Literature, novels and stories can be a wonderful fantasy, allowing you to escape into a world which entrances and captivates you. But the process of building a world isn’t a quick and easy one. Join Timlah as we look through a few examples of well known worlds that can be summed up easily in just one word.
This is a conversational piece about literature and world building. This isn’t like Joel’s DMing 101 article on World Building, where he discussed world building from an RPG perspective. This is about the actual development of a full world in literature. I will be using a lot of real examples, such as the late and great Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. I will also cover other great novels, such as J.K Rowling and the Harry Potter franchise and J.R.R Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings world.
When it comes to building a world for a story, you’re looking to cover most bases, but keeping enough open for expansion at another time. You can’t cover everything, but if you’re looking for an absolutely complete story, then you should aim for it, even if you don’t achieve it. Truth be told, fantasy and sci-fi works best when there are questions to be asked. Just why did the Dwarves leave their mine on the night of the prancing moon-faeries? What race had access to a vaporiser ray when no other race had anywhere near that level of technological prowess? If people are left asking questions, they’ll want more… And that’s a good thing!
Think back about your favourite books for a moment. Can you tell me with absolute certainty that you can describe everything about that world? If so, how many books was this described over? How much of that world has definitely and adequately been explained? Is there a possibility that anything more could have happened afterwards and was that described? The more you think about a world, the more you’ll realise that it keeps on living, things keep on happening and you won’t be aware of everything that’s happening in that world. Afterall, it’s not like you know every event that’s happening in our world right now. If you feel up for a challenge: Why not go and look up every campaign that’s happening in your very city right now? You might be surprised at all the things that are happening under your very nose, without you knowing.
Depending on the type of story you’re telling, you’ll need to define more than just the physical of your world. You’ll possibly need to provide the audience with detailed information about the political side of the world, whether for good or bad. Perhaps your story will require readers to be informed about the technology of the world (or worlds), or even the lack thereof. Maybe you’ll have to describe the architectural structures, or the wildlife – The list goes on and on and your job as the story writer is to get your audience to understand and care about the world to some degree. Yes, make your audience hate aspects about your world; not through bad writing, but through clever writing. Perhaps you want your readers to hate an aspect or aspects about it?
When I think of world building, I often cite the three authors I mentioned above, all for entirely different reasons. All three are firmly rooted in fantasy, but nothing stops this type of world-dissection being applicable to your favourite Sci-Fi authors. I’ll begin by describing what makes Discworld always “Ticking”, then what makes Harry Potter “magical” and finally what makes Lord of the Rings “expansive”. You’ll notice I’ve given a keyword to each of the stories and there’s a reason why I’ve done that. You’ll see each of these keywords perfectly sums up what each franchise is about.
Let’s begin with the great Discworld. Terry Pratchett was a master wordsmith and he knew how to tell a story in a most unique fashion. Whenever he felt there was more information that could or should be elaborated on, he would do so but not interrupt the flow of his story. He would put information about the world, or a character, in the footnotes. He would put a superscript next to a word, or a sentence, which is what the superscript would refer to in the footnotes. This is an incredible effective and very under-appreciated form of providing additional information.
Pratchett liked to describe worlds by what made things work, even if it was working dysfunctionally. If you take Ankh-Morpork as our main example, what do we know about it? Well we know there are guilds, shops, politicians, assassins – We know there’s a vast society, with an apparent divide between the rich and the poor. Sure, Ankh-Morpork is rather humorous, but is that all that it is? If you read through all of the Discworld stories, you could easily write your own story in Ankh-Morpork.
In Discworld, every person, no matter how insignificant, is in some way making the world carry on working. Even lazy animals are described, to give you a sense of why things are the way they are. Yes, it’s funny reading about the librarian who is actually an ape, but that librarian has a job. This alone tells you that the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, the academics of the Unseen University, aren’t afraid to let animals do what has long been considered “human” work – Because they feel it works for them. In some bizarre little way, everyone, every thing in Discworld, let’s the (Disc)world carry on ticking.
Harry Potter’s Magical World
When you think of the world of Harry Potter, you want to think that everything is as it is thanks to magic. J.K Rowling made great claims towards this too, by describing the difference between magical folk and non-magical folk. Through the use of wizard language, I.E calling non-magical people “Muggles”, as well as having in-world books which describe how the wizarding world has changed over the years. From portraits and staircases that move about, to ghosts and house elves, everything is magical.
There’s a difference between writing “it is what it is because it’s magical” and the way J.K Rowling has done it though. By describing everything in small increments, starting small: A “light-b-gone” device as I call it, a flying motorcycle, nameless people, wands and words that we don’t use in our typical vocabulary, we’re made to believe there’s something more in this world that doesn’t exist in our typical world, that can freely pass in and out of our own world. We’re made to believe everything in their world is magical (even sometimes the most unmagical of things) – and that’s exactly what the author wants you to think.
Lord of the Rings Expansive History
Finally on our little tour around famous franchises, we’ve landed at Lord of the Rings. No more do we describe anything via how things just tick, nor do we see things that are just magical. The things in this world are very real to those who live in it. This isn’t to say the magical beings of Harry Potter aren’t dangerous, but these are a different kind of dangerous. Grittier, nastier, cruel in some cases, Lord of the Rings isn’t afraid to let hundreds die… Because Lord of the Rings is vast.
From Rivendell, to the Mines of Moria, Tolkien was an impressive author who knew how to make you aware of a lot of things, without making you an expert. To truly get a sense of understanding of the whole world, you’d need to read more than just his Lord of the Rings trilogy. You’d have to read The Hobbit, you’d need to read The Silmarillon, the Children of Hurin, The History of Middle-Earth… You name it. Tolkien was incredible at saying to you: This is the story… However, if you want to know about the world, you’ll need to look for the knowledge. You never felt like Middle-Earth was ever “finished”. There’s probably a lot more he had planned, too.
So that’s it for world building behind three famous franchises. All three were unique in that they had to give you a sense of this is our world, you’re only just beginning to learn about it. There are many stories that can contain a whole world in them, but those stories tend to not get sequels, they’re intended as one-off stories. Your next task: Pick out a book, a story and learn about the intricacies of their world. What keyword would you associate with that world and why? The more you read, the more you associate to keywords, the more you learn from a world building perspective.
Hopefully, I’ve given you some food for thought for if or when you write something for yourself. Why not share with us some worlds that you’ve put together for a story? Perhaps you’d like others to see your idea for a world and give you their comments about it? Do you agree with my keywords, or can you think of any that you feel are better for the world? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, or over on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.