Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Worldbuilding For Beginners (a.k.a. Newbuilders)

First of all, welcome to the worlds! Glad you could join us! There is a whole wide world out there waiting for create it!

My pal Nils is hosting this month's RPGBA Blog Carnival: A New Year, A New World.
Most of my worldbuilding is done purely for pleasure, some for stories, and some for RPG play.
But before launching into the specifics, there are a slew of general questions that need answers to get you going. 

Worldbuilding is all about questions. The first of many is 'What in the world is worldbuilding?'
It helps to know right out of the gate. When I began doing it years ago, I had no idea what to call it.
Wikipedia gives it a pretty solid definition.
J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the grandfather of what we know it as today, dug even deeper and called it mythopoeia.

Don't get scared off. You are in complete control. This is yours to do with what you will.

Let's wade in slowly. Lots of Ws are coming your way.
The very big, over-arching W that you will come to again and again is 'WHY?'
The first 'why' is "Why are you choosing to build a world?" Is your purpose to write a short story, a novel, an epic saga that will conquer an entire bookshelf? Maybe you're designing an RPG campaign. Or like me, do you just do it because you think it's fun?
Knowing what your goal is is the best way to start. It's a huge undertaking to build a world, so you'd better have a clear idea of why you are doing this at all.

Now that you know where to begin, you need to decide on where you are, or better yet where it is. 
WHERE is this place? Is this a completely fictional setting, or does it take place in the real world? Maybe you’re using Earth as we know it, but you’re making up an address in a town that doesn’t really exist. Or you can mix that together. Let’s say it is a world very much like Earth, but it’s not this rock we all call home. This is kind of a shortcut because it already lays a solid foundation.

[My personal preference is to find an inspiring map and fill it in. A great place to start looking is Cartographers Guild. Just be sure that you ask permission before making use of anyone's works.
Or if you want to make your own map...well that's something else entirely. Fantastic Maps has terrific, easy-to-use tutorials and tons more info about worldbuilding in general.]

Next up is 'WHEN?' Do you have at least a broad idea of the time period? Is your story taking place in the ancient past, the far future, or somewhere (somewhen) in between? Knowing the when of what you're doing will dictate a lot of what is in your toolkit with which you will be building. That can depend on the genre you are aiming for.
It seems a majority of fantasy is set in a roughly medieval period. Ya know, knights, swords, castles, dragons, etc. Maybe your when is literally in the middle - the Middle Ages. Nothing wrong with that. It's a good time to start with because there is lots and lots of information to draw upon.
Oh you don't want the same old, old feel to it? You want to shoot for the stars? Okay. Science fiction it is. I can't help you much there, but I'll try. I'm a student of history, not so much of science. This gets into a realm I'm not especially familiar with, so I will say just this little bit.
Writing/building forward instead of backward can be tricky. There is a lot of speculation because we don't know what's coming because we haven't been there yet. But we can guess and speculate a lot based on what we do know. Whenever you choose your right here, right now, there must be a reason for your doing so.
 WHO? Who are you building this for? For players of a D&D-esque game? For readers? Just for you? Let's say you're doing this because you want to tell a story. Okay. Who's story? Is this a peasant who dreams of becoming a heroic knight, slaying dragons and saving damsels? Is is a hard-bitten, streetwise gumshoe out to solve the mystery of the big man's murder? Is this a newly commissioned star captain given the keys to a massive marvel of technology with which to explore the galaxy?
Maybe it's a farm boy on a desert planet that will board a spaceship to rescue a damsel and save everyone from monsters and an evil ruler all while wielding an ancient sword! (gasps for breath). But that story has already been told. Tell yours.

Now that you know who is in the story you can move on to...WHY?

Wait, what? How did we get back to why? We just started.
Actually, look back at what we have covered. You know why you're doing this. You know where it is.You know when it's happening. And you know who you are doing it for, and you know who it is about.
But why is it about them?
There must be some reason you have chosen to tell their tale.
Some will tell you that building a world around your story as you write it is the best way to go. I somewhat agree. It can be. But that method can lead to you painting yourself into a corner because you come up against something you didn't plan for.
I'm a planner. I like knowing where I'm headed, why I'm going there, and who is going with me.
Thus I prefer to build/outline first and make sure I have at least some broad strokes painted first.
Huh? We're painting now? I thought we were building. But then that turned into writing...

Channel your inner 5 year old. Ask 'Why?' and repeat it over and over and over? When you get sick of that, you're at the end of Ws for a while.
Now ask HOW?
How did any this come to be? That is a colossal question with which humanity is still wrestling and arguing and calculating. But this is your world, so you of all people should know. Did the gods just up and decide to create this thing? Maybe they were bored and wanted to kill a few eons by posing and answering question upon question for who knows how long or to what end. Basically that’s what you’re doing. Right?

Okay that's a bit all-encompassing. So let's pare it down to how things happen within the world. How do seasons work? How do people tell time? How do they communicate? How do they build? How do they know?
See what's happened here? You got tired of answering Ws and now you're getting sick of all these Hs.
Deal with it. If you are building right, you will never reach the end of them. Because not every question has been asked and no one knows every answer. Not even you, the Creator. That's right, by now you've earned your capital C.

And if you are completely nuts and drunk on power and you just can't wait to answer more and more questions...well here you go.
Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions by Patricia C.Wrede.
I give you this link to over 1,000 questions because if you Google "worldbuilding questions" hers come up again and again.
If you're wanting a short list of dos and don'ts
Do: Top 10 World Building Tips
Don't: 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding

I must give credit, where credit is due. It was the amazing TalkToYoUniverse blog that led me to Patricia's in depth questionnaire.
And if that still isn't enough for you, consider joining the school and guild I belong to.
Worldbuilding School and Worldbuilders Guild. They're kind of one and the same, but an excellent trove of information.