because rambling about world-building is just like world-building


So this sprung out of an email conversation and a thread on a forum.

Now, world-building is kinda the mouth-breathing, socially-unskilled nerd of fantasy. It’s touted as what sets fantasy apart from other genres, and as obsessive pointless wankery. Really, it’s a bit of both.

I have pretty mixed reactions to my world-building in fantasy. Some readers love what I do and find it evocative, and some readers suggest I go read better authors and learn how to do it properly. (I do, in fact, read better authors. I’d have stayed a terrible writer if I hadn’t and didn’t). I can only talk about what I do, though, and if it helps you, that’s cool

>When writing something set in a secondary world I usually start with a close-up image related to the main character (something that tells you about that particular character’s social status, class, money-situation, work, age. You can get a lot of that information across without actually stating anything out right.) At this early point I have a vague idea of what’s happening outside (relative to the MC), and a couple of other key images that set tone for the world.

Most of these early image-scenes don’t even make it into the final draft in their original form. This is fine. It’s like grisaille work in an oil painting – an underpainting that sets out the form and shadows, that gives the artist a blueprint to work from and underpins the end product. You don’t see it (though sometimes you do) but it informs everything about that final finished piece. It gives depth.

So I start with these scraps and forms, and I follow my character through their story. As they move through their narrative, they *have* to, in some way, also move through their world. In the first draft I’m learning story and world. I’m seeing what happens, I’m wondering why this would happen and not that. It’s pretty obvious I am not an outliner, though I have guide-notes for reference, and an idea of resolution (that also changes quite often).

Once I’m done with that, there will be world-building that grew from this process which will directly influence and change the narrative.  This is also fine, it keeps things interesting. Sometimes things happen in real life, or I stumble across an interesting article and I think yesss this is perfect this must go in and I seed it into the fictional universe. Something as simple as taking my dogs for a walk and watching the pied kingfishers hovering and plummeting will thread its way into my book; the sour-mud smell of the air, the squish of goose crap underfoot, the bite of the south-easter. For me, world-building is as much about observation of our world as it is using my imagination to create new things.

I  once heard or read someone talking about how specificity in a novel makes the fantasy world come to life, so instead of using generic words like tree, I’ll say what kind of tree it is, and that sparks more thought – why this tree? What does it say about climate? How would this tree affect the world around it? What kind of furniture would people make from this tree? And then I think about furniture…and the process never ends.  And that’s how the world develops. It is an organic process, and sometimes no matter how cool (or truthful) a world-building element might be, including it throws the story off, so in those places I either smudge, or use smoke and mirrors. Some things are not THAT important in the grand scheme of story. It’s when these elements become more important than your story’s truth, you know you’re headed too far into the realm of writerly wankery.

One of the things I do is use zim wiki to keep world-building notes in order for easy adding and cross-referencing, (and also so I just have a repository of the pointless detail – things like eye colour of some random mentioned once on page 18 of book one who is suddenly a major player in book 3 :P).

So that’s my take on world-building; if you have little tips or tricks or things you do to help build and visualise a strange new world, I’d love to hear. If you want me to expand on something, I’ll do that.

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