World Building Primer by Nat Russo

Author Nat Russo posted the following great article on “A Writer’s Journey” and graciously allowed us to repost it here. Enjoy his excellent advice and check out his book “Necromancer Awakening“.

Necromancer AwakeningWorld Building Primer

World Building is something that all writers of speculative fiction need to do at some point in the story development process. I’d go so far as to say World Building is one of the primary things that drew many of us to this craft in the first place.

In today’s post we’ll cover the following:

  • The Map
  • Borders
  • Religions
  • Cultures
  • Cities

Where to Begin

The process can be great fun, but it isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. If we create our worlds haphazardly, without giving them much thought and attention, they’ll seem flat and one-dimensional. If, on the other hand, we completely immerse ourselves, detailing every desert and hill, every dynasty and family tree, then we take the risk of contracting “Builderitis”, a hideous disease that keeps us building when we should be writing.

Let’s face it, every writer has their own process, and I’m no different. I’m not here to tell you my way is the right way. Treat these elements like LEGO bricks and arrange them in whatever pattern you like. I like to start with the general and layer on specificity as needed, because of the way my mind works. So I tend to begin with a generic map.

The Map

I recommend breaking out a pencil and some paper (graph paper if you have it…the grid lines will help), and just let your imagination flow. You don’t need to be Michelangelo. Anyone who knows me will tell you I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. But then, how many straight lines do you usually see on a map?

I found it useful to start with a continent and work inward from there. Other writers I know begin on a much smaller scale, drawing city streets and even buildings. The important thing isn’t the scale. The important thing is getting to know the setting in which your story will take place. You never know which nook or cranny on your hand-drawn map will spark an idea you never would have thought of otherwise!

For Necromancer: The Awakening, I began with the coast line of my mythical continent Erindor. Don’t be afraid to let the pencil slip and go wild. You’re not looking for straight lines. In fact, the more tiny curves and “inlets” your shaky hand scribbles the better off you’ll be. You’re not looking for symmetry here. Take a look at a globe of Planet Earth. How many perfectly symmetric continents do you see?

What you leave out is every bit as important as what you put in. My map of Erindor has no northern coast. It simply fades off the top of my graphing paper. Sure, I could start another page and repeat the process. For that matter, I could spend a couple of weeks making a high-level map of the entire surface of my fictional planet. But why should I? My story doesn’t take place in those other locations. It would be wasted time…and a symptom of builderitis.

Only map what you need to map for your current work. If you create a “canonical” map of your entire world now, and publish it, your options for going back and changing it later are limited. Let the next story dictate what you’ll build next.

[12/30/2013 - I've been using Campaign Cartographer 3 for map creation since July. I really wish I had known about this software a couple of years ago! Do yourself a favor and buy a copy. You can diagram everything from entire planets/continents down to the layout of the inside of a vehicle if you need to.]

Borders

If you’ve taken the top-down approach that I took, then you’re going to end up with a landmass that has no interior divisions. If the entire continent represents a single political entity, then you’re ok. But even then you’re probably going to want to think about regional borders.

Here’s the thing that trips up many new world builders: Borders don’t form randomly. Nearly every line on a map is there for good reason, and those reasons usually fall into the following categories:

  • Geology
  • Resources
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Geology

Spend some time thinking about your geological environment. Do you have rocky mountain ranges with meadows and foot hills, or do you have a vast desert? Perhaps both, one on one side of your continent, and one on the other. Maybe you have a desert surrounded by a ring of mountain ranges.

Rivers make excellent natural breaks in borders. In Erindor, for example, I have a large river running north to south that splits the continent. Many of my political boundaries coincide with the course of this river, as they do in the real world. The Rio Grande and the Rhine are excellent examples.

Large lakes and mountain ranges are something else to keep in mind. These are excellent natural borders that are ripe locations to draw a political line.

Resources

One area of your map may be separate from another due to natural resources. Perhaps an area of land was captured due to a grain shortage, or need for access to fresh water. Or maybe your civilization relies heavily on stone for construction due to deforestation, so areas rich with minerals/stones are treasured and heavily-guarded.

Politics

An obvious one, but it should be mentioned anyway. People go to war. There are many reasons, and those reasons usually seem (or are) justified at the time, but the result is the same: borders change. History is written by the winners, remember? So are maps.

Religion

Remember the Papal States? If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, look it up for a great example of how religion plays into the formation of borders.

Do you have territories or structures that are considered sacred by one or more of your religions? Great! This is fertile soil for conflict.

Even then, the effect of Religion can be far more subtle. Your religious leader may not rule directly, but I can almost guarantee he/she rules indirectly…if the political leaders of your world are members of that religious body. If you have a dominant religion, spend some time thinking about its theology at a high level: What are the moral precepts? What is interaction with the god(s) like? Is there an afterlife? Are people judged based on their behavior during life? Is your supreme religious leader considered to have ultimate moral authority? The answers to these questions are going to determine, in a big way, how much influence your religious leaders have over your political leaders. Consider the following exchange:

King: “I have no reason to invade the Gibblywinks. They’re peaceful neighbors.”
High Holy Kriznatz: “You should invade. They’re heathens. They should be purified.”
King: “Nope. Not gonna, and you can’t make me. I’m the king. See my crown? It’s shiny.”
High Holy Kriznatz: “A shame. You don’t seem suited to spend eternity boiling in the bubbly gooze of the fiery lake of demon sputum.”
King: “How’s next Thursday sound?”

…And the Gibblywinks are invaded next Thursday so the king can avoid taking a bath in demon gooze. This leads to the creation of a holy day of celebration involving ceremonial spitting: Gooze Day. (Which, after several centuries of language development was combined to form “Goozeday”…you know…the day before “Gednesday”). You get the idea.

Cultures

You may only have a single culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is your world! But whether you have one or many, you need to make some decisions about that culture.

Ask yourself some questions. This list is by no means exhaustive:
What do these people value?
Are they warriors? Farmers? Nomadic? Philosophers? etc…
How do they define their morality? Is Religion involved, or is it purely secular?
How did they come to be a single society? Or, is it single in name only, perhaps being a layered caste system under the surface?
What is their artistic expression like? You can often learn a LOT about a culture through its art.
Notice these are “high level” questions which will drive the details, not the other way around. The nomadic desert tribes didn’t move to the desert because they wanted to wear loose fitting robes and headgear. They wear loose fitting robes and headgear because they live in the desert, and they have to protect their body from dehydration and exposure.

[Edit: For more information, check out Marshall Ryan Maresca: Worldbuilding: Hard and Soft Imports]

Cities

Long before I started writing stories I was a fan of Role Playing Games, like Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually I started playing the computer versions of those games, and something always jumped out at me: the cities were in the wrong places.

Wait…how can a city be in the wrong place?

Think about the real world for a moment. How much history would have to change for New York City to have formed 500 miles inland?

Cities form for reasons that range over a very wide spectrum. Here are a few things to consider:
Trade routes
Access to resources (water, food, shelter, mining, etc.)
Religion (perhaps a holy site is nearby, and this city is the launching point for pilgrims)
Relationships with neighboring tribes may drive the formation of a city in an easily defensible location. (But you still need resources…)
And on and on…. The point is that if you’re going to draw a dot on a map, have a defensible reason for the appearance of that dot that is internally consistent with your milieu. If you ship your book with a map, your readers are going to notice if you build a city on the edge of a mountain for no other reason than the view.

Knowing When to Stop

Just look at how open-ended many of the questions I asked above are. If you’re half the nerd I am you could find yourself lost for hours and not even realize the time is passing. You’ll have spreadsheets with average temps and rainfall, magazine clippings of fashion styles, text documents with recipes for the paint formula used on the High Holy Kriznat’s toilet brush, and maps to every ant hill on your continent. Trust me…I’ve been there.

Periodically stop and ask yourself the following question: Does this serve the story?

Use the answer to that question to answer the following one: Should I continue? If what you’re about to do doesn’t serve the story, then don’t waste your time. At best you’ll wind up taking FAR longer than you should to complete your work-in-progress. At worst you’ll “build” yourself into a canonical corner that you can’t easily extricate yourself from in followup work.

Build…but build only what you need.

What factors do you like to consider when creating a new story world?

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