One Fun Way to Create Your Own World

world, world-building, top-down, bottom up

Microsoft Clip Art

I like science fiction, and fantasy, and horror. You’ve probably already guessed that from my blog posts.

So, today, because I’ve been really busy of late, I finally got a chance to delve into that book I mentioned some blog posts back.

Now Write!, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror – Speculative Genre Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers is chockfull of writing exercises if you’re interested in writing in any of those genres. And who wouldn’t be? 🙂 It’s so much darned fun!

I have a hard time building worlds. I love world-building when others have done it. The worlds created by authors such as Joan Vinge, Frank Herbert, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, etc, seem so real you can’t imagine that they’re not. These worlds are as much a character as the flesh and blood characters.

But I struggle with building worlds for my stories. It just seems so overwhelming! All that stuff you have to make up and create. Geography, religion, politics, magical systems, science, social systems, etc. Whew!

Middle Earth

There are actually two methods of creating worlds that seem to be recognized as de rigeur.  One method is the top-down system of world creation. This is what Tolkien did. He created Middle-Earth with all of its people, languages, customs, mythology, etc. before he wrote Lord of the Rings. He had it all in place. Jolly good for him. The idea of creating an entire cosmos, much less a world before I write, gives me a stomach ache.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. If you can, I raise my goblet of mead to you. I just know I can’t.

But, thank goodness there’s another method. It’s the bottom-up system.

With the bottom-up method of world creation you start small. Perhaps with a town, a village, or a region and then you build out from there. Or, in my case, I like to start with characters. I try to imagine what kind of a world would be conducive to this character being the kind of person he or she is and then I ask myself what can I put in this world that will cause trouble for my character.

So, for example, if my hero is a pacifist and grew up in a community where war is considered wrong and killing a sin, I’d consider creating a world where he’s forced (or he chooses) to fight in a war and struggles with wanting to perform his duty as a soldier and yet also follow the tenets of his belief. I could set a story like that in a science fiction or fantasy setting. With just those ideas I’d have enough to start building my world. Still a lot of work ahead, but I have a place to start.

The movie, Sergeant York, released in 1941 and starring Gary Cooper, is a story about a man who initially starts out as someone who  likes to drink and fight. But then he gets struck by lightning, vows never to get angry again and winds up a soldier in World War I.  Now imagine setting that story in a futuristic or fantasy setting.

Marko, a featured character in the space opera comic Saga, is also a soldier who not only falls in love with an enemy combatant and has a child with her, but has become a conscientious objector to the galaxy wide war waged between his people and his wife’s people.

The sky, or your imagination, is the limit when it comes to creating worlds and the people or creatures who inhabit them.

One of the exercises in the Now Write! book is called Fact Into Fiction. It was created by author E. E. King

In the writing exercise King encourages the writer to look to fact when creating fiction, because in fact you can find some fantastic ideas for your speculative fiction.

I’m working on some aliens concepts for a series I have in mind. King suggests looking at senses that other creatures on this planet have in order to come up with ideas for your speculative characters. We know, of course, that humans experience only a fraction of what surrounds us and that the world looks a whole lot different to, say, a bat than it does to us.

So, while searching for information on animal senses, I found this website: Neuroscience for Kids

(Quick aside. Whenever you’re doing research for just about anything, books or websites for kids are a gold mine. The information is not only succinct but clearly written. You might find the information you need right off the bat or, if you don’t, it’s a good place to start).

Back to the website. Here are examples from it of some amazing animal senses.

  • Worker honey bees have 5,500 lenses (“ommatidia”) in each eye.
  • An earthworm’s entire body is covered with chemoreceptors (taste receptors).
  • A pig’s tongue contains 15,000 taste buds. For comparison, the human tongue has 9,000 taste buds.
  • Starfish arms are covered with light sensitive cells. Light that projects on an “eyespot” on each arm causes the arm to move.

Pretty cool.

With such information, wouldn’t it be fun to come up with an alien or a fantasy creature or even a human who has such senses? To be able to taste the wind, or see sound, or respond to light in such a way that it makes one run faster or even fly? Of course, comics are filled with such characters. They’re called superheroes. But with all the information available out there on biology, physics, sociology, etc. it’s a veritable cornucopia when it comes to researching facts for your fictional creations. 

And don’t get me started on reproduction. The various ways creatures on earth have sex will, seriously, boggle your mind. A good book to read if you’re interested is Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation.

Written in a hilariously quirky manner (the book is comprised of letters from various creatures seeking advice on sex) it details the sexual habits of everything from bullfrogs to butterflies. Honestly, if you’re creating aliens and need some ideas on their mating habits, this is the book to read.