On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part I


I have a proposal in at Tor for two more Thieftaker books, and I am quite hopeful that I will have good news to share on that front before long.  But I also have other projects in mind, because the reality of today’s writing business is that a full-time author probably can’t make enough with one series to sustain a career.  (Unless, of course, that writer happens to be named something like Martin or Rowling, in which case all bets are off.)

I’m pursuing a couple of urban fantasy projects right now, and I’m hopeful that at least one of them will pan out in the next several months.  Recently, though, I have also been thinking about a new epic fantasy idea.  And that means that, for the first time in several years, I am neck-deep in worldbuilding.

I have covered worldbuilding in previous posts, but I thought it might be helpful (for me as well as for all of you) to touch on the basics again, as a way of reminding myself of things I need to consider as I move forward.  And so, here is my worldbuilding to-do list for my new project.  (Please keep in mind that this is my list; yours might look somewhat different.  Still, the basics I refer to here include many of the creative elements that all worldbuilders should think about.)

1) Create a map.  All right, I should confess that I already have the map done.  See, the world I’m going to use for my new epic fantasy (at least the physical version of the world) is the one I created originally for the Thieftaker books.  But while I have the map completed, that does nothing to diminish the importance of creating the physical space for my new story.  In fact, I have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks re-acquainting myself with the map I made several years ago.  Because map work for a worldbuilder is about far more than oceans and mountain ranges, countries and cities.  It is about defining, in a broad sense, the politics, history, religions, cultures, economies, and customs of the people inhabiting these lands.  So much of who and what we are is defined by our physical surroundings — this is why when I was still an academic, I focused on environmental history.  As I create my maps, I learn about the places I’m building.  I make decisions that have far-reaching ramifications.  Plus, I get to play with maps, which is often its own reward.

2) Imagine relationships.  In this case I don’t mean character relationships — those come much later in the process.  No, right now I am talking about bigger relationships.  The world I’ve created is called Islevale, and I imagine it having a technological level analogous to the early Renaissance.  It is, as the name implies, a land of oceans, seas, and literally dozens of islands, large and small.  Some of the islands are tightly bunched.  Some face each other across strategically important bodies of water.  Some have lots of forest land; others don’t, which becomes important as the various lands attempt to build naval fleets of wooden ships.  Some may be rich in minerals and ores, while others have extensive tracts of farming land, or productive vineyards, or spices that are prized throughout the world.  Each isle has its place in the military, political, and economic interrelationships that inform Islevale’s power structure.  As I work on this aspect of the worldbuilding, I often find it helpful to build historical timelines, to imagine what wars were fought, how alliances shifted and how influence and military prowess might have waxed and waned over the course of decades and centuries.  Not everyone enjoys studying history as much as I did.  But I can tell you that creating history is loads of fun.

3) Develop mythologies and religions.  These can spring from the geography of the land, and/or from the histories and relationships I mention above.  Creation myths often grow out of observable land features, as well as from the exigencies of survival that are dictated by the terrain.  By the same token, myths and belief systems will also, in turn, shape the histories we create.  As we know all too well from our own world, religious conflicts often lead to wars — civil conflicts as well as international ones.

4) Come up with a magic system.  This is the part that is giving me fits right now.  I have some very specific attributes in mind for the magic I want (some of) my characters to wield, but I have yet to find a cohesive magic system that encompasses all that I want to do with the story.  I will say, though, echoing themes from previous posts on creating magic, that I feel all magic systems should have certain elements.  A) Magic should operate under specific, consistent rules, just as laws of physics do in our own world.  It should not bend and flow to accommodate narrative necessities.  Create your magic system and then stick to whatever rules you establish.  That will help make it believable.  B) Place limits on your magic.  Unlimited magic that is easy to use and all-powerful will quickly take over any realistic world or story.  Limiting your magic forces even those characters who wield powerful sorcery to rely on their wits, as well as their spells.  C) (And this is related to B) Make sure your magic carries some cost.  Give it consequences so that using magic requires a choice.  Again, this will make your magic — and your story — more interesting.

Of course, there is more to worldbuilding than just these four steps, and I will touch on the subject again in next week’s post (since I expect I will still be worldbuilding next week . . .).  But probably the most important point I can make before signing off for the day is this:  I list these four steps as if they are discreet, separate, sequential.  In reality, they are none of those things.  Worldbuilding is a deeply organic process.  When it goes well, I find that there is a synergy between my map-making and my development of histories, between the myths I imagine and the relationships I create among nations, between my magic and my religions.  It all works together, and it all comes to me in a wonderfully chaotic rush.

And so, with that, I go back to it (with a break of sorts for copyedits on Thieves’ Quarry, the second Thieftaker book).  What questions do you have about worldbuilding?  What are the most important elements of the worldbuilding that you do?

David B. Coe

36 comments to On Writing and Creativity: Worldbuilding Revisited, part I

  • Cool! I’m looking forward to Thieves’ Quarry and I hope Tor will accept your other proposals. I have to say that all the American history in school kind of soured me on the subject, but Thieftaker revived my interest. Certainly made me look at the Colonial time period differently.

    This is one of my favorite writing topics. The most fun I’ve had in writing my novel was in the worldbuilding. Definitely had to reign myself in!

    You’re so right about how each of the four areas you mentioned overlap and inform each other. To me, it sometimes feels like a huge 3D puzzle with all these interlocking parts – but with no picture as a guide. Some days it’s daunting, but other days it’s absolutely exhilarating!

  • David, Ditto on what EK said. I am looking at new project ideas too and trying to see how I might make yeet a another new career for myself, though I am not very far along yet.

  • Good stuff here–I need to draw a map of my world. It’s urban fantasy, but uf set in a non-our-real world. My maps end up looking like a 5 year old drew them, but at least I can usually understand them.

    Also, is the “s” in Islevale pronounced? The final e? Just curious. 🙂

  • TwilightHero

    A list! I like lists. Let’s see here…

    I have a question about maps. I had mine right from the start, but I still need to expand it to make a ‘full’ version, since the story gets bigger, spreading to two new continents, later on. But not for the first three books, which are only set in the landmass the original map covers. (Yes, I’m planning a large story.) Do you think it’s better to give readers a full map early on, when a lot of the places on that map won’t be explored for some time?

    I’d have to say the most important element of my worldbuilding is the magic system. Major parts of 2) and 3) are built around it. As for the specifics…

    A) Hmmm. I don’t have a lot of overarching rules, beyond that the light side, though weaker, has beneficial side-effects, and the dark side, though stronger, has detrimental side-effects. I admit, I’ve left my magic system a bit very open-ended; within limits, you could use it to manipulate just about any aspect of the physical world – the elements, gravity, and so on. I like that freedom of imagination. Systems that only let you do a few things – play with fire, levitate things, etc. – have always struck me as too restricted. Coming up with new ways to use the same old spells under pressure is, of course, very cool…but I do that anyway 🙂 B) Again, not a lot of major limitations; mostly of the ‘every spell has its strength/flaw’ variety. C) It tires you out. Not very original, but effective. There’s also a cultural cost, in that the dominant mage-organization is viewed with fear and/or hatred. It doesn’t really involve a choice, though, since all who can use magic – like the hero – are automatically conscripted.

    Great post; the island world sounds interesting. Good luck with the worldbuilding 🙂

  • […] Coe revisits “world building” in fantasy… and advocates drawing a map. Interesting. […]

  • Wordbuilding is a blast. Maps, histories, rivalries, family trees, treaties, betrayals, wars, technological advances, magic, gods. And besides accurate histories you get to make up wrong histories that cause all sorts of problems for the deeds of the actual characters. Fun stuff.

  • Crud…sounds quite similar to something I was dabbling with recently, rehashing an old fantasy setting, though I was going closer to an early 1700s feel. Ah well. I have other things to finish first and maybe yours will make it a popular trend by the time I can finish mine and I won’t be an unknown trying to publish an untried setting, but someone trying to add his own voice to the field. 😉

  • Thanks, E.K.! I love worldbuilding, too. For me it is a tremendously creative and exciting phase of a book’s development. And yes, much of the excitement comes from that synergistic interaction of the different moving parts. Glad you’re enjoying it, too.

    Faith, yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m up to, too. We need to compare notes. . . .

    Emily, my maps are not exactly works of art either. But as you say, what matters is that you can read them, and that they help you conceptualize and visualize the world you’re creating. As for the pronunciation, “Islevale” is pronounced with a long “i” and a long “a.” You do not pronounce the “s” or the final “e.”

    Twilight, the way I handled this in the Winds of the Forelands books (which began in one kingdom but spread to others) was to give two maps with each book: one a map of the entire world, and the second a detail of the country on which the book in question took place. That seemed to work pretty well, and Tor was willing to publish two maps in the front matter. Thanks for the info about your magic system — we all take different approaches. That’s what makes reading different books so much fun. Best of luck with your work.

  • CE, yeah, all that stuff is great fun. Good luck with yours.

    Daniel, as we have said here before, there is really no such thing as being scooped. My world bears some resemblance to EarthSea — Ursula K. Le Guin’s legendary creation. But my story is mine, and different enough from hers that it will be original and effective. I’m sure that yours will be different from mine and also innovative and fun. Please don’t let my post discourage you from working on your world.

  • Nah, it doesn’t. As I said, maybe yours will be that catalyst that starts an avalanche that I can ride when I have time to finish mine. 😉 I still have to finish my noir piece, finish revising my sci-fi, finish up an anthology I’m considering going the self-pub route with, revise the first two novels on my epic fantasy trilogy…and write the third…, as well as get all those out to prospective agents/publishers. Plus I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it; I’m swamped. 😉

  • sagablessed

    Blargh. My current WIP -while being pantsed- is making me do this list. With your posst, I guess the Powers-that-be are sending me a clue-by-four.

    Map? My UF work had no basis. I was not even sure of the Country in ‘our world’ it was in. Now I have to think. I know now it is based in Colorado, but where? A real town, or an imaginary one? Or use current map of a place a know and give it a new name? Hmmmmm

    Relationships? Hate you so much now. Daemons in my WIP have complex relationships, as they are ever striving to maintain control over the sources of magic. I have not really thought through who holds what status except the Eldest Daemons….who are all batshite crazy even by daemon standards.

    Mythos. I am using a combo approach: all the old pantheons, demonology, and mythos from multiple culutres, plus Authurian legends. Now, how those relate to the rest of the ‘world’.

    Magic system: Daemons have tainted the flows from Wellspring of the world and placed a ‘sleep’ over mortal kind. But as to how much humans can use now that the Wellspring is fighting back remains to be seen. It is something I have to work on. Can humans use magic without the gods and daemons, or does it require supernatural intervention? I have not worked that out yet. I suppose I had better before I move on, or I risk contradicting myself in the work. And that bugs the pee outta me when I read in someone else’s novel.

    Questions for you? Given the above, what would you say I need to work on the most, or what aspect would be best to set first in concrete, and why?

  • sagablessed

    ps…don’t really hate you, but that question of relationships makes my head spin, lol.

  • Julia

    David, thanks for the post!

    I’m curious about how you make the maps. I struggle with map-making, because I am not especially artistically gifted in terms of pencil and paper drawing — but I do have a strong visual sensibility and would like to be able to see my maps, not just write down physical descriptions of places.

    My efforts so far have foundered, as I find my creativity blocked by my critical view of my own drawing skills. While I wouldn’t mind getting over this tendency, I’d actually most like to find alternative methods of map-making that might play better to my skills. I just can’t figure out how to do it. Any tips or suggestions?

  • sagablessed

    Julia, I have an idea.
    Find one of your friends who can draw to co-laberate. Make you images and describe as s/he is drawing. It’s what I do.

  • 😀 Thanks for that, Daniel — made my day. Yes, it does sound like you have plenty to keep you busy.

    Donald, none of this is easy, or is even supposed to be. I totally understand your frustration (but I’m glad you don’t really hate me). Because I think you need to work out those relationships in detail. Really. The thing you have to remember is that for dark forces and characters to work, they have to make sense at least on some level. So they might be bat-shit crazy to you and me, but for them to be something more than a straw-man-big-bad, they have to have cohesion and logic within their own system. The more logic there is (even if the logic is twisted by human standards, it needs to make sense to them) the more formidable they will be, and the more exciting your book will be. And then you do need to work out the details of magic usage. But that’s just my suggestion. Others might send you in a different direction.

    Julia, I make my maps by using a simple drawing program on my computer — like the free-form pencil tool in photoshop, or something like that. It allows me to make a version of the map that I can easily manipulate in terms of size and proportion, and it saves me from my own artistic shortcomings. Remember to make your lands irregularly shaped, and allow yourself to make odd formations on a sort of random basis. The more odd formations you make, the more features of a shoreline or river you have to name, and, thus, the more stories you have to tell about the history of your land. Again, just my suggestion. Working with a collaborator, as Donald suggests, makes some sense, too, although I’ve never tried it. Best of luck!

  • I think, personally, one of the hardest aspects of world-building is knowing when to stop – how much is enough. In theory it’s not possible to have too much depth and breadth in your worldbuilding. The best speculative fiction always seems to have a lot of thought in that department (take, for example, the ur-example, The Lord of the Rings).

    On the other hand… if your aim is to do this professionally, your average author can’t afford the lifetime of effort that Tolkien put into his Middle-Earth. Not unless (as mentioned in the OP) you happen to be as insanely popular as a Rowlings or a Martin.

    So, for me, I’ve had to draw a line in the sand at some point and say “okay, I have enough background detail to tell the story”. And then start the story. Because otherwise, I could worldbuild almost forever.

  • Also… for those wondering about mapping, I might suggest a forum on that very subject that might prove helpful (for those who are not faint of heart): http://www.cartographersguild.com. I haven’t visited there in a long time, but for a time, as I was knee-deep in remapping a world I’d created, it was a forum I visited regularly. (I still go back for anonymous visits periodically, but haven’t posted anything new to that forum in years.)

    If you’re interested in getting support on how to use a lot of the different computer-aided tools to develop maps (and some of the worldbuilding that goes into maps), you can’t do much better than the Cartographer’s Guild. They’ve got some brilliant mapmakers of all kinds there. It’s heavily focused on fantasy maps, but they also have folks who are expert on sci-fi maps and real-world maps.

  • Nice, Stephen, I’ll give that a look. How are they with basing cartography in reality? I had a map I’d made once that someone that actually studied geography tore apart for inconsistency. That’s one of those things a new map maker needs to watch out for.

  • Stephen, knowing when to stop is one of the topics I plan to cover next time around, because you’re right: That is one of the tougher decisions we have to make. I don’t want to steal my own thunder, but I will say that it often makes sense to begin your worldbuilding with a set of questions, which then help determine both the direction and duration of the process. And thanks very much for the link. Very helpful.

    Daniel, if you check out that site, let us know what you think.

  • Julia

    David, Saga, and Stephen —

    Thanks for the suggestions on mapmaking! Once my current (academic) writing project clears, I’ll check out the forum, play with some computer tools, and keep an eye out for a possible collaborator.

  • Razziecat

    Worldbuilding is fun but it can suck you in to the point where you spend more time writing about the world than you do writing the story.

    Maps: I usually draw them freehand, admittedly they come out looking kind of weird. Once, many years ago, I turned a map of another country upside down and traced it, made some changes, and voila! There was my new world 🙂

    For my current WIP I have a document filled with details under these headings: Terrain, Weather, Flora and Fauna, People, Livelihood, Communication, Education, Travel, Organization of Workers, Families and Government, Commerce, Fighting/Defense, Weapons, Language, Arts/Crafts, Music, Religion, Magic. A lot of the info overlaps other headings because that’s how human society works 😉 This info gives me something to refer to when I need to know what kind of trees or animals are where, what kind of weather a part of the world is likely to experience and how it will affect the story, and so much more.

    I also like to remember these words from Lois McMaster Bujold: “The world comes into being as the story passes through it.” That may not work for everybody, but it sure works well for Ms. Bujold! 🙂

  • My pleasure, Julia — and speaking for Donald and Stephen, you’re welcome. Hope that one of these approaches works for you!

    Razz, it really can suck one in. I have based maps on existing lands, too. Change them enough to wipe away the fingerprints, as it were, and that can be a great approach. I love the way you’ve organized your topics. I might copy that for some of my work, if you don’t mind. And yes, Lois Bujold is right. For all the work I do ahead of time, my worlds don’t truly come alive until the writing begins and my characters and narratives begin to shape them. Thanks for the comment.

  • Razziecat

    Wow, David, I would be honored 🙂 Feel free!

  • Vyton

    David, a very interesting topic. I like your approach. I have always been very interested in Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth. And how can you match the world of T. Pratchett? One thing that paleogeographers do is re-create continents during the geological past. So, for the lack of anything else, one could go to a historical geology text and get one of those maps from the Mississippian Period or the Cretaceous. Who would know?

  • Great post, David! I love world-building! I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.

    For me, the part that sucks me in is the intertwining of the religious, political, magical and cultural/societal structures of each region/nation. I love figuring out how the magic influences the religion and society, how religion affects politics, how one social structure reacts to, or blends into, other cultures. The geography often comes later, as I need physical barriers (mountains, oceans, deserts) to allow very different cultures to arise without being aware of the others. Of course, then the geography (to include all that comes with it, such as plants, animals, weather, etc.) drives additional modifications and changes to the cultures….
    As for maps? I try to use our own world’s evolution (tectonics, erosion, volcanics, etc.) to help create a realistic topography. Unfortunately, my dog draws better than I do. I doubt even Lewis and Clark could navigate by any map I might sketch.

  • I love drawing maps, so that’s one of my favourite parts of worldbuilding. That might be because of my Geography background, but it does become a major focal point. I also find that the maps evolve as the story gets written and I realize I need to change certain elements. I feel like an explorer the first time I draw the map and then the map becomes more refined, more accurate with each subsequent edition.

    My biggest challenge has been trying to figure out magic cost *other* than “character is fatigued after use”. However (since I’m at a write-in and this topic came up) someone just pointed out that having a very limited scope to the powers can also be a way to put a cap on what the characters are able to do.

  • Thought I would add… As I sort of said above, *raises hand* if anyone needs help drawing maps, I’d be happy to assist, perhaps arrange a trade, etc. 🙂

  • Nathan Elberg

    The greatest expert in world-building was Slartibartfarst of the “Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. Everyone admires the award-winning fiords Slartibartfarst designed for Norway. Most people on Earth don’t even realize ours is a constructed world.
    Since our world was so well designed (at least according to Douglas Adams), when I did world-building for my novel Quantum Cannibals, I took parts of earth geography, ethnography and history, and adapted them to my needs. I looked up photographs of the places I used, and read about their peoples and cultures. (I was very careful though to avoid environmental determinism, that is, the concept that a people’s culture is determined by their geography.) I mapped all my characters’ travels, ensuring that I had consistent cardinal coordinates, and measured the distances according to time allocated and means of travel (eg. horse vs. dogsled). I calculated sunlight and darkness for the arctic scenes. I made certain everything was consistent.
    I took one piece of magic from a folktale. Nothing else. I stretched it a bit, careful that I didn’t stretch the story’s credibility.
    Our world is quite fascinating. You just have to get to know it bit in order to use it in fantasy fiction.

  • Laura – I may take you up on the map drawing offer sometime in the future!

    Other alternatives for limits or costs of magic could be absorbing rebounded energies so that starting a fire could result in being burned; to bring water to the surface could result in severe dehydration, etc. Or maybe something, or someone else, has to provide the energy; the protagonist risks becoming the evil he’s fighting if he uses others for the greater good? Just a few thoughts….

  • @Daniel R. Davis: That forum is loaded up with experts. They don’t mind a world that is just plain pretty-to-look-at, for sure. But if you want something that’s vaguely realistic and makes a good attempt to follow basic rules of climatology and geology and whatnot… you’ll find that there, too.

    (In fact, I contributed to a thread on that topic a few years back.)

  • Thanks, Razz.

    Vyton, that’s an interesting point. There are maps of the world at various stages of tectonic flow — any one of those could serve as a model for a world. Cool idea.

    Thank you, Lyn. That aspect is what draws me in as well. And as for the artistic issue — no one is less artistic than I am when it comes to drawing. But using a computer free draw tool has really helped. I recommend it.

    Laura, that’s a great offer re. the map. I might take you up on it at some point. (When I had the Thieftaker t-shirts made, I traded a critique of a manuscript for the artwork. Just sayin’ . . .) I’m working on magical costs right now for my worldbuilding, and it can be hard coming up with something original. In Thieftaker, of course, the cost is quite literal: a conjurer has to “spend” something — blood, living matter from a plant, a human life — for every spell. That’s another way to handle it.

    Nathan, that’s a very interesting approach. I like the idea of using stuff from our world, and often try to enhance the authenticity of my worldbuilding by using geological, astronomical, and climatological phenomena in our own world. Thanks for the comment.

  • mudepoz

    I like this. Thank you. Wonderful timing.
    *Returns to using dog drool as a magic potion*

  • Thanks to both Stephen and Laura for replies. One of the main reasons why I did my latest map for an epic fantasy so sparse was that I didn’t want to make too many geological mistakes after the, admittedly, RPG campaign where a guy told me my map wasn’t accurate, to which I used the Conan line, “To hell witchoo!” It’s a magic realm, with landmarks created by such.” Still, I hate falling back on that in novels if I don’t have to. 😉

  • quillet

    Ohhhhh, world-building. Don’t encourage me! As Tolkien once said, I find that kind of thing only too attractive. I have a humongous project in Scrivener devoted to my world, organised in a very similar way to Razziecat’s. I also have a map. And a calendar. And sketches. And a history, because like you, David, I love history and I love making up fictitious history even more. (Wheee, so much fun!)

    Mind you, there are lots of gaps I haven’t filled in, because my story would never get written if I did. It’s an effort to restrain myself sometimes, though. I need to take L.M. Bujold’s advice (thank you for mentioning that, Razzie 🙂 ), and I’m glad to hear you’ll be talking about that in your next post.

    I love your a-b-c for magic systems. I find I’m pretty good at a & b, the rules and limits, but find it hard to come up with costs that satisfy me. I’m always rejecting my own ideas as “too cliché,” “too done,” “too literal.” Maybe I’m too self-critical, but…do you have any words of wisdom on how to come up with good costs? (Maybe: shut up and read Lucienne’s post today and take that to heart?)

  • Thanks, Mud.

    Quillet, yes it is fun. As for coming up with good costs, I find that for me, when I start to ask myself “If I could do magic, what costs to its use would give me pause?” I find the idea of wielding magic SO appealing, that to come up with something that would make me hesitate to use my imagined abilities can be hard. But when I hit on it, well that tends to be a rather compelling cost. There is no secret formula to this, of course. Each person’s system is going to be different. But, for instance, would you be willing to take a life in order to cast a spell? Would you be willing (as Orson Scott Card once posited in his book on writing) to sacrifice a body part for every act of magic? Nothing is off the table.

  • quillet

    David, that’s very, very helpful. A lightbulb moment, in fact! Thank you!