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.

5 thoughts on “Head down, bum up, build a world

  1. Nah, I don’t disagree. I come from the same tabletop RP gaming background (now weaning myself off to get more writing time in) and that’s been my experience of it. In gaming I started as pure top-down, gradually evolving – or devolving, depending on how you feel about the amount of work I was willing to do up-front – into a bottom-upper (snrk!)

    On the other hand for writing, I just make up the shit I need for the story and work out how the pieces fit together as I go (or more likely as I edit and realise that some of them don’t make so much sense). It’s a bit haphazard, but I find that if I tinker with maps and geopolitical relationships and shit like the biophysics of fucking dragons, I never get any writing done.

    Hmm, come to think of it what I probably do is just cut corners on my worldbuilding and back myself to bluff my way out the other side.

    Pirate’s Guide to Freeport is a game setting masterpiece by the way. Good job.

  2. I find it’s impossible to separate both top down and bottom up because when I get an idea for a story I get both micro and macro details sloshing around in my brain. Usually I have a basic scenario and immediately both big and little details fight for my attention. All these get dot pointed down: maybe it’s a couple of characters, a country, a far away location, magic (yes or no), a specific class etc. From here I have a skeleton to build.

    I can understand the need for top down: you need to create a flexible world for expansion, but one with constraints to prevent future plots becoming bloated or convoluted or becoming internally implausible: ie continually creating new races each book/episode/game to extend the plot, when it becomes increasingly clear the world is overpopulated or under-discribed in the first place. (As much as I love Discworld novels, I wish Pratchett would stop new races within it.)

    1. It looks like I’m not the only world builder who creates the large universe and the small narrative in parallel. I, like you, find it easier to scope out the entire local and timeline simultaniously, for exactly the reasons you describe.

      Though like Patrick, I don’t like to overload the reader with the world’s specifics. It’s mostly unnecessary to my writing (and as a reader I do get bored with slow narratives) but I like to have an understanding of the schematics of whatever space/time I am creating. It makes it easier to write new stories in the same environment.

      But at the end of the day, I just do whatever I want, however I want. I mean, we are all just ‘making stuff up’, so really, are there any rules?

  3. I don’t need to know the exact number of trees to imagine what a forest looks like.

    In any fantasy book where the world has been built or imagined first and the story and characters applied later are obviously so. The world in which your characters live should be revealed like the fog of war to you as much to the reader. Playwrights don’t design a set and write characters and dialogue to suit.

    If your story won’t work in a forest, or up a mountain or in the farthest reaches of space it simply won’t work. World building is fine when putting together a RPG where the players, with the odd nudge from the GM, ‘write’ the story themselves.

    World building is waste of time if the reader cannot relate to, or is not compelled by, the events and characters in that world. If the the story is solid, if I care about the characters, I can fill in the blanks.

    With the greatest of respect to your readers and fantasy readers in general, fuck they want. Challenge them. There is no end to the interesting fantasy worlds where boy-finds-sword/boy-learns-magic and saves the kingdom but do they do anything new? Not really.

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