World-building: Where do you start?


This is a sample constructed-world as seen fro...

Confession time

I’m a pantser.  I write through first, and restructure later, but I do extensive mapping using my trusty bulletin board, and as I’m getting to know the inner workings of Microsoft Word better, I’m learning to use headings to organize my chapters and sections, making outline view a useful tool too.  I have Office 2007 right now, so that’s the best I can do.  When I have blocked some time to learn more about it, I intend to use a master document to further organize my novel.  I’ll probably start using OneNote to organize a lot of my research, world-building, character sketches, and other resources.  More on that in the future.

Process, process, process

Where to start, indeed?  Really, this all depends on how you write and what your process is.  If you’ve been reading Writerly Goodness, you know my process is organic and holistic.  Some writers might see that as a cop-out, an excuse for a sloppy and ill-defined (dare I say undisciplined?) process.  Really, it’s process as a way of life.

Life = process

That demands a lot of dedication, organization, awareness, and the ability to think, not only on your feet, but sitting, laying down, at work, watching TV, eating …  In short, it means thinking all the time.

Plot leads to setting

If you’re a plot-based writer, that is, if you start with the story, then that will be your jumping off point for your world-building.

Example:

Hard-boiled detective?  Then you’ll have to create that milieu, and that means research.  Add Hammett and Chandler to your reading list, watch the classics of the movie genre, and then once you’ve got the flavour, go for the meat.  What time will you set your story in?  Just because the genre evolved in the 1920’s and 30’s doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself.  As long as you can evoke the feeling of the hard-boiled detective, you can play.  William Gibson plays elements of the hard-boiled into some of his science fiction.

Once you have your setting, then you have direction.  Research the heck out of it.  Dream about it.  Start mining your life.  Have you ever done or seen anything that is distinctively “hard-boiled”?  Chances are, if you’re attracted to the genre, there’s a reason.  Dig.  You can find it.

But that’s where you’d start, in the Writerly Goodness universe 🙂

Character leads to plot/setting/theme (sometimes simultaneously)

If you’re a character-based writer though, it’s a little tougher.  You write the character, or characters, first, and the story emerges from them.  Sometimes, you don’t even know where or when the story will be set when you start out.

That’s the way it is for me.

If the story is the plot-based writer’s place to start, then character is the character-based writer’s place to start.

Do character sketches, written ones, and maybe actual sketches, if you’re so talented.  If not, find pictures of actors that might fit the bill.  Have them fully developed as people: their back-stories, their personal quirks, their convictions and beliefs.  Invite your writers’ group, or just some writer friends over for coffee, and have them quiz you on your characters, quick-fire style (it’s in the post, about half-way through).  And, of course, keep writing in the meantime.  Only once your characters are real people to you will their stories start to emerge and direct your plot.  Only once you have a developed plot, will your setting and themes become apparent.  Only then will you be able to truly start developing your world.

You may have some ideas when you begin to write, and by all means, start your research as soon as possible.  If you’re going for a contemporary setting, or a historical one, immerse yourself in the time or place.  It might inform your writing as you go and help you develop your setting with crystalline clarity.  If you’re trying to create a truly original fantasy or science fiction milieu, however, those details might have to wait for you to discover them through writing.  The best you may be able to do at the outset is read in your chosen genre.  If nothing else, do that.

Other options

Ultimately, how you write will determine where and when you start to build your world.  Plot- and character-based writers aren’t the only kinds either.  They’re the only kinds I can provide any guidance for, however.  If you’re another kind of writer, then go with your strengths.  Does your theme emerge first?  Or maybe you can’t write in a world that you don’t know and start off with the world first.  It’s all good.  The point is that no matter what you write, you have to put your characters and their stories in a time and a place and you have to know that world as intimately as you know your characters and plot.  It’s the only way to roll 🙂

Coming up

In the next weeks, I propose to post some of my character sketches and the plot lines that developed from them, along with pictures (though I have started to draw some of them, I’m not finished and they wouldn’t come through in a scan well … also, they’re not very good).

In the future, I’ll move on to other aspects of world-building, including a number of print resources on the subject.

Are you a pantser, or a plotter?  Are you a plot-based, or a character-based writer?  Are you something else entirely?  Where do you start in your world building?  Please, comment, like, share!

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