A Third View of Worldbuilding

The past month has been rather silent on the blog, and for that I apologize. I’ve got a few half-written posts that I’m letting percolate a while and I’ve spent a good deal of that time continuing to expand and refine my fictional setting, Avar Narn.

In undertaking that task, I’ve been thinking a bit about the process and craft of worldbuilding, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you.

I’ve called this post “A Third View of Worldbuilding” to contrast against the two most-commonly-described approaches to building fictional settings: the “top-down approach” and the “bottom-up approach.” As the title suggests, I’m going to offer a third way in this post, one I’ll call the “archaeological” approach. But first, let’s get some definitions of the established approaches.

A Note on Historical Analogues
I think it worthwhile to have a quick sidebar discussion about reliance on examples from the real world in building fictional worlds. There seems to me to be a sense that drawing upon real-world analogues for building nations, cultures, religions, and other aspects of the setting is lazy or uncreative. I’d argue that the use of such analogy is both unavoidable and valuable to worldbuilding when done purposefully and carefully.

Reference to our world is inescapable because humans lack the capacity to create something new ex nihilo. All human creativity is a matter of taking the blocks of what we know and arranging them into new patterns that no one’s thought about before. Lean into it and cut yourself some slack.

I’ve got a quotation at the beginning of my Avar Narn worldbuilding notebook from writer of fiction and roleplaying game content Ari Marmell, and I think it makes the point as concisely as possible. He says, “Originality is great–as a tool for writing good stories and compelling characters, or as a byproduct thereof. It should never be your goal; your goals should be, well, writing a good story and creating compelling characters.”

Some examples that I think prove his point:

The Witcher setting draws very heavily from medieval history and fairy tales to provide the core of its narratives. We don’t read those novels because we’re looking for a completely innovative setting; we read them because Geralt and his companions are interesting characters and the stories they find themselves within are fascinating and entertaining. Those stories benefit from their groundedness in the pseudohistoricity of the setting.

Abercrombie’s First Law setting likewise draws upon historical analogues (though not necessarily to the same extent as The Witcher) to build the setting (and quickly clue the reader into it). Angland has its roots in England (obviously) and in Norse/Germanic cultures. The Gurkish Empire finds its footing in the historical Muslim (and particularly Ottoman, I think) states–though this footing either purposefully draws upon some Western romantic (I hesitate to use that phrase because the Western romanticism of the Near East is rarely positive) or it curves in that direction because of the narrative and setting itself. I don’t want to imply any judgment there, because I don’t think there’s an agenda behind Abercrombie’s choices except to write compelling fiction. Styria has, of course, the feel of Renaissance Italy.

Tolkien drew heavily upon Anglo-Saxon culture for the Rohirrim (it was his academic specialty, after all).

Brandon Sanderson’s feruchemy, allomancy and hemalurgy are so fascinating precisely because they contrast so starkly with Western historical magical ideas (and thus what we typically expect in Western fantasy fiction), while Jim Butcher uses those same ideas (the historical Western ideas about magic) as a starting point to establish depth and interest in his urban fantasy, The Dresden Files.

In roleplaying games and in speculative short fiction, the use of close adherence to historical analogues can quickly establish setting, useful for getting an unfamiliar audience invested quickly. John Wick’s roleplaying games 7th Sea and Legend of the Five Rings are prime examples.

All of this is to say that you should beg, borrow and steal from real-world examples to build your fictional worlds. Just do so thoughtfully and intentionally and you’ll be held in good stead, no matter how much you eventually veer from the “source material.”

The Top-Down Approach
The Top-Down Approach suggests that you start with the general, the big ideas of the setting, and work your way down to the details based upon those big ideas. This approach works well for fiction writers, where the setting ought to be considered in relation to the kinds of stories you want to tell, to the themes and motifs of the works you’re considering, and to the sort of atmosphere you want to establish for your audience.

No approach to worldbuilding is without its disadvantages, however. The Top-Down Approach runs the risk of creating generic settings that feel like the two-dimensional facades of buildings on the main street of some theme park–it’s just so easy to rely entirely on historical analogues to provide all of the details. Without reliance on reference to the real world, it can be hard to know where to begin with the Top-Down Approach and easy to end up with contradictory details as you develop different aspects of the setting and bring them together.

The Bottom-Up Approach
In this approach, you start with a limited part of the setting, developing in detail, before using that beachhead as a jumping-off point for expansion into larger aspects of the world. The Bottom-Up method is great for getting stuck right into a story or game–you start with only what you need to get going and add on only when the scope of your narrative needs to expand. There’s a reason that Dungeons and Dragons encourages GMs to create a small adventure setting first (a town or village “hub” with adventure sites in the surrounds) to begin a game. Sometimes you really only need the 2-d facade because all of the story will take place on the main street.

This is easier with writing rather than gaming, where a reader can’t spontaneously decide to peek behind the curtain. But it’s not a bad thing either, because the ability to improvise new setting details (or to offer your players the opportunity to fill in details) can add new and unexpected dimensions to the setting, which is both meaningful and entertaining.

The biggest danger of Bottom-Up creation, I think, is that you end up with a “kitchen-sink” setting, where everything needs to be pigeonholed into the setting somewhere (I’d argue that this is the case with D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting) so that the world feels more like a theme park than a living, functioning, believable world. As a corollary to that, if you have multiple Bottom-Up aspects developed concurrently before moving to higher-level issues, you end up with a mish-mash of ideas instead of a cohesive setting with central themes and ideas. I don’t mean to say that that’s wrong–our own world has no clear cut definitions of what it means, so there’s realism to be found there as well. But in terms of narrative, having cues about what you’re about (or what your setting’s about, anyway) can be helpful.

A Third Way
Now for my own point: (not the) third way for worldbuilding. We’re going to use archaeology as our analogue here (hence my calling this the “archaeological approach,” of course). When archaeologists are excavating a site, they first set up a marked grid so that the location of each object found can be carefully recorded as they go. A single archaeologist can only work in one cell of the grid at a time, but a useful interpretation of the site only develops as multiple cells are excavated. The interpretation the archaeologist had after excavating area A1 may change dramatically after excavating cell D4, so she may need to go look at A1 again to rework her thoughts. Eventually, a cohesive interpretation of the whole will develop, but only as different cells are examined over time.

The same occurs between different archaeological sites. What is discovered in one place might drastically change the interpretation of an earlier-excavated site. And, good archaeologists leave parts of the site unexcavated and preserved for future scholars, who will arrive to continue the work armed with more sophisticated tools and, hopefully, knowledge about the site and culture being investigated that the earlier archaeologists didn’t have.

Okay, this is essentially nothing new–my point is that the art of worldbuilding shouldn’t be simply top-down or bottom-up; it’s a back and forth, a jumping around–the assembly of a puzzle rather than the construction of a building. “Top-down” and “bottom-up” are merely constructs for discussing the art of worldbuilding anyway; I seriously doubt that most worldbuilders engage solely in one method, or even in a dogmatically rigid sequence of building a setting. I certainly don’t. You have to use what works best for you: your personality, work habits and creative style. I’ll follow this with some concrete tips that have worked for me.

Tips for the “Archaeological Approach”

1. Always be ready to change what you’ve established in light of new “discoveries.”
This is one of the most effective tools for originality in a setting and one of the most rewarding aspects of worldbuilding (at least when done for its own sake). This is very much like discovering new things about your characters or plot when writing a novel. In worldbuilding, as you add details to the history, geography and cultures of your world, you’ll start to have little epiphanies about the consequences of those choices or contradictions between details that develop because of them. If you’re consistently ready to take those developments and go back through what you’ve established, metaphorically ironing out the kinks, the setting will begin to develop in some unexpected ways that add depth, detail, and verisimilitude. I believe I’ve said before in a different post that my favorite thing about Max Brooks’ book World War Z is how, if you can just suspend belief for the zombies, the stories and political events that the novel describes make logical sense based on real-world political realities and history. The more places someone investigating your settings says, “Aha! X happened because of Y and Z,” the more immersive and believable your setting becomes, no matter how fantastic.

2. Put pins in things.
To try to maintain flow in the process of worldbuilding, try to avoid letting yourself get hung up on details that you’re not ready to fill in yet. Some examples, if you’re working through your setting’s history and a new nation crops up, don’t feel like you have to go define that nation’s culture and separate history right away. Put a pin in those subtopics and continue working on the task at hand.

For me, this helps in two ways: First, it helps me to stay efficient, focusing my efforts where I’m ready to make good use of my time instead of following rabbit trails that I’m not mentally prepared for. Second, when I do run into writer’s block in my current task, it gives me ready alternatives to shift to so that I can continue making useful worldbuilding efforts instead of having to put the whole thing down for a while to let it sit.

This works both for details and–especially–for names. If I don’t have ready names in hand when I come to a new character or place in Avar Narn, I tend to change my font to bold (so that I remember I need to come back to the detail) and put a shorthand description of the thing in brackets so that I can keep going with the narrative.

3. Keep lists.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m too tired or distracted to have the mental wherewithal to conduct some serious worldbuilding, but I want to do something useful to keep progress going. I’ll play around with an online name generator, taking the output and modifying it into names I like or that I think would have a place in one of Avar Narn’s languages. I’ll make lists of interesting cultural oddities, quirks or nuances that I might be able to “plug into” a culture as I’m developing it, speeding along the development of granularity of detail. Hell, I’ll make lists of topics I need to develop, so that when I’m feeling creative (or sitting myself down to be creative–damn how I feel about it!), I have options in front of me so that I can select the one that most appeals at the time and get straight to it.

4. Be Able to See the Forest.
Organizing your work is essential in worldbuilding. If you don’t, you’ll lose details altogether or have to rework some of the work you’ve already done to account for them. More important than that, though, is the ability to take a quick high-level approach to see how things are fitting together. How developed is your setting at this moment? Are you working on helpful details or just adding more to the setting that may never come into play? If you’re worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake–and I think it is a worthwhile exercise even if you never plan to do anything with your setting–this doesn’t matter so much. But if you’re developing a setting for a roleplaying game or for fiction and you’ve got some extrinsic or intrinsic deadline for kicking off the game or writing, you want to be able to make sure you’re not spending in the weeds–naming that delicious pie shop at the end of the world your characters will never visit.

Overall, I mean to say that you should be able to move into a temporary top-down approach when that suits you.

5. Be able to see the trees.
Modern historians no longer view history as a collection of the exploits and ideologies of the elite–they rightfully recognize that most events have multiple confluences of causes that come together to trigger them in a particular place and time. Looking at the finer details allows you to make larger-scale choices that seem to flow naturally and consequentially from those smaller choices.

In other words, be able to move into a bottom-up approach when useful.

6. Be a sponge.
Samuel Johnson said, “Never trust a man who writes more than he reads.” Fair point.

Soak up all the information you can: about how the world works, about how people work, examples of real-world history and culture, etc., etc., ad nauseam. If you accept as true that human creativity is a matter of rearranging the blocks we already have into new structures, put as many different blocks in your toy box as you can. But, don’t let sponging up knowledge be all that you do. This is an excuse I often use myself; I’ll tell myself I’m sponging up information right now, and when I have enough, I’ll get back to the worldbuilding. There’s never enough, so use what you have even as you’re getting more.

I won’t say that there are “a lot” of worldbuilding books out there, but there are a few. I personally find them useful for providing with checklists of things to think about as I’m building my world, but I’ve never found any of them to be a panacea or ready guide to doing the damn thing.

In my mind, worldbuilding is and should be an organic process, difficult to predict in its details or course, much less in its results. It’s a journey you have to walk, not an engineering plan to rigidly follow. Your experience may differ vastly, of course.

As a final thought, lest you think that I am blind to the downsides of the approach I’ve argued for in comparison to top-down and bottom-up methods: this organic, back-and-forth approach of worldbuilding is time-consuming and risks becoming the object in and of itself. If you’re worldbuilding for the sake of it, that’s not a problem. But if you have purpose(s) in mind for your setting once it’s “ready,” remember that at some point you’ve got to start actually running that RPG or writing that novel.