So you want to build a world. You’ve come up with a trickster god, a hand-held weapon, a word for currency and a man-eating bug. But tossing around ideas and crafting the fantasy home of a franchise are very different things. The world is where it’s at, the real value behind a cultural product. To own a universe—the Marvel Universe, the World of Warcraft, whatever you call the Terminator timeline—is to control where a product goes, and what it can be.
The best worlds are made up as the creator goes along, though that has a tendency to take that world off the lofty deep when people want more and more of that world (the first wizarding school J.K. Rowling came up with sounds like a brew ingredient, while the new American one sounds like a back-up dancer). That said, it allows for spontaneity, and that’s what separates the geniuses from the hacks. Those crazy ideas, those little details, and you can show the audience something it might have thought of but had never seen or heard before.
For two years, I developed intellectual properties for a sci-fi fantasy publisher. While most of our world-building sessions were good times that involved beer and pizza, the experience of try to craft a universe that was interesting, and more importantly commercially viable, taught me a lot about what does and doesn’t work. When I started the job, I was only concerned with awesome stuff, but then slowly learned that awesome stuff doesn’t necessarily a good world make.
There isn’t necessarily a right way to create a world, and the list of steps below only explains broad strokes. But I’ve found this breakdown to be helpful. Good luck playing God.
- What’s cool?
Most people tire out after this one, because it’s all they have—a series of ideas formed with the phrase, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” And that’s great. Worst thing that happens, this doesn’t become a functional world, but it gives you spare parts for another one. Always have fun having cool ideas; why else would you do this?
A world should be cool, in some way, especially if it takes a step away from reality. A futuristic or magical universe that doesn’t excite you isn’t worth building. That excitement can be small excitement—mundane things can be cool, Kevin Smith movies can be cool—but the spark needs to exist.
So, get it all out. Just vent those awesome ideas onto a page. There you go. That’s a good god.
Be ready to return to this pile of cool things at all times. Collect them. Write down a list of them, or write them on cards and put them in a jar. Cool idea run-off is as valuable as the cool ideas themselves.
- What’s the vibe?
This one is pretty easy if you don’t care that much, but really intense if you’re going for something specific.
Great worlds grab one or more of your emotions and ride them off into the sunset. That emotional standpoint, those notes that need to be hit—that should be determined outright. This effects the way we view an entire story, and who the people in it inherently are. For example, the world of The Walking Dead has a really tense, desperate vibe, while the world of, say, Zombieland is very madcap and fun. Both surround the zombie apocalypse, but they are inherently different.
This is heavily dictated by aesthetic. Black and white or color? Clean shapes or crosshatching? Realistic or cartoony? But the vibe dictates the aesthetic choices as well. The minute you decide you’re telling a story of joy or weakness or agony, you’re choosing what we will see or feel from it.
This can certainly change as more characters are introduced and more viewpoints are examined. But it extends beyond the people you’re focusing on, to the world outside their doors, to the way everyone sort of feels.
- Where does life find your characters?
There are people we’re going to focus on in this world (or elves or giant slugs or whatever). They are in a place, doing a thing. Drop yourselves into their shoes. Where are they physically? Emotionally? Professionally? Right now, they’re here. Why? How?
Time plays an important role in this styep. Every character has a past a future, and we must look at where they are right now and determine how they got here, and where they’re going. But more importantly, this world had a past, and is entering a future. They’re living a day in a life in your world. Where does that put them? What does it mean for them?
From this springs motivation, which can be far more important than, say, your character’s name, or what kind of coats your characters are wearing, or the brand of cigarettes they smoke (definitely toss those things in the Cool Stuff pile, though!). By seeing a snapshot of their lives right now, we get their specific emotional standpoint, and that helps us view the broader world from a personal level.
- How powerful are your characters in this world?
We love having someone that we’re not. At least you aren’t Jeff, right? That poor son of a bitch could screw up a hot dog. This is because we have a certain level of power in this world, and it defines who we are, and how many more layers of status there are above and below us.
Stories about weak and powerless people are often either hilarious or kind of upsetting, because powerlessness feels very close to hopelessness, which every human being knows. That kind of empathy makes us laugh, because we’ve all been there, and it’s funny ‘cause it’s true, and it’s either laugh at the absurdity of it all or scream like crazy. Stories about strong people can be funny, too, but usually only when we see their weaknesses. Dr. Doom is deadly serious until he has broccoli farts.
Power takes many forms, and may not be immediately apparent. Katniss Everdeen doesn’t seem powerful at the beginning of The Hunger Games saga because she lives in a peasant colony and has to hunt for her dinner. But she’s also a badass archer with a will of iron. These levels of power allow us to further understand the world that supports these characters and how it—and they—will grow, change, or remain the same.
- So what’s cool about the cool stuff?
Remember your cool stuff pile? Hopefully, you’ve added to it since delving into this list. But now, you’ve got a vibe, some characters, and a history to work with. Now, it’s time to find out where and how your cool stuff fits into this world.
Something sci-fi and fantasy writers love that I often find unnecessary is multiple suns and moons, or suns and moons of different colors than those of earth. My issue with this is that these are simply thrown in to show that we’re not on Earth or Earth as we know it. But what if they serve a purpose, or define your world? If there are two suns, does one burn hotter than the other? Are there myths about them being brothers or foes? If so, are those myths still believed?
As I mentioned earlier, your world should be cool, but the cool things can’t just be cool. There has to be a reason behind why these things are cool, and what they mean for the world. They need a purpose, and if they have enough of a purpose to be common, they need to have an everyday use. A fantasy drug is cool and all; how its widespread addiction affects society is where things become interesting.
If something is cool AND interesting, then it sticks. If it’s only one or the other, get rid of it. Only the former and it’s kind of superficial, but only the latter and it’s kind of boring.
Still need help hanging the moon? Stay tuned for Part 2 a week from today?