In the previous world building articles, we explored both Character Centered world building, and Conflict Centered world building. Today I want to explore the process of world building I like to call World Centric.
Today we will learn what differentiates this style from the previously introduced styles, why it is important to understand this style, and what advantages and disadvantages it carries in comparison to the other two styles. While World Centric building has overlap with both of the previously explored approaches, it is important for anyone who wants to world build this way to understand the other methods too.
This is because at its core, World Centric builds are a combination of character driven and conflict driven development. Only if we understand both of those techniques can we properly leverage them.
World Centric building is not something designed to provide a single narrative. Rather, a World Centric build is something that would be best suited for a shared setting, or large expansive work of fiction instead.
When one engages in this style of world building, one must understand that it is extremely easy to get sidetracked, and while that could be damaging and detrimental in any world building, World Centric builds also require some of this chaotic focus, something I will detail later in the article.
For now, let’s get started.
Finding a seed
The best way to start a World Centric build is with a concept or a statement of intent about the world. How one defines that concept or statement could take a number of shapes. One might choose to have a checklist, a set of requirements they want the world to fulfill. While one tends to want a large scale conflict in Conflict Centered building, a general premise works better for World Centric building. I call this special statement, a ‘seed statement.’
It has to sound interesting to you, the creator. Do not bother with building from this seed until it sounds interesting. Focus around some idea or goal that your new world has and try to make it feel like it is your own. The less you stick to the established tropes or rules imposed by other creators, the more free you are to understand your creation as its own undertaking.
Focus around some idea or goal that your new world has and try to make it feel like it is your own. The less you stick to the established tropes or rules imposed by other creators, the more free you are to understand your creation as its own undertaking.
A simple statement of intent for example could be something like:
“I want to create a fantasy world with an interesting and orderly magical system that allows for various types and styles of magic to coexist.”
The above statement is one that I derived from looking back at a world build I have engaged in myself for a fantasy setting. Why? Because I wanted to have a magic system that was worth exploring, something that could be interesting to myself and or someone who experienced it.
I wanted this sort of magical system to exist because I enjoy various types of magic in fantasy, be they elemental magics that manipulate energies in the world, to the more esoteric types of magics such as levitating a book or a spoon. Perhaps there are magics such as necromancy or summoning of demons or dimensional entities that should be possible.
Because of those goals, a strong mission statement for the world I am creating, would be focused on its magical systems and the methods by which those magics work and interact with each other.
Lets look at a statement that I feel is similar, but would not work for a World Centric build. Hopefully this will provoke some thought:
“I want to create a fantasy setting with some of the classic fantasy races like elves and orcs.”
As I mentioned, this statement works as the seed statement. The reason this statement does not work is because it lacks a sort of interesting premise. It has nothing about it that makes it unique or different. What about this world makes it so much more worth exploring than any of the other already existing fantasy settings ‘with some classic fantasy races like elves and orcs’
I have to get more creative with the statement. In a flash of what some might call inspiration, I slightly changed the above to the following instead:
“I want to create a fantasy setting in which the traditionally good guys like elves, are harbingers of an evil demon god, and shift the standard good evil fantasy trope into reverse.”
This statement is less generic sounding, and it is more interesting to contemplate. While it may not be entirely unique (there are plenty of examples of evil elves in fiction for example) the goal of a seed statement is not just uniqueness, but to be interesting. The uniqueness comes from the way that the creator builds around the seed statement and establishes a world build of their own.
A Historian’s inspiration
In World Centric building we want to borrow the detached, high level perspective we employed in Conflict Centered building. We want to keep our seed in mind and start to develop the world in such a way as to allow us the freedom to keep moving and going. While we are surely going to have potential character ideas or conflicts arise as we build, we want to keep ourselves aloof enough to look at the world we are building as if we are perhaps, some detached historian.
I like to think World Centric building benefits quite a bit from this idea, that the creator views themselves as a sort of anthropologist, or historian, a scholar of this world and its denizens, all rolled into one. It is important to note that eventually a conflict Centered Build comes to need some characters around which events coalesce.
The same is true in World Centric building. While developing a cast of characters off the bat is a mis-step for World Centric techniques, one must also be prepared to create figureheads to populate the history one is creating.
So there we are, we are historians with a seed statement about our fictional world. Where we start and how, is up to us, the creator. There is no single right way to start a World Centric build, and as such I will try to list some ideas that I have used in the past that have had some results I am happy with.
Keep in mind, these are all real ideas that have netted various world builds, some of which I feel were more compelling than others. Some of them are also places I would say other world builds may have started. Here are some ideas and why I think they can be useful jumping off points:
- A dream inspired me:
Start your world build based on some of the realities that a dream you remember after waking has introduced you to. I have had several story worlds start off because a particularly interesting dream managed to seep into my memory. You can combine this with an existing seed statement, or, perhaps, refine your seed statement to better fit the dream. I think dreams are a good example of something we might never think of as possible or normal, and as a result can provide a bounty of unusual settings or ideas with which we can start our build.
- The beginning of known time:
Start with a sort of biblical perspective. I find that for a story using ancient mythology, this sort of approach can work great. Envision yourself as a narrator for something like an ancient historical text.
Present the world as you see fit. Your job is to summarize the important events, but you have not got room to go into detail about everything. There are many examples of this, but the King James Bible’s old testament is the best example I can think of for this sort of perspective. (I am not commenting on the truthfulness of its contents by using it as an example).
This book begins with the narrator describing the beginning of time on earth. The granularity of details is limited, save for when the first influential individuals and their actions are introduced, but even then, the information is kept to a minimum and only the impactful events are related to the reader. Indeed, in the bible, whole centuries of time are skipped or glossed over in favour of the more world shaping events. This sort of perspective can be amazing for World Centric building.
- A conflict:
Yes, this might be odd to see here, but sometimes starting a World Centric build at an important and defining conflict point can be the best place to begin. The perspective however of the creator needs to be suitably different from when they are engaging in Conflict Centered building though.
One must remember that when doing World Centric builds, they are describing or observing the conflict through a more detached historical lens, rather than exploring all of its detail.
Using conflict to explore World Centric builds allows for a flashpoint but the creator should expand in both directions, forward and back, from any sort of conflict they started with. Care should be taken to avoid focusing too much on the one particular instance of conflict.
- A world defining figure:
Like Character Centered builds, World Centric builds can also start around an extremely important character. A powerful god or deity, for example, could be a figurehead and inspiration for a world build.
As Conflict Centered builds and World Centric builds featuring conflict differ, so too, do Character Centered builds and World Centric builds featuring influential figures. One may choose to start their world build because a particularly influential conqueror or perhaps a scientist or mage, had done something that forever altered the world in which they lived.
Remember, that if creating from this sort of starting point, one wants to avoid going into too much detail or depth about what the individual did, keeping it mostly historical.
While these are not the only ways you might start a World Centric build, they are ones I have found tend to work reasonably well for the purpose and as a result I feel like I want to list them. Perhaps you have some other idea in mind. As long as you can use it as a starting point, you are ready to begin.
Inspiring the seed
Now that you have your seed, you need to apply your inspiration to it and make them work together. For example, in the fantasy world building example I provided, with the complex magic system, I might be tempted to start with a ” beginning of time” approach. I can marry these two ideas and together, they become a stronger more fruitful well from which I can keep drawing creatively through the build. I’ll give an example statement. I decided to put some flavorful text together for you to see what I mean about taking an inspiration:
In the beginning , there was order. Therefore the gods came to be, and with them, the orders of gods and the magics of gods. And below them the lesser orders and the lesser gods, that the mysteries of all order were defined. Wherefore, the gods looked upon the chaos that was and evoked their orders, and with it, their magics, and thus the chaos obeyed and was shaped, and so came to be the world of….
This sort of excerpt gets at the heart of what I intend to demonstrate; The seed and the inspiration, or the start, of the build, should work together somehow. With the above statement I intended to provide a starting point for a history for the entire world I was creating, and through the combination of my seed and my inspiration I have effectively planted my seed in the fertile ground, where it can now start growing.
This growth process can now continue and should still be kept at a high level. Think of it like this. A sapling, a fresh new barely planted tree still casts a shadow, but to get a real context of its influence, one needs to take a step back. When they do, they will see that its shadow is in fact, quite small compared to the world around it and that focusing on the tiny little shadow does not make for a very interesting picture yet. This can change when the tree grows.
There will eventually be a time and a place where the tree (build) is large enough that even a small portion of its shadow will contain more detail than the entire shadow it cast as a fresh idea. Do not dive into detailing a World Centric build too quickly or you will risk losing this important perspective.
Wild vs Controlled Growth
Once your world building experience has begun, you have two styles of growth. Wild and Controlled Growth. When using Controlled Growth, one decides to follow a sort of cause and effect chain. This means that when one defines some important historical event, things that happened because of it should be explored. In addition, things that occurred before it and caused it, (if any) should also be explored. This Controlled Growth relates parts of the world together and is a great way to create a coherent history. Every World Centric build needs a good amount of Controlled Growth to feel coherent.
Where Controlled Growth often falls short however, is in really adding those unique details to a world build. Sometimes we have just got to add some unique cultural idea, or a species that caught our mind’s attention. Perhaps we just wanted to define what some ancient temple or monument looked like. Perhaps we just felt the need to define how some long dead empire operated. While we are trying to create a history, we are also trying to make it interesting and creatively inspiring.
When our ideas fall outside the cause and effect chain, this is Wild Growth and it is akin to the branches on a tree splitting out where they want. They are our mental explorations of the world we are delving into and building, and they can sprawl reach and look in all directions.
When we are using Wild Growth, we can add a surprising amount of beauty or detail to our build. We can make sure that the Coherent Growth has a more varied environment to occur in and even that cause and effect chain can be modified or deflected because of the Wild Growth we are pursuing. Equally important however is that it is also possible that we grow so wild, that we create a tangled mess.
As anyone who has ever manicured trees can tell you, they sometimes get out of hand. Sometimes those extra branches don’t go where we want them to be. The same is true in world building. If we ignore the cause and effect chain too much we will lack the appropriate places for our Wild Growth to occur.
We may, by not exploring our Controlled Growth enough, miss out on creating a particularly interesting cultural practice for one of the peoples we create. We might lose the chance to create a whole species, or involve an otherwise unique concept in our story simply because we lacked those controlled branches to grow from.
In addition, we may grow so wild that we simply have no space for sensible controlled growth to penetrate the tangled mess we have woven. Our world building tree, in effect, can become lopsided because too much of our energy is being expended in only one aspect of the world. This is where most creators attempting this sort of build will get (pardon the word choice) tangled.
When Wild Growth goes too far
Getting tied up in one particular aspect of the world build can be the end of an otherwise successful build and it will certainly be noticed in any story or narrative that derives from the world in question. Those who experience the content will see a definite shift in detail and focus when suddenly, the topic of discussion becomes more intensely intricate or detailed.
Readers will notice when the descriptions for the landscapes and features become generic and boring, and when they become detailed and enthralling. They will notice when an in depth, well crafted magical system clashes with a haphazard and unbelievable set of governments or the laws they enforce. They will notice detailed culture designs giving way to impossible strategic choices and blunders, all because we focused so much on one aspect of the world build, that we did not bother to properly ground the others and give them sturdy branches.
We as creators all have our own personal interests, but when a world build is being done, it should not be an obvious carbon copy of the creator’s personal interests. While the focus and the goals of the build should reflect that seed statement and draw from the inspiration whenever possible, creators must take responsibility for their creations enough to provide them with the coherence and stability required to prop up the areas they are most interested in. Even a topic one might not wish to explore in great depth needs some level of thought and contemplation when doing World Centric building.
While not every aspect of a World Centric build needs to be equally fleshed out, creators need to take care when doing World Centric building to ensure a comparable amount of respect goes to the different faces of the build.
While not every aspect of a World Centric build needs to be equally fleshed out, creators need to take care when doing World Centric building to ensure a comparable amount of respect goes to the different facets of the build.
Even if magic or politics are the focus of your build, the rest should not feel like it was taped on after the fact,effectively being drawn in a completely different style. While a creator does not have an answer to everything all at once, it should feel like the answers they do create, have equal weight to those that they may have already created.
The truth is that any world build, when going long enough, will start to resemble a World Centric build. The longer one explores a world, and dares to venture outside a particular conflict or set of characters, the closer one comes to World Centric building from wherever it was they came. As a result, World Centric building can be viewed as a sort of living end state for most world builds.
I feel that the most major of my worlds and in particular, the world for my Star of Ashor Novel have long since moved past some of the character or conflict centered ideas that started them. There is no definite line as to where one technique starts and where one ends and we just end up with world building as a nebulous catch all at that point.
My hope is that through reading about some of the ways we can start world building, that you have been able to understand how you can start in creating worlds around your favorite original characters, or interesting conflicts you have envisioned. Hopefully with the knowledge from prior articles and this article too, you have become better armed to tackle world building itself.
With the conclusion of the world building basics series, we will be exploring more topics in the future, but do not fret. World building workshops, and important topics will be detailed in upcoming series. Look forward to the next world building series on what I call Master Concepts in World Building. When we explore master concepts we will move beyond general world building to the art of creating more specialized categories of ideas within our worlds.
Among other things, we will explore the idea of creating spiritual systems for fictional worlds to ground themselves with, or the art of trying to craft in-depth nation states and therefore, capture more believable political intrigue in our worlds. We will explore how to create unique and varied cultures that give credibility to our stories and how existing works of fiction and even human history, can provide help in this regard. I intend these future articles to contain a mix of both theory and example to help other creators find their grounding within these potentially challenging aspects of world building.
For more world building goodness however, you will have to wait, since our next series, Character Building and design, will be a departure from the creation of entire worlds and instead, focus on the creation of the varied and interesting people that a creator should be populating their world with. Whether you have a partly developed original character you want to include in your creations someday, or you have only the vaguest hint of a prototype in mind, we will explore the process of taking your character from concept to creation.
Take care reader and happy world building! I look forward to seeing you again soon.