If You Build It They Will Read
On more than one occasion I have been asked if there is a need for worldbuilding, and whether or not one could construct a world as they wrote. My answer is yes. In smaller pieces, such as short stories and maybe even novellas, it is possible for one to write a coherent story while worldbuilding at the same time. At novel length that gets very tricky and I don’t advise it, for couple of reasons:
1. Plot holes. You are going to want to avoid making geological, governmental, magical, historical, and even moral mistakes, which in turn will circumvent any editorial nightmares. These mistakes can manifest in numerous ways such as City X appearing in the east when it was in the North. Or, X law forbids women from marrying men below their social status; so then why did the princess marry the Lord’s son in the next book and didn’t face total shame and social backlash? Or even their own inner personal struggle of morals and values they would both face about making such a choice, but this part concerns another segment of the article today. For now, lets focus on keeping the world’s plot holes to a minimum. Readers cannot be expected to travel down this journey with your characters and not expect to break an axle on them.
The plot hole nightmare will be fully realized when you are returning to edit the novel. You may find it hard to keep track of exactly who, what, when, where, or why something is the way it is. And it is more likely that these problems are more deeply rooted into novel than first imagined. As you edit one part of the novel another may become inaccurate, and even as you correct these issues, corrections made earlier in the editing process may debunk your current corrections; or older corrections may need further correcting with newer corrections towards the end. To solve the problem in one fell swoop, you can create a reference to your world. No matter how minor, anything that would need to be added or subtracted would be a modification to the reference, not the novel; or at least not on the level the novel would require if the reference did not exist.
2. Conflict. The conflict of a novel could be compromised. It can be difficult to create believable conflict caused by the environment, whether by people, the land, magic, or otherwise, and keep it from feeling forced or artificial.
What if you created a story where the protagonist would slay a wreath, but the land that you created was a holy land that was consecrated by clerics?
Where did it come from then? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.
It would seem that this segment was created on the go and is very random. And feels very artificial. What happens next then? How can you fix this problem without making that reference but keeping everything contained in the story? You begin the editing process. Now to create a reason why it is there.
You edit the story to contain information on a history describing the world as once having unholy horrors running rampant on it.
But you had created this part of the world to contain only magical golems for centuries, according to you, earlier in the story. It played a crucial point where the protagonist became deeply involved with them and is part of their backstory. And more problems come up.
This is of course all exaggerated for the example. I am not saying that you would make such blatant mistakes, but I know in my own past I have created many mistakes in my own stories and it took a lot of editing to create believability and true conflict. So your best bet is to create a reference of some sort.
No cheating either. Writing an outline to your story and worldbuilding in it can be riddled with problems as well.
There is no wrong way to build a world, but there are factors of believability. A world should always be built to be believable, unless of course you are talking in terms of Terry Pratchett, then by all means go wild. But for the more “serious” writers of fantasy and sci-fi, you will want to incorporate realistic elements into the world.
When creating a world, there must be a level of believability. Yet many misunderstand this notion all together.
It doesn’t just mean that you have to make the magical system plausible. It doesn’t mean that the biology of a creature must make sense. Even the laws of physics can be played with. Of course, that is not to say that there is no merit in writing with those in mind, if anything, your readers will love you for it. The issues I am talking about lead to problems within other segments of the worldbuilding process.
The holy land from above, is it not believable that it has been consecrated by its clerics and priests? Yes, that is believable.
But is it believable that this holy land is the size of Russia? No, not really. However, can you make that believable? Yes.
The clerics and priests spent centuries consecrating their holy land, but problems lurk in the holy lands. Holiness may leave certain areas, due to stretching over too much land.
Maybe the land isn’t losing holiness due to over stretching, maybe it is warping over the distances, losing its purity. Creating corrupted holy beings and clergy. Does this mean they are evil? No. Though, it could mean that they are a little over zealous. It could also mean touching into some darker stuff than they should be using for the greater good of the holy land.
What can that mean for surrounding nations? Could their governments form different due to the outskirts of the lands being warped? Sure the inner lands ad sweet and holy, but the warped outer stretched lands make the land as a whole seem scary and over zealous. So how would governments respond to that? Would the ban the religion? That is believable? Would there be laws against such holy magics? Yes, that is also believable.
What about magic being done in these areas? Would they be messed with in this area so close to the boarder? More than likely. Would casters stay away from these places? Yes.
So, how would that be all unbelievable? If the surrounding nations didn’t have anything to say about these warped areas. If the government did nothing so close to warped holy magic. If mages just simply faced no problem around such disfigured magic. It is very unlikely that no one would take some kind of notice of this over stretched magic. Something must react to it all, and if you have nothing reacting on some level of worldbuilding, you are creating an unbelievable place.
What of the golems? Could it not be said that some of those golems were still intact in the consecration of the holy land? Yes. In fact, it would seem odd if they weren’t around at all; that is a level of unbelievability.
What if the golems that did remain became leaders in the faith of the holy land? Very unbelievable. As cool as it seems, it wouldn’t work on a believable level. Why would the clergy accept a being without a soul? If souls do exist on this world. Why would they allow what is basically a machine tell them how they should be following their faith and guiding down that line? The very notion would be blasphemous.
At the most, these constructs would be guardians or walking holy books, able to recite and quote anything the clergy would need. That would be believable.
These are ideas on what it means to create a believable world, and notions to avoid making something unbelievable.
The World Shapes Us As We Shape It
Worldbuilding and character development go hand in hand, if not, surgically attached in ways that would leave a mad scientist in envy and awe.
This idea sometimes eludes writers. How often is it do we read about a character that is completely unlike everyone in the town they live in? They think differently and believe in different things. They are even more open-minded than most everyone else around them. It isn’t wrong to create a character, especially your protagonist, to be different from all the other people in the town or city or wherever else they live or grew up in. It is their unique qualities and situations that drew us to them in the first place, but it is cliché to design a character that is completely lacking in any characteristics that show the reader they came from X place-location-world-land wherever.
Where (or when) people, and your characters, are from determines a lot of their ethics, morals, and who they are.
Let’s look at an example.
A character born in the holy lands, maybe your main character, will keep some of their customs. They were raised there and they will hold all, if not, some of their ethics and morals.
Is it deemed wrong for any man to preach the word in the holy land at night, because it would mean corrupting the land? But women, the fertile beings they are, have permission to do this because they are like the land and can birth and sustain life?
If that is the case, your protagonist will not agree with any man speaking of religion, no matter their religion, at night. It would be sacrilegious.
But what if you didn’t want your protagonist to keep their faith anymore, what if they left it? They would still hold some of it on some level or another. Maybe they don’t believe in that myth of preaching at night, but you would see your character becoming very uncomfortable about men speaking on religion at night. It would be something that is a part of who they are.
Don’t believe me? Here are two examples, one historical, the other personal and recent.
If you know your American history, you know that Abraham Lincoln had his hand in freeing the slaves. This idea of
his, this moral, separates him from all the rest, but is it too drastic? Well, let us look into the time period and what it was like:
– The North did not agree with slavery, but the South did.
-Women did not have equal rights.
– Black people did not have rights at all.
These known factors played a part in how people functioned at this point. Abraham Lincoln believed that every person should be free, but he did not believe that black people, women completely out of the question, should practice the same equal rights as white men. This is exactly what makes him a part of his community, his time, yet he is still apart from it. He shows us that though he may be different from them, even think differently, that he is still from this community.
Even better, the historical impact on our world, we have many black people today who argue against Lincoln and his moral view on them. They too are shaped by this history and they shape the world still from that point.
Your character is developed similarly. They may think differently, if they do at all, from everyone else, but that doesn’t mean they have an exclusive set of morals from everyone else.
You may then ask: What about characters abused and ridiculed by their home, town, people, etc?
A friend of mine had very bad experiences with their family and community, due to their own personal views. This friend was raised in a very catholic family and it was the religion that brought on the conflict. Years of feuding with their family and the community at large lead them to abandon their faith and become an agnostic. They are different from the rest, but there will always be remnants of their community in them.
They told me that they want to baptized their children.
I asked, “Why? You don’t believe in that religion anymore.”
They said “I don’t like the idea of my children not being baptized.” And proceeded to explain that it went against their morals.
Morals and beliefs make up a huge part of the world, because it is the world that creates them, as they create the world. Your characters may be different, but there will always be a piece of “home” in them. This goes for all the factors of your world, the government, history, magic, the whole shebang. What it comes down to is how you are going to build your world and how believable your characters will be in that world.
Places, people, histories, magics, anything, these all enter when you are building your world. I encourage you to create your world, no matter how little you write, make something up, you would be surprised as to what is on and in your world.