World-Building: What Nobody Told You

Over the years I’ve created all or part of several fictional worlds, some of which were elaborate and sprawling, others small and contained. However, despite the fact that I know how to do this in practice, when it comes to writing about it I found that I needed to put my thoughts on the topic in a much clearer order. That process turned out to be quite illuminating. Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be going through my take on the world-building process a piece at a time. I hope you find it useful. Any questions, please ask.


An Initial Understanding

World-building is a potentially very complicated and time-consuming process, so I want to start by going back to the fundamentals.

While I was preparing this article, I came to an understanding that I consider a key foundation stone for the whole process, but which I haven’t seen articulated anywhere else. It’s very easy to understand. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity though; there’s some real value in the pondering of it. The more I think about it, the more useful it seems.

This important fundamental is deceptively simple: world-building is not one process, it’s two.

Note that I’m not talking about the many, many skills that you can apply to world-building at a detail level. That’s way more than two. No, I’m talking about how you need to think about the idea from the start. It’s not one process that you’re embarking on, it’s two related ones. Closely related, to be sure, but not the same, and that difference is important. Understanding the difference will make your own world-building easier.

For the sake of argument, let’s call these two types of process Primary World-Building (PWB), and Secondary World-Building (SWB).


Primary World-Building

PWB starts with a blank sheet of paper and creates a new world. Critically, the only audience for this creation is you (or your team if you have one). The PWB isn’t going to be published anywhere, and some of the information included within it will never be revealed to the public at all. However, that information must still be developed because it’s vital that you, the creator of this world, understands how everything works behind the scenes as well as in front of them.

Writing PWB stuff is relatively easy because you’re talking to yourself. You shouldn’t need convincing that the whole idea is a good one, and you can use whatever form of shorthand, doodles, hieroglyphs, or mime you like to keep your notes (as long as you can decipher them later). This is like writing rough outlines for an encyclopaedia of your new world without worrying about the need to finish cleverly articulated essays on each topic. What’s important here is the quality of the ideas, not the quality of the writing.

Doing good PWB is about understanding those myriad detail skills and applying them to construct a coherent and interesting alternate reality. The primary skills required here are not writing, maths, or cartography, they’re basic research skills, common sense, and imagination. That should be straightforward enough, right?


Secondary World-Building

SWB starts once you have some or all of the PWB done. This is the version of your world that you tell the public in whatever format your end product takes. It’s a filtered version of your PWB work. Note that it isn’t the whole of the PWB world, merely a window into it, filtered by the limitations of the type of story, game, symphony, chocolate biscuit, or artwork you’ve chosen to produce. It’s not the scope that makes the biggest difference though; it’s the change in audience. Now you have the whole world to convince, not just yourself, and that takes a new approach.

You need to have made a fair degree of progress on the relevant parts of the PWB before you can really start on the SWB, so don’t dive in too early. After all, you need to be confident that you know what you’re trying to convey. I know that it’s tempting, but resist. Be strong…

SWB needs to be written well and written clearly because this is where you explain what’s been in your head to someone who lives outside it. If you’re anything like me, that can sometimes be quite a challenge.

While you’re telling the tale of your world to this wider audience, you need to build in suspense, mystery, and clever reveals without succumbing to tedious exposition. That takes skill with words. This ability to write well is the key to doing good SWB work (though it isn’t going to get far if the PWB you did was poor). The process can also incorporate music, art, and other mediums, but writing is almost invariably at the heart.


Why This Distinction Matters

There are several reasons why you should distinguish between PWB and SWB. The main two are:

  • It gives you more structure.
  • It focuses your effort.

World-building at its grandest is a colossal beast, but also an often vague and sprawling one. Any structure helps. This basic breakdown also helps you to see where your skills can be best applied, and where you might either need to find someone else with a specific talent, or to expand your own abilities. It also helps you see where you are in the process: moving from purely PWB to SWB being the key moment. Are you nearly there yet?

Understanding the PWB/SWB distinction helps avoid wasting effort (most often done by adding polish and detail where it isn’t required). Save your literary genius for the SWB; the bulk of the PWB can be rough notes. As long as you can navigate them, you’re golden.

And with that thought, I must leave you. I hope that idea has given you some food for thought. I’ll be back on Thursday to talk about game design, and next Monday for more on world-building. Until then…

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12 Responses to World-Building: What Nobody Told You

  1. Jared (Golden) Fulcher says:

    Thanks Jake! I can really appreciate how you separate the two processes so cleanly. I, alas, do not. This is usually because I’ll be deep into a section of a story when something pops up that I’ve not accounted for but would feel forced or unnatural if I ignored it.

    I call my PWB the dark matter. It affects everything in the world around it but is rarely seen or felt. Especially since I do a lot of writing that has very narrow windows (historic, isolated, first-person) so the reader doesn’t see a good portion of what is causing the situation.

    • tomsonn says:

      Some do it like this, others like that. But what I’d really like to know is how so many fantasy worlds end up being dreary & derivative, and what one can do to prevent just that from happening.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        @tomsonn – I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I should probably write a full-length reply, but for the moment…

        To start with, there are important points to make about perspective and expectations. What’s dreary and derivative to you, may still be hugely popular to other people. There are many mainstream and successful IPs that I regard as both.

        I take dreary to mean unexciting or unengaging in this context. Again, whether something is dreary or not depends on the experience and expectations of the audience. The less they know, the fresher something will appear. Less so if you’ve seen it ten times before.

        Derivative is also problematic as a problem. There is a considerable body of work on the idea that humans are hard-wired to respond to specific stories, characters, and ideas, and this is used to explain why we see the same ones rehashed throughout history. The fact that we can have reference catalogues of story types for world folklore is telling. My point is that there are very few new tales to tell, and what people do is reorganise and represent the same old familiar tropes as before. It’s how stories have always been written since we have any to read.

        Remember that whatever you do, some people will hate it, and others think it meh.

        When it comes to constructing civilisations, we only have one real world example of civilisation-building sentient races to go on: us. The same needs drive civilisations wherever they appear, and within the limitations of their technology they will often find parallel ways to solve common problems.

        All of which means that you are likely to see elements of worlds repeated because they are in the real world. Because they work to keep humans safe, fed, and so on.

        When you add magic or futuristic technology to your world you should absolutely consider their implications and the logic behind them, but these don’t change the basic needs of the sentient creatures within it.

        The critical caveat is that you need to include some familiar touchstones in your world or you alienate your audience. People can only cope with a few wacky things at once. By all means add the innovative where you can, but be aware that this loses people at every step. As I mentioned in an earlier post: the public at large thinks that it wants new, but it always buys the familiar.

        If you want to do something yourself that is neither dreary nor derivative, then you should probably start by writing yourself a list of what you dislike about all the fictional worlds with which you are familiar. Write a list for each one separately, and then compare them to see what element crops up repeatedly. Avoid the most common in your own work.

        Another thing that you can do is to use the real world, not other fictional ones, as the basis for your own work. Many fictional worlds lazily draw from the same well, and there are oceans left unexplored. Plenty of interesting real stuff to inspire you that’s rarely if ever used.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      @Jared – Dark Matter is a nice term for it when it’s being a silent influencer.

      My PWB/SWB split is a theoretical division, and while I think that it is a critical one to understand, the practice is far messier, as you say. It would be a rare or possibly unicorn-like creator who completely finished everything about their world before starting on the SWB, and never once had a new idea on how to expand some element or other. What you’re describing is a completely normal feedback loop. Once you start on the SWB you will inevitably need to return to the PWB to refine and expand to accommodate where your SWB ends up going. However, understanding that there are two processes going on rather than one, and being able to tell where you are, should help in various ways.

      Scope is also something I wanted to talk about. World-building is not just for the vast and sprawling continents of a new planet: it can be much more contained too. And as you also say, the smaller and more focussed the end result, the less of the PWB will be shown.

  2. tornquistd says:

    I think of SWB as a place and time that conforms to the PWB and that is the game or story space. I don’t tell the story of the PWB to anyone because I expect it would bore them to tears. PWB is my framework to inform myself of the rules that SWB must abide by. That said I enjoy the building of the PWB and think it is good fun so my PWB has a lot of details that might not be needed.

    I don’t know where to put this so I will cram it in here. I understand you want to take the best ideas that you have sitting on your shelves and let them see the light of day. However I have no idea of the scale of production you have in mind. A boxed game system, rules or perhaps new figures? Do you have a plan to control scope of what you might produce yet?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I agree that building the PWB can be fun, and I’m also guilty of putting more in than is strictly needed. I think that’s common among creatives: they enjoy the act of creating. It’s not a bad thing per se, just a bit wasteful of time if you’re thinking of this as something that needs to meet deadlines and be all businesslike and optimally efficient.

      The scope of my planned work varies from piece to piece. Overall, the aim is to start small and build up from there. The first practical results you’ll see are likely to be short stories. These are good ways to start showing you a selection of windows into a world, and taken together they combine to illustrate quite a lot.

      The first games I’ll be doing are card based as there are several print on demand options for these. That obviates the need for the logistical nightmare of physical products which I detest.

      I’ll be working on a small number of worlds to start with, with the aim to build these up over time. Once one is established, I can think about going back to start another. It’s staying focussed on this small corner of a large number of options which is so hard. even my much reduced list represents many years of work.

      • tornquistd says:

        I always enjoy your thoughts on game design because you think to much.:) I find it interesting that over time how ruthless I become with removing mechanics that are not needed and game features that slow down a game without adding to the experience. I have been playing a wide range of game designs which is educational and as my experience increases my appreciation for clean designs has really grown. Your idea of looking at story and how it fits into the process is very interesting. It seems that a good story line could be a way to make sure fun is part of game play because clean design does not insure a fun factor. I have a term I made up called “game texture” because I like games that give the player the right amount and type of interesting choices to make. It seems like game texture and story line might be were the fun lurks.

        I think print on demand sounds like a sensible place to start. I have looked at options for that in the US and a lot can be done that way to provide a complete end user product of respectable quality.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          Finding the fun is the challenge, and I doubt that there is a single formula which works every time. Still, by thinking about it a great deal (possibly too much) I hope to home in on some more reliable principles.

          Of course, nothing works for everyone, though story is something I like and seems to be broadly popular so it’s a fair place to start.

          Getting the balance of choices is also a central task. This needs an understanding of your intended audience too, as what works for a short family filler game won’t be appropriate for a serious historical simulation. And everything in between.

          I’ve not tried all the POD options. I consistently hear pretty good things about them, so I’m hopeful.

  3. Jared (Golden) Fulcher says:

    I wish there were a “like” button. I feel like I’m taking up space and people’s time when I write out stuff when all I really want to do is simply agree with a comment or train of thought. 🙂

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