May 20, 2008

Thoughts on World Building: Getting Started

After giving Jamie Grove’s suggestion following last week’s post some thought, I’ve decided to try my hand at a short series on the topic of world building. I’ve no idea as of yet how long it will be, and everything is based on my own experiences these past fourteen years or so since I first tried my hand at something longer than a picture book or essay. If you have something to add or completely disagree, I hope you’ll leave a comment. This is a topic I’ve very rarely gotten to speak about with anyone, and I’d love to get a lively discussion going.

As far as I can tell, the world building process generally starts out one of two ways: with the idea for a world or an inkling of a story. Things grow from there with either the story shaping the world or the world giving rise to a story.
I’ve built worlds using both methods, and although both work well, I have to say letting the story drive the world is the easier of the two for me. Perhaps this is because the one built around the story is the only truly alien world of the three I’ve built. I don’t know for sure.

Right of Succession started out as an idea for two characters, and the world of Yekara was born to explain and support elements of the story created for them before it spawned a dozen or so ideas for other novels to follow. Of Secrets and Stones, the only of the three worlds with an actual story in print, and The Icarus Project both began with the question, “What if?” and are alike only in the fact they’re based on our world with these questions answered.

All three required research, but Stones and Icarus took much more. How can you build an alternate world without knowing why this one is the way it is, or was in the case of Stones? Then again, perhaps the difference in difficulty isn’t so much about these two being based in fact as it is my knowledge of in depth history and politics being a bit rusty. If Hubby should work on world building for any project beyond the Secrets and Stones role-play guide book, for which he is my coauthor, I’ll let you know.

Yet no matter how you get started down the world building path, there comes a time where the story and world begin to fuel one another’s growth. It’s different for every story. Icarus reached it almost instantaneously. Succession made the mark about three months into the process, and Stones took even longer, so long in fact I nearly gave up on the world. No matter when it comes though, this step is crucial.

I’ve built three worlds yes, but I never said I haven’t tried building others. Those other attempts never made it to the compounding stage before I simply had to set them aside to work on others. Or at least they haven’t yet, we’ll see if they resurface somewhere down the line as old ideas are sometimes want to do. However, every idea where the story and world began fueling the other made it at least to the stack of rough drafts waiting their turn in revisions.


  1. As an RPG gamer from back in the day, I've build more than my share of worlds.

    I tend to be very systematic. I've even developed a list of questions to ask when creating a world that I use as a jumping off point.

    I don't believe the principle has to be terribly different when developing any other sort of fictional world. World building is world building, regardless of the purpose. The big difference is the application.

  2. My world building usually begins with method #1. I get an idea for a story, usually just a scene with a single character. From there, the whole thing unfolds. I just keep zooming out and out and out.

    Wow! What a wonderful start! :)

  3. @ Bob As you'll see from the post I'm putting up later today, I've actually been searching of a way to bring a little more order to the madness that is my writing "methods." I like the list of questions. I think it could be a huge help next time I venture into world building, at least as a jumping off point, and hence, I bookmarked it in my writing tools folder. Thanks so much for the link.

    @ Jamie I honestly do like the first method best, I just seem to keep getting world ideas first lately. And thanks for the compliment.