World Building

My oldest son has taken to writing, and he’s been quizzing me on world building. Most of what I learned about the process came from the late, great Dr. Douglass Parker. I feel so fortunate to have been mentored by him.

Anyway, taking a page from my parageography studies, I had told my son to first make a map and, if so inclined, a language. Then write some texts in that language. I think doing so—writing texts for the world your building, that is—requires you to have or create a sense of said world. When I was creating AElit with Dr. Parker, I wrote a book of proverbs in AElitian, as well as some play fragments, prayers, and the first couple chapters of their holy book. The AElitians, as it turned out, were very religious.

My son asked, “After you’ve drawn a map and made a language, what do you do?” Um . . . World building is no light thing. You basically have to create an existence as full as our reality. So I gave my son some things to consider:

  • What is the political structure of this world? Who runs things and by what authority? Are there elected officials? Is there a king? A noble class? Some combination of these things?
  • What are the natural resources? Is this a farming/pastoral society? If so, what’s the system for land ownership? Is there mining? If so, for what? Which leads me to
  • How does currency work? Is this a bartering society? Is power defined by wealth? Say there is a mining culture and various colored gemstones—are the different colors worth different amounts? How rare are any of them?
  • Are these people religious? If so, how religious? Do the priests hold power? Do they actually run the world? What is the belief system?
  • If there’s magic, how does it work? Is it learned or inherited? Is it considered good or evil? Do they burn witches, exile them, revere them? Is there a correlation between power and magic, religion and magic?
  • Basic things: animals, plants, modes of transportation. Clothes—where do they come from, how are they made? How technologically advanced is this world? Do they have, say, watches? A calendar? Two suns? Do they read? Do they have art? What do they eat? What is an average day for an inhabitant of this world—do this for each class, or at the very least each main character. After all, a story starts when someone’s average day is disrupted. So what’s an average day?
  • The terrain. It may form natural boundaries that make a difference in your world. In AElit, for example, a ridge of mountains separates the AElitians from the D’robeans. While the AElitians are very religious, the D’robeans are not. Being exiled to D’robe is considered the worst thing that can happen to an AElitian, as D’robe is godless. How does geography work in your world?

Obviously this is not a complete list, just some things to consider when world building. And when you write, you probably won’t put most of this in your book. But it’s important to know anyway, to be thorough, because it shows when you write, even if you aren’t being explicit. An author who knows his or her world—it shows. The confidence comes through in the writing. It’s the difference between telling someone about a place you’ve visited—maybe even lived—versus a place you only kind of know about or read about somewhere once. LIVE in your world for a while. Even if you’re eager to start writing, don’t until you know your world inside and out.