Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

World Building: Methods of World Building

Hello and welcome to the series on World Building.  This is going to be a mondo-gigantic series, so let’s just start right in.

First, what is world building?  World building is the term that writers or other creators use to describe the process of creating a believable world or environment in which their story takes place.  While most commonly referencing fantasy or science fiction, good world building technique applies across all fiction genres.

Aspects of world building are numerous and can be daunting for a new adventurer starting out into the wilds of fiction, and this first video isn’t likely to make it any better.  So let’s just get the hard stuff out of the way and review the topics that will be covered in this series:

  • Politics and Political Geography

  • Economy and Trade

  • Religion and Morality

  • Social Life (probably more than one video)

  • Environment, World and Space

  • Science and Technology

  • Magic and Sorcery

  • Language and Communication (with bonus conlanging video)

  • More topics as I discover them or deem them relevant

As I said, a new writer or creator is going to look at this and wonder if it’s all worthwhile.

As an aside, what do I mean by a writer or creator?  Personally, I’m just in it for the story, regardless of medium, although I am actually partial to video games, despite being an author.  World building in those media may be altered slightly in order to fit the visual and/or gameplay aspect, but largely remains the same in principle.

That being said, while I will give examples of world building as it relates to the Timekeeper Chronicles, I am in no way suggesting that it can’t be used across other media.

I also want to take a minute to say that if you are not writing science fiction or fantasy, if your story is based on your own surroundings, or a time period which can be realistically researched and referenced, half your work is already done for you.  The information is already there, you just have to find and organize it, versus setting a story on the planet Imininimi which is going to be a blank slate.

But whether you are talking about Earth in any time period or traveling to distant stars or fantastical lands, the idea of setting up the world around your main character can still seem like a challenge.  What information do you impart right away, what do you save for later, what should be explicitly stated, and what should be implied?

So I’m going to give you three methods of world building.  They’re not the only methods, but they paint broad strokes which you can refine in your own story.

The first method is the God perspective.  Critics may call this an info dump.  This is where you have a detailed history of your world or region, so that by the time you introduce your character, you already have an idea of the world they live in.

While this sounds like it only happens at the beginning of a novel, it can happen any time where large swaths of information are introduced before they become relevant to the story, or which are used to explain something which is already considered inherent to the character.  On the first point, for example, in In the Hands of the Enemy, there is a point where Rifun travels to the planet Irig to meet with the Korin people.  Now, he’s done his research, but in the interest of time and sanity, that is all it amounts to in that scene, that he did research.  But to just drop into Irig with no understanding on the part of the reader would be confusing and frustrating.  Therefore, before Rifun goes to Irig, there is a passage which describes the concept of war dynasties and peace dynasties, how the houses function, and why the Korin are called what they are.  This way, the reader has a better grasp of who Rifun is talking to and why he talks to them how he does, appealing to beliefs and morals that are different than his own.  It’s a two-paragraph summary of what Rifun discovered through hours of formal research.

Similarly, in Wolf Pack, the first few chapters involve years of time progression.  In that time, as the main characters do a little growing up, the political and social landscape changes drastically.  While many details are reserved for the story at hand, some mention of this needs to be made in order to keep the reader up to speed.

God perspective world building may also be used in future installments of a series in order to refresh the audience’s memory.  They should be shorter passages with more general information; you don’t need to rehash the entire first installment, just enough to jog the reader’s memory and help them to remember what happened, why, and so on.

On the second point, GP may also take the form of long-winded lore and tales of history or mythology.  In Free Time, Saul tells a campfire story that is the creation story of his people, the Krydik.  References to this story and the importance of the wolf are scattered throughout Free Time, and they become prominent in The Lone Wolf series.  However, it is something that all of the Krydik characters already know.  It’s what they grew up with, their inherent beliefs about the world and the universe.  It’s not likely to be something that a couple of hunters are going to casually preach to each other while stalking wild game, but a reference to hunting like a pack of wolves may not have as much meaning without the understanding of the story behind it.

When considering stories that take place in what would be “modern day” Earth, it is imperative for authors not to discount the value of a little GP, because your “modern day” story won’t always be modern day.  One day you’re going to wake up and your book is going to be five years old.  Then ten.  Then twenty.  Pretty soon, the kids won’t know what a rotary phone is.  Or dial-up Internet.  Or a station wagon.  Or a smartphone.  Or virtual reality.  Or anything that you take for granted in the “modern day.”  This is especially important when writing anything that has to do with politics.  History is written by the winner, and there is nothing more valuable to future historical fiction writers than perspective, especially from someone who was alive at the time they want to set their story.

The opposite of God perspective world building is going to be Character perspective world building.  This is world building in which all the rules are already known to the character, but must be discerned by the audience.

In the Hands of the Enemy is a perfect example of this because it opens up with each character right in the middle of a scene.  Kokumbo is being punished, and Rivotra is on the chain gang.  The audience doesn’t know anything about anything.  The audience doesn’t know why they are where they are, the circumstances leading up to punishment or imprisonment, or how it is likely to turn out.

Similarly, following the stories of the two men illustrates the differences between God perspective and Character perspective world building.  Kokumbo is a man of action and harsh justice.  He is very reactive and rarely sits down to think and plan and reason.  Everything about his world is discovered through his actions, with very little exposition.  Conversely, Rivotra is an introverted character who prefers to consider and reason and think and plan.  He mulls over elements of the world around him, discovers how things came to be, why they are the way they are, and how he can change them.  Personally, I’d love to see some future theory or dissection of the two and how their personalities and circumstances helped or harmed them.

For those familiar with the Soulsborne series, with exception of maybe an introductory video, almost the entirety of the lore behind the game is found in the items that your character picks up, meaning the player is discovering things as the character is.

Character perspective world building is also any instance where the character must also discover the rules of the world they walk in.  Thinking back to Tick Tock, Tommen did a little basic research of Sifura’s people, but even with her help and guidance, he was still very much a fish out of water.  He didn’t understand the customs, the language, the social niceties and taboos, and he knew even less when it came to the D’Bok.  He knew nothing about the D’Bok council or the fight of champions or the politics behind it.  Everything he experienced was brand new.

Relying solely on CP is how many “modern day Earth” stories die, because it takes for granted the understanding of the audience.  Once your casual audience member no longer understands how party lines work or why they’re so darn hilarious, a part of the story dies.  When it takes a historian to explain the significance of a political movement or a court ruling or even a gosh darn war, your story is dead in the water.

This is also where world building and character development intersect, because your character must interact and react to the world around them.  If there’s a war going on, your character is going to have an opinion about it and react to it.  If cancer was suddenly cured, even if your character doesn’t have cancer, he’s still going to react to it.  If your character just bought a brand new Playstation Alpha, it is going to make a statement about technology of the time and how people in your world interact with it.  Or maybe Sony went bankrupt and Playstation suddenly cost a bajillion dollars (or a bajillion more dollars) that your character can’t afford.  Even non-reaction is a reaction that should be explored.

Anyway, all this to say that the third method of world building is likely to be how most creators start off.  That is the Middle perspective world building.

Chances are, unless you are an ultra-obsessive world builder, you don’t have everything planned out in minute detail when you first put pen to paper.  And that’s okay.  That’s when you start thinking like the audience, asking questions like the audience, and answering them like the creator.

Maybe all you know is that in the first chapter, your character is hiding in a secret room, waiting for the perfect moment when the soldiers pass by to slip out of the house, run down the street, and meet up with the rest of the resistance in the basement of an abandoned building.

Why is this character hiding?

What happens if she gets caught?

How did she come to be part of the resistance?

What information does she have to share with her fellows, and how did she get it?  Why couldn’t someone else have gotten it?

Why is this information important?  What will the resistance do with it?  What resources do they have access to?

And so on.

When I was writing Time to Kill, there were a lot of times when I had to stop and ask, “Why is my character doing this?  What are the circumstances and motivations?”

Question: Why does Tommen initially state that Slow Bands are orange and Fast Bands are blue, when the opposite is true?

Answer: He's red-green colorblind, so he struggles to grasp colors he can't see and sometimes gets mixed up.

Question: Why are Rifun and Cassius running around in a van when they have the power to open direct portals?

Answer: Because opening portals, especially direct portals, is physically taxing, and they want to make a grand show of their movements.

Question: Why don’t the Hands care about Rifun and Cassius murdering people using Time?

Answer: Because the Laws of Time serve to protect the Time industry.  Use of Time beyond that is out of their jurisdiction, or ability to care.

Question: Why does Rifun obsess about Tommen so much, and how would things have changed if he and Cassius had disappeared after obtaining the journal?

Answer: In the context of The Chivalrous Welshman, it’s all a game to him.  In the context of The Hands of Time, he believes he is fulfilling his calling.

So maybe you don’t have all the answers.  Maybe your story will have to go the way of CP for a while, at least for the first draft.  When you get to the second draft, you should have a better idea of the world your people live in, and you can add or modify details to make it more coherent.

Middle perspective world building is about working with what you know.

There is another aspect to world building which is determined by the movement of the story as a whole, and it is determined by your focus.  Are you trying to tell a story about a certain time period or event in history, where characters simply relate those events?  Or are you more interested in moving your characters through a tumultuous, ever-changing plot that happens to coincide with certain events in history (whether or not it’s on Earth)?

Stories based on events will probably have a more fleshed out political and economic rendering, and be more GP based, taking everything in blocs.  Stories based on characters will likely be more focused on social and religious aspects and be more CP based in their world building.

For example, a story about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War could go two very different directions.  On the one hand, plot- and event- based where Union and Confederate armies clash and Abraham Lincoln tries to bring everything back together.  On the other hand, character-based where Abraham Lincoln watches the country fracture, where he sees friends and colleagues pitted against one another and he questions why God put him in such a position and what he can do to make things right, even as senators and other politicians are imprisoned in order to prevent their states from seceding.

Finally, the third aspect of world building that I think needs to be mentioned is source inspiration.  Rarely do stories arise out of the blue.  Horror stories may be inspired by Stephen King or Lovecraft, even if it’s an inspiration to not be like them.  Science fiction, Star Trek, The Martian, just right off the bat.  Fantasy, Lord of the Rings.  Whatever the case, a creator is inspired by others to either copy, reshape, or do your best to put as much creative distance between you and them.

While copying an idea is plagiarism, denying source inspiration outright is, I believe, actually rather insulting.  It’s okay to say that you like someone else’s work, even if it is mainstream, even if you liked it before it was cool.  For example, the game Bloodborne is very Lovecraftian.  It is easily identified, but FromSoft takes it in a new direction that is bloody brilliant (pun intended).  On the other hand, when they took it too far and put some of those elements into Dark Souls III, it actually took away some of the spectacle and distinction of the Dark Souls world.  But on that, I rather enjoy the conspiracy theory that says that Yharnam is the new Painted World.

And that’s kind of where you have to be careful about things.  Drawing from too many sources and trying to mash too many ideas together can make things clunky and awkward.  Defining your boundaries and the realm that your story will encompass will make your world feel more rich and alive all the way around, versus nice patches here and there that just fade into a murky fog.

I would be careful about whose ideas you’re going to glean and how you’re going to go about it, but taking existing ideas and shaping them into something new is how fiction evolves.  Taking bits and pieces from multiple sources, even sources that seem absurd, and crafting them into something entirely your own is a thing of beauty in the creative world.

So in the future installments, we’re going to be going over all those topics I listed at the beginning.  It will be long and tedious, and I expect I’ll say some controversial things.  Maybe you’ll think I’m going a little too in-depth, but I would rather have too much information and shave some off than not have enough and not know how to fill in the blanks.

And as always, this is just my opinion, and I don’t mean to say that this is all concrete and immovable.  If you disagree with something I say, a method I propose, by all means, ignore it to your benefit or peril.  I don’t know.  Only you know how your creation is supposed to turn out.

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