World Building Confessions

The biggest confession I have about world building is–I despise it. I loathe it. There are not enough words to say how much I dislike world building. It is far from one of my natural writing talents. I have spent decades sucking Gibraltar through a bar straw with world building.

That said, the only thing I really want to write is Fantasy. Which means I had to find a way to make world building work for me.

The first option is the obvious one: Take an Earth culture and adapt it.

Simple, right? Well, it doesn’t work without more thinking about it. Pre-Christian Ireland (one of my favorite eras and cultures) is that way because of the land, the weather, the resources, the people who settled there and what they valued. Let’s change something simple, like giving them coinage instead of a barter system. Yes, it makes them not-Pre-Christian Ireland, but if that’s the only thing I change, then the world doesn’t feel right.

And it doesn’t feel right, basically, because I don’t want to do the work and ask questions to make it right. So what I get is a fallow area that doesn’t contribute to the story.

In Fantasy, the world has to be the richest source of story growth because that’s where everything fantastic comes from.

And story growth is things that sparks questions. You’ve got to ask the questions. You’ve got to follow the logic of those questions and see if that’s where you want it to go. Find a variety of answers. See what grows the best story.

But I didn’t care for many years. I hated world building, so I did as little of it as I possibly could. I mean, I didn’t actually have to do the stuff I hated, right?

Yeah. I was self-delusional for a long, long time. Decades.

Then I met someone who not only became my best friend, but she is the most naturally gifted world builder I’ve ever personally known. I’ve seen her sit for a half-hour and create an entire world that four people can role play in and it all hangs together perfectly. I envied her that, but it all worked out. She couldn’t plot for spit and envied me my natural talent there.

Over the years of our friendship, she taught me some basic world building tips that have improved my stories massively. I still dislike world building intensely, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can do some good work without feeling like I’m flaying my soul during the process.

What I realized is that I was uncomfortable coming up with all those questions I mentioned before. The questions that enrich the world, which affects the concepts leading to characters, conflict and all the elements of story. I was uncertain that I would be asking the right questions. I was afraid of doing it wrong.

It took a long time, years, for me to figure out that there aren’t any wrong questions. There aren’t really right questions. All the questions are for is to get me to think about things outside of whatever’s comfortable. Once I accepted that, I can’t stop myself from coming up with questions now.

Her tip? Find a “world feel” and use that as the ruler for all other ideas.

Sounds both simple and hard, which it is.

Because a “world feel” can be anything. “Magical Pittsburgh” is the world feel for my series of short stories. As I mentioned in the previous post, Crimson and Crystal. is the world feel for my MIP, Legend’s End.

So how does that work? Making a song into a world feel.

Basically, it boils down to: I hope to make people feel about this world the way I feel when I hear this song.

I find the song haunting, mystic and beautiful. It’s filled with longing, hope, and a touch of despair. There’s no confusion, it’s all very clear, very right there.

Now the questions start–what kind of culture makes me think of mystic, beauty and haunting? Or at least two out of three? What can I do to add the missing element? How do I keep it all clear? What attitudes, traditions or plot elements will lend the longing, hope and despair? Is there any way I can tie some of those elements into other areas of the world?

Once I have a firm sense of what the world feel is, when something comes up while writing, I can see if it fits. Weird things will come out of my imagination. I’ll be writing and they’re just be there. If they fit, they stay in and flavor the story. Often, they’ll become more important as I keep writing, lending itself perfectly to a plot twist, act as a foreshadow, or just giving real motivation for a character to do something.

Figuring out how to ask questions has opened the world building for me. I’ve actually gotten compliments on the world building in my recent works, so there’s come validation. It feels good not to be fumbling so badly anymore.

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