Worldbuilding is a complicated, overwhelming process, so remember these 3 steps:
- Inspiration: Pull from multiple sources. Read, write, consume art.
- Organization: Build out the key components of a fictional world: Nature, Geography, History, Culture, Magic and Technology. Don’t go too crazy.
- Line by Line Writing: Weave these elements through the story. Avoid info dumps. Think full immersion.
Where to begin. Creativity is a soup to add and take from other artists. Art is a communication. We all borrow from sources we love; the trick is to borrow from multiple sources to create a unique vision, a hybrid of sorts.
This is an important point to make. The more an artist leans on another artist’s work, the more plagiaristic it is. All artists have other works that inspired them. It’s a beautiful thing. But when one person takes the magic from another’s creation and tries to sell it as their own, it shows.
So, be sure to borrow ideas from multiple sources. If you’d like, check out my original premade pirate adventure for the DnD 5e system, Dead Man’s Tale, by clicking here or below.
Make a hybrid.
It’s actually a good idea to take some time digesting new creative content. This can mean reading novels or watching genre movies, but music and visual art can inspire as well. Really, anything creative can be used to feed that part of the brain. In fact, I love using other mediums to inspire my writing and generally listen to music while I write. Hell, play an old JRPG.
The key here is to grant yourself time to digest material, then put the games/movies/books aside and get to work.
Many new writers feel that they need to have everything mapped out before they can even start writing a story. This is madness. This is a crazy tick creative people tend to have that ironically keeps them from their passions. Don’t buy in. A major part of creativity is in the moment, which means the act of taking your writer’s journey is going to inspire most of the story.
Take, for instance, author Stephen King. Any quick search on YouTube will bring up a list of King’s talks at writer’s festivals. At some point, he’ll go into where he “gets his ideas”, as fans often ask him that question. His answer is the same as most other famous author: I don’t make it up, it’s something I find.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
― Stephen King
Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
― Stephen King
Finding Your Muse.
In my opinion, this is the magic of it all. The process seems metaphysical, similar to the Greek concept of the Muse. Creatives have to be in a mindset to hear their Muse, and that mindset is a fluid, creative state. Professional writers know how to start with a vague concept, an idea that triggers the question: What if this happened? They get the concept, a vague idea of the setting, the characters and their struggles, and go with it. The story tells itself.
“Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.”
That is, after an immense amount of practice. Writing, like anything else, takes repetition. It takes daily work, daily reading of successful authors. I feel like these “magical” elements of writing are biproducts of intuition and understanding. The best way to succeed is to practice.
“You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That’s just how it is. It’s like learning an instrument. You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process. And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.”
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First things first.
Oh boy, here we go. Most articles lay this part of the process out in charts and notes and software that keeps track of your world’s dynamic political landscape. But first, let’s take a breath and decide what we’re trying to accomplish.
It’s possible to be caught up in these worldbuilding apps, dumping hours of creative energy into crafting an alternate universe. But something tends to happen after all that work is finished: Now, you’re unenthusiastic about writing your story. Something deep down in your brain is satisfied with this game.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I personally know authors who love using these worldbuilding apps and software, especially with epic fantasy. So, they are useful tools, especially if the story takes place in a huge, complicated world.
However, if you’re new to writing long-form content, consider laying off the idea of writing a sweeping, epic fantasy. In fact, it would be a better idea to craft your first stories in contained settings in order to build on character creation. As incredible as cloud cities and dragon riders are to visualize in your head, you’ll never capture a reader’s attention without compelling characters and personal struggles.
Telling a story is most important element.
In fact, write a couple of short stories that ARE NOT genre fiction. Write a story about a kid that gets lost in the woods or a dad that picks up street racing or a romantic first meeting of lovers. Learn to cultivate empathy for a made-up character. These elements are ultimately more important than magic systems or intergalactic empires.
I learned this important lesson in a fiction class at MTSU. Being a lifelong fan of wild genre fiction, writing about characters in this world can help you focus on what’s important in a story.
The point is to find the magic while you’re writing. Yes, you should have a cohesive and intricate world; and yes, you should have an idea of where your characters are; but focus on the main characters’ arcs before your encyclopedia of magic jungle flowers. It’s important to start on the actual writing as soon as possible. As the godfather of fantasy says,
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Ok, Ok, what you came here for.
With all that fun stuff out of the way, let’s talk about world elements you’ll need to keep in mind. Each of these broad topics will inevitably interact with one another, so it’s important to flesh some of this out beforehand. You don’t want to find yourself contradicting previous chapters. If the internet has shown us anything, it’s that fans will find holes in logic.
Historical events are often attributed to the setting of the story, whether in the way people of a particular location behave or simply the name of a city.
In a way, the history of your story universe is the backstory of the setting. Are humans and elves at war? Does the insect quadrant pose a significant threat to the allied systems? These details add a richness in detail to the setting. Of course, we want to lean towards show and not tell, so maybe a chapter could take place in the ruins of a catastrophic war, or maybe a local family is untrusted by the neighborhood.
Find the most influential historical events of this world and sprinkle them inside the story. The created world then has a sense of depth, with people striving toward meaningful goals. Historical precedence and background can directly lead to the story.
Think about how social pressures influence your life. History is full of writers in difficult circumstances that craft a unique perspective. Sometimes, real culture is a direct influence on the meaning behind your story, sometimes it’s an afterthought.
Either way, culture is something that’s inextricably connected with society. Consider the holidays and religion, the economic system, the fashion, the taboos. Culture will affect the protagonist in some way, whether he has to remember his hat before walking outside or she has to accept a toad as a token of engagement.
Natural settings have a way of adding aesthetic and emersion to stories. Heartbreaking scenes are always more dramatic in a storm, and stories of adventure add a sense of wonder with a setting sun on a vast ocean. Physical settings effect the mood of the story
Often, names for locations in the real world are based off of obvious ideas. Got a fort on a hill? Call it Hillfort. So, landmarks are often attributed to the natural elements around them. Rivers, hills, mountains, the sea, all great contestants for naming conventions. For example, a capital city with the name “Oasis” can mean a great deal in a barren, desert environment.
I’m a nature geek, and natural elements are my favorite tool for worldbuilding. Adding simple details like alien rodents dashing across a desert planet or fire-breathing dragons casually flying behind a floating castle can elevate the sense of location.
For me, this part is crucial. A world needs to be wonderful and dangerous and full of diversity. If you can get an idea of how your natural wonder operates, you can plant these nuggets through descriptive scenes, piece by piece. Think of evolutionary processes, or mythical elements that relate to each other (maybe a fiery landscape has a phoenix and a dragon). This part of the worldbuilding process should be fun. Your wildlife could be cute or scary or weird or utterly mind-blowing.
In recent years, this concept has become a popular. It’s just how the fantasy genre evolved, so it’s important to consider how hard or soft your magic system is. Remember, magic can’t be a cop out for bad story. It’s important to understand how it functions to some degree.
Books like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series use magic systems that seem to work like a science. Alomancy, as the name was given in this series, relied on the practitioners ingesting certain metals for certain effects. Some characters were limited in the kinds of metals they could use, creating unique specialist dynamics between a ragtag team of freedom fighters. Others, such as our hero, are known as Mistborn and could use the superhuman abilities of all 16 metals.
Radical, we know how the magic works.
When we, as the readers, know the rules of the magic, we can appreciate the wit of heroes in action. We understand that they need a certain resource to achieve a certain effect, and when they run out of that resource, we have concern for them. We know their vulnerabilities through natural law, we innately understand their strengths and weaknesses. As a storyteller, Sanderson uses this magic system like a master.
Soft magic relies on the mystery. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings leaned toward soft magic, meaning the wizards and evil forces of Middle Earth were strange and wonderful, beyond comprehension. This is similar to the Lovecraft effect, the wonder of the unknowable.
When we’re going for the supernatural effect, this a great tool, but it does have issues to work out as well. The problem most opponents of soft magic bring up is now we have a character that can do anything, technically. Of course, a good writer would know the purpose of their soft magic system and never use it as a cop out. It’s the only way the system works.
These elements are especially seen in futuristic sci fi genres or even steampunk, but any world has a certain level of technology to consider. Factors such as transportation, weaponry, and communication are common occurrences in human life.
Consider the driving forces behind the evolution of your world’s technology. What are the forces that shaped the need for underwater bubble cities or firearms of absurd calibers or laser-based weapons? How does the technology work?
In fantasy, we can implement magic to the technology, but it still needs to make sense and function on realistic, consistent rules. For science fiction, the further we reach out into the future, the more theoretical the technology will be. We can’t be expected to know for certain what the future of innovation will bring, but that’s the fun of sci fi.
Free writing Example:
Let’s see how all of these elements fit together using a ridiculous example.
I’m going to create a world loosely based on Happy Feet, with anthropomorphic penguins living in a bird world. Let’s say it’s a romance, a young penguin man trying to woo the woman he loves. Maybe he’s the underdog, a guy that really has to prove himself.
I’ll consider the icy, arctic landscape of the north pole as a starting point, a place far to the north that sees strange day and night cycles with the changing of the seasons. I’ll think of vast plains of mirror-like ice. I imagine cities sculpted from that ice, with frosty white igloos as family homes. Maybe set another penguin city in an underwater ice cave, with pockets of breathable air and dry neighborhoods.
I’ll consider natural threats like polar bears, orcas and sea lions and place them into this world for a sense of danger. Of course, they’ll be monsters and much larger than our heroes.
Penguins are swimmers who dine on fish, so this can be implemented in the cuisine, transportation, athletics, even a military. In the wild, penguins seem to have customs that could easily translate to my world. Males keep the eggs warm while the females hunt, there’s a social pecking order, there’s a pebble ceremony and monogamous relationships.
In fact, the pebble situation sounds like a nice plot device for our heartsick hero.
This entire planet could be one large ice ball, or multifaceted like our own Earth. I like the concept of an entire bird planet, so hinting at a variety of bird civilizations around different landscapes and continents could be fun.
The history of this penguin civilization will lead to a social hierarchy. Maybe our hero’s love interest is of noble birth, a lineage of the great founders of this ice city. We can see this world much as our own, with people moving from place to place and creating unique civilizations. Somewhere out there exists a flamingo city or an urban colony of pigeons. It’s all color for the story, even if I never take the reader to any of these places.
Let’s go with a pebble-based money system. Perhaps the prettier the mineral, the more like a diamond or ruby it appears to the penguins. This would translate well into a modern economy, something like a Flintstones take on “modern”.
I think boats and quirky submarines are fair game for this world, seems kind of cartoonish, but hey, I said Happy Feet.
Constructing Worlds Line by Line:
Now that we have an idea of our world and how it operates (not an encyclopedia), we can focus on writing a good story.
Naturally, your next steps in the “outlining” process is to have a basic story structure. For me, this means basic. Otherwise, the pages and pages of writing ahead of me are going to be boring and tedious. My best writing comes from the moment, exploring the story that is unfolding in my head, and many famous writers feel the same way.
This isn’t me telling you this is the only usable technique, but consider this method if you start to lose enthusiasm. Exploring the story is a helpful way to link events in a natural, logical way. Stories are written scene by scene, moment by moment. Often, when an outline is created, it breaks the magic of the story down into a meaningless chart.
I feel the same way about plot charting. Get an idea of the big picture, then allow the story to happen in a natural way. But, that’s another article.
The trick to writing a scene that captivates is to feed the world in a little at a time. At all costs, we want to avoid the info dump.
Avoiding the Info Dump
Charlie hiked his favorite trail, moving through a towering city of old-growth red woods. He felt at home here, more at home than any actual city. As usual, a cool, wet breeze cut through the air, a refreshing feeling after several hours of trekking.
Now, compare this small paragraph to the following.
Charlie lived in northern California where redwood forests are common. The weather is often cloudy, so cool breezes made his hikes feel better. He felt most at home in the redwood forests.
See how it was much easier to place adjectives and natural elements when my character is naturally moving through the story? The reader can infer that Charlie lives in northern California (or at least somewhere in the north west) and loves to hike. He feels the breeze, he appreciates his surroundings: that’s what resonates with a reader.
When we piece out the world creation in this way, we don’t worry about relating every detail of our world at the same time. We move our characters through a world and experience it with them.
As mentioned before, show, don’t tell. This isn’t a concrete rule—feel free to tell me important information, descriptions of characters and essential elements of the made-up system of governing. There’s no need to get bent out of shape over manipulating every little piece of information into an active scene. If Brian has brown hair, just tell me he has brown hair.
However, if your descriptions turn into pages of writing, your reader is probably going to lose interest.
For me, this realization brought out a whole new facet to genre writing. The line by line creativity makes for better writing—but it also makes the process a fun journey.
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