World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.
Why do I work the way I do? How do I world build? Where do I start?
Usually I conceive my stories in the flowering of an image in my head. In this image I imagine a character in a situation that has an inherent emotion or urgency or conflict that engages my passion to explore it further.
Why and how my mind generates these images I do not know.
The seven volume Crown of Stars series grew from an image of a youth walking on a path over a ridge as a storm rushed in from the sea. On the wings of that storm he meets a woman in armor who is a supernatural manifestation. He is dissatisfied with his dreary, ordinary life. The grim warrior woman seems to him to personify the life of adventure he believes he yearns for. But the bargain she offers and which he accepts is not truly a gift nor is it a good bargain for him or indeed for anyone. In the image I saw in my head, the setting and situation made it clear it was to take place in a European-medieval environment. The scene described is the literal genesis point of the series. In the published novel, this scene takes place in the 3rd chapter of the 1st book.
Sometimes the initial image I have doesn’t make it into the book in the exact form I first encountered it in my head. My conception of Cold Magic started with two girls, cousins, seated in a classroom overlooking an entry forecourt. Through the window they see a carriage arrive conveying a man who will change their lives in some unspecified way. When I wrote the novel I kept the academy, the cousins, the man, and them watching his carriage arrive through a window, but changed the venue of the meeting to their home. In the initial image, I knew nothing about the man except that he was arrogant and from the upper ranks of their society, and the only thing I knew about the young women was that they loved each other with unshakeable loyalty. Their dress and the building and carriage revealed the setting to be in some kind of 18th/19th century milieu.
That’s where the STORY starts: With a character and some basic decisions about who and where (both physically and emotionally) the character stands at that moment.
Once I decide to start building a novel or series atop that image/scene, that emotion, that interaction, I start the world building process.
Therefore: The world building process, for me, goes hand in hand with the accumulation of plot, character, and incident that develops into the story. The two processes interact with and feed each other. One doesn’t happen alone.
I don’t build a world and then stick a story in it.
I don’t come up with a plot & characters & construct a world around them.
Listen: it is perfectly okay to create a world in either of those ways. Or in other ways. I know writers who literally “discover the world as they write” and those who can’t start until until they have a notebook full of details. And that’s fine, just as it is fine to prefer as little overt world building as possible, if that’s the story you want to tell.
The reason I emphasize that I am only talking about how I do things is that some writers & writing teachers talk about HOW TO DO THINGS as if there is only one way or as if their way is the “correct” or “best” way.
I have only ONE FIRM RULE of writing:
FIGURE OUT WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.
For me, the elements of character and setting are intertwined such that I could not pull those characters and that plot out of one story and insert them into another, because characters and culture and thus their actions and reactions exist in a specific map.
In other words, if I have done my job right, the characters and the world can’t be pulled apart and re-used separately. They function together. They aren’t discrete elements.
Next week: Inductive or Deductive
I like your method very much. I usually start with a rough idea of a character, and then build a world. The worldbuilding process suggests more about the character. Further fleshing out the character fills in details about the world. And so, I bounce from one to the other to discover both. It’s interesting to see other approaches.
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Thank you for sharing this. I have been struggling with world building as a concept. So much that’s written about it assumes a top down approach. And I’m a character/image writer. But I always felt that you couldn’t get that immersion feeling without all that (to me, extraneous) work. Your novels have both history and presence so if this is your process, I have some hope that mine works too.
I think one of the hardest things — especially in the socially connected world of today — is learning to discover and then trust our own process as we feel it out, especially when we have so many people bombarding us with “do it this way” like holy writ. So I am so glad this is helpful!
Of course, next week (Feb 3) I’ll be hosting Aliette de Bodard in which she outlines her top-down approach. For some variety.
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