World Building, pt.1

World building can be used to describe the way you forge your own world–ie: what Christopher Paolini did for his novel Eragon, and its three sequels. Alagaësia was his world, based on our own, but entirely unique. He imagined much of a continent, everything from the long eastern rivers that run from Beor Mountains to Du Weldenvarden, the shore at the west and the mountains that run along it, and the historically significant island Vroengard.

Of course, while some people may choose to create their own world, others may prefer to live in the one we know. George orwell reinvented the known world in 1984, twisting the familiar with the strange. That’s not always what’s best though, and so some authors ground themselves firmly in our world. Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker doesn’t change a thing about the world, but rather presents it to the reader through a various cast of eyes.

I’m not going to pretend that my voice means much. Having published one book, I’m not suddenly an authority on writing. To be perfectly honest, I’m still learning and most of my process is messing up and trying to do better next time. That said, here are a few tips that I think could help aspiring writers, existing ones, and myself when it comes to fleshing out our worlds, be they brand new or the very thing we live in now.

Draw a Map

Perhaps among the most obvious, especially when dealing with fantasy, is to create your own map of the setting. For novels like The Dew Breaker this may not be necessary to include in the book, but such a map may help the author with navigating the world, finding out distance between real-world places, and so on.

The map comes in most handy with a fantasy or sci-fi story like Eragon or A Game of Thrones. While reading both books I remember flipping to the map just to get my bearings of where the characters were and what was around them. Other times I just looked at the map, trying to learn all I could about the geographical space of the world the author had made. Above is a map I created for reference during a short-lived fantasy project I began during college. The project died, but the map remains a good example of what a reference like this should contain (sans distance gauge, which I should have added but rarely do because I’m stupid). It clearly shows the landscape, various geological regions, and significant towns, cities, or castles.

My only tip for creating a map here would be to simply do it. It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect, you can do it on a computer program or on paper. What you need during writing is a map specifically just to orient you as you write. Once you have that, it doesn’t matter if the forest is indicated by a purple spot or if the text is all upside down. So long as what you have helps you write locations and geography, you’re fine. Whatever you make can always be remade or edited for the publication, should you make it to that point.

That said, if you want to check out some high quality maps, read up on some guides, or share your own, you may want to look up the Cartographer’s Guild. Some of the most in-depth and beautiful maps I’ve seen have come from there. Just look at the most recent feature from the site, created by user lesopeso on Photoshop.

Build the Cities

Perhaps “cities” aren’t what you need to build, but the point remains the same. Wherever your point of view character goes, you need to know what that place is like. This may involve building another more focused map, or you may simply want to jot down a few notes about the city/town/castle/wherever it is. For example, let’s consider a large town. You may want to know the distance between the protagonist’s home and the town hall or the court. What is the city made of? If it’s modern day, we might be dealing with an old brick setting, a modernized area built of steel and glass, or perhaps it’s a historical site that keeps up the old materials as best it can. Feel free to grab some photo references from online and paste them in a document so that you can refer to it later. Your character must be able to navigate their setting, and so must the author.

Character Building

must be done with the same consideration that you build your world with. People are reflections of their culture and home, so they too are a part of your world building. Of course, consider their visible traits (eye color, physical shape, clothing) but also remember that the personality, comforts and fears, etc. will be in part determined by the world around them. You can use their psychological traits to help define the world they live in. For example, if you’re writing fantasy and need to convey some aspect of your world’s history to the reader, perhaps your protagonist happens upon a location that spurs his or her knowledge of said history. As a character in this world, he or she is one of the best informants you can have. However, be wary of info-dumps, moments when the reader is showered with information (often backstory) rather than letting it be learned over time. They’re obvious and, in my opinion, very rarely enjoyable.

When you’re creating your characters, consider the world they are in and let them guide the reader simply by being part of that world. For example, you can very subtly suggest culture through names. Using the world we are all familiar with, there are many naming conventions based on the culture you were born in, as well as many alphabets. Based on one’s name, you could take an educated guess about their birth culture. This thread posted on Reddit (r/worldbuilding) isn’t entirely correct (I linked the thread rather than the image because there is some discussion on the way the image incorrectly categorizes Philippine and South Indian naming conventions) but it shows some of the diversity in our own world. You could use this to some success, or create a similar reference for your own fantasy world, and each name would help show where the character came from even before the reader learns about their history.

It doesn’t end there

but once you know the geography, the more detailed settings, and allow the characters to be molded of the world you’ve made, you’re in a good place. There is of course, the world’s history, nations, and more to be considered, though I hope to keep this write-up on the shorter side and move on to a World Building pt.2 at some point. Until then, all I have left to say is to let yourself into this world of yours as well. Don’t just analyze it, if you’re writing in the world you need to understand it as well as your characters–from the way the trees sway in the wind to the efficiency of its infrastructure. Don’t just write about the world, become a part of it.

2 Thoughts on “World Building, pt.1”

  • I’m interested. I’ll follow along.

    I have always found writing is easier even if I am mapping only a building for a short story. Have a visual reference always helps keep your story consistent.

  • Very interesting. I also like worldbuilding, and have started doing a similar kind of series of posts. I get a bit scientific, though. But I enjoy reading anything about worldbuilding.

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