I’ve recently announced my participation in a very exciting project, creating the world for a ‘virtual tabletop’ game called Mark of War. It’s early days yet, so we’ve only just started scratching the surface and now seems an appropriate time to write a little about world creation, be it for games, novels, roleplaying or whatever you like.
World creation can be a surprisingly contentious subject, and many designers and authors will disagree with what I’ve written here. All I can say is that over the many years since I first started scribbling ideas for fantasy worlds and sci-fi universes I have found the following to be true and you might too.
And this is my blog, so I’m right.
1. Let it Grow
I’m a firm believer in having a world that exists just enough to tell the story you are telling and a little left over for fun. While there is a particular delight in creating a world – its peoples, languages, environments and everything else – for the purpose of a book, roleplaying campaign or game that creation begins and ends with what would make a good story.
In itself there’s not much wrong with creating your world wholesale from the outset, drawing maps and calling things the Forest of Azkaradanistha and all that, except for the fact that many writers and developers then feel the need to cram all of that world creation into their story, often at the expense of more useful things like characters and plot. A lot of fantasy in particular, but also sci-fi, is little more than a travelogue, of characters going to strange and interesting set-piece places that the author has invented, but without any actual purpose.
I take the opposite view that the characters and story come first and the world contains everything it needs for that story to happen. If the characters need to go to another place for a good reason – to meet someone, pick up something, insert macguffin of choice – then fill your boots and make it as cool and evocative and out there as you like. However, if the place and the journey exists purely for the characters to visit, without really challenging them or changing the plot or showcasing something fundamental about the setting that the reader needs to understand, then it is just travelogue.
The same isn’t just true of geographic locations, it can apply to metaphysical qualities or technology, philosophies, events in history, even people the characters meet. Unless the laws of magic, the worship of Holy D’shivara, the painting on the wall of the Grand Opera House have something relevant to the plot, why spend time working out what they are? You’re creating a world that the reader has to envisage, and details can help, but don’t get bogged down in those details.I find the easiest way to avoid this is by not having your head crammed full of cool stuff you want to show off no matter what. It’s my contention that too much up-front world creation is the cause of most of the exposition the exists in the genre. When editing, ask yourself if that lengthy description on the economics of Plainstown* really adds anything to the understanding of the characters and plot, and their place within the setting rather than just the setting itself. If not, feel free to pare it down or get rid of it entirely.
*Economics is an underused motivator for many heroes, but unless your world has something drastically different from the usual supply-and-demand model, why get into the nitty-gritty? If precious metals and gems are not your value items, what are? That’s when storytelling spurs world creation.
Some of the most enduring fictional realms were not created in a god-like moment of Genesis but evolved as a patchwork of tales or games, with perhaps a theme and core imagery to build upon but the details explored only as and when they were required. The Cthulhu ‘mythos’, the city of Lankhmar and surrounding lands, Forgotten Realms, Hyperborea, the Culture, Warhammer, the Star Wars universe (expanded or otherwise), all of these creations accreted and accumulated on a solid foundation, allowing for exploration, imagination and speculation.
If you don’t know it’s there yet, there’s no temptation to talk about it. In short, if you draw the map as you go along you can leave out the boring bits.
2. Less is More
Which moves me nicely onto the idea that when world creation becomes an end in its own right, it tends to become closed off. Every detail is worked out to the Nth degree, from the name of the cobblers on the street corner by the palace square to the intricate god-summoning rituals of the obscure mountain tribe that is really cool and will get worked into the damned story somehow.
Basically, if you make up stuff you go along, in the white heat of writing, the chances are that you will convey a tantalising glimpse into the world, enough for the reader to understand what is going on, but leaving them wanting more. Throwing in a line about the Forgotten City of Gostrama without even knowing what it is adds to the idea that the world in a big place, just like ours, and no person can ever know everything about it. Throwing in an entire myth about the Forgotten City of Gostrama, especially if its not related by the characters, is just filling up space that could be used more constructively.
A setting that contains grey areas, Here Be Dragons and all, of location, people and events, is more intriguing than one in which everything is laid out as truth like an encyclopaedia. The world becomes a thing that can be debated and interacted with in itself, by those within it and readers alike, aside from discussion of the characters and plots taking place across it. Some questions you can answer later, some you might never answer. For every loose end that you tie up, fray a couple more. Something said cannot be unsaid, but something mumbled slightly incoherently can be argued back and forth for years.
It’s also worthwhile making sure that you are very wary about absolute, closed statements. If you do, make it in dialogue, because while characters can turn out to be wrong, narrators can’t. These definitive facts will come back and bite you on the bum at some point, because one day you will forget them but the readers/ gamers won’t!
Fan: So in book three Milandrius said that no enchantment has ever worked inside the Citadel of the Legacy, but in book nine Orfessio’s ring of truth still works when he arrives there with Meslai.
Author: Er, um… Milandrius was an idiot?
3. A Little Whimsy Goes a Long Way
The ‘by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ style of world creation also means that the coolest ideas can usually find a place because you’ve been opening all the doors and windows as you go along, not closing them, and that next room can contain whatever you want.
Another way of putting it, I suppose, is that worlds created for their own sake can have a tendency to be awfully worthy. They lack a sense of whimsy. They can become a burden, to be endured while one tries to navigate the rules and guidelines laid down for how things work, rather than being a springboard for glorious ideas and adventures.
This is not an excuse for bad writing – inventing a superspell or time portal or lazerbeam to get you out of a poorly thought-through plot obstacle is lazy no matter how the setting came into being – it is a remit, a mandate, to ensure that the world is as exciting and creative as you can make it.
The big advantage is that one idea leads to another, snowballing into something wondrous. Coming up with cool ideas takes a really long time, and it never ends. Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked yet, you’ll have a better (more entertaining )answer later.
If you think that your world is going to include all of your best ideas before you start writing book one, I have a bridge for sale.
(Bonus) Take Plenty of Notes
Speaks for itself…
And to drag this back to Mark of War for a moment, it’s interesting that even in the small pieces I’ve written so far there’s been a lot of development. The need to create characters and geography has led to narratives arising, and in return those narratives demand that the world works in certain ways.
It also means that we’ve only just started on Mark of War. It’s bare bones and broad brush, and that’s the way it’ll work best for now. Let’s see what gets players excited and ensure there’s more of that and less of the things they aren’t so crazy about.