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Bottom-Up or Top-Down

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Ban, Feb 23, 2019.

  1. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    When constructing your world, do you approach it from the bottom-up or from the top-down? In other words, do you start with an idea, and then follow that idea until you've created a world, or do you set down the major elements of your world first and try to figure out the substance behind those elements afterwards? What's the reasoning behind your approach?

    Personally, I used to be a top-down worldbuilder, but have since moved to a bottom-up model. Because I have little concern for telling any single story with my worlds, but instead want to use them for telling a wide-array of sprawling stories, I prefer to make my world be as diverse and dynamic as they can be. The bottom-up approach works best in this regard as it allows me to explore the world as I build it, and gives me more opportunity to spread the world in directions I wouldn't have thought of had I started from the top-down. I also believe that a bottom-up approach leads to a more coherent and organic world, as every step on the way is built on previous steps. That being said, I oftentimes do get ahead of myself and decide a number of key points that I wish to reach along my bottom-up worlbuilding journey, so perhaps I qualify more as an intermediary worldbuilder. I also think it's important to note the major deficit of the bottom-up approach... It takes a lot of time.

    Let me know your approach.

    Note: This question is for my fellow worldbuilders who like me find half (or more) of the fun of writing fiction in creating the worlds behind the stories. I also know that plenty of folk view the world around their story as an extension of the story, and thus approach the matter of worldbuilding from a story-centric perspective. I think this has been discussed enough times on the forum and in order to keep the discussion on topic I believe this perspective (though completely valid) doesn't need to be repeated.
  2. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I'm one of those people in your "notes" I'm afraid, and although it's fine to enjoy it more it's not the most important thing in the novel.

    So I would say I fit into the "expand on an idea". My world fits around my story and more importantly the character.
  3. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

    I always start with a Place. I want to GO somewhere. The magic of that place, what makes it unique is a big part of that.
    HOWEVER, I almost never write stories because this is bad. I really struggle to think of conflict and characters to put in these places.
    At the core, you want a story. Everything else should be a tool to elevate the story. But... again, I need to learn this lesson myself :p
  4. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    I don't like this statement. Worldbuilding can be done for the sake of worlduilding, and masterful fiction can be written that does not take the story as its main message or purpose. Plenty of fiction is written to explore an idea through story, just look at half of the scifi classics, from philip k dick to 1984. Writing isn't a one way route you have to follow in the paths established before you. I'd advice you to get off the standard path and drive the country roads every once in a while.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    This may only be playing with words, but how about building out rather than up or down? Think of how it works in open-world video games. You get dropped into a place, often with a bit of backstory, sometimes with none, and all you know about the world is what you can see as you turn in place. As you start to move, more of the world appears. At the same time, you start to meet characters and you start to get objectives. The world begins to become a real place.

    That's how it has worked with me for Altearth. From one perspective you could say that I inherit a world--medieval Earth. I have the geography, history, culture, all ready-made. Whee and off we go!

    That's how it worked for all of about one day. Very quickly I found I had to do tons of work. For one thing, in medieval Earth there are no orc empires, no troll kingdoms, no goblin invasions, no dwarf towns or elf camps. I had to put down a marker--e.g., goblins invade in this year; this is how they look, how they behave--then work through the implications of that.

    When I began A Child of Great Promise, all I had was a geographic starting point, the Camargue. As I moved her toward the Pyrenees, I had to explore the topography, fill out the politics, and even invent a whole sub-culture (the wagoneers). Prior to that, however, I had already made world-building decisions that affected the story. For example, the Roman Empire still exists and its state religion is still dominant. It rules various subject kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Arelat (historically real), so when I needed to pull in a public authority at one point, it didn't have to invent one.

    I tinker with the world-building often. Most intensively when I'm starting a new story. For example, I'll soon be working on The Falconer, which is about Emperor Frederick II. That means knowing more about Sicily, Genoa, and 13thc imperial politics. Because Fritz crosses the Alps at a particular place, it means filling out more about the Alpine dwarves. And adding more detail to my giants.

    In short, most times I world build in the context of a particular story, but I have this framework where I can step out and just fiddle about for a while as the mood takes me. Maybe that's not building outward so much as it is just failing about. That can be a method, too, right?
    Ban likes this.
  6. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    That's a good point Skip!

    I framed exploratory worldbuilding as a botttom-up approach, but the horizontal approach you describe can fit that same frame just as well. I wonder then, how much of an established world this approach needs for it to work? In your case, you could work with real world history, a field you already have great experience with, but if someone were to start their world with a single setting in a non-real world they know nothing about beyond that setting, and then explored that world from the basis of that setting, would the worldbuilding still be horizontal or would it qualify as vertical?

    I may be making this more complicated than it needs to be, but it's interesting to me at the least.
  7. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

    But Skiiiip, the Roman Empire historically still existed in the Medieval period.

  8. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    Essay question: Define the terms roman empire and medieval and argue when the former ended and the latter began. (bonus question: argue whether the byzantine empire can be considered a consistent continuation of the empire or a significant deviation). You are given 300 words for each term and position.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Ban's post reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon. I can't remember if it was Lucy or Linus or who, but they're in class, at their little desk and taking a test. The test question reads:

    Explain World War Two.
    Use both sides of the page if necessary.

    Still cracks me up.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    In reply to the cracks about the Roman Empire, here's a serious answer: the Augustan Empire. The Empire of the Five Good Emperors is the one that never fell. So, before the invasions of the third century and before the Diocletian reforms, and Constantine never converted. This lets me keep in place a political structure that is fairly well known, though I still put it through changes in response to the appearance of non-human civilizations. I try to avoid getting too deep into all that because it's not where my stories lie. So far, the Empire has been only a distant framing device. That will have to change when I get to the next book, since its central character becomes an Emperor.

    World building never ends.
    TheKillerBs likes this.
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >if someone were to start their world with a single setting in a non-real world they know nothing about beyond that setting, and then explored that world from the basis of that setting, would the worldbuilding still be horizontal or would it qualify as vertical?

    My change in direction was more whimsical than analytical, but I do have an example. My WIP involves going into the center of the earth (well, Altearth, which is a hollow world in the classic mold). I knew *nothing* about that Second World when I started plotting, and knew precious little about it even as I began writing. I had some vague images drawn from Verne and from the movie. Illustrations from 19thc (and 20thc) hollow earth theorists are all too silly to consider. And that was about it.

    At no point did I stop and plan it all out. Or map it. Instead, I worked in something like the following manner. I'd think of a thing, such as a city that I wanted to exist. I thought what it looked like but not where it was on that non-existent map. I did, however, have a vague notion of how far away it was from my characters (many days; how's that for precision?). I thought a bit about where it stood in relation to monsters, other creatures, so in my mind it exists as a kind of street lamp in the darkness. I can see it and around it, but things soon get hazy. Then I thought how would I bring my characters to that place and what do they encounter along the way. So now there's a badly-lit path from the one to the other. I don't know how we might characterize that, but neither top-down nor bottom-up seems to quite fit.

    Speaking of directions, I once had a whole chapter of how my characters enter the Second World. It was quite dramatic, involving a dwarf-design lift, someone nearly falling from it, and so on. Then, one fine day, I realized that I was upside down. Gravity at the center would be outward (just as gravity for us on the Surface isn't so much downward as it is inward). The dwarves who began the Long Dig would not have dug *up*, they would have dug *down*. So now my characters emerge from an opening, much as one would emerge from a cave on the Surface. I had to rewrite not only a whole chapter but do away with a bunch of design work on the lift mechanism.

    I blame the mistake on planning. You may call it poor planning if you wish, but I'll argue that this is the sort of mistake that haunts top-down planning. It's all too easy to design entire scenarios, places, even whole civilizations, that are going to fall apart when put into play because of wrong assumptions. Just as no plan survives contact with the enemy, no outline survives contact with writing. That's not an argument against planning, but it is perhaps an argument against thinking planning will always smooth the way. Sometimes, it makes potholes.

    Maybe not up or down or sideways, but a miserable mish-mash of every direction. Including going in circles. The only way it gets smoother is with practice. Of all of it.
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Here's another illustration, from a bit I'm working on right now.

    As my characters work their way toward the center of the earth they come to an empty city. It's clearly dwarf make, and they've been following something called the Long Dig, which is a legendary (so most people believed) route by which dwarves came to the surface of Altearth.

    I knew this city would be here because of how I envisioned the Long Dig's history. We can leave that aside to get to the world building part. Is positing such the existence of such a city top-down world building? I could just have written along and thought it up on the spot. I suppose that would be called bottom-up building.Or is that top-down? Sorry if I've muddled the terms. It's really the extent that concerns me here.

    How much city should I build prior to writing? Initially I had envisioned the topography of a regular city--a central space most built up, spreading to lower buildings more spread out, then maybe even suburbs. I disliked this almost at once. Dwarves should build cities with a different topography. But I wasn't inclined to put in much work, for a couple of reasons. The city is empty, for one. For another, the characters pass through and on to other things. And because dwarves on the Surface don't build cities.

    That last point is important, because very often world building here affects world building over there, to the point where, even before I set down a single word of a story, it's not at all clear to me the direction of this building. It seems more iterative than anything. If I'd put in a ton of work on a dwarf city in the center of the earth and *then* considered how dwarves lived on the Surface, would I have felt naturally inclined to have them build cities there as well? I sort of think I would, and so the order of world building appears to be significant.

    But back to this dead city. On one hand, it makes perfect sense to construct the thing, so I know how to move the characters through it. On the other hand, there's a certain feeling I want to evoke--or, rather, different feelings coming from different characters, and I could argue that throwing things at them on the fly, keeping myself as author close to the emotional moment, is a good way to come up with some unusual aspects to the city. Let's go with that, since that's what I'm going with. :)

    So, regarding the ups and the downs, I can picture having designed all of the Second World in detail, or in what seemed to be sufficient detail, and yet still not know all the streets of the dead town, nor what we might find inside the buildings. This goes beyond just architecture. It can affect the plotting as well (I know this because it has).

    I guess the more I think about this, the more I think world building is going to vary by author, vary by story for each author, and vary within every story depending on ... well, on all sorts of things. It's a kind of dialectic between the author, the story, and the moment. Which sounds nice and poetic, but is little help to the noob just looking for some d*mn help and guidance around here! :_)
  13. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

  14. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    My worlds tend to merge. Take the current one, built at erratic intervals between other projects. It began as a setting for what I called the 'railroad stories,' because the geographical/political circumstances for it do not exist on earth (I admit to being inspired by the 'Polar Express' movie here.) That was years ago. I stopped writing for a long while after that. Then I started rereading Lovecraft. Usually, the emphasis with those stories is one of impending cosmic doom, that we were fated to be squished beneath the appendages of some ultra-powerful and utterly indifferent cosmic behemoth. Yet, all through Lovecraft's tales and those of his circle there were characters who glimpsed or visited worlds where the entities from beyond had triumphed - or were never contested in the first place. So, I began to wonder - suppose the abominations did appear, did inflict cruel distortions of reality upon our sphere - nut were so utterly indifferent they didn't deem humans worth exterminating even when attacked? This transformed into a related notion: instead of the Outer Gods decimating earth, suppose they had a world elsewhere, one they dominated, one that had puny mortal denizens not deemed worth killing? Then, come book five of Empire and book two of Labyrinth, I found myself in need of a world of origin for an alien race.

    Ideas merged. Became the 'Eldritch World' - a mostly barren planet with little to recommend it beyond a breathable atmosphere, dotted with 'temples' to unfathomable gods, and dotted with civilizations who deal with the eldritch overlords via negotiation and subservience (and connected by railways).
  15. Mel Syreth

    Mel Syreth Scribe

    Honestly, it depends on the first idea I get. But if I had to describe it with a word I would say it's 'radial'. The Uncharted Sector series started with a bunch of characters and other leftovers from its previous concept. I wanted Mel and Martina in it, and I also wanted to keep the mansion. I built from that point outwards but in 'broad strokes' at first, coming up with details and changing up things as the pieces were put together. Same with Lilian's Peak.

    Most of my works' areas involve a natural perimeter like a vast ocean or a seemingly endless forest because of this.
  16. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    I build up and down. I build the business I need, then expand out. I have also built a nation and worked down, depending on what I needed. You have an idea and you expand on the idea, be it making it part of something bigger, or making something that is part of the larger idea.
  17. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    I'm pretty erratic with process, still trying to figure things out, but as I look back at stuff I've written in the past, the best worlds and the only ones that still interest me are pretty much ones that I've mostly pantsed, which would very much fall on the bottom-up side of the dichotomy you've outlined here. (Although radial also sounds good to me. I like that.)
    I came at both of the big projects I've worked on the last year or so from much more of a bottom down approach, and I've been struggling with it a lot. It just isn't fun. Everything feels so technical and bleh, and I always feel like everything I come up with isn't going to end up in the story anyway, so why should I bother? I guess I sort of felt compelled to do it that way, because I was scared of making a world that was implausible or had a lot of holes, but I'm now wondering how much that even matters. I as a reader don't really care if the economy or climate of the book I'm reading actually makes sense or not, I'd much rather have interesting stuff like living cities and fireproof salamander-scale cloaks, and those kinds of details rarely show up for me outside of the drafting process.
    Doing it that way still scares me though, because sometimes the details I need don't show up, and I end up with a story that has no setting and is super painful to write.
    Anyway, it's been interesting to read about how some of you guys strike a balance, and a relief to hear that you don't all start your worldbuilding by drawing a map and coming up with a bunch of kingdoms and trade routes. (Ack. The very idea of trying to make a map for any of my worlds hurts my soul a little.)
  18. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    I also used to be a top-down worldbuilder, but I actually use a variety of methods depending on the circumstances. One of my main projects is about a thief and I figured it would make sense for him to be in a wealthy city of merchants, so I based it loosely on Venice, but I also kinda took influence from ancient Egypt with its geography and climate. I don’t have much beyond that.

    Another world of mine is sci-fi, and while I have no stories for it yet, I was really interested in the world. It is based on a type 2 civilization on the Kardashev scale, and civilization is formed around a Dyson Swarm.

    I usually start with a concept, it can be a character, place, a theme, a “power”, etc, then I build the world based on the concept I want to write about.
  19. Futhark

    Futhark Inkling

    I am definitely a bottom up builder. Why? To have an organic, dynamic world in which to tell many stories, because world building, while great fun for me, is a lot of work, and I would rather do it once properly than many times poorly.

    That being said, I didn’t technically start at the bottom. I picked a point where I wanted my story and worked backwards to find out how they got there. Once at the beginning I turned around and headed back up, exploring different branches, but always seeking that perfect spot where the dream started. Now, I haven’t illuminated the whole world, but what I can do is turn a spotlight on a particular area and the pieces are already there, waiting to be put together.

    That’s how I do most things, from diy projects to cooking to packing. I note what I need, gather the parts or whatever, and then piece it all together. My wife on the other hand, tries to put it together, grabs what she needs on the fly, and realizes what she needed afterwards, .
  20. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    I am adaptable. As others mentioned, It strictly depends on what is needed. If I have an idea that is large, I go top down. If my idea is a village, castle or person, then I work bottom up.

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