Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Worldbuilding 101

No, no, not sexy muskeeers, magical ones!
Sooner or later, every fantasy author gets around to building their setting.  Even a fantasy set in modern day (urban fantasy) requires some design of how the magic works, what people know about it, where various forces are and what they consist of etc.  

You might be writing a fantasy set in Musketeers-era France but if there's magic, then who knows it, are there monsters, and where do they lurk, and how does it all fit together?  Does Cardinal Richelieu know about wizards and are they a target of the inquisition, or protected because they work for King Louis?

Building this world can be quite a daunting challenge.  After all, a world is a very big place, and populating an entire planet, building its nations, peoples, cultures, geography, history, economies, oceans, animals, plants, diseases, languages and so much more is more than any one person has time or ability to successfully complete.  Even J.R.R. Tolkiens massive work on Middle Earth only covered a small part of the planet, with most of it only lightly touched on.

Sometimes, writers can be caught up in worldbuilding to the exclusion of actually writing.  Unable to get past creating the setting, they get little actual story down on paper because there's always something else to come up with, some other map to create, and so on.

The best way to approach this, I believe, is to start very small and be willing to let things go.  Here's what I mean.

Don't start with a map of the world, then start filling in the blanks.  Start very small.  One farm, one fishing hole, one canyon, one meadow.  Start in an area you can imagine standing in and looking around.  Imagine what is there and spread out slowly and reasonably from that place.

For example, start at the fishing hole.  A pond, fed by a stream, beneath a waterfall.  People come there to catch fish.  A simple little spot, right?  But you can gain so much from just a little location.  What kind of fish?  How big is the stream?  How tall is the waterfall?  Who comes to fish there, and how many?  What kind of plants are nearby?  What is the climate of this fishing hole, is it arctic, jungle, temperate? Is it in the mountains, the plains, close to the ocean, deep in land?

Swimming disturbs the fish, you rascals!
Just answering a handful of these questions brings even more to mind.  Let us propose that this fishing hole is in a lightly wooded prairie sort of area, one of those areas where a line of trees and plants grows along the stream but the rest is grassy and lightly hilly plains.  The stream isn't likely to have a very high waterfall, but the fish can be abundant.  Sometimes those creeks in the plains can be quite deep, with the sides digging under the edges, so that the banks overhang the water.

The fish in this stream are good eating, so the locals come here to catch a meal.  What if they have some other property?  Lets say their liver oil is very useful medicine, and used to treat local illnesses.  Lets further say that the area because of its water, food, and medicine is contested, because it is an abundant source of all three useful commodities.

So who is competing for all of this?  Local human settlements?  Other creatures such as orcs and goblins?  Does anyone gather the oil in bottles to sell?  Maybe there's a larger settlement down the road from this area, a market to sell the oil in.  How do people get to this settlement, is there a road?  How safe is the road?  How often do they go?  Maybe they can only make it a few times a year; harvest time, when the grasses are cut for hay, grain, and even firewood?

What about those plains filled with waves of amber grain, what kind of grasses?  Can you eat their seeds, or the leaves?  How big do they grow?  What eats the grass, what kind of creatures live there?  Maybe some of the grass grows very tall and has very thick stems, suitable for firewood.  Maybe gigantic creatures eat the grasses, and must be warded off somehow (bright colors?  Lights?  Sound?).  Perhaps instead its swarms of smaller creatures that must simply be endured, like locust.

What are the homes built from?  If those huge stalks can be used for fuel, they can be used for building as well.  Thatching can come from the huge leaves of these mega grasses.  Homes built out of grass entirely could be imagined from this setting.  Do these plants have sap?  That would work to glue things together, or nearby tar from the ground?  Do the huge grasses have huge seeds?  Imagine eating a single grain of mega-wheat for breakfast, boiled and seasoned with some crumbled up dried tiny fish for their salt.

Is the weather hot or harsh?  Perhaps its cold?  The temperature and climate plays a major part.  I imagine this setting as being like the Great Plains in America: hot in summer, cold in winter, with dry winds.  

That means needing to put in a lot of wood for fuel in the winter, digging a root cellar to store food in, and planting these giant grains to block the prevailing winds (and worst effects of blizzards) around property.  Replacing the grass thatching every year or even season might be necessary.

Now, look at all that's developed just from a few questions about a single area?  As we spread out from that humble setting more is added.  Where does that road go, and how far away is the market?  How many other settlements are nearby, and how do they survive?  Are they all based on the grass and fish market, or are there other commodities?

If animals live in this area other than fish, then pelts, meat, and even other exotic things might be available for sale and survival.  Maybe the local gazelle has tendons that make incredible bowstrings.  Perhaps the antlers of that bison creature can be ground up for alchemists, or their hooves for glue.  The birds here might be prodigous, living in the huge grass stalks.  Their feathers could be useful - fletching, down for pillows and mattresses, or decoration, and so on.

So Sioux me, its not original
The Great Plains brings to mind nomadic hunting tribes, for me at least.  Maybe some race of creatures, perhaps elves?  live in this area, and resent the humans.  Tensions could be high, even warfare.  What are these elves like?  Where do they live and what is their culture?  One guesses magic with elves, but it must not be very sophisticated or powerful or the humans would have no chance.

So low, maybe even shamanic or minor elemental magic?  And the elves, they probably live in temporary or portable homes if they are nomadic.  So they sew the leaves of these huge grasses together as tents and fold them up for carry.  Do they ride any animals, or use them as beasts of burden to carry loads?  Maybe they hunt those antlered bison things for food and furs for sleeping and robes against the cold of winter.

How many of these elves are they and how much of a threat?  Can they be reasoned with, are they simply angry at what the humans have done unjustly or is it more complicated?  Perhaps some tribes or groups are less hostile, and others more so.

What are the humans doing here?  Why have they settled in this area now?  How sophisticated are they and what is their civilization like away from the frontier?  Do they have mail, government, armies, literature, music, fashions that trickle through to the frontier?

In answering these questions, don't feel like you have to have it all.  The only answers you need are the ones sufficient to your story.  The sophistication and civilization of the lands far away only matter insofar as they impact characters and the tale being told.  Maybe Darles Chickens has written a new story that is finally reaching the frontier in old magazines brought down the wagon trail.  

You don't need to know his whole catalog of stories, or even anything else about literature, just that one story.  The fashions the ladies follow or long after are irrelevant except in passing mention or how one lady particularly stands out because of her modern, city looks.

Like I noted in my post on maps, don't feel like you have to fill out every nook and cranny.  If there are blank spots and grayish areas in your world, good.  Not only does that give you room to expand or change things, it makes your world seem more plausible.  Without using the internet now, can you answer these questions about our world?
  • What is the capitol of Mongolia?
  • Where might you find Lake Titicaca?
  • What nation exports the most sesame seeds?
  • How many people live in Romania?
We have tremendous amounts of information and learning about our world, take classes on geography, are inundated with news and data.  But there are large sections of the planet which are unknown or only vaguely known to us.  Even the most rabid expert on the world doesn't know even a large minority of all there is to know.

You don't need to work out your entire world.  You only need to work up as much as serves your story.  It doesn't hurt to know more, but therein lies a trap: getting too caught up in building your world to actually get anything else done.  Let it lie until you need more, because you'll find a little secret in the process.

That secret is that as you write and add details, descriptions, and events to your story, you add to your world.  I have a fantasy setting that I've used for adventures since the late 1980s and every time I write a book set in that world, I add more to the setting, details that never come up in a game because they are either irrelevant to the game or peripheral, such as the difference between slang in Koreii and Morien, or what the primary architecture of Dornica consists of.

As you write your book, you'll be expanding on your world in the process, but it will be less a process of dry creation and more in the setting of the narrative.  So instead of sitting and imagining what the coins look like, you begin to see them through the eyes of your characters.  And through that storytelling, you can make a more organic world.

An organic world is one which naturally and reasonably fits together, not the creation of elements attached to each other like different colored Lego, but smoothly transitioning like colors in a watercolor painting.  The pieces and elements of your world flow one to another as if they occurred for real and build a coherent whole.

By starting small you can create that organic world, because each part fits the other as a necessary and reasonable consequence of the former.  The house made of giant grass stalks came from imagining the plains and the animals there, which came from that little fishing hole.

So build your world smoothly, organically, and incompletely, by starting small and radiating out like ripples from one of those fish hitting a fly in the center of the fishing hole.  Your readers will enjoy it and you won't feel so overwhelmed.