Worlds are complicated.
Worlds are complicated.

As I mentioned a year or so ago, I really hate worldbuilding. It’s hard for me because it requires a great deal of external description and intricate details. It also stresses me out because my ideas change so much as I write that when I change one thing (say, the name of a country), I have to go back through everything and change each instance, plus comb through each detail to ensure it lines up with my new vision. Frankly, it’s stressful, and it annoys me. As a result, I’ve never undertaken a large creative project, such as a novel, because the genres I write in necessitate a lot of worldbuilding and description and other such things. I avoided it like the plague, actually. However, now that I’ve finally started my first novel, a dystopian sci-fantasy sort of thing, I’ve had to reevaluate my stance on the whole idea. Today, I want to talk about how I’m learning to worldbuild, and how that process is working (or not) for me.

I have some writer friends who do the majority of their worldbuilding before they even sit down to write the story. That method, however, doesn’t work for me; as I mentioned above, my ideas change too much as I write for me to be comfortable with committing to a world before I begin to put my characters in it. What I’m doing for this project, instead, is to take the very basic idea of the world that pops into my head when the plot outline does, and scribble it down in a notepad somewhere. When I started my novel, I only knew two things about the world: the class divisions and the factor that distinguishes my world from any other dystopia (not that I’m going to tell y’all what it is. I don’t do spoilers, least of all for my own novel). I held very firmly to those two notions, as they were what separated all of my characters into their different groups. That was my starting place for the world, and that was all I worried about when I began to write.

Basically, imagine starting with this, and no idea what their surroundings look like.
Basically, imagine starting with this, and no idea what their surroundings look like.

As I wrote the prologue, more pieces of the world started to appear, without me ever having to think them through. Characters from two separate castes were represented in that scene, and as I began to write their dialogue, I suddenly understood how both classes generally viewed and spoke to each other, as well as the history behind their preconceptions of each other. When the violent weather changed the direction of the scene and brought new characters in, I realized what the geography of the world had to be – where everyone lived and why they had to live in those places, and what the commerce system would be like. After I finished writing the prologue, I took some time to write down the new elements of the world that I now understood. The puzzle pieces slowly started fitting together.

The history of my world was a little bit harder and revealed itself differently. I spent long hours agonizing over how the world got into the post-apocalyptic/dystopian state it’s currently in. I didn’t know what the motivations between the central conflict were, how the classes ended up being divided the way they were, or the details behind the powers the members of one particular class display. Eventually, I ended up unable to write any further into my first main chapter because I couldn’t get any characters to explain anything to me. A few nights ago, I had some really bad insomnia, but instead of getting on my computer or reading, like I normally would, I spent about 5 hours just laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and talking to myself about the history of my new world. I started with where my characters are now, and, taking what I had already discovered, started working backwards through the timeline to figure out what happened in the past. As I went through that process, more and more details started showing themselves to me, and next thing I knew, I’d arrived at the zero point: the point in the timeline where everything relevant to my plot began. And suddenly, I knew exactly what had happened. I talked it through the next morning with my patient proofreader, Tom, and he liked where everything is headed. We checked it against what I already had, and everything lined up very nicely 😀 Once I’d written that down, my writing mojo came back, and I got right back into my chapter writing.

I’m still learning new facets of my world as I continue to write, and some minor elements are changing (particularly name structure – I’m really bad at that), but more the most part, I’ve learned how to cope with and understand the elements as they reveal themselves. Some parts I have to put a lot of effort into, but others unfold naturally. Regardless, worldbuilding isn’t as painful as it has been in the past, and I think I finally found the method combination that works for me 🙂 I hope it was helpful to some of you! What other methods do y’all use?

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2 thoughts on “Discovering Worldbuilding

  1. Interesting. Contrasting conscious vs unconscious worldbuilding. You clearly trust your unconscious to do the work and wait for it to develop. I think Hemmingway wrote like this, out of his experience and unconscious process. Mitchner had every detail worked out and graphed and described before he put a word on paper.

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