophistication? How does this shape their perception?
Or, in some cases, how will it spell the DOOM OF ALL CREATION?
And on and on. You’re starting to get the idea, I think. But before you fill your braincase with several Libraries of Alexandria’s worth of queries, remember to start small. Craft what you need to do your thing. It’s always easier in this case to build up, or flesh out. Less is more for your workload, but having it and not needing it is always a happy bonus. It’s up to you to find that balance.
Or, like me, you may just go nuts with it because you enjoy world-building. You’re my kind of crazy.
Tomorrow, we’ll dive right in to the process with a breakdown of how to tackle your world’s history, politics, and the one thing that drives any good tale: conflict.
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)