META L: Worldbuilding 101: Three approaches to create your own worlds. You can make experimental trips on all of them, or take a sharp right into virgin woods and bushwhack your own way to your destination. I’m offering you a road map, an atlas. Not necessarily directions.
The first law of writing is that there is no law – or at least not one that applies to everyone across the board.
Different people do things in their own ways and that’s right and proper – doing it the way that makes sense to THEM is the only way it can be done. The worst possible thing that beginner writers can do is find an overly prescriptive “rule book” of fiction writing and try to follow it meticulously, even when it clearly clashes with their own processes.
So when I say “three ways to build a world”, I’m not telling you which one is best, or which one you have to pick, or even that there are the ONLY ways that work. You may have your own way of doing things. Repeat after me: it is valid.
What I am doing here is describing three roads into the worldbuilding country – and you’re welcome to make experimental trips on all of them and pick the one that best suits you – or else take a sharp right into virgin woods and bushwhack your own way to your destination, if that’s what’s calling your name.
I’m offering you a road map, an atlas. Not necessarily directions.
The Lego Builders
One way to build a world is the Lego method – brick by brick.
To build any wall, you need a solid foundation. There will be plenty in this world that might never see the light of day in your actual story. Your worldbuilding is done as a precursor to your story, and then, while you’re writing the story itself, as a process running in the background while you’re actually showing the tale.
You may be creating a full secondary world, and for this you need to know all the fiddly little details which you know by instinct in this the ”real” world but which may run quite differently in the one you are building up.
You need to know what is valued, and valuable; what is treachery; what is beautiful; what aspect of something might cause prejudice, or envy; how things are measured; where the ‘decent’ people live and where the ‘badlands’ are. You need to know that there may be concepts or places or occurrences for which your world’s language may have words – because they are common enough for them to need a name, or because they are so rare that the few times that that thing has occurred has acquired a semi-mythical named status. For that matter, your world may have A LANGUAGE, one that you might… have to invent, or at least partially invent.
All of these things are now Lego bricks. You start stacking them up in a way that seems coherent to you in order to construct an edifice.
It is extremely easy to find yourself sitting in a pile of AMAZING Lego bricks, and so overwhelmed by them all that you are completely incapable of putting them together in a manner that is meaningful to anyone else. Many a writer has sat and gibbered at all their wonderful ideas, and found themselves utterly bereft of a vessel which could bear them. It takes a strong mind and a solid focus to keep all this under control – sometimes you need to be a scholar in your discipline, like Tolkien, who created the languages of his Middle Earth and entire realms and histories and mythologies to go with them before he pulled you into the Lego castle he called Middle Earth.
That’s one example of where this worked magnificently.
The Orchard Graft
Another way to build a world is the Orchard Graft method.
It is possible to graft a branch of a fruit tree onto an entirely different tree. Now you have a host tree and the graft branch producing entirely different fruit. You have an insanely chimaera-ed construct which is at the same time BOTH the trees, and NEITHER.
A tree was once given grafts from several different fruit trees. The result was a tree that produced plums, pears, peaches, apricots and apples all at once.
What I’m saying here is that you have something to start with – something solid, and old, and something that’s been there for quite some time – something recognizable, and valuable because of that recognition factor, but then you come in, the master gardener, with something rich and new and exotic and you graft that in and then you watch each of those things change the other, the old tree and the grafted branch.
Do it well, and you have something amazing. Do it badly and all you have is a withered graft on a wounded tree. Proceed with caution, and make sure you know what you are doing, in other words.
An excellent example of this method is the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. J K Rowling took a hoary old tree – the British Boarding School story – and she grafted onto it the Wizarding World magic. That it worked, you know already – she is one of the very few writers in history to have been written into the Who’s-Who of the Very Very Rich.
But what you may also have seen happen here is that one successful graft is no guarantee that a second will take. Rowling’s attempt to change her world from the graft that she knew well and obviously did properly – the British setting, the British school, the British characters – to a North American set of schools like Hogwarts and redolent in North American imagery and mythology… didn’t fare so well. Rowling didn’t know her material here. She wasn’t familiar with that graft. Trying to force it onto the old tree… just didn’t end well. We now have a permanent dead branch in the Harry Potter tree, and a wound in the host tree where the attempt was made to force it in.
Handle with care. When it works, this one works beautifully. But make a fatal error in the grafting… and the whole thing withers. And there is no way back from that. You cannot save a living thing that is already dying. The graft was false, the graft was badly done, the graft was too foreign – it can be any of a number of failures, but the failure is graphic and wholly visible and often hurtful to behold.
World in a Mirror
A third way of building a world is the Mirror Method.
With this, you hold a mirror up to the “real” world, and then you write about what you see – about what you CHOOSE to see – reflected in that mirror. The advantage to this is that you start with something that your readers will already “know” and you don’t need to start from absolute scratch – if you are setting your story in a certain geographical locale on planet Earth and you say it is June or January your readers will have a very good idea of what the weather is like outside, for instance.
What you are doing here is pulling out details and making them (subtly or radically) different – the big picture can still be utterly recognizable but those details that you have changed will make it look and feel rich and strange.
For an example of this type of worldbuilding, think something like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Not only were aspects of her world – exaggerated for her purposes, to be sure – instantly and viscerally recognizable to her readers, the book has somewhat frighteningly begun to be seen as a prophetic volume, the details Atwood changed to create Gliead are things we are slowly recognizing with horror in our own reality. The call that this book was “not meant to be a handbook for the future!” has been gaining volume of late.
This is a very good method to use when you are writing what is known as the Idea Book, a story which concentrates on exploring in some detail a What If situation where you tweak something in “our” world and then wait to see what small changes that big change has pulled in its wake, and how different a world can be when those small changes start to accumulate.
You don’t need to “invent” anything here, it’s all in the changes that you make. Then you follow where you’re led, and you WILL be led. You are part of society – you know how society works given a certain set of constraints – and you will be able to extrapolate with a reasonable degree of accuracy how a society will change to accommodate a new set of rules which you are imposing on it. This is completely true when you are writing about human beings – they are in the end predictable creatures and you will be able to predict their actions because you yourself are human.
You may not sympathize with or even remotely approve of certain actions that your characters will end up taking – but on some fundamental level you will completely understand them, and so will your equally human readers. If you’re writing non-human characters like eves and dwarves and orcs, or Little Green Men from a distant planet, there will certainly be characteristics which will differentiate them from humanity – and here perhaps a tiny bit of the Lego method might creep in – but in the end you can’t make them TOO different because otherwise your human audience will fail to understand them or to care about what happens to them.
What you’re doing even here is… holding up a mirror. What might reflect in it could be a deeply alien creature – on the face of it – but what you have to also see in that mirror are the ways in which it is similar to your readership, not just how different it is.
When it comes to my own work… I’ve used some of these methods all of the time, and all of them some of the time. That’s how it works.
The Lego method was very evident in my high fantasy books, the fat novel that became the “Hidden Queen” / “Changer of Days” duology, which was built up as a secondary world, from scratch.
I definitely used the Graft method in my historical fantasies (“The Secrets of Jin-shei”, “Embers of heaven”, “Empress”).
I generally don’t write pure “idea” books so the pure Mirror method is not something I use in isolation but together with the Graft, the Mirror appears strongly in “The Were Chronicles” trilogy (the three books coming out in an omnibus edition soon) and in “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”. It’s not pure. It’s a cocktail, and it’s all the more powerful when used in combination.
There are many other ways to build a world – or an infinite manner of combinations of all of these ways – and as I said, you’re the best judge of how to proceed. Where you’re standing now is at a crossroads, and there are signposts pointing in particular directions. Pick a road and try it out and see if it suits. You may end up travelling on different roads for different stories – or on shortcuts between them.
Worldbuilding is the only thing in your writing process that isn’t a destination. It’s a Journey. Take notes as you travel, and good luck.
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