Welcome back to World-Building 101, fearless readers. During our last lesson, we discussed the first five steps to building a fictional world:
- What’s cool? What are the cool fictional things you’ve imagined? This pile should get bigger throughout the process.
- What’s the vibe? What is the prevailing atmosphere of this world?
- Where does life find your characters? Where are these people? Where have they gone, where do they seem to be going?
- How powerful are your characters in this world? What boundaries do our characters’ lives exist within?
- What’s cool about the cool stuff? Now that we have a better-defined world, how does all that cool stuff exist in it?
Got it? Great. Now that we have the scaffold of our universe constructed, we can start fleshing out its details. These next five steps are as important as the first five (none, though, are as important as Step 1), but are a bit more nuanced, and may take you amateur deities a little more time to figure out.
So here are two pieces of overarching advice: be patient and have fun. Just because you’re deep in the process doesn’t mean that this should be work, just that you shouldn’t settle for ripping off George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien. Those guys took their time gestating their worlds. You should too.
Ready? Let’s continue. And on the Sixth Day…
6. How does this world connect to itself?
Roads were probably the best invention humanity ever dreamed up. The road was the first official way of displaying a conduit between two portions of our world. Here, look, now you know how to get to Rome. You can go there, and Rome can go to you. There is a way. (PS – The Romans are coming, so you better get out of there quick).
Our world communicates to itself in various ways. The obvious examples in our real world are the Internet, the phone, the post, air travel, sea travel, and yes, roads. So what about your world? Does it take a long ride or walk across the dessert to reach other people in this world? Is everyone in constant communication via technology? How easy is it to send word from one place to another? Is it done via horse, or spaceship, or pterodactyl?
The physicality of our world is defined here. With physicality comes rules—boundaries and methods, possibilities and impossibilities. Our characters, in their lives and places of power, feeding off our vibe, using their cool stuff, are now forced to exist in a defined reality.
This doesn’t mean your world necessarily has to connect. Quite the contrary—some of the best stories are about that first person to ever leave their little insular community and take in the world at large. But by knowing these are no common connections in this world, we know about what those connections mean.
7. How do our characters connect?
When two people meet, they create a history. Their personalities, couched in the ways of this world, set off the sparks of humanity—conversation, sympathy, interest, loathing, pity. But how does that happen? How do two or more people meet and interact in this world? How do their own lives color that interaction?
It’s easy to just make human connection in your world the same as it is in the real world, and there can be something to that. If you’re world is very rigid, or traditional, or grandiose, and people are interacting in the same ways that you and your friends do (using the same slang and stereotypes, especially), then there’s a hilarity to that. See, even in a feudal desert-based cockroach society, people say, ‘Oh, snap.’ Properties like Rick and Morty do this extremely well.
But if you don’t own that, you’re being lazy. The way your characters speak and joke and regard each other’s station cannot be incidental. You’re creating a world here, and this is what defines a world most of all—how the figures therein connect with one another. Say what you want about Star Wars, but it has never indulged in typical character connection.
Take your time—this part of world-building might be the hardest. It means entering the mind of a person who lives in your world, and deciding how much connection with each character needs to occur. Who are our central focuses? Who are our fun cameos? Explore thoroughly.
8. What is to be feared?
Now, let’s have some fun. Ask yourself the big question: what’s the worst that can happen?
In any world, bad stuff goes down. Sometimes, these occurrences are momentary, frustrating, a little scary. Other times, they are massive, dire, or apocalyptic. They can take the form of people, armies, events, accidents, inevitabilities, abstract fears. But they are present, and lurk in the minds of a world’s inhabitants constantly, even if they are not always at the surface. What is feared colors the entire world and the lives of the people who live in it.
This part of world-building is, to a certain extent, about villains. More often than not, your characters are trying to avoid or stop a person or group of people that represents darkness, death, and a fearsome future. But maybe there is something worse out there than bad men or the harm they might cause. For example, the soldiers of 300 did it for the kleos, the honor that would ring throughout eternity. They didn’t fear their deaths, exactly, so much as they feared dying dishonorably or as cowards.
Enjoy yourself here! Monsters, evil, and destruction can involve a lot of madcap creativity and weirdness (I always think of the sandworms in Beetlejuice). Think about just how bad it can get for your characters and their world. Then, go nuts (and don’t neglect the ‘cool’ pile).
9. Does love conquer all?
Ah, fear and love, the chocolate and peanut butter of emotional world-building. Up until now, we’ve discussed our characters as cogs in the machine of your world. But nothing clogs up the works of a machine like the sticky, gooey chewed gum that is the human heart.
Whether or not romance exists in the lives of your characters is one thing; whether or not love conquers all is another. Sometimes, the most valuable lesson that can be learned in your world is that love fails, or that it’s not enough. If that’s the case, then our world is inherently dangerous, and our characters must be careful. They’ve been hurt before. They know what’s up.
But if love conquers all, then no fear can match it. No obstacle can stop it. It can reach beyond space and time, and make even the most horrible of torments seem paltry and sad. It provides your characters and those of us following them with a protective cushion on which to fall. All might be lost, but at least there’s love.
Kind of cheeseball, right? That’s fair. But this provides us with a distinct point of view. Is there always a light at the end of the tunnel, even in death? Or is that a hallucination caused by the chemicals flooding our characters’ brains as the thing from Step 8 brutally murders them?
10. Can we get more than five stories out of this world?
All right, we’re in the home stretch! Our world is so close to completion, we’re drafting licensing contracts with Blizzard and Lionsgate! Now that we have all the pieces in place, we’ve just got to create a story for our characters within this world, and we’re done!
Wrong. We need to create at least five stories. If we can’t do that, then this world just might not be the one we should spend your time on.
Woah, woah, deep breath. I know, that was a lot of work for something you might just throw away. But think about it: you’ve just crafted an entire fictional world, and a group of characters in it. Shouldn’t you be able to tell at least five stories with them? Hell, you should be able to tell twenty stories with these characters!
I’m not saying epics, I’m saying stories. Our obvious example is the Lucasverse. Yes, there are the three big canonical chapters in that story, but there are also prequels, sequels, books, comic books, video games, and a bunch of Ewoks movies in there too. There are eight billion stories in the naked universe–shouldn’t at least five of them be worth telling?
It’s rare that this happens, but let’s say you fall short of five. Maybe you only have one big To Kill A Mockingbird-esque story to tell. Tell that story if you like, but don’t try to jam everything you’ve just created into it. That might make it bloated and obnoxious.
And you don’t have to. Why? Because of Step 1! It’s always fun to add more ideas to the Cool Stuff pile and use them for a different world or story! Having a bunch of cool ideas floating around in your mental arsenal is always a good idea. Worlds come and go, but cool ideas last forever.
All right, guys, there are the ten steps you need to build a world. Have fun being the Big Bang you want to see in the universe. Feel free to share your fictional worlds or ask me any questions in the comments section. Take pains, be brilliant, good luck!