The Woes and Wonders of Worldbuilding

At one point, I thought that I could write urban fantasy and that it would be easier than high or heroic fantasy. After all, you’re not making up everything if you’re using a real-world setting, right? It turns out that you also have to work within reality’s laws, which I found a little constricting, and then I rediscovered my love of exploring different worlds through tabletop RPGs, so I switched back to unexplored magical worlds.

Despite being a fantasy writer, worldbuilding tends to rank lower on my list of priorities when I’m drafting. I tend to get a story down first and make up the world that fits it as I go. This makes it easier to get words on the page at first, but harder come revision time because I need to go back in and add the hard stuff. It’s a little inconvenient, but I’m also someone that will fall victim to overplanning and research rabbit holes: I know better than to write up anything more detailed than a very flexible outline because I will end up using my character bios, setting sheets, and whatever else to procrastinate on actually writing the story.

Which brings me to where I’m at right now with regard to Kingmaker. I’m solidifying the plot, of course, but I’m also thinking about worldbuilding harder than I have before. I’ve also been learning a little more about which things are challenging for me and which things I love about building a world from the ground up.

Geography

I have literally gotten hopelessly lost when I tried to drive somewhere ten minutes away from where I lived at the time.

More than once.

In the same general area.

So dramatically that my lifelong resident husband didn’t have a clue where I was when I tried to solicit his help.

I’m hopeless at navigating without a GPS unit anywhere that I can’t see from my home. I’m also a terrible judge of how long it takes to get places: when traveling alone, I’m either 45 minutes early or 20 minutes late (and apologizing profusely either way). I’m not the kind of person that should be trusted with an entire planet’s worth of geography to remember, and yet here we are.

I don’t have problems with traveling scenes or scenes in very specific and focused settings like campgrounds or forest clearings. It’s deciding where those things are in relation to each other that gets me; knowing the climate and terrain of the world based on analogous real-world places; being able to draw even a rough map and stick with it; and truly knowing where the characters live and making the setting its own character instead of a convenient backdrop against which the story takes place.

A hand-drawn but incomplete map of a fictional region depicting multiple types of terrain, roads, and landmarks.
Also, drawing maps is really difficult, and I’m not particularly good at it. I’m probably not going to use anything except one of those islands.

Cities and Infrastructure

The issues I have with cities and infrastructure are similar to the ones I have with geography. It’s the logistics involved in making a city run–how people survive, how the economy works, who gets rid of the garbage, and how those things become different when magic and/or elves are involved–on top of my propensity to get lost. It’s being so privileged that I really didn’t have to know the nuances of political and social structures and how interconnected they are to literally everything else until fairly recently, when I actually opened my eyes. It’s trying to create a society that’s not just copied and pasted from the real world and given pointy ears.

It’s not only doing all of the above and then some, but trying to work it in organically and without doing the dreaded fantasy genre info dump about setting details that I’m excited to include because I figured them out and don’t want them to languish in a notebook forever.

History

My problem with historical timelines is that a lot falls into them. You have wars and major accidents, of course, but it’s everything that created the circumstances that shape the world as it exists today. Who invaded and why? What environmental disasters impacted the world and how its nations and people live today? Why have these two nations been in conflict as long as anyone can remember? Why did this general lose this conflict of this battle when, by all accounts, they should have been prepared for anything?

And it turns out that the joke is on me, because, without giving too much away, the latest version of my Kingmaker plot actually has a lot to do with this world’s major historical events, the precipitating events, and the relevant fallout. It’s not something I can gloss over. I’m not even sure what my world is called, but I need to know at least the last few decades if not centuries of its history for the sake of my plot.

Send help.

Language

I’m the first person that will laugh and joke about J.R.R. Tolkien having written The Lord of the Rings because he was a linguist that made up a language and needed an excuse to use it. I’ll also be the first to admit that I’ve become a very similar person.

I’ve found myself growing increasingly fond of shaping character voices and how they talk. Spoken language dictates so much of society and culture that it’s kind of silly to not think about it at all. It also doesn’t make sense that any language would be monolithic, even in a fantasy world: not all humans speak “human,” so why should there be one language just for elves, dwarves, or whatever else? Even outside of dialects, there are words and idioms unique to different regions and people within the same language, and trying to translate those is bound to lead to some misunderstandings or interesting ways of wording things (just ask anyone that I’ve ever tried to explain the concept of a “doorwall” to).

I only really know English, but I love words and I’m really loving writing fantasy language right now.

People

On one level, I like creating characters and character interactions. I’m one of these writers that “talks to” my characters, and it’s interesting what I’ll discover about them and where they live. They need to be interesting and relatable no matter what the story looks like, and I like learning about them and and how they change throughout the story as well as trying to introduce them to people that I think will like them.

The same goes for creating fantastic civilizations. I might not know where the church is in the city, but I know the pantheon that they worship. I don’t know where my characters stop to eat, but I pretty much know what they’re eating while they’re there. It’s a fun challenge to weave magic into a society, because the presence of magic would definitely change how a society functions.

I do need to keep in mind that I’m extremely white and cisgender. It took me a while to learn, and I’m still learning (and profoundly grateful that I wasn’t published before I took like eight steps back and actually looked at what I was doing), but there are some things that I shouldn’t touch and will never be able to cover with the sensitivity and nuance that someone closer to those lived experiences. My plan is to hire a sensitivity reader once I get to that stage, but in the meantime, I’m responsible for making sure that my fictional fun doesn’t disrespect or harm anyone in the real world.

Story

This is the reason I do what I do. Some people love building a world and universe from the ground up and adding characters and a story afterward, but I’m not one of those people. I have a plot, and then I have the characters that move the plot forward, and only then do I end up developing the world. The details that come up about the world are those that affect the plot or characters’ lives. If you’re looking for a fantasy novel that details the lineage of the royal family, lays out the schematics of the aquifer system, or analyzes the minutiae of military tactics used in a conflict that predates the existence of my characters by seven centuries, you’re not going to find it in my novels.

I’m not here to say that my way is the definitive way to write fantasy, but it’s mine. The story will always come first, and prioritizing much of anything else before I know where my plot is going just overwhelms me. Even my characters that I dearly love sometimes make changes in the service of my story–one of my tritagonists is probably barely recognizable from his NaNoWriMo incarnation because his subplot has changed about four times so far.

I love fantastic places in fiction, and I love making them,  but I love telling stories above all else. You won’t get an entire library worth of ecology, history, and linguistics from me, but I hope that you’ll at least stick around for the tale I’m trying to tell.

If you like what I do, I have a tip jar! You are, of course, under no obligation to pay anything to read my content.

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