The importance of world-building. Why should you create a believable world? How do you do this?
World-building, world-building, what can I say about world-building? Well, apart from the fact that, apart from the characters, it is THE thing that is most likely to make or break your story.
World-building is vitally important, and a LOT more important than a lot of people seem to think it is. World-building is one of the subtleties and arts behind being an author that is quite often overlooked when somebody is praising a book, but often picked up on when the book is being criticised. It’s like the alto line in a choir: everybody tends to notice it in the subconscious, but people tend to focus a lot more on the soprano line, or the tenor solo, or the deep base notes growling away and stabilising the bottom end. Yet, without the alto line, there would be something irreparably incomplete and unwhole and missing about the piece of music.
If you cast your mind over the best-known fantasy, sci-fi and contemporary fantasy stories and films – and by this, I don’t mean the ones that have come out in the past decade or so: I mean the ones that came out, say, last century – what is it about them that has made them endure through the ages? What is it about them that singled them out from their contemporary fellows as books to be heralded as classics? WHY do people think they are so amazing? Were there really no other books around at the time that were better written, or just as well written, or with equally riveting plots, or with just as charming, witty or evil characters? What was it that set them apart? WHY is Harry Potter, and not some other contemporary or urban fantasy that everybody seems to love and that is a New York Times Bestseller or whatever, being hailed ALREADY as one of the Classics?
If you’re anything like me, when I told you to think of a fantasy story hailed as a classic from way back when, you will instantly have turned up trumps with the Narnia novels and the Tolkein books. So, why are they so fantastic? Why have we heard of them and not of the other sci-fi or fantasy books?
To be honest, seeing as we don’t KNOW most of the other fantasy books from that age, there isn’t really a simple answer, but even compared to modern-day novels, Tolkein and C.S.Lewis (first name: Clive, for those of you who didn’t know) had that little spark of something OTHER to their novels which tends not to be seen as much nowadays. It is the way in which they have constructed their worlds.
There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to construct a world, but however you do it, it NEEDS TO BE DONE. The ONLY exception is if you are writing a general fiction book that does not require any suspension of disbelief beyond the characters’ existence. Even inventing a SCHOOL in a general fiction book requires that minor bit of world-building. If you don’t do it, you might as well not have the school. All the information about the school that you, as the author, know, doesn’t necessarily have to be crammed into the book, and it definitely shouldn’t all be at one point. World-building a school is small-scale compared to a whole world, though, and requires different degrees of detail etc., as does world-building a town in the real world, and so on. I’m going to talk for a little about world-building in the real world, then in contemporary and urban fantasy, and then in a fantasy world. As you move between the three, the amount of world-building you need to do increases drastically.
World-building in the real world
If you’ve set your story in the real world, half the problem’s already solved – unless you’ve decided to do a Ruritania and create a new country in the middle of Europe that isn’t all that often visited. (This is not the same as an Idris, which I will address in the Contemporary/Urban fantasy section.) For those of you who have never heard of Ruritania, I suggest that you look up The Prisoner of Zenda, which has been a favourite of my entire family since way back when. The author, whose name I forget, basically invented a small country in Europe where an Englishman decides to go on holiday and it all kicks off from there. No magic/fantasy/sci-fi elements involved, but it is a FANTASTIC book. But yeah. Ruritanias nowadays aren’t things people often attempt.
Like I said last paragraph, if your story’s set in the real world, half the battle with world-building is already over. People automatically get some sort of idea in their head of what a house looks like if you call it a “Victorian mansion”, or set your story in the rolling hills of Derbyshire, or decide that your character’s going to live in downtown New York. Because they’re real places that can be googled, or real things that people know about, you don’t even have to go into as much description about them if you don’t want to, not even for people who might happen to live in Kenya and only know that Kentucky exists because of KFC. Because of these reference points, we don’t need to go into TOO much detailed description if it’s something everybody knows about or has heard about. Of course, it helps, for those people who may not know what Central Park looks like, to give something in the way of a descriptor. Where the world-building kicks in in this kind of situation, though, is with things like that abandoned warehouse from which the antagonist has established his drug empire on Canary Wharf – what does it look like? Where on Canary Wharf is it? Is there a reason why it can only be accessed through hydraulic doors from under the River Thames? And with things like the school your main character is at – when was it founded? How many pupils are there? The school timetable. The grounds. The teachers. The school traditions. But, for a general fiction novel, rather than world-building, you’re probably going to have to be researching if you’re giving people information on what the world around your character is like. It depends on what kind of novel you’re trying to write. If your characters start off in Miami and end up being chased all the way across to India, you can’t just say that they got on a plane and arrived in three hours. You have to look up how long it would take, where they would land… and possibly to a reconnaissance trip, although that would depend whether or not you could (or wanted to) budget it.
World-building in a contemporary/urban fantasy
This is sort-of the step in between something set in the real world and something that’s sci-fi or high fantasy. The ultimate contemporary model of world-building for a contemporary or urban fantasy (hereafter CUF, if I need to put it in again) is the Harry Potter world that was so fabulously created by J. K. Rowling. There is quite simply nothing else like it out there. The level of depth, consideration and imagination of thought that went into the creation of that world is absolutely phenomenal. It sparkles of creativity in the books, but for anybody with access to Pottermore, you can see that what appears in the Harry Potter series is but the tip of a GIGANTIC iceberg that Rowling has spent years creating. The complexity and minute details and strange quirks and mythologies and back stories are just fascinating. Not only that, but there’s a perfect integration between the normal and the fantastical. This, in some ways, is the hardest part to master in the world-building of a CUF. Essentially, the story is set in the real world. There has to be some way of linking the fantastical elements into the real world, into everyday life, with an explanation of – if normal humans don’t realise this is going on – why the humans don’t realise what’s going on, how your MC comes to be a part of the fantasy element of the world, how your MC started off outside that (if this is applicable) and how everything in general is possible. It’s not easy to do well, although it’s not hard to come up with ideas on how everything slots into place. The trouble is that the slotting-into-place must be SEAMLESS between the real and fantastical elements. The suspension of disbelief is different to in a real-world general fiction, or to a high fantasy or sci-fi. The explanations have to be convincing. If there’s a secret organisation of magicians that continually destroy building across France, how do the ordinary people who don’t know about these magicians explain this? “Not being able to see” them isn’t enough of an explanation. How do the fantastical elements integrate with the normal ones? How do the normal elements “explain” the fantastical ones? What is the relationship between the fantastical elements and the normal ones? Normally, CUF novels spend most of their time in the fantasy realm (e.g. Harry Potter, the Mortal Instruments). In doing this, there is a danger (that both authors of the aforementioned series have avoided) of getting SO absorbed into the fantasy elements so as to ignore or forget the normal ones. Sometimes it only requires a sentence here or there, such as a person who’s part of the fantastical world getting confused over the procedures of the normal world (e.g. Mr Weasley), but it must be there. When all that seems to exist in your story is the fantastical elements and the fantastical characters of the CUF and there is little to no mention of the normal world, even though your main character is strolling through the streets of Barcelona on a daily basis, you probably ought to start worrying.
The trick for world-building in this – and, to be honest, any – situation is to go absolutely overboard, but to go overboard on a scrap piece of paper, to plan out everything, draw maps, write myths, figure out family trees , but, for CUFs, to figure out above all the relation and integration of the fantastical and the normal. Then, let all the details percolate in as you’re writing. Giving them all in one go will bury your reader under an avalanche of information that they’ll probably forget. You will probably not use all of the information about your world that you think up, but having it all there in the first place is the best way to ensure that some of it will seep through to the reader, and hopefully, if you do it right, enough of it for the reader to see your world.
If you’re doing an Idris and creating a fantastical city or fantastical land, then make sure that there is reason enough to make it different from the ordinary world. How is it hidden? Is it hidden? Why? Where is this land? How do you access it? Is it possible for ordinary people to find it by accident? In what ways is it different to an ordinary human land/city?
World-building in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy
You simply cannot write a sci-fi book or high fantasy book, or even a dystopian novel, without world-building. The story will lack any credibility whatsoever. More than for any other genre, world-building for sci-fi and high fantasy is absolutely essential. Here, though, you have to start from scratch. You only have the readers’ knowledge of plants, animals and humans on your side in a fantasy book. In a sci-fi, that can be extended to their knowledge of science. Even then, chances are that you will be renaming a number of things, inventing new technology, and throwing in a few animals that you’ve created. It is not simple, to say the least. If you want to world-build in a fantasy book, there are no two ways about it: you HAVE to do a Middle Earth.
The absolute master of this area, as far as I’m concerned, is Tolkein. Now, he spent about fifty years creating Middle Earth, and I’m sure that most of us would like to be able to build a world in a shorter time than that, but Middle Earth is an example for us to uphold. At least three different languages are in that world, alongside several thousand years of history, the cultures, myths and stories of numerous different races, a large elven dictionary (you can meet people who are fluent in Elvish, believe it or not), numerous maps, and various family trees going right back into the mists of time. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. C. S. Lewis also did a sterling job with the land of Narnia. Paolini did well with the Eragon books.
The one key above all others to setting up a good fantasy world, or even a sci-fi world, is the history. If your world has no history, you might as not have your world. This involves investing some time and thought, not to mention imagination, and again, I uphold the example of Middle Earth.
History explains the way things came to be and the way they are now. History shapes the landscape. History moulds politics. History creates countries. History destroys them. History gives rise to myths, legends and mysteries. History gives rise to cultures, customs and superstitions. If your world does not have a history, it is a boring world. If it is a boring world, there is no point for you to set your story there rather than on the moon.
Middle Earth has all of these. Anybody who has read anything by Tolkein will know this. There’s the history of the Dark Lords, the Rangers, the wizard order, the Rings – EVERYTHING. The stories of the elves, the tales of the dwarves… the forgotten years… incredibly. And no, I am not going to stop raving about Tolkein.
Remember: you are creating a WORLD. Not everything in it is going to be the same age. Not everything about it is going to be simple. Not all of it will necessarily yet have been discovered. Some of the settlements, civilisations, languages – I could go on – are going to be older than others. They are in the real world. Merely having hundreds of settlements that all appear to belong to the same age is not going to make your world convincing. There are bound to be ruins and battlefields somewhere, just as the slums attached to the capital city might be relatively recent.
Second key: A MAP. It’s not vital, but it’s useful. It provides the single visual aide, apart from the cover, for your reader as to your world. It allows them to pinpoint places, follow your characters’ travels, and feel more at home with your world. It also allows YOU to organise the layout of the world in your head, pinpoint important places, and attach places of historical interest (yes, history again). Look at the maps of Middle Earth. Read the stories surrounding the places on them, like the watch tower on Weathertop. Then go back to your history and revamp it. Now that you have solidified ideas and you know where everything is, you can play around with it. Maybe there used to be different countries that were then conquered and turned into the enormous empire that’s sitting on your map. Perhaps a forest used to cover the WHOLE of the south-east rather than just a little corner of it. Maybe that range of mountains was originally a line of volcanoes. The possibilities are ENDLESS.
Third key: NAMES. After spending all this time creating a map and a gigantic history, the number one way to ruin all of your hard work is to give everything real-world names. Do NOT name the capital city London. Your main character does NOT suit the name Bob. In a CUF, you can get away with using human names in the fantastical element – if you so wish – because there’s that link with the real world. Look at how C. S. Lewis did Narnia: for the children coming from the real world, they had had normal, real-world names – Lucy, Peter. Then look at the characters from Narnia: Caspian, Rillian. Human, yes, but fantastical names. If, in a fantasy world, you REALLY feel the drive to use human names, two things:
ONE. Only ever use them for humans. A dwarf called Sam or a fuzzleglump called Billy are just going to make your reader laugh at you.
The exception to this is if they are diminutive forms of a fantastical name, such as Samwise (Gamgee!) or Abbilldango.
TWO. Please, remember it’s a fantasy realm. At least choose names that suite it, or choose real names that are so unusual that they seem fantastical. How many of you here, for example, knew that Gandalf is actually a real name? All thought it was made up, didn’t you? WRONG. Follow Tolkein’s example, people.
Really, for hard-core fantasy lovers, there is NOTHING that destroys a world more than seeing elves and dwarves and magic bursting over every page and then reading “and then Kerry turned, wand raised –” No. Do not discredit yourself and do something like that. Choose a name and MAKE IT UP. Much as I love the Eragon books, I wince every time Katrina appears. That’s a name that belongs in the real world. If you have to do it, though, be consistent. If you’re using real-world names for your humans (and please don’t), ALL humans must have real-world names, otherwise it doesn’t make sense and you again kill the world-building.
Be sensible in naming. Remember that, aside from your characters, you also have to name all of the towns, rivers and countries, probably some boats, and quite possibly some species of plants and animals. Sometimes, this will need to be in more than one language. There seems to be an overwhelming tendency to give everything a name starting with “a” or to shove in as many vowels as possible (e.g. Aidieuira), which is annoying to the reader and usually means that you have to include a pronunciation guide. When naming, for one, remember that consonants exist. For two, remember that there are many different combinations of sound. If you’ve decided that a particular dialect favours some sounds more than others, fair enough, but remember to give your dialect a region and to stick those names ONLY in that region, or explain the migration thereof. If you have a Ganzanga-named city in the middle of the elven forest, be sure to mention at some point that the Ganzangas had used to inhabit the forest before the elves kicked them out, and that is why the city (or its ruins) are there with that name.
Also, choose different names for different dialects, or different name patterns. It’ll make life a lot easier. Trudi Canavan, for example, has a formulaic way of name-endings which allows the reader to tell which country her characters are from. It’s a neat, simple trick, and very useful to the reader if you have a lot of characters from different countries. It helps to keep a tab on who’s who.
Key four: languages. These aren’t necessarily essential, and they take more time than anything else, I suppose, but it’s nice if they exist, or some reference to an awareness of them exists if you haven’t the time, patience or imagination to come up with one. For those of you who DO want to create one, simply making up words to replace English ones isn’t enough. You need to figure out a grammar and a syntax for them. Tolkein and Paolini both did this, Paolini to a lesser extent. If you are creating a language, there will ALWAYS be somebody who tries to figure out the patterns in the language. If your book takes off, some nutters will probably try to learn the language. Copping out is not an option. If you’re creating a language, put some thought into it. What denotes a noun? How do the verbs conjugate? Are there irregular plurals? AND REMEMBER THAT COUNTRIES, IF THEY DO NOT HAVE DIFFERENT ACCENTS, WILL ALMOST DEFINITELY HAVE DIFFERENT LANGAUGES. Please, people, a world is not like the United States of America. People do not all speak the same language. Heck, people don’t always even speak the same language in one country. Witness Belgium. I LIVE there. There are TWO national languages. Even if it’s just a dwarvish race that has a different language and they know a language that appears to be a lingua franca and is the language of your MC, that’s better than nothing. Better still if your MC travels from East to West and has problems in the far west as he/she is unable to understand the accent or language in this new country. For one, it means you get to throw in a new character as an interpreter, or you can make your MC more awesome by knowing another language, or you can involve some humorous moments when your MC doesn’t understand the idiom of a different language. You don’t necessarily have to have him talking in this different language the whole time: keep it in English if you want and just mention somewhere which language they’re talking in. And make sure that different places are named accordingly if there are different languages. If a country has a different language, play around with the dialect. They might like to incorporate more “cz” sounds in than the northern countries, for example. Show it by putting it into place names.
Key five: politics. This kind of goes with history, but if you’re like me and hate politics, you don’t have to set a lot of precedence by it. However, it helps if the political situation in your world is more than just “evil x controlling y land and there’s a group of ‘rebels’ who are the good guys seeking to overthrow x”. No. Life is not as simple as that. Even within the rebels, there will be political tensions, dissentions… and they will probably not be the only people dissatisfied. There will be sympathisers, and people who sympathise but are too afraid to help. Country J might be standing neutral. City-state P could be supplying weapons to both sides. Island nation B might be totally unaffected. Aspiring nomad tribe T might decide to sweep in in the middle of the war and knock out the rebels and evil x and take over the world instead.
Key six: myths and legends, religions and superstitions.
Religions and superstitions aren’t necessarily important, but you have to give thought to the way that ancient cultures operated without scientific explanations. In a sci-fi, you don’t really need religions or superstitions, but they can add depth to your characters if you want to create them. Humans WANT to be able to explain the things around them. They want to feel protected from harmful things. It’s an innate part of our psychology. Giving them the location of a different world doesn’t make the humans not human. Those desires are still there. Whether or not you choose to make them dominant is another matter, but don’t just go throwing in the name of a god and its patronage anywhere. Give the gods a history, a story, a few godlings, chosen people, possibly world interventions, a family of gods – that kind of thing. Look for models in the mythological gods, and it might give you ideas.
Myths and legends. Considering that the story you are writing would probably be a “legend” of your world and that the character would probably pass on into “myth”, it makes sense that there would be other myths and legends. It also creates a sense of history to your world. Tolkein had them. Some of them are even repeated for us in Lord of the Rings. Myths and legends are other ways that people use to explain things, how things came to be, in story form. Think of the Just So stories. But please, don’t make the mistake of only having one myth or legend for your world (what world only has one? A community or a country, maybe, just MAYBE might have as few as one) that’s mentioned in the book, and that myth or legend coincidentally (or purposefully) being the myth or legend that just happens to have an enormous impact on the story. No, small things have myths and legends too. Ghost stories, for example, to explain noises. And the other thing: if they’re going to be relevant to the plot, don’t drop them in just as they become relevant. If possible, try to find some way to weasel them in beforehand, but don’t be heavy-handed about it, or the reader will see it coming and will be annoyed at an easy plot twist to guess. Try mixing the myths and legends that are important to the plot with one or two trivial myths and legends that aren’t. It gives more variety and makes the world more interesting, as not EVERYTHING that the reader finds out about it turns out to be of vital importance to the plot. Having things that are less important to the plot but important to the WORLD actually makes the world seem more real.
There are other elements to world-building, but these are the broad, over-arching ones you want to consider when doing fantasy. Beyond that, the details are small. Description. Setting the scene. On average, despite all this world-building, you will probably only use a tiny bit of it. Don’t feel it’s worthless doing all that work. It’s not. Once it’s all straight in your head, you a) won’t have the problem of trying to make it up as and when needed as you go along, and b) parts of it will trickle, even subconsciously, through into your story, and you’re less likely to information dump, unless you’re consciously trying to give out a lot of information.
But most of all, whatever you’re world-build for, love your world. Cherish it. Because if you don’t, it’s going show, and then your world will die. And if your world dies, your book will become extremely lacklustre.