This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
A lot of what I write about worldbuilding is at least partially technical. It’s about breaking things into areas of analysis, questions, outlines, and more so you can make your world. Good worldbuilding is about thought and techniques and keeping track of things – well, half of it is.
The other half of worldbuilding is those wild ideas, those crazy thoughts, those “what ifs.” In many cases you’re either doing good with those moments of creativity, or organizing what thoughts you do have. Of course, not all of these moments come at the right time – sometimes you want to get organized and your brain won’t shut up, sometimes you want an idea and feel like a book-keeper.
Then where there’s those times that your worldbuilding comes together, when you grasp the big picture, when you get both the “wow” and the numbers behind it. That moment when you have A Vision and it all comes together.
Those moments you “get” your world, and those are the moments that are beautiful and powerful.
You probably know what I’m talking about and wish you could get into that state more.
The fact that I’m writing about this means I’m betting a good chunk of my readers can’t.
Worldbuilding With A Vision
We can talk about jets of inspiration that spout out ideas like fireworks and flares in the night of our minds. We can discuss plans and outlines, maps and diagrams, character profiles and history. Then there’s having a “feel” for the world, a vision.
The vision is when you understand your world. You can feel the flows of history and know the fine details. You can see it happening and it makes sense – and most of all you can see the grand themes and small patterns and how they sync up. It’s an intuitive grasp of your world that isn’t just warm and fuzzy but can be hard as nails and sharp as a knife, but it’s all so organic.
In this state you can write and build at the same time. You can craft prose knowing you’re sure of your setting, and as you write or design the plot or make the game content you also can build the world almost on the fly. You can make huge swaths of fictional history and then record them as needed, but even as you make them they’re just right.
You’ll get flashes of your vision as you build your setting. You’ll recall things without looking at your notes or find connections pop into your mind that just make sense. At some point, you’ll know your world so well you can write it spontaneously. You’ll have a vision.
That’s when your worldbuilding has really paid off. The world is not just notes and random ideas, but it’s something you truly understand.
Getting there is the issue though, isn’t it?
It’s my firm belief that you shouldn’t start writing in your setting until you’ve got enough of a feel and enough detail to have these moments of vision. Not every detail, not every emotional connection need be there, it doesn’t have to last – but you’ll be able to write when you have these moments of just sheerly “getting” the setting you’ve got.
If you don’t write with a vision you’ll be revising, discarding, and making mistakes at a far higher rate. You’ve probably known the agony of throwing out what seemed to be good ideas, or discovering you didn’t know your own world. Admittedly forging ahead (as I’ll address below) might be a solution, but it can still be painful.
I used to believe that you couldn’t really “induce” the vision but over time I’ve come to believe that’s not entirely true. I think there are things you can do t keep getting into “the know” and start making it part of you. None are a single direct gateway, but they’re tools to help you build the gateway as it were.
Let’s take a look.
Getting To The Vision
So when it comes to getting a vision, there’s some things I’ve found can help you develop that connected sense of the world you’re building. Try these techniques and find which ones work for you – but try all of them if possible, and keep retrying ones that didn’t work. You want to keep your imagination fired up.
here’s what I recommend.
- Print out and reread your timelines and world notes – keep a book or wiki if you can. Doing this over time will inspire you, give you new ideas, let you spot flaws, and slowly work the information deep into your mind. Over time the world becomes more a part of you (and in an organized manner)
- Keep random jottings about possible worldbuiling ideas for your setting and review them every two weeks. I actually keep a Brainstorm Book for general inspiration and it’s worked for years.
- Reread your own stories in your setting – not as an editor, as a reader. This may be painful (you are going to notice so many errors, trust me), but you’ll also keep in touch with your ideas, stories, and characters.
- If you ask “why” then answer. If you’re looking over your world or working on a story and you ask a “why” and have no answer find the answer. Find out why your barbarian warlord hates the color green, or explore the food that was used to survive on the mission to Mars. Learning to answer your own questions that appear in your head spontaneously helps you get in touch with your world and eventually answer the questions spontaneously.
- Look for themes that appear in your world Have you noticed a theme of redemption? Of exploring the human condition? Of giant action scenes that are just really cool? THose themes can help you get a feel for your world by finding overarching themes (and at times, help you break out of them or create or explore counterthemes)
- Compare and contrast. Compare characters to each other, nations to each other, spells to technology, fictional history to real. We learn by comparison, and making these wild comparisons can help you get a good grip on your world.
- Try a different perspective. You’ve thought about your world through the eyes of some characters, but ask yourself how others see it. That extra vision about the world will flesh it out and give you new ideas. Maybe you’re writing a giant city-stomping kaiju story – asking how the man on the street feels could lead you to writing about people founding Kaiju Survivor Groups (I would read this, by the way).
- Step away for awhile DO something else and then return to your work. You’ll approach it with a fresh view that may surprise you.
- Play mirror universe. Ask what characters would be like if they were opposites of themselves (goatees are not a requirement).
- Look for the “wow.” At some points you’ll find this “wow” moment when you get your world and your writing and it all comes together – that’s having a vision. That moment is something to watch (but not grasp) so you know how you go there
The key here is to keep your mind moving and keep shaking it up.
When It Doesn’t Come
What happens when you jus cant’ get that vision? When you want it to come together but it doesn’t? Then I’d actually advise writing – with a caveat.
Start writing your setting, but be willing to go back and revise or throw things out. It may be difficult, but getting moving is a better solution than waiting – because waiting rarely helps you get things done worldbuilding-wise.
Maybe you start small or try some of the exercises above, but If you’re stuck you can either give up (which I doubt) or hack away and hope – and while doing so, try the techniques above.
Getting a vision, getting a real “sense” of your world isn’t something you can follow a path to – but it is something you can move yourself towards with time, exercise, and willingness. When you do that, you’re able to write and worldbuild almost as one, and get true creative depth. Also, it’s quite less stressful.
It’s not always easy to get there, but it’s worth it. I’m sure you’ve experienced it before and know it’s value, even when frustrated – so try these techniques and keep making your way there.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.