Category Archives: worldbuilding

Head down, bum up, build a world

I hate worldbuilding.

Well, okay, ‘hate’ is too strong a word. ‘Don’t enjoy or care about’ is probably more accurate. As I’ve mentioned before, my taste in fantasy runs less to Tolkien and more to Borges, who emphasised the ability to create ‘poetic faith’ in the reader rather than convince them that anything they were reading was or pretended to be ‘real’. Fiction is all about making things up, and I like to acknowledge that.

And that’s all well and good in theory, but I’m writing a fantasy novel right now, and worldbuilding isn’t optional. I get that – fantasy is based on things are not as you know, and any kind of consistent narrative has to position the reader in a space where the impossible, magical turns feel not just believable but justified. Events are supported by the setting, and the setting is in turn defined by events. Also, fantasy readers really, really care about worldbuilding, and I’d like them to buy read my book. So Raven’s Blood is making me confront my antipathy towards worldbuilding and work to overcome it, and that’s something I’d like to talk about – not just tonight, but for maybe the next half-dozen posts, assuming y’all don’t get bored.

To begin, let’s talk about what worldbuilding actually means and how you (and by you I mean me) go about it.

Look anywhere online and you’ll see that worldbuilding can be approached from two directions – top down and bottom up, both of which sound slightly homoerotic. (And there’s nothing wrong with that.) But in truth they’re less about manlove than about direction and priority.

If you’ve never heard of these two approaches, well, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on them and you should read that. But in summary, top-down means starting on the large macro scale – city, country, world, ENTIRE UNIVERSE OMG – and determining its parameters, then drilling down through the implications to detail things on an ever-smaller level until you reach the boundaries of your story. Going bottom-up means starting on the local level and filling in the details as you go, building upwards and adding on detail as the story or focus moves. Both approaches have value, and they have more in common than some people think – because let’s face it, in both cases you’re just making things up. On the whole, though, it seems like most fantasy authors like the top-down approach – to start with the world writ large and then pushing through to see the way that world shapes the story within.

I, of course, have to be different. I’m bottom up all the way AND STOP SNIGGERING UP THE BACK THERE.

I’ve done top-down world design before, though – as part of my freelance RPG writing days. I’m thinking of the World of Darkness but even more of Freeport, which were created from day one to support a range of possible stories. Because that’s the way top-down approaches go – you make a world (or a country, or city etc) and then find or develop stories within that platform, and that’s what you need in an RPG setting, a platform and toolkit for making your own stories. In fact, I’d probably go so far as to say that commercial RPG worldbuilding has to be top-down – it’s what the market wants and it’s the only way to make a setting sourcebook broadly useful. On the other hand, I think most RPG campaigns tend to be bottom-up on some level, because in actual play you start fleshing out and exploring a core narrative thread and building new details around it.

Incidentally, I just want to mention that I’m totally goddamn stoked by the news today that Evil Hat and Green Ronin are teaming up for a Fate Core Companion for Freeport! Well, they will team up for one if the Fate Core Kickstarter reaches its next stretch goal, and I really hope it does. It’s a great, flexible game system, and I remain incredibly proud of the work I did on the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, perhaps the single best bit of game writing I ever did.

So if either of those things appeal to you, you should put ten bucks into the Kickstarter. You’ll get a whole lot of gaming for bugger-all cash.

Now, back to the meandering.

From my POV, worldbuilding is always about invention. Sometimes it’s about exploring implications, sure, but it’s exploring the implications of things you decide to include in the first place. So top-down versus bottom-up is less about scale and scope and more about workload and direction. It’s about whether you make them up before or as you need them, and whether you start with the things that should be in there and then move to the things you want to be in there or vice versa. Neither is better than the other.

But I struggle with top-down creation, as both a writer and reader, because of the implication that the story presented at the end is a story that can be told in that world, not the story that must be told. I can’t shake that niggling lack of urgency that comes with knowing that the world is a bigger canvas than this one painting; the choice to focus on this particular narrative feels spurious on some level, and I find it harder to connect with what’s going on. I have the same problem sometimes with RPGs, although there it manifests as dithering and paralysis as I try to justify a specific choice of ideas to myself – why this, rather that that? And so I have to cut down the setting info I take in or acknowledge until I reach a point where the options are curtailed and a specific narrative thread seems not just logical but unavoidable.

Yeah. It’s weird. I know.

So in building the world of Raven’s Blood, I’m going bottoms-up all the way.

I started with what I knew I wanted – a story about a brave girl, a weary hero and a terrible threat. And I’ve let the story and the character dictate the world around – well, the city around them (Crosswater) to be exact, with the world behind that sketched in as lightly as I could get away with. I knew I wanted a story about the aftermath of conflict, so Crosswater still bears the scars of war. I knew I wanted an inhuman enemy and human faces for it, so that war was against the burning Host and their mortal servants – and that in turn led me to sketching a world with dawn-lands and dusk-lands and different societies and spirits in the East and West. I knew I wanted parkour and stunts and weird magic and superheroic action, and I knew I wanted everything to feed back and reinforce the themes I wanted to explore in the story.

And once I knew that, filling in the details was easy. Everything came from what I wanted to write about, rather than what I felt I should include for the sake of verisimilitude. And that may not make a world that feels ‘real’ enough for some readers, but hopefully it makes for a world that feels interesting.

And I for one prefer interesting to real. That’s the whole point of fiction.

The point of all this waffle, of course, is not to say ‘this is the right/best way to write’, because as always there are no best or right ways to write – there are just the ways that work. This works for me. So what works for you? C’mon, leave a comment and tell me you totally disagree with me. That would make me so happy.

(It really would.)

Next week, I’m heading further down the world-building path with the first of two posts about the magic of Crosswater and Raven’s Blood, as well as talking about the point of magic in fantasy stories. Yes, once again I’m defining a whole genre and telling other writers that they’re DOING IT WRONG. I hope you’ll join me.