This is an updated version of this post on Writedemon.tumblr.com
It’s one thing to make a fantasy land, a world, or alternative dimension, but it’s an entirely different thing to make a World.
That sounds stupid, right?
Perhaps not so much as you think; you’ve heard the phrase “a whole new world”? (Disney counts too) which refers to a different state of being for a person or, in extreme cases, a society. The Reformation created a whole new world for the religious but not a new World. It’s the capital letter, you see, that matters… well, not just the capital letter. We’re talking a literal place; think a new planet, a new universe. An entirely new creation.
World building is one of the most complex and tricky tasks a fiction writer can take on, but it’s immensely satisfying and rewarding. It opens up endless possibilities to you as an author; things can be as you wish, and as long as you give a reason that’s logical, if not plausible, most people won’t kick up too much of a fuss. If you don’t believe me, look at the Disc-World series; a planet on the backs of five elephants riding a space turtle… weird? Yes, it is.
And yet Pratchetts Disc world could be the real world; it’s complexity and realism are astounding, considering it’s largely magical and mostly nonsensical (but in a way that makes so much sense). Why? Because Pratchetts Disc-World has lore, it has life (plant, animal and human… among other things), it has diversity of race, social standing and political views.
And, of course, it has history.
Things to consider when making your history;
- Cultural and religious evolution/development; It’s unlikely that you’d find a world where every person hails from the same culture and/or religion. If they do then focus on explaining why: did one culture become bigger, badder and more aggressive? Did it spread across the world and consume all in its path until there were no distinctions? Only an amalgamation of all unrecognisable from the initial conquerors and conquered? You should know all your cultures and religions intimately; even if they’re not the main focus there will be the odd character who hails from here or there passing through, especially in large cities. Most of your peoples should show considerable development over large periods of time but if they don’t, consider why. Are they very traditional, with a focus on preserving past ideals and rituals, and is this something that’s an issue?
- Different areas, principalities or countries; it might sound obvious but they probably shouldn’t be carbon copies of each other. The identity of a nation, area or people will depend upon the climate they live in and what their survival in this place requires (among other things) nomadic peoples are nomadic because they must move to find food and water. But if a group is always on the move then how will they educate? Carrying books and extra equipment for written learning as well as histories would be an avoidable burden. Perhaps, then, oral learning would take precedence?
- Social differentiation; No, not the field of academic study the actual presence of differing social positions, statuses and experiences based on income, gender, race and age. For example, in a Matriarchal society women would have more authority. In a society where oral learning and knowledge transfer is common then Elders would garner more respect than younger members of society. Differentiation is not the same as prejudice; prejudice occurs on a personal level i.e the belief that all violin players are scatty/the unreasonable mistrust of young, dark haired women. Differentiation is the product of prejudice, among other things, but it is not always applied with prejudice; very often differentiation is a mark of the necessity of certain people to a society. When differentiation goes wrong it becomes elitism, classism, racism, one of the many -isms that make our world today so hard,
- The fact that history is non-linear; this, in particular, sounds ridiculous but anyone who’s spent a lot of time studying history will know what I mean. While time moves from year to year (clearly) progress can go back and forth. Progress is often laboured and can face setbacks. Consider the Reformation in Scotland; by 1560 Scotland was a Presbyterian country but in the 1580’s there was threat of a counter reformation and a Spanish armada on the horizon. Such touches will give your world authenticity.
- History is not just war and politics; it’s also religion, foreign relations, censorship, the development (or breakdown) of moral control. The history if your world is, essentially, the stock of a soup; it needs more than two ingredients to be palatable. Of course too many elements will confuse its flavour, but this is a matter of application. You should know the history of your world inside out, but the readers don’t need to, not in the course of one or two books. Only put out what is necessary for the story.
Recording the histories;
Its important that, after building your history, you don’t forget it! Keeping it all written down, of course, will help but organisation is also key.
It would be advisable that you;
- Keep separate notebooks for different topics.
- Invest in a programme like Scrivener which will help you keep everything together but handily separated.
- OR, if you have the space, even keep a filing cabinet.
But keep it all to hand, treat your history as if it were your tax return forms.
Applying you history to stories;
Do not info-dump, I’m serious. If you have a chapter at the beginning of your novel which gives a detailed history and social lesson to the readers, but does not move the story forward delete it. Or cut it and keep it for personal consideration. if it does move the story forward remove the history lesson and keep the ploy points. There is never a need for this; it’s archaic and it will put your readers off.
If the history of one period/people/place is key to your story consider having a character who has a deep interest in it so that they can impart information in a way that is organic and natural, but do make sure that they have some significance to the story, too, or there’s non point.
Leave physical traces of history where you can. Rubble, carvings, customs all of these things are ambient, but they hint at a history independent of the story, and this is what really adds depth to fantasy and sci-fi novels.
For a general overview on world building, see Making your world come alive. If you’ve got any tips yourself, let us know!