The prior entry in the world building series focused on a Character centered world build, involving the character Phlyn and his creation. We walked through the process of using a character as the nexus from which we began to build our world.
Today, we are going to try the second world building technique outlined in the introductory world building article; Conflict Centered World Building.
As I mentioned in the introduction, a Conflict centered world build focuses not on a specific character, but on a desired conflict.
Because of this, Conflict centered building is a good choice for those who have a desired plot in mind, but perhaps do not have any strong character designs chosen as of yet.
While I feel this world building approach works great for any medium, I feel that writers for a game world or other interactive medium in particular, can benefit greatly from employing this approach, since they often let a player decide some important aspect about the protagonists.
If you can’t remember the breakdown on the different types of builds or why I think they work best for a particular type of situation, go ahead and visit the introductory article here.
Let’s get to work.
To make a conflict centered build work, the conflict generally needs to be pretty large in scale. A small scale conflict like an interpersonal argument is one I would consider small enough that it does not quite shape the world in the way a large one would, but that is not a hard rule.
For example, what if two world creating gods got in an argument?
Regardless, I think a setting that can be applicable to many stories and mediums would be a war conflict. A war is something which satisfies some of our desires for making a good world build; It is large in scale. It affects a large population in the world. It is a fertile ground for conflict.
It is important to note that through creativity and thinking, one can expand the results of a simple interpersonal argument or what seems to be a minor dispute. Indeed the catalyst for many history changing events on earth have been arguments or bouts of interpersonal jealousy. However, when starting, start big.
When going forward with world building, a conflict centered build should start with the largest, most broadly impactful conflict.
When going forward with world building, a conflict centered build should start with the largest, most broadly impactful conflict. This means that a war, some kind of political turmoil, perhaps some sort of cultural conflict, are better places to start building, even if you have a simpler motivation in mind for having started the conflict.
With that said, I think a war is a simple concept to start with, and it involves lots of options for things we like to see heroes do, things like, be heroic, or lose and have to grow. It also gives a chance to clearly define some antagonists.
While not every story should rely on open warfare to world build, it is one of the larger conflicts that can shape the world in which we, or in this case, characters of our creation may live.
Since I have established a war as my conflict for the article, I would like to give a bit of context to the war I envision for this one. Our last article was more of a steampunk style world.
For the sake of variety and reaching varied creative talent and plot goals though, I am going to say that the conflict we explore today will be a mid 1900s style conflict with a technology level of the involved factions similar to Earth in the early-mid 1940s.
Now that we have established our conflict type, we can really start to build.
First and foremost with a conflict centered build is deciding who the players in that conflict are. Then, once that is done, one needs to assign motivations to the involved factions.
Both of these steps are critical to a conflict centered world build as they produce the kinds of questions and answers we need to make this conflict feel like it is rooted in the world in which it is taking place. Remember the introduction article; questions are key to making a world build work.
For factions, I think they will be national coalitions because that makes for a good “world war” style conflict.
For names, I will call one the Northern Alliance, and the other will be called the Trans Tyratic Pact, perhaps named after an oceanic region around or in which the nations that make up the pact are located.
As an aside:
Remember as with any world building, improvising and making up some things on the spot are required. You can always refine your build later.
In this case, if you did not like the initial names, nothing is stopping you from making up new ones afterward.
Now that we have decided on the two major factions involved, we can assign some motivations to both. Since I feel like these national coalitions will have multiple member states, we could dive into the individual members and their motivations, but lets hold that thought for now and stay at a high level.
Let’s use some improvisation and creativity here. Think about some reason for which nations or coalitions go to war, think about what they would want to gain, what they have to lose. When I did that, I came up with this:
The Northern Alliance is moving to claim an island chain on the edge of the Tyratic Sea because there is a valuable new fuel source, more powerful than existing combustive fuels like coal or gas.
It was discovered only on the island chain and exists nowhere else. It provides abundant energy, is portable and is reasonably safe to transport. In short, it is a miracle fuel. I will call the fuel Miraculum, aptly named after its properties.
The Trans Tyratic Pact was formed quickly after the discovery of the resource, a coalition aiming to protect it from being taken by other powers. Conflict ignited when the Northern Alliance Navy mounted its first offensive against the Pact’s fleet in the Tyratic sea. In order to claim the largest known deposit.
Expanding the conflict
We have our major factions in the conflict and the reasons they began fighting. Now we have some fertile ground from which we can launch the next phase of our build.
Like our Character centered build, we now have to start asking some questions and implying world details with what we already have chosen. Firstly, let’s decide on what the major tools of this conflict are, since it is a war.
We already went through technology very lightly by deciding a sort of “equivalent era” to earth history so lets understand what that means. I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say that world war two added a number of things to armed conflict.
Tank combat doctrines, the proliferation of semi automatic and automatic infantry weapons, aircraft utilization in more serious roles, (truly useful) submarines & (effective) torpedoes, aircraft carriers and fast warships and of course, even nuclear arms, are all things that came out of world war two on earth. That is not everything of course, but it helps us understand the players a bit better.
Unlike earth in world war two however, we have a special fuel source that works better than gasoline. As a result, I am going to enhance our build by saying that vehicles powered by the special fuel have better range and speed, essentially needing less logistical support.
It also allows some more ridiculous designs to take hold since fuel isn’t such a problem anymore. Therefore, large tanks, warships which are a little unrealistic in size or even submarines which can stay underwater for quite a lot longer than submarines of the same era on earth, are all in play. Depending on how fantastical or exotic one wants to be, massive airships might be possible, or perhaps even mechanical combat suits.
Of course, these special tools are all contingent on the all important resource.
Now that we have fleshed out the style and setting of our conflict, When we are doing a world build, we want to home in on potential places to start a storyline of some kind.
Let’s explore the process of doing so here in context of a conflict centered build and see how, by hunting for plot opportunities, we can enhance our build, even if we do not take a story in that particular place or time.
The best stories really center around people, there is no getting around that. As a result, we are going to want to find ways to zoom in from the macro level, to the individual, amidst our conflict.
In a war, there are so many dramatic things that may happen. Some are particular battles or politics. Some are back home, with the family of someone who is currently away fighting. Maybe an attack by one side or the other brings collateral damage onto a local population.
As you can see, by thinking about what the conflict causes to occur in the world, we start tracing a path toward how it affects the people who live in it. This is the true core of a conflict centered build; How does this conflict affect the people in this world and how do they react?
How does this conflict affect the people in this world and how do they react?
Remember though, at this stage, we don’t want to dive right into selecting characters and a plot, we want to explore and expand first. The point of conflict centered building is not to dive down immediately to a hero or a villain, but instead, shape a conflict in which those roles naturally appear. I call this process ‘Plot Hunting’
As we saw earlier, we have a number of hunting opportunities. One of course is the outset of the war, how it started. That initial battle is a key point where some stories begin, so lets expand on that a bit and see where it takes us.
Let’s use one of our plot hunts, expound on it to get questions and answers. The war started when the Northern Alliance attacked with its navy. What did they attack? How did it go? Time for more improvising.
The island chain which holds the Miraculum is unaffiliated with either faction, or was, at least at first. The attack from the Northern Alliance was focused on the Tyratic Fleet that had taken up harbor on the capitol of this independent island nation.
Unfortunately, due to the way the Tyratic Army had deployed itself around the port, the Alliance warships opened fire on the surrounding area, destroying part of the town. This left some of the locals dead and some wounded or homeless.
It also galvanized some of the locals in support of the Tyratic cause. Ultimately though, the Tyratic Fleet there was penned in and while the Northern Alliance could not take the harbor and immediate area, they were able to reduce the enemy forces enough to land their own armies on the island.
With support from land based artillery and airfields, Alliance forces were able to push beyond the Tyratic held harbor and began driving up the islands anyway.
A particularly deft Alliance commander laid a trap for the remaining Tyratic Fleet in the harbor, luring them to try and escape, but, with the help of his army assets and naval might, destroyed them as they fled.
This little story snippet tells us something about the world. Firstly, that there are some non aligned civilians in this world, in fact, that the entire conflict might be fought in a country neither side has any actual claim to. Remember, this was not an intended outcome, it just arose naturally from the improvisation.
Secondly, it conjures in my eyes the sorts of mentalities that both sides might have. While one might say the Tyratic are the good guys, they occupied this city first.
Some might blame them for the Alliance attack at all, since if they had not been there, the bombing or bombardments may never have occurred.
Asking the hard questions
Now that we have more to work with, we expand again, with questions.
One of my first questions is how were the lives of the people in the city attacked by the Alliance, occupied by the Tyratic forces, affected by the fighting?
Food and shelter are in much shorter supply, as is medical care. Given that the Tyratic forces left and it would take time for Alliance forces to capture the city, there was likely a period of lawlessness and conflict within the local population as well.
A second question follows: What was life like before then? How did it change?
To me this helps immensely in fleshing out the world. I wanted to answer this question because this city feels like a flash point for the entire conflict. Here is what I decided in answering the question:
The people here likely had a relatively strong economy before, given their proximity to the special newly discovered fuel. I would imagine it was a time of growth and prosperity for them.
Things like cars and larger homes were probably getting more common. For some reason, a tropical Hawaiian style island comes to mind for that setting as well, and makes me feel like the island chain in which the conflict takes place is probably a pretty big archipelago.
Now lets take a step back and examine what we have.
As you can see, we have yet to select a protagonist but by plot hunting, we can discern some details about the world anyway. This is almost the polar opposite of how our Character Centered approach worked.
When asking and answering questions in your conflict centered build, or Plot Hunting, it is important to remember why you are doing it. The goal is to give you insight into how a particular “sub story” affects the people in conflict, which in turn shapes the conflict, and thus, the world itself.
Setting a timeline
With a conflict centered build it is important to understand a timeline of events. More so than starting based on a character, the conflict centered build really relies on events shaping each other. One of the important timelining steps should be the decision of “How far along is the conflict when we swoop into it?”
Unlike a character centered build, a conflict centered build is one in which I feel that the characters and story, once chosen, should have an effect on the eventual outcome of the conflict.
It is possible to set a story in the aftermath of a war for example, but I think that falls more into the line of “world centric” building rather than conflict centered building. When you want to go with a conflict centered build, your conflict should also be the focal point of a story too.
In a conflict centered world build, your plot should allow for you to shape the outcome of the conflict around which it centers.
If the conflict is a historic event or something of that nature, I would say you are actually doing a “world centric” build instead. I will talk more about world centric builds in the next article of the series, but for now, understand that in a conflict centered world build, your plot should allow for you to shape the outcome of the conflict around which it centers.
Because I want a potential plot in this world to shape the final outcome, I am going to say that “I swoop in” and start the story when the conflict is at its peak, eventually allowing my characters to finalize the eventual outcome, or “seal the deal” as it were.
Filling out the detail
Much like character centered builds, we want to keep asking questions, but keep asking them about events and ‘plot hunts’ that you do.
Focus your questions and answers on how each series of events shapes the world and its people. You want your questions to ensure that you have a strong grasp of the conflict’s place in the world. You want your questions to highlight the effects of the conflict on people, places and culture.
Only once you start feeling reasonably confident in that knowledge, can you start exploring the events you have thought about and searching for characters and plot.
In a conflict centered build, the characters you pick up from world events are natural parts of the story already.
In a conflict centered build, the characters you pick up from world events are natural parts of the story already. They make sense from the get go because they have already been “involved” in something, or at least, will be involved in it. This makes selecting characters less prone to being at odds with the world they are living in. (Something I discussed in more depth in the article about Character Centered Builds)
Of course, once you select a character, you still need to follow through and make that character interesting. A conflict centered build does not grant your character some automatic pass on actual development, but it certainly helps to provide a foundation.
By using conflict centered building, you can create a world that naturally encourages exploration and importantly, allows the protagonist to shape the world and the conflict.
This makes conflict centered builds a wonderful choice for interactive mediums where a prototype character might be waiting for a player or reader to insert themselves. It also works great with a traditional author driven narrative and caste as well.
Conflict Centered builds are a great way to provide a believable, relate-able setting, with an in built plot and ready to act character casts, as a result, they should be on every world builder’s radar when considering a new creation.
I mentioned character building at the end of this article. Since world building techniques like Conflict Centered World Building and World Centric building (upcoming soon!) do not have pre-made characters on which to work, it is important to understand how to choose, flesh out and enhance character ideas within these frameworks in particular.
If you are curious about character building and development, Have no fear, I will soon be doing a Character Development Series as well.
For the next article in the world building series however, we will explore “World Centric” building and I will show you how I feel it works, and how the techniques we have already learned in both this, and the character based building article are important to understand if one wants to set out on such a grandiose adventure.