Vision: A Resource for Writers
many writers, an organized worldbuilding checklist like Patricia
Wrede's website is a godsend. Fantasy, SF and horror have special
worldbuilding needs, but even in contemporary settings, working out all those
details can help immerse a reader in the setting.
sometimes checklists can lead to excessive preparation instead of getting down
to writing the story or novel. Less can be more, even in speculative fiction; in
an SF story, the plot-relevant rules of robotics might be much more important
than women's fashion unless your robot character is a shoe salesman. A few
well-placed details, lightly sketched, can create a vivid impression--if they're
the right ones for the story.
worldbuilding is letting your world accrete gradually around the events and
characters in your fiction, keeping every new element in harmony with what's
been established. That robot shoe salesman might be funny enough to kick off a
second story, where he gets a chance at his dream of piloting a spaceship.
shared worlds, fan fiction and long-running series writers are already familiar
with continuity bibles. Growing piles of worldbuilding notes may have started
with a simple sketch, but proliferated like that spider plant your ex-roommate
gave you fourteen years ago on moving out. Organization is essential. Whether
you keep your notes electronically or on paper, make sure all of them stay in
the same place and that you understand how to find what you need, fast.
personal method of organizing backstory notes is to create a line per scene
synopsis on everything that's rough, in a .txt file. I use
general notes, I make project folders like Nomads or Piarra for setting, nesting
separate folders for novels or stories. General setting notes may get copied
into both the setting folder and the novel folder. I use file names like
NomadReligion.txt for a long note on religions in my Nomad universe, or
PiarranCycleV02.txt for an often-referenced list of Houses in my Piarra
universe. That makes them easily found, even if I misfile them. Character bios,
timeline charts, any worldbuilding notes all become separate files with
descriptive names. When I need to know what I did in the last book, I look in
the last book's notes. I'm not afraid to copy the same file five times into
different folders to make it easier to use with each project.
in the old days when my office wasn't paperless, I used one or several ring
binders per setting and tab dividers within the
binders. My hole punch got plenty of use, but that kept my assorted notes from
winding up filed with last year's utility bills, grocery circulars and long
letters from pen-pals. Some people use file cabinets. While they fill fast,
staying organized will help you win trivia contests on your setting even when
it's too large to handle.
can this help? Star Trek
began with a simple premise, a strong theme, and a cast of great characters,
most of who were replaced after the pilot episode. Today it dominates film,
television and series books, with a depth of backstory that demands as much
research as a historical novel if an author new to the genre lands a contract.
trick to making your original world as compelling, organic and rich as Star
Trek is to begin with a simple sketch. Instead of defining everything that's
necessary to the premise, write a short, half-page description of what your
first piece is going to be--and decide if you're going to leave it room to grow.
This is the time to buy ring-binders, download RoughDraft, or set up your filing
element will stand out from the rest as defining your world. For Anne
McCaffrey's Pern series, that would be dragons. For Anne Rice's vampire novels,
it's vampires. For a crime series, it might be a specific type of murder, serial
killings, domestic crimes, or homicide. The
defining element is central to your premise, main theme and main character's
motivation, even if, as the series progresses, new main characters step into the
that starting point, your setting can grow in the same way characters do.
Everything that happens in your outline demands special conditions, whether
that's the internal rules of a street gang or the way dragons choose their
riders. Some of these conditions will come up mid-plot, because they would
create more conflict than your original default conditions.
your detective grew up in a neighborhood with a gang, he may have relatives in
the gang. That's good conflict; who wants to have to arrest his own brother?
Does the MC want to arrest his brother? That sounds like a family with
plenty of conflicts where the detective may be the white-sheep cop of the lot.
Alternately, if your detective is from out of town, he may not recognize any of
the gang's habits, hangouts, members and colors. Given that, you gain an
opportunity to stick his neck out doing things he shouldn't in a neighborhood
where he should've brought two more partners for backup.
are all plotting choices that can result in a good
crime story or novel. Either of them could work, or both could be combined into
the same piece if those cops are partners. At this level it still looks like an
ordinary premise. What would make this situation more original is if the gang
was multiracial, the department more complex than all honest cops or all bad
crooked cops, while some Asian mob starts moving in on everyone. Maybe a crooked
cop straightens out when he's caught between payoffs from competing gangs, and
the whole situation becomes more complex.
is where filling your files with details as you go starts to become important.
perhaps one faction or gang has one religion and historical background, another
isn't religious and had a different history, a third came from another country
and has completely different customs. Keep
track of the details.
a fantasy novel, your magical system could be the starting point of organic
worldbuilding. Magical systems can grow rapidly and stir reader interest,
because like the crime in a crime novel, they are puzzles readers can solve.
Fictional sorcery is a major hobby for many computer game players, programmers,
and IT experts who enjoy reading fantasy. Like armchair detectives, puzzle
readers like to outsmart mage characters and create interesting spells based on
the magic system's rules.
can also be mythic and carry a theme. This is where series theme starts to
deepen. A main theme embedded in that first premise worldbuilding sketch can
deepen and grow with subthemes developing in later stories and novels. Theme
notes taken throughout may make it easier to keep sequels on track and
variations reflecting back into the immersive core.
back to the example of Star Trek, the series began with a theme of
exploration and embracing diversity. Aliens symbolized wide cultural gulfs among
the audience, and interacted with a multicultural crew drawn from those audience
groups. Timeless values like courage, integrity, loyalty to crew, and good
leadership qualities contrasted with theme-driven moral questions that picked up
contemporary topical issues. In Plato's Stepchildren, Lt. Uhura kissed
Captain Kirk under an alien being's compulsion.
Kirk objected, not because she was black, but because he was forced to
violate a military code of honor against romancing people under his command.
That proved more powerful than, say, if Lt. Uhura had dated the Russian, Mr.
the creators of Star Trek added the Starfleet ruling against fraternizing with
lower officers at the beginning in the series bible, or after Plato's
Stepchildren, it became a permanent element in the Star Trek setting.
Rules, laws, customs and traditions are important sources of conflict.
worldbuilding is character driven. Running gags may develop out of one starter
idea like 'robot shoe salesman' into later quirks like the robot's giving shoes
to every unhappy woman he meets in the starlanes, because he's a nice guy. Once
he's made friends with a Galactic Overlord by complimenting her shoes, her
character is around to trample the good guys in the next story wearing the
high-heeled lavender conquest boots the robot thought were gorgeous in the first
details like lavender leather spike-heeled conquest boots can become a useful
list of plot starters. They also tie a series together, if the robot doesn't
appear in the Lavender Overlord's story, her accurate boot description will
still remind readers of the previous story. The entire cast will become
familiar, even for readers who aren't trivia buffs.
you've missed one of those details, inconsistency can be a source of
originality. That may sound insane, but if your backstory grows and apparent
contradictions emerge, the process of rationalizing them can give rise to whole
new conflicts. If the gnomes are a greedy people whom other characters in a
fantasy world complain about, yet a gnome shows religious devotion and
compassion for a character in another story, perhaps a comment on religion might
emerge in the idea that these gnomes literally worship gold. A religion centered
on capitalism can develop in depth in the background by contrasting weak and
strong characters from that culture.
contrast might not emerge until well into the series. How can an organic
worldbuilder create elbowroom for concepts like that gold-religion?
there be dragons.
Throughout, drop tantalizing hints that aren't fleshed out at all. Sketch.
Mention the names of twenty different arcane tomes of mindbending terror, the
way H. P. Lovecraft did, and sooner or later the nightmare contents of any of
the titles may blossom in its own story. Detail what's foreground for the piece
in hand, but make loose references casually and use side incidents that
foreshadow longer arcs. Find new depths in existing developed areas by examining
aspects that weren't important on your original list--like the gnomes' religion.
can be approached in either direction--as prewriting or meticulous postwriting.
Organization is essential to keeping continuity whether you create these details
before, during, or after the first draft. Either way, consistency, inherent
conflict and growing complexity makes a setting original and memorable!
aired Nov. 22, 1968, in the third season of the first Star Trek series.
Wrede's Worldbuilding Checklist: