For the next few columns I’ll be looking at specific things that you need to do and define when building your setting. This should not be taken as the only things that you have to do, but instead a list of basics, with advice and ideas on how you can develop them best. I’m sure you’ll have your own ways to do things, that I may miss things, or that your writing may have some unique needs.
But it’s a place to start. In fact, on the subject of “starting,” the first thing we’re going to look at is literally the First Thing: The Origin of your setting.
Worldbuilding starts with the beginning – sort of. We may not always spend time on the beginning when we start, we may be following a rush of creativity as inspirations form, but in the end good world building always comes back to the question “where did it all come from?” Everything has some cause, and just as people have asked “where did I come from” and sought meaning in their lives, your world has to be able to answer that question to have meaning as well.
The answer may not be particularly deep, but the answer is important.
Your setting may be created by gods, and have a complex pantheon. Your setting may be in our universe and thus be familiar as the daily news. Your setting may be “our world plus something odd,” playing on the sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar with new rules. But either way we readers have to know “why” – and you do too many times over. You need to know the origins of all of this.
So, yes, you want to know how it all started. Why do I harp on this? Well, I’m glad you asked . . .
Here’s why you need to focus on your origins, in no particular order.
Know Your Research Materials: Working on your world may mean some research, especially if it’s based on science, historical knowledge, classical mythology, and so forth. Knowing your setting’s origin, be it Big Bang or Ymir’s death, or whatever, means you know what you have to do for research in order to flesh it out. In cases where you’re going for “whole cloth” then you know possible useful references – or know it’s time to create from scratch.
Know Your Big Issues: When you know the origin of your world, then you know any “big issues” – or lack of the same – and then can ensure they influence your world building properly. Maybe your setting is the result of a battle of two great alien forces . . . or is just everyday Chicago with our normal human concerns. Either way you know what Big Issues are appropriate to your world – and what are not. Of course your reader or player doesn’t always know these issues, but that’s part of the fun . . .
Know What To Go Back To: Thinking over your world’s origin also gives you something to “go back to” when you loose inspiration, aren’t sure of what’s going on, or when you need to fill in some blanks in the world. By thinking about it and recording it, you’ve got a valuable resource both in documentation and in getting ideas.
Know What’s Important: When you understand how your world came to be, you also have an idea of how much the reader needs to know to understand it – if of course your goal is for them to understand it (otherwise you know what to distract them from). Just remember as mentioned that writing characters as “viewpoints” is a great way to have people experience your wide world, so I’d only “spill the beans” in some kind of guidebook or notes.
Get A Sense of “What’s Up:” Perhaps the most visceral reason to contemplate the origin of your world is that having that sense of “where it all comes from” gives you a general idea of what’s going on in your world. Knowing you know “enough” about how your setting, planet, what have you came into being and what it means provides comfort, inspires you, and lets you have that gut feeling of knowing what’s going on. It’s hard to explain it – but my guess is you’ve felt it. I know I have.
So you’re ready to go back to the beginning and ask how your world came to be, and flesh it out. But before you fire up your word processor, get out that pencil, or gather some notecards, the question also arises – how far do you go? How much is enough?
Let’s face it, you’ve only got so much time and you don’t want to waste it overdoing it, or underdog it and have to keep revising your work to patch gaping plot holes.
So how much of the origin of your setting do you need to devise in the first place? Some people can write volumes on their settings (and have). Others . . . not so much.
It’s important to know this because you can over or underdo creating your world. Too much detail means you’re really writing a guidebook and aren’t actually writing your story. Too little and the story falls apart because there’s no foundation. You could use some quick rules.
Fortunately, I have some. Here they are.
First, I’d say the level of detail you want to put in your setting’s origins is “as much as you need plus a bit more.” Always go the extra mile in putting detail in your world building origin (in fact, I’d say this is a good rule on world building period). That little extra detail you put in makes sure you don’t stop yourself too early and thus avoid enough detail. That little extra also pushes you just a bit farther to keep you thinking. Finally, that “little bit farther” gives you something extra to be inspired by. Also, psychologically you may feel some comfort having it “just in case.”
Secondly, look for the “gut feel” that you’re comfortable with the level of detail. If you feel confident you really solidly know what’s going on, then you probably do have enough information. That’s where I find the “little bit extra” above helps – it’s the icing on the cake, and it helps you say “I got this right and then some.”
Third, what I call “traceback” is important to origins and beginnings. If you can look at major plots and themes and “trace them back” to your origins (or close enough to them) that you feel they make sense, that cause-and-effect is there, that’s usually a sign you’ve got your origins figured out.
Fourth, if you can look at major parts of your origin and easily conceive of other plots, stories, etc. you probably have enough. This could be as simple as a glance at the daily news or history in a real-world setting, or asking what happens when your pantheon of gods has an inevitable battle. Think of it as “traceback’s” parallel – can you go forward easily from you origins to new plots?
Fifth, as I’ve noted, if your origin can be explained to other people, then you know you’ve done well with it. That means it makes sense, it’s communicable (even if communicated from points of views in stories), and you’re likely to remember it – or understand it if you have to go back to your notes.
Origins are a tetchy business, and in my experience they’re usually over or under done. This may mean there really is no easily findable perfect balance, but that’s no reason not to try – and the results of trying will bring better work and a bit more sanity to your work. Well, if sanity is part of what you’re aiming for.
Origins give us foundations to our world, ideas, and assurances. They’re just a bit of a tricky business because of detail, when we start, and knowing how much to do. A good, well-done work getting the origins of our setting straight can mean better writing, and more peace of mind.
Plus if you ever publish that extensive guidebook of your game or story world, it’s just one more thing to show people . . .
– Steven Savage