This is the final part of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
Here we are at long last at the end of my world-building series. It’s been a fun ride, and I hope you’ve gleaned some useful tips and tricks to apply to your own creation! But, before I go, there’s still some final thoughts I’d like to share with you. These come both from a place of being a fellow creator, and a fan of fictional worlds.
Let’s see this series out properly, shall we?
The Importance of the Familiar
I need an adult.
There’s a common trick shared among trailblazers, map enthusiasts, and really anyone that has to deal with finding their way through unfamiliar territory, and that has to do with points of reference. In world-building, this is best expressed by having waypoints of familiarity for the audience to identify with even as they are exploring strange new vistas.
In Star Wars, it was the use of the age-old “Hero’s Journey”, familiar political terminology, and what was arguably a bit of cut and dried good vs. evil set dressing. Firefly? The old west, right down to the jargon, as set against the backdrop of the future. Same human problems, different place and time. It’s also telling that Tolkien’s initial works began in idyllic settings and pastoral references that we could all mostly identify with, even if the principle characters introducing them were not human.
But it can also be as simple as introducing a well-worn trope that we’ve all had experience with before you turn it on its head. The key thing here is simply to give your audience a baseline that they can work with. It serves dual roles both in grounding your world with something comparatively common, and highlighting the unusual qualities of what follows. Which, brings us on over to-
The Importance of the New
Oh, Sarcastic Wonka. Is there anything you can’t do?
The familiar serves to bolster the new, and it falls to you to use that to maximum effect. Here, imagination reigns supreme, and “What if” is definitely the order of the day. However, like most things in the conceptual phase, there is a “but”.
This is where those familiar waypoints can also work against you, particularly if they’re misused, or not prevalent enough. It’s not enough to highlight something normal before you jump into the deep end of strange. You could easily lob the audience into the same kind of culture shock that a tourist might experience in real life. It’s not a fun time. It is a realm of suck. Don’t do this.
Instead, find ways to ease them in once they are nicely grounded in a familiar trope, genre, setting, etc. Then? Get wacky. Be courageous in the development phase, and throw ideas about to see what sticks. It is always easier to dial back a concept than it is to try to ramp it up after it’s committed to creation, so to speak. However—and if you take no other piece of advice from this series, at least take this—the key factor is to HAVE FUN WITH IT. Otherwise, what the hell is the point?
Being a Fan of your World
Pictured: Proof that I regret nothing, not even this pun.
Remember in the last article where I wrote that the first person that needed to be happy with the world was first and foremost the creator? I stand by that, but let me go a step further.
The whole point of the long exercise of world-building is about creating something that YOU would want to engage with. Make what you would want to see. Make the kind of world that you would like to know more about. Craft the kinds of lands and people and history that you personally would like to hear more stories about. And, I sincerely wish I could tweak things to have this next statement appear in giant flashing neon letters backed by a bitchin’ fireworks display: Make the kind of place that you would be a fan of!
That seems like such simple common sense, but I’ve seen too many people screw the pooch by just cobbling together disparate ideas that they think are “cool” rather than building something that works as a whole. You have to be happy with it, yes, but you also owe it to yourself to get it to the point where it’s quality enough for you to count yourself as a fan.
Yet, here comes the turn that, while at first seems so awful, will actually help you get into your world’s fan club:
Being a Critic of your World
Picard dropping truth bombs like it’s the Battle of Wolf 359
First thing’s first here, since some of you might have flinched at seeing the word “critic”: there is in fact a HUGE difference between self-critique and self-depreciation. If your initial thought went to the “OMG my work SUCKS” place, then congratulations. That’s self-depreciation, and it will not be used here. Put it away.
I’m talking having the willingness to look over your creation with a critical eye, and the fortitude to accept it when you see something that just isn’t working to improve the whole. It’s at this point that you need to become hard and fast friends with the editing process.
To clear up a common misconception, Editing—and yeah, it warrants the capital E— isn’t just one thing. It’s not simply blocking, or cutting things out, and it’s not even just the simple matter of smoothing out the edges. It’s a multi-tool, and every facet of it pays out multiple dividends. But, since this series is all about attempting to truncate a lot of concepts down to their simplest form, let me attempt to streamline it.
Editing is the consequence to Critique’s cause. You have to be brave enough to see where something isn’t clicking, and then braver still to take the necessary steps to fix it. It could be rearrangement, it could be tweaking or polish, and yes, it can be as simple as obliteration. While you shouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of tap-dancing on the big red button, you should at least entertain the idea of having to employ the nuclear option now and again.
A fan, after all, is quick to see where something strays. If you’re a fan of your own world, this will become second nature to you. I promise, your work will benefit from it.
What are You Saying with your Creation?
This one also gets glossed over because, let’s face it, allusion, allegory, subtext or deeper meaning are simply not things that people tend to think of when we talk about fictional world. In point of fact, I know a lot of creators who shy away from it, because they’d rather the audience take what they will from the worlds, and give their own meaning to the creations. Tolkien called this “applicability”, and it’s a fine concept to adopt.
That being said, it’s also a bit silly. The thing is, even if you’re not baking any underlying message into your world, the fact remains that you are inevitably going to be pouring a lot of yourself into the work. It can’t be helped. The world you make will be saddled with your likes, dislikes, beliefs, virtues and vices. It will be, on a demonstrable level, a reflection of you as a person. It’s coming out of your head, after all. There’s bound to be some strong hereditary traits that get passed on.
Here’s where I invite you to step back and look at the whole of your fledgling world. Take a breath, and just think about it in the context of the outside observer. What is this world saying? What is it telling you about itself? What is the take away from visiting it? And, more importantly, is it saying something that would attract you to it? In a real sense, if it’s not speaking your language, then it might just be time to revisit those earlier steps you took.
Because here’s the end result of this very long and convoluted world-building equation: It’s your world. It’s your mental playground. It’s your time and energy made manifest …
But, once it’s done, it becomes ours.
And there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. If you’d like to see more in the future, just let me know, or consider supporting my Patreon to help fund more helpful articles. Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got worlds of my own to fabricate.
Until next time, Horns Up.