mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but Hot Key’s question today on Twitter pushed me to get on with writing about it, not least because I’m determined to start blogging more regularly again.

What Hot Key wanted to know was how you build a world. It’s not something I’ve done in The Bone Dragon or in MoB (i.e. Book 2). But it is something I’m doing in several of my upcoming novels so it’s been on my mind a lot.

It’s so easy, when you think about building a world, to start with place. That’s what a world is, at base, after all. Isn’t your first image, when you think the word ‘world’, a planet or a map or something of that sort?

It’s a lot of fun to let your imagination conjure up mountains, deserts and seas… vast cities and picturesque villages. What a lovely afternoon you can spend peopling them with fantastic creatures from myth and fairytale or just from your own mind.

But none of this is going to help you write a really good book. A good book starts with a good story. And story is not place. The setting may be hugely important, but usually because it’s almost a character in its own right.

And there’s your answer about where to start: character.

Build your world about the characters you’re going to write about. What sort of world explains who they are? What sort of world will challenge them in interesting and exciting ways, giving you your plot?

Are you doing it again? Are you thinking of your world as a place that will challenge your characters? Do you really want to write a book about people climbing mountains or surviving in the desert? That’s not much of a plot, is it?

Remember, your world is a character.

‘But how does that help?’ you ask. And the answer is… it helps when you remember that it’s only one character. One among many.

There’s the real key: the true place to start. Your world is how all the characters fit together. How does wealth work? How does your setting influence that? How does gender (or the equivalent) work? What are the axes of inequality? What gives people power? What are the social and inter-personal rules? What are the values and beliefs, traditions and norms that underpin these rules?

Those things will grow out of and through ‘place’ – the physical world of your story – but the most important elements of any world-as-story are the people and the structures that dictate how they relate to each other.

Whatever they do, characters are always acting in accordance with the rules or against them: even when characters break the rules, the rules are still there. Which means that whatever characters do, they’re making a socially meaningful decision. They’re inviting consequences and… Hey, presto! We have conflict and tension, risks and rewards, goals and desires, obstacles and aids… We have all the ingredients for a great plot. A great story.

Some of the rules you need to work out to build your world will be relationship rules and some will be social rules… But there are always rules between people: big ones and small ones. Ones for whole societies and sub-rules even within families.

That is the true world you need to build: the world that grows out of who your characters are and the story you want to tell about how they relate to each other.

So don’t start with a map. Start with characters and build your world outwards from them. Don’t ignore your setting, just treat it as one of those characters. But only one of them. Otherwise you’ll end up with a setting to graft a story on, not a setting that is an integral part of your story.

4 comments

  1. Sometimes I have characters in mind first. A lot of times I create a world, the history, and then pick a point in history to start throwing people into. Working with others on world building projects, I definitely know a lot of people are far better and more comfortable with starting with characters. Through what I’ve studied and how I’ve gone about it, I’ve just always preferred a world of fire to throw some unsuspecting characters in and let them do their thing.

    1. I love how different people write in different ways. 🙂 Definitely starting with the world works best for some people. But I think for the majority, especially writers who are just starting to learn about writing, it’s very easy to end up world-building instead of story building. So I think character is the best place to _start_ but it’s absolutely not the only place, especially when you’ve got more experience and have a sense of what works for you. 🙂

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