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How do you improve World-Building?

AJ Stevens

Minstrel
I can really only tell how I began building my setting, maybe it gives you something to work with. Then again, I'm not sure how well I've managed at that, but I went the long way because I think if you're going to use that same setting over and over again there should be a fair amount of details and information available to flesh out that world.

First I drew a map. Well, in fact I drew a whole bunch of maps, adding more details and points of interest with every new version. While I was doing this I pictured locations in my mind, and at the same I was taking some notes. As time went by, the main continent where most things take place got actually quite messy, and I'm planning to remake it at some point. It works for me though because I felt like I really needed all that nitpicking to work. (link to the mentioned map to show what I'm talking about).

As the notes piled up I began to look at the setting more closely. I wrote a brief description of each continent, each part of the continents, and eventually the world begun to take shape. It was slow, but with each new added detail it was coming to life, gaining the proper atmosphere. I wrote a short history from the moment of creation to that world's present day, detailed the magic, and as I'm not a big fan of flashy spells the mages pull out of thin air, I made it difficult for them by bounding it entirely to writing.

To sum it up: I forced myself to sit down and write a chapter about every new idea and a concept I came up with, and piece by piece the setting gained flavor and, at least I like to think so, some unique and interesting elements that give depth and credibility for the stories that happen there. What I also got was a lengthy book of its own that I can use as a reference whenever I'm writing a new story. It helps me to remember everything and keep the story in line with the existing environments. This process may seem a little laborious, but it worked for me. I'm sure there are shorter versions to basically reach the same goal, so I suggest just experiment with things. No matter how crazy idea, it may work incredibly well once you polish it and implement into the general setting.

I'm not saying this is the right way to do it, but it's one way, albeit painstakingly slow process.

I did something a lot like this as well. It depends on the scope of your story, however. Do you need a whole world? Or do you just need a city and a couple of towns?

Another thing I tend to do is to begin with a place I like in my mind. That could be from the real world, a book, a movie or a game. Then, twist it to your needs, play around with it in your mind until it becomes something that works in your story. Give it some defining characteristics if it needs them.

Now for the really important part in my opinion. History. A thing is just that. It's inanimate (for the most part). It is a thing's history that gives it significance. The Berlin Wall was just a load of bricks and mortar, but of course we know it was so much more than that. So I ask myself a bunch of questions. Why is it there? How did it come to exist? Do I plan on it having any special significance, or is it just a really cool backdrop?

Then we have the inane. Most of any world is, in fact, inane. We all know what the inside of an inn/castle/house looks like. I've read plenty of fantasy books that love to describe the inside of a room in all its gory detail. The design of a four-poster bed isn't too important to me, to be quite frank. I like the things that make it different to usual. It could be the people within it, it could be the scorch marks on one side of the keep from such and such a battle, it could be the round windows in the inn, and the story behind that, when square windows are the norm.

Flora and fauna is another area where you can really go to town, without overdoing it. You have a chance to make things unique. I don't want to read about horses, per se, but if a special horse exists (think Shadowfax in LOTR), then horses just got interesting.

So, to summarise... Ignore the inane, or at least have it there only as backdrop, but go to town on the unique. Make it different, attach a story to it, and use that story to make your reader feel something, whether it's awe, fear, a sense of homely comfort, suspense. It's all at your fingertips.
 

Russ

Istar
High Concept crosses into all forms of story-telling, even into song and advertising, it's merely a descriptor for something that already exists.

Screenplays and novels being structured differently is arguable, depending on context. The Hero's Journey, 3-act, whatever, they're all over the place.

I would suggest the term "high concept" is used differently by different people and means different things in different media.

In the world of genre fiction, I think the most functional definition is simply a story where a lot is at stake.

TV and movie people seem to approach it differently.
 

Russ

Istar
Hmmm, I certainly agree with wondering how book deals happen... maybe. If the book has a fabulous world, characters, and/or story I can understand the book deal. What I can't understand is how so much muck makes it past editors. Do they ink deals and the writer ignores the advice? or are the editors not worth their salt? Despite having done a little non-fiction editing (back in the days when computers spell checked for crud if at all, let alone grammar) and I would not claim to be a great editor, but for crying out loud, how does some of the ridiculous writing gaffs escape when anyone who's spent a few minutes looking up what not to do when writing a book can identify them?

Ah well, way the heck off topic... may as well move on, LOL.

There are actually pretty straightforward answers to all of those questions but this thread is probably not the place for the discussion.
 

Russ

Istar
World building is only an expression of your character. They are too mutually cognitive to separate. Decide the theme of your story, then add levels of detail to support that theme, then write that characters drama with respect to the theme you've built.

in a lovely succinct form this is the answer I think the OP is seeking.

Decide what your story is about (not where it is, or when it was, but what is it about?) and then chose the characters and settings that support that central theme and best allow you to explore that central theme most effectively.

Here are some of my favourite quotes on worldbuilding from my favourite author:

I only invent what’s necessary to explain the mood of a character. I haven’t thought about an imaginary world’s social security system; I don’t know the gross national product of Melniboné.

The world unfolds in front of the character as the story develops. If the story doesn’t need it, it’s not there.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Yes. I agree that Fat Cat nailed it.

The setting is only as important as the character finds it to be. POV is hugely important for world building. Develop a compelling character and then show the world through their eyes.

What would Tyrion Lannister notice in a room? The booze (or lack thereof), the food, the women, how big everything is, how he can manipulate and how… etc.

What would Arya notice in a room? It would be totally different.

When I am describing my setting I pick and choose what elements to describe based on how they are seen by the character, and how it moves the theme of the story forward.

Character: A young woman desperate to see the Pope for confession.

In this year of Our Lord 1540, this humble church, Santa Caterina delle Cavallerotte was too new to be important. It housed none of the bones of saints or shards from the True Cross that each year brought thousands of pilgrims to Rome from all over Christendom.

Antonia hobbled past the Caterina determined for the Vatican. Tonight she needed a miracle. Tonight she would settle for no less than the Pope.


Masks that split faces in half. Masks that spoke of death and masks that hinted at folly. All brought forth in Antonia an overwhelming dread, as if every face behind those masks knew her fate and were secretly laughing at her.

Antonia couldn’t pull away from the grotesque and magnificent scene. She stared, wide-eyed, lingering longest on one man, a damned soul at the moment of knowledge and grief of his punishment. He cowered in shame, even as two demons dragged him downward and a third reptilian creature bit into his thigh.

Note how everything I chose to describe also illuminates the character in some way? Each of the descriptions are important to the plot and theme, not just there to "set a scene". I have described the world through the character's eyes. What she is seeing, and how she finds meaning in her world.
 
^ I'd like to emphasize that sentiment by Russ. How I approach this is in primary secondary tertiary thinking. My primary world building gets the deepest. Primary world building is done for things that directly affect the story. Secondary world building indirectly affects am either story or characters and gets a few lines worth of building. Tertiary building gets maybe a word or two at most. These are meant for only adding flavor to the story. This would be like mentioning s street name or a village that the heroes pass through.
 
in a lovely succinct form this is the answer I think the OP is seeking.

Decide what your story is about (not where it is, or when it was, but what is it about?) and then chose the characters and settings that support that central theme and best allow you to explore that central theme most effectively.

Here are some of my favourite quotes on worldbuilding from my favourite author:

I only invent what’s necessary to explain the mood of a character. I haven’t thought about an imaginary world’s social security system; I don’t know the gross national product of Melniboné.

The world unfolds in front of the character as the story develops. If the story doesn’t need it, it’s not there.

I think this is a great starting point, but depending on the book and the approach, it could lead to too-narrow a focus, even a bit too on-the-nose development of the world.

It doesn't have to become too narrow, while still unfolding in front of the character. But the danger is that bits of the world can be included only as a prop to serve whatever is necessary for the action of a given scene or to highlight some character trait—as if the world doesn't exist on its own but only as some kind of reflection of the character and character's journey. Bits can be added that really make no sense, or would be ridiculous or unrealistic if considered from a larger p.o.v. I think one of the classic cases is the massive city in the middle of a desert: How are the people fed, where do they get their water, how is it they have trade from all over the world when the desert is difficult to cross in every direction?
 
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The big trick with High Concept is that it's not just one thing, it's a combination of elements that builds to High Concept, and not every High Concept will have the same elements. For practical purposes, if a publisher is looking for High Concept, a lot at stake is not going to be what they mean... it may or may not be part of it. The rough definition seems fairly consistent across writing forms, but naturally, some people will emphasis different elements. And it is a crazy rough poorly defined definition, heh heh.

I would suggest the term "high concept" is used differently by different people and means different things in different media.

In the world of genre fiction, I think the most functional definition is simply a story where a lot is at stake.

TV and movie people seem to approach it differently.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
This is a good point FV…. I was thinking much smaller scale… simply how to describe the world. Your point obviously is hugely important as well.
 

Russ

Istar
I think this is a great starting point, but depending on the book and the approach, it could lead to too-narrow a focus, even a bit too on-the-nose development of the world.

It doesn't have to become too narrow, while still unfolding in front of the character. But the danger is that bits of the world can be included only as a prop to serve whatever is necessary for the action of a given scene or to highlight some character trait—as if the world doesn't exist on its own but only as some kind of reflection of the character and character's journey. Bits can be added that really make no sense, or would be ridiculous or unrealistic if considered from a larger p.o.v. I think one of the classic cases is the massive city in the middle of a desert: How are the people fed, where do they get their water, how is it they have trade from all over the world when the desert is difficult to cross in every direction?

You are entirely correct that executed poorly this method can lead to discomfiting absurdities.

However some would argue that the existence of that city in the desert is a traditional "marvel", which is what is at the heart of what fantasy is.

I would suggest the risk of spending too much time figuring out how much wheat needs to be brought in to that city to feed how many of its inhabitants turning into a crippling time suck followed by a painful info dump is much larger than the jarring absurdity, at least around here :)
 
You are entirely correct that executed poorly this method can lead to discomfiting absurdities.

However some would argue that the existence of that city in the desert is a traditional "marvel", which is what is at the heart of what fantasy is.

I would suggest the risk of spending too much time figuring out how much wheat needs to be brought in to that city to feed how many of its inhabitants turning into a crippling time suck followed by a painful info dump is much larger than the jarring absurdity, at least around here :)

I don't think an exhaustive plotting of the entire economy, viability, and so forth would be required. That's an extreme. A little magic here, a little magic there, a glimpse of some magic portal system or odd flying machines....these can at least leave the door open to plausibility.

But that was really only a generic example meant to highlight the sort of effect that can happen when worldbuilding is an ad hoc process used only to accentuate some bit of characterization or to facilitate moving from Plot Point A to Plot Point B.
 
This is a good point FV…. I was thinking much smaller scale… simply how to describe the world. Your point obviously is hugely important as well.

One of my greatest irritations is when I discover that an author is laying down props merely because, Can't have an empty scene! or POV character needs to be noticing things as she moves along! or Gotta make it seem medievalish/fantastical!

I mean, random things without much context within the book. Of course, random things can be good for building up an impression of the world, a tone, foreshadowing, and so forth. But there are times when I feel things are added for no other reason than a desire to have something besides the character on the stage. I was considering folding this into our discussion about on-the-nose-ish-ness. But see how I have to invent convoluted terms!

Edit: Don't want to give the wrong impression. This hits me hard too, and I imagine lots of people experience it. I have all these plot points, these interesting events, and so forth; and then, I have to write the in-between bits and cannot have a white room, an empty stage, even for the interesting events.
 
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Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Yeah, I remember reading, I think in Orson Scott Card's book on Characterization? I'm not sure… he was mentioning the four different types of story, one type being the milieu.

Ahhhh! Found it!

STRUCTURE 1: THE MILIEU STORY

The milieu is the world–the planet, the society, the weather, the family, all the elements that come up during your world-creation phase. Every story has a milieu, but when a story is structured around one, the milieu is the thing the storyteller cares about most. For instance, in Gulliver’s Travels, it mattered little to Jonathan Swift whether we came to care about Gulliver as a character. The whole point of the story was for the audience to see all the strange lands where Gulliver traveled and then compare the societies he found there with the society of England in Swift’s own day–and the societies of all the tale’s readers, in all times and places. So it would’ve been absurd to begin by writing much about Gulliver’s childhood and upbringing. The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home.

Milieu stories always follow that structure. An observer who sees things the way we’d see them gets to the strange place, observes things that interest him, is transformed by what he sees, and then comes back a new person.

This structure is most common in science fiction and fantasy, but it also occurs in other types of novels. James Clavell’s Shogun, for instance, is a milieu story: It begins when the European hero is stranded in medieval Japan, and it ends when he leaves. He was transformed by his experiences in Japan, but he does not stay–he returns to his world. Other stories are told along the way–the story of the shogun, for instance–but regardless of how much we’re drawn into those events, the real closure we expect at the end of the story is the main character’s departure from Japan.

Likewise, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz doesn’t end when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. It ends when Dorothy leaves Oz and goes home to Kansas.

As you conceive and write your own story, if you realize that what you care about most is having a character explore and discover the world you’ve created, chances are this structure is your best choice.

When writing a milieu story, your beginning point is obvious–when the character arrives–and the ending is just as plain: when she leaves (or, in a variant, when she decides not to leave, ending the question of going home).

Such stories are typically most effective when seen through the viewpoint of the arriving character, as she’ll be surprised by and interested in the same strange and marvelous (and terrible) things that engage the readers.


The 4 Story Structures that Dominate Novels | WritersDigest.com

I think this is true for a lot of Epic fantasy. Do we need to know about what The Hound is eating in the pub? Probably not… but I think a lot of people love Westeros simply for Westeros and want to know all these details so they can "live" there, just as the characters live there… does that make sense? People love Middle Earth, people love Narnia, people love Hogwarts… I guess because they feel like real places.

I'm not typically into Milieu stories, so I tend to skip those intimate details in my own world construction, but some people love that stuff.
 
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I think this is true for a lot of Epic fantasy. Do we need to know about what The Hound is eating in the pub? Probably not… but I think a lot of people love Westeros simply for Westeros and want to know all these details so they can "live" there, just as the characters live there… does that make sense?

I think this goes back to what I mentioned early in the thread and what Fat Cat was addressing with "World building is only an expression of your character. They are too mutually cognitive to separate."

Too mutually cognitive to separate. So let's imagine that large city in the desert, but without much magic or flying contraptions, etc. Chances are very good that a POV character who has lived all her life in that city will have noticed its precarious position. She might in fact be emaciated herself. She might remember the year when the limited rainfall was even less, a year in which she lost many loved ones, perhaps even children. She might be greedy for water, willing to steal or even kill for it; or, for food. So I guess that, rather than accept such a city merely because it's one of the "wonders" of the fantasy genre, and thereby also have unrealistic characters (who just don't experience the world authentically), characters can't help but eat what they eat or believe as they believe. Their world shapes them.
 
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Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Yes. I believe that to be absolutely true… thus giving the reader the true experience of really "living" there… experiencing the hunger, the fear, the desperation through the character instead of simply being an observer.


Hmmmmm. which is perhaps why I love Cercie (She has power and control over her situation and gets to enjoy the luxury of Westeros)… or Arya (because she at least takes action and looks like a badass).

This is also why I hate reading Sansa… because you would have to be pretty masochistic to want to live vicariously through Sansa.
 
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I think it's also about being aware that the characters have vast knowledge of their own world, probably more knowledge even than an author will deliver to the reader.

The character makes connections, mentally, between things, or accepts things without much consideration because she's already lived her first 20 years and made those connections in the past. If the world is implausible, how can an authentic character be created?

Of course, I often feel that we sometimes overlook the wide range of styles, sub-genres, and so forth in such discussions. An adventure tale might not need much plausibility at all, just a lot of cool stuff and interesting personalities for the characters. Light comedy might not need so much worldbuilding.
 

Russ

Istar
The character makes connections, mentally, between things, or accepts things without much consideration because she's already lived her first 20 years and made those connections in the past. If the world is implausible, how can an authentic character be created?

Let me challenge or push you on that concept to explore its edges.

Firstly, to some degree, any world where there is magic, or dragons, or the supernatural at all, is implausible.

Secondly, many people in our world exist and function with completely implausible or wildly inaccurate world views, surely those real people are "authentic".

Lastly, many characters in fiction are completely implausible such as vampires, or liches etc. It is only our willingness to suspend disbelief or to give effect to hand waving techniques that allows this genre to work.

Now I completely believe there is room for fantasy fiction where the distance between our understood reality and the fictional world is tiny, but I also believe that there is also plenty of room in the genre for worlds where the implausible, improbably or impossible is commonplace.
 
I also believe that there is also plenty of room in the genre for worlds where the implausible, improbably or impossible is commonplace.

But can you create a believable character for such a world—not merely imagine that character, but put that character on the page—without also giving the character insight into those things, a history with those things, beliefs about those things, and a belief that those things are real? But then, if you write such a character, are you not creating plausibility for the reader, by giving all these things?

Plausibility is about being worthy of belief, not about having certainty about every last detail. That the existence of humans with self-awareness is a plausibility in our world is not dependent on our complete knowledge of how the brain creates a mind—or even, of what consciousness is. The question is whether that fantasy world is worthy of belief, for reader and for the characters themselves.

Plus, fictional worlds are a different context than our own reality, with in-world rules or initial conditions that may differ from our own. I might find the prospect of my doing a 30-foot long jump very implausible. On Earth.
 
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One of my greatest irritations is when I discover that an author is laying down props merely because, Can't have an empty scene! or POV character needs to be noticing things as she moves along! or Gotta make it seem medievalish/fantastical!

I mean, random things without much context within the book. Of course, random things can be good for building up an impression of the world, a tone, foreshadowing, and so forth. But there are times when I feel things are added for no other reason than a desire to have something besides the character on the stage. I was considering folding this into our discussion about on-the-nose-ish-ness. But see how I have to invent convoluted terms!

Edit: Don't want to give the wrong impression. This hits me hard too, and I imagine lots of people experience it. I have all these plot points, these interesting events, and so forth; and then, I have to write the in-between bits and cannot have a white room, an empty stage, even for the interesting events.

Very true. Even if what is around them might may be interesting, the character, like most of us, is usually preoccupied by whatever is most important at that moment. So unless they are taking a leisurely stroll through the city and purposely stopping to smell the flowers, throwing that in seems more akin to overly describing what the character isn't focused on.

This of course shouldn't be confused with using the setting description to establish an essential mood.
 

Russ

Istar
But can you create a believable character for such a world—not merely imagine that character, but put that character on the page—without also giving the character insight into those things, a history with those things, beliefs about those things, and a belief that those things are real? But then, if you write such a character, are you not creating plausibility for the reader, by giving all these things?

I think a believable character only needs to share with the readers those unique features that are relevant to the unfolding tale.

To give you a couple of examples to make the point. If the fictional world has no cows the character would not for a moment think about the fact that is has no cows over the course of the story.

Or perhaps a better example. A character lives in a world where teleportation through magic is possible but could well go through many days without thinking about that fact the same way that I will go through many days without thinking about the miracle of air travel.

In a world where everyday things are very different than here, it is likely many of those things will get taken for granted and no thought about.

To me the character who is artificially aware or hyper aware of the common differences in their world is just a walking info dump.

Thus the need for a "stranger in a strange land" to write a mileau tale.

But perhaps most importantly for the OP who struggles with setting, having them flow naturally from character and plot is the easiest way forward.
 
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