Aaaalllllllrighty folks! It’s time for my favorite writing topic of all! World building!!!!! *cheers and does happy t-rex arms* As one of the central features of Fantasy novels (my most favoritist genre) world building should be given much more thought and time than it usually is. But why do I need to put so much effort into world building? I don’t want my novel to sound like a textbook. Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but if you’re novel sounds like a text book you’re doing it wrong.
Even if you create the most brilliant world and cultures ever known to man (Ignoring the fact that Tolkien already did that) you have to be extremely careful when telling readers about your world. You have to be sneaky when you release information. Feed it to your readers in little tidbits that leave them asking for more.
The most obvious way to reveal world building is by having a character who knows nothing. They’re either innocent, naive, sheltered or they’re new to the region or world. But there are a multitude of other ways to showcase your world building skills. In one of my side, side, side projects, The Art if Uncivilization, the main character Harrison is researching the Timber Wolf tribes. And not only do my readers learn about the world from Harrison’s current research, but Harrison is often asked about the other places he’s studied by the Timber Wolves.
Another clever way I’ve seen world building revealed is in The Selection series. I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style or characters, but when the main character was made to take a general history test and I learned about the futuristic world the book was set in, I was blown away. Not only was the concept of the future brilliant, the way Kiera Cass communicated it felt so natural.
Of course, it’s always an option to just slip a sentence or two of information in when it’s relevant. Hear that? When it’s relevant. A huge information dump of stuff I don’t need to know at the moment is a total kill joy.
Now that you how to sneak world building into your story, you need to do some world building in the first place. But how do I create a whole world from scratch? That’s so much work! Well, I didn’t say you have to create the whole world. Is that how I do it? Yes, yes it is. Is that the easiest way to do it? Not by a long shot. But you should know the scope of your world before you hone in on one country.
Start with your continents. Take a piece of paper, get a pencil, and draw some big blobs. Congrats, you have continents. Then you go in a refine the edges, add islands, reshape some things until it looks right. Before you draw your blob map, you need to think about what type of world you want to have. Is it one with a similar land to water ratio as earth? Is it made up entirely of islands? Do you have large floating land masses? The strangeness of your world will affect what type of creatures you have living there and what type of social problems they have. This, in turn, will lead to plot.
The next step is to add some basic land features. No, you don’t have to be an artist to do this. Anyone can draw triangle mountains and some squiggly lines for rivers. Be mindful when you add in you land features; most countries are shaped around natural barriers. And yeah, that’s the next step. Countries. Follow the natural barriers, make them any size or shape. North America has just a few large countries, Eastern Europe is crazy, Africa has fifty four countries in a shocking range of sizes. And then of course, there’s Russia.
The next step for making your super-simple, easy-peasy map is to think about the climate of your countries. Again, this will effect what type of characters and conflict your world has. If you have an aqueous world, you’re most likely going to have fish-like creatures. Dessert-lie parts of the world are going to have creatures who have adapted to the heat and dryness. A harsh environment will lead to harsh people. It’s hard to grow anything because of the land and weather? I bet there’s a lot of warring over rich ground then.
The easiest way to designate the terrain of your world is by color coding. Yeah, it’s not gonna look fabulous. But all you need is to know what the world is like. If you’re a total over achiever like me, you might make a giant map out of nine pieces of card stock and illustrate the whole thing. Or you might be like lazy me and just have a sloppy blob map with weird colors.
This is an work-in-progress picture of my absurdly large map of Amentia, the world where most of my stories take place. In my defense, I was home alone for eleven days in the middle of summer. I was bored.
The second picture is another of my worlds. It’s quite small and I haven’t colored it in because… well, I was lazy. But at this point, I know what the terrain is like because I’ve thought about it so much.
The third photo is a world I created for my first ever attempt at a novel. It was rough. Very rough. But the crude drawing was all I needed to know for my basic world building. (And no, I don’t know what the little fish symbols are for.)
The most important thing is to lay out enough of a visual that you know what you’re doing. When it comes to creating people groups and creatures, it’s quite helpful to be able to mark on a map where they are. It’s even more helpful if your characters are on a LOTR level journey and you need to keep track of where they’re going and what they might run into. You might suddenly realize that the path they’re on goes right through the territory of a fierce warlord. Cue the extra conflict.
(For more info on world building, read How to Write Science Fiction by Matthew J. Costello. I absolutely adore that book and learned how to create worlds from it.)