On Building a World

Writers have the greatest job in the world. We get to play God of our own stories. We tell our characters where to go, what to wear, who to talk to, what to say, what to feel. We are the final authority. We are the ones who get to say “Yes, this is in my story, my world,” and “No, there is no way in hell I’m letting that near my baby.” It’s great. We are so incredibly powerful. But, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. This responsibility is almost more evident in the worlds we create than in the characters we bring to life and the stories we tell.

Our world is the base for everything else. The world (Bob), characters (Amelia), and plot (Julie) all exist simultaneously, but it is only Bob that can exist on its own.  Amelia and Julie don’t need each other to exist. Amelia can exist and just live, making up a plot as it goes along. Julie can grab any old character and force it to do what must be done. But both Amelia and Julie need Bob to exist. They cannot exist without having a place in which to exist, and that place is Bob. Bob, however, doesn’t need Amelia or Julie. Bob can go on being Bob and not give a darn. Bob–our world–is the base for our story, and it’s imperative that we make as good a base as we can.

That’s where worldbuilding comes in.

Believe it or not, every author worldbuilds. Some do it before they write. Others do it while they write. Some might even do it after they finish writing, to piece together loose ends. Whatever way you feel most comfortable worldbuilding is the way to do it.

When people talk about worldbuilding (before writing), they usually have this idea that you’re going around making maps and planning forests and rivers and cities and towns and castles. It’s common to think that you’re supposed to spend weeks and months deciding how many species of tree are in Forest B and what the ecosystem is and all that. Well, that’s a part of it, and it’s not. Worldbuilding isn’t about making lists and lists and lists. The point is to make a solid base for your story. Focus on the parts that directly relate to your story.  If trees aren’t integral to your story, don’t worry about them. If somehow your story revolves around trees, list all the trees in the forest that your characters will need to come into contact with. Try not to map out all of the cities and rivers; stick to the ones that you know your characters will come into contact with.

In short, if there’s information you need to know before your start writing (such as if your country is at war with its neighbors or not and your characters are on the border), then figure that out. Writing it down clearly and legibly.  Then get to writing. Don’t take too much on this pre-writing worldbuilding. Some people worldbuild for months and years and never get around to actually writing their story. It’s another way of avoiding writing, so don’t do it.

Worldbuilding during the writing process is more common than worldbuilding before writing–after all, everyone does it. There will come a time in your writing when you’re struck the idea to have a mountain where there was previously a river or a religious association that you hadn’t counted on and hadn’t planned out. When that moment comes, there is one thing I can tell you: Make it up. This is your in-writing worldbuilding, and it’s very important. It doesn’t matter if it changes plans you had or messes with things you wrote earlier. You can fix any inconsistencies when you edit. Later. For now, just go with it.

If you don’t want to plan your world before you write, that’s perfectly okay. I rarely do. In fact, when I do, I always end up changing and adding things anyway. I make up new things. It’s okay to do that. Worldbuilding is not as tedious as building a house; really, it’s just rambling on paper about what might or might not be running through your story’s world (real or imagined). So, ramble. Think out loud, on paper. Go with it. First drafts are there for you to figure out the mechanics of your world. This is your time to make your world reveal itself to you. Then, once you know your world, you can choose what, how, when to reveal your world to your readers.

Happy writing, everyone.


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