Susan’s Rules for World Building
Posted September 30, 2011on:
I’m busy building and expanding on various underused worlds for some of my upcoming projects, and I thought I’d jot down some of the big rules I keep in mind when creating fictional worlds. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and your rules may be different from mine! Anyway, here you go:
Rules for Creating Fictional Worlds
#1: Worlds and their societies are complex – Our own world is not an easy place to get a good understanding of in a single paragraph or even a single book, and your world should be the same. Does this mean you need spend the rest of your life crafting a huge, impossibly complicated world? No. But it’s good to hint at something below the surface.
Writing a story about a princess? Then have an idea of how her family stays in power, what life is like for random people in the royal city, and where the princess learns, sleeps, eats, prays, shops and is entertained. Is there art? Philosophy? None of this has to make it into the book, or if it does, maybe it’s only there as a line or a few words. Simple worlds can be nice, but if there’s no hint of depth then I care less when the whole thing is in danger. A royal castle is in danger? Eh. But a city full of life, culture and history? That’s worth saving.
#2: The currents of history – We’re all at the mercy of huge, historical forces all the time, and these kinds of forces ought to be apparent in fictional worlds to a certain degree. In our story about the princess perhaps there’s a history of increasing centralization (with all the griping and angst that accompanies it) in the kingdom, or perhaps there’s an emerging sense of the people not just as subjects of a king, but as members of a nation (i.e., nationalism). What about the march of technology, or religious movements? How do all these forces interact? A lot of fantasy worlds seem to exist outside of any history except for the Epic Battle With Evil, but there’s always more than a single historical force at work in the world at any given time.
A series that does this really well is champion world-builder Sharon Shinn’s Samaria books. Each entry in the series examines that particular fascinating world at a specific point in its development; the history of the world is inextricable from the storyline, and multiple developing forces interact to create tension and conflict.
#3: Geography and Environment are Destiny – In The Daughter Star I wrote about two planets who were settled at the same time with a crucial difference: the gravity. Nea has twice the gravity as Adastre. How does that affect the people who live there? In this case, Adastre has been able to merrily advance its technology and quality of life while Nea struggles to survive. Novans (the people of Nea) hate their planet with a passion, but the environment has made the people into hardy survivors.
In our story of the princess, is her kingdom hot and dry? Cold and wet? Is it yet another place that’s Just Like England somehow? Are there natural barriers against invasion, or is it a sitting duck on a flat plain surrounded by hostile enemies (see: Poland)? Do crops grow well? Are winters brutal or mild? Are the forests full of toxic spiders? The answers help shape the people who inhabit your world, and the mindset of the characters in it.
Also: make a map if you’re dealing with lots of locations. It can be a crappy map. But it helps to know where things are in relation to one another.
#4: Oh, magic – If you must go the magical route, be consistent and be careful! Don’t give your people the power to destroy the universe unless you expect them to do just that every once in a while. If your world has magic, think about how it fits into that society. And even if you leave magic/powers sort of a mystery in your book, have a basic idea of how it all works. When coming up with Extrahuman powers, I made a chart detailing their abilities. There’s only one character who is completely off the chart, but that’s by design.
Can Princess Whatsherface do magic? Is she jealous of people who can if she can’t? What does magic look like to her? Is it useful? Showy? Terrifying? What do people in her city think of those who do magic? Do they revere them? Persecute them? Employ them?
#5: Big world – What’s outside of the kingdom? What other planets are out there? What’s beyond the forest? Maybe your characters don’t care. Maybe they never go there. But the world doesn’t end at the borders of the kingdom, and what happens outside can sometimes affect what happens inside, and characters views on the rest of the world can affect who they are and how they interact with new, strange things.
The princess in this increasingly complicated story should have a sense of the rest of the world, because she’s a princess and that’s her job. If her kingdom is cosmopolitan, with lots of contact with the rest of the world, this might make her flexible and more open to change. If her kingdom is cut off and people know next to nothing about the next kingdom over, then maybe she’s a little afraid of something that breaks the comfortable routine.
#6: Little world – Lastly, what little things do characters do as part of how they exist in their world and their culture? There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Deanna Troi’s mother insists on the Betazoid tradition of someone hitting a little gong every time she takes a bite of food. She’s perfectly happy about this but it annoys everyone else to pieces. But this little ritual is part of who she is.
In the princess story, does she take her shoes off when entering certain rooms? Is she superstitious? Does her family offer thanks to a deity before eating (and if they do, how do they do it)? Do people in the city paint their houses certain colors? Do they leave their shops open late? When people meet friends, do they hug and kiss or just nod smartly? Little details like this can make a culture spring to life.
#7: Don’t ignore real life – Really. Whenever I see something interesting happening out in the world, I’ll casually wonder how I can incorporate it into one of mine. This might be one of the best ways I can think of to go about this! I’ve come up with all sorts of fun things this way.
So there you go. This is less a set of rules, perhaps, than a lot of questions to ask and answer. Remember that it’s not necessarily about including every detail of a world in a book, but including just enough so that readers start to taste the flavor of the places you’re describing.
What are your own rules for making worlds?