Lesson 13: Building a World From the Ground Up
In a previous lesson, I discussed building a world using an existing world as a template. This guide, however, should (hopefully) be a good starter set for building your own world for a story from scratch.
Things to Remember if You Build From Scratch
Building your world from scratch is VERY different from using an existing world as a template. You have to consider:
--how Earth-like it is (or if it's even Earth at all)
--history and culture for every race in your world
--your world's pantheon of deities (or one deity if your world is a monotheistic society)
--what role magic/magic-like powers play in the world (if at all)
and that's only just for starters!
While it may seem daunting at first, the key thing to remember, according to fantasy author Tad Williams, is research:
So, where do you (or should you) begin your research?...the reader has to get glimpses of deep background to your world. You don’t have to show the entire world and all its history — show or describe too much and it gets boring — but when they do get a chance to look past the main story, they should see something of lands beyond — select glimpses of greater depth, greater history, greater vistas beyond the main story. And the good part is, you don’t have to invent every detail, just enough to have it seem real.
That’s because in ordinary life people (other than me — I’m notoriously bad about lecturing on things that interest me) seldom say, “And now we’re going down Famous Old Road, where a lot of important things happened, such as blah and blah and blah…” But if you name that thoroughfare Famous Battle Road, or Famous Citizen Road without going into much detail, you actually get more world-building mileage out of it. Because that’s how things work in the real world, and that’s something readers understand even when they don’t actually realize it consciously. Very seldom do people say, “It’s down in the Battery District, which is where they used to keep the cannons hundreds of years ago.” They just say, “It’s down in the Battery.”
And if you’re going to build an imaginary world, you need to understand something about the way real worlds work — which means more research. Lots of science and history. But don’t just make it dry and ordinary. If you’re working in our field, you’re creating the fantastical — things should sometimes be both more horrible and more wonderful than on our plain old vanilla everyday world. People who grew up on Tolkien didn’t just love Moria, and the Nazgul, they also wanted to visit (or even move to) Lothlorien and Rivendell. Yes, you want to build a solid foundation, a rational base that makes the reader feel, “Yeah, this could exist”, but you also want to give the reader a reason to remember your world long beyond the time they can remember all the ins and outs of the plot.
Wikipedia is always a good start, especially if you scroll down to the external links. Once you have an idea what real cultures you want to use as a basis (if any), read as much as you can about them--where they live, their history, their religion, their culture. Details like this make a world come alive.
Your world's not Earth-like at all, you say? You still have to do some research to figure out what your world's gravity and weather is like in relation to Earth. The more plausible and believable you can make a non-Earth world, the better--just be careful not to dump too much info on your audience all at once. As one writer pleads:
Another way to begin your research, according to some world building guides, is to start with a map and the general technology level of the world:Because time and time again I see the new writer spend the first twenty or thirty pages showing me all his clever world building. Lush descriptive passages of the climate or a village, the fact that in your world it rains from the ground up into the sky…
Thing is, you’re not writing Fodor’s Guide to Rigel Seven, writers. I don’t care about you spelling out your world to me like it’s a travel guide (and this is how they do read almost every session). That’s stuff the author needs to know but readers don’t. I’d argue that that level of telling us about the world you crated doesn't need to be included in the book very much at all.
So what do I care about? Your characters, and I’ll only care about the fact that it rains from the ground up in your world once a character steps out their front door and water rushes up their pant leg because they forgot to tie their weatherproof pants shut. Now, I know it rains from the ground up and I care because your poor hero’s underwear is soaked and most of us can identify with their misery.
The trick of world building—as I see it—is: I only want to know about your world as far as it affects your characters in the moment of the plot.
Then once you have your map and possibly some cultures, the next logical step would be to create languages for your cultures:Draw your map from anything, but remember that the natural world is full of irregularities. Sometimes, drawing a continent based on the stain a leaf left on the sidewalk after a storm is better than trying to make one up yourself.
Similarly, when and if your characters ever enter a village, city, or settlement, they will find that, for the most part, these are rather chaotic and "natural" formations themselves. Trust me; if you've ever been to Europe, you know that many of the towns seem to be built on a meandering cowpath. There are many reasons for this kind of street structure, not the least of which is defensive. But the primary reason is that the road was there before the buildings were, and they follow natural lines and geographical formations. Only in great empires (and attempts thereto) are straight lines used. The Roman roads were so phenomenal and so frightening because they were a straight line from departure to destination; the Romans did not let geographical barriers keep them from their objectives. Similarly, many American cities were built on clean, straight lines, to reflect an orderly lifestyle that was hoped for in this frontier. Further west, and in many of the midwestern towns, cities didn't just happen; they were planned out meticulously. Salt Lake City and Washington DC are two wonderful examples of cities that were planned out before they were ever built.
Once you have your map, decide on a technology level. Sure, you don't want your fantasy characters to have guns (or do you?), but what about cannons? Crossbows? Swords? Plate armor? Chain armor? Kevlar? What about ships: are primitive longboats the dragons of the seas, or do huge galleons rule and pillage through piracy and "privateering"? Are there paved or cobbled roads, or do people just follow the cow paths from one town to the next? How difficult or dangerous is it to travel, and what kinds of hazards exist?
If you go for a low-tech world, expect swords, spears, and polearms to be normal weapons. Remember that animal populations were a little less controlled, but natural predators culled off the weak. The "runt" of the litter of pigs wasn't a pet (see Charlotte's Web), it was a spring meal. Rarely would you have people bonding with their house cat, although favorite hunting and working dogs were often given special treatment.
A mid-tech world might be something like Earth at the turn of the century. Communications systems are becoming reliable due to the telegraph, and factories provide jobs for many many people. But working conditions aren't necessarily humane, and people still have (and will always have, in any age) conflicts with other people, and with themselves.
Finally, a high-tech world can be fun, especially when you add fantastical elements to it. Just beware of adding too many unreal elements to your story. A high-tech world in which traditional magic also works had better approach the subject of magic in a fairly straightforward manner, or the reader will be too confused by the introduction of both advanced technologies and magical principles.
Of course, there's no rule that says you have to make a language from the ground up. One tool I often like to use is the Fantasy Language Cypher which takes any language you put in and scrambles it into a gibberish language that sounds (more or less) like the language(s) you started with. My favorite tactic to take with this is to translate the same text (say, the original English Pokemon theme, for example) into whatever language(s) I want to blend, put them in the model text box, and then use the resulting gibberish to build a lexicon. I have also taken Hymmnos (from the Ar Tonelico series) and scrambled it with real languages. Keep in mind though, that no matter what you blend, the language should be relatively easy to pronounce, so be prepared to tweak the outputs if you choose to go this route.When you start populating your world with sentient people-- whether they're human or otherwise-- start addressing the question of language right away. It's an awful lot of work to create a whole new language for a culture of people who don't exist, never have, and never will. Tolkein did it-- more than once-- but he was a linguist by training, a genius, and for him, it was a ton of fun. If you love inventing whole languages, then have fun with it. If you're like me and just want to slide in a few new words because they sound "right," then do that. By all means, though, create a lexicon for your fantasy world's languages, though-- if the people of the S'nnari Desert tend to liquid sounds (lots of r's and l's), then any word with a "k" sound should be somewhat foreign to them, or have a particular impact when they say it (as in a curse word). People often say that German rarely sounds "nice," and it's somewhat true-- many hard sounds in the German language give it a much harsher "sound" to Romanized ears. The Star Trek producers were not stupid when they created the hard-sounding syllables of Klingon, either.
Once you have your language built, you can then start to work on names:
To review: Names--be they for people, places, or things, should be easy to spell and pronounce, while at the same time being consistent with the cultures of your world.Give your characters names that you can pronounce. Easily. Quickly. And if that doesn't work, make them embarrassed enough about their names to shorten them to a nickname. Ffrinnithelia suddenly becomes "Frin" or "Lia." Some families, no doubt, will tend to longer, more impressive-sounding names. Perhaps there are even some non-human races that prefer the more elegant touch of a barely-pronounceable name? But when these folk get into a tight situation, or they come to know someone well, they will drop some formality and use a shortened version of their name pretty darn quick.
LT's Worldbuilding Starter Set
Thankfully, there are tons of generator programs for everything a worldbuilder might need (or want) out there. Play D&D or some other tabletop RPG? A lot of the resources out there can feasibly work for a writer as well (although depending on your world, you may have to adapt your resource to better suit your world)
But before we get to specific generators, let's first list my Fab Five generator sites that I use a lot:
Seventh Sanctum-This is it--THE authority on generator sites. While it's mainly used for fantasy, there are also some modern day and sci-fi material there as well. The generators run the gamut from serious to silly, but every once in a while, even the silly ones will generate something that just might work in your world.
Generators I often use here:
80's and 90's cartoons (for hypothetical TV shows for Ash and co. to watch)
Chaotic Shiny: Mainly used for fantasy, there is still a small collection of modern day and scifi generators as well. There are even some workable yet unfinished generators here--and despite their unfinished state, still put out decent results
Generators I often use here:
Pantheons (mainly for the god names and domains)
Ballads (This is how I get songs for Minstrel Brock to sing in fantastic Pokeworlds)
Folktales (more minstrel material)
Taverns (your minstrels have to perform somewhere...)
Abulafia Generators--Need a name? This wiki based site has them--enough generators to generate names from all over the world and fantastic names as well. And it's not just people names--places and things can be named here as well.
Generators I often use here:
Dueling Character (for tournaments)
Strolen's Citadel-While not a generator site per se, and mainly geared towards RPers, a lot of the material here is feasible enough to work for writers too. So if you want to know how I created the Tower of Runes in "Pokemon: The Song of Jewels", the dungeons section was a HUGE help. In fact, you can spend hours here if you're not careful.
Sections I often use:
Donjon-This site's claim to fame is its dungeon map generator--with a little wiggle room, you can create a quick dungeon for your adventurers to quest through in no time. Also of note is its extensive name generator--very helpful for town names and people names that sound realistic.
Generators I often use here:
Of course, I'm only scratching the surface here when it comes to world building, and certain aspects of worldbuilding have been covered in previous lessons. In addition, there are literally millions of other resources out there to help you besides the five I have included here. But hopefully, this guide is enough to start you off on the right foot in building a truly wonderful world for your readers to discover.
Tad Williams on worldbuilding
World Building, Schmerld Building...or, Why I Don't give a Flying Snitch About Your World
World Builder's Guide
If you would like to try out some of these tips and resources, here's an example guide for you to use.
Of course, any questions, comments, and your own worldbuilding stories are always welcome.