The Whimsical Method of Worldbuilding

Which isn’t very whimsical, but I had to get a blog title reference in there somewhere.

Often, I worldbuild. It’s fun. It doesn’t take me as long to get into the headspace as writing, and it can fit into those times when I need to entertain myself, but only have a minute or two. I also worldbuild with friends, which might say as much about my friendship groups as it does about worldbuilding. But it also means my friends now I’ve been doing this for a while, and they ask me for help when they get stuck with their worldbuilding.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the only advice I can give them is “start with you have, ask questions about that until you have enough”. The problem with that, of course, is knowing which questions to ask. That’s the secret to most things, really. So, I figured I’d try to write out my process, to see if it won’t help me to explain it next time, and maybe it can help one of you fine folks as well.

Usually, I start with setting. This is mainly because characters come easily for me, but also only in in non-verbal terms of “the image I have of them in my head”, and their “presence” and all the things that make a person distinctive but also frustrating to describe.

Plot usually follows on from character or setting (or, more often, both together), even when I have a Main Conflict idea up front. So it’s last.

Setting, therefore, is first. It’s also first because it’s HARD. It’s easily the hardest part of the story for me. My DnD players will attest to this – unless I have descriptions of setting written out beforehand, my GMly powers of Describe The Castle leave a lot to be desired. So, I like to get the setting done first.

The first thing I start with is tone. Setting a tone and “feel” first helps me to keep my setting on track and feeling cohesive. Tone can be anything from an overarching mood (desperate, sorrowful) to a common thread between characters (passion, disillusionment), to a one-word version of a theme (companionship, compromise). This gets me a touchstone I can use to go back to if I’m not sure about something in my worldbuilding. I look back, ask ‘does it fit my tone?’ and if it doesn’t, something needs to change. Disclaimer: If it fits the tone, it still isn’t necessarily right for the book. But the tone is the first point of call for fixing something that’s wonky.

The next thing is figuring out what I do have. Character? A few setting details? A main conflict? A few random scenes? I make a list.

This is the easy step.

Now is where a lot of people (in my limited experience) get tripped up. Everything so far has been pure inspiration. Now you’re up to asking the questions to tease out the parts that aren’t so obvious.  Unfortunately, the most obvious questions for the story are also the hardest to answer right now.

“What does the main character want?” Well, either the answer to that right now is ‘I don’t even know if my main character is a sentient jellyfish or not, let alone their personal goals! All I know is that there’s a secret alien spy network!’ or ‘Well, they have to save their younger sibling from Lord Evil and his Nefarious Mousetrap – that’s the only piece of the story I do have!’ At this stage, neither of those ideas is very useful.

“What is the core conflict?” If you don’t have this already, trying to bring it to life before the characters or setting are formed is going to be tough.

See, these are absolutely paramount to the book, but they’re not early-process questions, at least for me. They’re for when you have an idea of what’s going on, and you want to make sure that the story is solid before you write. They’re end-process checklist questions.

What I need at this stage is a way to get under the hood. The car has wheels and half a chassis – there’s no use whacking an engine on it till you’ve got some of it bolted together.

Instead, ask easy questions with straightforward, factual answers. “What is the climate in this world?” If the protagonist becomes royalty, don’t ask “how?”, ask “Is this society matrilineal or patrilineal?” Then, you can follow the thread of logic through, and start off from there.

Don’t be afraid to list answers. Maybe you know for a fact that there is a tradition where children must go and live in a certain part of the city, alone and unsupervised, for six months starting on their thirteenth birthday. You don’t yet know why this is the case, but  it fits your setting for the answer to be any one of:

“Thought to teach responsibility and maturity”

“Allows children to vent their youthful urges before they’re required to act like adults”

“Increases social bonds between members of a generation.”

Maybe you end up going with all three reasons. Maybe one is an outdated reason, but the other two hold strong still. Maybe you decide one or two of those don’t work and scrap them entirely. Maybe you replace them with something else. But the point is, you had a place holder to work from while you moved on to the next question.

Finally, two techniques that I use when I get stuck. First, try taking elements of the story away. Readers of Limyaael’s Fantasy Rants may recognise where I stole this one from. Does it feel wrong to omit the third member of the main trio? Can the green moon be taken away, or does the setting Feel Not Right without it? Can the story do without the oat trip? What if it was a cross-country trek instead?

This serves to identify what is truly necessary, so you can target and focus on those areas to develop the foundation elements of the story.

Second, go through your tropes. In this genre/subgenre/particular narrative, what would the most cliché interpretation of this story be? What of that do you like or not like? For the parts you don’t like, decide how you want to change or omit them. Do you want to use any of it as misdirection? Tropes are tools. Use them to manage reader expectations. Stories only become cliché in a bad way when authors use tropes without thinking about why.

Of course, these aren’t the only tricks in the book, they’re just mine. Drop a few more in the comments if you have some as well!

Happy worldbuilding.

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