Brave new worlds

So many worlds, so much to do, so little done, such things to be. 
 Alfred Lord Tennyson

Worldbuilding is my absolute favourite aspect of writing a novel. I've spoken about it before in these 2012 blog entries, but after receiving a request to discuss the subject from Jesselle on Twitter, I've decided to do a post solely devoted to worldbuilding to take you through the process of designing, constructing and sustaining an imaginary world in a novel. The Bone Season isn't high fantasy, so this won't be quite as detailed as it would be for a totally new fantasy world – rather this is about how to create an urban fantasy, which builds on real life and provides an alternative reality. 

Before I start, I just want you to be aware that my worldbuilding technique isn't for everyone. There are many different ways to construct an imaginary universe. Each world is unique; there isn't one tried-and-tested method of creation. This is your domain. Experimentation is key to the process, so don't be afraid to try things and mix up different elements in your world – even if they seem insane. I wouldn't have been able to create the world of The Bone Season if I hadn't completely abandoned genre etiquette and gone with my gut instinct. In this post I hope to give you a broad view of worldbuilding, as well as explaining my own approach, so you have some sense of direction if you're getting stuck. Please do share your own experiences and techniques in the comments section!

What is worldbuilding? 

Worldbuilding is the process of creating a paracosm, or imaginary world. Narnia, Middle Earth, the Star Wars galaxy and Westeros are all paracosms. If you're writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, you're going to be doing a lot of worldbuilding – and readers in those genres will almost certainly notice if you overlook something. A paracosm can be immensely convoluted, with its own languages, physics and cosmology, or just detailed enough to carry your character through the story.

A short guide to worldbuilding

1. Plan

How much should you plan, and when should you start writing? There's no single answer to this question. Some people like to start with a fully realised world (although arguably no world is ever 'fully realised', even our own). Other authors might just want to choose the basic ingredients, throw their character into the pot and let the story cook itself into something beautiful. Both methods – from the top down (FTD) or from the bottom up (FBU) – have their pros and cons. Personally I'm somewhere inbetween, but I tend towards FBU, with lashings of FTD. 

Let's look at the more tempting one first. FTD is the detailed construction of a world before a character is introduced. The author sits down – for weeks, months, even decades – and creates an extremely detailed paracosm, right down to the minutiae. Here's the Wikipedia definition of the top-down method. 

In the top-down approach, the designer first creates a general overview of the world, determining broad characteristics such as the world's inhabitants, technology level, major geographic features, climate, and history. From there, he or she develops the rest of the world in increasing detail

One of the pros of FTD is that your world will fit together beautifully, and when you put your characters in there, everything will just flow. Like clockwork. Because the planning is so thorough, you're unlikely to find yourself tripping over inconsistencies and continuity errors within the world. The major con of FTD, however, is that it can take a huge amount of time to create a 'fully realised' world. We're talking years here. If you've got years to spare, then do it – but if you haven't, and you're an author that naturally tends towards FTD, you'll need to put a cap on the amount of time you spend building your paracosm. If you get into every nook and cranny and corner, you'll never write the novel; just an encyclopaedia-sized notebook describing the setting. And although books like Thomas More's Utopia (1516), Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) – short books that have very little plot, but focus on presenting new worlds – have become speculative classics, the modern market demands plot-and-character-driven stories, rather than stories fuelled by their settings. So at some point, you'll have to hold off on the worldbuilding and put pen to paper. This is why the FBU approach is, in my opinion, much more practical. 

One of the greatest worldbuilders of all time, someone you might expect to have been obsessively FTD, really got started as an FBU writer. J. R. R. Tolkien did not have a fully realised Middle Earth in his back pocket when he wrote the first line of The Hobbit in the early 1930s. He'd already created several constructed languages, and had started sketching out his own mythology in The Book of Lost Tales (1983), which formed the basis of what would become The Silmarillion – but it was by no means a finished product. Middle Earth formed itself around Bilbo Baggins. When The Hobbit was a success, the world wanted to know more about hobbits. Tolkien and his son Christopher then worked together closely between 1937 and 1955 to create the far more intricate world that surrounds the characters in The Lord of the Rings. But that first seed of Middle Earth was planted in The Hobbit, in a well-kept hole in the ground. In my eyes, this places Tolkien in the category of the FBU author. 

With the bottom-up approach, the designer focuses on a small part of the world needed for his or her purposes. This location is given considerable detail, such as local geography, culture, social structure, government, politics, commerce, and history [...] The surrounding areas are then described in a lower level of detail, with description growing more general with increasing distance from the initial location. The designer can subsequently enhance the description of other areas in the world.  

An FBU author starts, first and foremost, with the story. The world is then woven around the plot. George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, says he creates only what's necessary for the story in his fictional continents of Essos and Westeros. He sees himself as a 'gardener' where Tolkien was an 'architect'. Despite starting off as FBU, Tolkien became the Michelangelo of worldbuilding. Martin, however, said in his profile in the New Yorker that he sometimes has to write back to fans who request a glossary of High Valyrian and admit he only invented a handful of words. Martin's inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, like Tolkien's, came from one vivid image that came to him in 1991: a boy witnessing a beheading, then finding direwolves in the snow. He started drawing maps and family histories to create a longer story. He gave himself enough of a background to get started. This approach has still left him, over the course of five books, with an enormously detailed and exciting world, complete with its own languages, cultures and religions.  

My personal approach is a combination of both methods, but the world of The Bone Season definitely formed itself around Paige. I started off with the key idea of clairvoyance – and the key setting of Seven Dials – but it wasn't until I started writing the first chapter that the world started to build itself into what it is now. I wanted to put myself in Paige's boots, to get to grips with her voice and her personality, before I started thinking about the wider world. I started in Seven Dials and from that point, I moved outward, developing first the background of the local area, then London, then Sheol I, and finally the world beyond England.  

Remember, how much you plan is entirely up to you. Identify whether you're more FTD or FBU. If you're FTD, don't overdo it; if you're FBU, make sure you know your world well enough to identify any potential inconsistencies.  

2. Establish

Once you've got your world roughed out, it's time for the real challenge: to get it onto the page coherently. When I was writing the first chapter of The Bone Season, I had some very tricky choices to make. I had a big story to introduce, including a futuristic city, a clairvoyant classification system, a crime syndicate, a dystopian government and the æther – all before the Rephaim and their history come in. That's a lot of information to get across. If you're designing a massive universe, you have lots of elements to consider: culture, politics, geography, cosmology, physics – the list goes on and on. World-building is my favourite aspect of the writing process, but it's also one of the most challenging.  

One key rule that you'll all know in literature is show, don't tell. Writers tend to be criticised if they use too much narrative exposition, or 'info-dumping', to explain something about the world they've created. Because the reader is taken outside the action, it can be quite jarring and cause an unsettling break in the suspension of disbelief. In my original manuscript for The Bone Season, there wasn't quite as much of this – I just threw the reader into the world and expected them to know what on earth was happening. You'll notice that in the final version, however, there are several paragraphs of solid narrative exposition in Chapter 1, with very little or no action to punctuate them. I knew this wasn't the most subtle technique to use, but both my editors and Imaginarium had said that they were confused by some elements of the world at the beginning – to the point of feeling really lost – and I really didn't want that. There was also the problem that Paige only spends a very short time in London before being sent to Sheol I. I needed to lay the foundations of London, which is separate from but inextricably linked to Sheol, in the first three chapters. After several attempts at an opening, I finally decided that it was worth setting aside a few pages in the early chapters to explain some key aspects of the world – spirit combat, the London gangs, Edward VII, dreamwalking and so on – before the story got going. In the long run, I knew this would save me time and stop me having to drop in this information in later chapters. It would also, critically, allow a reader to grasp the bare bones of the world before I started fleshing it out – at the risk of making them feel like they were being 'talked at'. It was a fairly big risk and I know it won't work for everyone, but I'd rather a reader knew too much than too little. 

My hope is that even if some of the information in the opening chapter is unnecessary, it will help you understand a good chunk of the world before you enter Sheol I with Paige. As soon as she arrives in Warden's domain, Paige is hit with a lot of information. From that point on, you learn with her – it's just in London that she knows more than you do. On that note, always bear in mind how much your protagonist knows in comparison to your readers. You don't want to leave them behind. 

There are all sorts of other ways you can introduce your world. Experiment! Don't feel the need to use any particular model. This is your story. You are God in your very own Genesis. Play with a few different opening chapters. If you can weave information in subtly, do it – it's always better to show. Whatever method you use, though, make sure you get the rules written fairly early. Fantasy, by its very definition, is where rules are made to be broken – but that doesn't mean you can't establish some sort of logical system. Think about what makes your fantasy world different to our world. Ask yourself questions. Who runs it? Where is it? What can its inhabitants do – are they supernatural in some way? If so, how? What do they see and hear and smell in their everyday lives? What forces and events have shaped this world? How will those forces affect your character(s)? Think about what a typical day might be like in the life of your protagonist, and how that might change for them when the story begins (in The Bone Season, for example, Paige's seemingly normal day at work ends with something unexpected). 

3. Visualise 

It might be helpful to make a Pinterest board, or a collage, or a mind map, or some other visual reference. If you haven't used it before, Pinterest is essentially a tool for gathering pictures and 'pinning' them on a page. It sounds simple, but it really helps to have bits of your world in front of you, whether you're using real or imagined places. 

4. Listen 

I absolutely love listening to music while I'm world-building. I've lost count of the number of times I've been inspired by it. Generally I prefer instrumental music, without lyrics, for creating a world – your character will provide the voice. Here are a few tracks I think are wonderful for getting in the frame of mind for fantasy writing. Some of these will appear on the soundtrack for The Bone Season. Feel free to suggest more!

1. World of Dreams by Future World Music
2. Merchant Prince by Thomas Bergersen
3. Jericho by City of the Fallen
4. Mhysa by Ramin Djawadi

5. Dream Chasers by Future World Music
6. House of Cards by Audiomachine

5. Other 

  • How do you decide on what names work within that world? Is it OK to mix normal and fantasy names together? (Sophie)

    I think it would definitely be jarring if you mixed 'fantasy' names with real names for no real reason: for example, if you have two characters who are essentially similar, but one is called Bob and one is called L'hulixari'nna. If a character has an unusually strange, long or 'exotic' name, particularly one that seems an odd fit with their culture, you run the risk of marking them out as a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. It would be especially bizarre if none of the other characters commented on it. I do think, however, that it's perfectly okay to mix names in a world to distinguish between the naming habits of different cultures within a world. In The Bone Season, Paige is able to identify Kraz and Mirzam as 'Rephaite names'. They're both based on traditional names for stars. None of the human characters are named after stars; that would cause confusion. I think a mixture of names is acceptable in urban fantasy, which is rooted partly in reality and partly in the supernatural. If you're working in a high fantasy world, however, it might make more sense to create all the names yourself, perhaps using a particular suffix or name type to give families and clans their own unique identity.

  • Do you find it easier write about alternative, real places or completely fictional places? And which do you prefer to read? (Craig)

    I enjoy both – I'm really looking forward to constructing the Netherworld in later Bone Season books – but I definitely prefer alternative 'real worlds' to pure paracosm. I love playing with real history and settings and giving them a fantasy twist, which is why I love reading speculative fiction so much (Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, for example, is set in an alternative Massachusetts). It allows more interaction with the story, and gives more of a sense that this could actually happen. Having said that, I also love getting lost in Westeros and Middle Earth – I just prefer having some local landmarks to look out for in my fantasy.  

I really hope this has been helpful – do ask if you have any further questions!