Being a Better Writer: Worldbuilding – Part 1

This post was originally written and posted March 10th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.


Hoo-boy. This is a topic that’s going to take some time to tackle. It’s one of those topics that’s been requested multiple times, partially as a result of the worldbuilding done in my own work, but also because it’s one of those things that a lot of writers really want to capture. After all, we read fiction as escapism entertainment, and who hasn’t picked up a Tolkien, Harry Potter, Star Wars or even a Sanderson book and felt like they’d entered this new and amazing world? One that, even if you wouldn’t want to live there, seems so real it was almost like you were there yourself?

When that happens, you have two things. First, you have good writing (and no amount of care nor cleverness can truly make up for a lack of good writing). Second, you have a world that’s been carefully built. Who remembers Diagon Alley? Or Minas Tirith? Or the city of Elantris? These were places that were fascinating even without the story that went on around them. An excellent case in point is Diagon Alley—when the reader first encounters the scene, how much of what’s described to the character is actually plot relevant? Very little, although some of it is clever foreshadowing for later in the series. But most of it is just straight interesting worldbuilding. Hawkers yelling out deals on cauldron types. Pet shops with strange creatures. It’s fun, it’s interesting. But, tricky author, it’s also worldbuilding. It’s helping the reader build a picture of what Harry’s world is like. Better yet, since everything is new to the viewpoint character as well as the reader, Rowling is able to infodump without actually appear to do so. Since Harry knows as little as we do, we’re more than fine with his observations and piecemeal explanations for what’s going on around him.

See? Good writing, and good wordlbuilding. So much so, in fact, that there is an actual, real-life Diagon Alley opening this summer in Florida. That’s right, the book captured so many people’s imaginations that it’s about to become a real place. Now that’s quality writing.

Alright, so how can you play the same sort of cards in your work? How can you go from the generic #48,923 fantasy world of dwarves and elves you have now  to a world that stands out?

Well, first, you’re going to need to make a decision. Are you going to be a writer of complex worlds or minimalism worlds?

Now, most of you are probably thinking “Hey sweet, I have options,” at this point, but I’m afraid it’s not what you think. Now, in part 2 of this feature we’re going to go more in depth on the difference here as well as how to write them, but for now we’re just going to make do with the condensed summary: These are how you present the world you’ve built, not how detailed your own work actually is. Complex worldbuilding is works such as The Wheel of Time, in which you’re going to not only know that there is a city there, but you’re going to find out what the main trade is, why the city was built there, and who is in charge. And all of this will probably be relevant in some way later (even if it’s in a small way).

Minimalism on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Where in complex worldbuilding you’ll present all of these details, in a minimalist world, you’ll explain as little as possible. A great example of this is The Lord of the Rings. Exactly how much text is given to the mighty Balrog? One line, actually, when he finally makes his appearance. LotR presents its world in a light fashion, granting you only the barest of detail to get by. This is a minimalist worldbuild: The reader only gets the basics. When you write your work, it’s up to you how much of your world you present to your reader. Complex, or minimal?

Got that? Good. Now throw it out until next week. Because here’s the thing: even though LotR doesn’t go into great detail on the Balrog, Tolkien himself actually had a great deal of material on it. Take a look at the wikipedia entry for the thing, it’s huge. All this for a creature that had one line of description.

The point here is, regardless of your approach to the presentation of the material, you’re going to need the material. And if you’re going to be building a world from scratch, you’re going to want bucketloads of it. Pages and pages of details that your fans may never see. Because a world isn’t just a picture on a canvas. A world is a complex, massive, living thing, and for it to appear real, you’re going to need to make sure that the various pieces of your world line up just right. Tolkien may not have explained what the trade of a major city was, but he knew what it was. You’re going to need to do the same.

Alright, that said, where do you start? This is arguably one of the parts of worldbuilding that stumps most writers looking to build their own world. How do you go about crafting a world? A whole world? That’s just huge!

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a whole world. And, luckily enough, it can be as easy as starting with a single, unique question or idea. For example, the book Elantris by Brandon Sanderson has a fascinating world that started with a single question poised by the author: What would happen if there was this fantasy world where there were demigods living among the population who one day woke up and weren’t demigods anymore? It took some tweaking from there, but that book became Elantris. A later title of his, Warbreaker followed an inverse of the idea: What would a city be like if the demigods were in fact demigods, but lived in the city and often acted very mortal? Or something to the effect, it’s been a while since I heard him talk about it.

This is where your world can start. It doesn’t even have to stem from something original. Rise, for example, sprung from my own musings on the reflective nature of the crystals shown in its associated (and pre-existing world) as well as an extrapolation on a magic spell from the same. Your own world can spring from taking something common (say, wizards) and putting an entirely new twist on it (say, magic is really odd to handle, but for some reason becomes easier to use when drunk, meaning that all wizards and magic users are perpetually soused). BAM! We have a world! All it takes it looking at something in a new fashion. Going from “magic-reactive crystals” and “come-to-life spell” to automated, magical, crystal golems wasn’t a far stretch once I knew what I wanted to play with, which was those crystals.

Which brings us to the second part of worldbuilding and where the real work begins. You have your “one thing” (and for the sake of example, let’s go with magic only works when drunk, because I find the idea hilarious), so now we need to come up with a lot of answers. Basically, you need you extrapolate.

I’ve talked about this before with characters. How you need to come up with they why and how for pretty much everything in order to make them real. Worlds are the same way. If you want a living, breathing, real world, you need to ask the same questions. If I’m going to write a story in a world where magic is only usable when you’re drunk, I need to be thinking about things. Why is it that alcohol makes magic easier? Does this extend to psychotropics, or is it just alcohol? Has the world always been this way? Or is this a recent development? Is this controlled? Is alcohol considered a dangerous substance? How has this affected the wine industry? What kind of magic can they do while drunk? You need to catalog all the ways your change would affect the world you’re writing.

These questions won’t stop coming once you have the core idea figured out either. For your world, you are going to constantly be amassing questions that you’ll need to answer. Questions like: Why is there a city here? Why hasn’t the wine industry taken over the world if alcohol gives people access to magic? How can people use a good wine supply? How does this affect other industries, like mining or metalwork? Are a magic users powers good enough that they can take out entire industries? What’s the political power structure like?

Asking question like these (as well as many more) will help you make sure that your world is alive, consistent with itself, and real to the reader. One flaw with Dungeons and Dragons, for example, is that a majority of the worlds that players run around in have completely broken and incompatible tech/magic bases with how everyone lives. There are tons of easy spells that create flameless light, so why is anyone using lanterns and torches? You want to retire a rich DnD player? Roll a magic user and work out a way with level-one spells to get running, heated water flowing around an inn through pipes. Or create a burger joint. Sell your services. Become a wealthy titan of industry. Invent capitalism and destroy the out-of-date, generic feudalism system while you’re at it. Laugh. You wouldn’t be the first to do this.

See, you don’t want your readers looking at your world and pausing to go “But wait, why?” If they have, you’ve failed to flesh your world out based on the changes you’ve made. Don’t be afraid to take some time and few false starts. You might be halfway through your book when something comes up you hadn’t considered before. Stay calm. Find an answer, work it back into the previous chapters. Sometimes you might have to start over (hopefully not, usually you can work it in). I had a few false starts with the world of Pisces before I found a happy medium I felt comfortable with (Added note: this story later became the Sci-fi Space Opera Epic Colony). Remember, you don’t need to answer every question all at one go, but if it is something that becomes relevant to your story, you’re going to need an answer. Otherwise you might make it much easier for something like HiSHE to poke fun at you.

Now, there’s one last thing that you’ll need to take care of when building your world: Research. And not just the kind where you think “Ok, well, if this character was born here at this year …” No. I mean actual, full out research. Nothing breaks immersion more than a writer who exercises an aspect of worldbuilding while clearly being uneducated about it. Let me give you a few examples.

At the writing conference I just attended, one author brought up how one single scene in a book ruined his immersion forever. It was a ways into the book—fantasy fare, a fun read—when the main character needed to get some leather on his armor replaced. So, by pure luck, the next city they visited had a tannery right in the center of town. On the main street even! Fortuitous! And the main character waltzed in an got the required leatherwork done. And the reader put down the book.

Why? Because tanneries stink by an obscene degree, and historically were well outside of the city limits because no one liked the smell of urine-like acids and rotting meat. No one in their right mind would have one inside a city, especially on the main thoroughfare. Lack of author knowledge … lost reader.

Another example. I once read a draft of a work in which the author was trying to write a sci-fi take on the spread of the mongul hordes. And it went well until the spreading hordes elite soldiers made an appearance on the battlefield. They were clad in all-black armor, save for the symbol of their house (a bright red disk) square in the middle of their chest armor and right in the middle of the forehead on their helmets.

Wow. Yeah, immersion broken with laughter. He’d given his elite, “imposing” soldiers convenient bulls-eyes. Worse yet (and this is the real kicker), not only could I not take the rest of the work seriously, when I pointed this out to the author he became extremely defensive and took almost fifteen minutes to be able to convince him that this was, in fact, a terrible idea. Over the course of the discussion, it quickly became apparent that he had done absolutely no research into modern combat, and had in fact based all his “combat doctrines” on ancient military techniques from before the invention of gunpowder and modern combat armor. He didn’t even understand the difference between ceremonial armor and actual combat gear (and it didn’t help that he was treating guns as if they were little different from bows in function).

In other words, he didn’t do the research, and it killed any seriousness the story hoped to approach. The immersion was broken and unrecoverable. As you build your world, you’re going to need to do research. You don’t need to become an expert on anything (unless the story requires that you do) but you will need to become passably educated at a bare college level, because the moment you start trying to bluff your way to the end, the audience will come down on you with hammers. If you need to write about something and don’t know much about it, hit Google. Pick up an encyclopedia. Go try it yourself if you can.

Now if it’s something that you’re coming up with on your own (like an internal magic system), then make sure you’re an expert on that system. Stay internally consistent. Have a better explanation for why “X magic happens in one scenario but not another” than “Just because.” You are going to give yourself a PhD in your own world’s history, politics, events, and characters. And a decent, college-level education in anything real that ties into that. Is this work? Heck yes, but these days it’s at least easier than ever (also at that same aforementioned writing con were a number of older writers who remember spending days in the library doing research before starting a new book; now we just Google).

Now, once you’ve done all this, once you’ve found your start, answered every question you can, and gathered the knowledge you’ll need to be passably educated on the subject, you’ve created a world! Congratulations! Now you can start laying out your characters and where they fit into things. From there, don’t be alarmed if your world changes a little more, that’s just part of the process, but for the most part, let the world be itself so that the character can be shaped by it (at least at the start) rather than the world bending to them.

So, that’s it for this week. Next week we’ll talk about presenting this world you’ve made to the reader, or in other words infodumping without actually infodumping! Hope to see you all then, and good luck with your worldbuilding!

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