Two weeks ago I put up some thoughts on researching a book. It’s an important topic, and with the Cartographer it’s where I started the project. The information I came across was the fodder that fueled my brainstorming. I was still working on the last Benjamin Ashwood books at the time, so as I stumbled across ideas, both good and bad, I jotted them down in a notes file and just left them there to marinate. By the time I sent Weight of the Crown off to the proofreader, I had pages and pages of ideas written down, and I was ready for the next step — world building.
Before we get into the discussion, it’s only fair to say that I do not go as detailed on world building as a lot of fantasy authors do. If you want a really in depth discussion, it’s probably best to look elsewhere, but if you’re fine with just a tiny peek behind the curtain, you’re in the right place!
World building is simply taking all of your scatter-brained ideas and organizing them into some sort of coherent structure. In Fantasy, SciFi, and other speculative genres, you are introducing concepts that don’t exist in our own world. They still have to make sense in terms of your imaginary world, though! You need some underlying logic behind your ideas that a reader can understand if they’re to enjoy your story. You can have lots of cool ideas, but for the world to work, they have to be linked together.
Authors world build in all sort of ways. For Benjamin Ashwood, it was all just in my head. I never wrote down anything, which led to a lot of frantically flipping through previous books figuring out what my rules were. Some slightly more organized authors just have copious lists of notes. Some keep detailed Excel spreadsheets. Others craft extensive Wiki type documents that occasionally are longer than the novels they’re writing! People pay other people to keep track of this stuff! Maps, character concepts, links to reference material, and other documentation are also common.
In Fantasy, one of the most important elements of world building is the magic system. Unless you’re a ruthless borrower, this is something that will be wholly unique to your world, and it’s where many of us spend the most time tinkering around. I’ll use magic systems as an example, but many other elements of a good epic fantasy novel follow the same world building format. Political systems, fantasy races, technology, etc are all potential tabs on your spreadsheet.
For Benjamin Ashwood, my world building consisted of creating a logical system that magic operated in, and from there I could just fit abilities or “spells” into that structure. It was relatively simple. Mages are using will to manipulate a physical world which obeys all of the same laws as our own. That was nice and easy because instead of laying out a long list of abilities in advance, I just had to do occasional research to see if science supported what I wanted my mages to do. Transferring heat from one source to another to make a fireball? That’s thermodynamics!
For the Cartographer, the nature of magic is much more complicated and unique. I mentioned how my concepts were drawn from inspiration like Aleister Crowley, the secret societies he was involved in, and Egyptian ritual. Cool source of ideas, but they didn’t do actual magic (so we’re told…)! From that place of research and inspiration, world building is molding those ideas into something that has an underlying logic, and readers are able to suspend disbelief long enough that they think in your world it might actually work ;)
For the Cartographer, I started with a very messy, very long file of notes. Most of them were bad, and as I went through, I weeded out half my ideas before I even started. From there, I began trying to link different thoughts together to see if they could make sense as a whole. I have a fairly extensive file in the popular writing software Scrivner. In a dozen different tabs, I mapped out themes of the book, I mapped out inspirations including rituals and symbolism, I mapped out a concept of the duality between life and death, between magic and technology — and how that technology is reliant on the magic in this world, between male and female, between the natural order and enforced structure, between death aligned sorcery and life aligned druid magic, and so on. I tied that into a religious framework. I named things (you have no idea how long this takes). I built secret societies where people could learn all of those nifty names and figure out how to use sorcery. I thought about how all of this would impact political organizations, and across larger geographical frameworks. I looped back and connected these things into the core themes I wanted to write about like colonialism, balance, and whether progress leads to happiness. I could go on, but some of these themes & concepts won’t be fully realized until the series progresses, so we’ll leave it there!
A non-spoilery example I’ll use to illustrate how ideas connect is in the art above. The Cartographer features airships. On the surface it might seem like I read some other series with airships in it and stuck them in mine because I thought they were cool. Yeah, yeah, I kind of did. Airships were one of my brainstorming ideas. But as I hacked through my notes, I found it was an idea that could support others. I wanted these books to have a strong sense of high-seas adventure. I wanted to capture a feel for 1750’s colonial Britain. I wanted my main character to be a world traveler who’d explored more extensively than anyone else of his age. I needed a military advantage Enhover could use to forge an empire. I needed a commercial advantage for the Company. I needed examples of how technology was developed on the back of spirits. The airship serves a purpose in my story. It allows all of these other things to happen in a logical way. That’s what world building is all about.
Basically, when you dream up one idea, that is brainstorming. World building is taking all of the disparate ideas and melding them together into one cohesive concept of what your fantasy world is going to be like. When done well (not saying I do it well), everything ties together and each individual element supports the framework of the others. Depending on what you’re working with, and how close to “real life” you’re hewing, that gets complicated quickly!
True masters of world building capture you and hold you within their creations. Tolkien, Rowling, Martin, Sanderson, etc all have incredibly vivid concepts that bring their stories to life. Their worlds are so “real” that people make movies about them, they learn the imaginary language, people write fake histories, they build theme parks, and so on. I’m just hoping you can get through my book…
I hope I didn’t yadda yadda it, but that’s world building in a nutshell. It’s a lot of notes, it’s a lot of thinking about how different notes relate to each other. It’s a lot of throwing out of bad ideas.
World building is the favorite part of storytelling for some authors, and as I mentioned at the beginning, there are those who take it far more seriously than I do. It’s also worth noting, this is a similar skill to game design, movie making, and so many other creative crafts. You’re organizing the fruit of your imagination so it makes sense to others.
And one last thought directed at any budding authors out there.
World building is lots of fun, but it isn’t writing a story. Writing a story is taking us on a journey with your characters. They walk through your world, but that isn’t why readers picked up the book. They picked up the book to read about your characters, so don’t let the world take over. It’s the set piece. It can also be the spice that makes your story a fun fantasy that tickles our imagination, but again, it’s not the story! People love Hogwarts and visiting the theme park, but they read seven books for Harry. You might go on a film tour for GoT in Iceland, but you saw the show because of the political intrigue the characters were involved in. The book is called The Hobbit, not Middle Earth.
My advice is to do the level of world building you will need, and then stop. It’s a common trap to craft elegant, expansive worlds, filled with useless information. And then, because you’ve envisioned it and spent so much time with your notes, you feel compelled to tell everyone all about it.
No one gives a shit apples are blue in your world unless your main character is color blind and red apples are poison. Always follow the rule, tell the reader what they need to know, and not much else. A little salt and spice is nice in a soup, but no one likes salty soup. Use what you need, then put it down!
Hope you enjoyed my thoughts on world building! Give me a shout if you want to discuss, and every few weeks I’ll keep posting more elements on writing.