A to Z Day 23: Worldbuilding


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Since I shared my fantasy project on day six, I thought it might be good to talk about worldbuilding from a practical point-of-view today. To some extent, all fiction writers are worldbuilders. But I am using the term to mean the creation of worlds that are so different from the world we actually live in as to feel alien or exotic. I am thinking about these sorts of worlds:

  • Other planets, or worlds that don’t follow the laws of natural physics at all (like other planes of existence or dimensions).
  • Settings that are so far distant in time they’re fantastical – civilization circa 8,000 C.E., say; or advanced civilizations that existed before recorded history.
  • Using historical divergence to create an alternate modern setting. (For example, what would the world look like in 2050 if the Soviet Union had never collapsed?)

There are any number of ways to use worldbuilding techniques to construct settings aside from the standard fantasy/sci-fi way of doing things. I think it’s important, if you’re going to construct a world for storytelling purposes, to make sure the stories you set in your created world could not happen in any other world. Worldbuilding is a lot of work. It doesn’t make much sense to go to all the trouble of creating a world and then use it as a setting for a story that could be just as easily told in the here-and-now.

That said, I do think it’s important for all stories to have a few realistic elements, because they’re needed to help people make sense of your fictional world and identify with your characters. Here’s how I created my own fictional world, with thoughts on why I built it the way I did.

The elements of realism I chose are natural and social. When I look at my map I can identify tectonic plate boundaries and prehistoric meteor strike zones. The rivers run downhill. My world is an earthlike planet populated by humans, so days are 24 hours long, societies have norms, and people have families that do all the heartwarming and heartbreaking things that families do in our own world.

The reason I did it this way is because I think, given my writing style and preferred themes, keeping these elements normal will give me the best chance of writing stories people can identify with. This also makes it easy to create consistent ecologies and economies, both of which are very important if you want people to buy in and suspend their disbelief long enough to give your fantasy story a shot.

What makes it a fantasy world is that I’ve turned the magic, undead, and extradimensional travel frequencies up to 11. So I have a setting in which powerful magic-users might be able to travel into outer space. An entire undead society which maintains diplomatic relations and pursues its own interests rather than trying to conquer the world is not entirely out of the question. And there could be Djinn.

I’ve worked on this world for a couple of decades now. If I ever get famous, some scholar of the future is going to have a lot of fun with all the iterations of my map. At one point I drew it out on one of those pieces of grid paper that architects use to design skyscrapers. I drew the first one in 1989, and oh, how it has evolved.

Now that image editors are easy to use, I have a map roughly that size with latitude lines and most of the major terrain features and population centers named. Since naming is such a big issue, and every fantasy or sci-fi writer I’ve ever read likes to use at least a little made-up language, I’ll say a word or two about how I approach that issue. It’s important.

Constructed language can make a good world awesome, or it can make a good world mediocre. I took a detour into language construction a few years ago, and profited from it, but decided there’s just no need for me to build a speakable language, because that’s much more difficult that creating a full-functioning planet. I do use some constructed vocabulary, though. Here are a few rules of thumb. They won’t work for everyone, but they work for me.

I never use made-up words for common things. If my characters drink tea, I call it tea. But I might attach a place-name or descriptive label to the tea. The only exception is for things that have great cultural significance. For example, if a country has elite cavalry that have empathic bonds with their mounts, those horses have a special name, and the culture also has a collective noun to refer to the horse and rider as a unit.

I rarely use constructed words for terrain features. I use image-based names instead. Just think of George R.R. Martin’s river names – White Knife, Blackwater, Trident, etc. Kennings are insanely useful for this sort of labeling. I save the constructed words for city names.

I construct city and country names based on sound and use them to indicate what sort of culture we’re dealing with. Some of my countries have Latin-sounding cities and provinces, others Germanic, Slavic, Turkic, etc. Once I have a word I like and I’m sure it’s a keeper, I figure out what it means, and catalog the meanings of the roots so I can use them in other words. So, I’m a word-builder more than a language-builder. The idea for me is to create just enough made-up words to make my world convincing.

Sound, how the words look on the page, and ease-of-pronunciation are important when you’re making up words. You don’t want your story to be riddled with words that are so alien they disorient your reader. And, as a general rule, I stay away from apostrophes. I have one in my own name, and even though it’s used in a fairly straightforward way, it confuses people often.

In English, apostrophes are for contractions and possessives, and that’s just about all they’re for. One of my biggest gripes with Robert Jordan at the level of world construction is his over-use of apostrophes – “Al’Thor” and “Shai’Tan” annoy me because they appear so often, and those are the two easy ones. I think hyphens would have been better.

I could write on and on and on about my worldbuilding techniques, but this post is already more than 1,000 words, and that’s really too long for A to Z . So I’ll say best of luck with the rest of the challenge, and have a nice weekend.

(This is another late topic change. Whorf’s Hypothesis would have been interesting, I’m sure, but the next three are really just for fun, and since I am a worldbuilder myself, I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about it in my last craft-related A to Z post.)

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About Gene'O

Compulsive writer, amateur photographer, and blogaholic. Also an evil genius.

14 thoughts on “A to Z Day 23: Worldbuilding

  1. Hi Gene’O – I think worldbuilding is important in everything we write but in some ways more important in Fantasy. If the world doesn’t fit, no reader is going to buy into the story 🙂

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  2. Dominic says:

    Fantastic insight into your process – and one that matches pretty well with what I do – especially with the tectonic plates and geography.

    I’d definitely be interested in more in-depth articles regarding worldbuilding! 🙂

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    • Gene'O says:

      Thanks! I think the tectonics are important, because plate boundaries determine the locations of mountains, and mountains are the starting points for rivers. The basics aren’t that hard to figure out, and it’s MUCH easier to create realistic-looking maps if you understand them..

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      • Dominic says:

        Very much so. I studied Geography at school (one of the times when I don’t think there’s a straight translation from UK to USA – but I studied it from 16-18) and always preferred physical (as opposed to human) geography – such as WHY deserts are where they are, how mountains and oceans affect weather patterns, erosive patterns, rock formation, etc. and all of that goes in to the worlds I build. As you say, they have to have the whiff of veracity about them in order to anchor your readership into an otherwise out-of-this-world context.

        (Would you mind, incidentally, if I reblogged this in a couple of days with a few additional notes of mine?)

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  3. Harliqueen says:

    Brilliant, in-depth article. Thanks for sharing, will be bookmarking this for future reference 🙂

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  4. melissajanda says:

    I blogged about worldbuilding for A to Z, too. Your post is far more technical than mine 🙂 Nice job.

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    • Gene'O says:

      Thanks! I’ll be sure & take a look at yours. It’s not the most popular thing I write about, but quite a few of the bloggers I follow are into some form of worldbuilding, and I’ve been going at it through trial-and-error for more than half of my life now.

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  5. […] Week 4: Revision – Social – Tone – Utopian – Villanelle – Worlbuilding […]

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  6. […] Week 4: Revision – Social – Tone – Utopian – Villanelle – Worlbuilding […]

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