Part II: Worldbuilding idea, meet taffy puller…

Alicia Finney

Alicia Finney

Last time we talked about the concept of going deeper with our worldbuilding ideas to create a richer story and setting. Today, I’d like to give you some ideas and tools to help you do that. Some of these will work better with technology or magic, some with more cultural or people-oriented ideas. Either way, the next time you get a great idea for your worldbuilding, try running it through this little gambit to see where your new idea can take you. 

The power of three. Got a new technology or concept for your magic system? Find three different and unrelated applications for it in the context of your world. Versions legal and illegal? Purposes designed and deliberate? How about jury-rigged and hijacked? Uses both altruistic and malevolent? How would this show up on the black market? For a character, give them at least three beats or appearances in your story to create a sense of continuity and the most basic semblance of an arc. Think about how Boba Fett pops up over and over in Star Wars. No one could accuse him of being a primary character, but he’s definitely a staple of the world.

In the vernacular. If you are dealing with something that is either commonly available or commonly known, chances are, if it has been around for any length of time, it will have had some affect on language. For instance, creating a vocabulary of world-appropriate swear words is always fun, and even people can become catch phrases over time. Consider what it means to be a Benedict Arnold or to sign your John Hancock. And just ask any geek or gamer about Leroy Jenkins.

Check out the history books. Surprise! Backstory isn’t just for characters! Where did this thing come from? Who created it? How and why? Was it made for the purpose it serves or has its use been hijacked to do something new and different? Was it a purposeful invention? An accidental byproduct? Something that grew over time? Everything and everyone has a story. When using this technique, look for ways to draw connections and create relationships between this idea and others you have working in your world. This is a great place to play with the connectivity of the people and the concepts that make your story come to life.

How does it verk? Seriously. How does it work? Where does the power come from? What makes it do what does and can that power be corrupted, broken, increased, overloaded? Does it have a cost or sacrifice associated with using it, and what impact does that have on the ethics of the people or the usability of the whatever that you’ve created? This one is especially good for technology and magic systems.

Now bigger (or smaller). Here you get to play with the scale of your idea. If it works on a small scale, what would it look like in a much larger version? What could the increase in size or effect do in your story? If it is already on a massive scale, what would it look like as a microcosm or a handheld? If the use of it, its power or effect, played out in a smaller or more limited way, how would that manifest? Before they built the Death Star, they used the technology to take down people, tanks, ships, buildings, and cities. Computers started out large enough that one filled a massive room, yet today I have more capability in my cellphone than that great big, technological beastie could ever dream of.

The two-trick pony. This is a best friend to the big and small concept, only the two-trick pony has more to do with guile. Consider it a test of your skills as magician, which, in many ways, is what a storyteller is. Look at this big thing I’m doing while I slip in this crucial piece of information right under your nose. It goes like this. Figure out how your idea works, and slip it in subtly, preferably while something else is taking center stage. In your prose, tell your reader all about this thing, but keep it innocuous. Now, take the same concept and settle it somewhere they will never expect it. Imbed it in a completely different part of the story. Use it in a new way they never see coming, and make it something critical. When the audience finally catches on to the connection between the subtle foreshadow and the critical something, the revelation is made richer for the fact that you told them exactly how you were going to do it all along. They just never noticed.

Break it. This is my final tip, and, if I’m honest, my favorite. Primarily because it affords me rich opportunities to blow things up and otherwise mess with my characters. The fact it, sometimes we learn the most about something when it goes wrong. You have to know how it works to fix it, and, even during the fixing, frustrations abound! If you need to explain the how of something to your audience, this plays out better than reading from the operating manual. Think also of the magnitude of the consequences. A broken pencil sharpener will not affect your story in nearly the same way as a hydrogen bomb gone wrong. Like I said, yea for blowing stuff up.

So there are your tips. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below. I’ll just be over here in the corner reminding myself that I am a character author at heart. A character author with a little pyro in her evidently, but a character author all the same.

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