If you follow this blog and you are planning to write a novel in November, you now have the first three key elements you will need to begin:
- Plot: Devising a Plot in 8 Questions
- Outline: The Outline for Pantsers
- Characters: Prepping your Characters
Worlds evolve as we write the first draft, but it helps to have a solid idea of where we are setting the story at the outset.
What follows is a plan to help you lay the groundwork for the world in which your novel is set.
Picture the opening scene.
Open a new document and give it a title, such as your_book_title_worldbuilding.docx
Simple and clear labels make a good file names. You want one that clearly says “this is world building” for whatever you have titled your novel, and if you put it in the same folder as your manuscript, you will be able to easily find it.
Here is a short list of questions to help you begin the process:
- What is the name of the world in which the story opens? What is the name of the town/village where the protagonists are living? Place names can give the reader an idea of the sort of town or village it is set in.
- Does it take place on earth in a real place? If so, do the research and use Google Earth and Google maps.
- On earth in an alternate time/place? Make that clear at the outset
- Is it set on some other world entirely? The best way to make the fantasy world real is to visualize the scene clearly. Blend the real world into it and write out all the details that will never make it into your story.
- Where is the protagonist, indoors or out? Is it a gentle or a hostile environment? Does the environment work for or against him/her?
- If the setting is indoors, is it home, an office, a shop, a smithy…etc. etc. How does the protagonist fit into this place? Are they visiting, or do they live/work there? List the furniture and other objects that the characters interact with and know where it’s placed.
- Looking through their eyes, what emotions do they feel about the world around them? THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO GO INTO THE NARRATIVE, as this is backstory for you. It will evolve into the story organically as you write.
Now we get to the tactile parts of the setting:
- How does the air feel, and what scents and odors are common to that place? The smells, the sounds, the way certain doors creak are all good things to know.
- What is the quality of the lighting both indoors and out? Is it dark, bright, subdued, glaring, etc.?
- If they are out of doors, what is the weather like? Weather is crucial and impacts your characters’ ability to easily go places.
On this world-building document, write every single detail the characters see and feel, from the largest down to the insects. Keep adding to it whenever you think of something new. The act of designing this scenery builds the world in your mind. For my own work, I stick with the familiar, with some unfamiliar creatures thrown in for fun. Use all the power words you can think of to build that world.
As you write the first draft of your novel, the world you are creating will grow and evolve. I highly recommend two things:
- Draw a quick, simple map, such as the sample map to the right, if your characters are traveling in a fantasy world—it doesn’t have to be fancy. This way your place names and directions won’t inadvertently shift as the book progresses.
- Make a list of character names and place names, and any words that are unique to your world and your story. This will be your reference manual for this novel and will keep the spelling from evolving as you get further into the story.
A world is more than the environment. You should have an idea of how your society works, to ensure your characters are firmly in your mind at the outset:
- How is your society divided? Who has wealth?
- Who has the power? Men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect? Is one race more entitled than another?
- What place does religion have in this society? Is it central to the governance of the society, or is it a peripheral, perhaps nonexistent thing?
- What passes for morality? Is sex before marriage taboo? What constitutes murder, and how is it viewed? You only need to worry about the moral dilemmas that come into your story.
- If a character goes against society’s unwritten or moral laws, what are the consequences?
This is atmosphere. This is knowledge the characters have, but the reader does not. The way you convey this is to show how these larger societal influences affect your character and his/her ability to resolve their situation.
Fantasy worlds often involve magic. If magic is central to your story, it is essential that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works.
Unlimited power is completely unbelievable. If magic is part of your story, rules and limitations create the tension that moves the plot forward.
- Who has the magic, and what social power does this give them?
- What are the limitations of his/her powers? How does this hamper them?
Each time you make limits and frameworks for your magic, you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Conflict is what drives the plot. There can be an occasional exception to the rules, but there has to be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that sole exception is acceptable.
Spending an evening working these details out before you sit down to write will make your work go faster. Many things will change as you go along, and better ideas emerge, but having the jumping off point will get you out of the gate with confidence.