World Building Primer

Nat Russo Basics, How-To, World Creation 28 Comments

World Building is something that all writers of speculative fiction need to do at some point in the story development process. I’d go so far as to say World Building is one of the primary things that drew many of us to this craft in the first place. 

In today’s post we’ll cover the following:

  • The Map
  • Borders
  • Religions
  • Cultures
  • Cities
 

Where to Begin

The process can be great fun, but it isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. If we create our worlds haphazardly, without giving them much thought and attention, they’ll seem flat and one-dimensional. If, on the other hand, we completely immerse ourselves, detailing every desert and hill, every dynasty and family tree, then we take the risk of contracting “Builderitis”, a hideous disease that keeps us building when we should be writing.

Let’s face it, every writer has their own process, and I’m no different. I’m not here to tell you my way is the right way. Treat these elements like LEGO bricks and arrange them in whatever pattern you like. I like to start with the general and layer on specificity as needed, because of the way my mind works. So I tend to begin with a generic map.

The Map

I recommend breaking out a pencil and some paper (graph paper if you have it…the grid lines will help), and just let your imagination flow. You don’t need to be Michelangelo. Anyone who knows me will tell you I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. But then, how many straight lines do you usually see on a map?
 
I found it useful to start with a continent and work inward from there. Other writers I know begin on a much smaller scale, drawing city streets and even buildings. The important thing isn’t the scale. The important thing is getting to know the setting in which your story will take place. You never know which nook or cranny on your hand-drawn map will spark an idea you never would have thought of otherwise!
 
For Necromancer Awakening (my bestselling dark fantasy, now available on Amazon), I began with the coast line of my mythical continent Erindor. Don’t be afraid to let the pencil slip and go wild. You’re not looking for straight lines. In fact, the more tiny curves and “inlets” your shaky hand scribbles the better off you’ll be. You’re not looking for symmetry here. Take a look at a globe of Planet Earth. How many perfectly symmetric continents do you see?
 
What you leave out is every bit as important as what you put in. My map of Erindor has no northern coast. It simply fades off the top of my graphing paper. Sure, I could start another page and repeat the process. For that matter, I could spend a couple of weeks making a high-level map of the entire surface of my fictional planet. But why should I? My story doesn’t take place in those other locations. It would be wasted time…and a symptom of builderitis. 
 
Only map what you need to map for your current work. If you create a “canonical” map of your entire world now, and publish it, your options for going back and changing it later are limited. Let the next story dictate what you’ll build next.

[12/30/2013 – I’ve been using Campaign Cartographer 3 for map creation since July. I really wish I had known about this software a couple of years ago! Do yourself a favor and buy a copy. You can diagram everything from entire planets/continents down to the layout of the inside of a vehicle if you need to.]

Borders

If you’ve taken the top-down approach that I took, then you’re going to end up with a landmass that has no interior divisions. If the entire continent represents a single political entity, then you’re ok. But even then you’re probably going to want to think about regional borders.
 
Here’s the thing that trips up many new world builders: Borders don’t form randomly. Nearly every line on a map is there for good reason, and those reasons usually fall into the following categories:
  • Geology
  • Resources
  • Politics
  • Religion
Geology 
Spend some time thinking about your geological environment. Do you have rocky mountain ranges with meadows and foot hills, or do you have a vast desert? Perhaps both, one on one side of your continent, and one on the other. Maybe you have a desert surrounded by a ring of mountain ranges. 
 
Rivers make excellent natural breaks in borders. In Erindor, for example, I have a large river running north to south that splits the continent. Many of my political boundaries coincide with the course of this river, as they do in the real world. The Rio Grande and the Rhine are excellent examples.
 
Large lakes and mountain ranges are something else to keep in mind. These are excellent natural borders that are ripe locations to draw a political line.
 
Resources
One area of your map may be separate from another due to natural resources. Perhaps an area of land was captured due to a grain shortage, or need for access to fresh water. Or maybe your civilization relies heavily on stone for construction due to deforestation, so areas rich with minerals/stones are treasured and heavily-guarded.
 
Politics
An obvious one, but it should be mentioned anyway. People go to war. There are many reasons, and those reasons usually seem (or are) justified at the time, but the result is the same: borders change. History is written by the winners, remember? So are maps.
 
Religion
Remember the Papal States? If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, look it up for a great example of how religion plays into the formation of borders. 
 
Do you have territories or structures that are considered sacred by one or more of your religions? Great! This is fertile soil for conflict.
 
 
Even then, the effect of Religion can be far more subtle. Your religious leader may not rule directly, but I can almost guarantee he/she rules indirectly…if the political leaders of your world are members of that religious body. If you have a dominant religion, spend some time thinking about its theology at a high level: What are the moral precepts? What is interaction with the god(s) like? Is there an afterlife? Are people judged based on their behavior during life? Is your supreme religious leader considered to have ultimate moral authority? The answers to these questions are going to determine, in a big way, how much influence your religious leaders have over your political leaders. Consider the following exchange:
 
King: “I have no reason to invade the Gibblywinks. They’re peaceful neighbors.”
High Holy Kriznatz: “You should invade. They’re heathens. They should be purified.”
King: “Nope. Not gonna, and you can’t make me. I’m the king. See my crown? It’s shiny.”
High Holy Kriznatz: “A shame. You don’t seem suited to spend eternity boiling in the bubbly gooze of the fiery lake of demon sputum.”
King: “How’s next Thursday sound?” 
 
…And the Gibblywinks are invaded next Thursday so the king can avoid taking a bath in demon gooze. This leads to the creation of a holy day of celebration involving ceremonial spitting: Gooze Day. (Which, after several centuries of language development was combined to form “Goozeday”…you know…the day before “Gednesday”). You get the idea.
 

Cultures

You may only have a single culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is your world! But whether you have one or many, you need to make some decisions about that culture.
 
Ask yourself some questions. This list is by no means exhaustive:
  • What do these people value?
  • Are they warriors? Farmers? Nomadic? Philosophers? etc…
  • How do they define their morality? Is Religion involved, or is it purely secular?
  • How did they come to be a single society? Or, is it single in name only, perhaps being a layered caste system under the surface?
  • What is their artistic expression like? You can often learn a LOT about a culture through its art.
Notice these are “high level” questions which will drive the details, not the other way around. The nomadic desert tribes didn’t move to the desert because they wanted to wear loose fitting robes and headgear. They wear loose fitting robes and headgear because they live in the desert, and they have to protect their body from dehydration and exposure.

[Edit: For more information, check out Marshall Ryan Maresca: Worldbuilding: Hard and Soft Imports]
 

Cities

Long before I started writing stories I was a fan of Role Playing Games, like Dungeons & Dragons. Eventually I started playing the computer versions of those games, and something always jumped out at me: the cities were in the wrong places.
 
Wait…how can a city be in the wrong place? 
 
Think about the real world for a moment. How much history would have to change for New York City to have formed 500 miles inland? 
 
Cities form for reasons that range over a very wide spectrum. Here are a few things to consider:
  • Trade routes
  • Access to resources (water, food, shelter, mining, etc.)
  • Religion (perhaps a holy site is nearby, and this city is the launching point for pilgrims)
  • Relationships with neighboring tribes may drive the formation of a city in an easily defensible location. (But you still need resources…)
And on and on…. The point is that if you’re going to draw a dot on a map, have a defensible reason for the appearance of that dot that is internally consistent with your milieu. If you ship your book with a map, your readers are going to notice if you build a city on the edge of a mountain for no other reason than the view.
 

Knowing When to Stop

Just look at how open-ended many of the questions I asked above are. If you’re half the nerd I am you could find yourself lost for hours and not even realize the time is passing. You’ll have spreadsheets with average temps and rainfall, magazine clippings of fashion styles, text documents with recipes for the paint formula used on the High Holy Kriznat’s toilet brush, and maps to every ant hill on your continent. Trust me…I’ve been there.
 
Periodically stop and ask yourself the following question: Does this serve the story?
 
Use the answer to that question to answer the following one: Should I continue? If what you’re about to do doesn’t serve the story, then don’t waste your time. At best you’ll wind up taking FAR longer than you should to complete your work-in-progress. At worst you’ll “build” yourself into a canonical corner that you can’t easily extricate yourself from in followup work.
 
Build…but build only what you need.
 
What factors do you like to consider when creating a new story world?

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.

Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He’s spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.

Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.

He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 28

  1. Cities should also be near a body of fresh water—lake, river, etc, and that can affect the type of city it is. A river city might be half on one side, half on the other with bridges, for example. A lake city might have a lot of villas spread around the edge.

    1. Excellent points, Alexa. Water is, perhaps, the most important resource of all, being a source of both food and liquid nourishment (assuming fresh water).

      Rivers and seas/oceans provide conduits for trade, which any civilization needs in order to thrive.

    2. Indianapolis is the largest state capital in the US to NOT be built on a major river. That’s because the capital was moved to be nice and central to the state, and also because Corydon was so full of mosquitoes that malaria was a problem.

      This is partly to say that everything you’re stating about having organic locations for your cities is correct, and also that there are sometimes exceptions, but only with really good reasons: Indianapolis was an artificial, planned relocation and not only does its location reflect that, so does its layout.

  2. There are a few things we use in game development which may help here. Events that occur in any given setting can be broken down into three main categories: Temporal, Spatial, and Contact. Trying to fill in these categories can help catalyze ideas and flesh out vibrant life-like regions quickly.

    Temporal events are things which happen at a specific time, regardless of where the character is, or who he’s with. Commonly, this is natural stuff like nightfall and weather changes, but can include social stuff like holidays and new laws coming into effect, or fictional stuff like power sources aligning. Just filling in a checklist of ‘what happens each hour/day/week here’ and ‘what special days are there’ for different areas can result in a flood of ideas.

    Spatial events are things which happen in a place, regardless of when the character arrives, or who he’s with. Commonly, this is stuff like stepping on a hunter’s trap or being challenged by guards. Travelling across an area could cause a slumbering mountain giant to wake, or bandits could spring an ambush. Ask ‘what all happens when a person arrives here’ for each area that main character will cross into.

    Contact events are things which happen when the character meets another force, regardless of where or when it happens. These are generally wandering merchants offering their wares or wild animals besetting the character. Making a list of all the key inhabitants the character may meet, then briefly describing their initial dispositions and reflexive reactions, can help create a modular ‘data pool’ to draw logical conflict or aid from when seeking to avoid deus ex machina.

    1. I love that process, Mike! I think I’m going to see about applying that to my own world-building process when I flesh out additional land for the sequel I’m writing.

  3. Nat, great post. Interesting you start with the geography. I tend to fill in the culture, history, politics, arts and literature, etc, etc, in more detail than the geography, at least at first. Those are the parts that have the greatest effect on my story. I do know what you mean about getting sucked into the process, though I do tend to keep a lot of it in my head and not on paper.

    1. My tendency to start with the map comes from my days as a tabletop gamer (Dungeons & Dragons, etc). I often re-purposed existing official maps for the stories I would come up with, and I would use the maps for inspiration.

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  5. I love making made-up maps…I’ve drawn them since I was in grade school and still sketch out a few during work meetings if I’m getting bored or distracted. When I started my SF trilogy I wanted the sprawl where it takes place to be akin to LA or Tokyo, so I drew up a somewhat detailed map, complete with boroughs/precincts and the like. I even did a little bit of research on how cities work (Andres Duany’s ‘Suburban Nation’ is an interesting read that was right up my alley) so I could get some of the details right.

    Amusingly, even though the trilogy is complete, I now want to return to my sprawl and write more books based there!

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      Author

      Thanks for sharing that info on “Suburban Nation”! I’m going to check this out. I’m actually doing some world building right now on a non-Erindor universe, so it may come in handy. 🙂

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  8. Excellent advice. I tend to write near-future sci-fi based on real places, and I cannot express how helpful Google Maps is. The features are a bit clunky and not as versatile as I’d like, but they do the trick. My current manuscript takes place in Colorado Springs, a place I’ve lived in or near for 25 years.

    Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have noticed how isolated a location it is had I not used Google Maps. This works really well for my story in many ways. I also noticed how the major roads stop at the mountains, then go into long, straight stretches to the east, where it’s all plains and fields. The city’s location and structure influence the goals and expectations of my protagonists and antagonists.

    I do love world-building, but sometimes it can be distracting from the story. That’s why it’s taking me so long to finish my debut novel; I got stuck in the world-building for, um, *mumbles* five years.

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      Author

      Google Maps is wonderful. The protagonist in the first chapter of Necromancer Awakening lives in downtown Austin. Trouble is, I’m not very familiar with the downtown area. I live in the suburbs and tend to avoid it. It was wonderful to use Google maps to walk around the area of his apartment building and refresh my memory!

  9. Reading this has made me want to start working on the other continents in the world for my books (only one finished so far). The problem I have is coming up with names for everything. From cities to villages, mountain ranges to ponds, they all need names and I’m horrible at coming up with them. … Well ok, for a book a few things could go unnamed if you know for sure that your main character isn’t going to go anywhere near them. But I am also making a tabletop game based in the same world as the books, so everything really does need to be named. If anything, just so there’s no limits on where a quest can send the player(s).

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      Naming can be a tricky thing to accomplish when world building. I’ve found that when I hammer out some of the details of my surrounding cultures, the names tend to come easier.

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