Worldbuilding. It sounds like a job a god or a titan would do. From the construction of microcosms and specific environments, to the creation of entire planets, even galaxies, worldbuilding is an intrinsic part of the writing process. And it’s bloody fun to boot. Fantasy and all its different splinter-genres make the perfect playground for worldbuilding.
A world is the canvas on which characters and plots are painted, and when done right can add piles of richness and intrigue to a story. A world can also influence the plot itself, almost playing the part of another character – a driving force for change.
If you're getting stuck into a new novel, below are my tips for creating a world, and for making it richer than a chocolate fudge sundae with a side-order of doubloons.
Story first or world first?
This is a very good question. Does the world define the plot, or does the plot define the world? The answer to that is there is no answer, and as helpful as that sounds, I'll caveat it with this – it depends on the genesis point of the story. What is the initial spark that refuses to stop burning in the back of your mind?
For instance, with my Emaneska Series, Farden the mage was the genesis point, him and all his foibles. The icy, barren world of Emaneska was built around him to suit his story arc. However, with other stories, it's the strangeness of a possible world that might hook me, and I overlay the plot on top, like plaster over brickwork. There is one rule, and that is a world and a story can never be truly separate. They always will, and should be, entwined. Characters need to interact with it. They need to breathe its air, hunt its beasts, walk its earth.
Real, surreal, or somewhere in between?
You can use known history to help the reader get up to speed quicker. For example, the worlds built by Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, and Robin Hobb are largely medieval or Renaissance in character, like a lot of fantasy. You know to expect swords, horses, sailing ships, blacksmiths, even a castle or two. Those aspects don't need to be explained, and it's the devil in the detail and portrayal of them that brings intrigue.
Or, if you're basing your world in a time period that is reasonably well known to the average reader, like the 1800s or the Dark Ages, you could also dip a toe into the alternate history camp. There's a lot to be said for twisting the norm and turning tropes on their head. For instance, with Scarlet Star, the world is based heavily on 1867, however the western side of America has yet to be discovered, Lincoln was never assassinated, and Victoria is Victorious – a centuries-old monarch who may or may not be human.
Once you’ve made these initial decisions, it’s time to figure out the scale of your world. Are you spanning counties or countries? Settlements or seas? A good old classic journey story arc, for instance like Lord of The Rings, can encompass an entire continent and back again. In His Dark Materials, there isn't just one world but many, and each is wildly different. The plot might dictate your map, and vice versa. You might just hint at its boundaries, or explore every inch. In any case there needs to be a scale.
Once you know how much of your world you need to build, it's time to sketch out the look and feel of it. This is where you can start to crank up the imagination.
Landscapes can be calm and unassuming, or they can be violent and wild. They can be hostile and they can be fertile. I always think the best place to start is to decide whether the landscape defines its people, or whether your people define your landscape. For instance, a medieval world made of enormous mountains would define how people live, fight, and build. However, a world might have been forever changed by a nuclear war, and therefore the people have defined their own landscape, and must live with the consequences.
In the next half of this guide, we’ll start drilling down into the detail of worldbuilding. It’ll be posted by the end of the week. Stay tuned.