Sometime last year I began working on the setting for my Ferum Republic story and quickly saw a lot of potential for an expansive setting. As a result, my mind turned more to the subject of world building theory than it has done before for any writing project. When I wrote character stories for EVE Online I was working within someone else’s setting. It was pre-built and ready to use. All I needed to do was to shape a character to fit into it, and come up with a story that uses those pre-existing elements in the world. I am not going to say this was an easy thing to do, because it presents it own challenges none the less. But there is nothing quite like building your own world from scratch. I find something deeply satisfying to come up with a basic idea and then start fleshing it out. You find yourself collecting little ideas as you work on the bigger ones, putting them to one side thinking they will go nowhere, only to have an idea at night while lying in bed that blows that small scrap of an idea up into something large and awesome.
It all starts somewhere, of course, and grows out of something small like a seed. I had intended this blog to be about that process of inventing the starting point, but I could not think how best to present it. And to be honest, that is is not what world building is about to begin with. Ultimately, it is on you to find your starting point and inspirations. I have yet to find a ‘How To’ guide on that subject. World building is about how you grow your setting, and keep track of it. The kinds of things you need to think about as you add more to the world you are creating such as the social structures, family bonds, industrial or economic factors, religions, even the political relationships between different countries. At least, if required for your story. Not all of this is needed information and might not matter at all to your story. There is no need to plot out the entire government of the country if they will never feature at all in your story about a school trip in a fantasy kingdom.
I decided to collect some thoughts I have had while writing the setting for Ferum, as well as sharing some revelations I have had on the subject of world building. I still have to read the book I bought from cover to cover, though I have dipped into different sections and found some of it quite useful. As I continue fleshing out Ferum, and other story settings in the future, I may keep a running journal of my thoughts on the subject of world building, too.
Mapping Out History
Mapping out the history that leads up the beginning of the story can be important when it comes to comprehending how to move forwards. This does not need to be a complete historical volume of the nations of the world, stretching back several hundred years. It could also be the life of the main characters up to the start of the story, giving you a good springboard into the starting scenes. Having a historical reference can also help with future plot elements for any part of your setting, or giving you good ideas for character arcs. You might also get ideas for new storylines that emerge from the history of the setting. Was there an old resistance movement that is growing in popularity again on a political platform? Did one of the characters make a mess of something a decade ago, and didn’t know he has pissed off an underworld crime lord with powerful political connections?
I have found with my current writing that knowing more of the history has given me some fresh ideas to work into the world and has really helped me fill in a particular blank portion of the story plan. Even if it doesn’t give you something huge to play with, you will know enough about the world that your characters inhabit and can make them feel a part of it instead of just being in it instead.
Mapping Out The World
In line with the idea of planning the history of the story setting or characters, I find it helps a lot to have a map of the story world for very similar reasons. In fact, depending on the story at least, it can be as important when it comes to knowing the history of the world. Geopolitical boundaries, and how they have moved over the years due to wars are of great importance to my Ferum Republic story plan. Having a visual map to see where those borders are has helped me put parts of the story together. I can see parts of the world where border disputes can cause friction with neighbours. And, more importantly, why that friction is present. I cannot be as simple as ‘They want that land!’ so they will fight over it. You need to know why and the lay of the land can be a factor in finding that answer.
And, again, it doesn’t need to be so huge if that does not suit the specifics of a story. It could be as little as a town map showing the area where your story takes place. Or even a floor plan for an important location. None of this needs to translate specifically into the narrative, as that can become dull and overly detailed. But having a good idea of the lay of the land has, at least for me, helped me get over the hump of picturing a scene so I can write it better.
Mythology And Religion
Again, this is something that may not feature in all stories depending on the setting and the theme. Or even be something strictly religion or mythology based, as it could also apply to oddities in the world such as vague mysticism or paranormal activity. Either way, something along these lines will likely exist in the world setting in some form and it should always beg the question: “What is it and will it add something to my story?” The answer may be a firm “No” which is fine, too. So don’t worry about writing the entire religious texts for a whole society if you’re never going to use even just 10% of it in your works. Conversely, don’t worry about obsessing over this level of detail should the answer to that question be a “Yes” either. Even if, again, you will only feature a small portion of it in the story. Wider context will be easier to work with. And as with the above points, they can all serve to provide good plot hooks and new story arcs based along these lines.
Again, with my Ferum story, I stumbled into the idea of a religion based on angelic guardians of mankind and had little idea at that point how they might feature in my ongoing plot. I have, since that incidental mention of this religion in the first part of the story, written a whole bunch more notes on the structure of the church of this religion and the figures within it. Namely the Seraphym themselves and what they stand for within their pantheon. If only to give myself that wider context I sought to move forward with them as a background feature. And now I am finding I will be thrusting them right into the centre of the plot with a whole story arc encompassing not just the religion itself but its hidden depths and lost histories. If anything.
With all this said, it is also good to embrace the idea of there being no religion at all in your setting and the reasons for this. Was there a religion in the past? Or, has there never been anything like a religion in this world? What do the people put their belief in without it? Did religion just become obsolete in their society and, if so, why? Again, these are all questions you owe yourself answers to as even the absence of a thing should be questioned as much as its presence would be.
“Hello, my name is…”
Naming things in the world is something I enjoy very much. Though I know, for some, this is often a nightmare. Especially when constructing unique names not rooted in our own cultures. It is hard to be creative in this way, though I personally enjoy the challenge and feel I have a good way to handle it. Not that I can come up with names on the fly, and I frequently end up staring at the screen and making odd noises out loud to myself as I mangle existing words and try to knot them together into something new that does not sound too silly. Either way having a system can help, and sticking to some principles that root the names of people and places to your story setting can be invaluable. Or at least it is to me. I find sticking to a theme of sounds and naming structure for a social setting can help lead my thinking when I need a new name for a new character or location. And it is OK to borrow these from our own real world setting. Sounds and constructs that lend a good flavour to your naming pool that you can further modify to your own tastes in small ways.
Let me move on to some specifics though, as it is easier to simply waffle out these ideas than it is to put them into practice. Let’s say I am writing a story and I have been leaning a little on Greek culture for inspiration. I may as well grab some names from that too and work them into my story. A name generator with a lot of features can be useful here so if you want to follow along then go ahead and load this site I am using and browse to the Real Names – Hellanic section and see what it gives you that you like. I am just ground to grab a name at random here for a female character:
We have our basic starting point. Of course, you could stick to it should this name appeal to you as it is. Or you could modify it a little while trying to keep the overall sound. Change a single syllable’s sound, or remove one. Swap a letter for a different one or add another. Some examples:
Thimarea – Added the R after the first A. This rolls off the tongue a little better.
Themaea – Changed the I to an E. Sounds similar when spoken aloud but slightly different.
Simaea – Entirely different after changing the Th to an S. I don’t feel this one fits the theme, though and suddenly sounds a little more Middle-Eastern.
Anyway, you get the idea. Of course, you can make more than one change, lengthen the name, even grab another from the list and try to stick them together. Either way, it helps to try and stick to similar names within the cultural identities in your story, if at all relevant. And if not then overall it will help make the world feel more put together and consistent if you try and make the names fit the setting. I have recently read a series of books where I felt this principle was not applied and, while the story was still great, I felt the names had been plucked entirely out of thin air and the author just made some random sounds before putting them into his cast list. It didn’t spoil the story for me as such, though the names still felt out of place in the rest of the world setting as nothing reinforced anything else.
Another tip I can share with you, especially if you struggle to make names on the fly while writing, is you should dedicate a little time when not writing your story to make a list of names you can grab from at a later date when needed. This is something that was featured in a roleplay system called Apocalypse World. The Game Master tool set came with a list of names you can grab from in a hurry if needed. They were themed along similar lines and the list served to prevent a slowdown in the active narrative of the game. This can apply to writing, too. You may be mid-flow and on a roll, typing up a storm, and then find your characters needing to be told a name. “You should speak to someone who knows more about that artefact. There’s an archaeologist at the University in…” Aw hell, I have to name something! Panic! And then twenty minutes go by before you get a town name you like and your flow is gone. The alternative being you simply put something like ‘TOWN 1’ there instead, and every other instance of that town’s name coming up, and add a comment or annotation to the document file stating the need to come up with a name later so you don’t lose it. And then you have to backtrack again in the future to edit it once you have an idea, but you have to set time aside anyway later to invent the name and blergh!
So, when you find yourself with a little spare time, you should brainstorm a few lists. Male and female names. Town/city names. Countries. And so on. Whatever you find you might need or have trouble coming up with on the fly. It doesn’t have to be epic or anything. Twenty or so names for each will do in total. And you don’t need to dedicate a whole afternoon to this or have the name generator site close to hand. Make notes on your phone using a notepad app while you are out and about. Look at street signs, mangle those words. Look at business names on buildings, chop that up and stitch it together again in a different order. Or several of them to make a kind of Frankenword! Out for dinner? What’s on the menu… chew the word up and blerf it out into something new. When you get home, add it to your master list for future use.
Organisations And Structures
Depending on your story, there will be a need at some level to make a chart or spreadsheet of some kind that maps out an organisation or a family tree, just to keep it all straight in your head and give you a good reference point to work from in the future. I have recently found a need for this while writing my Ferum arc. Sometimes this is a simple prospect such as knowing who is related to who and in what way. Other time it will be much deeper and you may even need to do some wider research in the process. An example relevant to my current writing would be the military organisation of the Ferum Army and the chains of command within. I have personally never been too knowledgeable about this, and my need to become better versed in the subject highlighted how important a chart would be for this. As I started it soon became a more complicated affair. Suddenly I had questions to answer such as, how large is a regiment? What exactly is the difference between that and a brigade? How many companies would this hold, and of how many soldiers? How many men would a general typically command?
It might seem like obsessive detailing, but again it will all help me as the writer to realise the world to a better degree and make it feel more real. And in this case, the details will come out in the story in some form, and accuracy of information will help. However, I will not lie, I have found the research for this to be difficult. And I am no good at making charts. This is all something I will need to work on going forward.
Similar to the above subject, I have begin to adopt a better system of tracking the cast of my story. Before, I relied on a mega list document in which I listed all the character names by social grouping and some details about them. This has worked… well, OK it has not been great. I simply stuck to it as it was a system I knew instead of a system that worked well. I have slowly moved away from this in some small part. Sure I keep a large cast list, broken down into common circles that make sense for the story such as by country, then by organisation and such. What has changed in my handling of this information is extracting extra details and making a dedicated cast sheet for central characters. I keep more information there such as their social circles, key notes for plot arcs, family ties, list of enemies and allies, and so on.
Most of the time I find I use the mega list as a kind of directory. Reminding myself of that minor character name and how to spell it. I have no need to make a detailed sheet for everyone in the story, as most will not even have much that needs fleshing out. For example, Prince Jerriah is escorting his dearly betrothed, Lady Khallia, from the port to the castle when the local cheese merchant complimented her beautiful auburn hair. She is so flattered by this she rewards the merchant with a kiss on the cheek. Prince Jerriah takes the event in his stride with outward grace, but inside he seethes with jealousy and marks this upstart merchant’s face in his mind. One day he might be able to teach him a lesson for such effrontery to his future King. That kind of thing. So the merchant gets a name (or not which is also fine) and is placed on the cast directory. Then he is added to Prince Jerriah and Lady Khallia’s sheets as someone they know, how they know them and what they feel about them.
The merchant doesn’t need a whole sheet just for himself, then then a sheet for the people he employs, people he trades with and so on. It could be never ending if you go that far. It is enough that minor characters be mentioned as a relation of some kind on a main character’s details sheets where they are relevant, and use that main character (or multiple characters) as the go-to point of reference when looking up any info on that minor character, if any at all. After all, it is nearly always going to be the case that the subject of the local cheese merchant will only be brought up in the future in a scene with Prince Jerriah and/or Lady Khallia. The Prince is out riding one afternoon, for example, some way from the city where he sees a carriage with a broken wheel and the same merchant trying to fix it. Or the Lady is back at the market the next week and the merchant is setting up a stall with his new stock, though she barely remembers him from the previous week at the docks as it is. He is just a commoner, after all.
So far I have found this means of tracking character information to be much more useful than a huge list of names and details, which I barely used anyway in previous writing projects now I think about it. I find I am referring to these types of sheets much more regularly when needing a refresher of who is who
And there it is. My current thoughts on world building methods. I hope some of this gives other people some different insights. And please feel free to leave comments below if you want to add something, or share your own thoughts and systems if you feel you have something that works for you.