Welcome back readers, to another episode of Being a Better Writer! An unusual episode (fitting here at Unusual Things) too, and for more than one reason. The first being that we don’t often do multi-part BaBW episodes. Only occasionally. And today is one of those occasions, so I hope that you’ve already looked at Part 1 last week, or this piece will be a bit like starting a book a third of the way in. You can do it, but it’s not recommended.
But that’s only the first thing that makes this post unusual. The second is that I’m actually writing this on my Saturday, as opposed to the day of posting. Why? Well because for you readers, today, April 19th is my birthday! Number 35! And so I’m taking the day off (or as much of it as I can, anyway). I haven’t celebrated my birthday in a few years, hence I’m writing this a few days before in order to do so.
Now, for those of you thinking “Hey, I hope you have a good birthday!” thank you, and I hope so too! But if you’d like to help it along a little, I do have a little birthday gift you could deliver me.
Share my stuff somewhere. Gift purchase a book and send it to a friend who likes to read. Recommend someone Axtara, or Shadow of an Empire. Post a public review on Facebook, Reddit, or your social media platform of choice. Sands, toss a recommendation to your favorite book reviewer.
Make my gift this year word of mouth. Believe me, I would really appreciate it.
All right, so that’s the news for the day. Sort of. So let’s dive into Part 2 of our worldbuilding from scratch post and get talking about where we go from last week.
So last week we talked about a few central concepts. One of those actually being central concepts and ideas that the world took shape around based on the type of story you wanted to tell. From there, we talked about working outward from those initial puzzle pieces to build that larger picture—though warning to not go too far.
However, there was something we noted but didn’t get into, which was the act of shaping these puzzle pieces so that they fit with ours, rather than just being cut-and-paste square cuts that were slotted in to make to picture. Today we’re going to be discussing how we get that done, as well as looking more in depth at what was meant by shaping our pieces so that they fit.
I was, amusingly enough, actually talking about this the other day on a writing chat. The discussion was over an expanded map from a fantasy setting that didn’t really make a lot of sense. Oh sure, it looked nice, and it had readily identifiable locations from the series all across it, but …
None of those locations made sense. The picture was there, but it was merely … there. None of the placements or locations added up or had a sense of consistent logic. Indeed, as one person in the chat pointed out, by one of the stories, a character’s travels as shown in story actually plotted on the map were nonsensical jumps that didn’t at all seem consistent (and contradicted what the character themselves was actually saying).
Don’t worry, there is a point to this. The reason things felt off was because the map wasn’t fitted together properly in the scope of the setting. The pieces to make this “picture” of the world were simply a bunch of square-edged pieces, dropped in wherever it was convenient, not where it made sense.
If you’ve read a good number of books, you’ve certainly seen this more than once: A setting where you can tell that elements of the world only exist to further the plot and don’t seem to have any actual use, cause, or reason to exist outside of that. I think everyone has a different name for it, but in my head I’ve always seen it as “cut and paste” worldbuilding. The creator looks at the central concepts their story has, and then to build the picture around it, rather than crafting puzzle pieces with their own edges and protrusions, picks something simple and straightforward, as much of a square as possible, cuts the required “notch” for it to “fit” with their already existing puzzle piece, and drops it into place. Simple, quick, efficient. And then the pieces around that? Well that piece has flat edges, so they grab other flat edged pieces and hey, the picture is done nice and quick!
Of course, you can’t examine it too closely. None of the pieces actually stick together, just press up against one another. A single “bump” is enough to make the cracks appear, because all these elements around the central idea are just quick insertions. Looked at as a whole, they don’t make sense. And some of them may even conflict if someone thinks about it, but hey … straight edges.
All right, I’m sure you get the picture. If you’re well-read you’ve doubtlessly seen settings and worlds like this, where the setting, scene, etc, only seems to exist for the purposes of the story. A classic example I’ve heard given many times is the “generic village found at the right time by the fantasy party.” It’s common enough, actually, to be a joke in just about every meta Dungeons and Dragons webcomic, where the players ask “Wait, a farming village here? That makes no sense! What are they farming? And why do they have an armorer? What sort of trade would these people produce?” At which point the DM just tells the players to “not think too deeply about it” and moves on.
This is a classic example of a world that doesn’t fit together. The creator just threw things where they were needed, and while it may make for a fun story … the moment a reader starts thinking about it (for example, the thought we all want like “Wow, I wish I could go there!) things will start to come apart, because the world wasn’t fitted together.
I hope by this point what I’m trying to get at is clear (because, well, this is today’s topic). When it comes time to shape the rest of the pieces that will fit together with your core concepts, while you can simply “cut and paste” in whatever the world needs for a backdrop … you shouldn’t. To put it another way, doing such would be like carefully hand-crafting a smooth, carefully made tabletop … and then just saying “Ah who cares?” and propping it up on old plastic milk boxes. Sure, it’s functional, but a moment’s glance will tell anyone using it that the pieces don’t match.
So, with this all said, how can we avoid that problem? As we’re crafting our world and working outward, how can we make sure that these new pieces we craft are carefully cut to fit with the bits and pieces at the core of what we want?
Well, it takes a bit of work. More than just “copy and paste.” It involves, much in a similar way to how we build our characters, building inward as well as outward, making our setting, and our world as much of a “character” as they are.
Even if they’re not a “character” as we normally think of them as. While the precise type of story we’re telling can make it less or more apparent, a setting and world are as much a living, breathing thing as our characters are. If we don’t spend the time treating them as such, well, we’ll find that the result is much the same as if we didn’t spend much time building our characters up: we’re left with flat, two-dimensional experiences rather than ones with depth.
This is why I used Shadow of an Empire as an example in Part 1 of this series: Because in Indrim, the setting and character of the world the protagonists inhabit is just as important and alive as they are. It’s a common feature in a lot of Westerns, actually (and you’ll hear writers and directors talk about it as such), which made it a good example for the purposes of the post.
However, while it was an example, it doesn’t mean that your worlds shouldn’t be treated as such when you sit down to give them life. Yes, life, a term I use deliberately. Another problem with the “cut and paste approach” isn’t just that the pieces feel shoved into place, like cookie-cutter patterns, but that in the same way the reader can’t imagine dwelling in such a place without it falling apart, the characters of any work cannot either because it will.
So, as we expand our portrait outward as we discussed last week, we also need to see that what we expand with fits but also has depth to it. The same amount of depth we give our characters. Our world should be a living, breathing world. One that, if you were to remove those protagonists (and antagonists) entirely, would still continue to move, shape, and flow.
Okay, so with all of this now said … What tools does a writer have at their disposal to make this happen? How can one go from what we established last week—a few central ideas with pieces arrayed around them—to a puzzle that fits together and has depth? What are the “nuts and bolts” that were brought up last week and then given a firm ‘We’ll talk about that later?”
Well, later is now, and get ready, readers, because we’re about to dive in deep. And to start with, we’re going to go back to one of my oldest and familiar bits of instruction on this site.
Always. Do. The research.
Look, I know I harp on this one a lot, but this is a key component to making a living world live. Much like you couldn’t get a person by jumbling a bunch of spare organs into the right shape, even with necromancy (we call those zombies or other forms of undead, so not alive), you can’t get a living breathing world by shuffling some semblance of a setting into position and calling it good.
So yes, in order for your world to take its first breath, you will have to do some research. And some reading. Maybe some documentary watching.
However, this isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Remember up above I talked about shaping pieces to work with our core concepts? Well, here’s the trick: That’s the starting point you’ll work from. You build outward from there, which means you don’t need to dive into the complete history of everything. You just need to dive into the history of the specific pieces that will lend their shape to the greater picture of your story.
Let’s talk an example and say a writer is creating a fantasy setting, and they have their protagonist in mind. Now, they’ve decided to ditch the classic “farmboy” trope and go with something a bit different. So they have a central concept, a central piece, but it needs a background piece that is shaped to fit it. So they consider their setting and come to … Oh, let’s say 12th-century Byzantine Empire as a source of inspiration.
Okay, now they’ve got something to dig through. Granted, they aren’t writing about the 12th-century Byzantine Empire, even with the name filed off (that’d be a cut-and-paste square), but they like the concept. So they start digging. What was life like in that time? What was the technology like? What were homes and families like? They want a character that’s tough and worked as a child, so what sort of jobs and careers would have been common in this world?
Of course, now this writer has to step back. The world of the Byzantine Empire was created in part by what it spawned from (Roman Empire) and the climate around it. Crops. landscape, etc. So now this writer steps back and thinks “Hmm … but I wanted this story to be cold. Set in a winter climate, with pines.” So that’s a second central piece that this new square bit of Byzantine doesn’t work with.
But all is not lost. It doesn’t mean that they’re out of luck, just that they have to do some work. Some cutting, trimming, and shaping. So they dive back into the research, see what Byzantine life was like in winter maybe. Or what life was like on the edges. Maybe they find another piece from another place and think “Oh, these two would go well together.” Maybe they even trim the central ideas a little (been there and done that)!
So bit by bit, this piece of the story begins to take shape. Working with research and creativity, both tools in hand, this writer forges a town for this character to have grown up in. A place. With it come a few more pieces, and they set them nearby, waiting their turn to be worked into the greater whole.
So finally, satisfied with what they have, they slot this new piece into place alongside the central ideas, connecting to both of them.
Only … now they look at one of the other pieces they liked. A titanic city that the character could have an adventure in. Will that city work with what they came up with what they have so far? Well … maybe. Not so close, perhaps, but a few pieces over, with a few other pieces between it building connections …
Now, I will acknowledge that this sounds like a complicated, involved process, and yes, it certainly is. It’s a process that, depending on how wide the portrait you assemble needs to be, can be massively involved. It also sometimes won’t be quite as straightforward as the opening steps described above. Sometimes you’ll begin working on a piece, only to realize that the only way not to break it but still have it shaped for the world you’ve assembled is to reshape another piece elsewhere.
Not an easy process, effectively, because this is something that can happen a lot. However, there is a silver lining: The more shape all of this takes, the easier it becomes to shape the next piece, and the next (which, side note, is why people get stuck worldbuilding rather than writing). Eventually there will come a point where the pieces almost shape themselves, because it’s obvious what shape they need to take in order to fit properly.
What I’m saying then is that the beginning of this process is by far the most arduous. When you’re putting together things like history or geography.
In fact, I’m going to give a quick aside on geography, because it’s part of this process. I’m not saying that you need to make a map of your world—you don’t. It’s not a requirement. But geography is something you should consider even without a map, even in a broad sense. Does it make sense for people to have settled a place and made a city out of it? Why?
Likewise, does it make sense for a mountain to be in a place? Again, this is one of those “research” things you can (and will) need to do. Looking at how mountains form, where lakes take shape, the path of rainfall, what makes fog … a lot of knowledge goes into forming a living, breathing world.
Of course, as you do this, and as you carve the pieces above, don’t forget about other pieces that let you … wiggle … a bit. Strange mountain that doesn’t really make sense by modern tectonics? Oh, that’s just what became of the city of Hazar Nomash. Its ruling council of shamans tapped deep into the earth to grow their power, cracking through the skin of stone and giving birth to the volcano that consumed them. A reminder to the world of the dangers of hubris and unchecked aspiration. They say the souls of the council and all those lost with them are still locked inside its peaks, and every so often their fury and rage escapes.
Bam. Mountain (and volcano) that doesn’t make a lot of sense, until suddenly it makes perfect sense, and adds some life to the world.
Phew! And I think that about does it for Part 2 of this series! Next week we’ll be back for the third (and likely final) part of this series, but until then, let’s recap what we’ve covered!
First, our world is as much a character as our characters are, and should have equal depth. It should be able to live and breath even without our protagonists and antagonists existing in it. Second, as we start to work on building this world, we should absolutely do the research. Otherwise, we’ll make a serious mistake that’ll snap our readers right out of things (this is not a “maybe” so … just do the research). Third, take what we learn and trim and shape it so that it fits the central concepts behind our setting, working outward to craft a world of pieces that fit together cleanly with one another. Consider new pieces as they arise, since they can possible have a place in what we assemble, but only if properly shaped.
Lastly, understand that this is a complex process, and does take time (though it gets easier as more of your world becomes clear). Push through, as the reward will be worth it. And definitely don’t forget what fantastic elements you have that are central to the setting, be they magic or science.
So last week I left you a challenge prompt, and this week I’ll do the same: Build a city that isn’t on Earth from at least two “puzzle pieces” and give a brief, paragraph or so history that could be springboarded into a full setting in the comments! Use what you’ve learned!
Good luck! Now get writing!
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