Building the World of a Story
I have been writing and imagining stories since I was little, and still afraid of the dark. I also read incessantly, and my favorite books I would read over and over.
“But Ako, what does that have to do with anything? Get to the world building, already!”
I will, I will. I only mention those two things because they are pertinent. The first, imagining my own little stories, is relevant because they always reached a point where I could not drive them forward... it was as if there were no more ground to lay a road on, no foundation.
The second, reading books over and over, is relevant because the stories I loved so much and the writing styles in them that I admired taught me how to make a story do what I wanted it to do.
The culmination is this: a good story has to have a good back story, one that makes sense, is logical, even, in some cases, scientifically feasible. The story has to have a good history to give it foundation.
So here it is... the way I build a world, a whole universe, to support a story, because when all else fails, and the characters themselves cannot drive a story forward, the world that the story is based on can.
So. There are several pieces to consider. And please – these are not set in stone, this is just my process. It won’t work for everyone – I just hope it helps as a jumping-off point.
1) The world itself. And by the world, I mean the planet that the story takes place on, the star it circles, some of the nearby planets that may influence it, and of course, its moon or moons. Is there anything unusual about the planet itself? Does it have some unique quality that gives rise to the cool things in the story that I am writing? Remember, nature rarely wastes anything. If a people or a select group have an ability, in my mind, there should be something driving it, some need or use for it. I put that unusual thing into the planet itself, so that there is a logical reason that the extraordinary people can do what they do.
Is the planet Earth-type? It doesn’t have to be. Remember, the seasons are determined by the axial tilt, and not all planets will have the same tilt as Earth. Change the tilt, and you change the seasons, the kind and arrangement. And not all regions, even here on Earth, have the typical four – where I am from, the tropics, there is no winter or autumn.
Does the planet have several moons, or more than one sun? Moons influence not just the tides, but also the people. The sun or suns influence the kind of diurnal system and circadian cycle (the length of the “day” has an effect on the body of a living thing) the people have.
What is the cool new aspect that makes this world unique? Is it extra dense, making the people heavy worlders? Is it being constantly bombarded? Is it shrouded in nebulae?
I don’t’ think of all of this at the beginning of a story, of course. An interesting idea, a scene, will come to me, and I’ll just start writing, but sooner or later I knuckle down and build the world to fit the story.
2) The timeline and culture. The world and the history of your people will make a difference. Were there wars, upheavals, diaspora? Have they been in the same place for untold generations, or were they driven away, to find a new home?
How technologically advanced are they? Stone-age equivalent, medieval, modern, future, far future? What is their level of technology? Metallurgy? Are they agrarian, or industrial? Rural, urban, or nomadic?
What system of government do they have? A monarchy? A duarchy? A council? An elected body? A dictatorship?
3) The map. It is imperative to draw a map of your world, the different land-masses, the different nations, geographic types. I found out the hard way that geography influences people, culture, even the way people think. Coastal people don’t just eat fish, they worry about storms, tsunamis, invaders by sea, trade by sea. Mountain people can be hardy, isolated, and if the mountains are tall, used to the cold – probably. They are probably good at protecting their trade routes, and may have dominion over the only pass through their demesnes. You get the idea. Rivers move from high places to low land, and influence trade in a preindustrial society.
The map also shows where everyone is in relation to each other. Vague descriptions can work for a while, but sometimes the story needs the fine detail to give it depth. The sharing of borders can be significant.
This is just a snap-shot of what goes into world-building. I am sure I have not included a lot of things that others may consider. Different stories can have emphasis on different aspects.