Ah, world building. I do so love world building. It’s probably not good to admit that. But I do. I could draw imaginary maps all day. In fact I have drawn imaginary maps all day. And I loved it. But that’s the easiest part of world building.
Now, clearly this is a subject that is more commonly discussed for some genres than others, but I actually believe that every storyteller builds a world. To me its all a matter of degree. To me the essence of world building is creating a particular setting for your story that feels as rich and memorable as the real world, or in some ways, is more rich and memorable than the real world. That’s not an easy thing to do. And it can be overdone too, so it’s a delicate balance. In my mind the best worlds are the ones where the author has given the reader not a perfect view of the world in the author’s mind, but a vision of a world that the reader partially creates themselves, which is part of that whole “immersive” thing we talk about.
So, how do you do that then? Here’s how I try to do it anyway. Here are my cardinal rules for world building:
1. See the world in your own mind, and see it consistently, firmly and with a hefty helping of quirks and oddities. But consistent quirks and oddities. In case I haven’t been consistent with this advice, let me again reiterate how important consistency is.
2. Have some idea how the world was created. Did God himself sculpt your world out of the primordial stuff of creation? Did it follow standard geophysical theory? Was it something in between? This implies that you have some idea of the cosmology and theology of your world, and by implication, of the universe it is within.
3. Have some understanding of the flow of commerce. In earth’s history, the only history we really have to go by, commerce first followed water, then followed road, then followed rail, then followed airplanes. Your world doesn’t have to follow that, but if it doesn’t, there should be a good reason why. The flow of commerce is critical input for your maps. Where cities are located is frequently driven by commerce, and what roads or shipping routes connect them defines the flow of power through the world. It also helps you create the paths that your characters may end up following in the story.
4. Have some level of understanding of the geopolitics of your world. Which countries are at war, which are historical allies, what current wars might be going on, etc. Even if your story has nothing to do with a war in another country, having an incident in that war ripple through the story line and have an impact on the story makes that war feel real to the reader.
5. Create a history for the world. Were there ancient empires whose ruined monuments still astound the locals? If so, what was the name of that ancient empire, and what sorts of monuments did they like to build? Are there ancient jealousies and rivalries between cultures? This sort of thing is rich ground to mine when looking for motivations for a minor character to attempt an assassination or betray a main character.
6. Think about culture a bit. Don’t go crazy, but what kind of music is preferred in different parts of your world? How literate are its people? Is there a theater where people gather to watch others perform? How do they dress in each country? All of those things allow you to create distinctive characters whose behaviors can be traced to those cultural things.
If you work this sort of stuff out up front, before you start writing, you won’t have your story flow broken as you try to figure out the motivations and background of a newly introduced character. You have all that, you just have to check your notes.
I should come clean and admit here that I am a tabletop role playing gamer. And I have been building worlds for almost forty years now.