Even before I read my first novel, as a young child, I was studying world history out of a sample “A” volume of the World Book Encyclopedia my family owned.
The more I learned about history, the more I realized how awesomely big it was.
Even if I learned the places and dates of World War II battles, there were always smaller stories that went on in the midst of those battles. Dogfights, individual cruisers (and their crews), small units of a dozen men cut off behind the lines.
And even if I were able to learn “all about” the 20th Century, there was still the 19th Century, and the 3rdCentury before Christ.
During any year or event of history, there are millions of stories – the “stories of history.”
It quickly became obvious that I would never know all of history – it was too big. And that fascinated me.
You could “see” the rudiments of history with the naked eye, but if you grabbed a magnifying glass and looked closer, there was always more history. Like a fractal.
The Magnifying Glass on Fiction
A fiction story generally exists within the magnifying glass. You don’t read stories about galactic battles or tribal migrations without being zoomed in. It wouldn’t be interesting. I think this is the prime reason why students consider history boring – they don’t have a connection with the “story” of history through real stories.
And that’s why fiction novels have to be real stories, not collections of facts.
Herman Wouk’s epic Winds of War wasn’t about “World War II” so much as it was about the lives of individuals whose own stories told the bigger story.
The other thing that fascinates me, now, as an author, is how fiction stories are often more interesting if they’re set in a fictional world that mimics the size and awesomeness of history. J.R.R. Tolkien developed maps, histories, poetry, even fake languages for The Lord of the Rings.
Some stories can exist within a very small “world.” The story doesn’t require a larger context, and might even be distracting if they had one.
A story about a New York businesswoman and her travails at work may not need to connect to a world anywhere outside of her high-rise. Maybe just someone on the phone in London. But that colleague in London might as well be in Helsinki or Kalamazoo, unless the story requires dialogue about fish & chips or some pseudo-historical event to be going on in the background.
Your mystery readers may or may not need to know that your murder victim marched at Selma. But if your villain was also involved in the JFK assassination you’ll have to provide historical context, perhaps including matters related to the Cold War, race relations or rock & roll. Otherwise your story will lack immersion.
Literary genres require “worlds” less than science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction. And historical fiction, unless it’s “alternative,” already has its world written. Fantasy and sci-fi need their worlds to be imagined anew – a process called worldbuilding.
If your hero is a “Wozan Warrior,” you need to know what that means. Who are the Wozan, and why are they at war, and with whom?
|A planning map of Orinthia showing tribal migrations.
If, instead, your hero is abducted from his living room by spies of the Zilgan Space Empire, you’ll need to understand a lot about their history in order to write a believable, immersive story.
Authors often need a world – real or imagined – to work from. Such a context, even if it’s not directly relevant to the story, allows you to create richer, deeper, more empathetic characters and plotlines.
The process of worldbuilding deserves a whole article of its own, and when I do that I’ll link it here.
But in general your world needs to be scalable. Your world needs to be big enough that when your readers wonder about the big picture, or when you’re trying to provide significant details, there’s something to see with either the naked eye or the magnifying glass.
Connections: Hows & Whys
Fictional worlds are built the same way real history is – piece by piece, detail by detail, almost person by person. The kinds of things you need might include:
- Historical events, perhaps reaching back a long way (how did the tribes or countries develop?)
- Important leaders – who “matters” in this society?
- Cultural, philosophical, religious or occupation groups
- For the most major of those groups, what do they believe and how does it impact the world?
- Societal tensions – who hates who, who protects who, and why?
- Geography – Knowing the lay of the land helps, literally and figuratively, but additionally what land/water features make places special?
- Major features of the main city (or planet, or planetary city), if there is one – major buildings, thoroughfares, gates
- What special magic or technology is important for the story – what makes it work?
- What dependencies does the culture have? Are there potentially shortages which could cause problems?
There’s more. There’s always more. And that’s half the fun!
One thing to remember is everything is connected. If a city is in the middle of the desert, it has to have a source of water or food. Wells? A river? Magical food delivery/creation? If either isn’t there, then the city will rely upon merchants to haul stuff in. That means it’s vulnerable to a siege (IF the siege force has a supply source too).
If your space empire needs a lot of FTL starships, and they require a special fuel, in a real universe that fuel would have to come from somewhere. Many stories finesse this and assume the source of supply is secure. But it can become an important plot device if you need dilithium crystals, say, and there’s only one planet nearby where you can find a replacement for your shattered drive system.
The good news is you don’t have to provide every detail. Just the ones that matter. It matters more the bigger and more epic your story is. A series of books set in a world of high fantasy probably is going to require a pretty detailed worldbuilding project.
Still, you can get away with a “design-build” concept – develop as you write – if you’re careful.
Constantly Growing, Never Finished
Take my epic fantasy universe, for instance – the World of Orinthia. I started developing the world I’m using all the way back in 1998. A lot has changed since then, which required careful attention to keep things from going awry.
When I decided to turn it into a novel series I had to do both, writing and worldbuilding.
I can tell you the worldbuilding is nowhere near done. I haven’t fleshed out everything for books 12 and 15, for instance, because they will dwell upon cultures I haven’t had to tell much about in my first book, Uprooted. But Uprooted did mention a lot of the background for my world, and the worldbuilding for those details had to be at least partially fleshed out before I could write sensibly about them.
I am presently devoting many hours to building my world out further before writing books 2 or 3 or 4. Why? Because without a good framework to draw from you run the risk of “continuity errors.” If I mention the Zoolies in book one, and tell something specific about them, I cannot easily go back in book 3 or 4 and contradict that point.
So the more you write, the more you lock yourself in. That’s okay to a point, but a pilot would call that “flying by the seat of your pants.” It’s risky, because you may accidentally paint yourself into a corner, or even introduce a major contradiction that will make you have to change your whole plot arc from what you intended.
The safe practice is to build what you need, and then build a little further. Keep building as you keep writing so that you, the author, are always more sure of your world and the material you have to work with than your reader ever needs to be.