An approach to world-building

This is Part 3 in the series, Guide to World-building.

I posit a single, schematic approach to structuring a world-building project with the aim of using it through all the tutorials in this series. I ramble a lot.


World-building, particularly when developing a rich fantasy world, can be incredibly daunting just to start. Depending on the scope of your world, the undertaking could be enormous, easily eclipsing the effort required to write a single novel.

Searching the collective wisdom of the internet the approaches generally fall into two camps: top-down or bottom up. These are analogous to that other great writing bun fight: plotting versus pantsing.

Top-down world building sees the author take on the role of God, whereby the world is created from the cosmology down to the minutiae of everyday life. Bottom-up world building is more story centric and typically the author starts from the everyday world of their characters and expands out as needed.

Both have their pros and cons. A top-down world-builder will probably create a more consistent and flesh out world, but will likely have to work for months (or years) before getting to a story. The bottom-up world-builder can start writing much quicker, but their lack of a big picture might create errors of continuity and consistency.

As with the pantsers/plotter debate, I believe the top-down/bottom-up approaches represent a spectrum and I don't see why the two can't co-exist.

To that end, I like to start with a scaffold -- a structure that allows me to flit from the macro to the micro as interest and needs dictate.

But first a discussion of settings and source.

Settings, source material and pitfalls

I like to think there's no such thing as the definitive fantasy setting. True, many authors set their stories in worlds analogous to medieval Europe and indeed most of the best known -- The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Riftwar Saga and The Wheel of Time -- do at first glance confirm to this trope.

As does my current work, mostly because I'm Welsh and much of my academic interest and knowledge stems from studying medieval and classical history as an undergraduate. The adage of write what you know holds true with world-building as it does with stories.

Most worlds are created from this perspective, by authors who have a knowledge or interest in a particular time and space in own history. It's a good place to start.

Pick an area of history you are familiar with or would like to explore. Read up on the cultures and events of the period and start appropriating the bits you like. For source material I like trawling though Wikipedia and general history books to get a overview in the my head. However, when I want to explore a culture or time in depth -- trying to get into the minds of the people -- I will usually turn to primary sources. Chronicles, epic poems, political treaties, religious writings...you'll find a wealth of material from Ireland and Japan and most places in between.

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is a commonly used technique of marrying two different ideas together to see what happens. You can mesh two cultures together either to create conflict or to create a new culture.

Examples abound, and once you recognise the technique you'll see it everywhere. One of the best know is Tolkien's Riders of Rohan, a blend of Anglo-Saxons and the horse riding Cossacks.

Another author who does this liberally is master world-builder Raymond E. Feist. His world of Tsurani features an empire with a blend of Japanese, Korean and Aztec cultures, In Magician he pitted them against a Kingdom that's a typical European analogue.

Sometimes though, the pairing can be a little awkward, creating a setting that's a little too anachronistic and stretches belief!

Anachronisms

Ever read a story where a detail strikes you being out of place? It's kind of jarring.

For me it usually happens when an author tries to jam something in a place that just doesn't fit. Maybe it's two wildly different cultures living next door to each other without any form of cultural diffusion. Or perhaps, it's Romanesque catapults being deployed on fully-rigged Early-modern sailing vessels.

The latter is an example of how silly authors can be in avoiding one of the great taboo in fantasy -- the absence of gunpowder.

The moral of this cautionary tale is to be creative, do what you want, but be mindful when smashing different cultures/time periods/technology together. Above all, your world has credible enough for the reader to suspend disbelief.

A world-building structure

World-building is an exercise in creative geography and sociology. The end goal is a believable, internally consistent world in which to enthral your readers. To create depth and consistency, you have to know your world as well as you know your characters. Your knowledge must be encyclopaedic!

My scaffold will adopt a structure around six key domains: People, Geography, Society, Nature, Metaphysics and Artefacts. To these six I will also add stories and locations. This isn’t only possibly schema, far from it, but it works for me.

One reason I like this structure is because I'd don't want to write myself into a corner. Although, my current crop of stories are best classified as medieval fantasy, I like being able to explore other fantasy sub-genres.

In the following sections I’ll explore the schema in more detail.

People

People will include all biographical articles about my world's characters. It will include both living characters (i.e. those in my stories) as long with important historical figures.

Geography

Geography will include the physically description of the world including it's continents, islands, countries and natural resources.

Geography concerns your characters’ physical world.

Society

Society will contain the social aspects of the world including: history, culture, politics, religions, economics, organisations and so on— the sub-topics under this domain typically correspond to our modern classifications of sociology.

Society concerns your characters’ social world.

Nature

Nature is where I’ll add articles about flora and fauna, be it about a fantastical creature like a dragon or something more mundane as a type of herb.

Metaphysics

Metaphysics contains the fantastical elements of the world including topics on cosmology, magic, alchemy, philosophy, theology and so on.

Metaphysics concerns your characters’ mental and spiritual world.

Artefacts

Artefacts1, include the important objects in your world. In fantasy that can be your stereotypical magical swords, rings of power -- your typical quest items or objects your characters desire or need.

Stories

It’s a good idea to remind ourselves of why we’re world-building in the first place — to write stories.

Stories won’t contain manuscripts (though in theory it can), rather I’ll use to to keep a local copy of my stories synopses.

Another benefit is by adding a place for stories, I can more easily cross-reference other elements of the world to the story, for example a list of characters or locations. I'll discuss how to do that when in go into specific tools in later tutorials.

Locations

Locations will detail specific places where events occur. If writing about a tavern, castle or a ship, it goes in here.

What’s missing?

The astute among you will note that I haven’t included an obvious bucket for things like non-human races, which are a staple of fantasy.

In my own humble writings, I don't do your classic elves, dwarves and orcs. In Weaver of Dreams, I do have some analogues but these are more like magical or mutated offshoots of humanity. As such I'd include them under a races or ethnicities subgroup within Society.

Naturally, your millage will vary and if your writing is heavy on these kinds of sentient, non-human races then feel free to add a Races domain.

The same really goes for anything I've missed.

Alternative or complimentary approaches

World-building is a creative process and so there's no right or wrong way. This works for me, but then I tend to be quite analytical and like lists, schemas and taxonomies. There are plenty of other approaches that you should definitely check out, two of the most well know I'll discuss below.

World-building questions

The best-known method is Patricia C. Wrede's fabulous world-building questions. It uses the Socratic method of prompting questions across a very comprehensive set of topics. It's a very top-down approach that's best done by systematically working your way through. Given its depth and structure, it's easy to see you'd likely spend a solid year or more even for you get to writing about the specifics of your characters life.

World-building leviathan

The world-building leviathan by Kitty Chandler is a story-centric approach to world-building. To do this justice, you have to start with at least an outline of your book. In Part 1, you start with the elements of your story: scope, characters, antagonists and conflict. Then each subsequent parts builds on these elements and goes on to explore the character's society and the world they inhabit. As such, it's more a bottom-up approach.

Like Wrede's questions it is very thorough. Chandler herself admits that if you do one worksheet a week, it will take you a year to finish.

DnD

The Dungeons and Dragons gaming system has a world-building tradition that goes back to the early 1970s. Although very mechanical and rules based, it offers a very rich literature for crafting characters, worlds and stories. It's worth perusing the hundreds of books, guides and worksheets available for inspiration.

Templates

My original world-building app was heavy on templates -- in fact, it began life as mostly a system to generate content from smart templates. I found that using templates was great for rapid development while ensuring consistency and accuracy.

I plan on using them by the truckload this time round, and I'm hoping to recycle some of the code I wrote back in 2014.

While the template content will be same for each solution, the templates themselves will likely be constructed differently. Scrivener for example, has a built-in tempting system where as most apps don't.

Developing templates

I generally prefer to create my own templates and like most writers I've crafted and collected a lot over the years. I've also got a lot left over from my the work on my app, and am looking forward to dusting those off.

Here's my character template (represented as YAML2):

Character:
    - Summary
    - Description:
        -  Physical description
        -  Personality
        -  Habits / mannerisms
        -  Skills, Abilities and Hobbies
    -  Family and Society:
        -  Family
        -  Society
    -  Biography

And for locations:

Location:
    - Summary
    - Description
    - History

For the purposes of this series , the templates I'll most use are characters and locations. Note too that in my novel's project, I'll import the relevant characters and locations and will add story-specific details as needed.

Most content will consist of descriptive articles, i.e. histories of certain events, the nature of magic, the system of deities etc. However, there's also scope to create templates for some of the more complex elements of a world, for example whole countries. That was one of my more ambitious endeavours when I was developing the app and I may revisit this time round.

Here's one I created for a fantasy realm:

Realm:
    - Summary
    - Geography
    - History
    - Government:
        - Administrative regions
        - Law and Order
    - Economy:
        - Agriculture and fishing
        - Mining, forestry and manufacturing
        - Trade, commerce and guilds
        - Transport
    - Military:
        - Standing Armies
        - Militia
        - Navy
        - Castles
    - Demographics:
        - Population
        - Cities and Towns
    - People and culture:
        - Ethnic groups
        - Languages
        - Religion
        - Holidays and festivals
        - Customs and practices
        - Women, children and childbearing

Sourcing templates

Although, I prefer to make my own templates, I'm not adverse to taking inspiration from others -- after all, I can't think of everything and others' perspectives certain expand one's world.

Google 'world-building' templates and you'll find a lot, including some for the popular methods I describe above.

Perhaps the best source of templates is wikipedia itself. If world-building is like writing an encyclopaedia, why not use the structure of their articles as a basis for your templates. Pick an article about a place or person and see if you can adopts it structure for your world elements.

Other great sources (of templates and inspiration in general) include Reddit and Stack Overflow.

What's next?

From here on in, I'll implement this methodology in the tools that take my fancy. Even as write this, I fully expect that I'll refine this basic structure -- and my templates -- as I go. This will be partly down the constraints and advantages of the tools, but also because this will be an evolving process.

In my first tutorial, I'll start with Scrivener, my writing application of choice since 2007.


  1. That's artifacts if you're American. 

  2. YAML is useful for representing data in a way that both humans and computer's to read. 

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