The Basics, Part I
Welcome back to our series on worldbuilding!
I’ve spoken a lot about the ‘art’ aspect of worldbuilding recently, and much less on the science, and I’m afraid that’s going to continue in this post. We will get around to the science sooner or later!
Let’s delve in.
So, you want to make a world…?
Perhaps the first question you should ask (aside from ‘why’), is ‘What?’ – there are three ‘whats’ I can think of off the top of my head, (and like all my posts, this is written off the top of my head), and those are:
– What sort of world do you want?
– What do you want out of it?
– What makes it special? (What sets it apart?)
Hopefully, the third should be the easiest to answer: what makes it special is you made it! What sets it apart might be a bit trickier, but that’s part of what this guide is here for!
The first one comes down to style, taste, and tone. Story time!
(Note: this is not a full list, just a sample of ideas you could try)
A Cynical World
Now, I don’t know if you’ve checked out the “Other Blogs & Sites” tab yet (you’re missing out if you haven’t!), but if you take a peek you’ll see this chap:
This, dear friends, is Idyl, (Yes, Idyl as in “Idyll”, as in “Idyllic” – it’s me trying to be funny; you’ll understand in a moment!). Now, Idyl was my character in an Iron Kingdoms campaign (an industrial steampunk-fantasy RPG & tabletop wargame). True to form, I wrote an overly long backstory for him, spent far too long pouring through the source material, and eventually stumbled upon a combination that most GMs probably wouldn’t allow. Idyl, you see, was an Arcane Mechanik – but he was also a necromancer. Although never revealed to the rest of the group, he had a pathological fear of his own mortality as well as an unquenchable thirst for knowledge; he sought to cheat and conquer death. In Iron Kingdoms, it is possible for a mortal to ascend to godhood, however rare that is. I won’t go into his full backstory here. The Mechanik aspect was his cover, his necromancer side remained hidden for several sessions (the skull on his base is somewhat of a giveaway). Naturally, he wanted to merge the two disciplines together, but unfortunately, the ruleset didn’t allow for that type of thing.
The goblin ‘gobber’ on his right is “Rez”, his ‘wingman’ and ‘best bud’. Rez was both an alchemist and a pyromaniac, but we won’t get into that right now. I should probably warn you that we became a party of anti-heroes, with the exception of the paladin-wannabe in the form of a human stormknight.
The real question is, and this is the whole point of this little anecdote, is how we became anti-heroes. You see, when Idyl and the rest of the gang first started, we actually tried to do good, believe it or not. We were based in ‘Five Fingers’, a town of pirates (probably not the best place for do-gooders in retrospect), and we were investigating a couple of different things at the same time, as you do. One of those things, if memory serves, was a poisoning – which wasn’t a poisoning at all, and the other was something to do with gobber fishing ships. We were employed by a human who felt the gobbers were driving him out of business because his little boat couldn’t keep pace with the gobber haulers in the deep water, nor match the prices. After a long, roundabout and absurd set of events, which involved breaking and entering into the wrong house (the gobber fishmonger we were paid to rough up – this story is sounding worse by the second – wasn’t in the room above the shop as it was an apartment complex, if memory serves), we called the whole thing off and got back to our other job.
That job turned out to be a farmgirl’s father who had somehow transformed himself into a monster. Already, we were rudely awaking to the reality that perhaps things here weren’t really that nice. But here’s the clincher: we would speak to ordinarily, everyday folk, asking questions, trying to follow up on leads, being friendly, and the reaction we were presented with time and again was: “Why should I trust you? I don’t know you.” & “What’s in it for me if I help you?”.
Now, granted, not everyone was like this, but most people were busy living their own life and didn’t want to be involved. There were protection rackets being run by pirates, street gangs, and all sorts, quite aside from the main campaign.
The point was, we were in a cynical world where people didn’t leap at the sight of ‘heroics’ but made themselves scarce. One of the party characters, an ogre, adopted by a noble, handed out gold as if it were candy and tried to form a network of homeless informants – similar to Sherlock Holmes. Predictably, they took the money and ran, drinking it away. Self-interest governed the world, self-preservation, and the jobs we were presented with reflected that. Increasingly, the group (with the exception of the poor stormknight, who tried so hard to steer us back to the straight and narrow), became increasingly jaded, and often, downright worse than the commonfolk of the city. We weren’t anywhere near as bad as the villain, (that may be personal bias), although Idyl did have a great admiration for the undead creations the big bad kept raising.
What makes a cynical world? Tone. Tone, style, and the underlying core value of self-interest, self-preservation, and mistrust. Even when the sun was shining, and it frequently was, even when the seas were sparkling, life was bustling and there was a sense of normalcy, people didn’t jump in when something went wrong. They ran the other way – and usually, they were right to.
Personally, I’d never have been able to keep up such an anti-hero had the world not been so belligerent. For this reason, this is my go-to example of how a world shapes the character, and the character shapes the world – by the end of it, Idyl (despite having sought redemption and realised that in doing so, he would be left powerless – in his mind at least) came to the conclusion that the only way to survive was to acquire more power than his adversaries, and their list of foes had greatly increased (as a result of the party’s actions and alliances) since the beginning. In DnD terms, he shifted from a True Neutral hopeful-to-do-better to a Neutral/Chaotic Evil.
The turning point for Idyl was when he reached out to a priestess of another religion and genuinely beseeched her for a way out of the path he was headed down; she didn’t believe him and tried to purge his taint from the world. When he reached out a second time, bleeding and unable to stand, she told him to abandon his foul magic but offered no alternative for replacing that power, a power he needed to stand against the group’s many and assorted foes (including, somewhat ironically, that very same priestess).
In a cosier setting, that plea for redemption would not only have been accepted, it would have been jumped upon, and Idyl would have been a changed man. Because of that (and other) rejections, he felt compelled and consigned to his path of destruction.
So for me, that is the true difference between a cynical world and a world with hope. And yes, technically, he could have changed and there could have been a redemptive arc, but in the context of his experiences, it simply didn’t fit. But had things been just a little different… who knows what could might have been?
Upon reflection, such a change would be more powerful (characterisation-wise) for Idyl because of how cynical the setting actually was. Since we finished the main campaign and real life took over, our group disbanded. Just because Idyl didn’t change, it doesn’t mean you can’t have your character alter course!
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A Whimsical World
‘Salt’, as was mentioned in the previous post, was an extremely whimsical world I created (oddly enough, on a whim). The whole premise was absurd – a world covered entirely in salt or so it appeared. “Salt is life” was the saying that was oft-repeated by the characters; it was their economy, with salt being traded for… salt. Their houses, their clothes, all salt. I won’t spoil the ending, but the reason for all the salt was even more preposterous than the salt itself.
And that’s just it: a whimsical world is about whimsy. It’s meant to be enchanting, charming, delightful, even a little silly, and it doesn’t matter if it could never happen. However, there is one important element to it that it shares with most, if not all, other types of setting: it needs to have its own internal consistency. That consistency can be theme, style, tone. “Once upon a time…” – as long as it remains within that style of narrative, you could conceivably have aliens arriving in a ship in a classic fäerytale.
I don’t actually have a great deal more to say about whimsical worlds other than they can be exceptionally charming and an absolute joy to write. They don’t have to be fun and laughter; they can be incredibly dark, but they remain based on their own internal logic/laws, even if those laws are not apparent to the reader.
In some ways, C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia could fall under this category in so far as they have magical elements, an internal consistency, and follow their own laws over the laws of physics.
Of course, this definition is not absolute and as I grow, my definitions also tend to shift. So take it with a grain of salt (no pun intended).
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Okay, story time’s officially over. Hard Science worlds are what I’m classifying as ‘hard science fiction’ – which is to say, they are bound by the laws of science as we know them, although some may use experimental science, or theories, but they are still grounded deeply in that science.
They take a great deal of research, but the advantage is you don’t need to make things up or figure things out – except of course, applying the science. Fortunately, there are a lot of simulators out there that could help.
Honestly, as much as I like to ground my works in plausibility, hard science is not my forté and while I try as much as I’m able to keep things realistic, I will handwave some things – which definitely sets me outside the ‘hard science’ category. Of course, talking to those who are a lot smarter than I am with expertise in areas I lack helps a great deal too!
These are the sort that I tend to write most (despite striving towards the hard-science). They take the premise of the natural world and mostly/try to adhere by it, but they’re not so precious that they won’t bend, break, or ignore the laws of science when they become inconvenient, whether to the setting or the plot. Obviously, there are different degrees of this. Some are so soft that they might only include the rain; some might have no natural effects at all, or have everything based in magic.
This could potentially fall into “whimsical” and there is a huge amount of crossover, but I labelled it such because these worlds are rooted first and foremost in magic. For me, the difference between a fäerytale and a magical world is style and tone: a fäerytale’s consistency is the narrative style, its tone; a world that has its laws founded on or in magic can operate similarly to a hard (or soft) science world, but in place of science, the laws are magic. This can make it much more rigid than a fäerytale, or indeed a ‘whimsical’ world.
For worlds that treat magic in the same way our world relies on the laws of physics, a writer cannot simply handwave something without breaking the internal magical laws. There are consequences and laws must be abided by.
Other writers have written much more in-depth on the topic, and I’m not going to write a whole essay on the different types of magic-based world right now, so if you’re really interested, youtube has some amazing videos on hard and soft magic. I may (don’t hold me to that) write more on the subject at a later date.
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Remember, these aren’t hard and fast rules. These are just my loose categories to try and help establish a framework in which to play in. If it isn’t helpful, don’t use it! If you want to mix and match, why not? Expand the walls of the sandpit, mix in chalk, mud, and water, if that’s what you want. These really are only a starting point, and honestly? I don’t tend to consciously think of which frame I want when I make a world – the world tends to fall naturally into a frame, but I’m also aware that some people love to start frameworks and work from there. There really is no right or wrong way to go about it: do what works for you.
So now you’ve chosen a loose framework, what’s next? In part II, we will discuss geography, climate, resources, peoples (be they fantasy races, aliens, humans, or what-have-you, and briefly touch on God/gods, religion, and spirituality), so stay tuned!