This is an area that I always worry that I am weak on. I know some people love the richness of fantasy worlds, and there are fans that almost get lost in the made up worlds, learn the languages and stuff like that. I have never been one of these people.
I like the story and the characters and to me the worldbuilding is more of a function of plot than anything else. I like to write fantasy and scifi for the flexibility. You can change the history, the geography, the cultures, anything to fit into the story that you want to tell.
So I world build as I plot, I think what kind of background would this person have, what kind of world would this situation occur in, what would have had to happen in the past to make these two countries hate each other, etc. I try to be logical and realistic, and I keep the world similar to ours unless there is a reason not to, but I worry that my worlds might come across as bland or generic.
But I like my worlds, and I think they fit the story I want to tell. I don't like a lot of wierd fantastic stuff thrown into a world for no apparent reason, but I wonder if others do.
Anyway, what are your thoughts. How do you world build? Do you enjoy reading about fantastic, creative worlds, or do you like worlds more grounded in reality?
I think OSC was correct when he wrote that you really need to establish rules for your world. How does magic work, how much technology is there, what are some basic customs, all of these things need to be at least partially sketched out.
Still, I've been taking a slow route to my world building by writing short stories. I had already established Five Horizons in one story, in another I figured out how far they were from Five Horizons in order to build two more locations, Steelmouth and Newcomerstone that needed to be set in some mountains.
As I discover more of the world, the laws I created for the first story are reinforced, fleshed out, and built on. So, in the first story there is a mention to the limits of technology and how it is taboo. In my latest story, I'm using land yachts so there is a conflict when a religious authority warns about the horseless carriage. Since sail boats are okay, and a land yacht is the same level of technology, I can still use them. Since I don't want a lot of people to have much technology, I can use the taboo to limit the number of people who will use the land yachts.
To me at least, the world is richer with each story, but the basic rules had to be established first.
I almost always build my world first. Most of the high fantasy I write begins with daydreaming about mythology. Then there are the days I sit down and draw maps. I like to imagine "What would cause these countries to be at war? What would unite them? What kind of system of government do they have? What are their religeous beliefs?" Then my interest narrows down to the individual people. I start to make up lives and problems and that's when the stories come. That way I don't have to jump through hoops as I write, scrambling to figure out what this group's background is, or why those people live out of wagons or what makes that city so powerful. It's all there in the maps, in the journals full of history, in the dictionary of languages (yes I write languages, but mostly for fun). Most of it doesn't make it into the novel, but it helps me with the process. And when I try to write without these building blocks, my thoughts are too scattered and my foundation is sand. The story just isn't as compelling to me because I don't have a sense that this is a real world.
That isn't to say that you are doing it wrong. I don't think there is a right or wrong way. I think if you are trying to follow too many "rules" you'll miss out on the enjoyable aspects of the craft. If you like the worlds you create, don't worry about the rest. Your love for your characters will come through and carry the story.
In order to develop this skill of worldbuilding I've decided to go 'old school' - I've, over the years, bought books and audiobooks on:
Antropology, archeology, rise of civilizations, history of trade, a history of mining land resources, history of the romans and greeks, important battles, courses on philosophy, rise of nations and states, world history, politics, machiavelli's the prince, important historical figures, how technologies changed the world, linguistics, history of weapons, military strategy and tactics, land seas air power, the rise of religion, the rise of institutions in society, economics, psychology, sociology, a treatise on various governments, a history of lawmaking, and a study on the pursuit of power.
Hm. I may not get done with these in this lifetime...
I've done much the same as billawaboy. I've read basically every book I've been able to get my hands on when it comes to history and society in general. (Billawaboy, have you actually read Machiavelli's The Prince? I was bored to tears, I'm ashamed to say.) I was also fortunate enough to be born into a military family and lived all over the world. I think Europe first inspired me to invent worlds. The writing came much later. I'd suggest traveling, but it's not exactly cheap. Now that my dad is retired and I'm on my own, I use the internet for my globe-hopping expeditions. If I need to know what something looks like, I glue myself to my laptop until I have more information than I know what to do with. (This is cheaper than buying books, and subsequently book cases to store them. Though I've done plenty of that, too.)
But my advice still remains: do what works for you. I'm a little obsessive about research, but if you know what you want your world to be like, you won't have any use for research.
I do it like you do, MAP. The world is a setting. You have the option of develop your setting during the show itself. I believe you can't conjure up a good world with reason, no offense intended to the rest of you.
A human being probes the World with its senses and then builds its own model, a simulation if you will. If that simulation differs from the original too much, the person is nuts. If you want to make the world believable to at least semi-normal people, you have to know as much as possible about the World around you and then create a simulation in your mind of that brand new world. Therefore reading up on stuff is useful. In my experience, keeping notes makes the setting stiff. You have to feel your world, experience it.
One thing to note: I tried reading history books but I had difficulty remembering what I read. Then I found a modification of a certain computer game where fans were disappointed with the historical inaccuracy of it and made every effort into producing it for themselves. The game became a history lexicon and I cannot believe how much I've learned just by playing it.
[This message has been edited by MartinV (edited April 18, 2010).]
In my case, the extent of worldbuilding depends on the story and its length. For a short story, I'll write a back-of-the-envelope outline of the story first. Part of the characters' environment peeks out of that outline. Then I'll think of that environment while I write and tweak the world in rewrites.
For novels, I write a treatment of the story, then I'll do the whole worldbuilding thing. It's easier to actually write the story when you've got the environment developed ahead of time. If your character is going to move around, you'll need a map. If there is a magic system or technology level, you need to make notes of that. Any cultural thing is better written down, so when you write the actual story, you have less chance of having to stop and go back to insert new stuff.
When I did NaNoWriMo, pre-building my world let me speed along and still have something somewhat readable at the end.
I've read or been interested in nearly all the things billawaboy cites at one time or another, plus a couple. I never thought of them as research. I was just reading, or watching documentaries, or taking classes in topics that interested me. But I can see how that has crept into my worldbuilding.
For THE SHAMAN'S CURSE and THE IGNORED PROPHECY (and the rest of the series, if it gets that far), I have about 20 pages of world-building materials. Mostly detailing the different cultures. For the major cultures it pretty much includes everything--what kind of shelters they live in, what they wear, what they eat, how their economy and political systems work, religions and festivals, marriage customs, how they raise their kids. And a map.
I've done less formal worldbuilding for other things. There's no map for BLOOD WILL TELL. Then again, it's largely an urban fantasy and about two-thirds of the story takes place here. Literally here in my home town.
I don't have any written worldbuilding for DREAMER'S ROSE, either. But there's really only one culture involved there and I have a pretty good idea how everything works and what the history behind it is. And a map. I was a little lost on the worldbuilding on this one until I remembered my trip to Princess Louisa Inlet and then the map and the world just sort of fell into place.
And now I come to think of it, I don't have a map or very much worldbuilding at all for SEVEN STARS. Another clue about what's wrong with that one. Before I start up again, I need to flesh things out a lot more. I might need to draw myself a map, too.
When I looked back at my novel that I dabbled in writing for many years before I knew anything about what I was doing I realized that while it wasn't horrible, it needed a whole lot more world building - especially if it was going to be the beginning of a multi-book series. So that is my task now.
When I look back at my older writing that is what is missing most and what is obviously a challenge for me. I am now doing the world building and defining the magic system and establishing histories. This has certainly increased my interest in politics and history so I can better understand how to structure these things in my world. I am also considering getting some rpg world building software to help with my maps and such.I've had trouble keeping scale when I try to draw them myself. (I'm open to any suggestions on map making, by the way.)
The biggest reason I am doing this is because I realized that readers need something specific to latch onto to root for, to despise and to help them understand the world. The better defined these things are the more connected they will feel. This might seem obvious but as a previously bare bones writer it is an important realization for me.
So I am creating a great deal of notes as thoughts occur to me and at some point I will distill those thoughts to create and solidify this insubstantial world I have been stumbling around in. Hopefully I will find my footing.