World Building

Don’t be afraid to be god. Technically, even if you have other deities in your novels, you are still a higher god who dictates what they do and how everything works. Everything from where the people go or who they meet along the way, and in some cases even the rules that govern their very existence and bind them to their precious faith or lack their of.

I like The Sims. I get to be God, and I won’t lie: it’s made very good practice for telling my character what to do (and even allowing them to sometimes do what they want to do). Yes, I’m one of those people who usually turn off the Free Will option. Hell, Sims are actually easier to control than my characters, sometimes. But still, there are some things that they just want to do that you can’t control and must give in to them…let them have their way.

I’ve never created a world in The Sims that I created for a novel, or vice versa, but the idea does appeal to me. I will admit to making some of my untried and untested character ideas into Sims to mixed results. In the case of one stubborn vampire, it went very well, but for the most part I’ve personally had minimal success with this. But that doesn’t mean it might not work for you!

However, that is not the sole purpose of this post and I have spent more than enough time talking about The Sims.

When creating a novel, you have to start somewhere. For J.K. Rowling, it was a person. For other authors, like Holly Lisle, they need a map first. If you write in the fantasy genre, and are making your own world from scratch (or perhaps cafeteria style), then you will need a map no matter what, even if it’s only for your own personal use and knowledge. I cannot tell you how much this grueling, fun, tedious process will help you in the long run, at least from my experience.

Before I go into a more in depth how-to about creating your world using maps, I’ll define cafeteria-style as Jaqueline Carey stated in an interview: “Research, research, research! Writing alternate historical fantasy, I’m not held to a standard of unrelenting accuracy, but there is a high standard of plausibility. I may be picking and choosing among different cultures, nations and histories – cafeteria-style world-building, one of my readers dubbed it – but I have to weave all of it together into a plausible whole that aficionados of history will enjoy rather than disparage. On the upside, it means there’s a wealth of great material out there for me to draw on to find the perfect details to bring my world to life.”

In other words, using the world as it is to create a new one.

If you don’t find that idea appealing, then by all means…create something from scratch! I’ve done it several times, although admittedly am still writing away and always, always editing in the hopes one day my novels will get published. (I haven’t tried to query yet, I know the novel isn’t polished enough yet).

Okay, so you want to endeavor in the creation process of a new world. I’m going to tell you the process I found most useful, which I found on Holly Lisle’s website. The quotes I have used in this blog are all from her site, unless otherwise noted like Jaqueline’s above.

Holly suggests using graphing paper and drafting markers; or a pen, and I agree with her, at least for the first few maps. That way you won’t be tempted to edit. If you don’t have graphing paper, plain white paper should suffice.

Before you begin, if you’re wary of your drawing skills, this doesn’t have to be pretty. This map is meant to be a tool for you to use when writing. If you make mistakes, leave them, they will prove useful later. The drawing does not need to be perfect. Actually, no matter how good it is, your publisher will insist on getting a professional illustrator to re-do your map anyway, so don’t worry too much.

So you have your paper and pen (or that’s how I started because I was too lazy/cheap to go out and buy graphing paper and markers lol). You’re going to draw a continent, you may start with the outer shape but I find that restricting, personally.

You may either follow these instructions as you read, or read them all first as Holly suggests and draw them after.

Draw three dots no the page, anywhere. Feel free to space them out. You may want to draw more later, but for now stick with three. “Draw some upside-down V’s in a line (but not necessarily a straight line). These are your mountain range. Name the range. You can have more than one. You can make it thick or thin. If you leave any gaps between the V’s, these can become passes.” The upside down V’s should look like carrots: ^^^

“Draw some snaky lines from the mountain range outward in a couple of directions. Name each snaky line “Something” River. (Do not be a smart-aleck and take this literally).”

Okay, remember those three dots you drew? Well, draw some dotted or dashed lines between them to separate them. Is this continent all one country? Are the lines separating counties, states or countries from each other? Only you can decide that. By the way, those lines can officially be called borders now (: Go back to those dots and name them, they are major cities.

Now for adding the things you’re fond of: maybe a forest or a lake, or maybe a shoreline with some islands a little distance away. Or maybe you want some desert or plains on your continent! Or, perhaps, you want it all. That’s okay, too, just make sure you’re not overcrowding it or putting things next to each other don’t make sense in your world. What does that mean? Well, normally a forest won’t give way to a desert without a reason, but maybe there is a magical reason in your world that this can happen! Remember: you are god, this is your world.

Draw some more dots and name them. More towns and villages, and maybe even draw a square representing ruins from some old civilization that lived hundreds of years before your character was born.

Okay, when your map is to your satisfaction, you should go back to those mistakes.

” Find the places where you wanted to erase. You drew a line someplace where it didn’t belong, (you right-angled off a river, maybe). That’s okay. That right-angled thing was designed by engineers. Really it was. It’s an aqueduct, or a canal, or a wall. You have a road that goes nowhere? That’s cool—somebody made it, and it used to go somewhere, and now all you have to do is figure out who made it, and where it used to go, and why it doesn’t go there anymore. You have a ruin-box in what accidentally became a lake, or an ocean? No problem. Once upon a time that ruin was above ground. Or maybe it wasn’t, and once upon a time there was a civilization that lived under the water.

See what I mean about mistakes? They’re a treasure-trove of story ideas waiting to happen.”

Okay, your continent is done. Now you go to the computer, or grab a sheet of looseleaf and your handy pen once more.

Okay, this next section was all important enough that I’m copying and pasting all of it.

“Answer the following questions, taking as much space as you need for each answer.

Why are the borders there? By this I mean, why do these people have borders in the first place? A border always implies that conditions, people, philosophies, governments, or something else is different on each side.

What goes up and down the rivers? (People, contraband, products?) How does it get there? Who takes it?

How are the people on one side of the border different from the people on the other side? (Religion, government, race, species … go into detail. Really take some time working out what these differences are, and put some effort into figuring out why they were important enough to necessitate the creation of that border.)

What lives in the mountains? (Animals, people, big scary things, all of the above?)

How does the weather endanger the lives of the people who live in your world? (Along with weather—stuff like tornadoes, droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms, avalanches, and so on, you should include things like areas where you’ll have earthquakes and volcanoes. Don’t be afraid to be generous in heaping out troubles. You’ll find plenty of use for them.)

What else endangers the people on your continent? (Plagues, barbarians, people from the other side of the world, monsters from the oceans or beneath the earth … Again, take some time on this. And be generous.)

Do a quick timeline in hundred year increments, for maybe two thousand years. Write down one really big thing that happened in each of those hundred-year periods. It can be geological, political, religious, magical, whatever. But it needs to be big. (Example: Invasion of the Sheromene headhunters into the country of Dormica, and subsequent decimation of the native population and establishment of the Sheromenes in the southern half of that country.)

Write whatever else you can think of right now. See where you’re starting to get the feel for a novel? A big novel? Good. Keep moving back and forth, from your map to your notes. Add stuff to the map as it occurs to you. Add stuff to the notes until something inside your brain goes “ding” and lets you know that you have a book idea that you’re genuinely excited about.

You can follow this same process with a single city. (You should have seen the map I did of Ariss—it was so cool. I started out with a compass, and drew something like ten concentric circles, called them walls, and filled in the spaces between with roads and buildings. And divided the city right in half. The first book I ever sold was born from those circles with the line right down the middle. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.)”

So, let me know if any of this works out for you!

Happy writing,


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