If you’ve ever read a fantasy novel you’ve probably encountered a world full of magic and mayhem. I’m sure more than a few of us have sat there blinking for a minute thinking something was brilliant or strange or wondering how the author thought of that. When you’re starting out in writing it might be intimidating to think about making a whole world, filling it with interesting critters and peoples and then thinking of a plot to use within that world.
I don’t know how most other people build their worlds, even if I would give a million dollars to be in on Jim Butcher’s process, but my approach is fairly simple.
I’m a pretty nerdy person, and I’m not afraid to admit it. When it comes to world building I have a few habits that seem to work to my advantage. First I love to set my TV to animal planet, the history channel, national geographic and the discovery channel while I am writing or reading. As I’m writing this I’ve got Dirty Jobs playing in the background and I’m learning interesting things about butchering meat.
Secondly, I happen to be dating someone who is into science, particularly the science of space and space travel. This leads to a barrage of interesting articles constantly streaming to my email. I think in two years I’ve learned more about space than I did in school.
These two things give me an interesting pool of facts floating around in my head. Most of the time I’m a pretty blank slate but when I do get to thinking I sometimes remember some obscure fact or detail. Which is how I begin going about world building.
I don’t feel I’m terribly creative. I like starting firmly in our world and working from there. Generally, I pick my obscure fact or theory and start from there. For instance, recently I was speaking with a friend about building a setting for his role playing game. When he mentioned his dwarves and the mountains they lived in I remembered something.
This time, it was that there are coal veins and mines which have been set to fired and have been burning for over sixty years. Now, alone this is interesting but nothing special. The real magic is in the most simple question: why?
It’s not a quick and dirty method but it works for me. From the simple question ‘Why is there a coal mine that’s been set on fire?’ I begin to think about it and things begin to emerge. In this case the answer is ‘Because the dwarves want to separate themselves from the other races of the world.’ From here I ask why again, and the answer to that comes to light, ‘Last time they dealt with another race they were introduced to debilitating illness.’
All of this comes to me when I’m nowhere near my computer, which is fine for me, I can tumble my questions and answers through my head quite a while before I end up writing down notes on the world that is beginning to form. It’s not the path for everyone but it works for me. I often pick out a handful of details I want (burning coal mines, mount animals that can carry 4 armored riders at once, being on a planet with a ring, salt being an important trade item) and carry on from there asking why.
Another method of world building I am a fan of is a collaborative effort. There are a couple ways to do this. The other day I was on one of my writing forums and I mentioned a planet with rings and how they would look from different points on the surface of the planet. Another regular, Opal was interested in the idea and we just began swapping ideas of what mythologies on this planet might call the ring. It was good fun.
If you want a more controlled setting for world building you could always play a game of WORLDBREAKER. Worldbreaker is a game I was introduced to in 2006, the rule and its many stipulations can be found at the link. The more people playing the better for more creativity and diversity to the ideas you generate. It’s pretty fun.
Now let’s get out there and create an awesome world for our characters to run around in.