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Worldbuilding 101 – Introduction

Writing novels is a difficult business. Never mind the technical and mechanical aspects of the craft – grammar, sentence structure, spelling and composition – learning how to balance exposition with action and dialogue, in an effort to move a story forward at a pace that will hold your reader’s attention, is difficult to master. These are hazards that all writers face, whether deciding to tell a tale that will last hundreds of pages or even just a few.

One of the aspects of writing I find most challenging (and invigorating) is crafting the world itself. The world you create should live and breathe on its own, as much a canvas as a playground. Your reader will be spending several hundred pages in your world, following your characters on their journey. The world a tale is set in is just as important as an intriguing plot and interesting people, and can even be a character in its own right.

Through this series of articles, it is my intention to explore the craft of worldbuilding, through my own experiences and with examples from some of the best in the business. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry (okay, maybe not) and hopefully I can keep this lively and entertaining. So where do I begin? With J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings and commonly held as the father of fantasy literature.

Tolkien was a smart guy, and enough has been said about him by others that I don’t need to repeat it. What I will mention is the sheer amount of thought that went into creating Middle Earth. He borrowed from Norse, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Finnish mythology, among others, to craft a living world that exists outside of his novels. He went so far as to create his own languages (which makes sense, as he was a linguistic scholar). He set the standard and many authors over the decades have risen to the challenge. Some have been successful, others less so. I’ll list some of those excellent examples some time later, probably as an epilogue.

So where do we actually begin?

My current work, possibly my major work, is a dark fantasy world. I have grown weary of fantasy worlds based off Asia or Medieval Europe. Now that isn’t to say there aren’t good ones out there, but it wasn’t what I wanted to write. And believe me, I tried. One of the first iterations of this story was set in that sort of world. I have a couple notebooks filled with ideas, a sketchbook filled with maps and rough sketches of architecture and clothing. But it didn’t sit well with the story; the characters never wanted to go anywhere and I got bored writing it.

Several iterations later, I have a world that will hopefully be rich and vibrant. Rather than base it off some idealized Dark Age Europe, I decided to set my tale in America’s Wild West. Only with magic. So I set about reimagining an America with an altered history, a la Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin the Maker or Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century but different from both of them.

There are a great many stones to be laid at the foundation of a good story, such as level of technology, religion and spiritual beliefs with their accompanying dogma, the manner of dress and the ecology of the world just to list a few. What’s most important to consider, however, is what your story needs the world to be. I try to work backwards, making the world support the story I want to tell, while still hinting at something living beyond the words on the page.

I’m going to use this series to look into each aspect, both as a creator and by examining what some of our finest published authors have accomplished. If you are interested in writing and the craft, hopefully this will add some grist to the mill. If you are only an avid reader, then perhaps this can give you some insight into the creative process and just how much work we writers put ourselves through.

Title image by vladstudio.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar ChrisMB87 says:

    A very accurate, concise, and above all enjoyable article. From my recent experiences, writing a novel is one of the hardest, most time-consuming and energy-draining endeavors I have ever undertaken. Two of the most difficult things being how to take an established time period (or several) and make them your own, and how to tread the balance you mentioned. However, with every page you fill, and every chapter you complete, comes its own little victory and sense of accomplishment. It fills me with anticipation to see how it feels to finally complete this rewarding task.
    You definitely have at least one person hooked to your articles.

  2. Great starting article for a series Matt. I am looking forward to the rest of them. I think the use of a stock and standard medieval European setting is fine provided that the characters and situations are new and interesting. Joe Abercrombie comes to mind as does the great GRRM of course. I am using the same as the basis for the world of my first series. But I’d like to learn how to really differentiate my next world from this norm and I look forward to your articles helping me in that endeavor!

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    My issue is that I’m trying to write the story because the story and the characters are the most important part of any book. However I find that the setting/technology/magic is getting left out at this point. Seems like it’ll be kinda hard to add it in afterward, but we’ll see what happens. I guess if I do it well enough it’ll look like it was there all along.

    • Avatar MTMaenpaa says:

      It often helps to get the plot and characters out, then hash out the details of the world that are secondary on the rewrite. Often times, I solve world-building problems while trying to explain a character’s reasoning in any given situation. I’m prone to ramble, but I feel as if I should wait for my next article.

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