Putting worldbuiling into perspective

Posted on Mon 15 May 2017 in Articles • 7 min read

A few months ago I picked up a copy of Storywonk's Building Worlds class by Alastair Stephens. I finally got around to watching the class and, having digested what was a great lecture, I decided to post my own reflections on the subject.

This is not strictly a review; nor will I reel off Alastair's points verbatim. I want to give my impressions and how Alastair's approach differs (and overlaps) to my own and the thoughts his lecture provoked in the way I world build

Fundamentally, it's about story

I'll start with the obvious. Alastair's approach is story-centric -- as you'd expect from a man's who's a master of the mechanics and meaning of story.

My own personal approach, I realise, is world-centric. It's rooted in my training as an archaeologist and historian. The archaeologist in me loves systems, economics, material culture and technology while the historian in me loves how the big ideas--politics, religion, philosophy--shape the people and cultures of which I write. In fact, if I wear my post-modern hat for a moment, archaeology and history are very much acts of world building. The archaeologist or historian, even with evidence at hand, does not--and will never have--the complete picture of a past society. There's a great deal of inference, interpretation and imagination that informs the world they build.

When I couple these traits with my professional life as a technical writer, then I fall into the trap of documenting my world. I often end up writing the encyclopaedia, one article at a time...

Writing the encyclopaedia is something Alastair's warns about and I can say from experience that these are wise words. World-building can be all consuming -- for me its a labour of love as much as it is a necessity -- labour being the operative word. However, when I commit to writing the encyclopaedia it's time I'm not writing the story and as much as I love the process of world-building, it's not the story I want to tell.

Story should come first, story must come first.

Alastair makes this as plain in this class as he does in his works.

Different approaches to the same end

The realisation got me thinking about other differences Alastair raised: planning and pantsing and top-down vs bottom up. I'll return to the latter in a minute. Most writers are aware of the planner/pansters difference; it's a spectrum more than two separate buckets in which we fall. I typically fall on the planning end of the spectrum; I like outlines, lists and timelines. I recognised the danger; world building can be such a long and complicated process it would be easy to fall into the trap of w

If you're on the planning end, then typically your world-building is going to occur upfront before you start writing your draft. Pantsers on the other hand may start out with very little world and populate it as they write their draft.

Top-down vs bottom up are two classic world building approaches and can be summarised as using a telescope vs using a magnifying glass. Top-down we start with our macro elements (ideas, cosmology, theme) and bottom-up we start with our micro elements (individuals, locations, artefacts).

Top-down world-building would lend itself to planners while pantsers by necessity would find the bottom-up approach more practical.

There's no right or wrong way; in fact the two can exist in tandem.

There's no right or wrong way; in fact the two can exist in tandem. Consider paining as a metaphor; the big ideas provide our background, painted with broad strokes. Meanwhile, our foreground, our characters and the places that are important to them get the finer brush strokes. Naturally colours and shadow blend between fore- and backgrounds as they should. Character and place is influenced by culture, society, geography and the metaphysical. At the same character and place shapes and defines culture, society, geography and the metaphysical. These element are like the layers of an onion.

For my own part, I've taken a mixed approach that works for me. I get the rough ideas of the world worked out first along with a few specifics I need to start the story. That means asking:

  • Who are my characters?
  • Where do they live?
  • What do they believe?
  • What are the major historical events leading to the story?

I like this question/answer approach (basically a boiled down Socratic method of investigation) and it's amazing how far just answering these questions can take you. I was very glad to see that Alastair had a similar method.

When I get down to the writing though, I've realise that I do a lot of world-building on the fly. Despite the danger of tangents and procrastination, I actually find this helps the writing process because often the world-building seems to take on the tone and conflicts of the scene I'm writing. Rather than shaping story to place, place is being shaped by story.

The other thing I like about just-in-time world-building is the raw materials are more likely to come from me and the accumulated cruft in my brain. Describing places, events or artefacts from actual experience is much more vivid and rich and authentic because they are ours; our experiences are part of our being.

Some lessons learnt

Alastair's class and my own musings have got me thinking about practical ways to walk a story-centric line between bottom-up/top and planner/panster.

Write what you know

This adage goes beyond world building and it was one of the key takeaways I got from Alastair's class. Part of our uniqueness as writers is based on our own skills, failings and experiences. This can and should colour our worlds. I already tipped my hand with my training in history and archaeology, but I also like mucking around with computers, running, weightlifting, hiking, martial arts and spending time with my wife and children. I've travelled to Europe and North America. I've made mistakes and hopefully learnt from them. I've lost friends and loved ones.

All this stuff is not only fuel for story and world building but it's also a lens for how we interpret and look at the world and story.

Start with your characters

Characters are the actors of our story. They are the agents of change and conflict in our world. By creating, interrogating and throwing our characters together we begin to define our world.

Map your world

You can do this figuratively or literally but it's important because our characters exist in a time and place. Alastair touched on this activity and I liked his approach -- it came down to appropriateness and effort. I'll revisit map-making in later posts; it's something I know I can get caught up on and shouldn't.

It's okay to use bullet points

I need to remind myself of this one. Not every element of world building needs an essay; not every event in my backstory requires me to write a chronicle.

The thing to note here is effort should be appropriate to the importance of the element to your story. If your characters are passing through a tavern in a backwater hamlet on the way to the enchanter castle, the hamlet doesn't need its own equivalent of a Lonely Planet guide.

Don't overlook templates

Templates are nothing new to writers and many of us use them for character and location sheets. In the context of world building, a template can help structure and guide the creative process. They can also save you a lot of time. World-building elements, like a town, political party or religion, will have many defining characteristics. Include these as sections in your template.

Scrivener has a nice template feature built in. Most word processors, including Microsoft Word and Apple Pages, have the ability to create documents from templates as does OneNote, OmniOutliner and many other specialist programmes that people like to use for world building.

Beware the rulebook and the encyclopaedia

I've come back to this point because if I added up the amount of time I've spent on world building I could have written a dozen books. Talking to my wife about this yesterday, she opined that my own efforts were influenced too strongly on role-playing gamers approaches to world building. This is partly true, although I've never played a DnD table-top game in my life, I've read a lot of fantasy novels in my time that originated in this phenomena.

For those unfamiliar with table-top RPGs, they operate within defined rulesets. Characters are based on classes; movement, spellcasting and combat is based on complex dice mechanics. Games necessitate this as games have rules, scores, winners and losers. RPGs are interactive stories and thus there is a strong overlap with traditional written stories. We (novelists and game masters) can learn a lot from each other.

As I noted, I've never played a table-top RPG, but as someone who likes systems, the techniques use by game masters and designers are very appealing to me.

On a similar note, I appreciate and even enjoy the output of these activities. Published DnD rulebooks fascinate me as objects unto themselves as do encyclopaedic compendia about other people's fantasy settings, such as David Day's excellent Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia.

Creating my own object of this nature would be justified if I plan on creating a RPG version of my world or produce a future keepsake after writing a 30 volume saga but the reality is that I will do neither of these things.

In conclusion

I've rambled a bit but that's because this is a subject (and a complex one) that's close to my heart. Alastair's class has given me pause for thought. I was encouraged to realise that there's nothing wrong with how I world build but his message to focus on story was a good reminder of why I world build and perhaps, when I should stop.

Enjoy world building but remember your world is a vehicle for story; it's the not the story itself.

Where to Get the Class

If you're interested, you can get the class over on StoryWork.com. Note that this post is not paid advertorial and I have no relationship with Storywork or Alastair Stephens beyond being a happy customer of his classes and podcasts.

The class is currently on sale for 10USD (just over 14AUD), and if you are at all interested in the subject of world building then I heartily recommend you pick a copy and consider some of his other excellent classes.

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