“We're all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It's a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it's true, but then so's everything.”
― Charles de Lint
World building is a vital part of writing, even if you’re sticking to history or biography—it’s part of ‘making the past come to life’.The events, people, and places you write about need to exist for you in order for you to write about them.To do that, they need a world.
Dude, we live on a turtle.
Creating that environment is a remarkably daunting task.The classic advice is to begin small, just with the areas the characters inhabit or which are likely to get screen time.Then you can expand the world as needed, filling the details in as the story and the characters require.
Intuitively, this seems like a very reasonable approach; however, it predisposes the world to a certain degree of sameness and familiarity.By leaving the larger world more or less undeveloped, you preserve flexibility at the expense of immersive details and ‘flavor’.Immersive details are the little bits of knowledge which help create a sense of being a part of the world.Flavor is a rather ineffable quality which, once established, determines if something ‘feels right’.
The Science-Fiction Writers of America website has one of the best tools I’ve found for world building:
This questionnaire is massive, and by the time you finish answering the relevant questions, your world will be well fleshed-out.It’s a great tool and I’ve used it myself more than once.That said, I’m going to ignore it and talk about a totally different way of doing things.
The approach I favor is to work from the top down, beginning with the major items such as what races there are, how they get along, what kind of environment and society they live in.If any races live together or in close proximity to one another, note that.Once you know how the races relate, then group them into nations.If you have any specific details about these nations in mind, note them now.
Next, decide what enemies you want to use.Evil nations, demonic cults, barbaric races such as goblins and orcs, whatever sounds good.If you want to use monster groups (such as orc tribes) as enemies, keep different monster types grouped by the level of threat they present.You don’t want to mix up a small group of bandits with a nation of professional soldiers.
You’ll also need a list for environmental features you want your world to have.A list for Earth might include the Grand Canyon, the Amazon rain forest, the Great Barrier Reef, Mt.Fuji – you get the idea.You don’t need to get into a ton of detail, though you can if desired.If you think of anything you want to add to any of these lists, get it down as soon as you can so you don’t get distracted and forget.
Now you’re ready to start mapping.
Even if you plan on using a software product to do the grunt work of mapping for you, the first stage is a very manual one.Get a blank sheet of paper and place the nation the characters (or the majority of the characters) will hail from in the center.Sketch in any physical or environmental features around it in as well.From there, place the other nations, enemy groups, and physical features on the map, using any notes about geography and environment as guides.Don’t be afraid to change or rethink something that doesn’t quite fit.This portion is very abstract; if you were looking at North & South America, for example, three blobs labeled “USA”, “Canada”, and “Mexico” would be grouped together with blobs labeled “ocean” on the east & west sides of all three.
What you are going to wind up with is a map abstract that shows you the basic layout of the people, places, and things your story mentions.When you create your actual world map, this abstract will help you avoid doing things like placing the VarglesnarfForest on the northern continent when your notes clearly say that the VarglesnarfForest has an ocean on its northern border and is separated from the Ancient Empire of Southern Foozledoom by the Mountains of Suffering.
How you draw your actual world map is up to you.I use Campaign Cartographer in conjunction with Fractal Terrains, both available from ProFantasy Software.
Fractal Terrains can generate an entire world map, customized to your specifications, in a matter of seconds.Your results are random and might not fit what you had in mind, but you can generate a new world with just a mouse click.When you get a result you like, you can export it to Campaign Cartographer as a full-color topographic map, ready to be detailed.
Campaign Cartographer in action
Once you’ve placed the major cities and landmarks from your initial lists, take some time and look over the regions you left empty.What kind of areas are they?Who lives there?What sort of things would be neat to find there?What products might come from such a place?Write down anything you come up with on a fourth list.If there are regions you want to wait to develop, that’s fine too.Just mark it “Terra Incognita” and keep going.
Even though your readers will be seeing only small portions of your world at first, the world itself is still a very large place.The residents have histories.They have been places, heard stories, and seen wonders.Maybe your main character learned basic fighting skills from “Wilhelm, a grizzled veteran who bears the scars of a long-ago war.”That’s a good, usable description, but with a quick look at your world map and history notes, he becomes “Sergeant Wilhelm, a veteran who served in the 2nd Legion ‘Bloodhammer Brigade’.He lost his left arm to a Vergathi halberd during the battle of Whitewillow, but even injured he helped the 2nd hold firm until reinforcements arrived.”
You can use simple objects to introduce exotic lands the players might want to visit one day.Let’s say that when you were filling in your world map, you noted a desert region and decided that it would be a good spot for an Arabian culture.You could say, “Hey, there’s a fantastic Arabian culture on the other side of the world”, or you could describe the exotic carpet on the floor of midwife Heather’s tea room; full of bright colors and complex designs, bordered with letters in an unknown tongue, worked in thread (they say) made of real gold!A treasure from a distant land where birds talk, horses can go weeks without water, and humble carpets - just like this one – can fly!
Every culture has unique rituals, customs, taboos, holidays, and social norms; the more of this sort of thing you can work in, the better.In my current project, the (yet-unnamed) third David and Rose story, I needed a background for several new characters.For simplicity, I decided their world was physically identical to ours.Easy on the mapping.I also decided they were from a Celtic culture, because it’s also relatable.On their world, the Celts beat the Romans, with Boudicca driving them out of Britain and back south of the Swiss Alps.
I added a mixture of authentic and imported cultural details, tossing in anything that sounded alien without being totally off the deep end.
By divine decree of Mother Bastet and upheld by the goddess Danu, deliberately murdering a cat was punishable by death.Not a civil law so much as all the cats in the city hunting the offender down and eating him (a tribute to Lovecraft’s ‘The Cats of Ulthar’).Possession of a crossbow without a special permit for hunting dangerous creatures was proof of intent to commit murder – it was considered an assassin’s weapon.
People would fight over who would be served the Hero’s Portion (the best cut of meat) during formal meals.Nine different forms of marriage existed, only three of which were permanent.After killing a personal enemy, the victor could take the deceased’s head, store it in a box filled with cedar oil, and pull it out on special occasions to show off to friends and family.Or throw at the dead guy’s relatives during a wedding – always great fun.
Humans and Minotaurs populate this version of Rome.Anyone comparing a Minotaur to a cow - or even making mooing noises at the wrong time – could be killed on the spot by the offended party.After surviving a series of really bad emperors, the Senate made restoring the dead to life illegal.If it did happen, the resurrectee had no rights, no claim on their former life, and could expect to find their own family trying to hunt them down and ‘lay them to rest’.
I may not need all those details for the story I’m telling right now, but you never know.
Details make your world come alive for your readers.As your story grows and evolves, jot down any new details you come up with as soon as possible.It might be nothing more than an offhand comment now, but you never know.
Lastly, the next time you’re stuck in a story or facing a mountain of writer’s block, try throwing someone’s head into the middle of a dinner party.That’ll get things moving.