World Building: The Map Is Not The Territory

My stories usually are conceived in a flowering of an image in my head in which I imagine a character in a situation that has some 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 that led over a ridge as a storm rushed in from the sea and, on the wings of that storm, his meeting with a woman in armor who is a supernatural manifestation. He is dissatisfied with his dreary, ordinary life, and the grim warrior woman seems to him to personify the life of adventure which 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. The setting and situation made it clear it was to take place in a European-medieval type of environment. Literally, that is the genesis point of the series. In the published novel, this scene occurs in the third chapter of the first book (King’s Dragon).

Sometimes the initial image I have doesn’t make it into the book in the exact form I first encountered. My conception of what later became Cold Magic started with two girls, cousins, seated in a classroom overlooking an entry courtyard. Through the window, they see a carriage arrive conveying a man who will change their lives in some unspecified way. 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 rank of their society, and the only thing I knew about the young women was that they loved each other with true 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.

Once I open myself up to building more on that image, that emotion, that interaction, I start the world building process.

The world building process, for me, hauls in tandem 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 and characters and then construct a world around them. The elements are completely 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 fact, it’s true: With world building, I always start with a map.

However, by that I don’t mean a map drawn on paper or in the computer. I don’t mean a physical, graphical map.

I mean I start by figuring out how the people in this made-up world perceive the cosmos and their place in it. There will almost certainly be more than one “people” in the world, and each “people” will have a unique way of understanding the cosmos and their relationship to their gods (if they have them), the natural environment, their culture, and to other people both within and outside their own culture.

I have to understand this “internal map” before I can proceed.

One way I do that is by asking questions, as I discuss in this post.

Another favorite technique of mine is to draw a geometric configuration that represents a way of looking at, understanding, unifying, or embodying a culture’s understanding of the cosmos. Many sacred buildings can be understood as physical embodiments of a culture’s understanding of the spiritual and sacred underpinnings of their world. So, for instance, I couldn’t move forward with writing Crown of Stars until I visualized the world and story. I ended up seeing them as two interlocking triangles. The three points of one triangle represented the spiritual and magical aspects of the world while the other triangle represented physical aspects of the world and story.

Because a visual structure appeals to the way my brain organizes information, I like sketching out a geometric representation, but that is just something that works for me. There are all kinds of ways to think about and relate to these concepts, nor is it necessary to think about them at all if that is not how the writer creates story. I mention this because I don’t want to imply that this is how one must or ought to proceed. I’m simply discussing how I personally create my worlds.

At the point at which I have a basic conception of the basic cosmology of the world (however artificially defined it may be), then I will usually draw a physical map of the terrain, the major landmarks, and population centers. Over the course of developing the story and writing the first draft, I will add to this graphical map.

But to paraphrase by quoting Alfred Korzybski, the physical map is not the territory in which the story takes place.

I don’t “start with a map” by placing mountains and rivers and cities on a piece of paper because physical landmarks offer only a partial understanding of a world. A physical map is by definition incomplete and circumscribed because it gives no insight into the mental and emotional and spiritual processes of the characters and the cultures in which those characters live their lives.

I’ve written about this kind of map-making here. The main point I want to draw from that post, in relation to this post, is how careful we have to be about the concept of a graphical representation—the physical map—as being objective. To quote Russell Kirkpatrick: “Maps are not value-free representations of the world.”

This is why the map I start with is the internalized map.

Every character in the story has an internal map through which they measure, comprehend, and navigate the world they live in. Their maps won’t be the same as every other character’s, and they won’t be the same as mine.

That is possibly the most important point.

To understand how “the peoples of my world” look at the world they “live in,” I have to move outside my own narrow range of experience. To a fair degree, I never can, but with conscious effort I can attempt to widen my view and shrink my limitations bit by bit and piece by piece. If I don’t think about the unconscious ways in which my understanding of the world is limited by my upbringing and its setting, and by my own cultural expectations and experiences and perceptions, then I will bring those unexamined assumptions into my world building (and I do indeed do this all too often despite my efforts not to).

I don’t write fantasy and science fiction only to be a mirror to my own experience of the world, even if my own experience strongly influences everything I write.

To quote myself, from the article referenced above:

If a place isn’t on YOUR map, the map in your mind of what matters about the world you want to write about, then you the writer can certainly not go to places you’ve never thought about, places you think don’t matter enough to warrant notice. Matters that aren’t visible to you.
I believe that it is crucial to pause and reflect on what may be invisible in your own personal map as well as the map you are creating.

So, yes, early on in the process I will draw a cartographical representation of the physical world. Yet for me, the most important “map” is bigger than that. It’s not flat, it’s multi-dimensional: A physical map intersects with this internal map, and these conjoined maps influence and are influenced by the architecture of the narrative as it unfolds. I cannot separate these three things as I write.

10 thoughts on “World Building: The Map Is Not The Territory

  1. Really useful post – it crystallises the approach I’m trying to take with a new project. I have a vague physical map in my mind, but it’s more schematic than geographically accurate, rather like the Mappae Mundi that show medieval people’s concepts of how they fitted into the universe. Most of all I want to focus on the different cultures and how they’re going to interact, then I can build the rest of the world around them 🙂

  2. I’m just starting a new world, and last week I spent much of a day staring at a piece of paper and drawing in, over several hours, a schematic of the cosmos represented as a metaphorical geometry thing.

    So — yeah — I know just what you mean! Good luck!

  3. Literally, that is the genesis point of the series. In the published novel, this scene occurs in the third chapter of the first book (King’s Dragon).

    And that’s when you hooked me in that book, to be honest. 🙂

    What your post puts me in the mind of, Kate, is something from RPG circles called “R-maps” or relationship maps. How the characters relate to each other as a whole, and to their world. You’ve taken it in your writing as described here as a melding of that, their psychology and the physical territory.

    And I love that. Have you read Hart’s Hope, by Orson Scott Card? I loved the idea that depending on the different gates you were allowed in, you could see or even were aware of completely different cities, all within the overall same space. It was an amazing idea that knocked me on my arse.

  4. I don’t think I’m doing anything that we don’t already do in the real world. We are a blend of our culture and our personality. I rather strongly feel that if writers of secondary world don’t take that into account, then they risk merely overlaying the modern world onto the secondary world even if there are decorative and ornamental differences.

    I haven’t read Hart’s Hope.

  5. The younger me used to doggedly draw physical maps as early in my story creating as possible(because they were on the first page of every fantasy novel she read so therefore must be vital). The older, wiser me laughs like a knowing mother at the younger me and pats her on the head and moves on with more pressing matters.

    I also get my ideas in a similar way, an image will jump into my head begging to be developed and it won’t let me think of much else until I’ve hammered out a basic synopsis – which can be a blessing or a curse depending on what’s happening in the world that exists outside of my head.

    It’s always interesting to learn how others develop their ideas so thanks for posting this, it was amazing.

  6. Really interesting post. I was about to make some point about internal maps and external maps and narrative arcs and relationship networks, but then your point really struck me: *none* of these things are the territory. And it’s off the maps where the mystery lies.

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  8. Thank you, Kirstie. Good luck. Writing is such an interesting process, one I’m pretty sure can’t be explained by any rational means.

  9. That is such a brilliant point!!! 🙂

    But, yes — “off the maps where the mystery lies” is such an excellent way of putting it.

    One thing that gets me increasingly is in those fantasy/sci fi novels where I get the impression the writer hasn’t engaged on any level beyond his/her own experience of the world, hasn’t tried to explore beyond those boundaries.

    It’s not that I think people ought not to write stories that are mirrors of their own existence or that create comfortable and familiar shelters. I’m not interested in dictating what I think people ought to write in that sense. It’s that *I* can’t usually read those stories any more. Likewise with stories that may offer “narrative” experimental or a singular prose style as their chief inducements.

    Me, I read for the territory.

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