World building is one of my favourite parts of writing. You get to draw on the weirdest and most amazing pieces of our history, mythology, physics and biology to come up with a dazzling new creation all your own. Exploring new cultures, filling in details based on extrapolation of a single idea, crafting religious tenets and how they impact society – these are all the things that speak to the fantasist and classicist in me.
Thing is, that’s what I am – a classicist. Mythology is my strong point. I know basically zilch about biology, physics, geography, meteorology – all that sciencey stuff which is pretty fundamental to getting things right. Not to mention finer details like how a working economy should function. So when it comes to building your world, how do you make sure it all hangs together despite your lack of knowledge?
As Patrick Rothfuss said, on the world building panel at the World Fantasy Convention last year, the depth of your world can be illusion. Get a couple of things really right, do just enough research to put up a believable cardboard cut-out for the rest, and the reader will fill in the details for you. Find the part that you can be an expert on – Rothfuss said his is coinage – and go easy on the rest. World building is a joint exercise between reader and writer, so leave some work for your audience and trust them to trust you.
Outsource expertise. The first complete world I ever built was heavily influenced by the recently published Map of the Discworld. In the foreword Sir Terry said that he’d had to fundamentally rearrange several continents because the geologist they’d brought on board to help said they didn’t work – he’d got a desert where a marsh would be, because of complicated things like rain shadows. I took this very much to heart and went in search of a geologist consultant of my own. This resulted in the mapping of prevailing winds, which influenced micro-climates, which influenced agriculture, which influenced trade, which influenced culture and economy. Awesome domino effect.
Another important weapon in my personal arsenal is roleplay. Sketch out your world and drop a bunch of your friends into it. They’ll bash it around quite a bit and either force you to invent some history and culture on the spot for things they’re looking at, or they’ll create some. My entire religious system underwent a massive schism because one of my house-mates made a wish on a star. The fantastic thing about this is the detail you’ll get which you would never have come up with on your own. Four creative intelligences are better than one, as my friend Dr. Nick said to me last night.
Speaking of Dr. Nick, he introduced me to a game which is specifically designed to create a world through collaboration using a set of guidelines. It’s called Microscope and is produced by Lame Mage Productions, and it’s intended to let you create worlds, history, culture and destruction. I haven’t played it yet but I’m looking forward to it. I think the word ‘game’ is misleading here, though. It really sounds like it’s just a structure for collective brain-storming.
Another useful tool is a checklist of things to consider. Like this one, which is the most exhaustive I’ve come across. You don’t have to answer all the questions but you should at least consider them. It’ll give you new ideas and make sure there aren’t any fundamental holes in the fabric of your world. You know that the one thing you don’t take into account is the thing the reader will spot and write to you about.
I’m sure there are more tips and techniques for world building. How do you approach it? What’s your starting point and what’s in your toolbox? I’d love to know – like I said, I find this one of the most fascinating parts of genre writing.
Going to use some of this next time I start a big project. Also eyeing up that roleplay game to play with some other creative gamers I know – they love world building in games, so should be good.