Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another installment of Being a Better Writer! This week, as with last week, we’re still following in the path set before, and we’re talking about worldbuilding. More specifically, we’re going to be talking about the next step in crafting a world from scratch.
Now, if you’ve not been following BaBW up to this point, it is recommended that you have read parts one and two of this series already, since with part three today we’re following a the path set by those two pieces to its natural conclusion. So if you’re a newcomer, or just discovered this series for the first time, I would recommend reading those over before diving in. In other words, while this post is going to still be helpful for worldbuilding alone, I’d recommend reading the other two to gather the whole picture if you haven’t.
So, if you have read the two prior parts (or just like to live dangerously, and who am I to judge?), then let’s go ahead and dive in. In week one, we talked about finding our central ideas and figuring out how to “frame” the world around them. In part two we talked about taking the pieces that surrounded that world and shaping them to fit our central concepts—as well as the surrounding pieces—so that everything fits together to create a living, breathing world.
So what will we be talking about this week? Well, now that you’ve got a complete, living picture built around your central concepts, it’s time for the final step: Letting that world come to life.
Okay, I understand a few of you might be a little perplexed by that last statement before the jump. After all, didn’t we cover this last week?
Well, no, we actually didn’t. The closest we came last week was the guidance of trying to build a world where the setting would live and breath regardless of if our protagonists and antagonists were in it or not. Which surely implies some thought in this direction, but that was where we left things. For today, in fact.
In other words, last week was about fitting our puzzle pieces together so that the world could be a living, breathing place. This week, however, we’re talking about letting it breathe. About giving it that needed nudge to move from a portrait of a moving world to one that does move. The difference, I would say, is similar to setting up a chain of dominos that can fall, which we did last week, and then letting them fall. Except unlike dominos. which have a pretty obvious course even before set in motion, a living world has a million little moving parts, and sometimes isn’t quite as direct with how it plays out (especially once chance is involved).
Okay, I don’t want that analogy to run away with things, so let’s take a quick step back and talk about why this step is important (and then we’ll get into the how). In a way, letting this world breath and take some shape on its own is like adding a bit of glue to our “puzzle pieces.” The last two weeks we’ve talked about finding the central locus of our piece, and then shaping and fitting the ideas around it to build our picture. Well, letting that picture breathe is a bit like going back to the completed puzzle and adding glue to each piece so that the whole thing sticks together, at which point the image can be picked up, handled, and hung on a wall somewhere.
To use a second analogy (both because it’d be helpful, and because I got the concept in my head) what we’ve talked about the last two weeks has been a bit like baking a cake. The first week was figuring out what flavor and style of cake we wanted to make. The second week then was gathering the proper ingredients in the proper proportions and mixing them correctly.
But that process does not create a cake! No, what we’ve been left with is batter! We still need the final step of baking and frosting our delectable cake mix! I mean, batter is good, sure (and we’ve all been known to sneak a spoonful or ten as the cake makes its way to the oven,), but it’s not a finished cake.
Now, with both of these analogies you may have noticed that I’ve chosen examples where the last step isn’t completely a requirement, but generally is. Not all puzzles are glued together and displayed on a wall. Not all cakes are baked or frosted. And not all books that an author works on get the final step either. Some are alright or even fine simply being a world pieced together properly.
But when it comes down to it, how many of you, given a choice between two cakes, will take the one that isn’t frosted over the one that’s had a loving, complimentary layer of sweet icing placed over the top? What I’m getting at is that one can make a story that doesn’t have this last step … and plenty do. But going this last step is akin to giving your world that final layer on the cake, or the glue it needs to be handled, examined, and then displayed as a work of art. It takes your world and setting that final step up to the level of being the absolute best you can deliver.
Okay, so then … How do we do that again?
Well, this is actually a bit easier than it sounds … and at the same time not. Which yes, I know is a contradiction, but at this point, well, you’re predicting human behavior. Sometimes it’s easy … and sometimes it isn’t.
Basically, what this step is, as a whole, is taking all those pieces you’ve assembled, from the geography to the history of your world, and building a culture around it. It’s letting that “living world as a character” bit happen. Much as we develop characters, thinking of who they want to be and what experiences they’ve had in life to get where they are, etc. this step does the same with our world and our places. What nations are there? What makes each nation unique? How has this impacted their culture? Their history? Their heritage?
These questions seem broad, but you can narrow it down and help answer larger questions by asking smaller ones. For example: How does the average person in this setting get food and water? Is it a concern? Historically, how has that been handled?
For example, back a few weeks ago we talked about worldbuilding from Maslow’s Hierarchy. In that post we invented several societies that lived in a harsh desert and talked about how their needs shaped who they were.
This? This is that step! However, you’ve likely already created the “needs” for your story based on your core concepts. So now, look at the people in these places you’ve dreamed up! What are their day-to-day lives like? Are people polite? Rushed? What sort of beliefs do they have? How do they impact their day to day lives? What sort of religion?
Even names! Names are a huge part of culture around the world. What sort of names will your setting have? What sort of consonants do their names prefer? Are there honorifics because this setting values some sort of position? Or maybe age? Do names change with age?
Again, this is small stuff, but it’s small stuff with an impact. Little details like this are what make, in the real world, even one city slightly different from another inside the same country. How people talk, or what they value … all of it can be a little different.
If it helps, think of it like pyramid. You’ve got the nation at the top, which has its own culture, ideals, and objectives. And then below that you’ve got regions, which shape their own variants. And then cities and towns, and there at the very base, families, clans, or other small gathered units of sapient beings.
And look, I’m not saying you need to figure out all of this down to each individual family across your whole world. But you can build some generalizations about a nation, region, or city, and then work off of that when your characters get there.
For example, I’m going to talk for a moment about A Trial for a Dragon, a story only Patreon Supporters have seen thus far (and a story staring one of the older siblings of the titular protagonist from Axtara – Banking and Finance). The story takes place in a kingdom mentioned in prior stories in the setting, but not one that had been seen. So before I started introducing the setting, I took some time to work through the pieces. I had my central concepts (such as “this is the headquarters for the only organization of wizards known on this continent” and “this place is rich“) but then I had to figure out the why for those questions, and once I had that, determine how it would affect the people living there, and what it might be like to wander the capital city as a result.
Then, and only then, once I’d figured that out, did I turn the protagonist lose in said city to experience that culture and location. And it was a thriving location. So thriving, in fact, that some of the early editing passes toned it down because it had become a bit of a distraction from the core of the story in a few places.
Point being, it felt like a real place. Alpha and Beta readers felt like they were there. The people Ryax interacted with, the streets he walked, the architecture and the culture he saw … all of it felt distinct and grounded, but also very real. Like it was a place you could actually journey to and see. the Rietillians he encountered (along with other characters from other nations) were distinct, not just in who they were, but also in how they acted, dressed, or behaved, each with their own little elements of culture on display.
So, culture and even people can be shaped by needs (and again, if you want a deeper rundown on this, check out the post on Maslow’s Heirarchy). But what about expression? How many different ways can a culture be shaped? Well, I have good news for you: If you’ve got a sufficient imagination, the possibilities are limitless.
You can create a sci-fi world where everyone’s name is relevant to, and changes with, their current social standing. Or their financial standing. You can create a world with a culture where upon entering a home, each new arrival is expected to drink from a ceremonial cup. A nation where everyone has a portion of their name that signifies their birth month.
Really, you can be as creative as you want here as long as you can then shape that idea into something that fits your world and feels real. Even if it seems a little “strange” and “over the top” to some readers. Truth is, reality isn’t all that realistic, and cultural traditions and actions can seem strange to us now because our culture is different, even though at the time a tradition was created it had very good reasons.
So while you still need to make sure that your “glue” doesn’t leak all over your “puzzle” and be a distraction from your core concepts, you can still use your glue to help things fit together and function as a cohesive setting for your protagonist to inhabit.
And again, you can be very creative with this as long as there is a thread of “logic” behind it (and yes, logic is in quotes because sometimes living beings aren’t all that logical). As long as you can find a valid reason that a group would say “Yeah sure” to, you can do just about anything.
At the end of the day though, this comes back to build on what we talked about the last two weeks. Keep your core focus, and build/shape the world around it. You don’t want to forget what the core of the story is. What we’ve talked about today really is the icing on the cake, or the glue to help the whole image stick together. Too much will overwhelm the reader, much like it could obstruct a puzzle image or detract from a well-prepared cake.
At the same time, having none of this will lead to a story that’s just a cake, or a puzzle that doesn’t quite hold together as well as it could. Too much isn’t good, but having just the right amount will greatly enhance your story and show that the setting is a living, breathing world.
So look at names. Look at how places came to be. What the economy of a city is built on. Even if a character never sees directly what that is, its influence will be felt. A fishing village is different from a logging village, for example, or a heavily agrarian community.
And from there, well, there’s on last thing to note. A lot of people will ask “But how will I come up with that stuff? How will I know what any of that is like?” To which I say, once again, research. Not for the purposes of copying, but for both inspiration and keeping knowledge and consistency. After all, if you have the protagonist stop by an agrarian farming village but then the farmers they speak with say something that makes zero sense to anyone who knows how farming that crop works, well … You’ve got a problem.
So yes, there’s a research angle involved in this. Likely not a heavy one, but you should be aware of it.
So. recap to finish off. Once you’ve got all your pieces assembled into a world that could live and breath on its own, letting it do so can provide the final bit of glue to help it “stick” for the reader. We can accomplish this by letting that breathing, living world happen, by thinking of how it would work, and what people and places would be like. Names, habits, economies … it’s all part of the broader scale that your character may encounter. And so we should let them!
Now, one last warning, now that we’re done with the recap. All the way back in part one I warned of continually adding pieces until the “focus” of the original vision and ideas was lost. The same can happen here. Build your glue, yes, but don’t forget what your core is and start adding hundreds of pieces around the edges of a story that doesn’t need them.
Keep those core concepts at the core, shape and assemble the pieces around them, and then let it breathe and live a bit to form the glue that’ll keep it all together.
Good luck. Now get writing!
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