Some thoughts about world-building

Working through some old notes for my website, I found an old post here about some world-building tips which I enjoyed reading about. I love reading through these kind of posts as they often re-inspire me to crack on with something that I’ve had on the back-burner for a while, or they reinforce some of my own thoughts and help with my own limited knowledge.

Size (1). For me, one of the things that I tend to struggle with is knowing exactly how much of my world should be mapped. Should I just include the areas that my current novel takes place in, or should I widen my world to fit in the other stories that I want to write in it? Is it worth spending time and effort generating land, history, landmarks, races etc. for some place that only I will visit? Back in the 80’s, I created AD&D adventures and I was always disappointed if the party never visited a particular place, especially if I’d put some extra effort in for that location.

In this particular list, I like the fact that History (2) is mentioned. Albeit I think it doesn’t have to be such an issue, especially as a lot of history can be done via smoke-and-mirrors. You don’t have to give the readers a full breakdown of what has happened in a particular place (and often the readers probably don’t need to know it anyway). But if you can just drop enough hints through dialogue, narration etc. it’s quite easy to inject history into your story without making it too obvious.

Dominant Technology (4) is another good one. I remember hearing (I think) about Brandon Sanderson / Howard Tayler talking about magic and coming up with Tayler’s first law, “If the energy you are getting from your magic is cheaper than letting a donkey do it, your medieval economy just fell apart.” To me, this is a wonderful piece of advice; the medieval world that many of us base our fantasy books in has derived from a history that didn’t have magic, or advanced technologies – and that is why the medieval world grew as it did. If, in your world, you introduce something that affects the fundamental technologies that already exist, then you should either adjust your world to meet that change, or your world becomes unbelievable. Why would medieval man build castles if magicians could melt stone with a fireball?

Transportation (6) is another favourite of mine. More commonly, you’ll read about how writers vastly underestimate how far a horse can travel in a day, or how difficult it is to march in full plate-mail. However, what is interesting here is that there needs to be some thought given to how your maps should reflect these modes of transportation. The reason why we have large cities on the coasts is generally due to shipping, transportation, or food. If we have a technology that makes ships redundant, or a world with no ocean life, then maybe there is no need for people to settle by the sea in your world. If you have magicians that can teleport, do you really need that many roads?

Finally, I think Food (10) is a good idea. Here, the author suggest that in some novels, the characters never seem to eat. Maybe it’s not important to the plot but it is an absolute gold-mine of material that you can visit again and again as part of your world-building research. You can have wars over food and drink, you can set entire regions in place based on what they can grow, or whether it can be traded. Is it rare? Is it worth stealing? Is it poisonous to some people, but not to others? You can set your mind going in all sorts of directions here and, depending on how much detail you want to include, it can be just a passing remark in your story, or it can form the bedrock of your story.

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2 comments on “Some thoughts about world-building

  1. Thanks for the interesting and informative post. Could you please explain a little more about Tayler’s first law?

    • Hi,
      Well, it’s not a law as such. Howard Tayler is a presenter on the Writing Excuses podcast and he and Brandon Sanderson often have comical discussion. In Tayler’s law, he was suggesting that so many fantasy stories implement a magic system without giving any thought to how it would impact the world around it. They chatted for a while and decided that if your magic was cheaper to use than getting a donkey to do it (or any manual labour), then your world would become dependent on the magic and it would become ubiquitous as opposed to being something ‘special’. m

      See link to paodcast here: http://www.writingexcuses.com/2008/05/18/writing-excuses-episode-15-costs-and-ramifications-of-magic/

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