So you want to start a new world, do you?
New member Okami recently asked where people start with their maps, and since I’ve been neglecting my duties in this thread (it’s harder than I realised to think of new topics), I thought I’d post some ideas. These are ideas for starting new worlds, not new maps, but I’m finding the line between the two is starting to get rather blurry.
So, you want to start a new world, do you?
Unfortunately, because of the topic, I’ll have to try not to ramble all over the place.
The first step is to decide why you want to create the world. There’s the obvious answer (eg. setting for a fantasy novel or game), but what specifically do YOU get out of it – is worldbuilding just a chore that has to be done, or does the activity itself give you pleasure? If the first is the case, you’ll probably want it over quickly; if the latter, you’ll be more willing to put time and thought into your work.
Because that’s the second thing – how much time are you willing to spend on this? If you plan on working out every detail of your world from the Big Bang to the present day, you’ll still be going when your 83 years old, and that’s even if you started when you were nine and spend 22 hours of every single day working on it. If you worldbuild for the fun of worldbuilding, that type of commitment might suit you. If you plan on publishing your book next year (and you are not approaching your 83rd b’day), maybe not.
Of course, everybody has their own way of doing things. Some people like to start at the beginning, and work each detail out in a systematic way (top-down); others like to start with one thing (a town, a city, a country, a person) and develop it in extreme detail before expanding to the next area (bottom-up); a third and sometimes underestimated approach is to just start wherever you feel like. All of these have advantages and disadvantages.
This is where you are trying to create the planet in a systematic way. I think most people realise that everything is interrelated, and the changes from one thing to the next are usually causal (i.e. one event is the cause of the next). To make this approach work, it is best to be clear on certain universal constants – water runs downhill; geographic features experience erosion from wind and water; heat is distributed on a planet according to distance from the sun. So, putting that together, here’s an example:
• you want to include forest-dwelling elves;
• you need to know where the forests are going to occur;
• to find your forests, you need to know about rainfall and temperature (and, depending on how detailed you choose to get, things like soil fertility could also be considered);
• temperature and rainfall are affected by topography (both of these contain some universal constants; I might write about them sometime, but, in the meantime, look online for Geoff’s Climate Cookbook, a great resource for meteorological world-builders); and
• topography is affected by plate tectonics (also contains universal constants; also something I might write about sometime).
Plate tectonics, generally speaking, are where you get to be creative – they should follow some rules, but otherwise, you can make them up. For this reason, people often like to start with plate formation or landmasses. I would actually recommend starting a little earlier than that – begin with your planet’s star, moon/s and solar system (this applies to fantasy AND sci-fi – remember, jsut because the inhabitants of your world don’t know about planets orbiting suns, doesn’t mean YOU can leave it out). Why do outer space first? Mainly because you’ll need to do them eventually, they’re not too tricky, and it’s handy to get them out of the way. Also they do have some visible effects – eg. on daylight hours in different latitudes, average temperatures, year length, even tides (not to mention whether said planet can sustain any life at all). I’ll possibly write about solar systems/stars in the future too – I seem to be getting quite a list ready.
(Here’s a personal tip – another place to start is with a name. I find names really difficult, and if you’ve got a name, it automatically makes your world a bit unique, and that means you’ve got a bit more of an attachment to it).
Advantages of top-down: as you keep going, you know that everything is consistent, because it is all worked out from beginning to end, rather than middle to end to beginning, back to end, and then returning briefly to the middle etc. If you like to have this certainty and/or you like to have highly realistic and consistent worlds, this is the method for you. Top-down also helps you to include things you might overlook, like mineralogy – this could seem like overkill, but wouldn’t it be handy to know your iron-age Empire does, in fact have access to iron?
Another advantage, entirely dependent on your personality, is that top-down is a great way to learn. To do it 'properly', you need to become a scholar of geology, meteorology, anthropology, linguistics, biology etc. (By scholar, I simply mean, spend some time googling, perhaps get a book about the topic etc; research each topic until you are comfortable with your level of knowledge). This leads to the...
...Disadvantages: top-down is a LOT of work. It is, in fact, physically impossible to finish a top-down world. Obviously, therefore, you need to find shortcuts – I’ve developed a shortcut system for doing cultures, which I’ll write about tomorrow (even more to add to the list), so see that for an example.
Another disadvantage is that, if you started your world wanting an elven forest civilisation, you might get to the end and find that, realistically, there are no suitable forests for those elves to occupy. The only suggestion I can make is to either swear and give up on elves (‘bugger!’), start again (‘BUGGER!!!’), or relax your standards for realism and just add the bloody forest wherever you feel like (‘phew!’).
Lastly, top-down can get boring. Here’s a personal example – I went back to the beginning with a world I had been working on for about a decade, to try and redo it top-down style. Even though I like learning all that great sciency stuff, I never got beyond the meteorology. You can end up getting bogged down, and if you partuclarly like creating cities/histories/personalities etc, you might get disheartened if after many months you still have started a single war, or drawn a single map.
The bottom-up approach begins with a single, small-scale starting point, and builds outwards from there. Where you choose to start depends entirely on what aspect of a world you most want to craft – if kingdoms are your thing, start with a kingdom; if you’re into monsters/intelligent lifeforms, start with those. If you’re a complete beginner, my main advice is, don’t bite off more than you can chew. A simple village can be more than enough – you can spend time working out the local history, politics, economy, and fauna/flora, as well as who’s who, where’s where, and what’s what. I think you’ll also find that whoever your audience is (readers, gamers, online map-making enthusiasts) will appreciate a really well-fleshed out but small location, much more than a huge but vague landscape.
Advantages: as mentioned earlier, if you’re a bottom-up kind of person, you can start where you want to start. This makes it perhaps a bit more interesting for you. Also, this approach might reveal things to you about your world that you didn’t know – if you’ve ever heard writers saying that ‘the characters tell me what to do’ and haven’t understood it, take heed: it does actually happen; those writers are not completely bonkers (but they are almost certainly slightly bonkers). When you are writing a character – say, Sir Heroic the Hero – and on every page Sir Heroic does some good deed, you, the writer, do not have the power to make Sir Heroic do something bad (at least, not without some damn good explaining): you have lost control of the character. The same is true of worlds: if your precious village is located in a desert, you cannot sudeenly decide they all wear heavy furs. Getting a bit off topic here: the main point is, knowing a great deal about one thing can help you to develop those things nearest to it, and so on.
Also, when everything else in your world is going badly, it feels good to know that at least one part is done well, and you can always scrap the crap and keep what’s sweet.
Disadvantages: if you are keen on realism (or more specifically, in-world plausibility, an UTTERLY ESSENTIAL ASPECT OF ALL WORLDBUILDING), and you have your carefully crafted village (or whatever), you might be a bit miffed if it turns out that your village, when placed in its wider context, is not realistic at all.
I should say, to be honest, I don’t have too much experience with bottom-up methods, so I might have left important things out. I’d appreciate it if someone could perhaps give some of their own experiences about the pros and cons of bottom-up worldbuilding.
That’s probably enough for today. I had intended on doing the third approach as well, but this has (as usual) become rather a long post. If you’re still with me (frankly I’m amazed you made it this far), I’ll try to include the ‘wherever you want’ approach with my culture suggestion tomorrow. I'm also happy to take any questions/comments. Till then, happy worldbuilding!
PS: Check out Okami’s post that I mentioned at the beginning – jbgibson’s answer I think is particularly good. (URL: http://www.cartographersguild.com/ge...tml)
So you want to start a new world, do you? Part 2
As promised here’s part two of starting new worlds (also a quick apology for the utterly unacceptable typos yesterday; I’m ashamed). Previously, in ‘Tips for Worldbuilding’ – I talked (at great length) about the advantages and disadvantages of a top-down and bottom-up approach, and tried to give an idea of where to start for each. This time, I thought I’d look at the ‘start wherever you want’ approach.
Starting wherever you want simply means starting your world/map with an idea that really appeals to you. Maybe you want to create a world inhabited by walrus-people. Or a planet with two suns. Or an archipelago in the shape of a spiral. All of these are fine. If, however, you don’t have any ideas, try thinking differently about old ideas (but do not, under any circumstances, create a world that is basically a copy of someone else’s work). The worst type of constructed world that exists (in my opinion) is a clone of Tolkien (or any other fantasy writer who has ever existed); one of the best types of constructed world are ones which slightly twist the Tolkien/fantasy stereotypes. Try comparing Terry Pratchett with the Warhammer universe – both of them are full of fantasy cliches, but the difference is, Terry Pratchett has twisted the cliches, and Warhammer sticks them in virtually unchanged. The same is true of historical inspirations – why bother creating ‘The Empire’ when you might as well just say ‘Rome.’ This is my personal mantra as well as pet peeve – if there’s no real difference, then there’s no real point in doing it; it’s been done.
So, if you are still struggling to come up with ideas, here are a few (hopefully) useful ways of twisting the old cliches:
1. Think them through to their conclusions. Here’s an example I used in a world of my own: you are a dwarf, you have short legs, lots of muscles, and cannot run very fast. Someone wants you to charge at the enemy lines wielding an axe. What do you say? If it was me, I’d be saying “Is this a JOKE!!!” Why on Earth would dwarves want to fight their enemies up close? Logically, it makes much more sense for them to keep their distance – hence, in that particualr world, dwarves are famous for their marksmanship, rifles, and crossbows, not for their berserker strength. See, it’s logical? See? See?
2. If you look at the old stereotypes, there are some things that cannot be easily changed. Eg. what is a phoenix – it is a bird that resurrects itself in a ball of flames. That’s a cert, right? So, think of the ways you can change within those boundaries. Phoenixes are always portrayed as eagle-like – why? Because it is more majestic, and everyone agrees a phoenix should be majestic. That’s where you have a chance – what if you don’t want majestic phoenixes? What if you want yours to be more like a magpie than a falcon? What does it mean if they are? In the same world as my gun-totin’ dwarves, I said that the phoenix is about the size of a pigeon, and very common. From that simple idea I was able to deduce that they are probably also urban pests – if, like pigeons, they roost in roofs and eaves, every time a phoenix dies it risks starting a fire that could destroy the whole city. Damn nuisances. So the old cliche is twisted by thinking differently about it. Here are some free examples for you: are dragons always carnivores? How do wizards earn a crust? Is necromancy always wrong? Try challenging your own views/beliefs, and see what you come up with.
3. This is probably the easiest method: simply add something which seems normal to the cliche. Most fantasy tropes are too simplistic, that’s their problem. Elves are always this, dwarves are always that, and orcs are always, y’know. Your elves might seem like the old stereotype of forest-lovin’ hippies, but they could be IN ADDITION TO THAT, really keen on competitive sports, like football. What if your orcs, as well as being brutish and warlike, were also nationalists – they want a country of their own, to represent orc-interests in the diplomatic scene. What if you have centaurs forming communist parties? Fantasy worlds are not just about dirty cities, wars, feudalism, and some trade – they should be just as complicated in their politics, philosophy, culture and so forth as the real world. At least, if you want them to seem plausible.
So, a summary is probably in order:
• First, remember – it’s your world. Make it however you want to make it; put in as much detail as you want to put in; leave out as much as you want to leave out. I would also add: make it something you are proud of; you chose to make this, so make it the best you can.
• Be original – it is better to come up with your own ideas than to simply rehash other peoples’ and your audience will thank you for it.
• Be aware of why you are doing this – it is a lot of work, no matter which approach you choose, so be sure that you are actually getting some kind of reward out of it, even if (especially if?) it is only your own satisfaction.
I would say happy worldbuilding at this stage, but instead it’s straight on to………
So you want to craft cultures, do you?
I also promised yesterday to include a method for creating cultures. This is the method I use, and its purpose is to A. speed things up, B. make your cultures interesting, and C. ensure your cultures are developed in response to their historical/environmental circumstances. You should know, though, that this is not a quick-fix – it might be faster, but you still need to put in some work. Also, clearly, this is what works for me, it might work for you. If you don’t like this, if it aint down with your respective grooves, try something else.
Anyway, here goes. Think of a culture like a family tree. You have a starting culture in the way distant past, which has diverged into new cultures, which also diverge and so forth. This is how the Indo-Europeans developed – the Proto-Indo-Europeans split into the Anatolians, Celts, Germanic peoples, Balts, Slavs, Greek-peoples etc. The Anatolians then became the Hittites, Lydians, Lycians etc., while the Greeks became Arcadian, Aeolic, Ionic, Doric etc. Now expand that out to each branch of the language group (i.e. ‘culture family’), and more than just two ‘generations’, and you have a lot of cultures. I don’t recommend doing something that extensive – keep your groups a bit smaller – only two or three divergences each time, and about four or five generations: a total of 1+3+(3x3)+(2x3)+(2x3) = 25.
Okay, that’s still a lot, but here’s where things get a bit simpler. Think of one thing about your original culture – let’s say, their word for king is ‘bubbles’. Now, those first three cultures will all have a variation on the word ‘bubbles’ for king – bupples, tubbles, bobbles. The cultures that come from them also make variations: buples, buphles, bupres; tibbles, tebbles, tabbles; bobbles, pobbles, wobbles, and so forth. Language is another of my not-strong-suits, but if I can, I’ll give some guidance on linguistics sometime. My main point is, in this instance, with only small variations along the way, you have 25 languages for the price of your one starting language (and that’s only the modern languages; say nothing of the historic ones you made up along the way).
So here’s my method – start with our first culture, and think of something interesting/unique about it, that is linked to its circumstances/environment. Once done, move onto the next generation. Now you have two tasks – think of how the previous cultural trait will have changed (if at all), and think of a new one. Keep doing this until you get your modern cultures.
Here’s an example from one of my worlds a long time ago: a people known as the proto-Darians were hunter-gatherers; whenever a baby was born, the father would go on a hunting party for one animal, and the child would be named after that animal. For example, you might be the proud father of little Bear, or Fox, or Owl. And young Bear would be expected to grow up to be strong, while Fox will one day becme cunning, and so forth. The child could only be named when the father had brought back an animal (and, obviously, if your a father-hunter and you see a rabbit, you leave it alone, because no-one wants to be Rabbit’s dad, do they?).
The proto-Darians became the Darians, and the Darians are farmers. Therefore the original business of hunting an animal becomes obsolete, and those names (Bear, Fox, Owl etc.) are given without all that fuss, although probably to bestow the same characteristics. Voila, I have a method for naming all successive cultures that come from this one, and it only took one idea. The Darians also introduce something new – they tie ribbons to the eaves of their buildings, of different colours, to represent the winds. This then gets added to the list of traits to be thought of next time. Continue with this until you reach the present day.
Now, granted, that does ound like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It really isn’t. You only need one idea for each culture, after all. Depending on how inventive you are, you can get an entire ‘culture family’ – which might amount to as little as half a continent, and sometimes a whole lot more – in about a day, maybe two or three.
The question remains, why choose my method rather than just inventing a culture for all your modern nations/tribes? The reason is, by going my way, you get a much more fleshed-out culture – you don’t have one thing per culture, you have one thing that is unique to that culture, as well as all that ancestry that they’ve inherited. And that’s the second thing – because cultural traits are shared by sibling nations, you develop a plausible level of similarity between different nations, without them being identical. Think of Europe, for example – the culture of modern Spain is very different from that of Germany or Russia (despite having some similarities), but only slightly different from Portugal, while Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark have similarities, but also important differences. That’s the effect I’m trying to get, and hopefully you’re trying to achieve, too.
Of course, you can complicate things if you want – you could take into account transfer between contemporaneous cultures, some cultures not surviving to the present, some cultures dominating others and so forth. The beauty is, this method allows you to choose how much effort you want to put in.
Well, I hope people found that useful. To be honest, I think I presented it as a bit of a sales pitch, so if anyone does try it and find it good/bad/whatever, I would really like to know, as well as questions/comments etc. Also I’m aware there’s a whole lot more to culture that isn’t covered here – fear not, I’ll get there eventually. These last few posts have been a bit ranty – I’ll try retunring to the more scientific stuff next time. Happy worldbuilding.