M. A. Knights
Making up worlds for our stories can be one of the most rewarding parts of the writing process. Despite this many find it hard or intimidating. I have been writing in one form or another for almost fifteen years, and during that time I have created a whole lot of worlds. I wanted to share with you some of the things I think about when building a world from scratch.
Now, as with everything in the wonderful world of writing, what works for one person may not work for another. I’m presenting here the tips and tricks that I have found work best for me. They might not work for you. That's fine! Everyone has to find their own methods, but hopefully, anyone will be able to take my tips and learn from them, adapting them to what works best for their own writing style. Below are a few of the topics I discuss in more detail over on my own blog M.A.Knights life in letters, but I share enough here to hopefully get you thinking!
So let's kick things off with our first topic: World Aesthetics.
You might be surprised to learn that aesthetics is one of the very first things I think about when I'm creating a new world. Let me explain why. Let's take Dracula by Bram Stoker as an example. We all have immediate pictures in our head when we think of this book. Creepy castle. Dark foreboding skies. Vivid red blood. Pale skin. Cold, stone rooms. Thick accents, a dark misty London etc...
Well, that didn't happen by accident. Imagine if Mr Stoker had set his Gothic horror in a new-build council estate just off the M25 (that's a motorway that circle's London, for those who don't study the fascinating subject of British highways and byways!).
It wouldn't have quite the same Gothic feel, would it? A red-brick two-bed with an attached garage and lawns to front and rear just doesn't seem quite as menacing as Castle Dracula.
So for this reason, when I start to create a world for a story, I think about what feel I want the story to have? How do I want people to feel reading it? Every choice you make can affect this, from the colour of the sky to the types of animals and plants you include.
So what’s next?
It might not be immediately obvious, but the climate of your chosen story world can have far-reaching consequences, from what your characters wear and eat, to which animal species are present.
Hold on just a minute, I hear you cry. This is make-believe, not real life. Why does it matter? You might even be thinking your story has magic involved or advanced technology, so you can make anything happen you want.
Well, those things are true, but in my experience, even a fantastical world needs to be built on a foundation of truth to be grounded and believable. For example, let's say your story takes place in the Beaver kingdom of Logbrooke Dale. Your race of heroic, fast-thinking beavers is facing an epic war for resources with the creatures from the next valley over.
Now, what would be a cool creature for beavers to fight? How about lions! That would be epic! Well, you're right, that would make for some interesting visuals to be sure.
But hang on a minute. Lions come from vastly different habitats to beavers. So one of your species is going to be a fish out of water in the environment you choose. With a name like Logbrooke Dale, your readers are hardly going to be expecting a herd of gazelle to come sweeping over the next hill. So unless you write it into your backstory that these lions are nomads, forced from their homeland, people are going to spend the whole time they're reading your story wondering what on earth lions and beavers are doing living next to each other in the first place! So given all that, perhaps wolves would suit better?
What I'm trying to get at here is that the climate and weather featured in your story must be consistent with everything else. That's not to say that you can't have lions living in a Beaver infested valley, but if you do, you need to give your readers a good reason for it. So unless you want to explain away every tree and shrub you've placed, it's often far easier to stick to things that would be naturally found in the environment you've chosen.
Let's look at a famous example. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sets his middle earth predominantly in a climate he knew; that of Britain, just dialed up to eleven. Consequently the weather he depicts during the book matches that climate. As does the landscape. And although many of the species he depicts are fantastical, they are based on the myths and legends of appropriate countries. If he had included a Kappa (from Japanese myths) it wouldn’t have fit at all!
So we have our aesthetic and our climate. What’s next?
Technology is all around us. It impacts even the seemingly most mundane parts of our everyday lives. If you're a fan of studying history at all, you will know that when you look back a hundred, three hundred, five hundred years ago, it can be like looking at another species altogether. Like life on another planet. But when you start to look closer, you realise that these seemingly alien people are actually no different to us at all. They still have to earn a living, put food on the table, keep themselves and their houses clean, raise their kids. Their lives only seem so different to ours because of the technology available to them to do these things.
Go back just eighty years, to 1940. In 1940 in the UK - and I’m sure in many other parts of the world too - women spent most of their time at home doing cooking, cleaning and laundry (sorry girls). Now, that has a lot to do with gender politics, and thank god we’ve come some way in the intervening years, but it was also about the sheer amount of time these tasks took to complete with the technology available. Can you imagine cooking without an electric oven? Washing clothes without a washing machine or tumble dryer? Cleaning up without a hoover? They didn’t even have access to today's plethora of cleaning chemicals. Whilst there may still be many women around the world facing similar problems (which is a whole different topic) the way these tasks are accomplished today would be practically unrecognisable to the people of the 1940s. Now go back three hundred and eighty years and imagine how different that would have been!
My point is this: Technology will affect even the most basic parts of your characters’ lives. Even the secondary and tertiary ones. If your story features a 1940s housewife, well she probably won’t be knocking out her chores in half an hour then going for a picnic on the spur of the moment. If your setting is medieval, then free time would have been almost unheard of during the day. This is just one of the reasons why getting the technology right in your world can make so much difference.
With just these three topics you can create a unique and interesting world for any story. But if you take away just one piece of advice from all my waffle then let it be this; Always refer back to how each decision will serve your story. Don't make life hard for yourself. You’re creating this world, that means it should work for you. If you're struggling with a particular aspect, take a step back and think about why. It’s ok if it’s not working. Try something different.
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