I’ll be taking off for an extended weekend soon, but I wanted to post something before I did. A great article from Mythic Scribes has had me thinking about world building the past few days. When I first started writing, I tended to just world-build around the story as I was telling it. I think this might have kept me from falling in to the trap of wasting time coming up with information that wasn’t relevant to the story. But it also handicapped me a little, in that I had to go back and draw maps to I could get a sense of where my characters are. I had to go back and research cultural basis for my nations traditions, and come up with a reason why Endans can talk to trees.
Now, I try to take a more balanced approach to world building. I need to know enough about the worlds to write them and make them seem real, but I don’t necessarily have to develop a detailed description of every ecosystem or draw plans for each city.
My favorite world-builder is J.R.R. Tolkien. This is world building at its most obsessive. He wrote epic histories, created complete languages, and managed to finish and publish some pretty impressive novels. He also wrote a good portion of the Oxford English Dictionary in his spare time. When reading Tolkien, it’s apparent that this author knows how to use words and frames his stories in a rich, compelling cultures with real history. I loved reading his Unfinished Tales, because here you can get a glimpse into his world building process.
Much as a disliked George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire on a personal level (spoiler alert: all the characters you love will die), I had to admire his world building. That was what kept me reading into the middle of A Dance With Dragons. The places, religions, beliefs, and customs of Westeros seemed so real that I kept reading trying to try and figure out how he managed it. His world-building isn’t like Tolkein’s – it is much darker, less academic, and in many ways more approachable for modern readers.
World Building Tips
When building your own worlds, it’s easy to get bogged down in details. One of the things I really liked about Brian DeLeonard’s article on Mythic Scribes was his ability to break world building down to five key components:
- Magic- What are the magical elements which shape your setting?
- Ecology- How does the natural landscape affect the societies in your story?
- Government- Who has authority, and what are they doing with it?
- Warfare- What do you need to know to develop the action in your story?
- Culture- How do people behave in your world that might be different?
These might not all be equally important in every story, but you should have some idea of them in mind while you write. Magic and warfare are the two I struggle with the most. You might have different categories that challenge you. Nevertheless, if we can keep world building in mind without letting it run away with us and devour all our writing time, it can really make our stories come alive.