I’m lucky in a lot of ways. 1) I got my hair ombré-d last September and haven’t had to touch it up since and 2) I can pinpoint the exact moment when I discovered my great love of creating stories. I was eight years old, flipping through a Legend of Zelda guidebook while my brother navigated through that god-awful Water Temple. Even back then, I was obsessed with maps, but I’d only had atlases to look at. Now I had an actual fictional map, and it was like setting off a firecracker. I immediately forgot it was my turn to play and got to work with my crayons. A few scribbles later, I had a map of my own. It was a terrible Zelda knockoff, but I didn’t care. My mind was racing. I was already thinking about the people who lived in the little dot cities and what monsters ruled the oceans and mountains. So begins my obsession with world-building, which is easily my favorite part of writing, and one I don’t think any story can be without.
Naturally, some stories require more world-building than others. A fantasy is going to have a lot more intense work than a contemporary, but world-building is equally important to both. In my opinion, world-building isn’t just a way to create the bones of your world. It’s a way to completely envelope yourself in its skin. You might not need to know the layout of your protagonist’s high school, but once you do, it’s that much easier imagine your characters in it. You basically remove one more barrier between yourself and the story, to the point where you’re not even writing it at all. You’re living it, and just happen to be jotting down what’s happening.
I’m a big believer in copying what works, so I’m going to outline what works for me when I start a new project. My own stories err on the side of the fantastical, with expansive worlds and back-story. Summary: I go pretty hard on world-building. My method is probably bit of overkill for a lot of genres, but applies very well to historical, fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal.
Of course, you’ve gotta kick things off with the kernel of an idea. What kind of story do you want to tell? It can be as simple as one sentence. The rest will come in the world-building, I promise you. Let’s take an example: a boy decides to masquerade as a long lost prince.
I personally like to start with a map. It’s what got me into writing, and it’s just a hobby of mine. Again, not all stories require a map, but anyone can use one. Do it for neighborhoods or star systems, whatever. My favorite tools for mapmaking are graph paper, pens, and Photoshop or its equivalent. Computer programs are particularly helpful for using layers to denote things like geographical formations, roads, political borders etc. My very best advice regarding making maps is to read maps. Atlases are great, and I personally use Google maps on a daily basis. Just have fun and tool around. Look at how rivers interact with coastlines, where lowlands are, how mountains affect nation-building etc. Fictional maps are a must as well. My favorites are, of course, Middle-Earth, Westeros, and Narnia.
After the maps, I like to have a brief history leading up to my story time. Just the basics. Why this place is a monarchy, where the people migrated from, etc. Emphasis on the word brief. This is not the world of your story, but it is a bit of the foundation. Where would Lord of the Rings be without the Second Age? Or Westeros without Aegon’s Conquest? I’ll stop.
Maps and intense histories don’t have to be necessary to the reader (i.e. Harry Potter), but I think they’re essential to the writer. I personally would go nuts if I didn’t have a map of the Red Queen world at hand, even though it’s not something a reader needs to refer to every five seconds.
Back to the example. Now that your basic map and history is set, you know the boy pretending to be a prince grew up in those cool islands you drew. He was raised a pirate. Now he’s got to hide that rough and tumble upbringing to pass himself off as the heir to the throne. See where I’m going? Every step of world-building adds another layer. Bones, then muscle, then skin. Metaphors!
After maps, I usually start my info doc. If you don’t have them already, get down the basics about mountains, rivers, countries, cities, peoples, cultures, languages etc. Basically take your map and fill in the blanks. Go wild. As you do, you’ll naturally want to expand out. Oh, that’s called Whitetooth Mountain? Why? Giant wolves live there? Cool! Write it down! Use it! Go through Wikipedia and random history articles for inspiration. Pretty much all of A Song of Ice and Fire (minus the magic stuff) comes straight from historical events. Remember the Red Wedding? Look up the Black Dinner! I also advise going wild with family trees. I certainly do. Each piece of this will get your story muscles working, and it will be so easy to leap into characters and plot. You’ve pretty much built the mold, and now it’s just a question of pouring a person in. You’ve laid all the groundwork, so the character will pretty much shape themselves.
Now pirate boy has parents, friends, maybe a religion or educational background. You know him. You know what he sees when he wakes up, and why he wants to get so far away from it. This is where plot comes in. Just like character, you’ve got a mold, and you have all you need to fill it up. Pirate boy turned prince. Build from that. Outline, bullet point, index card. This is always the hard part for me (I hate outlining), but it pays off in the long run. By the time you’ve got your outline ready, you not only have a great story, but you’ve got a deep one at that. You know what city pirate boy is going to sail to, and who lives there. It will be second nature to describe, because you already understand it. You built it. This is your world, and it’s that much easier to control.
A word of caution: I am a chronic over world-builder. I get hamstrung by this all the time. I go too deep and I burn out. Red Queen is the project I did the least amount of building on (and it was still a lot), and it was also the first novel I finished. That’s me. I’ve got a limit as to how far I can build before I crap out and get bored. So whenever you feel that twinge and think of greener pastures, sit back. Even if you don’t have outlines, write down some prose. I’m a big believer in quote docs. I have one for every project, where I basically write lines, dialogue, and descriptive prose about stuff I know will happen, or stuff I just think would be cool to include. My favorite lines from my books usually come from these docs, and they’re a nice little carrot to keep you going. “I know this awesome comeback happens in two chapters! I need to get there!”
I can go on forever about world-building (and my Middle-Earth atlas), but I’m going to take my own advice and reel it in. At the end of the day, the point is to feel comfortable in the world you’ve made. You’ll know when you get to that point, because you’ll close your eyes and see what your characters see. Beyond that, you’ll see what came before, what’s beyond that hill, who lives in that house, etc. It’s like shooting practice before a basketball game. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you don’t have to think, and it’s all just feel. That’s my favorite way to write, although it makes me look a bit crazed (according to my roommates).
What are your favorite world-building methods? Better yet, favorite maps and fictional worlds? I won’t lie to you, I am thirsty as hell for an official map of Panem. WHY DO YOU TORMENT ME SO, SUZANNE COLLINS?
Victoria Aveyard is the author of RED QUEEN coming Winter 2015 from HarperTeen.
Victoria graduated from the University of Southern California with a BFA in Screenwriting. She is an avid film fan, and lets movies and television take up way too much of her time. Currently, she is hard at work on the second book in the RED QUEEN series, her next film project, and keeping up with her voracious tweeting appetite.