Please join me in welcoming guest blogger Julia J Simpson to The Educated Writer!
The term "world building" conjures up vibrant fictional worlds like Westeros and Middle Earth, but world building is important whether your story takes place in a fantasy kingdom, far-future earth, outer space, or a fictional town in Idaho. *RECORD SCRATCH* Hold on—Idaho? You thought world building was about creating a whole world from scratch? In the traditional sense, yes, but a world doesn't have to be a whole planet. It's just the sphere within which your story occurs. If that's a fictional town in the real world, you still have to build that part of the world from scratch, so a lot of world building basics still apply. Here's how I tackle world building in my own stories.
Step One: Create a list of locations that are relevant to your story. Most of these locations are where scenes take place, but some may only have referential importance or serve as a "pass-through" location. For this step, it helps to have a scene list to build from. Be sure to include sub-locations in your list, too. For example, if your story takes place across several kingdoms, a kingdom itself would be a location, but any villages and specific locations (a tavern, a cottage, a forest) that are important also need to be included. Regardless of the size and type of world you're creating, now is a good time to sketch out a rough map and layouts of important scene locations. Knowing where your story's locations are in relation to everything else will help clarify the big picture in your head. You don't have to be good at drawing or create anything fancy, but if you need some tips and tutorials, check out Jonathan Roberts' Fantastic Maps website.
Step Two: Focus on fleshing out the physical parts of the world such as the geography, climate, flora, and fauna. Consider the needs of your story. Is there a scene where your characters are stranded in a snowy mountain pass? You'll need to put a mountain range somewhere, but don't just drop it anywhere on the map. Think about where it needs to be in relation to what comes before and after that scene. What type of climate and weather is required by the story? Is there a significant scene that requires rain or snow? What kind of plants and animals should a particular location have? If your character needs to encounter a six-eyed tiger beast, think about where that animal's habitat would be. Don't be afraid to use real places as inspiration for your fictional world, and that's true regardless of the types of locations you're creating. You could model a space station after a particular city or neighborhood, even if you're only modeling the general look, feel, and people. You could also model a medieval fantasy village after a real medieval location. Try to think outside the box!
Step Three: Populate your story's world. Who lives in these locations? Now is the time to think about societies and cultures. Look to your characters for guidance. If one of your characters is descended from forest-dwelling faeries who worship a unicorn god, you'll need to figure out where these creatures dwell. Who are they and what are they like? When you're fleshing out groups who populate a particular place, you'll also want to think about things like government, justice system, healthcare, economy, religion, architecture, clothing, cultural practices, food and drink, etc. I love Chris Winkle's post over at the Mythcreants blog, where he discusses Creating Realistic Cultures.
By now, your story's world should be pretty well defined. You should have a good idea of the important locations of your story, what these places look like, who and what lives in them, and what daily life in these places is like. This brings me to step four, which is my favorite part: naming everything! Location names are typically a combination of relevant terms. "Johnson's Cove" is a personal name plus a geographical term. "Slipaway Bay" is a functional term plus a geographical term. "Walnut Grove" is a referential term plus a geographical term. "Green Gables" is referential and architectural. You can find lists of helpful terms online or in books like the Random House Word Menu and The Describer's Dictionary. You can also look to real life places for inspiration. Try modifying the name of an existing place. "The Rocky Mountains" could become "The Craggy Mountains." "Downton Abbey" could become "Upton Palace." For more help with naming things, try place name generators. Make a list of the suggestions you like best and put your own twist on them. When I need a little name inspiration, my favorite generator page is Fantasy Name Generators.
Whether you're creating a whole solar system or a fictional mountain village, world building can be one of the most fun and fulfilling parts of planning your story. It may seem daunting at first, but if you just try to have fun with it and let your story be your guide, you'll find your story's world will practically create itself. Good luck!