I don’t know about you, but to me, there are two elements that demand the greatest precision in speculative fiction: characters and world-building. Curious about the former? read this. Otherwise, stick with me here and read on.
Well, aside from it being a staple of speculative fiction like science fiction and fantasy, consider works from authors JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Robert Heinlein. Now consider those from creators such as George Lucas, CD Projekt Red (developer of The Witcher video game series) and Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek).
Sublime worlds were created from the above minds. Worlds of wonder, danger, excitement, with the ability to pull you in by stroking your innate desire for exploration. These are the best of the best because the great audience, the public, has deemed them so––and not without reason.
These worlds do something to us: they have us fantasize about them; they inspire cosplay; they compel us to buy their merchandise; they build amusements parks! All this and more just because they happened to strike a chord with one that became many.
The culture of world-building, I’ve come to learn, is doing the appropriate things to create worlds like these. As successful?
No. Because it’s not up to you, it’s up to your audience. But who would ever tell you that you can’t make it easier for them?
What world are you creating/Do you want to create? For an author of fiction the option rests among two choices: the familiar and the fantastical. They’re pretty straightforward.
- Any world that is familiar to our own. This can be a world that is our own or it can be a fictional world.
- Be it Earth or Fictitious, these worlds obey the laws of physics, logic and nature that science tells us apply and which define our reality. If they don’t obey these laws, it typically is the product of advanced technology.
- These worlds then are often those of science fiction. They exist in a future or alternate reality often with technology beyond our reach but possibly attainable. Aliens, robots and AI are a common friend or foe.
- These worlds, if they be Earth, can also be in the present state in an extant location. They can be in the past, like alternative history: a retelling of or alternative take on historical events. Or the setting can be the focus: Victorian England or Classical Rome for example.
Bottom line: a familiar world is a realistic world.
- A world of fantasy. These worlds can still be Earth, but one filled with fantastical and mythical beasts, superheroes, gods, demons, witches, vampires, etc.. These worlds can also be completely imaginative.
- Anything goes in a world of fantasy. The author is the alpha and omega, thus the laws of physics, logic and nature are at the mercy of his or her creative will.
- Often including magic and mages and mystical races such as elves and dwarves.
- Technology is typically limited or basic compared to our own, though not always the case, such as Urban Fantasy.
Bottom line: a fantastical world is an unrealistic world.
In spite of this distinction between the familiar and the fantastical, it is only the familiar that matters. Why? Because we don’t inhabit a world of fantasy, it’s not familiar to us: elves, magic and dragons, that’s stuff that has never existed in our world. So you make the fantastical familiar and you know which instrument to use.
Characters. Characters are what make any world worth investing in and thus they give it that legitimacy it needs to thrive; they’re a large part of what makes a fantastical world familiar. A great world-builder places their world in the background of their story, where it naturally belongs, but brings it forward through their characters: in their thoughts, observations and dialogue.
The only good character is a familiar one.
That is a character you and I find familiarity in. We feel we know them for they are relatable, sympathetic, flawed, unique; essentially, they are individuals who you believe could exist in reality because they remind you of yourself, someone who you know, or they just feel real.
If you don’t have one of these individuals in your world then you have the history without the humanity, the objective without the subjective. Elves can nevertheless be familiar, so can dwarves, orcs and ents, and they do so by possessing human characteristics; not necessarily physically, but spiritually, ethically and the like. They mimic humanity by ultimately beinghuman.
Characters are the principle that continually add interest to your world. They draw the reader in, and as the plot advances, persuade them to care about a world the reader really has no need to care about. You have to give them that reason to care.
But one of the better things about creating familiar characters is bestowing an identity. That identity informs the reader of the current state of your world. What is the identity of your world? Do you know?
Another thing: worlds affect their characters and vice versa. We affect our own world through politics and industry, and our world affects us through nature and global warming. It’s reciprocality, likewise familiar, in action. Make it a part of your world too.
Geography Explains History
Not long ago I was in Italy and of the many things my tour guide kept repeating on speed dial one nugget stood out: “Geography explains history.” I hadn’t ever thought of history in that regard before (I never cared for geography for starters), but it made sense. It’s true of course.
Terrain factors into this, proximity to the open sea, the intersection of valuable rivers, the presence of coveted resources at a given spot, the shelter provided by natural structures and so forth.
The perfect example of this axiom, which my tour guide made a point to drill in, is Venice. Throughout the Middle Ages Venice was the city on the Mediterranean. This had to do with its unique location in a sheltered lagoon, its instant access to the Adriatic and the expertise of its shipbuilders. Then came 1492 when Columbus stumbled upon the New World.
Now the cradle of Western civilization shifted to the Atlantic with this one revelation. No longer did the Mediterranean command center stage. Spain, Portugal, France and England benefited in this sudden and dramatic shift west, while Venice declined.
Geography explains history. So it should in any world, including one of fiction. How might it explain yours?
Going so far as to draw the geography of your world, or the specific location(s) of your story, could bring a different perspective to that story, not to mention it would grant your mind a physical picture of your world: its spatial relationships, topography and extent of territory.
Tolkien created his famed maps of Middle-earth not just for the sake of art.
To gauge his epic’s pace and length Tolkien elected to draw the geography to synchronize the journey of Frodo and Sam to that of the rest of the Fellowship. But it also offered the opportunity to set the natural aesthetic of the lands and the people who inhabited them. People adapt to their environment.
The Shire is a land of green meadows and idyllic farmsteads whose owners build dwellings in the earth. These hobbits, like their land, are chaste, earthy and full of mirth.
But compare Gondor whose lands stand adjacent to Mordor. Not so cheerful a disposition there with the fiend over the mountains keeping those humans on tiptoe. The lands of Rohan are washed in stepps which is the ideal terrain for horses, thus, its inhabitants are horsemen and more rustic in nature.
Compare the Mongolians of our world during their tear through history. They became excellent horsemen by virtue of the topography of their region.
Always keep your geography in mind, draw it out if you have to. It really can be a great asset to have as it’s one less thing to visualize if you can just see it with your own eyes. Think of the ways it might have some effect on your story in the way it did for The Lord of The Rings.
Giving attention to these things, they can surprise you, and they always add up to something greater.
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
Above is a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson, and perhaps you’ve read it: There Is Another Sky is its name.
The presence of Nature plays an important role, I find, in creating a compelling world. There’s a lot to nature that is familiar to us: it evokes a sense of transience, it is beautiful and yet it is often horrifying, it is not without danger, there is life that thrives and struggles to survive within, and then there is the understanding of a shared space with a hierarchy.
Like geography having an effect on history, nature has an effect on its denizens. Good world-building takes advantage of this if the story suits it.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”––Albert Einstein
In There Is Another Sky, the effect that nature had on Emily is evident, after all it’s behind the narrative of the poem. Nature has had a deep effect on many a poet. It’s had an effect on a countless number of things from dietary supplements straight to religion. How has it affected you? What has it revealed to you?
I know personally it’s shown me the beauty of the earth and its close consistency with humanity, the dichotomy of life and rebirth for instance. This privilege has certainly inspired my world-building.
Could it inspire yours? Furthermore, how would it affect your characters? Would they revere your world’s wonders or could they care less?
Check out this dramatic earthporn video––
What ideas might you glean from that video for your world? Might they help shape your geography? Think to the kinds of animals that would inhabit these ecosystems as well. Both flora and fauna are components to a good nature.
The immanent power of nature is the ability to take one’s breath and mind away, which is evident when you view a video like the one above. Take advantage of this power as you create your world.
Video games do. Now granted, video games and literature are two completely different mediums to express a story, yet both, when they excel, use everything at their disposal to create a striking world beside a gripping story. Where a programmer has video, an author has words.
Utilize words that stimulate each of the five senses, that are energetic and lively, that reveal your world’s identity while conveying its familiarity. Create a focused image in your readers’ minds, as if they were watching a video, and leave an impression. Allow their mind to soar when expressing wonder, but keep it level when expressing the sobriety of the situation.
Pay nature as much respect as you would everything else in your world-building. Read up on it. Watch the docuseries Planet Earth. Let your imagination water the seeds of new life!
Society Of Man
Ever care for sociology? Did you take a class on it in high school or college? If so, and if you still have the course book, it might be time to dust er off.
Straight from the undergrad department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sociology is defined as––
“The study of human social relationships and institutions. Sociology’s subject matter is diverse, ranging from crime to religion, from the family to the state, from the divisions of race and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture, and from social stability to radical change in whole societies.
“Unifying the study of these diverse subjects of study is sociology’s purpose of understanding how human action and consciousness both shape and are shaped by surrounding cultural and social structures.”
Why are societies important? Because they allow for a community of individuals to come together and develop, because they draw a distinction between others of their kind, and maybe most critically, because they establish culture.
At the heart of every civilization is culture. With culture comes identity for the self either by inclusion with the crowd or exclusion. Ever feel like you’re outside looking in? That often has to do with a presence of a culture.
The sole reason for culture’s absence would be if there were basically no language, if instead the world was roamed by nomads and hunter-gatherers: the epoch of pre-recorded history.
If your story is set on Earth, consider the society your characters are a part of. What role would it fill in their lives? What effect might it have on your characters both positively and negatively, for it must have some effect. How would they navigate through this society?
If you’re building a fictional world from scrap, you can benefit from establishing a society as it can help guide you in forming your characters’ identities and your world’s. Best way to establish one is to study those societies extant and extinct on earth, locking in on their cultures. Questions to ask: what are the defining features of these cultures, what did/do the people think of them, and how/why did these cultures develop?
Societies are valuable to consider since we as humans live in one out of many, so, unless the plot calls for it, why wouldn’t your characters?
Ask yourself these questions about your characters––
- Why, exactly, do my characters believe what they do? What are the things they believe?
- What are the kinds of people they hate? What institutions? What norms?
- Alternatively, what are the kinds of people they like? What institutions? What norms?
- What are my character fears? What are their joys? Are these fears and joys shared by a larger group (a.k.a. society)? Are they condemned?
- How did my characters grow up? Which kind of household or environment did they live in? Is this consist with something greater? Is it an anomaly?
- Would society treat my characters fairly or poorly? Why the former? Why the latter?
The above is a product of nature versus nurture: the internal versus the external, and being buddies, they each affect the other, a kind of tug and war. That external is just as powerful as the internal and this truth each one of us knows intimately. Think of the society you live in and in what ways it has affected you.
For your world-building, what society do you want for your characters? This will be a de facto marriage. The kind of culture(s), large and small, that would compose your society, how and why would each one come into existence?
As stated, culture establishes identity (language, religion, government, etc.), but it also sets boundaries. In the real world most people don’t do things willy-nilly. Most people aren’t going to buy a glock and pop off a few rounds in a supermarket. They aren’t going to reveal their deepest desires or closely guarded secrets on social media either.
Because it’s neither appropriate nor becoming. These boundaries, be they unofficial like customs or official like laws, compel most people to avoid committing such acts that would bring shame and ruin on them. They might think about them, but they don’t act on them. Culture, and society as the whole, is responsible for that compulsion.
What are some of the societal boundaries in place to restrain your characters?
You could think of society as an abstract depot of the moral, ethical, religious, legal and the ideological collected together for everyone to buy in to; to have them obey for the benefit of something bigger than themselves.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”––Spock
Simply put, society is a fundamental product of being human, thus it’s more than familiar to us. It allows humans to interact with one another, note the differences and similarities between each other, and grow (or divide) together. Indirectly then, it can shape your story.
A World Of Layers
World-building is like Legos. Now that probably sounds loosey-goosey, but Legos––aside from being terrific––are building blocks. You can build whatever your imagination has in mind when it comes to these simple yet clever blocks.
In the above video, the creators of their respective piece took a block, and behind the old practice of trial and error, began stacking to form layers. In the service of the creative spirit they sought to create something personal, what became art. I love it.
World-building is just the same: it is layers added one on top of the other. The pieces I have on sample, Geography Explains History, Good Nature and Society Of Man, are three examples of layer-building. Adding layers such as these pull back the superficial to reveal the persuasive: the hook that grabs the reader’s attention and convinces them of your world’s legitimacy; it’s what differentiates your world from others like it.
Our world is filled with these metaphorical layers because life revels in complexity, not simplicity. We are a component of that life thus it’s also a reflection of us. We develop or change throughout the course of our lives, do we not? We add layers to our lives which stack like our memories shaping a solid part of our identity (there’s that word again), therefore there is reason for their being.
And that is a layer’s print: to show how, why and from where some thing comes into being. Religion, ideology, disease, war, ecology, to name just a few, do not emerge superficially. Take WWII, it wasn’t just one act or one phrase, such as “Let there be light!” and suddenly the world was engulfed in another virulent conflict.
WWII is a great example of layer-building. This was a notably complex war with an extensive network behind it. Many layers accrued over the years prior to September 1, 1939 for the breakout point to be at last met. They were the backdrop that directed the machinations.
Your layers will ultimately be the vehicle that connect your characters to their world. They will deliver critical context to that world that, make no mistake, your world will need.
So you when you establish your first layer and subsequently build upon it, like Legos, make sure each one fits: joints, limbs, trunk and all.
If you think logically, the result will be a unified whole. You want that.
Outside, in the vein of a master Lego builder’s creation, the whole will be recognizable and proportionate. It’s appearance will be like a striking mosaic. But internally the whole is a functioning apparatus with a distinct core.
The goal of the whole is to communicate with you so you can direct your message. Every story has a message. When you find yourself communicating with that whole, that will be the point at which you realize you have a world of layers.
NSFWB: Not Safe For World-Building
There are certain things that every author should avoid when constructing his or her world. They may seem obvious, but the old adage: “It’s easier said than done,” holds true (doesn’t it always?).
Every world benefits from having a bit of mystery in its old bones. It allows for the imagination to wander in wanderlust; to formulate theories and ideas about the nature and causation of things: events, people, history, technology.
That’s part of what makes a franchise like Star Wars so appealing, it’s mysteries; from previously Anakin’s fall to the dark side, to Rey’s parentage at the present.
If you tell everything there possibly is to know about your world in one book, not only will it be crippled by too much info, but it simply won’t allow the imagination to ferment. You need to leave some space in the reader’s head for their own questions. A great world-builder, in a way, is also a great magician.
So keep some mystery.
History doesn’t have to seem like it makes sense, often we find it doesn’t, but there’s always a reason for why something happened the way it did. It should be the same inside your world, in whatever context you’re constructing. Your characters don’t have to understand it, but you, as the author, must.
You’re the creator, which means you’re also an historian, so the history you tell, there’s weight to it as it comes with consequences, thus it must be appropriate to the purposes it’s designed for.
Why are you making these story/historical decisions?
These decisions lead to your world’s current state of affairs and your characters current external conditions, likely the internal too. History is the story of your world. It’s the story of your characters too, you’re the one narrating their lives biographically, and like their world they have a past, present and future. This should be of great importance then making sure that everything has reason for its existence, and that it all connects.
Do not be one for shoddiness, do not be lazy in other words, or you will grind in holes that will weaken your foundation. Do you know what that foundation is? It’s important that you do. Your history––and your story––will be built on it.
Think carefully of your history.
Putting The Back First
World-building has its role and that role is in the background. Why? Because the foreground belongs to your characters.
Your characters are the actors. Any brilliant actor draws their audience in and compels them to want more, not just of themselves, but of the world. They are the instruments you can utilize most effectively to bring the ‘back’ in background to the fore. These are perfect opportunities to capitalize on.
In our world, it is people: our family, friends and colleagues who take the fore. Our world is at the back, but often it will jump to the fore. It does so usually through the people, either by those people speaking up about it, or when we see these people feeling its effects. We experience these effects too; none of us are immune.
That’s how it should be on page. Your characters live in a world which they should feel and they should be the ones to reveal it. The narrator is most optimum as an assistant to their voice, not an oppressor of it.
That said, sometimes it must come down to the narrator, and that’s fine, but these instances should be few and far between. Otherwise, your actors will be standing around mute, and unless the story calls for it, a mute character is naught but useless.
It is at the beginning, when you need that hook, that the narrator should be particularly sparse. Keep the light on your characters and their story, not the world, so you deny a potential info-dump its voice. No one likes a dump on the first page.
I’ve been speaking to it throughout this post: identity. What is the identity of your world?
This special intangible not only demarcates your world but lets your reader identify with an agent––a cause, a character or a symbol––that connects with their individuality. You’re marketing to your reader in this way.
Brands market to their audience by creating an identity. Nike, Gatorade, LL Bean, Red Bull all market to a specific crowd via an identity they want to be associated with. This way they connect with the individuals whom they want to persuade to buy their products.
Same case with writing. You have to market your product just like these big-time brands do. You have to create an identity so you can then tell your reader what your world simply is. You do this by the messages, such as themes, that you construct. Like a marketing campaign, there should be purpose in these messages that drive an overall objective.
It’s so much easier then to explain your world when you understand the objective behind it.
What is the objective of your world? What are its messages?
All the great worlds ever conceived had a message to market. It puts the world into perspective for the author and helps the reader connect to its elements from the characters to the symbols. No message or an unclear one equals no identity or an unclear one, which means neither you nor your book itself will be able to market effectively.
Decide what your message is and expand upon it. Decide on a message that connects with you, not the mass. That’s a slippery slope, not to mention fruitless. It’s also not original.
First rule of Writer’s Club: write only for those readers whom you want to market to, ignore the rest. This begins with marketing to yourself; telling the story you want to tell.
As you’ve certainly noticed, I’ve been raising a few questions about this and that. Gotta question your work. Everything you’re about to add, subtract, redact and edit––question it.
This blog post I questioned what to keep and what to change. When you question, it keeps your mind sharp and focused, it also prevents you from committing mistakes for the most part. It’s true of life.
The most neglectful thing you could do in your world-building is to not question what it is you’re about to do, especially if you know it holds considerable meaning. That’s the biggest crime of them all. Is it a bad idea or a good idea, that’s all that’s required.
This is your world: care for it, shelter it and nurture it like it were your child. If it’s your precious, you should. Question what you’re about to do.
Want more advice? Check out this link for more NSFWB crimes!
In The End
How you choose to world-build is ultimately up to you. The above are guidelines I’ve picked up on as I continue to both read and write (and play video games!). In the end that will be the method by which you will improve your world-building. Basic, but true.
Whatever that world is that’s absorbing your creative mind in thought, just give it the respect it deserves, which will require your dedication. I know that as long as that world continues to hold your imagination, it will inspire you to want to better it.
I guarantee it.