Thoughts on World-building Part 1


About a month ago I went to Topatocon. It was a memorable event and I hope they organize another one next year. There were lots of great panels, and interesting people in the comics and games community to get acquainted with, but one panel in particular stuck with me. That was Evan Dahm‘s excellent talk on the process of world-building. Mr. Dahm is the creator of riceboy, and many other exceptional fantasy-adventure comics. He is a talented, prolific creator, and an all-around swell guy. The discussion got me thinking about my own approach to world-building, and some of the creative people who have influenced that approach. I am, of course, a devotee of genre fiction, so most of the names that will be dropped are science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers.

Evan Dahm’s panel touched on a few major points that I felt were important. His advice on world-building was meant to be applied to any medium, but pretty much all of his examples were prose fiction, so the terminology I use will focus on that as well. I’ll try to sum them up as follows –

  • When introducing a reader to a fictional world, the writer needs to think carefully about how they will enter into it. A fictional universe is always going to feel alienating to some extent (for people like me, that’s the main attraction), so to what degree should your protagonist(s) also feel alienated? Should you go the way of Alice, Harry Potter, or the Pevensie siblings, where they start their journey in our own, recognizable world? Or should you try the more modern approach of dropping your reader right into the world, with little or no explanation of how it all works? For that approach look to George R.R. Martin, or Gene Wolfe. There’s also a kind of “middle path” as well, the way of the Great-Grandfather of Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit take place in a very detailed fantasy world, but it’s revealed in slow increments, and it begins in a very recognizable place, the Shire. Bilbo and Frodo’s home feels a lot like any peaceful, pastoral community from the real world, and that’s definitely intentional. Tolkien’s audience would likely have had a bit more trouble engaging with his massive world, if they had started in Gondor or Rohan.
  • Effective world-building doesn’t just focus on detail and consistency. There’s a tendency among a lot of writers in genre fiction to add obsessive detail in their worlds, right down to languages, architecture, and the very laws of physics. Magic in particular is something readers and writers seem to get fixated on, treating it more like a science or system of rules rather than… magic. Evan Dahm’s opinion (and I agree with him) is that while that level of detail helps for immersion and making things believable, it can result in a work of fiction that features too much exposition. A writer should know when to geek out about their fictional world, and when to tell a good story. Exposition on the subject of the world is fine, as long as it reinforces other things like characters, mood, or thematic subtext.
  • A fictional world should help the reader engage critically with the work. I was really glad that this was included in the panel. It’s my belief that every fictional work, whether done intentionally or not, has some sort of message in it. It is impossible to avoid this. Choices about characters, representation of real-world minorities and other groups of people, these all say something, and hopefully the writer keeps all of these things in mind. Dahm used Ursula Le Guin as a model for how to do this the right way. I believe genre fiction can be used for more than escapism (not that I’m totally against that), and Le Guin’s work show us that it can work even better than most styles in getting us to think about our politics, our environment, and ourselves.

SO, now for my own thoughts on the process (I have a feeling this is going to turn into a multi-part post). Evan Dahm mentioned a lot of amazing writers who have influenced him, many of whom I also enjoy, or am learning to enjoy – Ursula LeGuin, China Mieville, Italo Calvino, and Angelica Gorodischer, all of these writers are builders of fascinating and memorable worlds. If nothing else, these writers have taught me how to really capture the feel of an imaginary place. I recommend checking them out.

Mappa Mundi

So those are all important things to keep in mind. I have a few odd techniques for getting myself thinking about a new setting. I like to think that these methods are consistent with the other things I was talking about. I’ll list a few, and I’ll try to make them a little shorter –

  • Draw a bunch of maps – I love maps, I love ’em. Few things are more exciting than cracking a new book and seeing a hand-drawn map in the first few pages. The mysterious locations, the evocative names, they all create a sense of anticipation for the reader. In the words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.” As a writer, I find that making a map, even before I write anything, can be a great way to visualize locations, and also the journey that your characters will take in the story. I even started making a story-game some years back called Mappa Mundi, which was pretty much all about this idea.
  • Surround yourself with inspiring visuals – This can mean drawing a lot of your own pictures or doodles, if you like doing that (I do). Or you can amass a collection of images and pictures that really speak to you about the mood and feeling of your world. Inspiration should come from many places, not just other people’s stories. If you can describe your (prose fiction) story as a mix of visual art pieces, that’s a good thing. Oh! And music! Music is totally the way to go too! I listen to a lot of soundtracks.
  • Surround yourself with inspiring stories – Here I’m mostly talking about real-life stuff. I read the news, I occasionally read narrative non-fiction, I read a LOT of history books, and sometimes popular science. A fictional world is always going to mirror the real one to some extent, so it might as well mirror the interesting parts.
  • Try something collaborative – There’s a lot of ways to brainstorm world-building ideas with the help of friends. One of my favorites is a story-game called Microscope, which totally deserves it’s own review at some point. In that game you work with a group of people to come up with a fictional time-line for a setting. It focuses on history as a way to add detail to a world.
  • Character Bios – Write a characters life story, right up until the point you’re using them. Include small moments, family, mundane descriptions. I’ve only recently put this method to use, and I find it produces some interesting details that you might otherwise ignore. This is world-building with a focus on character development, so the weird things you create have a connection and an emotional context to the supposedly real people you are also creating. I find that writing bios also ends up creating a lot of interesting little details about everyday life, food and clothes, all that stuff.

Okay, I  should probably cap it here. Next time I’ll be listing and reviewing some of my favorite examples of great world-building from different mediums. Until then!

Images taken from the British Library Database, no known copyright restrictions

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