Everyone Wants to Talk Worldbuilding

kharrigan continent map c. Loretta Sylvestre/Joe Bone

Lou Hoffmann's smiling faceEverybody wants to talk about worldbuilding.

Well, okay, not everybody. People who aren’t authors may not have even heard the term—possible exception, avid readers or watchers of sci-fi and fantasy. I imagine most authors of fiction know the word, but if they’re writing anything set in our contemporary and mundane world, they may not care much about it.

So, when I say “everybody” wants to talk about it, I really mean a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers. More specifically, me. I want to talk about it, right here, right now, in this blog post. 😊

Why would anyone do it?

If a book is going to be about magic or elves, time travel or interdimensional portals, spaceships or planetary aliens, they need a world to exist in. (You can put them downtown Chicago, but then it’s not Chicago anymore, and you’ve got to rebuild it for the misfits to fit.)

 How the heck is it done?

This, in fact, is the question “everybody” (not just me) wants to talk about. An author can choose from an array of methods, mix and match, or take an imaginary overworld flight and write it down. Certain things are needed, no matter how you organize the “finding” of them:

  • Physical world—geography and perhaps geology, buildings, roads, etc.
  • Language and culture(s)
  • Magic system or technology (or both)
  • Religion or mythology—some type of belief system framework
  • Political system(s)
  • Economic system(s)

There’s a lot more that could be listed, but most things will fall into those categories. Unless I forgot something, which is possible. Let me know if you see that I did. 😊

For the method-building author.

If an author wants to go with a method—not a bad choice; why reinvent the wheel?—the choices abound. I searched “worldbuilding” on Amazon. Just click the link and scan the listed books. You’ll see what I mean. Some of them are actual books, some of them workbooks, some fantasy oriented, others looking more toward sci-fi, and still others are about role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinders—help for the jaded DM, perhaps. Incidentally RPG “novels” are ever more popular, so those last could certainly work for authors as well.

My point is, if an author wants a method, there is one out there that should work. I haven’t read any of the listed books, though years ago, I read some others that were more popular then. I didn’t use them as methods, but I’m sure I was influenced by fore-authors experience and ideas.

What do authors say?

I’m assuming here that you’d like to hear from some authors on the subject—I mean authors other than the writers of books and workbooks. And also, other than me. 😊 Here’s a link to a blog post on tor.com. Not strictly about worldbuilding, these are fantasy authors and their thoughts do touch on the subject. Another blog post, this one on Bookish, has four discrete interviews with fantasy authors. One of the question addresses specifically what they find the most difficult about the process of worldbuilding. All good stuff.

A favorite author quote, short and to the point.Woman with saddle shoes.

 “The muse in charge of fantasy wears good, sensible shoes.”

                                                                                    —Lloyd Alexander

Personally, I just went for it.

That’s right. As is my way with just about everything I’m learning to do, I read up, studied a bit, made some false starts, and then made the world—or rather worlds—of The Sun Child Chronicles. And though I didn’t plan it this way, I actually started by building characters, and then building worlds around them. I needed worlds in which these particular characters would work, could exist as I saw them—as I had come to know them. And yes, though I’d never heard the above quote back then, indeed an awful lot about the worlds was clearly guided by a muse in sensible shoes. No matter how magical, how renowned a warrior, how terrible or beautiful or fear-inspiring, there is at least some element of “just common sense” about each and every characters. So the same is true of the worlds I build to house them

But it wasn’t a one-off.

As I’ve mentioned, there are various schools of thought about worldbuilding (as there are about every writerly pursuit from grammar to dialogue tags to genres). Some authors, before they ever write a word, spend a long time inventing a world. We’re talking years—even decades. I could never do that because of something I call…

The just-write imperative.

I needed to put some words on paper, or rather mostly in pixels. When I got too antsy with working out world particulars, I started to write. But I was new on the job. Things didn’t quite gel, more often than not. When I realized I was spinning my wheels, I looked around for help and just happened to find a book, a how-to-write, that actually worked. It’s still out there, available, and I’ll link the author here: The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. It broke down drafting a book start to finish in 52 “weeks,” or sections. (I’m going to add here that I had the 1994 edition. I’ve seen later versions. They seem substantially changed, though I haven’t investigated how different they are.)

Inclines and storyboards

The book bases the book structure on Aristotle’s incline—an age-old concept that literally can be applied to the vast majority of novels old or new. Although it wasn’t the first time I’d heard of it, it did help me to back up and plot my story along the incline. It was fun, too, done with a long roll of craft paper, a yardstick, markers, and sticky notes. I put it up on the wall. Man did I ever feel like a writer then!

But the most useful idea in Ray’s book, for me, was the way he’d adapted the TV scriptwriters “storyboard” to novel writing. I’m not going to go into how it’s done—as I said the book is still available and there may be other sources. But I’ll tell you how it helped.

Create the scene.

For each scene in my novel, I needed to back (mentally) away from the writing, slow down and create the scene in my mind. I had to be in the world to know how that particular place at that particular moment looked, sounded, felt, smelled, etc. Thinking about what was present made me also think about why it was there—and though that didn’t likely end up in my storyboard, it did end up in the world of my story. Though I rarely formally use this method now, it still frames the way I approach developing a scene. And because of that, about every scene develops either one or more characters or their worlds or both. The world gets richer and richer, and the complexity is in the details.

Don’t show, and don’t tell.

Whether they do it all in advance or all on the fly, or a combination of the two (like me), often much of what an author creates when worldbuilding is never told, and neither is it shown. Instead, it’s implied. That way, the reader creates the world. How cool is that?

If I have a thousand readers, I’ve spawned a thousand worlds.

But they all share this map. 😊 This world is the home of Lucky (the Sun Child), Thurlock, and Han, and is where most of the story takes place beginning in book 2 of the series. I have a map of the fictional city in California in which most of book 1 happens, but it’s chicken scratch and you wouldn’t want to see it. Maybe I’ll fix that problem before rereleasing the revised books. But this map, of the Kharrighan Continent in the world called Ethra, is to me a treasure. I made a rough version of the map using GIMP, an open-source software for creating and manipulating art, but the finished product is a beauty created by artist Joe Bone, who has my gratitude forever.

kharrigan continent map c. Loretta Sylvestre/Joe Bone

Thanks for reading!

That’s my bit about worldbuilding, at least for now. I don’t claim to be expert, just a practitioner of the fantasy-writing arts. If you found something interesting, questionable, confounding, or debatable, I hope you’ll comment below. Or visit me online.

Find my Lou Hoffmann Books page on Facebook

On Twitter, I’m @Lou_Hoffmann

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