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Thoughts on World-Building

One of my favorite parts of being a writer, is the fun of creating your own worlds and characters to populate them.  World-building is an important part of every work of fiction, but it’s especially integral to the fantasy genre.   When you create a new world for your stories, you are literally establishing the living space in which your characters live and act.  You are establishing the laws which govern what your characters can and cannot do.  You are even creating the grounds upon which some of the conflict (at least external conflict) is generated in your story.  While many writers understand this, you’d be surprised at the number of writers who don’t.  Here are just a few general things I’ve discovered in reading and in writing my own worlds.

1. Setting the Setting

This is where you decide the “where” and “when” for your book.  If you are like my co-author Valerie, usually you have a general idea for your characters and their situation before even touching most of the world-building.  If this is the case, think of your characters or the story.  Where would they fit?  Where do you picture them?  Perhaps this is a medieval world with wizards and dragons, or maybe a grungy steam-punk world with airships.  The setting is important because it determines a lot about your characters.  How they grew up, what their daily life is like, how they talk, and how they are expected to act.  Which leads me to my next point.

2. Writing the Rules

Coming up with the boundaries in which your characters can act is perhaps the most directly important part of world building to your story.  If your setting is the “where” and “when,” these boundaries are the “how” and “why” for your story.  These rules can come in the form of cultural expectations and etiquette.  This ties back in with my first point about setting.  What are the roles and expectations regarding men and women?  Is there an enforced caste system?  How do the peoples’ beliefs and religions influence their actions?  In our current project, we have tried to establish a fictional Asian-type world.  To help give the correct feel for the setting, we’ve tried to mirror many of the ideals and customs from traditional Asian cultures.

For fantasy writers, this is also where you’d create a magic system for your world.  These are the physical and metaphysical laws upon which your world revolves.  I’ll go into the depth of creating magic systems in a later post probably, but for now consistency is a good rule of thumb to go by.  You do not have to disclose the intricate workings of your magic system to your reader, but you should  be consistent.  Another thing to consider with magic, goes back to my first point about setting.  If there is magic, how does it affect your world and the people in it?  If wizards and magic are real, how does that influence the cultures and attitudes of the people?  In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling resolves this issue by implying that using magic on or in the presence of non-magical muggles is unethical, and that wizards and muggles live in isolation from each other for the most part.  Thus muggles remain mostly unaware of wizards.  In many of Brandon Sanderson’s works however, magic is very present in the lives, cultures, and religions of the people.  In some instances it even affects the geography of the world itself.  So again, when creating a magic system, it is important to consider all the ramifications of what it implies.

3.  Flexibility and Consistency

So you have a world and rules to go with it.  But what happens when you find your story in conflict with your established rules? And no, the answer is not to start from scratch (not most of the time anyway.)  The beauty of creating your own world, is you can bend and fix it too!  Remember, the story is the most important part to your, well, story.  If you have to bend the rules to make it work, then do so.  However, here’s a few things to consider before throwing caution to the wind.  First, the less you can bend and break your rules the better.  Look for loop-holes you could use instead of creating exceptions.  Second, if you do end up changing anything, be consistent!  That means you may have to go back and fix things so that everything is in line again.  And finally, avoid doing this often!  Not only is it annoying for you to have to update things, but you’ll inevitably find yourself stuck in other sticky situations or simply end up confusing your readers.  Furthermore, if you bend the rules to save the story too much, you’ll break the suspension of disbelief.  Your readers will find your solutions to problems “too convenient” and they’ll be turned off by it.  So use your powers of flexibility sparingly.

4. Do What Works for You

To wrap up, I just want to point out that there is no real order to the world building process.  What works for one, doesn’t work for another.  There are many nuances in creating a believable setting, the key to remember is simply to make it work.  For me, I like to create the rules and magic systems first, then ponder how the world works in relation to that.  My co-author seems to start with her characters first and build the world around them.   But what works for you?  What are some things that you have discovered in the world building process?  What are some fictional worlds you’ve really enjoyed?

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