Tuesday, April 23, 2013

you call it playing god, I call it worldbuilding part 2

Wow, don't you want to start worldbuilding after that long, meandering post about the dangers of worldbuilding? Follow me!

But really, a quick step-by-step of my WB process. Hopefully I haven't turned you off the subject.

(I don't usually write contemporary genres, at least not without supernatural or fantasy undertones, so this will probably be overkill for those who do write contemporary. Or maybe not.)

  •  MAP. 
    • In case you didn't catch my drift the first time, I always work off a map. Geography has shaped our own history so much, it only makes sense that it will shape your story too.
    • Tools: first I draw out said map on graph paper, usually with a pencil, then transfer to Photoshop via a scanner or a cruder drawing. From there, I can duplicate and do certain maps for certain things (borders, roads, geographic formations etc.). I don't have a tablet, but I have a violent need of one for map purposes.
      • It may also help to have an atlas or Google Maps on hand to help, if you need inspiration. I was that weird kid who spent school library trips looking at the atlases in the back so I have a bunch of favorites at my house
    • Now that you have your map, check out the cities, the rivers, the mountains, all that cool stuff you just drew. What's going on down there? Is that mountain range a border? Do the people on either side like each other? Why or why not? Continue into perpetuity or until you die in worldbuilding ecstasy. (Don't do that). 
      • At this point, it might help to already have a story in mind. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. 
      • How does it fit into this greater history you're shaping? How does the history shape your story and its characters? What happened to make the world this way?
      • The trick here is to be brief. Don't get stuck in the quicksand.
    • Tools: a simple word processor will do, or pen and paper.Your choice. For larger stories that require intense background, I dabble in Excel and make color-coded timelines. This was before I developed self-control, but someone with willpower could do this quite easily and survive.
    • The fun part. Where do they fit on the map, in the history, in the setting you've created?
    • Here we can get a little deeper. Parents, grandparents, education, language, religion, culture - how does this shape your character? You have to know where they come from to know where they're going and how they're going to act when they get there!
      • Of course, as you start piecing together your character, you can use this stuff to inform the rest of the world you're shaping. It's a two-way street. 
      • I love family trees almost as much as maps.
    • Tools: Graph paper is my lord and savior. Great for family trees and character maps or character wheels. Of course, there's always a word processor or pen and paper to be used as well.
  • PLOT
    • By now, you've probably got some idea of the story you want to tell. Your worldbuilding has got you thinking like your characters, living in the world you know, and so you understand exactly where they can take you. You started this process wanting to tell a fantasy Romeo & Juliet. Now you know you're going to undercut it with a magical civil war that ruminates on the destructive power of revenge. 
    • GO WRITE THAT PLOT. Outline, bullets, numbering, word-vomit, whatever. Just get it down.
      • I personally go for the 8 sequence, three act structure when I'm outlining. I studied screenwriting and that was the style hammered into us and it works for me. (I can do another blog post on this if anybody wants). Basically this means my stories are structured like movies, or at least they try to be.
    • Get your lovely pile of worldbuilding together. Go through it, see where the gaps are. Where did this religion come from? What city did her parents live in? Why is the king so damn mean and what made him this way? Is there anything special about that island you drew in for fun? (Maybe it's a holy island haunted by angels, who knows). 
    • This is like plugging up holes in the front yard because someone is coming to look at the house. You don't need to fill them up, but just put a little grass over the top. You might fall through later, but at least you've gotten to later.
    • Remember, don't get stuck. Keep moving. Things can always be filled in when you need to fill them in. 
    • Tools: coffee
I can't promise you're ready to write (you could've been ready to write back before the word 'map' left my fingers), but this is usually the point where I am. And then it's off to the sometimes slow, sometimes fast, always wonderful and excruciating races.


  1. This is so helpful! I love it! And consequently I love family trees too. I'm very into genealogy and once attempted on ancestry.com to "dead end" every branch of my family tree i.e. go back the furthest I could (which was FAR! My mom's side came to New England in the 1600s and I can go back centuries further too). For every line. Including all the women that married in aka it kept branching off and I had the most confusing outline to try and keep track hahah. Needless to say, family trees are fascinating. Never thought of constructing one for a story before. And I struggle with complete world building, wish I had your patience and talent! I know some parts, just have to learn to flesh it out more. Seriously love your blog posts!

  2. Great idea...I've never drawn a map for a book before (though my current WIP is the first high fantasy book I'm writing). I have these zigzag sketches of roads and geography in my head but putting them down is something I'll try out.

  3. Thanks, this will help me focus my notes. Also, I would indeed appreciate more info about that screenwriting structure you mentioned. For that matter, I'd read any blog post about your screenwriting knowledge and how it informs your novel writing process. My creative writing and communication programs only covered publishing, editing, literary writing and some journalism (not complaining overall, just would've appreciated another dash of "creative" added to that creative writing degree), so please share to your heart's content!