Worldbuilding can be something a lot of writers struggle with. I’ve been creating imaginary worlds for twenty years now (my mother would probably argue that it’s much longer) and still I have difficulty in knowing where to start and, more often, where to stop. Three weeks ago (really? Three weeks?), I discussed the importance of worldbuilding in writing and offered a few tips. I also promised to share a few examples of worldbuilding from my own fiction. This is the first of those posts.
Before I begin, I should explain that I have two approaches to worldbuilding: “inside-out” and “outside-in”. So, what do I mean and what’s the difference?
Inside-out, sometimes bottom-up building, concentrates on the characters, the story and what is experienced within the day to day. This type of worldbuilding typically starts with your character and builds upon what is necessary to progress the narrative. For example, we know a character needs to stop an evil computer in order to save the world (it happens to us all, I know). The questions then start to arise from that situation:
- How can we stop the computer?
- How did it get to be so evil?
- Who built it?
- Where is it?
All of which, lead you to:
- What type of building is it stored in?
- Where is this building?
- What does the building look like?
- What is the area around the building like?
You get the idea…
Outside-in, sometimes top-down (keep it clean), takes an initial wide-scope view and works down from it. It could start with the concept of a galaxy before focus narrows on a solar system, a planet, a country. This approach is typically used for epic fantasy, interplanetary sci-fi or other setting-driven world.
For example, we have a setting, it could be a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. We can’t set a story in a galaxy (well, we can but that’s getting into the realms of experimental existentialist fiction and I’ve not the brainpower to tackle that chestnut) and so we begin to focus on a solar system, one in the orbit of multiple suns. Still a little on the large scale, we narrow focus further and suddenly we’re on a desert moon, maybe there’s a farm of some sort….
Case Study: Edinburgh
While living up in Scotland, I spent a lot of time walking the streets of Edinburgh soaking up the history, the atmosphere and, most of all, the stories. Absorbed in all that on a daily basis, it stood to reason that something would be knocked loose and an idea started to grow. Eventually, it became my first foray into graphic novels and comic books.
That idea was of three entities, siblings. Each a personification of an aspect of the city’s creation and continued existence. The eldest of the three was Turmoil. All cities stem from chaos and chaos continues to thrive within them and so it stood to reason that Turmoil would have a significant presence. The middle sibling was Knowledge. Those inhabiting a city even from a time before it becomes a city have an almost arcane knowledge of their locality and as the settlement grew, so did Knowledge. The youngest of the three was sweet, little Prosperity. A naïve youngster compared to her two siblings and yet as unpredictable as Turmoil. She could raise or crush the hopes of all within the city and is often manipulated by her eldest brother.
As the world the siblings inhabited was inspired by the city of Edinburgh, an outside-in approach to wordbuilding was required. I had the whole city at my disposal; a ready-made world with ready-made history and culture. I had my starting point. The problem was that the world, much like the characters, had a dualistic existence. There’s the Edinburgh of our world and there’s the Edinburgh the three aspects belonged to, the trick was in discovering where the two paths separated. The answer, as it often is, was in the stories.
Edinburgh, our Edinburgh, has achieved an almost mythical status. The myths are, however, (probably) not real and that’s where realities forked. The three aspects could only operate within the Edinburgh of myth and legend. The ghosts, the monsters, the things in the shadows had to be real and so they became real. But was this was common knowledge amongst the city dwellers? No, these things had to be real but that didn’t mean we knew it.
When I wrote the first script, the introduction of Turmoil, I had a limited setting and only a partly developed world. It was enough at the time but, as the series developed, anyone reading those early issues could tell.
Edinburgh wasn’t my first foray into worldbuilding, but it was the one that drove home its importance.
Next time: Expanding the city, expanding the world…