I've had a bit more downtime than usual lately (waiting on a book to come back from the editor, the writer's vacation!), so I've been using it to be responsible and take care of non-writing writing business chores like updating my website and cleaning out my email box. (If you wrote me, I swear I'll get to you! I'm almost there!)
But as I go through my question box, one topic keeps coming up over and over again: world building. Specifically, people want to know what my system is for building my worlds. It's a great question. I have a system for daily fast writing, plotting a novel, plotting a series, fixing a broken plot, writing a prologue, editing, planning your edit and estimating timelines, even how to sell the book once I'm done.
CLEARLY, I am a woman of systems, and yet I've never written a post about how I build my worlds. This is a massive oversight on my part, because of all novel-related activities, world building is the one I probably spend the most time on. I'm not sitting down every day and drawing up family trees for my characters or anything like that, but I am constantly thinking and daydreaming about my worlds and people That's all world building really is: structured imagining.
But while this freedom to play God can be amazingly fun and powerful, it can also be enough rope to hang yourself. I can't tell you how many authors I've seen go down (or how many of my own books I've killed) thanks to badly thought out world building.
With that and mind, let's take a look at the system I use to keep my own acts of fictional godhood on track.
Writing Wednesday: Three Steps to Creating a Better (Fictional) World
|Pretty picture, but they forgot all the X-ed out continents and scrapped civilizations!|
Before we go into how I build my worlds, let's talk about the ultimate goal of world building, which is to create a fictional setting that 1) makes internal sense, 2) is a new and exciting (or at least interesting) place to be, and 3) feels real when you read about it. If any of these three requirements are lacking, you're going to have a bad time. It doesn't matter how amazing your characters or intense your plot, if your world makes no sense, is cliched or boring, or just doesn't feel like a real place, readers aren't going to want to go there.
Part of the allure of fiction (and not just genre. Contemporary lit authors don't get to skip out on world building just because they're writing about real places) is the chance to go somewhere new and cool. When people talk about reading to escape, your world is the place they're escaping to. It might just be background, but if that background is shoddy and poorly thought out, the work as a whole will suffer.
So we can all agree WORLD BUILDING = VERY IMPORTANT. Easily as important as writing good characters, plot, or tension. So how do I do it?
Well, that's kind of the rub, because the specific system of how I build each of my worlds varies according to the needs of that world and story. Sometimes, if the world and its secrets are a very important part of the metaplot like they was in my Eli Monpress books, I have to world build freaking everything. Other times, when the world is just a stage for other dramas, as it is in my Heartstrikers books, I...still world build a ton, but as a percent of total work, setting building pales in comparison to the time I spend on the characters and their histories.
That said, while the actual process of world building will always vary from world to world and book to book, there are three general methods I always follow to keep my settings solid and myself sane. But first, a disclaimer.
As always, I'm not saying this is the one true way. This is just how I world build. Obviously I hope my tactics will work for you like they do for me, but every writer works and thinks differently. There is no right or wrong way to imagine your worlds. Take with a grain of salt and always remember that you are your own writer. Do what works for you!!
All good? Great! Let's get to it!
Rachel's World Building Strategy
If you've read about how I plot my novels, you already know Step 1 for any Rachel Aaron plot is to write down what I've already got and work from there. My approach to world building is very similar. If I've thought about a potential story enough to want to write a book about it, I probably already have a lot of details and ideas floating around, so Step 1 for me is always to get that down first.
At this point, nothing has to make sense. I'm just getting all my ideas in a pile. Once I've got that, I start fleshing them out by asking the two most important questions in world building: How? and Why?
For example, let's say I want my hero to be inhumanly strong. That's a good starting point, super strong guys are inherently interesting! But why is he so strong? Was he born that way, or did something make him like this? If he was born this way, what would a society where super strong people just pop up be like? Is being super strong common in this world, or is he really rare? And common or rare, what does this strength do to him as a person? How has it changed his life?
All these questions are examples of what I jokingly call The Real World Challenge. I.e., if this idea was happening in a real world, what would the implications be? How does this one idea--a super strong man--change/interact with/reflect the world and society he came from?
By taking an idea and working backwards like, we organically build a world that, because it's made from the answers to questions, inherently makes logical sense. Rather than starting with a finished empire or society and then trying to explain how it came to be, we're starting with a character or event or magical system that we already know we want in our novel and then using that as the focus point to organically build a world that suits it. And as we answer these questions, new questions will arise, and so, bit by bit, the world should create itself with little to no directed effort on our part other than asking Why?
Once you've done this a few times, you should have a very good idea of the world surrounding all of the important, fun, catchy ideas that got you excited about writing this book in the first place. You've hopefully also discovered all kinds of fun new ideas to get even more excited about along the way.
From this point, I generally just keep spidering--alternating as needed between plotting and world building--until I feel like I'm ready to write. But how do I know when I'm ready to write? This can be a tough call, but usually I know I'm ready to start telling the story when I can easily explain how or why every event/character/conflict in my plot a) works, b) exists, and c) happens within the context of the world, which brings us to Tactic #2.
Tactic 2: Explain It to Me Like I'm Five
One of the biggest criticisms of bad world building is that things just don't make sense. Maybe the succession system for an empire's throne is too convoluted for anyone to believe it's held up for a single generation, much less hundreds. Or maybe there are Gods that are highly meddlesome at certain points and completely absent at others, giving rise to huge plot problems that could have EASILY been fixed at the Gods--who are meddling like crazy every other day--actually been on the ball for that one.
My personal favorite was a book I read ages ago where a race of immortal elves had no children except for the story's main character. Even as a kid, this drove me crazy. How was a half-elf born to a race of immortals with seemingly no interest in sex or even functional reproductive systems? Even worse, why was no one else asking this question? All the other characters were just like "Oh, you're the world's only half elf? That's cool. Want a mercenary job?"
IT MADE NO SENSE! The author didn't even try to explain how this was. And while technically it didn't matter because the main character's elf heritage was only used to explain how she was so fast and could use magic, I could not get over it. It was just so freaking stupid! And while I did finish the book (hey, I was a kid, I'd read anything), I only hung on to see if this mystery would eventually be resolved. It wasn't, so I quit the series. It's a really good thing the internet wasn't around as we know it back then, because I would have left that book a burn review that would still be smoldering to this day.
This is a pretty extreme example of terrible world building, but it's hardly alone. We've all read books, seen movies, and played games like this. Stories that cruise along just fine until you hit that thing that just doesn't make a lick of sense, or even contradicts other things that have been established already.
Obviously, authors don't set out to screw up like this. Mistakes like this are often just a combination of not paying attention and not caring, both of which are cardinal sins for an author who cares about her audience. Like I always, always say, readers are SMART. They deserve our best thought and our greatest care, which is why it's our responsibility to do everything in our power to avoid stupid like this.
But no author is all knowing. Too many times, we mean well, but something happens, we get caught up in our own ideas, and stupid mistakes can slip through. For this reason, my second tactic for all my world building is that whenever I set down something as fact, I make myself explain why it is in simple terms as I would to a child within my own story.
I'm not going to lie, this can feel pretty dumb. Novel concepts can get very complicated, and explaining all the stuff you just wrote out in your world building can feel like repeating yourself, but explaining your ideas to someone else is the ultimate test of whether or not they actually hold water. Obviously, a real person is best for this, so if you're lucky enough to have a friend or SO who will listen to you babble about your world, always go for that. An imaginary person will do in a pinch, though. What really matters is that you make yourself go through the process of actually explaining your ideas out loud to someone who doesn't have all your inside knowledge.
I like to think I'm pretty good at world building, but all too often, I still find huge holes when I try to explain a new magical system or cool culture to my husband. I'm a bit ashamed to admit this makes me REALLY mad. This is so simple! Why can't you just get it, Travis?! GAH! But angry as it makes me to have someone poke holes in my ideas, this is exactly why I do it. Because without this system, I would have stayed blind to flaws that are obvious to others, and they would have ended up in the book.
So if you're putting a world together, do yourself a favor and find someone--preferably real--to explain it to. Encourage them to ask questions and listen when they say they don't understand or that something doesn't make sense. These are your blind spots, and however much you might be in love with an idea, they HAVE to be addressed before they end up baked into your book and you come out looking like the careless author who gave her childless elves a daughter and no one cared except for the screaming reader.
Step 3: World Build Only as Necessary
I'm pretty sure the first two tricks are going to be universally useful to anyone looking to build a novel, but this last one is deeply personal. Way back when I was a baby author working on my very first Fantasy novel, I (like many new genre novelists) thought I needed to have my entire world built before I did anything else. After all, Tolkien made his own languages, surely I had to do something similarly grand if I was going to be a Real Fantasy Novelist (TM).
With this in mind, I diligently set to work mapping out all my lands and their cultures. I made up histories and wars of succession and ecosystems. I filled entire notebooks full of everthing I thought I was supposed to do, and I HATED it. It was so much work, it wasn't fun, and it dragged on forever. All I wanted to do was write my book, but there was all this stupid crap in the way. And by the time I actually got to the writing part, I was so burned out after all that world building that I actually dropped the idea entirely and moved on to a new project.
Looking back, this was the failure that shaped my writing the most. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to and it killed my book. From this point on, I swore that I would never do anything because I felt I "had to" in my writing ever again. Screw those people who say you HAVE to have X for your worldbuilding/plotting/whatever to be real. Every writer works in their own way! What's necessary for me might be poison to you, The only really important thing is that the writing gets done and done well. If that's happening, everything else is just details.
This was my life changing discovery. There are plenty of writers who love making hugely detailed notebooks full of minutiae, but I am not one of them. If you are, more power to you! Have fun! But if you're like me, though, and the idea of having to plan out every little detail of every little thing bores you to tears, then you can do what I do and only world build as necessary for the story to move forward.
Hold up, Rachel! Are you saying we should be slackers?
Not at all! There is never any excuse to give your readers anything less than your absolute best. If it's important to your story, then it absolutely has to be complete and well thought out. But while a world needs to feel fully realized, the dirty truth is that you only have to actually flesh out the bits your readers are going to spend time in.
If your whole book takes place in a single city, then obviously that city has to be really well built and well though out. But those pirate island off the coast that only get mentioned a few times in passing? Yeah, you can probably go light on those. Ditto for the culture of the Empire across the desert or the details of how the river boats your characters see, but never actually ride on, work.
You could world build all of that stuff, obviously, and if that excites you, go for it! To me, though, it sounds like a lot of work I'd rather be spending on the actual writing. That's what I'm here for. That's what excites me, so my world building strategy is always to flesh out just what I think I'm going to need for the plot. This does mean I often have to go back mid-book and quickly world build stuff I didn't realize I was going to need until I got there, but I'm okay with that. There's no rule that says you have to world build everything at the beginning.
Pre-optimization is the most wasteful type of optimization. No plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. Often I won't even know about the world building I'm missing until I get there, so I just don't worry about it anymore. So long as I know enough to feel like I know what I'm doing and be confident my stuff makes sense and my world feels real, that's good enough for me. If I need more, I'll stop and make more. Writing is a not a performance art. You can always stop, go back, and create whatever you need.
Once you've figured it out, you can hop right back into the writing like you never left, and often with a renewed excitement because hey, world building is fun!! It's the pure imagination part of writing, and it should always feel like a joy, not work. You never want to feel like you're flogging yourself to imagine things. Again, I'm not going to tell you how to build your own worlds. That's your garden, I'm just passing by. But if you're feeling burned out on world building, my advice is don't be afraid to just start writing and see what happens. You can always go back and fix things later, and after all, isn't writing what this whole world building thing is ultimately about?
Thank You For Reading!
As always, I hoped you enjoyed the post! We have new craft and business posts every Monday and Wednesday as well as years of back content to explore. If you like what you see, please follow me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+) to get updates as they happen as well as lots of other fun, writerly stuff.
As always, we'll be back next week with more. Until then, have fun, and keep writing!
This was a great post--and so true. Most of my worldbuilding happened after the fact, as I decided, no, now it's 90 years after the wars, so what does that mean for the history? Or I want these guys to have x issue, so what would cause that?
It really helps to have a crit group or beta readers, too, to say, "Wait a minute. Shouldn't this character know that if she's this thing?" I knew why she didn't, worldbuilding-wise, but I hadn't explained it, so it was a hole in the written story.
Thank you for getting my Wednesday off to the right start.
This helped immeasurably! I'm working through the world building stages of my own novel, and I had been trying to convince myself that I needed to fill countless journals with details so nothing would catch me by surprise when I started writing. Your blog post just reminded me that surprises are a part of the writing process. And as much as I love world building, I don't have to drown myself in it and never get to the actual writing.
Your blog posts are always wonderful, and I really appreciate all the work you put in to sharing what you've learned through your own writing experience. Thank you so much!
Long-time reader, first-time poster,
Assassination Classroom ftw
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