Omnipotent World Building: The Troubles and the Triumphs

World BuildingPerhaps this entry should actually be called “The Troubles and the more Troubles…” Creating a world from scratch is no easy task. I envy all of those writers who set their novels in the here and now, or historical fiction authors who, through meticulous research can find the framework for their imagined worlds. Even J.K. Rowling rooted Harry Potter somewhat in the real world, her magical world was an extension of it. The same could be said for Star Trek, where there is the ready made framework of earth (albeit an earth of the future), so at least there are some parameters to follow.

ready-built worlds

I look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or the world in Game of Thrones or MiddleEarth or Earthsea, and all of them have logic and depth. There are political systems, rival factions, creation myths, ancient legends, detailed family histories. All of these points on which I am flip-flopping all over the place. Looking back at the first 2 Discworld novels: The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, the structure of the world itself was quite raw, and much less established than it is today. In fact, somewhere in my overflowing library of books I have an early map of the Discworld, and there are definitely some new landmasses that have appeared since the early days. But that aside, the essence of the Discworld were still there in the early books. The gods, the way magic works, where the Discworld came from, the governmental structure, the tribes, etc. All the basic building blocks were there. All the points I am having trouble with.

This is what I know: the world of Four and Twenty Blackbirds is the land where fairy tales exist and evolve. Black and white and primal. I don’t know if there are any gods, but there are definitely monsters, lots of them. As yet, I don’t know how the world was created, how my main city was created, or the many other cities and nations that there are or the rivalries between them, and how they may influence my story. These are all questions that I have to answer.

World building to do list

I am currently working on my creation myth, but I think I should put my world building to do list down here for clarity:

  • Origin of main city, and what is the archtitecture like (building materials, etc)
  • Origin of surrounding cities
  • Political structure of main city and surrounding cities, and rivalries and alliances thereof
  • Trade – what are the traded commodities and who has them
  • What is the monetary system
  •  NGOs that influence city life – street gangs, secret societies, family alliances, pirates, etc.
  • History of important figures, legends and old blood feuds
  • Where does magic come from and how does it operate.
  • Geography and ecology and how that affects the movement of populations
  • Are there any gods?
  • Where do the monsters live?

Don’t get me wrong, I have a thought about some or all of these points at one time or the other, and have worked out the basics on a lot of them. However, I haven’t made any concrete plans or worked around how one point would influence the next. Perhaps I am overthinking it, but I feel that if I don’t get the basics right, my story can’t progress any further than it has. Perhaps this might require further research into the building of worlds…

Any other suggestions of points I should consider and may have overlooked are very welcome.

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9 responses to “Omnipotent World Building: The Troubles and the Triumphs

  1. While I can appreciate your aim, I wonder if you may be setting yourself an impossible task. I would work the other way around–tell the story and build the world around it to suit the plot. In fact, that’s what I did in Catskinner’s Book–I wanted certain abilities and limitations for my characters and I filled in the reasons afterward.

    I agree consistency and logic are important to a writer’s cosmos, and as a reader I want to feel that I am going into a place that is real and solid, with a history and a metaphysic, but those things will “grow with the telling”. Make sure you keep notes on the important geographic features and historical events as you reference them, but don’t get bogged down in trying to figure out every detail of the background first.

    • I agree! My wife suggested that I was setting myself up to NEVER finish my stories, simply because I wanted everything to be perfect before I truly began. However, the more I wrote the more the world seemed to make sense.

    • Thanks Misha and Len,

      Point taken – I do largely agree with you both. That the writing shapes the world.

      I’ve been writing 4&20 for a while now, and at the moment, everytime I write something, I feel the world shifting around my characters. Things really aren’t sitting right with it. Perhaps it’s that I don’t know my characters and world well enough.

      Without the story, the setting of the the world is meaningless. Perhaps this is just an exercise I need to start in order to solidify my foundations. I may not even have to finish the exercise, but I think that my attitude towards building my world has been a little too piecemeal thus far. I need to gather all my thoughts into one place, note them down and then move forward. But taking a note from your advice, I will set myself a time limit where I am permitted to do this exercise.

      I will need to check out Catskinner’s Book. One to add to the ever increasing reading list methinks.

  2. Fair enough. I would still suggest writing the cosmology as a story. Maybe take one of your characters and imagine her or him as a child. What questions would the character ask of a teacher or caregiver, and what answers would be given? Then try it with a different character and see if you get the same answers.

  3. I would add religions and superstitions to the list, especially noting that different people in the same place may have different beliefs. It adds depth, backstory, and opportunity for conflict. It is a separate question from whether or not gods really exist. People believe all sorts of crazy stuff, such as horseshoes and four-leaf clovers are good luck. As for the groundhog shadow thing, what is that about? Great list btw.

  4. Excellent and informative. I concur with Tracy above as both have an element of the supernatural which is a theme that is almost inexhaustible to a writers manipulation.

  5. I thoroughly enjoy worldbuilding, and I can only write long fiction if I know the setting really well, so I put much more work into that than writing the actualy story. But because I enjoy it so much, it doesn’t get boring.
    If ‘black and white and primal’ is what you’re going for, then maybe that extensive knowledge isn’t entirely necessary. 🙂

    • Thanks Benjamin, I love thinking about my world, but actually putting it down and sealing the deal is what I find difficult.

      I thinking that you’re right, I’m probably over complicating it. I want the world to be simple… I guess i need to pare down my ideas…

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