I started out writing as a pantster, got nowhere, and naturally veered into the other extreme (as all converts tend to do), before I finally landed somewhere in the middle. Nowadays, I plot my big turning points and pants the individual scenes; create “character frames” and discover my characters’ actual personalities while I write them; and I happen to think that combining the best of both worlds is also the way to go for worldbuilding – mostly because I’ve been driving myself insane with the top-down worldplotting method over and over again.
It was one portentous morning when I threw up my hands in frustration and yelled, “there has to be a better way!” after finding only questionnaires for worldbuilding. Luckily, the flashbacks to the countless character questionnaires earlier google searches had brought up when I had tried to figure out how to create vivid characters gave me the inspiration to transfer my character building process to worldbuilding. After all, building is building, right?
When I create a character, I usually start by freewriting their biography from earliest childhood to the first scene of the story, focusing on the big, formative events. Then I look at their relationships – any relationship, not just the romantic ones – figuring out how my character’s past has influenced their attitude and behavior towards others. I then branch out into the rest of their personality, and from all the above information, an impression forms of their appearance (which I’ll tweak if I need a feature for plot or character arc reasons).
How does this translate to worldbuilding?
- I won’t start with geography. No maps will be drawn on the outset, or I’ll just start researching tectonics again. Been there, done that. If I have an idea where the story will start (in a desert, a harbor, on top of a mountain), I’ll jot down a note for later. Later.
- But the first step is freewriting the setting’s (not the world’s. We focus on where the story actually takes place, not the tourist attractions five hundred miles away from it) history. Like for my character biographies, I focus on the big, formative events, things that stuck in people’s memories, maybe haunt them to this day, and formed their attitude and responses. Things like wars, famines, droughts or floods, epidemics and invasions. But also inventions and discoveries, technological breakthroughs, alliances and colonizations – anything that this community (tribe, nation, whatever) counts as a victory.
- This naturally leads to the current story-day’s politics. What are that community’s relations to its neighbours? Is it part of some alliance – and is it a political or a commercial alliance (like the Hanse)? What’s the internal organization like? Does everyone participate in decision-making, or is it dependent on something (age, gender, citizenship, money, etc.)? How is the administration organized? How strong is the police or other peacekeeping institutions? What about courts and prisons – do they have the death penalty, or do they send off their criminals to some far-off colony?
It’s easy to get lost here, so it’s important to remember that this is just part of the frame – just broad strokes here, no going into details.
- The worldbuilding equivalent to personality is culture. Again, it’s easy to get lost in details, or to explore ever more obscure facets of culture; if that’s a problem, limit the number of questions you’re allowed to ask – this will force you to select your topics more carefully. If in doubt, always test your question for relevance for the story you intend to tell.
- And now, finally, the map-making! Geography, the setting’s equivalent to a character’s appearance. More important than naming the cities and mountains are distances and the shape of the terrain between the various settings – this is necessary to present the right scope and orientation to the reader when you send your characters from point A to point B. I limit my maps to depicting only cities and other places where my characters are physically present – in other words, where the story happens. Everything else is irrelevant at that point. Fill in the rest of the map after the first draft is completed.
You have your broad frame – the plotting part of worldbuilding is done. Now what?
For the main thrust of the story, you already have your orientation from the worldbuilding frame. You know the general attitude of the locals towards your characters’ appearance, actions, and intentions; you can estimate the consequences for them if they aggravate their hosts. What you now need are the particulars, the things that evoke the sounds and smells and atmosphere of the places your characters visit. Now you pants – you discover the world as you accompany your characters on their journey.
So you start drafting the story. And you only stop to do pinpoint research – whenever your plot throws you a question (“My characters are about to enter a desert. What equipment do they need? Oh, but this isn’t the 21st century. What did desert peoples wear traditionally? How did they protect their eyes against the glare of the sun?”), you go and research that specific question. And you stop as soon as that question has been answered, and return to writing the story.
Pinpoint research keeps your worldbuilding sane. Since the questions arise naturally from the plot and the characters, they are automatically specific, affecting the plot, necessary, and evocative (of the place, the culture, and the time).
And if you’re worried that this method is too superficial, remember that your worldbuilding isn’t finished when you’ve completed the first draft. You can always add to it, or deepen it during revision.