Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash
Yesterday, Canadian author Renée Gendron asked me on Twitter what my advice would be for building a world by .
What's our #1 piece of advice (or top 3) for building a world?— Renée Gendron (@ReneeGendron) 14 December 2018
While 240 characters are enough for a concise, if somewhat abrupt answer, I decided to expand out my response in a little more detail.
Before I start, a disclaimer. This isn’t so much as advice, but rather a reflection on how I approach my world-building. For the past 18 months, I’ve tried to world-build less (at least for world-building’s sake), diverting my energies instead of writing stories.
1. Internal consistency
When I build a world, I like it to have rules. Rules provide a framework on which the world hangs. In our world, we have things like physics that govern what is possible or what is not. In a fantastical world, magic might upend what we know is possible but that doesn’t mean your reader will forgive you every time you pull a deus ex machina to get around a problem you’ve written yourself into.
I like to think the notion of cause and effect and supply and demand are universal — yes, I tend to lean heavily on physics and even economics when I world build. Present something to a reader that breaks their understanding of how your world functions and you’ll destroy their ability to suspend disbelief.
So, I try to establish some ground rules for things like magic (or advanced physics/engineering if I write sci-fi) and stick to them. Making my characters work hard in the face of immutable rules, makes for compelling reading.
If something has a price, make sure someone pays. Giving unlimited power to a character is boring. Giving some tiny, underpopulated agrarian kingdom the world’s finest mounted heavy cavalry is implausible. Putting catapults on fully-rigged sailing ships because you don’t like gunpowder in your world is stupid.
Avoid deus ex machina at all costs. This is worth repeating. By allowing yourself the privilege of breaking your rules (usually with some externality) to solve a plot problem sucks big time — and I don’t care if your favourite sci-fi author cough — Peter F. Hamilton — cough does it. It sucks, it’s cheap, and it’s terrible storytelling.
2. Finding enough common ground
If I can make a reader suspend disbelief when they enter my world, I consider it a job well done — that’s the purpose of world-building.
This is personal preference, but for me, as a reader (and writer) the best fantasy worlds are those which have a strong sense of the familiar.
The trope of the fantasy world based on Medieval analogues works and works well because they are instantly familiar. You can make a similar argument with urban fantasy. In both instances, your reader’s own preconceived notions will do the heavy lifting for you.
That’s not to say you can’t deviate from the norm, even in fantasy. If you do, then find common ground, something your reader can lock on to as they gingerly step foot into the world. A great example is Kelewan — a world featured in several books by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts. Although Kelewan is radically different from our world, Feist draws you in using elements borrowed from Japanese, Korean, Aztec and even Highland Scottish cultures.
My final note here is perhaps contentious, but I believe dialogue should be consistent with your world’s culture. If your world is inspired by Medieval Europe, don’t pepper your books with modern slang. You don’t need to be anachronistic with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, but seriously, I’ve stopped reading fantasy books because the author used the words ‘guys’ and ‘cool’ in a medieval context.
3. Loving what you do.
If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ve got an uphill battle to make your reader love your world. This is nothing you can learn or warm up to — it’s a calling and chances are you were bitten by the world-building bug like I was in childhood.
The danger here, however, is loving world-building so much you never get around to actually writing. I’ve fallen into that trap myself. There’s nothing wrong with that -- I just decided that writing stories was more important.
Still, I love the sheer self-indulgent pleasure of world-building. It’s easier than writing, and it feels like a holiday for the mind. If you love your world and love crafting it, and exploring it through narrative, your readers will pick up on that.
So there you have it, my own guiding principles on world-building: be consistent, be believable and love your work. It works for me, and while this isn’t an authoritative how-to guide, I suspect that my philosophy isn’t that unique.
Sure, every author, world-builder and dungeon master has a different approach and unique skills, but ultimately we all want the same thing — to give our readers that sense of wonder and excitement as they step inside our worlds.
Allo, Chris, Thanks for the great conversation on twitter and the great article. Authors can indeed draw inspiration from Earth cultures and infuse their own twist to them. One of my pet peeves is the language issue. Language needs to fit the culture and time. But language is also culture-specific. If a place is on a frozen waste-land, then it makes sense for them to have a larger vocabulary to describe the kinds of snow/ice there is, as opposed to having a wide vocabulary to describe the topics.
In a rich fantasy world, the characters know the history of their city/kingdom/world (not the reader) and they'll mention events that happened off-book that inform their decisions. (King A hates Queen B because of what happened at the ball 5 years ago; we organise our water resources in such a way because of the Great Drought that lasted 1,000 years). Historical events shape language in the sense of expressions. There's also the matter of expressions and idioms. Those are culture and place specific. It brings a place to life if characters have their unique swear words, slang, and cultural references.
Again, Chris, thanks for the wonderful conversation and the kind mention. Kind regards, Renée