World Building: One Step At a Time
Are you interested in world building? If you’re writing a novel, this skill set is a must.
Today I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from author, David G McDaniel. Dave writes in the sci-fi genre, with two book series to his credit.
His latest, a pentalogy (5 books), is the young adult series, Star Angel. Star Angel follows a girl on modern Earth and a boy from another world as they’re thrown into a fight for their lives, only to discover they may both be connected to events in the distant past far more epic than either can imagine.
As with any sci-fi or fantasy story, David faced a certain amount of world building in order to create Star Angel. Any time imaginary worlds are used as settings, when advanced technologies are introduced, when fictional races and governments become the backdrop, the author must build a new universe of rules
As the complexity of the story increases, more world building is required.
World building lays critical elements of your fictional world, which then gives you a strong framework on which to hang the rest of the story. I asked Dave to share his thoughts and experiences, when it comes to this important foundation of the story.
Happily he agreed to be my guest…
Hello & Welcome
Thanks to the Friendly Ghostwriter for having me. And thanks for the introduction! Laura, you’re awesome (insert smiley emoji here). Today, as mentioned, I’d like to talk a little about world building.
Most sci-fi and Fantasy writers do world building, some more than others, and in fact there have been heated debates about how much is needed.
I recently watched a video interview with George RR Martin, the author of “The Song of Ice and Fire” (Game of Thrones) where he was talking about the degree to which he builds out the underlying foundation — the world, the universe — for his characters and stories. He mentioned that there was another author (can’t recall his name) who was of the opinion that world building was overrated.
Martin was (rightly, I believe) disputing that view, pointing out the fact that the other guy’s stories had major slips in continuity. If memory serves, the other author believed the story was all that mattered and the rest was a waste of time.
In his opinion, the story would take care of itself.
I couldn’t disagree more.
World building is important. I can tell you from experience the story does not take care of itself, and without a clear idea of how everything fits, your characters end up living in a vague space with no real definition and, consequently, no guidelines for their actions.
Imagine a game (your story) played with no field, no rules, no setting, no guidelines — no world, basically. With you just making it up as you go along.
What kind of game would that be?
An unsatisfying one, that’s for sure.
With no creation of a world, your reader will feel disconnected from the story. They will be left with the feeling that anything could change on a whim at any moment.
But, you might be wondering, isn’t that what a story is? Something that could change at any moment?
Well, a story, yes. Of course and absolutely. But not the world. You don’t wing it, merrily making it up as you go, when it comes to the world. If you do, your readers will never be able to become fully invested in the story you’re trying to tell. That approach can create a sort of low-level vertigo with your audience.
Like life, a story needs a setting in which to exist.
My First Rodeo
I’ll admit to you that with my first series (not Star Angel, but one called the Saga of Ages) I had to stop early on and take the time to flesh out the full history and universe in which my characters were playing. I just kept getting hung up on all sorts of details.
This was my first time writing a series. Every time I tried to advance the story, I found that I kept going back to figure out the elements of the world that were influencing the actions of my characters. Finally, I realized what I had to do.
There needed to be something consistent to hang it all together.
That was my epiphany. My big realization. Instead of dreaming up the universe as I went, I needed to put the story on pause, go back and create the elements of the world first.
Once that realization hit me I felt a profound sense of relief.
By the time I was done, the write-up of my world turned out to be 60 pages. I had sketches, pictures, references, galactic maps and more. I covered everything from past races to current governments, along with the framework and mechanics that made everything click.
When I wrote Star Angel I knew to begin the process with a lot of research about that world I created an historical timeline from 100,000 years before the stories take place, along with write-ups for all major events. I call it the “Star Angel Companion”.
No one will probably ever read it.
Earth is easier
At the end of the day world building is a selfless thing. You’re doing it to save everyone’s sanity, not least of all your own. It helps. Greatly.
Especially in a fictional world.
Writers of stories in a modern or historical setting have it a bit easier, as their “world” is pre-built for them. Stories that take place right here on Earth, in the “real” world, have our entire existence to draw from. It’s the world we know. For instance, we all know the details of World War I. It’s there for anyone to access, and we all know exactly how it shaped our modern world and how it might lead to any character motivations.
That’s a huge advantage for any author and his readers. Everyone knows the world we live in.
This isn’t always the case if you’re creating a fictional universe. Depending on how “fictional” your universe is (is it a slightly alternate version of Earth? Or is it Star Wars fictional?), you may not be able to draw much from our shared reality at all.
That means you must craft your own.
A Few Ideas
For your story to work you need to at least have the basic elements defined. If you don’t your characters will be swimming in an ocean with no direction and no land.
World building is important. Did I say that already?
Here are some components you might consider taking the time to define for your story:
- Historical data
- Legends and prophecies
- Races and their cultures
- Lineages and hierarchies
- The physics of the planet
- Rules of magic (and other fantastic knowledge)
Now, keep in mind, you may never use many of these factors in your story. But when you do, because you’ve got it all laid out, interconnected, it becomes very easy to write and your readers can easily lose themselves in what’s really important.
It’s Your Universe
Stan Lee, of Marvel fame, once said:
“The best way to rule a universe is to create it.”
Great quote. Great dude.
Take the time to flesh out your world, your back stories, your historical motivations and all else that shapes the universe in which your characters live. This can be work, no doubt. But the reward will become clear the further you forge into your story, when you see how easily things hang together, how well the pieces fit, and how much what your characters are doing makes sense.
Doing so ensures continuity. It removes distractions for the reader. And, if you take the time early on, it most definitely makes it easier in the long run for you, the writer.
Thanks again for having me.
As always, keep writing!
If you’d like to learn more about writing a book, here are some articles for you to read: