Building Better Worlds

When I was younger, most of my writing ideas tended toward either fantasy or science-fiction. I suppose not much has changed in that regard. I also used to play mostly adventure games, and the great majority of my favourites went for the same overall genre. The time I spent with the whole Quest for Glory series was… interesting.

It’s still probably one of my top-three settings, though most of the content is an homage to various myths and legends from around the world. Games were one of my first fandoms, and aside from a Ghostbusters-inspired story I wrote in Year 5, probably one of the only ones I remember from the very early years of my writing. The other two that stand out were a sequel to Kings Quest 3 (following the character of Gwydion/Alexander), and a side-story set in Quest for Glory 1. I also considered writing a play based on Monkey Island.

There were also later ‘original’ stories, that used a world analogous to Gloriana (where the entirety of the Quest for Glory series takes place). I’d also go through the game, taking screenshots, do things frame-by-frame and load them into Deluxe Paint. Grab the backgrounds as scenes, and turn the characters into anim-brushes, then do silly animations. I think you could safely say I was invested in it.

I remember those places in the game, and listen to some of the music from them when I write. When it came to writing my own though, I needed somewhere new. Imagination went a little ways, but I suppose where I was going with this is that I was all about the fantasy writing. I’d do roleplaying with my cousins, drawing out maps for their quests (completely oblivious to anything along the lines of D&D), and hand them the weapons for their respective characters. The places around us would transform into somewhere different, and the one that always stood out to me (to the point where I also dreamt it) was how to an imaginative kid with eye troubles, a squinting glance at the backroom of our home could give the impression of a set of stables.

You can’t always go to castles or other planets to get the feeling of being in the places you’re writing about, but sometimes the tone exists near you. I discovered yesterday that there’s apparently a Sphinx Memorial about twenty minutes from where I live – convenient if I want to write about Egypt but can’t really get there. Sometimes it’s not so easy. If you can extrapolate a feeling of the place you’re writing about onto a real world place, that’s great, but it’s not always possible. When you can’t, you can either go with an overview of the place and add the details as they are required or relevant, or go into depth about the composition of the population, history of the society there, etc etc.

  • Start with a name. It needn’t be perfect, but a label for the new location. Sometimes a name also helps you get a sense of a place, even before you’ve started working on it.
  • Think about scale. The open areas that make the characters seem small, or the closed-in places.
  • The locations in the world – fantasy, and you’d have at least magic or weapons. Those start somewhere. Tech equivalents for scifi.
  • Add unknowns. Places with mystery. Streets that are forboding and unexplored, or caves that’ve been blocked off. You might live in a city with even 1000 places, but they’re not all accessible. Do the same to your characters.
  • No new car smell unless the place was made in the previous month. Natural environments are organically haphazard, and constructed ones age and get lived in. If it’s actually new, get it dirty.
  • Weather. Hail or heat, Snow or sleet. They all add to the feel of your location, and each comes with their own senses beyond sight.
  • Even in the most arduous places, someone’s successful. It might be relative to the other inhabitants, but they did.
  • A map can’t hurt. Helps in knowing where things are in relation to each other. It can be on paper, on canvas, or on a computer – I’ve heard of some people even using Minecraft to do the layout of their world, though that’s like going to TVTropes for plot ideas.
  • People need to eat, drink, sleep, fornicate and defecate at the very minimum. Give them a place to do all five. Preferably not the SAME place.
  • Don’t think of it as describing a place you’ve made up. Think of it as exploring somewhere that could be as real and detailed as any dream.

You don’t need to say how the people there get their hands on vintage cheese if it’s not relevant. Seems obvious, but some people will ask for those details. Knowing them is enough, but they don’t need them in the novel. There’s bound to be more ways you can help make your world feel more real or substantial (more or less what I mean by better – and yes, it’s a Weyland-Yutani nod)

I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of great ideas here too, so if there’s anything you’ve found particularly helpful when world-building, post a comment!

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