Creating a world, especially creating one for use in my writing, does not happen in a vaccuum. There’s a reason I’m creating this world and there’s likely something specific I want the world to accomplish. That’s my starting point.
If I’m writing a gritty sci-fi starship story, then the world I create is not going to be a world of medieval fantasy and magic. It’s just not.
So the first place I start is by asking myself what I need from the world. What is the story I want to write. Usually the decision of whether I want something to be science fiction or high fantasy or urban fantasy or something else entirely comes early in my story conception, so this isn’t too difficult as a starting point.
My concept for Shadow of Death was, from the start, pirates. Shortly after I decided to have it in a fantasy world of magic and sea monsters and unique religions and strange creatures. I also decided I’d set it in a world I’ve already created to some extent, which I guess is kind of cheating for the purposes of talking about world creation, but I’m making a lot of changes to what I had before.
This basic concept is integral because it dictates everything else I’m going to accomplish with the world. Which is not to say everything about the world has to directly relate to the concept, because that would be a two-dimensional, uninteresting world. But it certainly influences everything, and dictates a starting point.
In a world with fantasy pirates, I’m going to have fantastical elements, and I’m going to have pirates. To have pirates, I need ocean, I need loads of islands, I need opposing political and economic forces, I need a criminal element, and I need ships — and that need dictates another very important facet of the world, which is the technology level.
Already, just from a basic story concept, there’s a lot I can say about the world. But it’s not enough — it’s not nearly enough. It’s just a starting point.
During the long process of world creation, ideas will come out of nowhere, all the time, and add to the world.
Having barely begun to conceive the world, I already know I want to steal some plot ideas from another story concept I had, involving pirates and a magical wasting shadow disease. That means that Shadow will play an important role in the world mythology, or at least the world mythology that the story will deal with.
These ideas come all the time. Often they’re ideas I had ages ago for something completely different, and I realize I can use them for my new project and actually give them purpose — rather than sitting in my mind doing nothing.
Sometimes its those random ideas that create the concept of the story, or that I want to use in a story before I know what the concept of the story is. These are not wrong ways to handle ideas. Ideas come all the time, from all sorts of sources. The more ideas you can bring to a story, to a world, the richer that world becomes.
In his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card talks about bringing ideas together for a story. Sometimes its the marriage of two or three or four completely separate ideas that makes an interesting world or story. It’s when you combine your random idea for a religion with a map of a city with an interesting rule of magic that gets you your story.¹
Furthermore, ideas comes throughout the process of world creation. I might be writing my first — or second! — draft of a story when I come up with another idea for the world, which influences what happens in the story. I’ll suddenly solve a problem I’m having by adding to the world’s history, or I’ll come up with a cool scene down the road.
World building is really not a step-by-step process, despite what I’m writing. I usually follow a basic pattern, sure — but when ideas come to me, I use them. They come randomly and throughout the process, and even when I think I’ve gotten a good handle on a particular religion, I’ll still add to it when the idea strikes me.
The world is never finished. It’s alive.
¹ Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books (1990)