In the vents with LL: World-building Part 1

LordLucan, our friendly, neighbourhood Dementor brings to you the first article in a series where he talks to you about his approach to world-building for your stories, whether they be short fiction or full-length or anywhere in between.

World-building Tips Part 1: The Foundations.

Howdy everyone (and Schaf). For my first article I thought I’d talk to you all about a topic some people struggle with when creating a compelling setting for the stories they wish to tell. I speak of course of golf course management! Well, first things first, you need to get a sturdy lawn-mower, and several hundred willing members of staff and —

No, of course I mean world-building: the art of creating a unique and interesting setting while maintaining a coherent and consistent universe that doesn’t feel like a comic-book world cobbled together from the fragments of cool ideas you had once. This article will provide several tips to help you start the process along. These are rather loose ‘rules’ but they have helped me to develop some really outlandish worlds from a simple original premise. So, without further ado…

1 – The Root Divergence – Why Your World Is Different Than Earth?

Basically, you need to come up with the single biggest reason you wanted to create a different world. There has to be a reason your world is not just a carbon copy of the planet Earth with the serial numbers filed off (If your setting is no different to Earth, you may have missed the point of this article…).

The root divergence could be a geological or celestial quirk, like their moon being too close or something similar. The nature of the planet could be different; maybe it is a gas giant, or it is artificial or made from diamond? Look up some of the freaky phenomenon astronomy has revealed over the past few years and feel free to steal ideas from these bizarre worlds but don’t feel that your world necessarily needs to be physically possible. As long as your world abides by its own laws of nature, it should be fine.

If you’d prefer a normal-ish planet that is pretty much like earth, go for a point of divergence of a more psychological or sociological bent that would cause the entire setting to develop in unexpected and interesting ways. Perhaps someone invents a device which means nobody can sleep anymore, or the hallucinations of everyone in mental asylums actually become real due to some metaphysical event in the past. You could have humanity (or indeed, whatever race you choose to write about) having to share their world with creatures possessing a different kind of sentience.

The root point of divergence should be intriguing and easy for an outside reader to recognize and appreciate (For instance, a setting where cow’s milk isn’t used for breakfast cereals would be different, but potentially tedious and unnoticeable unless your protagonist was some cattle-advocate or was always conspicuously eating cereal all the time. Actually, if anyone can make that setting work, I shall laud you as a champion amongst Boltholers. Get ye to the fan fiction boards at once!)

But once you have your root idea, this is where the real work begins (but it is fun so no worries).

2 – Interrogation!

So, you have your idea. Whether whimsical or serious, you think it has potential. Now you have to interrogate it. By this, I mean consider your premise from every angle and every point of view. If your world is physically not earth-like, why isn’t it? How do people live upon the planet without dying? What population can it sustain? How do people make a living upon the planet? Did they evolve on that world, or were they brought there? If they aren’t native, who brought them there and why? Was it under duress or were they willing colonists? What is so valuable about this world that their home world would send colonists to a world which is dangerous or lethal to them? If they are actually natives, what adaptations have they got to ensure they survive and thrive on this world? So if they do not, do they use technology to survive? How advanced is the technology they are utilising? And so on and so forth. This applies to sociological quirks even more so.

Basically, imagine you are an unreasonably picky and pushy newspaper editor questioning your idea, desperately seeking a loophole or a flaw. However, as you are both protagonist and antagonist in this imaginary jaunt (imaginary, so don’t enact it in your front room, you’ll look mental…), you as a writer have the time to come up with an answer to everything this miserable editor demands of you. You can seal up each plot hole before it opens, and through this elaboration and explanation of your idea you will unwittingly create whole factions and sub-divisions within your new world, like the branching of a tree. You can use historical precedents and incorporate them into explaining each element, as often historical events are as weird as fiction and can provide believable excuses for things.

However, each time you add a new element, interrogate this new aspect to a similar extent. Maybe, just maybe, you could wring out some new detail or nuance you never considered before. For instance, why does one of your factions ride winged beasts instead of the widely abundant flying machine available? Perhaps it is a cultural thing, or maybe you suddenly decide that the technological factions have genetically-coded machines which the other folks on the world aren’t allowed to use. This then creates an antagonism, which can be interrogated further in a number of ways, such as why are they withholding technology? Are they afraid of the beast-riders? Or are they being compelled to discriminate against them? You can see how one idea then buds further branches of this increasingly-extensive oak of an idea.

3 – Factionalism

Remember also that the inhabitants of your world will not all develop the same way in response to the primary point of divergence; real life is testament to this fact. Everything can be interpreted differently by those with different creeds, cultures and prejudices. Consider all the ways an event can be misconstrued or taken out of context; just think about those people you sometimes see on the news who seem to completely misunderstand a news story in your opinion. These sort of people are a rich seem of inspiration for different factions or sub-divisions within factions.

You might think the moon getting replaced by a giant spaceship would be a source of terror to all, but you just know there’d be groups supporting the aliens, or groups who simply refuse to acknowledge the change at all (“Bah, the moon has always had a big laser on it. You lot are all just ignorant heathens, now get back to ploughing!”).

You must work out the point at which these cultures and groups diverge from the main body of your inhabitants and why they did so, for this will then inform what they are like. From there, the interrogation technique can be used to elaborate in detail on this faction.

Bear this in mind; everything is connected. If one faction suddenly gets a new piece of technology or social renovation, it would affect ever other faction in a myriad of different ways you must also consider. Look at the cold war, or even better the Reformation period in Europe; changes amongst one group spread and things escalate. Technology in particular is an interesting one. Depending upon the society would alter how it is disseminated across the world. In ancient China, technology was heavily regulated and much of the brilliant inventions of China never really left their borders. Yet with permeable borders and a more open society would mean technology could spread more easily (in fact, it’d be hard for one single power group to suppress the innovation once it was created).

Now we have the basic points, there are some things to avoid…

4 – Your world isn’t Hoth! Or Tattooine! No you can’t have a sarlaac! Ok, just one, but that’s it…

No mono-climates! Also avoid mono-cultures (the infamous ‘planet of hats’ trope). There is nothing more limiting in my view. Worlds are very rarely uniform in their environments. Sure, maybe your world was once a completely frozen wasteland (like earth was during its ‘snowball’ period), but planets and solar systems are dynamic things. Your planet will not always be like that. But if you insist upon having an ice world or something, please try to make it diverse or interesting on some other level; perhaps emphasise culture or the various environments within the bases and colonies upon the world.

But mono-climate worlds baffle me as settings, as their authors needlessly limit themselves. I hesitate to suggest it implies creative laziness, but there seems to be few other reasons for it (if you have some motivations for it, post them below as I’d be interested in discussing it).

5 – Beware exposition overload

Having exhaustive details about every aspect of your setting is brilliant and an excellent resource for you as a writer. But your readers may go mental if you go into too much minutiae when you actually come to write your story within your newborn setting. Remember that all this work was to help you get to know your setting as much as it was to create it. Your setting can now be used to guide you through your plot. You can also modify your plots to integrate with the world discreetly; you plan an aerial chase from the city of noon to the city of dusk, but you realise you’ve accidentally put an impassable mountain range between the two cities. But luckily the mountains of your world are hollow due to all the stone-worm burrows that criss-cross throughout them. The way is now obvious; your protagonist’s plane crashes, and the aerial chase become a scramble through the dangerous cavern systems!

Oh yes, and you’ll note I didn’t bother about the world’s name. In many ways this has to come last and I can’t really give you advice upon it; the world’s place names and languages will be informed by the cultures you fashion. I could draw up a list of cool-sounding names, but in the end they wouldn’t be as good as the names you’d come up with based upon your own creation. For instance, on the bolthole, we created a world that would be covered in oil and smoky natural fumes. We called it Nyx because Nyx means ‘dark’ or ‘black’ I believe. It worked, but only after we hammered out the basics of the world first.

So there you have it. That is my method for world-building. It may not be the best, but it works for me as if feel more organic than going for a more structured approach. Tell me what you think below. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to infest the vents once more.

About the Author

Lord Lucan (or LL if you have a think for acronyms…) has been infesting Black Library-related forums since the Black Library’s official forum, and his festering presence slithered through the vents to occupy the Bolthole after the official forums’ sad demise. He has remained with the Bolthole through all its manifestations. You can also find him at his recently created blog (apparently there was already a Lord Lucan on the blogosphere, so remember the 1!). Otherwise, one can easily find him roaming the forum like an omnipresent cephalopod. For examples of world-building on the Bolthole forum, check out the ‘Noriad Nox Librarius’ or even take a gander at LL’s expansive 50K/60K universe fan fiction.