“Elves, gnomes, vampires, orcs? Oh should I put a mountain on the top of the map? Nah, it’s better at the bottom. Nevermind, just cross this out. Oh and where does my main character live in here? Wait, before that, what the hell is my main character? A human? But how can a human live here? Oh no! I just drew his house near the volcano!”
Does this sound like you? It also sounds like me. I mean, sounded. It took me a while before coming to the realization that worldbuilding isn’t something that you can randomly do by just associating a bunch of thoughts together. By doing so, you just enter a labyrinth that will get you absolutely nowhere. Pardon: if you happen to find a way out, then your world will most likely not be that consistent.
You want a world. Whether real, set in the Victorian England, the middle-age, Mars, or filled with fantastic creatures, you want this world to be believable, to allow your characters to grow and live in it, and to be open to every alternative in your plot. This will be the home of your character during their whole adventure, and every single aspect of it may affect them in a way or another. It is important to take some time to build it. Wonder in it, visualize it. Than and only than will you be able to put your characters in it.
It is no wonder that J.K. Rowling is said to have spent five years building the wizarding world before sending Harry Potter to Hogwarts. While you don’t necessarily need five years to draw the important part of your world that will allow you to finally start writing, there’s no escape from that part, and it will take time.
But guess what? With some organization, it can be fun! Here’s what I recently learned about worldbuilding, and that is truly helping me out with giving shape to the world of my book. With hope this drives you out of your wanderings as well.
DISCLAIMER: this is not a detailed step by step worldbuilding guide, but rather steps to deblock you when you’re completely stuck with your ideas and feel like you’re not getting anywhere with what you’re building.
1#Get inside your world with some good music.
You can’t build your world if you can’t visualize it, and this very thing can be extremely hard… but only in one case: if you’re not in harmony with it. And that’s something you can easily solve.
Now, go get your headphones. First question: what’s your world like? Is that a medieval universe, with lords and peasants? Is that a futurist world with flying cars and
fidget spinners? Depending on the genre you’re writing in, you’ll listen to different sorts of music. A good epic track would be excellent to get your ideas for a Fantasy world, for example. Note that what might work for a writer may not for another, if an epic music can’t help you focus, try with more calm melodies, and so on.
Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you without any resource. I myself struggled with finding notes that actually triggered my imagination. So, here’s a list of resources to check:
- Thomas Frank’s study music playlist
- Tabletop Audio : an ambiance/music generator.
- Two Steps from Hell
- Adrian Von Ziegler
- Random “classical” music, from Chopin to Bach.
Now just sit, close your eyes, and walk through your world (you could try to do it through your main character’s eyes, or your favorite one for instance). How does it look like? How are the trees, the forests, the mountains, the buildings? What the air’s smell? Who is living there?
But, Selma! Nothing is coming!
Whether or not you’re new to writing, you know that inspiration is a real b… Hum. Well, you gotta go catch her. If music isn’t enough, do it the hard way. Take your gun, eh, mouse, and drag it to “new tab”, then to the search box.
Here’s something that may sound weird: you need visual art.
Ever wondered why some writers get their inspiration in the woods? Besides the smell and the silence, it’s the power of the image that is showing here. In an age where we have social media platforms entirely built upon images, your muse might only be one click away.
Here again, I’m not leaving you to the Google Images search box. Here’s a small list of the best resources I know online:
- Pinterest. Just type in “Fantasy world” or “sci fi world”. You’re welcome.
- Zerochan. For anime-style illustrations.
- We Heart It
Are you set? Inside your world? Getting ideas? Great! You can now move on to the next step!
2# Brainstorm. With a notebook.
Here’s the trick about brainstorming: don’t do it without a notebook or a computer screen. Don’t feel obliged to get you that fancy notebook that will cost you an arm and a leg, your old one from that class you never wrote a word in would be more than enough. If you’re more into screens, I would personally recommend Evernote over a Word Document, to get your ideas more structured.
This is really important because you won’t be able to keep all your thoughts, furthermore structured, in your mind. Believe me, you need a support; so begin by writing down what you already know about your world, from the slightest to the biggest details.
Next, set a list of things to define. I would suggest starting with the “big lines”. My recommendation would be to give each “section” (History, Geography, Religion) of your world a specific page or part.
- What is your world, exactly? A planet, a dimension of its own, New York City, Dubai?
- What are the major historical events that happened, leading to the actual state of it?
- Who are the creatures living in your world? How were they affected by history? Who is enslaved, who is free? What are the tensions that exist in the world due to its background? Make sure to make a complete list of the main creatures, even animals if they have a direct impact on the plot.
- What is the religion, or religions that exist in your world? What is its relationship to power, to citizens? Any superstitions?
- How’s the map of your world? Where does it snow, where is it sunny? How do seasons change? Draw the map and specify the changes.
- Think about the military system. Who serves in the army? Which are the most powerful? What gives them this status?
- Where are your main characters in all of that? Where is your antagonist? Draw the big lines of their story.
And of course, don’t turn off the music!
3# Reach out for help.
You think you possess the ring of power, sweetie? You don’t. Even though you might think that your head is enough and that your imagination is so wide it could build entire kingdoms of their own… Maybe that’s not exactly true.
“But, Selma, you said I had to relate to my world!”
True. What I didn’t say though, is that you can build it all by yourself. Sometimes, you might be missing something, that long walks, music, images and deep thoughts never solved. You just don’t know how to connect things together. Some others, you might have the perfect idea for your world but oops! there’s a big story hole in the middle of it.
And that’s normal, you’re human, you have flaws, and you can’t build a perfect world. You will need help in order to connect things sometimes.But guess what? An awesome idea could come from someone else, that will not only get you going again in your world-building, but will make you appreciate your work even more.
Now that I’ve seriously started writing, something I’ll never regret is joining Twitter. It’s a completely free option that allows you to connect with fellow writers, some of them even being best-selling authors. I remember asking an Amazon best-selling authors about Beta-readers. Yeah, you know what I expected, paranoid as I am. “Haha, he’ll never answer”.
I was shocked a few hours later. He actually did respond. Even linking to an article about beta-readers on his blog.
So what I can tell you is “get active on social media”. Ask questions, join writers’ list such as #turtlewriters , chats like #StorySocial. Use hashtags, like #amwriting. Share some of your passages with others, ask for opinions. As I’m writing this, I am finally about to fill a big plot hole in my worldbuilding thanks to talking to other writers who shed a little light on the situation each.
4#Know when to stop
Set up your priorities. What you need at first are the things I referred to in the list above, all the rest will come with time. On this note, I want to emphasis on the necessity of not over-complicating things. You need to leave a room for events to happen. Don’t make it so complicated that your characters must follow an exact pattern of actions to keep things consistent.
Ah, and don’t worry if not every single thing makes sense. Consistency and little details will be polished when you’re editing. This is just the beginning, your first draft, so focus on the core of your story. Details will come later.
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