The Ask Correia posts are what happen when somebody asks me a writing related question, and my answer gets so big that it turns into a blog post. In this case I recently announced two new collaborative projects, and how I was working on building two different worlds at the same time, and people asked if I had a method for that. (I’m also teaching a 4 hour master class at FyreCon on this topic, so I’d better!)
I love designing new worlds. I’ve done some where I take our existing world and twist it somehow, others that are alternative history, and some that are just scratch built. So here is a peak behind the scenes of how I create new fictional settings. Note, as usual there is no such thing as Rules of Writing, and anybody who tells you there is only One True Path is full of crap and probably doesn’t sell many books, because for every rule they cite I can probably find a bestseller who breaks it. These ideas are just the way I do things, but you can do it differently, the only important thing is that your readers like the results.
Sometimes you have a story in need of a place to set it, and other times you’ve got a setting you want to write about, but don’t know what story to tell in it. Me personally, I’m almost always a Story First kind of guy. Usually I think of the story I want to tell and then I go about building the world that best facilitates me telling that story.
If you have an awesome idea for a setting, but don’t know what to do with it, that’s fine. In that case go through the world and see what features appeal to you. Then start imagining what kind of people would live there, and what kind of conflicts they would get into. A strong setting is going to suggest stories. That’s why some IPs have amazing staying power and turn into shared worlds with lots of different authors coming up with things to do there. Build an interesting enough setting and you’ll never lack for ideas for what to do in it.
Always Be Asking
Since I usually start with a basic plot idea, the first thing I do is think about what does my world need to have/allow for me to write this? Some are pretty obvious. Monster Hunter is our world but supernatural stuff exists in secret. Others ideas require something more complicated. For Son of the Black Sword I needed to figure out a world with brutal caste systems, where the low born are basically property.
Take those must haves, and then ask yourself if that’s how things have to work here, what else would change? Always be asking yourself how are those required things going to affect other things? This doesn’t just make your setting stronger, but it supplies you with tons of great new story ideas.
For the last week I’ve been going back and forth with John Brown about our upcoming sci-fi project. When I’m collaborating my methods are basically the same as when I come up with worlds myself, only I’ve got an extra brain to work with.
We had an existing basic plot idea that we’d come up with at LTUE based on all the sci-fi things my son thought were cool (giant robots, giant alien monsters, space fights, bandits). That really basic skeleton was what we started with, but then we needed to fill in the blanks.
We started with the basic premise of pirates who steal giant robots… Why? Well, there’s got to be a market for these things. Why can’t people just buy them? Gun… er… I mean ROBOT control. Okay, cool. Interesting complication. What kind of people would still want to get their hands on giant fighting robots even though it could draw the ire of the authorities? Well, just like real life there’s lots of different reasons people want illegal weapons now, from basic self-protection to overthrowing governments. Tons of different directions you could take that, but since we’re writing about people who could be “good guys”, let’s go with the self-defense angle. What are you defending yourself from that you would require an illegal, and very expensive, battle robot? Obviously something you can’t just shoot with a regular gun… ergo GIANT MONSTERS.
Which brings us to another important element of world design:
THE RULE OF COOL
When presented with a few options for how to accomplish something, pick the awesome one. Pick the one that makes your story more entertaining. Pick the one that you are the most excited to write about, because when an author is having fun writing it, that’ll come through the page and the readers will feel that excitement. It’s all about contagious enthusiasm.
Grimnoir used dirigibles because I wanted to have cool dirigible fights. That was it. However, then I had to tweak the rules in a way so that their use made sense and felt organic and true to the world. I had to look at why they lost to heavier than air craft in real life, and then add something which would have kept them competitive.
You can’t just have something awesome that doesn’t make sense because that’s going to kick readers right out of the story. Remember, the goal is immersion. You want the reader to lose track of time. When you screw something up like that the immersion is broken, they’re reminded that this isn’t real, it’s just a book. You have just failed that reader.
Your cool idea still needs to fit somehow. It needs to be organic to the story. If you introduce some super awesome plot element, but it feels like it is shoehorned in there, simply because it is groovy, unless you are writing a story that is purposefully silly (anything can happen in Tom Stranger for example) readers are going to get annoyed. Annoyed readers don’t buy the rest of your stuff.
TV shows and movies can get away with this more because they move at a different pace than a book, and by the time the watcher’s brain is processing the giant plot hole they just saw, the movie has already moved onto the next scene or distracting visual treat. Books move at a different pace, and the way most people read, their brains are still processing the information they just read while they are reading the next part. Nonsensical things are far more jarring in written form.
In the Force Awakens, they’ve got a planet sized weapon that sucks in a star (apparently then they drive that planet to the next star?) and shoots it across the galaxy (at a wacky velocity that is still dramatically visible) but it is all covered in an energy shield that you have to be going light speed to go through (why not just accelerate an old freighter to light speed and obliterate Star Killer?) so they fly the Millennium Falcon through the shield and shut down light speed manually before hitting the surface…
Oh man. If I put that in a book I’d never hear the end of it. But for most watchers at the time they aren’t going to catch all that in time to break their immersion. Even the clever audience members are going to note that stupid bit, but they are going to stay in the theater because they’re already watching the next cool visual. Sure, they’ll start picking it apart during the drive home from the theater, but during the movie they just shut up and enjoyed their awesome.
Writers can’t do that. That’s why books about movies have to make more sense and provide more context and information than the movie they are adapting. You screw up a book and the reader gets the effects as soon as the words are processed. They sigh and put the book down for a moment. You lost them. Enjoyment squashed. If they come back it will be with some reluctance. Author fail.
One handy cheat, if you want to have some cool piece of tech or magic thing, write that scene from the PoV of somebody who doesn’t know how that item works, just that it does. A space marine on a ship isn’t going to know how the FTL drive works. Space ship go fast. It is what it is. Hell, we all drive cars yet most of us couldn’t explain the details of how the internal combustion engine works. On some things, you don’t need to overthink them. If it isn’t stupid and it feels organic to the setting, the reader will give you a pass. Basically anything that fits in context, the readers aren’t going to stress. Anything that feels broken or stupid is going to bug them.
Back to asking questions.
For our plot, we needed giant battle mechs fighting giant monsters, but let’s think through the problems with walkers. Why would a mech be preferred over something simple, cheap, and low profile like a tank? That suggested use on terrain that would favor that kind of weapon system over something that drove, hovered, or flew, which led directly to designing the nature of our planet. Answering that question led to an interesting setting and a cool visual.
Now you don’t need to provide a doctoral thesis and annotated bibliography explaining how every cool thing works (unless you are writing Hard SF and your readers are into that), but it just has to feel like it makes sense in the context of the story. There is always going to be one nitpicky bastard who is going to complain about everything, but that guy complains even when he’s wrong and the author got all the science right. Screw that guy. Nobody likes him in real life either.
We’ve got mechs going down to this planet to protect people from giant monsters, why? What is worth it down there? Our original thought was they were mining something valuable… Okay, but that raises the same question as in the movie Avatar how come the humans didn’t just tow over an asteroid and kill all the annoying smurf people and their pterodactyls, then mine the unobtanium unmolested once the dust settles? So that gave us another kind of cool idea why that wouldn’t work, and our miners turned into harvesters.
We needed far flung human colonies. That required space travel between star systems. How does mankind travel? There are a few common methods that get used over and over in sci-fi. What are the pros and cons of using that method? What story problems does that method introduce? We decided to go with the common trope of gates, but the biggest reason we picked that one was that we were writing about criminal smugglers, and having choke points which could be controlled by government officials added interesting story complications, which led to the idea of having illicit criminal gates and creative work-arounds.
The space travel questions led to questions of history and what would need to happen between our world right now, and this world in the future, for us to get to where they are. Of course this process led to even more cool ideas we could exploit later.
John posted the following on Facebook the other day: An insight into how Larry Correia develops story ideas. No hand wringing or stress. Just “send me your cool ideas,” “what would be cooler between these ideas,” “hey, this would be fun,” and “what would we need to do to make this awesome thing work and still be believable.” I’m having a blast thinking through the ideas and responding back and forth. This is the good part of writing.
I hadn’t really thought about this too much before he posted that, but yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Every question you ask yourself gives you a chance to come up with something better. It helps pick apart potential flaws and weak spots. If you really really can’t think of a way to stick in some specific cool idea, that’s fine, save that thing for something else. Writers should always be writing, and there is no such thing as a wasted idea. All of your cool stuff will get used eventually.
The fantasy project that I recently outlined with Steve Diamond started out as a story that the two of us pitched for an existing IP. In that case we had a fleshed out world to work with, and two creative types looked at it, and thought, damn, it would be really cool to tell a story from the perspective of this specific group of people which hasn’t been told before. So we outlined that happening and came up with a really neat story, and pitched it. When that project dried up, Steve and I were left with this really cool plot, but it was set in a world that we could no longer use.
But it’s like I said, you keep writing and there are no wasted ideas. The same plot can be used in a variety of settings (Red Harvest turned into Yojimbo which turned into Fistful of Dollars which turned into Last Man Standing). Years later when my publisher asked if I had any other collaborations in mind, Steve and I pulled out that old outline and dusted it off. We had an awesome plot and characters, and now we just needed to build a world to fit it.
We started out by tossing everything we could no longer use. Anything that originated in this other IP was not ours. Obviously that left some pretty big holes, so the discussion turned to how to fill those in. And this is where it gets exciting.
I’ve done quite a bit of writing now in other people’s IPs, a few novels, and a ton of short fiction. It is fun to play in somebody else’s sandbox but it can also be a challenge because you are so limited in certain specific ways, and by the rules that the original creators have established. They’ve got a road map already. When you’re creating your own stuff you are a trail blazing off roader cutting a new path in your 4×4.
We went off in some crazy new directions. Steve and I did the same thing John and I did. We looked at what we needed, and then we started filling in those holes, and asking lots and lots of questions. Every decision has repercussions. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And a few days later we had something new, interesting, unique, and most importantly, really cool.
Using Cultural Analogs
You see this all the time in fantasy, where NotEngland is fighting against NotFrance, but the NotVikings invade, and the NotMongol Horde comes riding across the plains. Cultural analogs are super common. As much as critics like to get all huffy and bitchy about that, there’s nothing inherently wrong with borrowing from familiar real world cultures. As long as it is entertaining you can get away with it.
On the plus side it establishes some fundamentals with the reader easily. You’ve got longbow archers with English sounding names fighting knights with French names, it paints a quick picture. They’ve read a hundred books and seen a dozen movies like that already. Readers are going to subconsciously assume that everything which isn’t pointed out as being different is probably the same as what they’re already expecting. Those are their defaults.
On the downside, it’s been done a million times. But the reason something gets done a million times is because it works. This is a competitive business, so if you’re doing something familiar then you need to make yours stand out somehow (I’d recommend being excellent). If you use a cultural analog which isn’t as familiar for your audience, it is unique, but it may require a bit more work to set the stage. It still creates a visual waypoint, but the audience just might not have as much groundwork laid. There aren’t as many epic fantasies about NotIndia as there are about NotEngland, but people get the idea.
Now critics are going to bitch no matter what you do. If you have a western basis to your fantasy you will be called tired and clichéd (and probably racist) and if you use a non-western basis then you are guilty of cultural appropriation. So as usual, just tell the critics to kiss your ass and get back to writing. Nobody really gives a crap what they think anyway.
Personally, I like borrowing from all sorts of different places. It keeps things interesting, unique, but familiar enough that the reader can concentrate on the important stuff, being entertained rather than being lost.
Another possibility is just making up something entirely unique and original, not based on any Earth culture at all. You are free to do whatever you want. There’s no reference for the readers, so you’ll need to do a good job painting them a picture. Just don’t get so clever with making up new stuff that the readers get confused and lost, adrift on a sea of made up words. If you’re going to write something dense and confusing, where the reader can’t get a bearing, you’d better be one damned compelling wordsmith to keep their interest.
Nuts and Bolts
When you’re creating something from scratch, you’ve got to think through how it all fits together in a way that makes sense. I’m talking things like resources, society, and economics.
I’ve often seen the book Guns, Germs, and Steel recommended in these discussions for authors to get ideas about world building. It’s a pretty good read about the clash of cultures and their relative advantages/disadvantages. (it has been years, and I don’t recall what now, but I disagreed with some of his conclusions, however it was a way better read than most dry anthropology books).
Geography matters a lot. When building a society realize that people are a product of their environment. Think about things like weather and distances.
If you’ve got a world without electricity, that is going to cause some issues. If you can’t refrigerate food, eating is a whole lot different. Horses don’t work like fleshy motorcycles. If you’ve got magic, if it is common, how is it going to change your world. You can’t have super common easy to use magic that can do all sorts of miraculous stuff, and it not have some repercussions. The commonality of cell phones has made it a lot tougher for horror writers now than in the 80s. Whether you are introducing magic or new technology, it’s going to do something to your world. If everybody can cast Create Light Level 1, it really sucks to be a candle maker.
Think about what your people have got to work with. If you’ve got a little tiny poor country, it isn’t going to field ten thousand armored knights. That’s a giant resource suck. On the other hand, if you’ve got Star Trek style replicators that can just make whatever you want, whenever you want it, then that’s going to cause all sorts of other complications. When you can push a button and get free stuff, people’s motivations change. So don’t introduce crap you can’t deal with.
In Grimnoir I needed healing magic, mostly so I could have some truly brutal action sequences, and do it in a manner that the main characters could be back in action in time to narrate the next scene. To keep it from granting everybody functional immortality I had to put in some limitations. I made healers scare. But just like real life, when a resource is scare but with high demand, prices rise. So in Grimnoir healers are worth their weight in gold, literally (or in the case of statist countries like the Imperium, you are worth your weight in not being tortured and having all your loved ones executed).
In Son of the Black Sword I’ve got a magic system based on two scare resources. One is super powerful, but it is being used up and it is not renewable. The other is renewable, but since it is extracted from the body parts of dead demons, good luck getting it. So in this book magic isn’t just about Hey Look at This Cool Thing I Can Do, it’s also a measure of wealth and political capital. Having black steel becomes a big friggin’ deal. It’s like how a country gets more respect in international affairs if they’ve got nukes. There’s a whole underground black market economy for magic users.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I don’t remember which famous sci-fi author said it, but if you’re writing what’s basically a rabbit, you don’t need to describe a rabbit, hops like a rabbit, has ears like a rabbit, and then call it a Fleerp. It’s just a friggin’ rabbit.
Also, sticking the word “Space” in front of normal things doesn’t suddenly make it sci-fi. To use an infamous example, if you refer to a Space Diaper, but you’re just talking about a diaper, that’s lame.
The more you stray from assumptions that readers default to, the more likely you are to confuse/lose them. So stray all you want, but try to keep it useful. Don’t switch expected norms up for pointless reasons. If you don’t specifically say everybody has three legs, readers are going to assume people still have two. Every time you rename some normal thing, that’s one more thing that a reader is going to have to keep track of. It’s like some of the classic sci-fi where they were super excited to rattle off the names of a bunch of high tech inventions the characters were using, but most readers just got bored and skimmed until the plot started progressing again.
When you do change things up, try and provide some context so the reader can figure out what’s going on. Son of the Black Sword doesn’t use western military ranks, like sergeant, lieutenant, etc. Because the military structure is based on historical India crossed with Thailand. So when I refer to somebody as a Nayak or a Risaldar, somewhere near that I need to provide clues that’s his rank, and at least what his relative standing is compared to the characters he’s interacting with.
Some of the coolest parts of world building are the little things. Pay attention to things like what the people eat, how they dress, what do they do for fun, what music they listen to, etc. The stuff that doesn’t pertain directly to your plot you aren’t going to dwell on, but it’s those little things that flesh your characters out, give the place some depth, and make it feel like people actually live there.
I recently watched the Ghost in the Shell movie. I liked it quite a bit. I only had one real complaint about the world building. On all the sweeping establishing shots of the big city, with the giant holograms, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel lived in. But when they got down to the gritty street level, or the apartment blocks, or the cemetery, then it felt organic, it felt like a real place. Your book is the same way, big and glossy is cool and all, but it’s the little things that make it feel a real place someone could visit.
You Need To Know Everything but the Reader Doesn’t
This is a very important point. As the master of this new universe you need to know how everything works. Why is this thing here? Who are these weird people? Why did that big thing happen? But you don’t need to tell the reader all that unless it matters for this one particular story you are telling.
One problem writers run into is that we over explain. We’re so very proud of this nifty world that we made up that we want to show the readers ALL OF IT RIGHT NOW. This leads to things like boring info dumps or odd digressions into pointless boring subplots. Note the recurring theme there is boring. You can get away with damned near anything in a book as long as you aren’t boring.
Most readers aren’t stupid. You don’t need to hold their hand and over explain stuff, plus that will quickly annoy all the smart readers who are now bored. If the nitty gritty details are important for some reason, then explain away, or if those details are unique or entertaining to explain (that describes most of Cryptonomicon) have fun. But for most things, just let stuff happen and the readers will figure it out.
As a retired accountant who loves econ and finance, I spent a bunch of time figuring out how the economy of Lok works, but you see almost none of that in Son of the Black Sword. I might think that stuff is fascinating, but I know most of my readers don’t read Thomas Sowell for kicks and giggles. My job is to write about a bad ass super swordsman fantasy version of Judge Dredd turning into a fantasy version of George Washington, not to dwell on how the paper currency of the Banker sub-caste is the worker caste’s greatest weapon in great house politics.
But the important thing is I know that, so anytime I’m writing a scene where that behind the scene stuff is involved, it stays consistent. And who knows, maybe at some point that subplot might be explored in a way that’s interesting.
Try not to overwhelm people with too much information at once. Especially if you are working with naming conventions that are odd. In Son of the Black Sword most of the people and place names are Indian, southeast Asian, or east African in origin, so they’re not easily remembered by western readers. I try not to dump twenty of them on the reader on page one, because they aren’t going to remember who is who, and too much info and readers start to skim. Introduce a couple at a time and give people a chance to remember who is who.
Don’t blow all your cool stuff at once. Sometimes you know exactly how something works, but there isn’t a good place to get into it. I knew exactly who Agent Franks was, but there wasn’t a good spot in the first book to get into that, so I teased it a tiny bit, made the readers curious, and then revealed (part of) his identity in the 2nd book. And I had so much unrevealed backstory built in that eventually he got his own book.
I get a lot of comments from people who are impressed when I reveal something I teased a few books earlier. That’s really not that big of a deal, it’s just about being patient enough to save something for when it has the maximum impact.
How Much is too Much?
World build enough that you are confident to start writing the actual story. You can always go back and fix things later. It’s too much when you are postponing actual work in order to do something that you consider more fun.
I get the same question about research or plotting, usually from somebody who has been making notes about the same project for the last four or five years without actually producing any fiction. These people love that stuff, hate the actual writing part. If you are procrastinating the writing to keep world building, then it’s too much.
Quit screwing around. You aren’t creating an RPG supplement. You don’t need to make a loot table for every dungeon on your planet. At some point you need to put your happy ass in front of the keyboard and write the friggin’ story.
The most important thing about world building is that the author and the readers have a good time. So go make up some awesome stuff and GET PAID!