Updated: Mar 1, 2020
World-building. What does that mean? Well, we could start with the Oxford English Dictionary definition, I suppose;
World Building. Noun (uncountable) The construction of a world, especially a convincing fictional world for literature etc. Origin world + building
Quite simple really, right? Right? Wrong. World building is truly not simple and will be the most difficult part of your work as a writer. Note the key word in the definition fictional is a given, of course so that's not the key word. So what is? Convincing, that's the key word. You want to a create a world that your own characters believe in and belong to, one which shapes both them and the story so that your readers will believe it too. For this to work, you need to sort of beleive in it too, I suppose…Consider what I think are essential elements to make sure you pay great attention to;
Language. You don't have to go Klingon, Dothraki or High Valeryian and actually construct a language entirely a-la-Tolkien but you need to consider it as an important factor. Consider such things as; A: Slang, regionalisms and dialect. How does your character speak. What words does he or she use that other characters don't. What words are unique to them and which are unique to the world as a whole B: Curse and insult worlds; believe it or not these have an impact. Curses are often culturally influenced therefore will reveal a lot of details about the either the culture using them or the culture they are being used towards. C: Differences to our speech; of course you are likely yo be writing in English for the most part but you want to find little ways and add differences here and there to make it at least look like another language is being spoken. How would accents differ and how you might represent them?
I first ran into this side of the world-building art when composing my alternate world of the Hegemony. In this world, Alexander the Great did not die in 323 B.C. but went on to first conquer the know world as far as Nepal, to the Valley of Silence, what would become Base Camp 1 in our time.
Inside of the mountain known locally as Sagamartha or Chomolungma or 'great mother mountain' he found the true great mother by whom both he and ten thousand, three hundred of his soldiers were reborn into the Kal-Shodar. As they arrived and built camp it was Lupernikes, the Spartan General, who made observations about what I called the argot of the army.
Alexander's army now had Persians, Greeks, Sogdianans and many proto-Chinese or Oriental tribespeople within it's ranks and camp followers, among others. It was inconceivable to think that there would be the time and the titanic organisation needed to teach all of these peoples Greek or Koine, the standard Greek the army used (back then each Greek City State had it's own version of Greek and the Koine was named 'travelling Greek' or Standard Greek, combining all the dialects of Greek into something everyone could use and understand) back then.
So they did what the army had been doing up to that point, they developed an argot or pidgin, as the various languages and dialects mixed, they flowed together and bits of one combined with parts of another to begin the process of creating a new language, which was formalised a short time after Hegemony was achieved in Hegemonic Standard Greek or Standard for short. As they travelled, the argot developed and Neshaa speaks to Kalliades and others about it and uses it. Kal-Shodar itself is a combination of Persian, some old Asiatic and even old Hindi and Sanskrit meaning 'Enlightened Ones' or 'Remade Ones'. Dracograth is also a combination of Persian, Attic and Early Germanic languages to mean something like 'Dragon Guard'.
Using these linguistic excercises didn't end there either. I wanted to include Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Dr. Stephen Hawking in the story, among others but I thought, how would the language have changed had Latin not become the major influencer on speech of the day? Had Rome not risen and created it's Empire, how different would the world be? I decided that most of Western World we know today would be quite different.
Alexander believed in his version of Hegemony, the culture and manner of those who joined was added to the whole and parts we adopted in order to enruch the whole. This habit of his, taught to him by Aristotle some historians say, got him into trouble with the army in real history. In my alternate history, the big change happened before that rot set in. Instead there was another major problem but we'll get to that later.
Suffice it to say, I played with place names first and those three gentlemen became Albrecht Aïstàn (Old Gothic mixed with a 'hellenisating influence), Dr. Stefæón Hwœlèdh (Old Saxon and Gaelic again a shade hellenised) and Nikàlà Tesla (because Dacian, the ancient name for region now known as Romania being Dacia, was a possible off-shoot of Thracian which had contributed to the Koine of that age). Place names were also altered, as were countries. Some remained with the names they would have had at the time, others were hellenised. You see Standard would have caught on eventually but, left alone, most people would just keep doing what they had always done and be glad for the peace and adopted it later.
Technology; this is thought to just be the realms of science fiction but anyone who says that is wrong. Technology has it's place in fantasy too and ignore it at your peril! How certain common tasks are done, what forms of transport and communication were used and even what food they eat (and what technology or techniques they use to cultivate and harvest it) need to be at least thought about, if not directly referred to in detail. Think of what we take for granted in today's world and, in your world they will probably do the same, unless it is something new and incredible. People today are very blase about cell phones and computers but fifty years ago these things were incredible. Let your characters refer naturally to things they take for granted or your narrative will get clunky and unwieldy rather quickly.
I take time to explain the new technology, first in the Kalshodar armaments and armour and later what is discovered and developed on the Moon because it new to everyone so such explanations are relevent to the story. Again, this is my opinion, no hard and fast LAW!
Society. What things are considered normal and which are thought to be taboo or odd in your society. Again you don't need to go into great depth here unless you really want to. Character attitudes, if written well, will tell your readers about these. We also have in this section;
A: Class. How is society structured and organised. Who are considered to be 'in charge'. Are there workers, are there slaves, is everyone equal? Which classes are likely to mix and which should never. Again, massive detail is not needed unless it is relevent to the story but can be illustrated by interactions or casual comments.
B: Money. The unit of currency and how it is earned, saved, represented and spent as well as its value will have significance. If you're writing stock fantasy then you have gold, silver and copper as always, but if you use other commodities? One author I enjoy uses water as her currency. So how much water is this item worth? What is your currency's instrinsic worth. You cannot have character 1 paying, let's say, three blue crystals for a hotel room but they later pay seven red crystals for a meal (when 9 blue equals one red, so you established when someone made change for character 2 earlier), if so they just spent almost twenty times more for their meal than they did their room! What did they eat? The rarest of animals encrusted in nitrogen subtrate with pure white crystal pastry?
C: Conventions and Laws. If a character does something considered wrong or even illegal what would the consequences be for them? Jail? Death? Exile? Combat in The Arena?
D: Medicine and Healing. If you want to both make it feel real and maybe add some excitement, you're going to see some injury or eve death happen. How are people healed, how are they kept healthy during regular life? Is life extended for the privileged? Is there a universal medecine or substrance which extends life or improves health? How is it made? What does it do? Does it have side-effects?
E: Drugs and Vices. We have so many today, some of which are much more socially acceptable than others but in your world how is it different? Is smoking anything illegal? Why? Is caffeine considered a drug (like in Pitch Black, remember the scene when he injects himself in the eye?)? Are everyday things we consider normal given special treatment and what is that? How do people relax? Do they use alcohol or has that been banned? What are the alternatives? If they want something illegal how and where do they go to get it?
F: Jobs and Employment. What do people do to make and earn money? What are considered menial labours? What are considered 'good' jobs. Is status involved? Can only people or a certain upbringing or class do certain jobs? How is employment given, found and kept? Do people get fired and what happens when they do?
G: Customs and Beliefs. Are your folks religious? Are only some of them? How do they practise their beliefs and what influence do these have on their lives? Are things banned by their beliefs which general society accepts? Do they encourage freedom in certain areas where society does not? What happens when people are born or die (THE most important events unless your folk are immortal or suchlike), what customs or relgious (or other) practises accompany these events. Where do believe the dead go?
Now, of course there are more, but I'll end up writing a book if I cover them all!
See how complex and involved we are getting now? You wanted to build a world did you not? Think of how complex ours is. Yours must be equally complex in order to be believable. Again, you don't have to write whole chapters about what these differences are but you need to know them so that when they come up and are relevent then they can be referred to or casually mentioned as you see fit.
Identity. This will come back to class and culture I suppose but includes many other items when you think about it. How do you identify yourself? Let's review this one.
A: Nation, Planet, etc. Many will introduce themselves as natives of a country, city or region when introducing themselves to someone new. Where are they from? Where is there to be from? How do different places of origen get on with one another? Have there been or are there wars? Are there differences in language? Dialect? Accent? Appearance? Species? What factors cause these differences? What factors? Do people from one area dress or behave differently? Do they have other customs etc.?
B: Class and Status. I know we covered this but it may affect how your character identifies themselves. Maybe certain ethnicities etc. may have an impact on status or class? How? How well is that accepted? Who does and who does not? Who is reponsible? Who may want to change it? How?
C: Gender, other. Are there genders or roles similar to what we have? Are things such as status and class affected by these? What do different genders do differently or is their appearence different? How? Does one identify oneself by gender or similar? How? Is one gender or other subservient or treated differently to another?
Again there is more but you are getting the idea by now I hope. You are actually, at this point ready to begin! How will you decide, design and tie together all of this?
I, personally and a great lover of retroactive editing. It may be because I had two to three story archs and and drafts which I had no idea on how to continue and complete until my great "Ah-ha" moment of last year. After I went forward and developed my shared universe, world and characters etc., I edited back to fix things and make them coherant, as I did so I developed my world.
This worked for the Hegemony and Trinity series.
For the Chronicles of Enoch I did it rather differently. I had an idea of how the world was going to be different to ours but I wanted to make it as close to ours as much as possible at the same time. Our history is present and I didn't alter any of that this time. We just have what people call a "Harry Potter Effect" (Thank you J.K) of 'worlds within worlds' where most people remain blissfully unaware of the other world until something (usually) bad happens to blow away their comfortable preconceptions.
You do, though, have to build your subworld in order to know how people from our world or the main world will be affected by the imminent collision of those worlds? How will the hidden world be changed or affected, positively or negatively?
I established the differences and then wrote the chapters to let those differences play out and interact with one another. I had some fun. I had Lucifer and Abaddon watching Armstrong and Aldrin from a distance and joking about them, as well as commenting on the hidden truth that both the astronauts and general population were unaware of. I joked about a lot of conspiracy theories, made fun of some and with others I took them and ran!
As we wrap up let's give you an assigment. Think of your favourite movie or book series. One set upon a world or worlds very different to ours and think on how they built their world. Look for all of the tiny little details you probably didn't notice. All the hinted at subtexts and hidden meaning that I guarantee they left lying around for you if they did it well.
Peter Jackson, referring to his Lord of the Rings trilogy, stated that there are increible amounts of detail in there and stories attached to those details which the audience will more than likely NOT notice consciously. Around 70% of these details will be completely missed by 80% of the people who watch those movies but those very some details will add depth and authenticity to the experience. They give what is called immersion into his and Tolkien's world. Immerse your readers in yours.
Anyone who, of course wants more specifics or ideas knows where to find me! I'm always where I always am, right here in my own little worlds, having an explore. This is what I would like to leave you with, the famous quote or, if it doesn't exist as I am sure it does (I can't find it now…)
"A good writer will build a world. A great writer will occasionally visit it in order to learn more about it. A truly remarkable writer can take you on a tour any time you ask them to."
(Someone famous or maybe me)
What does that mean? Well to be truly great you must know the world you great and write in as well as you know this one. To all intents and purposes it must be real in your mind. It is a theoretical contruct yes but can you, as the quote suggests, visit it? Can you and readers take a trip through it's less known regions? Is your universe coherent enough for fan-fic? Were I to ask you anything about your world or worlds could you give me the answer on the spot? I can. I can tell you where Lupernikes gets his lamb from and how. I can tell you exactly what goes into his famous stew and how the dwarves make their bread so tasty. I can tell you where the dwarven women are (thanks to the late and great Sir Terry Pratchett for putting that in my head!). I can walk you around a Kalshodar cruiser, The Nest, Alexandria the First, The Dwarven Complex, The Dragon's Crown.
I can walk you through the streets of the Atlantis of Sable and Enoch's time. I can explore the antediluvian world with you. I can introduce you to people and places I haven't written about or drawn maps for. How? I have been there and I explored around a bit. I can visit any time I want because they are my worlds.
You consider all these factors and the rest and you are able to stage a great battle or event and know how it's going to go and how it'll happen because you know all the strengths and weaknesses of those involved already. You know the weapons used and how they wound and interact. You know tactics, you know customs. You even know the terrain. If you can see every move of the battle then you can write about the important parts of it!
The world of Hegemony and Trinity or the world of The Chronicles of Enoch are made real by me and seem real to me at times because no-one else is going to want to visit them otherwise are they? If I don't believe in them enough, how can I write them truthfully enough to make other people believe? That's why I do the little fake articles trick you might have seen me use, that's how I explore. I ask myself a question or am asked one and I give the answer. I set the events going in my world to see what happens.
Make them believe as you believe and see what you see. See what we're doing? We're visiting this world so that we can summarise the important parts so that that we can encourage visitors to explore and learn more. My greatest pleasure has been when someone who has read one of my books mentions something I hadn't thought about or noticed. They actually expanded and improved my world! They loved it so much that the dived even deeper than I had and found something new I'd passed by and missed! Has that ever happened to you? Tell me about it.
Tell me anything about your experiences with world-building and I hope you have enjoyed by little journey though some of mine…