World Building

During my last article ‘A Project Fueled by Tea,’ I briefly detailed over a number of topics which I feel deserved a little more attention at a later date. Having read over my last post a number of times, I listed out and prioritised subjects that I thought required addressing in my second article. I narrowed it down to ‘World Building.’ Before I begin I’d like to thank all of you who read my first post and I am glad you have returned once again to view this site, and hopefully not only enjoy what you’re about to read, but perhaps find it informative. So, let’s talk about how to build worlds in a literal format.

As you may well already know, my book The Ancestral Odyssey is an epic, medieval fantasy, none of it is real! It is very much nothing more than a fairy tale put together with imagination, creativity, a string of well developed characters and a vision to create something new, adventurous and exciting for book lovers to indulge in within their spare time. Everything I and what other writers do is entertain you through the power of words. The stronger ones knowledge is at constructing a story the better the read, the more effort an author puts into his or her book, quite naturally will be all the more powerful. The best books to my knowledge cannot be knocked out within six months, unless you are some kind literary creative super being, these things take time. With that being said, I am not saying that you need to take a course in Creative Writing for three years, I am not saying that you need to study English for several years before you can actually sit down and write your first story, you do not need to read thousands of books to write something remarkable. Sure, all the above certainly helps but from my experience your vision is your drive, you should write because you see something in your mind, something that you feel deserves to be read or perhaps seen. On a separate note, you don’t need to spend twelve years (like I did) working on one project, just a heads up for all of you guys who are getting turned off to the idea about starting your own book. You should however, immerse yourself in what you wish to write about and more so, take your time, allow your ideas to grow and evolve. I tend to think of my story as a tree of ideas. Always and I mean always, this tree starts out small. Something, somewhere must have planted an idea in your head, a seed, and from that point on, it is up to you to decide how you take care of this sapling. You can either nurture it, shower it with love and affection, feed it regularly letting it grow and blossom into something strong, to the point where it starts to write for itself, providing you with the fruits for your story. You can tend to it now and again or if you are really evil, you can just tread on it like the monster you are, with no love for idea trees, shame on you if you do this. One of the key differences between those who succeed in writing a book and those that don’t, is vision and passion about their writing, if you lack these key ingredients and don’t feed them into your sapling on a daily basis, you won’t accomplish what you set out to do, or your end result won’t be as you expected. If you DO have said vision and motivation, chances are you will create something you can be proud of, others will be interested in it too, and will want to know more.

So, what do we have so far? You have your idea, the seed has been planted and you want it to grow into something that will one day start working for you. When I say this, what do I mean? My book has reached this point, I’ve poured so much time and energy into this project and after having wrote my first installment with a sequel in the works, I have something with many branches to play with and develop. Its almost become an ongoing thing, ideas sprout every day, some I will use, some I will not but never the less, I record them in a notebook, a notebook I carry around with me everywhere I go. The trunk however, the foundation is made up of several columns, one of which being the stage, your platform, in my case, it’s the world of Equis. This is something which is essential in the story and on some level a character in itself with many faces. The trunk of your idea is a large solid part, something that holds everything up and together, cut down this trunk or disrespect it, and your ideas will inevitably collapse and fall. Creating the world is a never ending, vital process, should you be working within the same realms as I am (medieval fantasy) you should be constantly shedding your worlds skin, expanding the landscapes, broadening its horizons and including rich details that tell a number of stories between your main plots. Even after finishing book one I still find myself every now and then, tweaking my world map, I think I have about forty plus sketches of such layout. Its very interesting to see the first draft and compare it to the most recent draft. You can see the gradual ramp of improvement as time passes, the evolution is observational and amusing. My first finished world map is so plain, so empty, so cliche compared to the most recent design, the one that you will see appear in The Ancestral Odyssey: The Utopian Dream.

Please, do not be deterred when I say its a long process, it is truly a rewarding experience. When you are world building you should enjoy it, you should be looking forward to working on it everyday, and when you finish the layout, when you plot out where the mountains go, where the forests are, how long the rivers will be and what special locations will go where, once you have your first draft, you will suddenly feel a weight lift, the first step is complete and from here on the world map can only evolve into something greater, but for now you can put it aside and work on another aspect of the book, like the characters. When developing your characters, ask yourself a series of questions, anything that springs to mind, no need to get down into the heavy duty stuff right away, but just simple questions like where they are from? What they do? What are their interests. How old are they? What religion do they belong to, if any? And so on and so on. Keep asking yourself questions, it is up to you to get around as much detail as possible during this stage, the more you develop and build your cast, the more you will have to play with when organising your story. Don’t just focus on expanding the world, the world is your stage, but remember to develop the people therein, make them memorable, unique and interesting. One important question you should ask yourself is, what kind of person would you want to meet in real life? This tip is usually asked when searching for your hero’s or your heroin’s. The idea here is to work on each and every part of the project consecutively, a world isn’t just landscapes and rivers, its also made up of people and its inhabitants, this is key. Once you finish your world map, move on to something else, once the characters have been updated, work on the magic, the creatures, the cultures then come back to the map to give it another look with a pair of fresh eyes. You’ll find that you may want to add something more, or work on a particular area due to a new character you came up with during developments. One of the most common questions I get asked from friends and family when they see my world map in its entirety is; Where did you start? The answer to this question depends on how you as the creator go about the process. Some draw out a map almost blindfolded, without any guide lines or material to back it up, and just go from there. This type has its advantages and disadvantages. Others plot it out carefully and already have a rough idea of what they want before they start, this type can take a lot longer than the former but can be more productive and efficient. Quite often one will prefer to work on an area that they find the most appealing and build from there. Either way, there is no right or wrong way to go about this, there is no manual, but every part should be constantly worked on throughout. Getting back to the world map, the geography of Equis was built over a number of years, I have plenty of drafts enough to fill half a sketch book, you may take less time when designing yours, you may be better at it than I am. I went through a lot of mistakes to get to the final outcome. At first, the world was simply too small, this error remained with me right up until publishing book one, I always found myself expanding Equis after each and every draft, or coming up with new areas to include. I may well expand further come later installments of the book, but at some point, you need to say to yourself STOP! As you grow as a person, so does your writing and vision, this can be annoying, because when you finish a chapter or a sketch of your world and feel like it cannot be improved upon, you’re probably wrong. There is always room for improvement.

As for what is poured into your world, such as your creatures, cultures, religions, languages, historical landmarks, wild life and so on, depends entirely on what kind of world you want to set out to build, only you can know this because what you are doing is wonderfully unique. Remember, your world will still rely on the power of your words to relay your vision to your reader, you can go into as much detail as you want during development, but at the end of the day, you still need to master the way in which you convey your stage to your audience. As I was writing my first book back in 2007, I had a slight advantage given that I had three or so years of design time during College, to perfect Equis before I started the actual writing of the story, so I already knew what went where, I already knew a little about the cultures involved and lines drawn on the map that divided them up, not to mention the history they shared together. The order of the way I did things benefited my project long term, but it is certain that you will have a different experience. If you are just starting out, if you are wanting to embark on creating your own world where the events of your story will unfold, I will advise that you work on things collectively, spending some time on each aspect while adding to the meat of your story. Do not expect to finish your character development for example, or your map and think that it is DONE, and now you can move on and focus on the next bullet point you set for yourself, everything will grow together, everything is connected just like in nature.

When including details to certain areas, consistency is not just important, it’s key to the flow and continuity of your story. Violate such consistency when world building can lead to disappointment and many raised questions that will effect the overall view of your book. To create a world, the first thing you must decide upon before doing anything else, is that is this world of yours going to be the Earth as we know it? Or is it going to be a world built from scratch? Equis for example, is a part of planet Earth, meaning that all the rules you an I abide by such as the laws of physics and gravity, also apply to my characters I created. This is what I wanted and as a bonus, it allows me to avoid describing the rules of said an alien world. With that being said, obviously my story is a fairy tale, it did not happen, some things that appear in Equis cannot possibly manifest in real life (things like magic and some of the creatures) but I am using the Earth and all its physical laws not just because I wanted to, but for the purpose for the reader. It is easier for readers to relate to our world than any other you pull out of your imagination.

I think it is important to say, that if you have a story in mind, if you have something you feel like you need to tell, and are working within the realms of fantasy, you do not need to start world building right away, world building believe it or not is to my mind essential but not at the same time. Before you start thinking of ways to criticise me, let me explain to you what I mean before I finish up this article. A great story does not require a map to appear before chapter one, during the writing process the map and everything contained within, acts as your guide line, it is there to serve YOU, the author. When your book starts to get a little more complicated, when your characters begin to scatter and the pieces begin to move around your board, having a map handy will help you significantly, you will be able to pin point where your cast are, how far it will take them to get from location a to location b, it will give your reader something to refer to and allow them to become more immersed in your story. Having a world map or a few maps if your world is really massive, may iron out any confusion your readers may have, and answer any itching questions. Now that I have talked about what good it can bring, it would not be considered an error not to include a world map, you may have to rely further on your words if you choose not to include one, but to save yourself those pesky picky details, I personally would include one, plus it gives your reader something to glare at for a time, we all like pretty pictures.

As for inhabitants, cultures, creatures and the endless details you will want to include, believe it or not, this is conveyed best (in my opinion) through your characters. Your characters are everything, take note. You can get away with lack of details within your world map, personally I would not see why you wouldn’t want to work on every section of your novel, which is why I’ve gone through painstaking levels of details, but you cannot get away with poor character design. For me, the characters carry your world and more importantly carry your story on their backs. Well developed characters hook your readers, you want your audience to root for the protagonists and become fearful of the antagonists. Give them flaws, give them weaknesses, give them the fears, make them as real as you an me, creating them invincible removes every aspect of tension. As this article is focused on world building and not about how to design your characters, a topic I will be sure to cover later, the question here is how to world build through your heroes and heroines? I will answer this question by asking you another. Where is your character from? If he or she is from the desert, it is likely he or she will have tanned skin, short or very dry hair. If your hero is from an icy domain, this will effect the clothes the person wears. On the topic of clothes, if its a cold environment he comes from, he’ll be wearing thick animal fur, will it be fur from wolves, bears, foxes or perhaps something coming from fantasy, like yetis or great beasts. Same goes for any environment you can think of, what your characters wear upon their person can cover details like what creatures they have to live with or be fearful of. Is your hero or heroine religious, if so it would be a good idea to include such descriptions of the faith into the structures your culture has created for themselves. What does your character do for a living? Is he or she a warrior, a peasant, a teacher, blacksmith, miner, hunter, writer, adviser, politician the list goes on and on. Whatever they do, remember to incorporate their occupation, their belief should they have one, details of the inhabitants into their persona. Should your hero use a sword, what metal is the sword made from? Is the material nearby? With that being said, is there a conflict between two cultures to get at such materials? Does your hero use magic? Again, where did the magic come from and where is it found on the map? What are the benefits of this magic? What are its flaws? Is magic a common feature? These are all basic questions, but questions you should be asking yourself and writing down as you think of them, this will strengthen your novel. As I said earlier, your characters are everything, the better developed and detailed they are, the more research you spend on them, the more real they become. Throw in personality, strengths and weaknesses, fears, passions, goals to compliment them as people or other beings if they are of a different species, and you have yourself not only someone who your readers will love and want to follow, but will believe in and feel for when tremendous things start to happen in your story. Same goes for the villains of your book, villains are as important as heroes and I look forward to writing about them at a later date.

The trick is located within the title of this article. Build the world you see piece by piece, work on it with the same amount of time and effort you would your story and writing style. Connect meanings to each environment, link it to the people and its inhabitants, and this will increase the realism of the world you set out to build. Never stop working on it, nothing is set in stone at first, think of it as play-dough, (remember that stuff?) to start off with. You are the author, you are in control and you can shape it in whatever way you wish. Following the tips and suggestions I wrote about in this post is my way of going about the process, you are free to mimic the way I do things but I also encourage you to find your own ways, maybe you can teach me a few things.

If you have enjoyed this article, I thank you for reading. If you have any questions, if you feel the need to get in touch to ask for some advice on your own novel, or have a suggestion for a topic you’d like me to cover on this site, please drop me an e-mail at taotome@outlook.com. Find me on Twitter under @MegasTeque, leave me tweet or two sometime. I do receive a lot of messages, I do have a busy schedule and only so many hours in the day to respond, so please be patient and I will try my best to respond to you. Thanks again.

D.W.Gill

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