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A Worldbuilder's Toolbox

What skills do you need as a worldbuilder?

Like I said last time, worldbuilding is one of my favourite pass times. I find it so much fun, though obviously it’s not for everyone. A lot of people talk about asking questions and that’s always a good place to start. But what do you ask questions about? What makes up a culture?

In my last article I mentioned some of the fundamentals, politics, religion, history, borders. All of these things matter to a world and will instruct a lot of how it develops. But you don’t need to know a great deal about these things to build a world and you don’t need to build a whole world.

When I was a kid growing up in Ireland, I heard a lot of stories about the Banshee, Leprechaun and other ancient Irish mythological creatures; the books we were taught were also filled with ancient Irish and Greek mythology, so I was getting a good foundation in classic worldbuilding elements. From the story of Hades and Persephone I learned believability. That you can get away with any element in a story as long as you build a world that lends itself to that.

As I grew up, my mum, who was very respectful of other religions, told stories of the Holocaust, of her Muslim friends back in England, and moving to London where she lived among a lot of different people. It was rare for a woman in the 60’s to do something like that and she used her stories to expose me to more cultures and religions beyond my rural Irish upbringing.

All of these experiences helped develop a strong sense of how different cultures, different ‘worlds’ if you will, interacted naturally and from there, coupled with a new love of Ancient Egypt – thanks Stargate – my love for building worlds of my own began, manifesting in my first short stories.

When I sit down to build or grow a world, these ideas will surface and, because my subconscious mind is much smarter than me, they'll pull a few things up with them and suddenly it looks like a fleshed out world.

I believe, when it comes to worldbuilding, that there are two things that are important above everything else, they are:

  1. People. Believable characters who feel like they help craft the world they are in and are shaped by it.

  2. Believability.

Let’s look at the Netflix movie Bright. I really enjoyed that movie. There were elements about it that completely sold the world to me. But there were also elements that kept making me pause to think. Like how the Orcs have their own version of ‘Black Lives Matter’, but there are still black gangs, which came about because of black oppression. So, did the Orcs take the place of oppressed people, or are both Orcs and black people oppressed in this world? In a world were we’re not just talking about ethnic differences, but actual differences of species, why do people care about skin colour? That element broke Bright’s believability for me.

Bright is an alternative history world, where a single change has altered the course of history, but this isn’t a single change. These beings didn’t just appear one day, they were always there yet, somehow, we still have recognisable historical events?

This is why the elements above, history, politics, etc, are so important in world building. You do need a basic understanding of how things can be changed by any one element being slightly different and how all of these things being totally different, like it probably will be on an alien world, will completely change the shape of your world.

All of the elements above help me to fill out that shape and I learned them just from reading mythology and having an interest in them, even though it's a casual interest; more like picking flowers in a field than planting a garden.

I'm not a historian, or an anthropologist, or a philosopher and I doubt anyone would think I was any of these things. To me, world building isn't about the minutia of a world. I would consider J.R.R. Tolkien, a world builder who occasionally wrote a story. That's not to diminish what he wrote, but Tolkien's world is about minutia and it's easy to get bogged down in the details. To my mind, a story should be a moving, flowing thing. There are readers for all writers. But, for me, I found it hard to stay engaged in his world for any length of time. I can usually read a 500 page book in a day, but it took me 5 months to read The Lord of the Rings.

My point is, to build a world you don’t need the minutia. You need broad strokes, impressions of a few elements, the ones that are the most important to the world you’re creating. For example, In my book, The Prisoner's Deception, Danithor’s world is barren, his people very poor. The world runs on politics, poverty and religion, with a background of slavery and oppression, so those are the elements I built. I ignored everything else, even the neighbours of the native Huan, because they didn’t matter. They have a negligible effect of the Huan and their home world.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the detail. Writers have a tendency to creatively procrastinate and worldbuilding can be one of those methods, but you can build a world that feels like it has depth and breath just as easily with light touches.

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