(A table of contents is available. It will be kept updated throughout the series. This series will remain open for additional posts.)
Part Four: How to Begin Building Your World
With all the introductory and general tips out of the way, it’s time to get into the more specific details of how to world build. There are typically two ways to get started: character or world. Both methods are valid, but take a little bit different routes to get to the actual world building.
You can choose to begin with a character first.
This tends to be the option that works out best for me since I tend to think in terms of people, but every writer is different. About 9 times out of 10 I have a person in mind before I have any idea about their world. This can be in all kinds of ways from what they look like, a name, or even an action. These very simple things can give you hints about how to begin crafting your world.
A NAME– I once woke up from a dream with nothing more than a few words in the darkness: “What is your name?” “Compass.” “No, what is your name?” “Just Compass.” I knew there was more to this person’s history, this person’s world, but all I knew was their name was Compass, and the voice sounded vaguely male. From that name, I started drawing conclusions about what kind of world it might be that he came from. Names often provide a regional association, or even a time or genre association. While Mary is a name that’s been used across centuries, Edith has a much older feel because it’s fallen out of fashion (although with Downton Abbey, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it make a comeback). This can clue you in to a time period to work in. Or like with Compass, noun-style names often are seen in fantasy and science fiction stories. Of course, there are always exceptions. From these sorts of intuitive leaps and natural correlations, basics of a world or misty environment can begin to form in your imagination.
A DESIGN– Have you ever had a character appear in your imagination, or spring from your pen (if you have artistic skill, darn you)? How about a costume that drifts across your dashboard that you desperately want to put on someone? What someone is wearing, how their hair is styled, their skin tone, or basically any aspect of a character’s design can begin informing your world building, too. Sheytana of my current work in progress was a character who occurred to me fully clothed in her linen skirt and tunic, her burned leather shoes, her silver shears, her leather-lined net bag at her hip. Nothing else occurred to me with her except a concept of a white-eyed man. That was it. From her design, I figured a few things out: her silver shears were very specific, as was her bag. She clearly had gotten the shears from somewhere. With the little details of their design, you can extrapolate time period, sometimes a genre, but more often you’ll find little cultural details from them. Those cultural details are where you begin growing out from. I’ll talk more about the concept of growing out in future installments.
AN ACTION– Sometimes all you get is the idea of someone doing something. Gee, so helpful, right? Actually, depending on how specific that action is, you can get quite a bit of information. I’ve had a couple of stories come this way: One was that two characters were trying to get into a glass tower constructed by the ancient builders. No kidding. From there, I developed the idea of these ancient builders, and from there an entire 15,000 word story grew. Another was: What if you could bottle light? What would it do? From that angle, I began developing a magic system to place in a world. Once I had that, it was simply a matter of growing it out.
Or you may choose to begin with a world detail.
This option is when you’ve had one aspect of your world in mind already and you grow that idea detail by detail until it’s situated in a believable world. Maybe you have the idea of a city or a building first, or you have this really crazy forest you want to include. Sometimes it’s even a cultural or religious detail that you want to work with. All details have the ability to grow out, whether they’re world details, culture, religion, character, or narrative structure details. Beginning with a cultural detail gives you a few things that are environmentally dependent, forcing you to think about what kind of place you’re dealing with. Beginning immediately with an environmental detail gets you started on the map, leaving you to fill in the exact cultural details once you have some kind of environment.
Whichever way you begin is what works best for you. If you have a different way you begin, feel free to drop me a line in my ask box so I can try it out!
Next up: Growing out!