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World Building: in three easy steps

World Building: in three easy steps

Worldbuilding is hard.

Even God had to take a day off after he’d done it.

Worldbuilding happened to my novel by accident.

And for the record: you don’t want worldbuilding to be an accident.

Why not?

Well, if you had a world where warfare, trade, politics, and transportation looked completely different to how they are for us now…that means history has to be rewritten.

The entire history of the world!

Have you ever tried to write the entire history of the world?

It’s not something you can rattle off in an hour or two.

To make the novel internally consistent: you can’t change one thing and assume everything else will stay the same. Weirdly, stuff connects to other stuff. Change one thing and it changes everything else.

Worldbuilding is the conscious process of making it all work.

My problem was, I started my novel thinking I only had to worry about Setting.

Which is hilariously stupid.

Sometimes me and myselves get together and laugh at just how hilariously stupid we are.

It’s a hoot.

We all know that every story has setting.

It is set in a time and a place. Even if the characters are disembodied thoughts floating around in the space before the conception of the universe. That time and space is still the setting.

As the writer you define or don’t define, what that looks, feels, smells, and sounds like for the reader...tastes as well, if your character likes to lick objects. Don’t judge. Window licking is great!

Worldbuilding—to me, is making Setting [the time and place] of your story—into a character. Giving it personality. Making it internally consistent. Establishing rules…and more importantly, showing the reader those rules and then abiding by them.

Worldbuilding is what happened to Setting when it decided to go on Dwayne Johnson’s Titian Games.

Picture Setting as a slightly overweight mother of two. Her hair’s a mess, she lives in her Ugg boots and trackie dacks, and she eats at McDonald's four nights out of seven.

Then Setting thinks: I want to be more!

She goes to the gym, makes an emotional backstory video, eats kale and seaweed sandwiches, and takes up residence on the local elliptical machine. She flips tyres while listening to motivational audio novels and goes on marathons singing Daft Punk.

After a lot of sweat, more emotional backstory [possibly about how she’s doing this for her kids—the ones she hasn’t seen for three years because of all the time she spent at the gym] Setting finally goes on the Titan Games and wins a really heavy trophy. Yay!

Setting has transformed into World Building: the bigger, meaner, harder, faster, brighter, sharper, better and [this is important] “emotionally backstoried”—version of herself.

It’s a time-consuming task.

This is one of the reasons writing fanfiction is so enjoyable.

The universe of the story is already built! You don’t have to create rules of magic—someone has done it for you. The characters have been plopped into the world for you. Everything is there!

Minimal assembly required—batteries included!

It’s the difference between Loki and the Almighty.

Loki wakes up one day, wanders out into the already created world, and starts messing about with the random things he finds.

The Almighty, on the other hand, has to build the whole piñata from scratch. And he has to invent piñatas as well!

Fanfictioneers don’t have to consider how plants and animals would evolve on a planet constantly ravaged by High Storms; Brandon Sanderson has come up with storm shelters, retracting grass and trees that lie down during foul weather.

He’s created a world where sailors can’t travel beyond the sight of land because to get caught out in a High Storm is death…

Actually, I might have misread that bit—feel free to argue.

It’s possible I missed bits of the ridiculously complex and detailed Stormlight Archives because Brandon Sanderson’s worlds are huge and complex and fabulous. He seems to poop out universes like it’s easy.

It is not easy.

The interconnected nature of...life the universe and everything, means that you can easily get lost researching, contemplating, and creating obscure and seemingly unrelated tangents to your story.

I know I did!

There are ways to make it easier.

One of those is: not be a ‘pantser’.

Stephen King is a pantser: a person who has no idea where their story is going until they’ve written it, opposed to a ‘plotter’: a writer who has written a plan for the entire story and sticks to it.

I am a pantser.

Not that I don’t plan.

I do.

I have excellent intentions to follow said plan.

And never do.

If you’re one of those wonderful and alien writers: a “plotter”: build your universe FIRST.

Treat your World/Setting like another character. Do one of those character profile worksheets, including stuff like history/physical attributes/relationships between other cities/nations/planets/anthills, culture, language, currency, magic, laws…

It’ll be a long list.

If you’re like me and Stephen King: you’ll have to build it later.

I get to the end of a story thinking: where the hell did that come from?

Then I go back and try to plug up any gaping plot holes.

Yes—I am aware that this is what’s known as ‘the hard way. It does involve a lot of rewriting. Welcome to being a “pantser”.

Always be rewriting!

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser; here are some concepts to keep in mind while you build your world.

1. You need to know how your world works. You don’t need to invent a new language [I’m looking at you Tolkien], but you need at least a mud-map of the place. Build a profile for it the same way you’d build a character summary.

This is helpful for a five hundred word story or a five hundred book series. Sure, one is going to be more complex than the other, but the principle is the same. You need to know how it works. And for the most part: it needs to make sense.

2. Consistent. Don’t break your world’s rules! Don’t promise the reader one thing and then renege on that promise.

If demons in your world can only gain physical form through possession: you can’t suddenly have one of them manufacturing a body from hellfire—Without an explanation!

Be consistent.

Or die—seriously, it’s unbelievably frustrating!

3. Even though you need to know how stuff works, doesn’t mean you have to spell out every detail.

While you might have spent three months working out a complex socio-political-magical system involving a currency of invisible rabbits, your reader only needs to understand it as it relates to the story. Don’t info dump it on them in a didactic lecture.

If readers wanted a didactic lecture, they’d have spent thousands of dollars on a University education. Don’t lecture them!

Readers aren’t idiots.

Especially the people reading your work: they’re geniuses—like you! Trust them to get it.

Instead of two chapters spelling out in excruciating detail how the country was founded on a currency of carrots and invisible rodents: write a scene about a woman purchasing a wagon for a clutch of unseen bunnies.

Elizabeth Tan [author of Smart ovens for lonely people] said ‘Worldbuilding is like getting ready for a Zoom meeting: you only have to dress the top half—the bottom half is implied.’

Worldbuilding: Map it out, be consistent, and don't over-explain.


© 2023, Joss Cannon