So, let’s talk world-building. Now, there’s a measure of this in every book. It’s setting, mood, timing, tone, and, most importantly, it’s where you lay the ground rules of what’s possible and what’s not in your book. You will tend to find the greatest degree of this world-building phenomena in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, especially of the epic variety. But how is it done? Where do you start?
I thought we’d look at that for a bit, and I’ll share with you some of what I’ve sorted out to date. Since fantasy is my game, here’s the disclaimer that that’s the angle I’m approaching from. So where do I start?
Research. And a map.
World-building is essentially a mass-generation of interlocking ideas. History, geography, language, religion, cuisine, technology. Nothing is outside your scope. Anything is potential fodder for your world, so take it all in. As much as you can. Because of the sheer amount of information you need to create a convincing illusion you cannot leave your muse to do all the leg work. That kind of inspiration does not come neatly packaged and handed to you on a silver platter. You have to go after it and hunt it down. Creatively speaking, an entire world is big game, after all.
When I’m hunting for ideas, I hit up the grounds that have offered me the most in the past. Here are my favorites.
* Wikipedia searches, typically drawn out into long tangents via the labyrinthine maze of informative links. Those links are more than distracting. They’re gold, especially when you’re starting out and anything goes.
* Documentaries on pretty much anything.
* Works from other authors with epic world-building abilities. David Eddings and Brandon Sanderson** are some of my favorites for this. I’ve also heard great things for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and I would be greatly remiss not to mention Tolkien.
The point is not to steal verbatim from your source material. It’s to get your juices flowing and give you many jumping off points. Ideas you can mix and match into new creations.
And while you’re watching your documentaries and wiki-fying your little heart out, maybe draw yourself a map. Don’t worry if you can’t draw a straight line. Straight lines are overrated and pretty useless for fictional cartography. Even if it is nothing more than little notes scattered over a blank page (mountain here, river here, city/dot here, nation up there, creepy ruins in the desert over there, blah, blah, blah), it will give you direction and help bring some of that random research into a more cohesive picture.
Speaking of cohesion, there is little of it to start with. Only a bunch of random facts that you happen to find interesting. World-building seems to be a very organic process, so don’t worry if it’s pretty spotty at first. You throw a bunch of ideas in the pot, as many as you can grab hold of, then wait to see what sparks. What things capture your imagination? You’ll find, if you keep your head in the work, that your mind will naturally make connections, seek out meaning and stories from the data you’ve absorbed, and the more you do it, the more natural interlocking all those concepts will become.
It can be a daunting prospect, especially for the fantasy enthusiast, but, just like character or plot or revisions, world-building is something that can be learned. You can learn to create illusions of setting and culture that can enrich your stories and make the reader’s real world cease to exist, if only for a time.
**chull, See Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives.