World Building: The Art of Creating Fictional worlds

Today I wanted to start a new series of articles about a topic that I really like to think and talk about. It is a topic that, in my opinion, strongly influences how immersive a work of fiction can be. It changes how people feel about any work, whether it is a game, a novel, a comic, short form content or other fiction. That topic is world building.

A well built world can draw in a reader or player in a way that gives longevity and impact to an otherwise standard plot or setting. A world that is carefully crafted by its creators can become not only an interesting place for a story to be told, but a foundation upon which entire series of works can be built and is one that can hook fans in a way that lesser narratives cannot.

World building is about a mix of setting and plot, and a good world build influences both. World building helps ground our settings and our stories by providing a context for them. It enhances the motivations of the characters we read about while also allowing them the room to show weakness and to grow. When a well built world is taken into the creative process, it helps the stories and characters within it to be more cohesive, believable and interesting.

Any work can benefit from a good world build, whether it utilizes each detail or not. Even the things left unsaid through narration shape the way the writer approaches the nuance of setting and interaction, providing grounding and invaluable detail.

World building provides a strong basis especially in situations where a writer is working with a team, such as a comic artist or in video game development. The better fleshed out the world is, the better equipped artists and other team members will be to realize a shared creative vision. At the same time, this cohesive vision will enhance the experience of those on the receiving end as well.

Today I will introduce three basic strategies of world building as I see them. Each of them has a different goal and aims to serve a different need. While each of them starts quite differently, there will eventually be quite a bit of overlap. Indeed, if one world builds long enough, it may be hard to distinguish which method was originally chosen to begin the build.

World Building Techniques

Character Centered

“I want to flesh out the world in which my character and their friends live…”

The Character Centered world build is one that I aim to offer to people who have a strong character or cast of characters already in mind. Perhaps you have a protagonist that you just need a setting for or maybe you have a villain who needs a world befitting their masterful intellect. No matter what character cast you have in mind already, the Character Centered approach allows you to craft a world with your cast in mind from the start.

This bottom up approach aims to help you find a place for your cast in a world while at the same time helping ensure your characters retain the sort of consistency that can help make them excellent. Those with existing characters who are well fleshed out benefit most from this approach while those who don’t might be better suited with a different one.

The world for Star of Ashor, my own novel, has its genesis in this technique. It was not something I did on purpose at the time, and it had no name of course. It all started with the original sole protagonist, Tony Karo. Characters I added to the lineup helped me flesh out the world more, each one requiring something new and different to become part of the story and eventually, it became what it is now.

Conflict Centered

“I want to have a world in which an epic struggle between good and evil is raging…”

The Conflict Centered approach, rather than focusing on a cast of existing characters, focuses more so on major conflicts. The goal of the Conflict Centered build is to inject a world with sets of major conflicts around which the desired type of plot can be written or created.

A Conflict Centered build is one in which the writer does not insert characters, but essentially picks characters out of the conflict setting that is being created. While the Character Centered approach is building the world to the needs of a cast, the Conflict Centered approach does not make many concessions to character. Instead, it encourages writers to organically choose characters within the setting.

I see conflict centered builds quite a lot in interactive mediums like video games, where the writers want to tell a story surrounding a particular conflict and the choice of protagonist is somewhat secondary to that. That is not to say that I think all interactive mediums use this method, but conflict centered builds, with less emphasis on specific characters, often tend to allow for a more open ended choice of protagonists or villians. This is something one would want to consider heavily in a medium where the one experiencing it is expecting more choice than is generally offered by traditional storytelling formats.

World Centric

“Thousands of years of epic history from various races make up my fantasy world…”

World Centric building is the most high level approach of them all. It starts at a huge, macro level and gets more granular with time. This sort of approach is the kind in which you will often find yourself looking at various world shaping events, much like you might in conflict centered building. However, unlike conflict centered building, you tend to use such events as a way to “build the history” rather than for the purpose of telling a specific story at that time.

World Centric building is the kind of technique that I feel tends to create those long running epics that span several books. Writers like the late J.R.R. Tolkein are some of the greatest pioneers of this sort of art form with the in-depth world histories that surrounded classic high fantasy worlds like Middle Earth.

A world build with this sort of development would be a shame to use once and throw away. To build such rich histories, the conflicts and stories that shaped it naturally lend themselves to storytelling. With languages, cultures, races and heroes throughout their long histories, World Centric builds are a class of their own. They seem daunting at first but the good news is that one does not always have to start with a world centric build. Because of the way they are, these sorts of builds can blossom naturally from either conflict or character centered builds.

I personally feel like any good build has aspects of world centric building in it, even if it is limited in scope.

Questions are the key

World building requires creativity and passion, but can feel impossible at times when one wonders, “What’s next?”

Answering this question is simple and for any world build, questions can be key to moving forward. Always asking questions about your world is the best way to keep it growing and the best way to advance it. Question everything about your world, question whether it fits, question whether it affects characters, question why it happens or what caused it.

No Silver Bullet

It is also important to remember that just because one spent some time world building, it does not garuntee anything about the story reliant on that world. Effective employment of world building is a skill in and of itself as well, rooted in the concept of consistency.

In the next few articles, we will go over each of the above techniques in more detail. We will talk about how to ask questions to generate the consistency we are looking for, and then apply it to the technique we are using. Stay tuned for the next article in the series, focused on the Character Centered world build approach: The Champion

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