This is the third post in my worldbuilding series. If you’ve missed the earlier parts, you can find them here. If you’re already up to speed, then let’s get started!
The basic principle behind top-down worldbuilding is that you begin with the biggest of big pictures, and add ever-greater levels of detail until you reach individual characters and stories. That said, it’s not an exact science, and the hierarchy of worldbuilding elements varies depending on your need. So, after dealing with the cosmology of our new fantasy world last week, there are a couple of directions we can go: we can get into the specifics of the magic system, start talking about races and cultures, or begin a historical account from the creation myth onward. In this case, since we’re creating the broadest possible canvas, rather than pursuing a specific story, we’re going to begin with the geography of our world, and then move on to the racial, political and cultural specifics.
There’s a notion in storytelling that is particularly relevant to speculative fiction: every piece of information you give to your reader is a brick in their backpack as they move through your story. That doesn’t mean that you need to cut your storytelling back to the bone — Tolkien is, after all, one of our guiding spirits during this project — but just that you have to be aware of the value of the elements you are adding. For example, it’s one thing to dip into the history of a region in order to ground your characters or offer perspective on an upcoming conflict; it’s quite another to wander off into extended discussions on the flora and fauna of that same area, unless they are relevant to the plot. Think of the beginning of The Hobbit: we’re given a lot of information about the Shire, about Bilbo, about his parents and neighbors and community. The reader is now carrying a handful of bricks, and the story hasn’t started moving yet. It may seem that this is backstory, but we’ve actually been quietly introduced to the central thematic construct of the entire book, and we can begin to sense the world beyond the borders of the Shire simply by noticing which details are mentioned: the Shire is peaceful, so by inference the world beyond is not; the Shire is civilized, so the world is not; hobbits are good-hearted, so the world beyond is not. Every brick that Tolkien hands the reader is important, and — if I can twist the metaphor almost to breaking point — structurally dense.
Consider, though, the things that Tolkien doesn’t tell us. He doesn’t explain that the world is round, that the sun rises in the east, that gravity exerts its influence upon hobbits and elves alike. That may seem like an obvious observation, but it isn’t necessarily so. Contrast it with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, in which the movement of seasons is vitally important to both the backstory and plot; in that element, he deviates not just from reality, but from what we expect of fantasy fiction. It’s not the largest brick, but he has to give it to us early, because it is both important and unexpected.
All of this is to say that our geographical conceits matter. Yes, we can tell a story about fantasy kingdoms which float on islands in an endless blue sky; yes, we can create a world in which everyone is naturally immortal, and death is not a concern; yes, we can write about an ancient city which only appears for twenty-five minutes every other Thursday. We can do anything, but it must be justified by the requirements of the story; that is, Martin is free to make the seasons behave strangely on his world, but it had better be relevant to the story he’s telling (and, I’m glad to say, it is). This might be considered the Gimmick Rule of worldbuilding: doing something just to be different is not a good idea. If you’re making your world unique is unexpected ways, it had better pay off in proportion to the magnitude of the change.
Because we don’t have a particular story in mind, and our primary thematic landscape is broad and open to a multitude of interpretations, we’re going to play this pretty straight: our world is a planet much like Earth, with similar geographical rules, salt-water seas, a sun like our own, seasons and flora and fauna and features which match those we would expect. Of course, we’re writing fantasy, which means that the reader’s expectations don’t quite refer to our real world; rather, they’re informed by the conventions of the genre. The inclusion of dragons would be a tiny, inconsequential brick in the reader’s backpack; likewise, if we want our dwarves to mine mithril, the reader probably won’t even blink. We’re not going to tie ourselves down to specifics just yet, but remember that when I talk about deviating from the reader’s expectations, I’m not (just) talking about their experience of real life.
Again, a deviation from the expected is not is a bad thing; it just needs to carry its weight.
So, a world like our own, with continents, islands, seas, mountains, frozen polar regions and a hot equatorial band, seasons and weather patterns, and so on. The small details that make our world unique and fuel our stories can be added later.
Your mileage may vary on the next step, but I love maps. I’m not typically visually-oriented, but there’s something about cartography that I find inspiring. Therefore, I’m going to create a map of our new world, and use that as a template as we move on to questions of race and culture. Since this fictional world is going to be much like the real world, we’re bound by many of the same physical rules that formed Earth, so we’re going for continents, islands, the features that we would expect.
Some playing with Photoshop — a randomly-generated layer that I tidied up by hand and recolored — gives us this:
The sense of scale is a little difficult to grasp, so let’s overlay the real-world map, so we can have a sense of how large these landmasses are:
So, a little math. On the large version of the map, which you can see by clicking, one pixel is approximately equal to 13 miles or 21 kilometres, assuming that the map shows the entire surface of a roughly Earth-sized planet. We have around 3.5 million square miles of land, which is significantly less than Earth, but we have a nice combination of narrow straits and broad seas separating our landmasses, which opens up some interesting possibilities for conflict and adventure.
I find this stage enormously exciting. What is the little island to the south of the central continent? Who lives on the frozen continent to the north, almost divided by an ocean? What secrets can be found on the island in the far east, so distant from the rest of the world? We’ll find out very soon — but first, we need to understand who lives on this world.
Next week, we’re going to look at race and culture. Who are the main players in this world, and how do they get along with each other?
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