Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Cliffs? Deserts? Mountains? Oh noes! Ö World Building on the go by Subtle Kisses

So, youíve got a bunch of characters, and maybe even some words. Your hero is doing well and youíve settled in, when all of a sudden, a crisis arises.

You donít have a world for your hero to explore! How will you cope? Itís a staple of fantasy for the hero to go on a massive quest! Youíre going to need months to research the fine details about the geography, history and cultures of this world!

Well actually, stop and take a deep breath. Whilst world-building certainly doesnít happen overnight, it doesnít need to take months either. Now Iím a serial researcher: I could (and have) spent hours on Wikipedia looking up how mud-bricks are made and the type of food that grows in a temperate climate. The problem with this is that the information I discover never makes it into the first draft: and so far, it hasnít made its way into any of my re-writes either. I am basically, procrastinating. So, for WHRN, I suggest you world-build on the seat-of-your-pants, making things up as you go along.

Letís start at the beginning: your plot. I sincerely hope you have one in some form, even if itís just; ďThis is Dave. Something happens and he saves the world.Ē For my purposes, that much detail is FINE.

The first place I like to start with world-building is geography. No, Iím not suggesting you go and create a map and spend hours researching mountains and their effects on the weather: at least not at this stage. Just look at your plot and ask yourself ĎHow much world do I need?Ē If your hero never leaves the boundaries of his town, then you donít need a detailed outside world, do you? Be sensible about how much youíre going to need to do. While it is fun to build a whole world, sometimes you just need a little bit to get you going.

The second question to think about is the mood of your story, and how your setting can reflect that. Is your story going to be a gritty tale or survival against all odds? Then a desert or ice-age is a better setting than a beautiful temperate climate in summer. The setting can add an amazing edge to your story, and long as you know the basics, you donít need to get bogged down in research. The point of the first draft is to make mistakes. Winging it at this point doesnít matter: any thing you mess up can be edited smooth later.

So now you might have a vague idea that you want your world set on the edges of the desert, where rains are rare and are a cause for celebration. How do you think this would affect the people living there? Theyíd be a tough people, used to the worse conditions. Think about what kind of culture would develop because of this. Write down three or four points at least. For a desert culture, maybe meat is scarce and theyíre still foraging for their main source of food. Maybe theyíre scared of water because they donít understand what it is. Maybe theyíre a nomadic tribe who attack and steal resources from others to survive. From the setting around them, youíve begun to develop a culture.

Now, I love cultures. At College, I take social and cultural anthropology: which to most people means I study mankind. One of the first things we did in our first week was create a list of things that all of mankind share. These included: religion, an idea of art and music, rites of passage, some form of Government, a form of communicating and a sense of family. Whilst this isnít an exhaustive list, it is very useful for world building, and sprinkling our work with such details can add a sense of depth. I suggest spending five minutes on each one thinking about how you can use these things for your world.

So far I havenít said much about world-building on the go, have I? Oh dearÖ Well, thatís because I think you need to know a little about the beginnings before you try to plunge straight in. Once you know a small amount about the world your hero lives in, you can start running with it, and thatís what Iím going to talk about now.

The wonderful thing about world-building on the go is the unexpected twists it can build into your novel. Maybe at some point near the beginning of your novel, your hero is attacked by bandits. (Hmm, Iíve mentioned bandits quite a bit, havenít I?) So, heís fighting for his life, when suddenly, you decide he should be fighting at the edge of a cliff, with a river running below it. In a dramatic twist, your hero falls and is washed up miles from his starting point, lost and wounded. Oh look, youíve created more plot for yourself :D If you keep going like this, youíll soon have a world thatís amazingly varied and you didnít have to spend days/weeks/months working on it. Just be careful how much you invent: thereís only so much scope in the landscape.

Which brings me to the downfall of it. If you donít keep track, youíll change too much and the world you started with wonít be the one you end with. Thereís not much I can say on this, apart from keep track of what youíve created and where. A blank map that you gradually fill in is a good way to keep track of geography, and a note book is always useful for general culture information. In the example above with the cliffs and river, whacking it on a map would mean youíd never forget where it was, and you could use it as obstacle once more at another point in time.

So what can I summarize this long ramble into?

1) Donít start blind Ė have a general idea, even if itís as basic as. ďI want my MC to live in a rainforest.í
2) See where that idea can lead you. Take an hour or so to simply play with your idea, and build it up slightly
3) Then just run with it. Keep a note book and rough sketch-map to keep your ideas together. Remember to refer to it!

Thanks for reading guys, and if anyone here is like me and feels the need to compulsively world-build, here are is a good link. Donít look at it until youíve met your daily word goal though!