Three Approaches to World Building

I’m dipping my pen into writing fantasy, a side move from my speculative fiction novel, The Seed of the Violet Tree: a science fiction mystery. But, how to start world building? This blog is the result of a piece of desktop research I undertook between November and December 2020. I’m no expert obviously, but below I draw out a few tentative conclusions based on my discoveries and signpost to sources which others may find useful.

It appears to me that I have three options regarding world building.

The first is to build my world from scratch in minute detail and confine the development of my story and characters to the world created. The second is to fly by the seat of my pants and just write the story I have in my head, allowing the world to emerge around the needs of my characters and storyline. The third is a hybrid of the two, beginning by rough sketching my world map and then defining a set of boundaries within which my characters and storyline must operate. More detail on all of these options below.

Option 1: Build My World from Scratch

For me the definitive source has to be the podcast, World Building for Masochists, Twitter @worldbuildcast hosted by the exhaustless and successful fantasy authors, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Rowenna Miller and Cass Morris. Their enthusiasm for the subject danced through my earbuds as they took me step by step through the process of, “…building a fantasy world from the ground up…a world building deep dive.” This is not for the faint hearted, be warned, the clue’s in the word masochists. No stone, and I mean not even a grain of sand, is left unturned, from how to start drawing a world map, to how to cook angel meat.

Listening to the podcast, I realised the extent to which my world needs to make sense if my reader is going to believe in it. Everything from its history, geography, weather systems, tides and landscapes will mould the society and culture in which my characters act; affecting their beliefs, behaviours, language, challenges, physical characteristics, abilities and even their sex lives. I’ll certainly be more circumspect when creating fauna or animals, asking myself such questions as: “How and why did these creatures evolve on this particular planet? How do they survive and what do they eat?” I can see how this level of detail would be useful. I could pepper my characters’ dialogue with topics such as, the pesky giant lassoing-nettle, and make their conversation sound believable. Similarly, my characters could discuss world events, distant wars, travel experiences and cuisine, just as we do in real life. Surely, this must add an additional level of mystery and authenticity to my novel?

Even the diehard masochists advised against going for any planetary configuration different to Earth’s. By this I mean a planet with two moons, or one orbiting a binary star system for example. Odd configurations such as alien weather systems, tides, time, day and night, and evolution of species will only add more complexity. The amount of daylight or gravity will also affect everything living or breathing there. I thought it all sounded a bit much for my first attempt, so I’m following the experts with an Earth-like planet. For those wanting to dive in head first there are astronomers, theoretical physicists and other scientists out there who will answer questions, often for a fee.

If all this sounds a bit daunting, and I include myself here, more techy souls than I might want to check out a summary of, The Best World-Building Software from Pro Writing Aid. Personally, I found the free PDF, Ultimate Worldbuilding Template from Reedsy to be more within my comfort zone.

As something of a details person, I can see myself falling down a rabbit hole with this ‘world building first’ approach. I was startled to read a Tweet recently in which an author was celebrating the end of five years of world building, and was now ready to start writing their novel! Hope it was a joke. Either way, it makes a point. Another anxiety I have, is that my characters, who are always the anchor of my storyline, will end up subsumed by the world they’re acting in.

Option 2: Just Write

So maybe I should just plunge straight into the story. I could build a world moulded by the characters and the storyline I’ve imagined, instead of the other way around. Unfettered by restrictive landscapes, my creative juices would be free to flow. I could roll with the pure pleasure of writing and see where I end up.

The trouble is, I tend to take curves and swerves with my characters and plot as time goes by. In my last novel I ended up editing out two characters completely. It was hard making sure I hadn’t lost crucial elements of my plot along with them. Where I had, it meant going back and incorporating those into other scenes or adding a chapter. This was complex enough without having to think about otherworldly influences such as, “Did I explain in that section what a poisonous amplehump was? If I did, and that part’s now cut, how will by reader know that my character is in grave danger when they come across one in the jungle?” I can imagine reaching a point where I’d have to stop ‘just writing’ and capture my world on a map, list, spreadsheet or other document anyway. I think slip-ups and inconsistencies would occur otherwise, affecting my reader’s belief in my world. I’d hate for everything to unravel and feel inauthentic.

Despite all the potential pitfalls, I do find myself tempted to just dive in and write. In doing so I think my characters and plot will have more room to grow in richness and complexity. At least that’s how writing has always worked for me in the past, often with quite pleasing results and sudden twists, which I rather enjoy.

Option 3: Hybrid World Building

I have to say, this is the option that grabbed me the most. For me, it’s the closest match to the way I usually write, beginning with the conception of an idea, a few emerging characters and a basic plot. The difference is that with hybrid world building, these characters have a few additional restrictions placed on them from the start, in order to avoid the pitfalls of ‘just writing’.

The concept of hybrid world building, which I here admit is my own phrase, was sparked by the very readable blog, How does World relate to Character? by copywriter and storyteller, Emily Inkpen, Twitter @emilyinkpen, “If you’re writing Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Spec Fic, building a world is necessary. It’s the canvas upon which your story plays out and it’s very important. But it isn’t primary,” says Emily. Yeah! Just about matching my own thoughts there. But doesn’t that take me back in a circle to ‘just writing’ again?

Apparently not. “I have found that building a world is also an exercise in building the walls that contain it”, explains Emily in her blog Building a world out of walls. Emily’s walls are not confined to physical walls, although these are important, but include how weather systems operate, the length of a week, a rough system in which the economy operates, to name but a few. My understanding is that she is referring to boundaries within which characters and plot must operate, and which world building must not dominate.

I think a good hybrid model would include me drawing a decent but not overly detailed world map first. I envisage supplementing that later, with a series of local maps depending on the needs of my characters and their actions. Once I’ve established a set of ground rules for how the planet and its inhabitants function, I could then follow this with a marathon whirl of rampant creative writing, stopping off only to research types of possible fauna and species or add emerging features to my maps.

What Next?

Building an entire world from scratch feels like the right thing to do, but also rather time consuming. ‘Just writing’ looks easier but I’d be constantly anxious about tying myself up in knots of inconsistency. For me, hybrid world building seems to encompass the best of both worlds and the pitfalls of neither. I think the approach looks manageable. However I end up going about it, world building promises to be lots of fun. What’s not to love about being the god of my own planet? I will hold dominion over everything that exists, lives and grows there and I intend to make the most of my powers, cue canned evil laughter.

Good luck to every writer who’s attempting to create a new world and become a god, nothing like aiming high! Maybe the best approach for you is to get lost in the joy of creating your world in great detail and establishing why the potterbugs on your island map, only breed in red hot blistergrass.  Others may be throwing themselves with abandon at a blank page, sailing away on a sea of creative juices to a fantastical kingdom, as yet still a glint in the creator’s eye. For me, it’s the hybrid world building that feels most comfortable. Whichever approach you take, let me know how you’re getting on. Best to stay on good terms, we don’t want this to end in an intergalactic war…or do we?

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