Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The past couple of weeks most of my efforts have been on worldbuilding. As many of you are writers and will already know, worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world. While a fantasy world is very imaginary, even literary fiction and other genres must do some form of worldbuilding.

Since I am a fantasy writer, I will focus on what I have learned about worldbuilding for this genre. While my favorite part about fantasy is hands-down deep and complex characterization I love the complex worlds that writers create. It helps take me to a new time and place. This is done in the details and nuances of the world that the author has created. Since I'm not that great at detail, I have to really work at this, which is why solid worldbuilding exercises are so important for me.

There are two different ways that you can go about worldbuilding: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down begins with a general overview of a world and then drills down into details while bottom up begins with a very small area and as the story progresses the author adds as needed.

Personally I do a bit mixed. Actually the premise for my current novel started with a map of a world because, as described in my description of my WIP, the world itself is disappearing along the edges. After I drew the general world I went to my focus town, the capital city of a country that borders the edge and started bottom-up from there. However, now I am getting to the point where I need to create cultures and traditions for the other peoples and countries in the world. I guess I approach it from a perspective of worldbuild what you need, plus a little bit more. Who knows, maybe it will give you new plot ideas.

One thing that I think is important is trying to add something different to the world. It seems like every book has it's politics based off of medieval Europe. Not that I am dissing that because part of mine is, but even with Kings or Emperors there are so many different types of governments. Think Japan, ancient China, India, the Aztecs. Spend a little time looking into different cultures and how the rule of those in charge affected the lives of the citizens.

When worldbuilding there are several different aspects to consider. Each will add a different flavor to your writing. Here are some questions to get you thinking:
  • What kinds of foods do they eat?
  • What is your character's favorite food? Why?
  • What traditions occur with meals? Does your character like this?
  • What is the religion?
  • Are there any Feast Days or Holidays associated with this religion?
  • What usually happens on these Feast Days?
  • What does your protagonist like to for the Feast Days?
  • Did any especially positive or negative things happen on one of these days to the protagonist as a child?
  • What is considered the normal family or living unit?
  • What sorts of dwellings do they live in?
  • How do people "date" or "court" each other?
  • What is the biggest offense you can give in the culture?
  • What is a "rude" hand gesture?
  • What is the climate like?
  • How far away is the nearest water source?
  • How do they obtain water?
  • How do they obtain food?
  • Is there magic?
  • Is the magic associated with the religion?
Once you get started you can dig up a huge list of questions to ask yourself.

Also, when creating maps, make sure you follow general rules of physics, or make your own up but make sure to explain why you can follow that particular world. Wikipedia has some great thoughts about this.

So how do you go about worldbuilding? Is there anything particular you do? Do you take a top down or bottom up approach?

11 tidbits:

Anonymous said...

I added you to my blogroll. Thanks for all the comments.

This is a very good post. I'll be honest in saying that my world building is lacking. I have trouble with the planning part of writing.

Thanks for the info on map making.


Andrea Coulter said...

The fun/daunting part about world-building is that it's never 'finished', because there's always more questions and complexity to ask/add!

I think a lot of writers settle on a medieval structure because it's easy and familiar--most fantasy readers will get it without a ton of explanation, and so the world-building won't take attention away from the story.

Btw in your earlier description of your WIP you didn't mention that the edges of the world are disappearing--that might a great hook when you get around to querying, b/c it immediately made me go 'ooh, that sounds cool!'
something like "'name of country/world/etc' is disappearing around the edges--no one knows why, but if Hailey can't figure it out, the perilous upcoming Scholar's Exam will be the least of her worries.' Just a suggestion :)

Lauren said...

@writer- Thanks for the comment. I have a problem with worldbuilding too...I'd rather write about the plot, but it is important. Thanks for adding me to your blog roll :).

@lynn- Thanks for the suggestion. I do need to rework my little description. She actually doesn't get to take the Scholar Exam, which is a big deal for her as well so I should probably mention that. Thanks for saying that you thought that it sounded cool :)

Lucas Darr said...

What a lovely post.

I cheat at world building. I've been playing D&D for so long, world building for a novel is easy.

A. Malone said...

Something I think about a lot is how so few fantasy novels I've read -- obviously, I haven't read -all- of them out there -- where the author has created not just an interesting people in the world, but the planet itself. A lot of authors tend to really base their world on what we know as normal, our Earth, its properties, probably because it's so easy. And it's all we know.

They say we're here because the conditions for life were just perfect enough on our planet, the distance from the Sun, everything, what have you. I've always found it fun to play around with the ideas of different worlds, their life sustainability, in ways that could be different from the earth significantly enough to change it.

I think you might see this more with Sci-Fi just because you get traveling to other planets as a huge part of it. I like to see it in Fantasy novels. Something so weird and displaced from what we know rather than the usual, 'Oh this is basically Earth with different land masses and people, and throw in a bit of magic.'

It's a lot harder, takes a lot more work to plan out an entire planet, make it possibly habitable for life than designing who's on it -- or maybe it's just as hard, or easier for some. I don't know.

And usually in Fantasy you have their deities, who are credited for creating the world, etc. So a God factor has just as much importance.

- Was your world created by a God or Gods?
- Does this God really exist, or is it just a theory to the people who live there?

Another thing that's always made me think, when considering these Fantasy worlds and their writers, is how they explain the existence of such deities.

I suppose that's why it's fantasy.

Lauren said...

@Anthony- Thanks :) Ah, you are a D&D guy. I have a funny story about a D&D guy. My high school/college sweetheart was super big into D&D. He dumped me finals week my Freshman year at Purdue...very traumatic. And then a couple years later I was booth babe at GenCon dressed as a cheerleader... Yeah, I think that might have been one of the most satisfying moments in my life up to that point in time. lol. Memories.

@Lyrist- I agree with you. I think that the fantasy genre, for the most part, tries to keep the world fairly consistent within the realms of the genre. In sci-fi I think that it is pretty well expected that the author will stretch the concept of worldbuilding. The setting almost seems to take on a personality of it's own and is as important as any of the characters. I think that many people enjoy sci-fi because of this.

Lynn mentions about how the medieval structure is easy because you don't have to explain or detract for the story, which I think is very true. Personally, as a reader, I am not a huge description fan so I like that pieces of description can be skimmed over in "typical" epic style fantasy. However, I would like to see more fantasy set in a different landscape verses something that resembles Europe.

Parts of mine are set in the rainforest and desert, but the first part is very standard Europe-style landscape. I purposefully do that to offset the difference of the landscapes that my main character interacts with later on in the story.

Also, those are two other great "world building" questions you pose. I shall have to think on it for my novel.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Lauren, Evertime I have built worlds, I have stopped there. I tend to forget my stories after they leave my lips, and I tend to sing my stories.

One of these days I will actually turn on one of the numerous dictaphones I have, and find out just how bad I am.

The worldbuilding, I remember.

Great post on worldbuilding. I am intrigued.


PS does the umlaut (the two dots over the u in Tschüss) show up on the American viewer, or not?

Lauren said...

@chris- The umlaut does show up on firefox, I'm not sure about IE. I can check for you if you would like.

And thanks for the compliment on the post. I'll have another writing related one next Wednesday :).

paintandink said...

Hello... I came to your blog via a Google alert for imaginary maps, which I make for a living...

And I think these questions will be so useful for me in mapmaking, as well, because I moving toward making my maps more into stories themselves, as opposed to just a castle here, a mountain there.

So thank you for this thoughtful post.

Lauren said...

@paintandink- Thanks for visiting and for posting. You are the first person that I know of who has found me through google. Yey! I feel like a real blogger now :-P

That is so cool that you make maps for a living.

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