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When do you build your world?

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Shrink

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I have written a rough draft of my fantasy novel and have realized that the “world” my characters inhabit is quite incomplete. . .

If you have a compelling plot and characters – do you “just write” and then world-build as you go,  or do you feel as if you must build the world first, rich in detail, in order to write the story convincingly?

Just curious to know others’ process of tackling this endeavor! I welcome  words of wisdom. . .

Lisa
#1 - November 07, 2008, 07:18 AM

Hi, Lisa!

Well, for me, it's VERY necessary that the internal world is consistent -- lose that and you lose me as a reader. Now, I have been caught in the trap of overdoing my world-building to the point that I have a complete world/history/culture and no character or plot to show it off, and that's just as bad, if not worse -- but I think knowing the rules of the game before play is essential.

I "just write" but usually I know the rules of the world first and can sticky-tack on details, going back to support them accordingly. (But since I'm nearly 100% guaranteed that by the end of the book I'll end up rewriting the first 1-3 chapters, I don't worry about that as much. The world has to stay the same from start to finish, though.)

Gakked from an earlier thread (Suspension of our Disbelief):

I guess I'd rather think of it as an author firmly holding the reins. S/he knows how the world works and why, knows what motivates the characters and how their responses are "in character" -- able to justify why they do what they do, and understand the underlying logic of the world, even if it's not in every nuance or even mentioned in the text.

As a reader, I don't need to know everything in the book -- the science, the magic rules, the technology and so forth -- but I do need to believe that the author knows these answers and, if asked, could produce them to my satisfaction.

Hope this is helpful!
#2 - November 07, 2008, 07:59 AM

Wow. Interesting question, Shrink.

I haven't published anything yet, so these are merely my musings-aloud as we all try to figure out our genres!  :hiding

Duskydawn is totally correct that the world has to be consistent or else the work becomes confusing and looks sloppy. (Consistency is NOT always the hobgoblin of little minds!!)

I'm not personally an overbuilder of worlds...to the point that I've so long lived in the world in my imagination that I take circumstances for granted in my WIPs, leaving my husband to inquire blankly what an X is or how can the MC do Y??!!

A fair while ago, I read on an agent's blog that the first crucial pages of fantasy should be compelling(character and plot-wise) and sensually rich (world-wise).  Then I read some of the sample first pages the agent's followers contributed to be critiqued... So many of these openings were little more than checklists of descriptors. After reading a few of these, and comparing them to the ones which focused on the characters, I vowed I would do everything in my power to keep track of my story and characters, and subordinate the world-description. I think Daniel Abraham does an excellent job of this in his adult Long Price Quartet.

On the other hand, about 50% of my enjoyment of Harry Potters are their casual mentions of chocolate frogs, squashy red chairs, twelve great Christmas trees, several ways of approaching the castle on the first night of school, games of gobstones, and so forth.

I'll be interested to hear what everyone says!!
#3 - November 07, 2008, 09:09 AM

Bracken

Guest
I think I kind of go backwards with this process, because I start with characters first and then build the world around them.  I knew I wanted one of my MC to be one way, but I had to figure out what in his world had caused him that kind of pain and developed the wizarding system from there.  I filled in a lot of world details during the revisions process. 
#4 - November 07, 2008, 09:13 AM

Shrink

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Very helpful and interesting discussion. I guess everyone’s process is quite different. . .

As a shrink, yes, I truly am a shrink, I tend to live in people’s heads – the character stuff, as well as themes tends to lead me first. The worldbuilding I love, but can’t do without the characters who drive the plot. But after writing my first draft I realized that it was getting hard for me to construct metaphors, describe the setting and enrich the story without a serious detour to “worldbuild.”

Alex, sounds like you have a similar approach to mine. . .

I have just discovered Patricia Wrede’s list of worldbuilding questions – extraordinarily detailed. I completed the questions about “Rules of Magic” for my world and I can’t wait to move on to her other questions. I highly recommend it, here’s the lin


http://www.sfwa.org/writing/worldbuilding1.htm

Lisa
#5 - November 07, 2008, 09:25 AM

YA & Spec Fic Writer
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I start building my world before I start writing.  I decide the general basics that always come up (e.g., what foods these people will eat, what clothing they'll wear) and the specific ideas that relate to the plot (if there's magic use, how does it work?  if there will be battles, what weapons and strategies will they use?) so that I'll have that info ready as I work on the story.  It can be really annoying, and slow down the writing process a lot, if I have to stop every time a character has a meal or walks down the street to figure those things out.

But I find that it's impossible to figure out everything I'll need to know before the story's written.  So once I have the things I know I'll need, I don't usually spend much time trying to figure out every other detail that could possibly come up.  I just start writing.  And when I come to holes, I either make a note of them to flesh out that aspect later, or I stop and figure that element of the world out before I continue (depending on how big a hole it is).  Once I've finished writing the first draft, I have a much stronger sense of the world, and also an idea of its weaknesses, where I need to develop it more.  So I do some more world-building to strength those bits before I go back to the story.

I think it's useful to approach world building this way, because you never know what might come up as you're writing.  I've decided that some element will work a certain way, and then realized in the middle of the story that some other way makes more sense or has more resonance for the characters.  If you plan out too much in advance, it may be hard to shift your world to fit your story when occasions like that arise.
#6 - November 07, 2008, 10:09 AM
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Christye

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My fantasy is usually brewing in my mind for a long time before I even start to outline or put words on paper.  I have most of my world figured out before I start to write.  There's some holes as I go along, but it hasn't been that hard to fill in the blanks since the major parts have already been figured out.  But that's just me.

Good luck!

Christy
http://ChristysCreativeSpace.blogspot.com
#7 - November 07, 2008, 10:10 AM

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I work the same way Alex and Melusine seem to (this is true for both historical fiction and fantasy for me): I know a lot about the world, but not everything, when I write the story. In the first draft, the focus is on character and story. In the rewrites, I go back and try to flesh out the world. I also have to rewrite for consistency because I discover so many new things about the world as I'm writing that things invariably change.
#8 - November 07, 2008, 01:39 PM

Sometimes it's hard for the story to progress if you don't understand the world your characters are moving in. But like most people on this thread, I do some worldbuilding before I write and then add in details later.

If you need a starting point, it can help to base your world on a real-life equivalent. For example, I created a fantasy world based on San Francisco (lot much of a leap, really) and I think Sarah Prineas used London as a basis for the magical city in her Magic Thief series. Real-life cities or landmarks can be good bases on which to build stranger, more magical worlds.
#9 - November 08, 2008, 01:05 PM
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merewald

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I usually just start writing. Before I do, I make sure I have a vague idea of the world I'm building, and I've usually outlined magic - if there is magic - very thoroughly, but other than that I just let my characters introduce me to the world, and let things come as they come. Later of course, during editing, I prune it all and of course make sure it's consistent.

A fair while ago, I read on an agent's blog that the first crucial pages of fantasy should be compelling(character and plot-wise) and sensually rich (world-wise).  Then I read some of the sample first pages the agent's followers contributed to be critiqued... So many of these openings were little more than checklists of descriptors. After reading a few of these, and comparing them to the ones which focused on the characters, I vowed I would do everything in my power to keep track of my story and characters, and subordinate the world-description.

Do you happen to remember which blog this was? I'd like to read an agent's perspective on what the first couple of pages of a fantasy should have in them. They're the hardest part for me - balancing world-building, rules readers need to know for stuff to make sense, and the story itself.
#10 - November 09, 2008, 06:35 PM
« Last Edit: November 09, 2008, 06:37 PM by merewald »

Shrink

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Thanks all, it's been a good discussion. I'm glad to hear that there are a variety of approaches. Since I'm new to this, it's nice to feel that the way I'm tackling it isn't completely off.

Lisa
#11 - November 09, 2008, 08:29 PM

pixydust

Guest
I think I kind of go backwards with this process, because I start with characters first and then build the world around them.  I knew I wanted one of my MC to be one way, but I had to figure out what in his world had caused him that kind of pain and developed the wizarding system from there.  I filled in a lot of world details during the revisions process. 


I'm in this same boat. Character is always first. World is only to enrich and deepen the character's journey. I do try to figure out most of the really important blocks before I begin the writing, though. I try to see the world as a character in its own right.
#12 - November 10, 2008, 01:40 PM

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With my latest WIP (also known as the book that is so challenging to write that it might just kill me), I've had to do a lot more world-building than usual.  I started out with a basic idea of things, but one thing I've found really helpful is that I've been writing, more or less, in chapter-long chunks.  By the end of each chapter, I have some idea (though not an exact idea) of where I'm going next, and I spend the time in between when I finish writing one chapter and start writing the next thinking about the details about the world that might be relevant to that chapter.  So instead of building the entire world upfront, I have a general gist, and then the details are settled (with a lot of thought) just before they come up.  That way, I'm not staring at my computer screen thinking "now how many generations post-apocalypse are we and what does that mean for generational gaps?" or "what's the popular style clothing for this group?" or "how do the mythologies of these two creatures interact and what do the humans know about them?"  This method has me spending a LOT more time world-building, but it's in small chunks, here and there, when my mind drifts in the middle of a class, or when I'm walking down the road, or as I'm falling asleep at night. 
#13 - November 10, 2008, 03:26 PM

JLady

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I usually have a rough idea of the world before I start.  I usually make a map so I can keep track of how far apart everything is.  I try to put everything I can think of on the map even if the characters never visit those places.  What I do is write out the names of each people/race, their major characteristics, how they relate to the others, their special abilities.  I think there are two keys:

1) Introduce the world to the reader slowly.  Give them time to not only get to know your main characters but also the main elements of the world they are encountering for the first time.  Make it intriguing, where each element leaves them wanting a little more.
2) Be flexible.  If your story is not published yet, then you can tinker with it.  If you get to a point in the story where an element of the world you have created is not working, or something else would work better, definitely make some changes.  Far better for the story to be good than for the original concept of the world the story takes place in to be followed ridgidly. 

Just some ideas!  Good luck planning it all out!  I think it's actually one of the more enjoyable parts fo the writing process, personally, but I can see how it can be annoying. 
#14 - November 11, 2008, 01:09 PM

Myrrhine

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It makes sense to work out some things in advance, but I find that I make a lot of decisions as I draft. I let the demands of the story or how I want to shape my characters drive how the world looks and try to develop the world details based on those factors. I also find that I come to a point in drafting where I realize I need to know more about this or that people group or city or whatever and then I take the time to flesh it out (for myself at least, not necessarily in the text). Of course, working this way, I will have to make sure the whole story is consistent during revision.
#15 - November 16, 2008, 06:29 AM

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I'm another for moderate worldbuilding that gets more detailed as I go. I do need to have some idea of the world where I'm playing, but a lot of it develops as I go. Like, I may not have sat down to figure out what the characters would eat for dinner before I get started, but when I write a scene of people having a meal, I do pause to think, like, "Oh, right -- cows were wiped out in the apocalypse, so no beef, then." And I keep notes of the elements that I add as I go, so that I can go back and make things consistent when I edit.

(At least, that's the theory. I'm still finishing up my first MS since college, so we'll see how it works in practice...  :crossedfingers)
#16 - November 30, 2008, 05:58 PM
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Hooton

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Quote
Shrink:
do you “just write” and then world-build as you go,  or do you feel as if you must build the world first, rich in detail, in order to write the story convincingly?

I'm coming at this question more as someone writing an urban fantasy (so my fantasy world takes place in the real world).  Plus I'm as-yet-unpublished and unagented, so take it with a pinch of salt!

I started off with characters and a situation first, both of which are set in the modern day world and then worked out an outline for the main plot points and key relationship issues/character arc issues so I knew in advance whether I had an actual story to tell.  From the outline, I worked out the overall idea as to how my 'fantasy' element relates to and works in with the real world (i.e. why people in the real world don't know about my creatures, how they live on a day to day basis and integrate with humans, to what extent they stick out etc etc). 

I'm still in the process of writing the first draft, but as I've been writing I've identified certain areas where I'm going to have to bring in backstory about how my creatures evolved into being in the real world because it helps to explain their set-up and how they work.  I've flagged up potential areas in my outline as to where I can bring in backstory together with some ideas of how to do it (without it being an obvious and boring info dump) and I've been working out in my own mind what that backstory is so that I know all the ins and outs, with a view to only conveying that information which needs to be conveyed in the actual story (it's a great theory, but I'm waiting to see how it works in practice ... ).   

I'm keen to keep detail to a minimum to what's needed to fit in with the story - partly because I think that the focus of my novel is on action and character development rather than nitty gritty, but because I want to keep open the possibility of a sequel, I'm also throwing in little details and references that can be built on in later books if the opportunities arise.  When I do drop in the little things that are peculiar to my creatures (e.g. their special abilities), I usually try to show how it works in the context of a scene rather than to do a massive explanation of it all.  So for example, because my creatures have unique blood that makes them as not human and which they can use to do special things, I have a scene where one of my creatures starts their moped by stabbing themselves in the thumb and dripping their blood into the ignition.  Hopefully people reading it will realise that there's something funky going on with the character and that he's not normal and then by building in similar things done by other characters, get a sense of how the creatures work and operate.  If that makes sense ... :eh2

My main concern though is to create a book that people read and (hopefully) think that yes, this could happen in the real world, thereby giving it some credibility.

CH
#17 - December 04, 2008, 04:47 AM

marina

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I'm joining this discussion pretty late, so sorry if I'm echoing what others have already said.  I wrote my two fantasies with the characters and their journey clear in my mind.  As for the other world (or words) I had a good sense of the rules that governed them--as others have already said, your world needs to stick to some clear-cut rules or you will lose your readers--but the landscapes and details I made up along the way simply keeping these rules in mind.
#18 - December 04, 2008, 06:32 AM

This is a great discussion! I find that it depends on the role of the world in the story. I have written two fantasies. In the first one, one of the major themes was the conflict between my MC and the world she was in.  Because of that, I built a lot of the world before I started writing. I concentrated on the culture, laws, and social customs, and I wrote a lot of history so that I could bring that in. Also the world was an alternative to ours, so I decided when and why the two worlds had broken away. This allowed me to use historical details from our world to create the other. Our world had developed while this one had remained more or less stagnant, so I was able to use preRenaissance costumes, customs and details. Once I had that set, I could follow the line of thinking to come up with specific physical and social details for my character as I went along. For example, when she got in trouble with the law, she ended up being sentenced to herding pigs as community service. I was much less detailed with places. I just kind of roughly knew where everything was in relation to everything else.

Now in my second story, the MC was lost from our world and she never really gets much of an idea of where she is as she tries to find her way home. So in that story, I did much less world building. I had an idea of when and where it was, and I gave a lot of physical details, but there was very little social, political, or historical background.

My current WIP takes place in this world and brings the magic here, so there is less complete world building and more figuring out how the creatures have adapted to survive in our world.
#19 - December 04, 2008, 08:04 AM

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