Monday, July 25, 2011

Worldbuilding with a Timeline

Of all the things very characteristic of speculative fiction, worldbuilding is probably my favourite. There is something enchanting in the act of bringing a whole different universe to life, mashing up together original concepts (if there is such a thing) with classic trends of humanity. Not to mention the effect one idea has on the rest of the setting. Connecting the dots through explanations, consequences and other Cool Ideas.

It's all fun, almost no work. To me, anyway.

There comes a point where I have all a bunch of important ideas laid out, though, and while my head has a difformed map in it, I can no longer go on without one. Geography is IMPORTANT. Yep, capital letters and all.

It is a simple truth that almost eluded me when I started worldbuilding for White Echoes. Because, well, in science fiction travel is a lot easier. Distances don't quite mean the same. Important, yes, these days when we think of going from A to B, we don't often consider the geography. A plane will take us over.

Except I have a world where there are no planes, only zeppelins, and these are restricted. Not to mention a whole bunch of factors that make travelling costly and all.

Even more importantly... this world has a past. Unless there is a good reason for which humans could always travel easy and cheap, there will have been a point in history in which things such as rivers and mountains mattered. Even today, ships are an important way to move cargo and a large port will be an important economic advantage.

All of this to say, think not only of the present, but also of the past. When you place important cities on a map, create frontiers between kingdoms or invent epic conflict between nations, never forget to consider not only what is today, but how it was in the past.

It's an obvious lesson, but one I just had to remind myself of. Thought I'd share.

(Also, there will be a mappish post in the close future. Because I happen to like maps, and I happen to like sharing things I like. Yep.)


  1. I love world building and creating histories for my countries. I made a map of the entire world, and had so much fun deciding where every country and landmark should go. 'well, these two are fighting, so they should be close to each other... and the king of this country is the uncle of the king of this country...' Yea, I had a lot of fun.

  2. Wonderful point, Claudie. It's easy to forget worlds (even make-believe worlds) are never static.

  3. I don't know if many have the same habit than I but I'd rather have the map drawn first, with its rivers and mountains and volcanos (why not) before world building. The geography will create problems of transport, economy and politics.
    I'm thinking of the tiger story here (but it's actually the same with many stories of mine) but the map helps me understand the world better. I'd had ideas of the conflicts I wanted, of the relations between the countries but without the map I'd have a hard time understanding the wars between them. So I'm all in for the world building! But in my case, the map comes first ;)

  4. I totally agree with your point about the past being important! Just like characters are more believable with histories, so are worlds. There need to be reasons that the world is the way it is "now" and these reasons should be complex and deep, because if they're too trite, readers will know (even if only subconsciously). I also look forward to your "mappish" post, because map-making has been a lot of fun for me in world planning. I look forward to reading others' perspectives and approaches.

  5. cookie: I know where you come from. Scribbling down the landmarks on a bit of paper with a map makes everything seem more real to me.

    Margo: It's easy, and it's like going by a great opportunity for older characters. Yeah, your 20-something protagonist might not have seen much of the world, but the part of the cast that's older will not just remember their history. They'll have lived it.

    rabbitastrophe: I do maps halfway. First I plan the story and worldbuild around the important locations and aspects that relate to it. Once I have my main storyline planned, I sketch a map and place the story-related areas on it. And *then* I add the rest. Most of the time it adds a new layer to the story and gives relief to the plot and subplot. I've yet to see the map (and subsequent setting development) get in the way of my storytelling, though, which is the whole point of not starting there.

    Jen: I agree it's fairly easy to spot a static world. You get this feeling that everything has been the same in the last 1000 years, and only now will change. I love Margo's term for this: static.