How do you build a world?
This is the most common question addressed towards writers of some of the most well-known fantasy novels. How did you create a world so vast, with its very own countries and languages, while still managing to stand out from all the other novels out there in the world?
There is no easy answer to a question like that, except dedication and details. Very fine, well thought out details. Because without a strong world, a story is nothing. Though it is a ‘background’ to the entirety of a story, the immersive castle of Hogwarts has quite a bigger punch than simply focusing on dialogue. The scene, the world, can create an entire tone for a story.
For example, if a traveling pair is crossing a vast desert, the statement alone is not quite grasping. You need to build something around them. Having them trot across sand is mundane and takes away from the severity of the situation, is creates a void of emotion. Try instead a traveling pair, crossing a vast desert with no maps due to its sheer size. With harsh winds that create constant sand storms and dunes miles high. Void of any life beyond the echoing cries of vultures, always keeping the pair in sight; waiting for their time to end, like so many that had come to the sea of sand.
Through creating this world, you have given the scene a much more desolate feeling. You’re creating a sense of desperation within not only the characters, however, the reader as well. With each page, they will urge the travelers to be strong, to find refuge or some hidden oasis. Much more exciting than merely a walk along the beach, no?
Creating a world also creates a tone, an atmosphere. It’s the broth to a stew, an aspect that is never praised nearly as much as it should be. When it comes to large stories, such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, there are many large aspects that are easy to enjoy. The characters, the relationships and of course, the plots. However, none of this would matter if it was not for the worlds they were set in.
A boy and his best friend are sitting together, speaking in a hushed whisper. The reader has an understanding that something important is happening, but what about the world around them? Where are they, is anyone around, do they feel endangered?
A boy and his best friend are sitting together on the edge of the lake, speaking in a hushed whisper. Shoulders pressed together so only their ears may hear the traded secrets. The afternoon is clear and other campers are lingering about. Three girls stand nearby, also speaking amongst themselves but giggling, looking at the boys. The one in the middle smiles at the taller boy, causing him to grow flustered and fall silent within in own conversation.
You have given the reader a scenery, a mood and a dynamic. The mood is peaceful and the scenery is bright. The protagonist is in a safe setting and with someone he trusts. Nearby is a girl he likes, causing him to grow anxious and bashful. These small details, though as little as they may be, can change an entire scene. Clearly, whatever secret they were sharing didn’t compare to the embarrassment of his crush seeing him.
In an interview before, JK Rowling stated that she came up with details for every single student at Hogwarts, even those only mentioned a few times. They were given full names, appearances, and traits. These small details mean a very large deal when it comes to creating a scene. It helps the reader become completely engulfed in the moment. Helps to feel as if they are truly there. One of the best examples, although one I feel that is often over looked, is Dungeons and Dragons. While it is often a game that people love or hate, one can’t deny that the world is very creative and original.
While the creatures in each ‘campaign’ tend to stay the same, the worlds are never alike. Each new ‘run’, DM’s (Dungeon Master’s) can create an entirely new world time and time again. Some DM’s go as far as Rowling herself, creating deeply detailed lists for each encounter, npc, and antagonist.
When I think of world building, my mind goes to one man: Matthew Mercer. While a known actor, I know him for his role as DM from his hit web show Critical Role, a show in which he has helped to create an amazing, detailed world. A story that has kept me hooked since the beginning and I always keep coming back for more. The fine details he provides to the simplest of character gives them, though only there a moment, such life that it feels each moment is as impactful as the last. Part of Geek and Sundry, Mercer has created several ‘DM tip’ videos on the company’s site, which I have watched and use for my own stories. While I am the only one involved, his advice is easily translated and helps me to gain a footing during scenes that I am less comfortable with.
From watching his tip videos, as well as the show itself, I have learned so much from him that helps me to this day. I have started to keep a detailed list of all characters within my stories, from age down to their weaponry of choice, even if it does not come into play. Because, while this detail may be obsolete in the end, the mere mention can help frame their image.
A large man stood before him, stern and quiet.
This could become much more impactful with small details.
A large man stood before him, stern and quiet. His armor was thick and worn, though less noticeable compared to the longsword hilt that peeked over the man’s shoulders.
This gives the, while only important for the moment, character much more of a punch. From this stand point, he feels far more dangerous. The ‘wear’ on his armor shows he is older, unafraid of a scuffle. While the fore mention description makes, the character seems like a momentary intrusion to the story, the latter makes him feel much more important. Clearly, an obstacle the protagonist must deal with; far more a threat, now. It’s these details that can change an entire scene.
All in all, when it comes to a story, the most important factor is your world. Knowing the world, the lands and laws, will help you to create each character. Help you to understand what kind of people they were. All these little things come together, like puzzle pieces, to create a beautiful story for your readers and yourself to enjoy. There is nothing more satisfying than setting back and just enjoying the beautiful world you created.