Who doesn’t enjoy world–building? If you’re a speculative fiction author like me, be it sci–fi or fantasy, it’s a tool we must use. We are after all creating a new world, or a new reality. Though it may be a laborious process, like you’re trudging through mire to get to that perfect world, it can’t be overlooked in regards to other arenas nor executed without a mind to logic.
But what is world–building? Well from a general definition it is at it reads: the building of a fictional world. The author uses the full faculty of his or her mind to uplift a singular idea from the depths of their subconscious as it just begins to break into their conscious. From that one idea sprouts many as they quickly begin to collide like atoms inside the mind. The result, if the author can consolidate the many, is a new world.
That was at least my experience, however, it was not perfect. Far from it. Once I had “built” my world I still found myself struggling to connect that world with the characters who breathed its air. Instead of homogeny there was a disconnect. Both a fictional world and its fictional characters obviously must come together in a symbiotic relationship. Without this relationship it is an impersonal one as the two vaguely, or inappropriately, interact with the other like through a fog.
This was my world. My characters didn’t seem to understand (among other things) their world, and the latter was too unclear because it didn’t feel to me as authentic.
I had citizens, I had a god, I had symbols, but not that “essence”, so to speak, that could really bring momentum which all life has.
I needed something. What that was I didn’t know at the time. It took me a while to understand what it was and it wasn’t an “aha!” moment. Looking back on it, it was culture. Culture, what we humans identify with in our respective lands, what creates a sense of community among us, that was what I needed. It is impossible to imagine humankind without it being a creation fundamentally human. So much is included: religion, politics, organization, community, ideals and so forth, and though it is fluid, it nevertheless persists for centuries until it is replaced. Culture is a part of being human.
I didn’t realize how useful it could be in my world–building until I hit the books, historical books on Rome and Classical Greece to be exact, because, up to that point, although I always loved history I never read up on the subject outside of school (and school, both High School and College, largely focused on US History). So I began to understand that what I was learning for fun, I could implement in a constructive way. I loved what I was learning so why not use it to my advantage?
I found inspiration in the religion, and the philosophy, and the values of those aforementioned cultures, my own included. These inspirations ranged from how the Ancients viewed their environment to the symbolisms they conferred to animate objects and why. It provided for me that “essence” I was in need of, that something to put wind to my world’s sails and push it ahead.
By divining this I was able to not only really chisel out a world that was far more direct, since it actually gave back, but it helped to unite my characters who were otherwise confused. In other words, it wasn’t a world that existed as the background just for the sake of itself, it had a role to play on stage. Culture became the conduit. As a result that hazy fog between character and world was firmly cleared.
What you can do
If you’ve ever struggled with world–building, or thought you understood it but realized you didn’t, like me, and you’re in need of that stich work to bind it all together, you might consider a bit of culture. I would argue focusing on those that you have interest in, and less instead of many.
Stuffing several cultures in one fictional society could allow the recipe for discombobulation and incongruity to stir in your pot, if you’re not careful.
It goes without saying cohesion is crucial to a convincing story. Studying two or three will guide you in that principle, it did for me anyhow, even more so if you choose cultures that were geographically close since ideas and values were often exchanged frequently. Pay particular attention to the “charms” of any culture, the little or hidden things that characterize a people, like how the Ancient Greeks rationalized the perennial cycle of winter and spring. The Greeks always tried to answer why to the questions they had. And that is a critical element to always consider in world–building.
Why is this general worshipped? Why does this cult exist? Why do these priests burn sunflowers at dawn? It’s all within the network of culture. But it should also be applied on a wider scale. Your world should not be created and then left for the reader to decide whether or not it is legit. Compel your reader. Convince him that it is without a doubt legit by creating a world full of culture and possibility.
Start from the ground up, or, tie it all together, honing in on whatever facet you believe needs improvement, what needs stability. Second, avoid throwing things in irrationally or for filler (like many of those terrible revisions done to the Original Trilogy), be it small or large, as that would raise red flags for something contrived. There’s got to be a reason. One that makes sense within the parameters of your functioning society.
Maybe this sounds like a hassle but it’s my belief that world–building should be as rich and as fluent as possible. My deep love for history has convinced me of this, but so have the likes of The Lord Of The Rings and Mass Effect: enchanting works of art. Now get out there and build!