World Building When You Have No Set System
When delving into the process of world building, many topics need to be considered. Coming up with the bones, flesh, and blood of the story’s body is, quite frankly, an intimidating prospect. It takes time to develop a system to bring them together.
What are the people like? Are they humanoid? Do they have pointy ears? Are their teeth in unexpected places? The possibilities are endless. Not only are there the cultures to consider—religions, social structures, types of government, magic systems, and details about the people themselves—but also the characters that bring the story to life. Their backstories will be directly affected by their environment’s history.
Keeping track of the details
So, what do you do when you haven’t established a system to navigate the labyrinthine task? First off, keep track of what you’ve done. If you aren’t someone who works well with visual aids, try to make a checklist of what you’re covering. Personally, I’ve gathered a bevy of programs to help me make sense of what I affectionately call my “organized chaos.” Software like Scapple, Scrivener, and Aeon Timeline 2 help to form connections, store notes/organize the plot, and track time progression. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as it’s not a distraction. Less complicated methods can be a great help as well. Pencil and paper, name generators, randomizers for assigning attributes—these are fine. They just need to serve a purpose.
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Filling in the blanks
After figuring out some of the meaty details, it’s time to fill in the blanks.
…Where did those crickets come from?
Sometimes it’s easy to lose concentration, to let your focus lapse or become overwhelmed. In my case, it’s like I trip and land on my face. When you’re working on one topic and another sneaks in to throw you off balance, it’s frustrating. Do not be afraid to skip around. If character ideas pop into your head while working on a government’s structure, something triggered those thoughts. Write it down before you lose it. It’s important to remember it all ties together. I picture an intricate weave, the story rising, falling, circling, and integrating with mind boggling results.
What if you get stuck?
If you ask any writer, they will usually have their own quirks on how to handle blocks. Going over your progress can help spark another idea if you’re unsure where to go next. Are you unable to come up with a name for a character, city, or country? Something so simple can be the bane of a writer’s existence, stalling progress completely. Placeholders allow you to address it later, removing the issue so you keep making progress. There’s always the find/replace feature, right?
As far as histories go, character or otherwise, my method is simple. The best way I have found to kick the block to the curb is to add some ridiculous detail. Does James need a reason to hate Hannah? Maybe she spooked some horses. They ran into the market stalls, which of course scattered fruit into the middle of the street. James jumped out of the way and pushed a well-dressed man into the display of fish. But oops, he turned out to be the mayor, and he blamed James for the entire debacle. Oftentimes the ridiculous details stick, and they add substance to a potentially droll character.
If all else fails, soundboard off a friend. Even if you don’t use their suggestions, they can spark some much-needed inspiration.
World building is magical
I’ve covered quite a few topics, but I want to bring your attention back to one in particular. Don’t get stuck in the mindset that insists you do things in a certain order. Some people are able to make lists, methodically going through their process without deviation. I know I’m not one of them. The feat of world building is massive and magical. There are no limits to what you can create.
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