I am SOOOOO excited to share the wisdom of writers in my circle with you!
My fellow writer and friend Michael Baker, who is also a published author, has so graciously agreed to share some of his worldbuilding knowledge with us all. I met Michael a few years ago now through a fantasy writers facebook group, and he is the one who introduced me to Author’s Tale, the writing group I am constantly hawking around here.
Anyway, he’s been writing fantasy far longer than me and has an immense wealth of knowledge. I loved reading this and I hope you will, too. Also, he’s from the UK, so read it with a bit of a British accent and enjoy!
This article I have been writing for almost a month, and its progression has been painfully slow: the art of worldbuilding.
So, let’s get down to it. To make worlds, you need to build them. Now, there are two main ways of doing this, what we call architect and gardening. And apparently in the current times, there is a third approach called the tourist. There is no right or wrong way of worldbuilding I might add. You can use whatever approach you like, whether it’s one or all of these approaches. In honesty, I like a combination of the three. Of course, doing one method will mean some bits are easier, and other parts will be harder. So, let’s go through each method, shall we?
This one is fairly obvious. Any building planner goes through all the detail first. Before a single brick is laid down, they go through every little detail, without any room for error. Of course, it’s a lot of money to invest in new buildings. Get it wrong here, and you waste resources, time and money. The same can be said for your creative world. Most genres require world-building of some level, and fantasy/sci-fi is no exception. If you build a world, live and breathe it. Make it real. If you cannot make it real to yourself, how can you expect your readers to?
This is the first method. Most of the great fantasy authors did this, most notably J.R.R Tolkien, and his incredible Middle-Earth (possibly the greatest example of worldbuilding ever seen). The level of detail in his world is exceptional, with nothing left under the rock. The idea of sculpting the world through this method is simple: do not write anything on the story until you’ve finished the world crafting. This can take months or years, even decades. It is a painful and a slogging process, with no detail skimping. As a result, getting down to actually writing your novel doesn’t happen until the world is complete.
This is a problem, because if you spend all your time making the world, the story will never be finished! It is a huge victim of procrastination, but the downside is often outset by a far tighter world. And it’s fun. I first started making my world way back in the 2000s, when the excellent game show Time Commanders and my love for the Total War games started my creation process. It was a very long process, taking years but I did follow this method for many years without ever committing to a story. If you are building the world for the sake of it, this way is fantastic. Building a vibrant living world takes a long time, no matter which way you do it. However, if you were building a world for a novel or publishing, this is time consuming.
If the idea of taking years to build a world before getting a word down on paper (or imaginary paper) scares the shit out of you, this is another method. George R.R. Martin once described it as a seed representing the world, and then build as you go, allowing it to water and grow as you write the story.
This can be seen as a better method in terms of actual progress. I do this the most, especially now. Counterbalance was a combination of two literary works: my fanfiction and the war-military fantasy I was creating back in the early 2000’s. I decided to combine the two worlds almost, and it was a slow build. You will make mistakes, especially if you don’t take notes of your own designs! I made this mistake, and it is a pain in the arse to correct. Make notes of everything you do. I still skimp on this, and frankly it is something I need to work on a lot. I think i’m a good world-builder, but I still make a lot of amateur mistakes. For example, I was writing the Thousand Scars, and I found I kept forgetting the names of factions and characters, or worse, getting them wrong. My editor was quick to jump down my throat, and it was well deserved. KEEP A NOTE OF EVERYTHING!
This method also requires you to know your characters back to front. Know them as well as you do your spouse, closest friend, dog, or komodo dragon. (I lied on the last one. Though I would love to own a komodo dragon as a pet. But if I do, my girlfriend will probably murder me in my sleep.) There are many ways to know your characters, and I’ll leave a link to my article on this, check it out. Building as you write is a great tactic, and it’s something I did with my new landmass, Uldur. It never existed until last year, and I’m so pleased I created it. It just happened, and I created it with writing short stories to start building a foundation. Which leaves me to the last method:
Tourism, or writing narrative to build your world.
The major part of this article, and it’s grown to become my favourite method of worldbuilding. Sometimes, just making the world feels a little artificial without a living voice to direct it. This is kind of a mix of the two, and it’s the most rudimentary. I do this a lot, and its sometimes the most enthralling. Build the most basic foundation, start writing a story, and let your imagination take you where you want. The most is likely to go wrong, and you’ll end up having to mop up your own mistakes even more than usual. However, the journey is perhaps the most enjoyable, and it’s the best way I feel early on to flesh out a world. This is what I did with Uldur.
Take this little short as an example. I usually use a single POV character to begin this, and use him as an eye (stand aside, Sauron!) into the world, and just branch out as you go. I’m using a very early alpha of Counterbalance for this, and so it is in a horrible state.
The Sorn Rebellion
“Selm,” Augon whispered. He was shaking, his normally well natured face twisted with rage. The grip he had on his spear tightened, his knuckles turning white. Ivan took a closer look at the one they named Cur Selm. He wasn’t a large man, with heavy lidded eyes and a pointed weedy chin.
Why, Ivan thought. he looks peaceful, harmless, It was disconcerting to believe that this man was responsible for such horrendous crimes. The crowd of men and women who followed Carrow to this early victory, his soldiers to retake the keep, fell silent as the commander cleared his throat.
“Cur Selm.” Carrow spoke hoarsely, and even as the noise in the hall slowly rose again, the warriors and his bannermen braying for the blood of him, his whisper carried across the entire room. “You are prisoner here, and you stand in this hall of the Iris Keep to answer for the price your own blood paid for your treachery. You sold the freedom of our free people to the scourge of the Pharos Order, the yoke of their families and conspired with the other traitors to let them into our lands and oppress us.” His temple pulsed as the coward lowered his gaze, unwilling to meet his eyes. Cur Selm refused to look at him. Ivan heard whispers of “craven,” and “bastard” emit from across the room.
“LOOK INTO MY EYES, DAMN YOU!” Carrow snarled. He slammed his fist against the cobblestoned wall behind him with a brutal crunch.
Selm lifted his eyes finally, sharp teardrops shifting in the blurred faces of the crowd surrounding him, getting used to his surroundings. The left side of his face was puffy and yellow with bruising, the callouses split open and blistered. He looks afraid, Ivan thought to himself. He had known little of this man during his occupation as Carrow’s ward, but his face showed the same he had seen in so many others in the years which had passed; discomfort and self doubt.
“Well? Do you have anything to say for your transgression?” Carrow’s teeth bared, grinding together as he always did when he was angered. “I am surprised. You served as ambassador to our king before you betrayed him and us to those incompetent cunts you chose to protect. You seem quiet now. Nothing to say?”
That amused Selm, Ivan saw. He smiled wanly up at Carrow, his teeth cracked. “Transgression, Lord Carrow?” Selm’s tone was courteous enough, but still had traces of arrogance. “I would call it honor. The families and your new high council saved the Kahal from Temujn and his path of terror.”
“Loyalty?” Granson, the Bear of Blood stood with a clatter, his great oak chair crashing backward onto the floor with a loud, echoing bang. He was a beast of a human being, even taller than Carrow and his voice drowned out even the baying din of the murderous crowd.
Interesting Fact. This was actually a very early beginning of Counterbalance. I initially had this to serve as a separate plot line to the main event (A major war between the two superpowers of the world), and this being a rebellion told from the POV of a Gaol, one of my created races. Very shaggy, blue-haired humanoids used to fighting and surviving in the extreme cold, whose lives rotate around the giant boars which inhabit their world. In writing this, I began to branch out and imagine what the Gaols looked like, as well as their history.
Then I figured out why the rebellion happened (which is a heavy influence on Counterbalance. A lot of characters are directly affected from this rebellion, bringing in a lot of disgruntled factions swearing revenge, which is why this part of the world is harsh and war-torn, with little mercy.)
However, I eventually scrapped this as part of the book, mainly because I just couldn’t get the grip of an insider’s mind into the Gaol, which are humanoid in thoughts and intelligence but still very different, and frankly I didn’t feel confident building them. They have an important history, and this little snippet really helped. As it stands, I still have all the work I wrote on this side segment, including 15,000 words of the overall story as well as 10,000 written words on the lore of the civil war. I might turn it into a novella at some stage, or convert part of it into my planned triple anthology.
You’ll find just making blueprints will ask more and more questions, and it spirals into a larger web. From just 500-600 words, this little piece told me a huge amount about the status quo of the world, and gave me so much to work with. Now, a last piece of advice. Just because you know everything about the world doesn’t necessarily mean your readers need to know it in your narrative. Going off maths, your readers only really need to know 5-10% at the maximum of what you know about your world. Much more, and they are treated to infodumps which are a slog-fest to get through. Fantasy has this biggest problem, so only tell the readers what they need to know.
That is all on this article. I hope you enjoyed some of my personal viewpoints on this subject.
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