Quick and Dirty World Building

— March 28, 2011 (12 comments)
They say you should spend a lot of time crafting your world--the history, traditions, cultures, language. I think that's true. The more detailed your world is, the more it will feel real. But do you really have to flesh out everything?

The correct answer is yes. Yes, you should. So don't tell anybody that I sometimes use the following tricks to speed up my world-building process.

Have you ever noticed how fractal geography is? You can zoom in on any part, and it generally looks like any other bit of land. To use this to your advantage, go to Google Maps, find a relatively obscure bit of geography (i.e. don't use Long Island or the SF Bay Area, or anything) and zoom in until it looks like something you can use. Take a screenshot, change the scale, and voila! One fantasy continent.

If you can tell me where in the world these maps are from, you win a custom sketch. Not even joking.

It turns out history is just as fractal as geography: zoom in on any point, and you can find something to use for your world. Need a war? Take your pick. How about a revolution or a realistic-but-obscure form of government? Wikipedia (and the internet in general) is full of stuff like this. Just change the names and dates, perhaps a few key details here and there, and you've got your own semi-original history.

The same thing applies to creating a civilization. Do a little research on some unknown people group, then mix and match their traditions and values with some other culture you're into. Choose a technology level, flesh it out by asking how, why, and what result, and pretty soon you have a viable society with relatively little work.

Does this sound unoriginal? Like plagiarism? It's not, really. Stealing from our own world's history, geography, and cultures is no different than creating characters by mixing and matching attributes from yourself and the people you know. Just like making up fantasy languages, the trick is obscuring your sources.

And I'm not suggesting you build your entire world this way. Use this as the foundation, then tweak and twist things as you go. Ultimately the parts you care most about will be the parts that are most originally you, while the rest of the world still feels fleshed out because it has a strong, realistic base behind it.

Anyone have any other quick-and-dirty tips on building a world? I'd love to hear them.

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  1. We are on the same wavelength, as I was doing this all last week! Awesome.

    I love your ideas! I'm so geographically challenged, I would never attempt a map, but the rest OH YES.

    Other tips?
    Twisting fairy tales is a tried and true method of storytelling, even if you take some small obscure element and twist it beyond all recognition.

    I wanted to come up with names that sounded like they could have come from a certain culture, but didn't want to use the actual names from any historical/mythical persons. So I took the coolest word-roots from several mythical names, mixed and matched with some cool sounding suffixes and voila! A whole character naming system.

    Thanks for the tips!

  2. I can't write without a map. For some reason, I have to see where everything's happening, even if the map doesn't matter to the final work.

    And you know how I feel about mixing word roots ;-) Cool!

  3. Excellent ideas, thanks Adam!

    Man, I love maps.

  4. Yes, I do this. But I have no idea where you've taken your bits of map from.

  5. The Azors keep coming up, I don't know why. Or perhaps Malta? LOL Do I get two guesses? Loved this. It reminds me that I got away from world building to intentionally force myself to write stories. Now I've pushed myself so far away, I've forgotten the joy I used to have in the process. I need to find a happy medium. Soon. LOL

  6. Aw, crap! Now I owe Emmet a sketch.

    The lesson? Google maps is a good start, but it wouldn't hurt to change the coastlines a little before you publish said map in your own novel.

    Stupid world travelers reading my blog ;-)

  7. You Sir are welcome, always happy to be of service.

  8. These are great, and totally realistic. I don't write fantasy, I write contemporary. But I wrote about a location that was new to me, and I used the very same tools.

  9. Awesome, Julie. And it's true: world building isn't just for fantasy writers.

  10. Fun coming back to this after today's post, and seeing how it carries different weight now.