Picture from Pixabay.com by Tabor: https://pixabay.com/en/mountain-world-lake-nature-1062831/
What is Worldbuilding?
This is the term used most often in video games and, in the writing world, more often used by the fantasy and science fiction genres than any other. Don’t be fooled, every book, game, and movie has worldbuilding, some are better remembered than others such as comparing movies like Lord of the Rings versus Sulley in terms how in or out of focus the world around the main characters can be. Worldbuilding is the process of creating and building a well-rounded environment for your characters and plot to help nurture and support both your wants and needs as the storyteller. Some even refer to the process as making the lifeblood for your story since it can change how a story is told and even how a reader experiences your writing.
In fact, in any work, if you rip out the characters and their plot and slap only them on a canvas, you’re left with a lot of white space crushing in on the characters and this can washout your plot and make everything fall out of context. Where do you start? How do you start? Even then, how can I use Worldbuilding to support my story and my characters? A lot of questions can lead to a complete writer’s block from the subject of creating the world, so let me walk you through some key areas. My hope is you will have some building blocks to help you be more confident in your efforts and see different ways to both create and utilize the world’s you are brewing in your mind’s eye.
This comes in many shades when it involves worldbuilding and at times can feel impossible to start to do any research at all. I would even go as far to say, in some cases, this is the most intimidating and less guided part of creating a world yet the most important endeavour in capturing the needs and wants you have for your story. Some stories require more research than others and thus, this is where fantasy and science fiction excel and other genres such as contemporary romance feel like no research was needed at all for the world the characters. The real difference is one genre calls for the exploration of the unknown and even creating something new with the information gathered whereas the other pulls more so from personal first-hand experience.
First off, if your piece takes place in present day, modern times and even in a place you visited or lived in, you’re already doing research. You are drawing from the richest source of all and that is first-hand experience! You can incorporate your five senses into describing and fleshing out these areas and places within your fictional world because they have roots in the real world around you. These are intimate interactions from your own experience and this shows in your writing and how your characters even reflect those moments of interacting with the world.
Often, even fantasy and science fiction writers as well as video game developers draw their inspiration and foundation for worldbuilding from the real world. You’re not cheating or cutting corners by doing this so don’t let this slow you down. Sometimes using what you do know can help you start the process of connecting the dots, such as how the world supports your characters, plot, and even events. Building a world is much like building a large skyscraper. You have to have some core pillars and a solid foundation. Like a tall skyscraper, the bigger you build it the harder it gets to keep it from toppling over or blocking your way. My goal is to at least give you a means of tackling both small and large scale building. I do recommend keeping a digital file or journal to write down all your world notes, quirks, needs, wants, and even the maybes. Below are some ways of using other factors to help focus your efforts.
A lot of people have an idea what their main character, or even a few characters, might be. Elements like heritage, background, likes and dislikes, experiences, and similar elements provide hints to what their world needs in order to support who they are within the story. If this is the case, use those characters to your advantage on basing your research into focused topics and areas that can change and develop the world you need for them.
For example, Cedric the Demonic Knight takes place in Medieval Germany, but why? Cedric as a character is inspired by the Russian Knight Hero, Ilya Muromets and has Romanian folklores tied into his demon and inhuman side. So, why have his story play out in Germany rather than Russia or something more in-tune with his creation? Why put his world in a place different from his researched character development arch?
I considered what places, what people, and what needs my character had in order to interact with both the world and plot. Cedric was playing the Knight and Lady game, a popular romanticizing and political game in the medieval times, but at the time period I chose, the best place for such tournaments and customs would have been in Germany. This then led to me discovering the First King of Germans and there were discrepancies on who this may have been. I used this to my advantage to further build the people and culture that made up the world. Cedric needed to have access to a forest with lots of ties to folklore and the Black Forest fit that profile and region his story would be starting. Even then, I wanted access to swords, horses, castles similar to those in fairy tales, and so on. These are all factors I used to help build the world based on my character’s needs, wants and who he was as a person.
Another way to help build up your world and know what to research is to consider your story idea, even the events you want to happen. Again, this comes back to what you as the writer need access to as well as how to meet the needs of both the story and characters together. If you know your characters must travel, roughing out a map, building Pinterest boards of the places you are creating, or even posting a world map on the wall and plot out their travels like some CIA agent chasing a criminal can make a difference. This puts things into a real world perspective and you can decide to add obstacles or needs between those points. Are there rivers or a mountain range they have to cross or the story needs them to cross? Even then, you have to decide what kind of mountains and what that may do to influence the towns and cities they visit. Everything in a world influences and connects in some means whether geographical, cultural or even the time period with the limitations it can bring.
In Romasanta, I hit a point of wondering where on earth my character would be to stay knowledgeable of what the medieval world would be doing while being able to not move around much. The first thing that came to mind is Romasanta is a merchant, so being in or near the largest trading point at the time would be best. Cerdanya came up in my research and I was both surprised and excited it was in the Mountain region I plan on bringing him to later on in the story. Yes, I map this out at times to make sure I am not making them stagnant and staying in one location. Having a character revisit a place centuries later always adds a great flavour and a chance to show the world changing through the passing of time.
I still had to figure out how a large demon was able to hide from the scent of others. My time period was infamous for leprosy, so it hit me that perhaps he stayed in a Lepers Colony. As I marked my map, I soon discovered the largest Lepers Colony was very close to Cerdanya. Spurring my curiosity, I researched Merchant journals for the city at the time and much to my delight they did a lot of trading for a potato and potato liquor in exchange for cloth and food. Romasanta had just found his purpose, his reason to be in Cerdanya, and a place he lived and hid well.
Research can arch in this manner in unusual spirals, but these world-based details can make a huge impact on your readers, story and characters. It’s a way to round out a world with meeting the needs of the plot you are pulling together, both for the planned and organic writer. This research came after I had broken ground on the novel and was halfway through my rough, so world research is often a never-ending responsibility. At this point I had a set checklist of needs to be met and stipulations to devise. Another aspects was I had determined World Mechanics or rules which keep certain elements of my worldbuilding consistent. I will discuss this in greater detail a little later.
Tasks & Events
This is where a lot of murder, mystery and horror writers tend to spend their worldbuilding time. It may seem weird, but many of them will confess their Google search history is quite gruesome and joke that the FBI have a file on them just in case this doesn’t pan out to be a novel. Many of the characters and storylines are dependent on key events or being able to perform tasks, even then, a lot of murder mystery stories all center around a crime and the unfolding of that crime. This means the world has to be built around this event to suit its needs and then the world can help prosper how the characters can unravel the mystery.
In other cases, events involve adhering to the world you are creating and what is allowed and not allowed for the plot and characters. Again, looking at Romasanta, we have one such event. He and his fellow travellers are daunted with trying to sneak pass a keen nosed dragon with poor eyesight. Regardless, I had created a world in a time period which limited the tools and supplies my cast had access to use.
Through character research I know part of Romasanta’s character research he was a merchant and soap maker. Instantly an idea sparked and I looked at the manner in which someone would make soap, a process using tallow which comes from boiling and cooling of animal fat. The event had to pull from the world’s supplies and tools in order to keep in tune. If they had a powerful magic user or demon with them, the fantasy mechanic of my world would have allowed easier means.
Events often fall back to being dependent on both the character and world to define how they are done or unfold. In some cases, they can work in the opposite direction and define part of the world and characters themselves. It is important to decide which way you want this two-way street to work and stay consistent in your decision. Don’t be too flustered if you switch up how the world is changed by something like this, just remember to double check how this may require revision or edits in world interactions before the point of the change. Not always as a writer will you be able to find the right key for the right lock in terms of worldbuilding. Don’t be afraid to play and shift these.
I have covered ways of getting research and ideas flowing on building the world for your story and characters, but what are some must-have core elements? There is no wrong or right way of doing this, nor will you find a checklist that can meet all your needs and wants. What I can do is give you some general aspects you should be able to define in any genre. Some of these core items will be easier to answer than others, and thus, I have listed them from the more straightforward element and moving through to the one that will require the most of your creative juices to lock in place.
Decide on a time period or be aware of the time period you are actively interacting within. If you are writing a historical fiction this can set up some thick borders on what you can and can’t have in this world. Geography, culture, technology, and world knowledge shift from century to century. Even then, you can blend time periods and let the limitations influence changes to your own world in tangible ways. A great example of how this is used in influencing worldbuilding happens in the steampunk genre where often the future is dependent on Victorian era technology and world awareness. The worlds in this genre have a set flavour for readers and thus a great example of a world-heavy genre. In fantasy and science fiction, we are often visiting the unexplored and even stitching influences of time periods from all over the world timeline. Just be aware and acknowledge how strict you need to be about elements and keep consistent once you’ve decided. This will help you establish the other core items.
Example of Steampunk Worldbuilding:
Jessica stepped off the train and stumbled to a stop. The bumping and jolt of the passing crowd around her could not break her marveled stare in the sky above. Here in London there were a great number of airships belonging to the Queen’s armada. Steam billow from the shaft which stood as big as skyscrapers on board the hydrogen filled potatoes. It was exciting and terrifying to take in an army above the bustling town. Shaking herself free of the looming airships, she picked up her bag and with her other hand pulled her skirt up to walk through the wet grimy streets of the city awaiting her. This was now her home.
A world is classically associated with maps or even some notion of the existence of geography. Cities and towns have physical locations, even if they may be on floating chunks of rocks or deep in forgotten tunnels built long ago by the dwarves. Some of the places we include are existing real world areas, but keep in mind your time period can govern when and where you can have these. There are many cities who have long roots spanning time such as Rome, but others are rather new in comparison especially most of those residing in North America. Even regions can change in terms of nature and appearance through the timeline of the existing world, such as the impact of volcanos, droughts, and floods.
A great example of having to consider the world geography is in my novel Judgment. The origin story to the Levites with a blend of historical inspiration is told. During biblical times, the desert region they are located in was actually quite fertile and green. In fact, the desert had a thin strip of land between the edge of this fertile region by a river and the Mediterranean Sea. Looking at this information, I realized I had to double back and adjust the descriptions and character interactions with the world. Another change was the sort of plants I could and could not mention. During certain spans some plants go extinct in an area or even experience an invasion of a certain animal or plant later on. This was all important factors to how and where I transitioned from lush green fields to scrublands to the hellish sands of the desert.
It is very important you capture the changing terrain or environment and even make each town distinct. Think of some of the visually stunning movies you enjoy and why the world captivates you. How many of those have changing geography and memorable cities with unique flavours? Game of Thrones is a wonderful example of how the world is vastly different and changes in several areas. Even then, the environment in those places have a huge influence on the culture, architect, characters and even plot. A tangible world is one that has many qualities that shift and clash with one another much like the characters within your storyline.
Characters come from a place within the world you are building and therefore are also attached to a culture the world has nurtured. The development, mindset, religion, mannerism, experiences, trades, and so many other factors are affected by the time and geography of the assigned area of the world you built. This also provides the background people who interact with the world and make it move even when your character is standing still. It is the blood in the veins of the world in which events can start from and in some cases the character’s consequences for their actions can be felt. Not everywhere in our world has to be comfortable for the reader or characters. A culture can help establish allies, enemies, and political standings without having to dive in great detail.
A great way of developing cultures is looking at ancient ones or even existing and building from there. Whether you aim to be historically accurate or use them for inspiration, pay attention to how their location and even neighbouring cultures play a part in who they are. When the Romans started their campaign across Europe, the also forced their religion and customs onto those they came in contact with. Very few places were spared in this shift in their culture and customs, but be aware things in your story can have or cause such a shift.
Example of Culture:
Pulling the scarf further on his nose, Claude stayed on the heels of Jameson. This was a place his face would be recognized and sadly be hanging from the gallows the next morning. Back in a time before even his grandfather, the Braxton Militia had raided this small town of Montgomery. How could he blame them? Their customs were cruel compared to these peaceful shepherds and farmers. Looking at the glares he was receiving, he pulled his cap further down. Unlike the light skinned freckle face he wore, these were people of a beautiful mahogany tone with earth-toned eyes of brown and green unlike back home. He was the enemy in their eyes, and he no amount of apologies he could make would atone for the sins his people brought on them so long ago.
Ah! Now for my favourite and least recognized core element, MECHANICS! This is a term I adopted from Game Development, but you will discover we are utilizing it in world creation in every story written and movie made. In a lot of ways, you can see this as the unspoken laws of nature within our story and world we create. As you can imagine, they are very dependent on the core elements listed before, but also should never be broken by any character. That is, unless said character has some sort of work around. Setting up a list of mechanics, laws or functions, that everyone in your world abides by can help enrich and complicate the story and characters’ lives.
Here’s a great deal of insight which is often missed in Cedric the Demonic Knight. The characters recognize a mechanic of their world in which they have labelled as “Gaea’s Law” and no one but Gaea herself is above or can waive. This mechanic states that magical beings who harm or curse other magical beings will feel a recoil three times or far worse. The logic is Mother Gaea is punishing the magical “siblings” for fighting with one another. It’s more of a peacekeeper than anything else and cursing someone to experience the worse heartbreak then recoils and you now share the same curse at a much more dangerous level.
Ah, but there is one person in the story who everyone has missed who seems to not be affected by this curse. In fact, he even could be said to be immune to it as long as he is not the subject of someone else’s curse recoil. Cedric gains power and lives off of eating the life and souls of other magical beings. How many has he eaten and yet, no recoil? Orms, Chimera, werewolves, nymphs, imps, vampires, incubus, witches, and many more are on the menu and no punishment ever becomes present. This is due to the fine print I have placed within the world mechanic I created. WARNING! This may be a spoiler, but I do hint, express through actions in the storyline, and even state a lot of this even within the first novel. For some of you, seeing the written “hidden” mechanic may be eye-opening or even send you diving back in to make note of characters and their actions.
Example of Mechanic Law for The Cedric Series:
Children of Gaea (Descendants & Creations) are not allowed to curse, harm, eat, or perform magic on other “children of Gaea”. In order to do so, one must receive Gaea’s blessing or command or be in possession of the Eye of Gaea (form of Blessing). Punishment is in the form of reflecting their act back onto them threefold. Those who repent or accept their curse and activate it early may be rewarded by a descendant of Gaea.
So, why does Cedric not get eaten? Where is the recoils based on his actions and curses towards his enemies and the like? It’s simple really. The answer is even on the back of the book blurb. HERE COMES WHAT MAY BE CONSIDERED A SPOILER: Cedric is the creation of Morrighan’s magic of making a chimera from a moroi and incubus… a creature made via the use of the Eye of Gaea and therefore, he was created outside the reach of “Gaea’s Law” and its punishment. He is neither a descendant nor creation of Gaea, and he was only possible to exist in the world under the blessing of Gaea waiving her rights to enact said law. A whiplash is his hunger for feeding on Gaea’s Children to sustain life where his magic should not exist…. DUN-DUN-DUN!
Mechanics come in different flavours and styles. Fantasy we often see mechanics where we have magic abilities that require an item or chant to work and even have opposing magic that will cancel each other. In science fiction we see mechanics based on actual laws of physics, or define how the technology works or even artificial intelligence functions. Historical fiction will have laws as to what can and can’t be known or tools available. As for stories in the modern day and age, there is a mannerism and realism kept true to real life every day experience both the reader and writer are actively experiencing in their lives. As you can see, each genre, each core element choice can have a drastic influence on the mechanics you set for yourself, your characters, your story and the world you are building.
Using the World You Created
I hope if you reach this point you are starting to see ways to use the world to drive characters and plots. My aim was to use examples which could expose and though I pulled from my own work a lot for this, it was the best way to show an all-inclusive explanation and train of thought. If you have already started writing down, even imagining some of the core elements, you are starting to see ways to use those to drive the characters and plot in the direction you want. Even then, these core items, and especially your established world mechanics, can force you to be more creative at times.
Remember there are several ways the world can twist both your characters and the plot. You can use the world itself to drive your characters to action, prevent or create decisions they wouldn’t have come to on their own. You can even think of the world and the way you’ve built it, as the Monopoly game board of your own choosing. Unpleasant and wonderful events can unfold for both you and the reader by using a strong base world, but I encourage to stay consistent! One of the largest worldbuilding mistakes is when a writer changes something and does not backtrack to essentially “fact check” their own creations.
Even I have to fact check my own work, even book four of The Cedric Series I leave notes and comments of something that is a World Mechanic item or event. It becomes confusing to a reader, even breaks the characters and plots at times, when something is labelled impossible, then happens with ease, and no explanation or possible loophole to be felt. For example, the famous DragonBall Z has several moments where we “Pft!” at the on-goings and constant mechanic changing. Though it is fun, it becomes exhausting. As new “mechanics” are stated or made known with each break they become less and less believable or tangible. BE AWARE!
The world has a large influence on your characters, even without you knowing at times. Their knowledge, experiences, and future all are dependent on the world and how it allows them access to these things. As I said before, you know your characters have to travel, but how will they do it? On foot, by horse, magic or even plane? All these options depend on the world.
In Lord of the Rings they travel by foot for a good amount of their adventure. This plays a large part in the characters and their development through exposure and time spent in not so friendly areas or situations. By the time they travel through all these changing landscapes, met all these cultures and races, and even the events both natural and unnatural, their mental and emotional state is a train wreck. The world beat them up on their travels which makes this place tangible. We start to miss the Shire and the way the hobbits live as we experience the rest of this fictional world with our vehicles, the characters.
Like your characters, the plot can be twisted or made to move in ways your characters can’t do alone or at all. Often plot devices such as natural disasters, volcano eruptions, civil war and more are used to move the characters and the plot in different directions. You may be already using the world to adjust or shift your story in a similar manner. This is one of the more natural occurrences where writers are using the world to manipulate the lot to their needs and wants. Be weary though, often there are clichés which happen here and you may want to develop mechanics for yourself to help break from them and think outside the box.
Historical fiction is often chained to the world in such a way they are at the mercy of it and its play in their plot. For instance, if you are writing a story during the American Civil War, you are obligated to have the impact of the world behave a known way. Fantasy and other speculative fiction tends to have more elbow room when it comes to plot devices being pulled from the world, including invading aliens or attacks for Godzilla swarms. Regardless, the world influencing your plot is usually something predetermined, but often not paused and debated on for very long. I only ask you recognize where and how you are doing this and do your best to shift this into a flavour of your own making!