Every author is a builder of worlds, whether they’re writing science fiction or romantic fiction. Even historical writers have to design a world in words where their story can take place. However, nobody builds worlds like speculative fiction writers, and if you’re looking for examples of supreme worldbuilding skills, you should have a steady diet of the “strange stuff.”
Read the Harry Potter series. Read the Percy Jackson series. Read Discworld by Terry Pratchett and the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. Read the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. Beautiful, amazing examples of worldbuilding—all of them.
But you’re not just a reader. You’re a writer. And you want to build a world of your own. So for the next several weeks, I’ll be posting about my process for building a world. In my process, you need one tool and one step to start. That’s it.
Your Number One Tool: Your imagination.
Your Number One Step: Start somewhere.
There are a multitude of ways to build a world, but in my view, there are really only two places to start. Either you start with a culture or you start with a character. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it, and you need to choose the option that works for you. I’ve done it both ways, and admittedly I think it’s better to design your culture first and then create characters out of that culture. However, in my upcoming book series, The Legend of the Lightkeepers, I created the characters first. So that’s the process I’m going to explain in this blog post series.
Know Your Story
When you begin with a character to create a culture, it’s important to know the story you’re writing. Lightkeepers deals with three orphan children from our world who are accidentally transported to another reality, a different dimension, called Andaria, and they’re found by an alien woman who raises them as her own. I named this alien woman Velanna.
If you’re wondering, Velanna’s name is a nod to Star Trek: Voyager, ship’s engineer B’Elanna Torres, who I adore. And Velanna’s personality is a nod to Mr. Spock and his fellow Vulcans.
Originally, I compared Velanna to a Vulcan, and there are a lot of similarities in appearance as well. I had always loved Mr. Spock and his conflict between his Vulcan father and his human mother, so I wanted to capture a similar concept with a rational, logical, alien mother figure who had to raise three human children.
So I had my character. Now I needed to design a culture around her.
Know Your Character
If you’re not a writer, the concept of having a conversation with a fictional character might strike you as odd. But if you’ve ever written a novel, you probably understand what I mean.
Your characters may live in your head, but in your head, their lives are real. They are real. They have feelings and dreams and dislikes and histories, individual and unique as any “real” person you’ve ever met.
When you choose this method of worldbuilding, creating your character before you create her culture, the first thing to do is get to know your character. So how do you get to know anyone? You spend time with them. Ask them where they came from, what they’re doing here, where they’re going, why they left. Ask them about their family, their friends, the food they like, the clothes they wear.
Many writing resource websites have worksheets that I’ve found extraordinarily useful in fleshing out characters for my books. Use any or all of these to help you get to know your character first before you start designing her culture.
Go someplace quiet where it won’t matter if you talk out loud to yourself. Get a notebook and a nice pen. Ask your character a question and listen for the answer.
Treat your characters like real people, and you’ll be surprised how quickly their world will become clear to you.
After you take some real time to get to know your character, you’re ready to start building the world she came from.
Keep in mind that building a world is a long process. It’s easy to come up with a character. It’s easy to come up with a culture. But if you really want to make that character and that culture believable, you’ve got to invest some real time, work, and research in it.
Next week, we’ll get into the questions you need to ask when you’re designing a culture/world based on a character.