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World Building

This is an essay I wrote after giving a talk to my daughter's fiction writing class on the subject of world building in fantasy writng

World Building 101

            World building is a vital but often invisible art in the process of fantasy writing.  The superficial view of a fantasy world is as the environment in which a story or stories takes place.  Looked at from this perspective, the most important things in the world are places for events to happen.  Superficial world building focuses on appearances: what does the terrain look like, where are the cities, and so on.

These questions miss the most important element of world building.  A world is not just where things happen, it is how things happen.  A world reveals its nature in how things happen.

This gives a great opportunity in writing because the nature of the world becomes a character in a fantasy novel.  The ways of the world can carry at least as much meaning as the personalities and choices of the individual characters.


            Furthermore, in a properly crafted world the characters will fit in.  They will arise from the world rather than being imposed on it.  Their individual choices, their emotions and reactions, their triumphs and failures, all will fit into and be reflected by the world around them.

            This is the importance and the opportunity created by world building, to make a story that runs not just through the lives of the characters but through the underlying marrow of the world, a story that will be present in every description, every word spoken, every action undertaken, a story that will be fully present in the entirety of the writing.

            How then does one go about creating a world with its nature, geography, history, cultures, fashions, etc. that helps tell the story a writer wants to tell?

            The most fundamental thing to understand is that everything placed into a world has consequences.  There is nothing unimportant, nothing minor, nothing that is simply window-dressing and scenery.  Everything you put into the world interacts with other things to make the world what it becomes.

            The first worlds people make are usually full of the things they find cool.  But those things are usually placed in to make the world look interesting to its creator.  They are put in bright shiny places without regard for the effects they would have upon the world.

            In order to avoid this it is necessary when making a world to place the ideas carefully and then see how they ramify through the world.  It's not enough to drop the stones in the water, you have to watch the waves.

            The first two stones are big ones: nature and purpose. 

            The nature of the world is internal to it; it's the underlying character of the world itself.  If you were looking at our world you might say that its nature is physics, that it is a world where the same principles apply at all times and all places to all things.  Looking instead at the nature of the world in Alice in Wonderland, one sees that the world is a dream, the dream of a particular little girl whose head has been stuffed with various lessons that she does not understand and who has clearly encountered a lot of imperious people.  Looking at Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, one sees a world that is eccentric in appearance (a world on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle flying through space), but whose nature is to be on the cutting edge between reality and story so that real-world logic and narrative logic intermix freely, dangerously, and satirically.  Each fantasy world, indeed each world in any kind of story will have some nature, and it is vital to pick one that fits your needs.

            This brings us to the second stone, purpose.  Fantasy worlds are created for a reason (as to whether the real world was, we'll leave that to people who like to argue even more than I do).  The reason is usually to tell one or more stories.  One of the biggest mistakes fantasy writers can make is to not have the world and the stories fit together.  They decide on a story and cobble together a world out of standard tropes and then let the story loose in it.  The events and characters in such stories tend to occur in an overlay, as if they and the world were not happening in the same space.  And in a sense they aren't.  The mental space of the world and the mental space of the story are not the same.

            Suppose that instead the world is made for the story or stories that are to be told in it.  In other words, what if the stories that are to come are built into the needed fabric of nature?  Then the two will fit together smoothly and the reader (or viewer if the stories are being made visually) will feel that events and characters fit together into a seamless whole.

            To take a slightly clichéd example, suppose a story is planned that ends with a climactic battle between two wizards hurling blasts of fire at each other from two earthquake-wracked mountaintops in a terrible howling lightning-stoked gale while bat-winged demons scream through the skies.  Every so often one of the wizards cries forth words in an unknown tongue and the world shakes with the vast power unleashed therefrom.

            Typical Hollywood fare. 

            The scene above is part of the purpose of the story, therefore the nature of the world must make the scene possible.  Some of it -- wizards, blasts of fire, bat-winged demons -- obviously requires consideration of nature.  But the rest of it -- mountains, earthquakes, lightning, gales -- does as well.  Humans have a tendency to look at what is usual and not ask why those things exist.  In world building as in science one must question where everything comes from.  Unlike science, however, world builders don't have to study, experiment, and go through the painful process of trial and error that is the scientific method.  World builders get to decide.

            See, all of those normal things listed above are actually the results of very involved underlying processes.  Mountains in our world come about through the motions of tectonic plates or the pressure of lava.  Gales arise from a very complex interplay of earth, sun, and atmosphere.  And lightning, well, that's subatomic physics.

            Does this mean you can't have these phenomena without these same processes?  No, you can have all of these same things from an infinite number of different causes.  But they will only look the same.  Underneath they will be as different as a photograph of a mountain is different from a painting of that mountain is different from a sculpture of that mountain is different from the mountain itself.

            You may ask what does it matter which of the infinite number of causes you take, since what you're after is the scene.

            Here are a few different ways to get the same "natural" part of the scene, each of which has different consequences for the world.

            I.  Our world.  Mountains arise from the motion of tectonic plates.  They come about slowly, so slowly that as far as human lifespan is concerned they are fixed (barring catastrophes).  Gales happen.

            II.  An animist world: The mountain and the gale are alive.  Perhaps they are local gods.  Perhaps the gale is the anger of the mountain expressed into the air.  How does the mountain feel about these wizards dueling on it?  Is it taking sides?  Is one of the wizards its ally or servant?  Is it gearing up the storm to swat the annoying pests?  Or has it even noticed?  Perhaps it is alive but moving at a much slower pace.  Maybe in a few years it will feel an itch where the blasts of fire scorched trees from its surface.

            III.  The mountain and the gale are but reflections of the one perfect mountain and gale, which are two of the primal powers at the center of the universe.  The two powers are playing out a fundamental truth of reality: gale lashes mountain, mountain endures.  They do so as a lesson for all things in the world.  Each of the wizards seeks to ascend to the true perfection by gathering power from this rare interaction of these two powers.  But only one of them can gain that power, so they fight knowing that once the gale ceases their chance will be lost.  At the base of the mountain less selfish creatures learn the lesson the mountain and the gale are revealing.

            IV.  The wizards, who are learned in the arts by which the world was made by the Universal Artificer, are building the mountain up from the ground because they are working to make a home in which they can settle down and raise their young.  Unfortunately they've fallen into a dispute over whether the peak should have three or four spikes.  The result is a domestic dispute that is troubling their neighbors in the valley.  The demons are the local police called in.  They hate domestic disputes.

            Having brought nature and purpose to your world, it's time to consider the act of creation.  The basic question here is how did this world come to be.  How a thing comes into existence tells us a lot about what is in it as well as how it works.

            There are four basic ways for a world to come into existence, and one can mix and match them in interesting fashion.

            1.  Always existed.  A world that has always been is something that stretches back forever.  Such a world has no moment of creation.  It has simply always been and always worked as it works.

            2.  Evolved by impersonal laws / forces.  Worlds like this work by principles (like the laws of physics).  The growth and change of this world can be understood if one understands the principles.

            3.  Created / Altered by persons of some kind.  Person here is a highly generic term meant to include everything from the tiniest mite to an omnipotent deity. 

            4.  Stuff just happens.  In this kind of world, things can just happen.  Objects, even worlds, can spontaneously generate, creatures appear, and so on.

            It's important in all four of these cases to understand that while only in case 3 are there persons involved, personality can be involved in any of them.  The distinction is that a person is a being of some kind; a personality is a way of making decisions, a collection of biases of tendencies toward things, and most important, of processes by which something that feels, at least, like free will makes choices.

            The point here is that a personality can be ascribed even to impersonal forces, if those forces push toward a certain kind of result.  This is not meant to be a characterization of the real world.  Remember, world building is a tool of writing and in books and movies things feel more real if they have personality. 

            Personality can also be lacking even in things that are persons.  This is not a characterization of anybody I know or see on television.  Rather, if someone acts mechanistically, acts without consideration, acts as if they do not have free will, then effectively they might as well be impersonal forces.  A universe shaped by an implacable being that always does the same things and a universe shaped by laws of nature that always do the same thing are effectively the same as far as personality is concerned.

            The above four approaches can all be combined as you see fit.  Here's something that has been done by various authors: a sea of chaos that has always existed (1) produces haphazardly (4) one or more gods (3) who create a world that then operates largely on self contained principles (2). 

            Having decided what's going to make the world, the next question is how.  How does the world come to be?  What actions bring it about?  Is it crafted, spoken, sung, spawned, does it arise from some other world, does the world dying bring about the new world aborning?  These may seem like simply aesthetic decisions, but in fantasy worlds how a thing comes to be can be important in what people can do later.  A world that is sung into existence may well have a lot of magic based on singing.  A world that is spoken or written into existence may have a primal language that may be used to create, control or destroy things, and so on.

            Also of great importance, is there some conflict or flaw inherent in the world's creation?  Such problems tend to reverberate and ramify throughout the history of the world.  For example, if the world is the result of two or more competing groups of deities, each creating their own creatures, then there will be qualitatively different beings in the world that may themselves be at odds throughout events.

            You next need to set down the shape of the world.  The world in this case can be as small or large as you like.  You can have a vast multiversal world full of an infinite number of universes each the size of ours, or you can create a small bijou world with one town floating in a web of nothingness, or anything in between.  Remember that this shape, the cosmology, has to make sense with the nature and purpose of the world.  Cosmology has to fit cosmogony.  That is, what the world is has to fit with how it comes to be.  Weirdly shaped worlds can be fun (I once made a doughnut-shaped world with a sun that bobbed up and down through the hole), but they should have their shape for a reason either of nature or purpose.  It can be fun to be strange for its own sake, but it's much better if the strangeness serves a purpose.

            It's also important to understand that sometimes the shape of the world is no shape at all.  A dream world (like Alice in Wonderland or the Sandman graphic novels) does not really have a shape so much as a medium in which other shapes can arise.  This is a perfectly acceptable cosmology, provided it makes sense with the cosmogony.

            Once the world is an ongoing concern, things become more complicated.  Here's where you have to start making history.             

            While there is much philosophical debate in our world as to whether or not history has a purpose, there certainly is such a purpose in whatever world a writer creates.  That purpose is to create everything that leads up to the story or stories the author intends to write.  In other words, history is what happened before the book started.  In such circumstances, history becomes a thing you craft in order to get where you want to be in first place.

            This may sound like a waste of time.  If you know where you're going, why bother with all the lead-in?

This is done in order to make sure that where you're going has a strong enough support behind it.  If you are writing the most important event in your world's history, then you need to know what were the less important events that led up to it and to which it will be compared.  If, on the other hand, you are writing a quiet little domestic story set in a remote village far from the mainstream of your world's action, then you need to know what that mainstream is, because backwaters are nowhere near as far back as people think, and the traditions in such places will be even more firmly rooted in history than the grand pageantry of the vast and terrible battles more commonly found in epic fantasy.

            If we think about history as the actions of intelligent beings that made the world what it is today then, in a fantasy world, it can be hard to tell where nature ends and history starts.  Indeed, in a world created or at least maintained by supernatural intelligences the distinction is largely artificial.

            History as written usually focuses either on major events, the actions of important people (or other beings), or the playing out of social changes caused by these actions.

            Of course, before we can have any of that we need to have some people to have major events, important people, and societies that undergo social changes.

Fantasy worlds can be very broad in their concept of people.  In general, anything sufficiently intelligent can be considered a person.  In some fantasy worlds nearly everything is intelligent.  Others are biased toward bipeds, or at least things that look partially human.

            In making the intelligences for a fantasy world, it's important to not simply make human-thinking creatures in different shapes.  This is one of the most common mistakes fantasy writers make.  A different species should think in its own special way.  There are two common errors made in trying to accomplish this: animal-people and obsessives.

Animal-people are simply humans with a touch of what a human imagines a particular type of creature thinks like.  For example, there are a large number of cat-people in fantasy literature.  They tend to be vain and mean-spirited or playful and lively (these reveal a lot more about the authors' attitudes toward cats than they do anything else).

Obsessives are a species that thinks like humans who obsess about one particular aspect of human life: logic, honor, violence, aesthetics, vegetarianism, etc.

            These kinds of creatures make very thin characters and they don't stand up to examination.

            To actually create a functional thinking species you need to consider in greater depth.  Start with the creature's perceptions.  What senses does it have?  How does it recognize things?  What does it eat?  What eats it?  What does it need to survive?  What dangers are around it?

            Then ask how does it change the world to fit its needs?  Does it make tools?  Does it need to make tools?  How does it make tools?  Does it have other means of adapting the world to it, or does it adapt to the world?

            How does it understand the world?  How does it remember?  What things are worth remembering? 

            Then dig its decision-making processes.  How does it decide and implement its decisions?  Or if it does not make its own decisions, in what sense is it intelligent?  How does it deal with changing circumstances?  What things in the world are worth its attention?  Does it care about the past?  The future? The environment?

            Do its members think of themselves as individually important?

            Then consider how it interacts with its own kind.  Is it a solitary species that meets only occasionally?  Is it a communal species like humans, a herd species, etc.  How does it reproduce?  If it produces young who need rearing how does it rear them?

            How does it feel about other species, intelligent and otherwise?

            For each intelligent species you are going to use, think all of these things through.

            You may decide not to worry about this and say that your only intelligent species are humans.  But are they?  We arose in a certain fashion and our methods of thinking and interacting incorporate our pasts.  You may make a species that looks human, is called human, and acts mostly like humans, but some aspects of their lives and thoughts should be different because the world they came from is not the same as ours.  Even if you have humans, think through how human the humans are.

            When you've made your species, it's time to consider how these species make history.  How have they impacted the world and vice-versa?  What are each species' views about events as they have happened?  Does the species have a single view or are they an argumentative lot like humans?  How does the character of their intelligence impact the overall actions of the species and the actions of any important individuals from that species?

            This may seem like an incredibly complicated thing to do, and it would be -- except that any intelligent species you make up you will be doing for a purpose in the story.  Either one or more characters are members of that species or the actions of that species have shaped the world that the story takes place in, or you simply want to use the ruins of their civilization as window dressing for events.  In any such case you will have enough of an idea to go on that you can answer these questions.

            As you do so, you will find that you have a much clearer sense for how members of this species act and react and you can create more understandable actions.  You will also have something strange but coherent to present to readers who are, at least in part, reading fantasy for its strangeness. 

            One you have the species you can work through the history.  Your goal is to create the backstory for your story.  You need to bring things from the beginning of the world to whatever your present day is.  You do so by having the cultures and individuals act and change in ways that in the long run move toward what you want.  Along the way you are likely to surprise yourself with a much fuller, more interesting history, one where you may wonder what was happening over here, while this major event happened over here? You may also find that the characters you've thought of for your story become fuller simply from the history that came before them.  The heroic actions and the shames of a people become part of the cultural heritage of that people and members of it may form their thinking around the major events in their past.

            Once you've made your species and history, look them over.  Make sure they make sense.  See if the events that happened would have happened.  Would your passive agrarian species of super-intelligent, divinely guided avians actually engage in a war of bloody conquest using land-based armies until they were stopped by four animated stuffed teddy bears and a mule?  Does that actually make sense?  If it does you've done a good job.  If not, go back and fix things so that either different events happened or these events happened in ways that hold together.

            Now, take a step back and think through the changes your various species, cultures, nations, and so on have been through, because it's time to consider the modern cultures.  By modern I mean the time your story is set in.

            The cultural aspects of world building involve thinking about how people (for whatever kinds of people you have) live their lives.  What are their day-in and day-out existences?  What foods do they eat (assuming that's a meaningful question)?  What clothes do they wear (ditto)?  Where do they live?  What are their social structures?  What dangers are they in and what are they kept safe from?  What technology do they have?  How long to do they live?  What happens when they die?  What do they think they know about the world around them?

            One of the most important things to remember in the act of world building is that you and you alone have access to all the information about the world.  Everyone else involved has a limited level of understanding.  Even if you have an omniscient god, that god probably doesn't know that the world was made for you to tell stories in.

            Figuring out what the people in your world think goes on in your world and for what reasons they think that is a very useful way of getting inside the invisible layers of thought your characters will be relying on without even noticing.  Doing that will make your characters feel more real to your readers. 

            Unfortunately, there is a tendency rather than creating these layers to focus only on superficial cultural trappings.  A lot of world makers look only toward either glitz or grime, to make things either too sparkly (if the story is meant to be shiny) or too grotty (if the story is meant to be dark).  But in the real world neither of these is true.  Cultural elements connect to the reality of the people's lives.  The cuisine of a culture, for example, is based on what foods are available.  One of the signs of a wealthy trading culture (like ours) is breadth of food available.  Localized cultures eat what can be found and grown nearby.  The same applies to what they wear, what their buildings are made of, and what furniture they use.

            Note, however, in a fantasy world that the above strictures seem not to apply if, for example, someone has the power to create clothes and furniture to their liking.  Such an ability amounts to a resource that affects what is available.  If you had a world with such people then, depending on how rare they were, fashions might be the whim of a few individuals who have the ability to shape how everyone else dresses and eats, not because these few have influence but because they are actually the sources for these objects.

            There is an important element in styles: the clothes people wear, the furniture they use, and the houses they live in are all interrelated.  If people wear hoop skirts they do not have armchairs.  If their floors are dirt they do not have expensive fabrics sweeping across the ground.  When you imagine the appearance of the people and their works, remember that they must make sense together.

            Now that we have some idea of what their lives look like, we can move on to other questions like: What do the people do all day?  What are the jobs?  What kinds of tasks need doing and how many people are needed to do them?  You might in a typical fantasy world assume an agrarian society with most people spending their lives farming.  But if your world has some means by which people can farm better (bribing fairies, praying to fertility gods, natural talents in families of farmers, etc.) then perhaps people aren't living at such risk and such need.  Maybe you only need a small number of farmers.  Maybe you don't farm at all.  Maybe food falls from heaven as a divine blessing and if the food doesn't fall it means the people aren't being moral enough.  Maybe famine is a sign of moral failing or insufficient sacrifice or that the dragon lines have moved and that the ground is no longer good, so the people have to pick up stakes and follow the geomantic trails to find new land (and run into other peoples doing the same along the way).

            Or consider warfare.  Weapons and armor are developed based on available technology and on what they need to overcome.  Offense and defense depend on availability of materials and the ability to work them.  All of that applies if the only difference between combatants is training, physical prowess, and equipment.  But in a fantasy world there is often a matter of inherent power.  Someone may simply be a qualitatively better combatant or capable of exercising control over factors usually considered beyond human control (such as weather, earthquakes, and so on).  When considering warfare you need to think about what kinds of power each side can field and therefore what kinds of weapons, armor, and tactics appear.  For example, if there are many people with the power to make metal hot, no one wears metal armor.  If it's commonplace for great gobs of flame to pour down on battlefields you don't have close formation.  If a single person blessed by a god can destroy an army, there are no armies, only individual combatants.

            More extremely, it may be that warfare is simply useless.  For example, in a world where the land chooses who will rule it, conquest doesn't work.  In a world where the land fights for the defenders, it may not even be possible to raid.  In a world where the ghosts of the slain hunt down their slayers you can't even get a street gang together to fight the gang next door.

            More broadly on the job front:  How do people get the jobs they have?  Are they born to them?  Do families do particular jobs?  Is there a god who declares each person's destiny at birth?  Do astrologers figure it out?  Is there a competitive exam?  Is there social mobility?  Can people change jobs as life goes on?

            What are the social customs for rearing children (depending on where children come from)?  Are there families?  Nuclear?  Extended?  What?  All these questions need some answering.  The better the answers and the better they fit the more the world will seem real.

            What about art?  What arts do the people practice?  Do they sing?  Dance?  Make images?  Write stories? A friend of mine made a world where stories could control people's lives, alter the world, even create gods, and images gave you power.  In that world unauthorized story writing was a crime.

Don't be afraid to alter art forms to fit the world.  Especially don't be afraid to think up arts that are particular to the senses of your various species.  One of the most interesting kinds of gaps you can show between species is if one has an art form the other cannot appreciate.  Suppose you have an immortal species that practices what amounts to evolutionary gardening.  They don't see the individual state of the garden, they see the changes in plant species they are cultivating over time.  It's like really slow animation.  If this species shows off its art to another species that lives human life spans, they can't even explain what the art's about or what the aesthetics and fashions in it are.

            The last thing to consider in world building is social attitudes.  I like to describe this as follows: Social thought is what people think when they aren't thinking.  By this I mean that social thought is the invisible currents of thought that people don't notice in themselves unless they pay close attention.

Here's an example.  Nearly everyone in our culture has an underlying assumption that being thought 'cool' is a good thing. Even though each generation and subculture has completely different views of what coolness is and indeed different words for 'cool, the desirability of coolness is not questioned.

            Creating the invisible undercurrents in thought gives a layering to personality, a shared characteristic of thought that all members of a culture will have.  It gives them a sense of harmony, and makes the contact with other cultures more jarring.  Some of the best fantasy stories have involved collisions between characters whose underlying assumptions of what the world and people are like and what proper behavior is differ to the point of drawn swords.

            There are elements of social thought that need elaboration in a fantasy world beyond those we are used to.  Of these the most basic is religion.  In our world religion is a personal matter with social reinforcement.  In a fantasy world, religion can be a matter of known fact.  Religion need have nothing to do with faith for the simple reason that one's god might be living in the top floor of the temple.  This can also make it more difficult to have a corrupt clergy or at least one that does not enforce divine precept.

            A good way to stretch the mind to wrap around new social thought is to stop and think about one's own.  Think about the assumptions underlying the view you take of the world and society.  Some of these will come from the culture at large, some from the stratum of society you live in, some from your family.  Think them through and then see what happens if you imagine someone who has variations on your social ways of thinking.  This is a good practice for the art of making characters.

            At this point we have gone from before the beginnings of the world to the minds of your characters.   That's as far as world building needs to stretch.  There are a number of areas that go beyond this basic discussion.  Some of them, like the creation of languages, need expertise.  Others, like the adaptation of particular cultures and mythologies to fantasy worlds, take a lot of research.  The making of fantasy worlds that resemble our world is an exercise in building and concealing the world you have built.  There is the difficulty of creating worlds for purposes other than story writing (such as worlds used in games). Some people are daunted by this task because they do not have the purpose of the story to guide them.  But a world created for others to play in has only a difference of purpose, and the creation of such a world involves nothing more than greater elaboration of the ideas put in above.

            One final word.  There comes a point where you need to stop building and start writing.  When you find yourself piling detail on top of detail without really adding to the substance of the world, that's the time to stop.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 3rd, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
Finally got around to this (yeah, I know) and also added you as a friend!

One thing I think interesting about my own experience as a science fiction and fantasy reader/writer is that the world-building concerns that you describe here very rarely interest me. I'm much more concerned about character -- an ex once described everything I write as "emotional vignettes". The question that follows from this, of course, is "well why do you write in a genre so dependent on world-building, then?" The closest answer I've been able to come up with is that it's other conventions that attract me about science fiction and fantasy -- conventions lacking from more mainstream fiction. For example, I tend to find mainstream fiction to be unbearably alienated and focused on the quotidian, whereas science fiction and fantasy is more interested in ethics and passions. I like passion and ethics much more than alienation and quotidian things (though I do like the latter, too ... as long as passion and ethics are paramount :P).

I know you don't read fiction very often, but I'd love to know if you've read any C.J. Cherryh and what you thought of her aliens.

P.S. Y'all receive my letter?
Apr. 5th, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
Worlds and Characters
I understand the attraction to characters that you're talking about, but I don't think that world building and characters are actually separate. It seems to me that character, particularly passion and ethics of character are partially contextual, so that in order to explore and reveal the passions and ethics of characters we need an environment that those passions and ethics arise in and bounce off of. If one does not properly craft that environment the ethics and passions, the challenges and concerns of the characters are being played out weakly. Far better to build the world with the characters in mind than have them simply going around in a generic environment or one taken from some other source that does not work well with their particular passions and ethics.

Apr. 5th, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
I think you're right in terms of building a maximally realistic fictional world. And I've certainly found your past advice about integrating characters and setting in my stories to be extremely good. I guess my problem, though, is that if I'm bored by world-building (especially at the level of detail you get into here), it's going to be hard for me to put as much into it as you seem to think necessary. I suspect that this is true for many fantasy and science fiction writers. If a lot of writers (and readers) are in this for qualities other than maximally realistic and well-extrapolated world-building, then such world-building is probably going to fall by the wayside a lot.

I'm not saying that's the "correct" way for things to go, just trying to describe why I think they tend to go that way.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )