At a recent event, one of the questions raised by other participants at the writers’ surgery was that of world-building, reminding me again that for some reason not everyone spends the majority of their waking life engaged in ironing out logical creases in a world of their own devising (or several worlds), and that like all unfamiliar tasks, at first jumping into doing this can seem quite daunting to those that don’t do it.
There are any number of ways to winkle open the shell of a new world in order to make sense of it:
If you’re the kind of writer who finds it easiest to come up with a character rather than the other elements of the story, all you need to do is work out what has made them the person that they are. Find the parts of them that have been broken or abraded and then deduce how: was she abducted by pirates? Great! This world has piracy. How common is it? Where was she living when she was abducted? How did they react? Where is the piracy concentrated around? What is the official response from the monarchy or government? Is there a governing body where your character comes from? How does it work?
As you can see, a lot of world-building – indeed, a lot of writing in general – comes from seeking answers for questions that arise as a logical consequence of previous ones. Finding the right question to start them off is the key, and fortunately there are a lot of “right questions” to choose from. Sometimes telling a friend – or a stranger on a train – about the germ of your story is a good way to get those questions rolling in, and can help a lot in finding unanswered nagging problems you may have overlooked in your close examination of the world.
Maybe you’re a plot-driven writer. The obstacles that come up, and the antagonism your characters are up against, will also tell you about the world that they’re involved in. Stuck on the wrong side of a mountain range? This is when you find out what level of technology your world has. Hero has to battle a five-headed dragon? There are dragons in this world! How common are they? Do people know they exist? What methods have people developed for dealing with dragons? How intelligent are the dragons? Are five-headed dragons usual or unusual? What folklore is there about them and how accurate is it? Perhaps your hero’s found herself thrown into a dungeon: where’s the dungeon, what’s the legal and judicial system of that place like, what are the loopholes in it, and how has that helped to shape the way the people in that place behave?
Even if you’re the kind of writer who finds that you get your seeds in the form of snatches of dialogue, there’s a way in. The way people talk tells us a lot about their culture. For example, in English, the language still shows the marks of over 1,400 years of Christianity. Even now, non-religious people exclaim ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘for Pete’s sake’ (after St Peter), or ‘bloody hell’. This example isn’t to imply that you have to concentrate exclusively on religion, either: it’s true of every idiom that what’s important or reviled in a culture seeps in, what’s admired becomes transmuted to imply admiration in other quarters. “Three sheets to the wind” as a euphemism for drunkenness comes from a sailing nation, and has less resonance if you’re landlocked and desert-based. Beautiful women are said to ‘walk with an elephant’s gait‘ in some parts of our world, drawing on the known delicacy and elegance of the elephant’s tread, and the way that this very valuable animal can pass through a forest without snapping a single twig if she chooses. Imagine that the same compliment were paid to someone whose only knowledge of an elephant is that it is very heavy: not quite the same effect! Turns of phrase can provide an immediate in, as can questions about where and why the conversation is taking place, who is holding it, and what will happen if they are found out.
A detailed and convincing fictional world will always be aided by a detailed and broad-running understanding of our world. Reading dribs and drabs of history – preferably from sources who like to join the dots to show how the loss of one crucial city led to the ‘discovery’ of a new continent, or how the defeat of an armada led to the confidence to form an empire, which had other drastic effects further on down the line – is a great way to start. Remembering that every culture within every given world has a different view of how history happened is another; not just creation myths, but the outcomes of battles (and which battles they remember), which interactions are deemed important, and the costs of them. Remembering that even in our one world there are countless ways that people have come together to solve the problems of existing in their environment and against the pressures put upon them by natural disasters and hostile neighbours; using these differences as a springboard, but never copying them. If you must draw on a cultural history for world-building it’s always advisable to look back into the history of your own culture: there will be surprises in there, dead ends you can pursue to other logical conclusions (what if Britain had successfully remained a republic in the 17th century?). There are always fascinating elements strewn throughout the history of the world, but never pull a George Lucas: don’t assume that because the fascinating headgear of Mongolian monarchs is alien to you, that someone else reading won’t immediately recognise it.
World-building is the place where the glorious free-form flights of your unbridled imagination meet with the bridle of logic and consequence and come together to form, I guess, a chariot of convincing story and setting. Enjoy that strained metaphor: it probably came from a culture that’s had a long historical reliance on horses.