The Initial Steps of Worldbuilding: Architect, Gardener, Tourist
Listening to the news in the real world – that horrid place where dragons are small and kept in vivaria and pixie is just a kind of haircut – it is very apparent that life is a very complicated place. Anything from the politics between two warring countries, down to a neighbourly dispute on a single street, the world we live in is complicated, intertwined and gorgeously abundant with issue.
So, when you sit down ready to begin that next big fantasy epic – like I decided to do about a year ago – how do you make sure that your disputes between elves and goblins are as interesting and in depth as reality itself. In another sense, how do you make your world feel real, when it is populated with the exact opposite?
Now, sitting in front of lists of “how do’s” in writing, can leave me feeling a bit empty. Most of the time these lists make writing advice seem like hard fast rules: if you do not eat cheese four times a week and pray to the Grecian Muses you will never be able to write an effective chapter two. This I find bizarre. The only rule in writing is to write, the rest is convention. A convention works, for certain, but the difference between a convention and a rule is that if you don’t abide by the convention the book may still work, but you’ll be working to your own understandings and not ones that have been tried and tested. But before you even put pen to paper for the actual hard-labour of making the story, there are the rules – apologies, I mean conventions – of worldbuilding. But, how do you do this?
There are two very easy answers to this question. Either, plan and sculpt your world with the detail of a god itself. Or, don’t. And though the latter seems infinitely lazier, it can be a fine methodology if you bare some things in mind. George R. R. Martin described writers in two kinds: architects and gardeners. This is a far more elegant way of describing the “yes” and “no” dichotomy of worldbuilding.
An architect will sit for hours, days, weeks, planning every intricate detail of a world. They will know the chemical composition of the silt on river beds; they will know whether goblin eyes can be blue, or whether that was bred out in their early history. This can be a very satisfying process, certainly, especially if you have friends who are willing to listen to you for hours as you try and piece together what you’ve come up with the night before. Sitting in the dark, or your favourite coffee shop (or both) discussing silty rivers and rainbow-eyed gnomes can be a lot of fun. The reason for this? You can feel the world, under your feet. But other than the emotional payback for this kind of intense worldbuilding, it is very constructive for the story telling itself.
When a character leaves the village of Underwood to travel to the town of Urquhart (guess what I’ve been watching recently), if you’ve been a good architect there will be no fears of how this journey transpires, the ghouls down the road and where these places are respective to one another; you will not, as the author, suddenly panic when the story reveals a forest you had not realised was there, or that a journey like this should have been done by cart and not on foot. Architects can ease into the story far more naturally, but it leaves less room for spontaneity, and requires months of long effort. Architects cannot skimp on the details.
If the idea of sitting for hours noting down every tree of a forest seems tedious, you can of course be a gardener. As the Slayer of Starks described, a gardener has a seed of an idea, and as they write and develop the story they see it grow. Note, this isn’t a straight “no” to the answer of “do I worldbuild”. This is choosing what kind of flower you wish to grow, but knowing the colour of its petals is kept a secret until you begin writing. The grand Martin used the concept of architects and gardeners more for planning the story, but it is entirely applicable to your mental map-making.
A gardener will have to pay close attention to the rules of the world. How does gravity work, being a simple way of summing this up. What rules does your world follow that you need to be aware of, what places, what races, some basics. But you have to let the characters and the internal politics teach you as author what the world is like; you have to know your characters inside and out, but character building is a very different skill. Without rambling off topic, you need to be able to feel a character, either through the same intense planning – big table top RPG styled character sheets – or just being able to method act them through your typing.
The downside to gardening is the opportunity for continuity errors increases massively, and your reliance on keeping up with your characters becomes extraordinary. In a perfect world, you need to know everything inside and out, but sometimes characters can run away with themselves (not doing as they are told, doing the unexpected). Gardening is more relaxing, but you need to trust yourself so much more.
I come to this conclusion. I can sit and plan for years until writing the story is merely acting as historian with flamboyancy, or I can discover that my rose seeds were actually a rampaging hoard of living ents. Naturally, it is whatever suits your writing methods, and the time you possess, but I find a little of both goes a long way. Plan for years, because it is a satisfying feeling, turning the idea in your mind to a living series of streets and alleyways, every lamp a-flicker with the potential of a story. At the same time, leave room to grow, because when you start writing it will evolve naturally – hopefully anyway – as you’re inspired from reality and muse alike.
I have over 10,000 words of world, and that isn’t even complete, and then I have a huge cast leading me to these places. Rather than architect or gardener, I am tourist. I’ve read the leaflets, I’ve learnt the language, now it’s time to find a guide.