My body must feel National Novel Writing Month coming, because I have been brainstorming like crazy on different worlds and ideas. I love it, the idea that whole settings are brewing in my head, waiting to be unleashed on the page. Unfortunately, most of them fall flat, die in the notebook, and aren’t heard from for years to come.
According to Orson Scott Card (a bigot, but that’s not important here), this is a good thing. When we world build, we should always take notes, because you never know what will become a full-fledged story 5, 10, or 20 years from now. I’ve never considered myself that patient, but sometimes you don’t really have a choice. You create, through pure wonder and instinct, and then you let it rest until the full picture comes to you.
So today I feel like talking about world building, and doing some world building too.
I would say where I start, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The obvious answer is inspiration. When we see object, hear that sentence, groove to that song that triggers something in our minds. Often it is another media piece, which is why artists so often list others as inspiration. There is no shame in it, everyone does it.
For instance, my Cyberpunk story was directly inspired by me finally reading Neuromancer. There is no way around it. I read the novel, loved the concepts, and connected it with thoughts already within. The story took on skeptic/atheist undertones, with the main character not believing in a program so powerful that it was like a god.
Sometimes inspiration takes time, everything doesn’t click right away. That’s fine, as long as the idea can spin around in your head, it doesn’t matter how long it waits there. Soon it will absorb enough to become a full idea of its own.
From there, from the initial idea, I feel like there are a few approaches. It depends entirely on you, and what you want to do. As a writer, I’m planning on telling a story, but hell if that is the whole question. How long is this story? Is the story focused on one character? What is the scale of the story? Does the story stick to one time period? How much of the setting is important to the story?
I have a story about a married couple in a fantasy land who become cursed. The story is focused entirely on them, so only issues important to their daily lives need complete details. They aren’t nobility, so the lives and politics of royals are only so important. They are fairly affluent, so the scum life isn’t important unless they interact with it in the story. Only so much of the world’s history will relate to them, or even be known to them, so I can dial the clock 100 years in either direction and probably determine everything they would be aware of and that has influenced them.
These days I’ve been thinking about an RPG setting, which is a different undertaking entirely. With an RPG setting, the questions instead become player focused. What will the GM need to know? What will the players want to know? What will the ‘current’ timeline be? What major events have shaped the current timeline?
Unlike a story, the amount of knowledge required for an RPG setting is staggering. My RPG setting idea isn’t even complicated. It is a DnDesque universe where the different fantasy races occupy planets instead of regions of the same continent. Forest exploration is replaced with fantasy ship travel through the stars. Dungeons are stations left in space by long dead races.
The world building mostly did itself, but a lot of questions have been left unanswered.
After you know what questions to ask, it is easier to make a setting bloom. Once I know what I need to focus on, I can work my way outwards until the present, past, and future have all been covered in detail. It is also the easiest way to correct yourself, if something you create doesn’t quite fit with what you wanted.
If I am creating fantasy races, and I know I want one of them to be comically evil, I can go back and correct my history. The history was based on the present, so drawing the lines of influence, knowing which ideas changed what, is less of a burden. The 7th creation of the Ancient Ones was lost for their hubris (past), there are rumors the Shadow Kin are what is left of the fallen race (present), To this day they swarm the havens created by the Ancient Ones (present), looking for objects of power that can fuel their ascension. Etc, etc, fantasy jargon and silly race names.
The difficult part for me, is closure. I can note down a lot of different details, but I never quite feel like I’m done. There is always more to create, so when do I close the book and say I am finished? The answer given to me by plenty of teachers? It is never finished, just released. At some point you have to let your baby out the door, let it graduate, go to college, have its first drink, and make babies of its own. You can spend the meantime crying in your bedroom like a clingy parent.
Sometimes you draw the line, write the story, and then leave the rest for editing. That’s a whole other can of worms (or should I say wurms), and I’d rather not talk about it now.