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Why World Build?

Keeping It Real

There is no wrong way to build a world, but there are factors of believability. A world should always be built to be believable, unless of course you are talking in terms of Terry Pratchett, then by all means go wild. But for the more serious writers of fantasy and sci-fi, they will want to incorporate realistic elements into their world.

On more than one occasion, I have been confronted about the need for worldbuilding and whether or not one can just construct a world as they write. My answer is, yes. It is possible for one to write a coherent novel while worldbuilding at the same time, but I don’t advise it and for a number of reasons:

1. Plot holes. You are going to want to avoid making geological, governmental, magical, historical, and even moral mistakes. These mistakes can manifest in numerous ways such as City X appearing in the east when it was in the North. Or, X law forbids women from marrying men below their social status; so then why did the prince marry the Lord’s daughter in the next chapter and not get in trouble for it? And so on.

2. Editing nightmare. When you are coming back around to edit the novel, you may find it hard to keep track of exactly who, what, when, where, or why something is the way it is. This is a similar problem to the first, but now the problems are reaching deeper into your story. As you edit one part of the novel, another may become inaccurate, and even as you correct these issues, corrections made earlier in the editing process may debunk your current corrections, or older corrections may need further correcting with newer corrections towards the end. If you have a reference to your world, no matter how minor, anything needing either adding or subtracting is just a modification to the reference, not the novel, at least not on the level the novel would need if the reference did not exist.

3. Difficulty with conflict. It can be difficult to create believable and accurate conflicts caused by the environment, whether by people, the land, magic, or otherwise, that won’t feel forced or artificial if the world is built on the go. As the world is written with the story, you may come to points where you have sudden inspiration or just realize that you are lacking in conflict with the current scene or chapter and wish to turn up events by throwing in a random geographic barrier or a fact about a people, but it may lack an honest feel to its existence, and the last thing you want the reader to know is they are reading.

4. Consistency with pace. Story pace can suffer in terms of travel. How fast are you moving your characters along through the world? Does it feel like they travel for one day and are suddenly in the next city over? This can just be a structural error on the writer’s part, but could this have been avoided if you had a map. Maybe if you had a map you could not only have avoided pacing issues, but maybe introduce more conflict to the journey when characters move through a dangerous part of the land?

5. Writer’s interest. A writer can become bored with what they are writing. The story may be interesting, but the world may be dull and thus result in a dull interaction of characters and environments. A writer may feel at a loss about where to go and what to do if the world feels flat and the story alone isn’t enough to keep writing the novel.

These problems have all happened to me. I have had the nightmare of editing the entire premise of the story because it demanded new and different elements to support it. I have also had difficulty in keeping interest and a good pace for the novel, but once I sat down and actually put more into the world, many of my problems were solved and my story become more lifelike.

The Final Frontier

Pulsar, PSR B1257+12 by NASAThere is one more reason to worldbuild before letting your characters run wild in your story idea, and it is just as important, if not, more important, the characters.

Worldbuilding and character development go hand in hand. An idea that sometimes eludes a writer is the impact the world has on a character. How often is it that we read about a character that is completely unlike everyone in the town they live in? They think differently and believe in different things. They are even more open-minded than anyone else. It isn’t wrong to create a character, especially your protagonist, to be different from all the other people in the town or city or wherever else they live or grew up, but it is cliché to design a character that is completely lacking in any characteristic that they came from this place. I will give you a couple of real life examples.

If you know your American history, you know that Abraham Lincoln had his hand in freeing the slaves. This idea of his, this moral, separates him from all the rest, but is it too drastic? Well, let us look into the time period and what it was like:

– The North had no slaves and the South did.
– The United States had laws implemented to keep slaves from running away into the North from the South.
– The South had an industry reliant on slavery.
– Black people did not have equal rights.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire HunterThese are only a few factors running around at this time and all played a part in how people functioned. Abraham Lincoln believed that every man and woman should be free to live their lives, but he did not believe that black people had the equal rights that white men had. This is exactly what makes him a part of his community, his time, yet he is still apart from it. And better yet, for the historical impact on our world, we have many African Americans today who argue against Lincoln and his moral view on them. Their ideas are shaped by history.

Your character is developed similarly. They may think differently, if they do at all, from everyone else, but that doesn’t mean they have an exclusive set of morals from everyone else.

You may then ask: What about characters abused and ridiculed by their home, town, people, etc?

A friend of mine had very bad experiences with her family and community due to her own personal ideas. This friend was raised in a very catholic family and it was the religion that brought on the conflict. Years of feuding with her family and the community at large lead her to abandon her faith and become an agnostic. She is different, but there will always be remnants of her environment in her. She told me that she wants to have her children baptized. I asked her, “Why? You don’t believe in that religion anymore.” She said she didn’t like the idea of her children not being baptized, that it went against her morals.

Morals and beliefs make up a huge part of the world. Your characters may be different, but there will always be a piece of “home” in them. This goes for all the factors of your world, the government, history, magic, the whole shebang. What it comes down to is how you are going to build your world and how believable your character will be in that world.

When they get to the next town over, will they want to leave on the basis that the people are immoral? Or will they want to stay? Will they be afraid of the people or the place? Does the character’s home consider the next town over cursed? And if so, are they afraid despite their disbelief? Or will an old war make it hard for them to accept help from someone in another city?

Places, people, histories, magics, anything, these all enter when you are building your world. I could keep going, but I think I will save some of that for the next time.

I encourage you to create your world, no matter how little you write. Make something up; you might be surprised by what is in your world.

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13 Comments

  1. Sam Sykes says:

    On the one hand, I can certainly grasp your point. In fact, I think you’ve stumbled upon a great truth here: the main goal of worldbuilding is to enhance the conflict and raise the stakes.

    At the same time, I’m less than willing to accept it as the panacea to all writing ails. In fact, I think if worldbuilding is given more credit than telling the story of the characters, you enter a situation where you’re less of an author and more of a tour guide: showing people these vast, sprawling areas and fantastic cultures, but only in passing. You’re disconnected and merely observing.

    True, worldbuilding and character might go hand in hand. Though I think more emphasis should be given to the character than not. The character’s conflict should be at the fore of the mind when considering worldbuilding and it’s my personal belief that worldbuilding should be used largely to increase the stakes. Hell, I’ll throw tidbits of the world out there almost solely to get characters into trouble.

    Lovely article.

    • AJ Zaethe says:

      Actually, what you said was what I am trying to get across. The greatest example I can give you are the Chronicles of the Black Company by Glenn Cook. As I mentioned in the forum once before, Cook has done something before thought impossible: The ability to show an entire world through one persons eyes, through first person perspective.

      My point is, by designing your world, in minor or great detail, your characters are not only more alive through the world, but you give the illusion that the world is far bigger than they are. That there is more to this world them just them, as it is in our reality. Our world is bigger than anyone. There is a vast world out there and so should there be a vast world out in your own created world, tease us with it.

  2. Larik says:

    Great article.

  3. Good article, and I generally agree with what you say, especially about characters needing to arise from their environment (even if the author actually does it the other way round). Too much fantasy and historical fiction (especially on TV and films) has characters who are essentially just modern people in fancy dress.

    On the relationship between world-making and story creation, my approach tends to be a leapfrog one. I’ll normally have a pretty good outline of the part of my world I’m focusing on (and certainly a map) before I start writing, but things that come up in a given story will often give me ideas for new aspects of my world: new continents, different time-periods, or just something to fill in a part of the map that’s too much of an outline. I’ll develop those and get new ideas for stories and characters. My best example is an off-the-cuff sentence I put in one story that led to three new continents and several thousand years of history, and led directly to my published novel. Not bad for a sentence.

    • A.J. Zaethe says:

      Brilliant. I love it when that happens. It has happened to myself before as well. One of my more favorite moments with worldbuilding in mid-story was when I looked up at a computer from my own and saw a picture of King Author holding a crown in the midst of the ruins of his castle. From that moment forward the world’s would never be the same. Worldbuilding never has to be set to just before the novel, it can come after.

  4. Great article A.J. – I’m enjoying reading your articles on here 🙂

    I also completely agree with Nyki’s comment:
    “Too much fantasy and historical fiction (especially on TV and films) has characters who are essentially just modern people in fancy dress.”

    This is one thing that really bugs me. Especially when you have characters trying to force a “modern” view up on the people around them and it makes little to no sense for them to do so other than the writer/director trying to be Politically Correct.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do love Star Trek and Stargate but there were some episodes where it seemed very much a “We’re more technologically advanced so we’re better and you need to change your whole social setting because I said so.”

  5. Casey Gravelle says:

    I’ve had this idea for a while, and am just now starting to go about executing it. That idea is to create an entire world, with set laws of physics as well as magic, and flesh it out so completely that if I wanted to, I’d be able to write a non-fiction about it.
    Then what I plan to do is write several separate fictions that all take place in the same world, and possibly during the same time period, but do not interact with each other except for a few scenes. These scenes would consist of a simple paragraph stating something along the lines of:

    “As Aldor lay awake thinking about what he would need to purchase tomorrow, he heard something that reminded him of when his old friend Gartan had saved him from a group of bandits. His curiosity getting the better of him, he got up and looked out the window. He wasn’t surprised to see two figures running across the roof-tops. No, what he was surprised at was that they wore heavy cloaks at this time of year, not to mention on the roofs. He was also surprised that one of them seemed to be chasing the other. Usually if a pick-pocket chose their target wisely, they were safe once they made it onto the roofs.
    He knew it wasn’t his concern though, so he decided to try and get some sleep. Before he could though, he was surprised one more time. There was a sudden gust of wind, which tore at the cloak of the first runner enough to reveal a sword. Even in the dim light, Aldor’s training as a merchant told him that sword was way to valuable to belong to a mere pick-pocket.
    As he lay back in bed, he had already stopped asking himself which materials he would need to buy tomorrow, but had instead started trying to riddle out why someone able to afford a sword as valuable as that one would stoop to running across roof-tops in the dead of night.”

    Now, this may prompt the reader with a certain question, namely, who were those two fellows. They may be disheartened to hear that the question won’t be answered in the story of Aldor, and that it won’t have any effect on the story after that point. All is not lost though, if they had already read another of the books taking place at the same time, they would know that the two runners were Jutan, freeman who lives in an outlying village, and Elrak, the assassin employed by the city-lord.

    I hate it when a series ends, and this would provide a way to keep the series going, while still getting new characters and plots.

    • Nate says:

      Hey Casey,

      I do like this idea you have. If it’s done well then it could definitely be a cool little “nod and wink” for the dedicated fans of the series.

      For me I always look at companies like Games Workshop and think it would be awesome to be able to do something like that. Where they have created these two worlds (Warhammer and Warhammer 40k) that are so rich they have a number of writers who write different stories with different characters. Not only that but many of the fans write their own stories too. So you have this world that has become really rich because of the collaboration. Though at the same time it still manages to keep a continuity because GW control the cannon and lore.

      I think the key thing though will be slotting the other stories in without them seeming like they are forced just for the sake of it. For an idea you could have a particular inn or merchant who appears in different stories.

      Square-Enix use this idea with their worlds. Each Final Fantasy game is a whole new world and setting with different laws, magic and characters etc. Yet they always have a number of elements that make it a “Final Fantasy.” I.e. Chocobo’s, Moogles and a character named Cid.

      I’ve been quite tempted by the Final Fantasy idea for a while.

      What do you think?

  6. Kyla says:

    Good article- world building is important and tricky to get right. In fantasy especially the world is important, it’s what sets it apart from other fiction in lots of ways.
    Reading what you say about character and fiction it made me think that really, the world can be regarded as an extra character. It impacts on the plot and moulds the living characters and in lots of fantasy it experiences disaster and peril and is usually a different place by the end (saved/destroyed etc.).
    Creating a world that you love as a writer will lead to a deeper story and if you’re going to write 3+ books set there you’ve got to love it like your you love your more chatty, living, breathing, snuffling, cantering, spellcasting characters 🙂

  7. Dan H says:

    Great stuff! I’ve struggled with the right way to do this, to be honest. I wrote my first book to a rough outline of world and story, but it was mainly plot focussed, so I found that a lot of the time I skipped building the world in favour of rushing to get to the end. And consequently a lot of later chapters became a bit of struggle as they were just recounting events, rather than letting me experience them. I definitely lost my enthusiasm for it for a while.

    Of course, I did go back and do a ‘flowering the world’ revision, which was great fun. But I think for my next book I’m going to try to focus on world building a little bit more before setting down to write. Hopefully that’ll make the whole awful process of writing a lot easier…. as Kyla implies above, if I can create a world that I truly love then being there for such a long time won’t be a struggle at all!

  8. As much as I love worldbuilding, it has unfortunately been my experience that after putting a lot of energy into creating a given world, I will eventually lose interest in it and scrap it before I even have one story written for it. I don’t know if my problem lies in a fickle and easily distracted muse or if I simply over-emphasize the worldbuilding at the story’s expense, therefore tiring myself out when the time comes to actually write.

  9. Brilliant article!

    As a wordlbuilder myself I highly recommend it as a tool for really letting your imagination run rampant! It frees you up and can really add depth to your story. For me, the key is research. Make your world, no matter how fantastical, as realistic as you can. If it feels real to the reader, they are more likely to want to immerse themselves. Give it a rich history. Blending mythology with historical, geographical or geological fact…it all adds a background flavour. Although worldbuilding should never take precedence over story and character, a well constructed world will enhance your story tremendously, adding subtle layers to your characters story arcs.

    Oh…and worldbuilding is SUCH fun! 😀

  10. Kate Jack says:

    A great piece and so true. I went through the process of writing by the seat of my pants and it didn’t work. It’s worth plotting everything out and making sure the world you want to create is in place, before you start to write.

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